Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Trojan Elephants Demand Constant Vigilance

Calitics is keeping their eyes peeled. They reported the demise Friday (one hopes not a premature report) of the dirty tricks campaign to steal a handful of California's electoral votes through a highly selective opportunistic embrace of pseudo-populism in an effort to keep the Killer Clowns in charge against the wishes of overabundant majorities of the American people. This demise resulted from excellent reporting and organizing in which Calitics bloggers themselves had no small part (note their excellent report later Friday on the Giuliani fundraiser who was funneling most of the cash into the dirty tricks effort). On Saturday they went on to call our attention to this declaration from a California GOP muckety-muck:
"The issue is so hot, it's going to continue on," said Tony Andrade, a Sacramento Republican who had actually submitted his own electoral vote initiative, but then deferred to Hiltachk's effort. "People are lining up signing these petitions. There's a lot of enthusiasm for this from a political point of view."

"Given the cost of gathering the signatures," writes Brian Leubitz in the Calitics post, "it's quite a longshot[, especially] with the establishment seemingly ditching the Dirty Tricks Initiative, but" -- and this is the crucial thing -- "keep your eyes" open on this one. Calitics definitely looks like the best place to do that.

The Killer Clowns Skid Onward to the Cliff's Edge

...dragging us all along with them and destroying everything in sight.

According to ThinkProgress the unbearable, execrable “John Bolton… told Tory delegates today that efforts by the UK and the EU to negotiate with Iran had failed and that he saw no alternative to a pre-emptive strike on suspected nuclear facilities in the country.”

They really want to do it. These brainless bullying bloodthirsty maniacs really want to do it.


If the enthusiastic advocates of Superlative Technology Discourses were to admit (and not just when critics like me force them momentarily against the wall, but in a way that played out in their discourse generally) that their curiously transcendentalizing refigurations of the palpable quandaries of the actually-emerging and proximately-upcoming technodevelopmental terrain were really idealizations soliciting and expressing cultural and political identification rather than engineering blueprints soliciting scientific testing, if they were to grasp that nanosanta, techno-immortality, and robot gods really function as figurative short-hand for sub(cult)ural ideals, collective expressions of dread and of wish-fulfilment here and now, and so on then I certainly would be far less exercised about them than I am, especially considering their relative marginality.

But let me go out on a limb here. Actually talking to many Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Technocentrics, listening to many of their responses to and dismissals of my worries and perplexities with them, I have to admit that what I think many of them really think is that their Superlative projections and preoccupations are actually the emblem of their superior scientificity. I think that many of them think they are trotting out predictive calculations like an engineer contemplating a gorge to be spanned when they scribble away at their Superlative Technological sketches. I think that many of them think that the social, cultural, and political factors I'm spotlighting in my critiques are really some kind of quasi-poetic or quasi-mystical empty-talk that won't make any kind of contact with the hard realities they and their friends talk about. I think that many of them think that all this stuff about "discourse" is what people talk about who just aren't smart enough to number crunch the Robot God-Odds with the likes of them.

This isn't exactly a stunning new development, of course. It's just highly predictable scientism, reductionism, and technocratic elitist self-congratulation of a kind we've all seen a million times before by now. It's the usual crashing bore, all too familiar in its smug complacency, its anti-intellectual parochialism, and in the joyless "I know you are but what am I" spectacle its clever boys inevitably make of themselves in the face of the exposure of their pretensions.

But one would be wrong to imagine that one captures the full topsy-turvicality of Superlative Technocentricity in just grasping its familiar facile scientism.

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that what is meant by "hard realities" and "solid stolid science" by Superlative Technocentrics in this context involves for them things like nanoscale robot swarms delivering post-political abundance, techno-immortalism via digital personality uploads or super-advanced medical treatments available within our lifetimes, and the likelihood of superintelligent postbiological robot ruler gods taking over the planet.

And what is being accused of muddled relativist emotionalist twaddle by Superlative Technocentrics in this context involves things like me recommending more caveated claims, paying attention to more than just the logical propositions in public discussions of technoscientific change but also their customary figures and frames, and recognizing that technoscientific change is articulated not only by compatibility with the laws of physics but by the social, cultural, and political factors that shape funding, regulation, marketing, and distribution, and so on.

Time and time again I am treated to the demand that I point out just where (fist pounds table) this or that Superlative Discourse fails the test of realism, just what my technical objections to this or that proposal about friendly or unfriendly superintelligent AI, about Nanoabundant circumventions of stakeholder-politics, about Techno-Immortality via genetic medicine or digital uploading consists of, and on and on and on.

But, of course, the better question from my perspective is what on earth is happening in the heads of people to make them think that technodevelopmental quandaries of emerging networked malware, non-normative healthcare, or novel interventions into the nanoscale are clarified by forcing these quandaries into the Superlative lens of Robot Gods, Medical Immortality or Nanosanta in the first place.

It should go without saying that to the monks in the monastery the scholarly practices in which the number of angels that can perch atop pinheads are debated can assume the texture and force of a technical discourse, with more and less smart participants, more and less interesting procedures, occasions for real creativity and insight, political factions and all the rest.

So, too, with Singularitarians interminably calculating the Robot God Odds.

One doesn't really have to join the robot cult to offer up the critique that tells you all you need to know about the proper status and standing of the discourse. Sure, one would probably have to drink the Kool-Aid to fully appreciate the real ingenuity and even brilliance some of the partisans of that discourse likely do exhibit. But that in itself should be a warning sign, given the extent to which Superlative discourses are pitched for the most part at a popular level while never achieving actual popularity, rather attracting the devotion of marginal sub(cult)ures of True Believers.

But quite apart from all this, the fact is that I think the actual practical force, the real-world impact of the Superlative discourses is happening at exactly the level their advocates don't want to talk about, and want for the most part to ridicule: in the cultural, political, social, psychological, rhetorical dimensions I keep hammering on about.

Sub(cult)ural futurists should have at best a negligible and accidental hand in directing the technodevelopmental struggles that might eventuate in anything like the arrival of "technological" outcomes like the ones that preoccupy their imaginations. I say should, rather than will, because we are living now in the culmination of a counterexample to that should -- a world reaping the toxic, wasteful, dysfunctional, blood-soaked whirlwind of the never-popular market fundamentalist notions of a marginal sub(cult)ural movement of neoliberal and neoconservative incumbents.

Be that as it may, technodevelopmental social struggle is too complex, dynamic, contingent, unpredictable to afford the Superlative Technocentrics and/or Sub(cult)ural Futurists the linear and unilateral implementation of the particular idealized outcomes with which they happen to identify here and now for whatever reasons.

But in my view they can have a profound effect on that technodevelopmental struggle where it counts (not to them, of course, but in fact) in the technodevelopmental present of ongoing and proximately upcoming technoscientific change. Here we come at last to the reason I devote so much of my attention to critique of Superlative Technocentricities and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms.

The ritually reiterated images and metaphors, the customary formulations, the inculcated frames, the naturalized assumptions of Superlative Technology discourse can have a profound effect on the technodevelopmental terrain as it exists here and now in a way that is incomparably more influential than any likely impact on the futures which Superlativity imagines itself to be concerned with.

And that influence, I say again, is almost always terrible: substituting oversimplifications and linearities for actual complexities, activating irrational passions that derange critical deliberation, indulging in hype to mobilize the idiotic energies of unsustainable and joyless consumption as well as terrorizing risk discourse to mobilize the authoritarian and acquiescent energies of militarism, endorsing elitist attitudes about people's ability to have a say in the public decisions that affect them, all too often offering up explicit hymns to un(der)interrogated and naturalized notions of progress, innovation, market order as an insult added to the already abundant injury of all these "implicit" props to corporate-militarist neoliberal incumbency.

This, of course, is where I work to lodge my primary critique of Superlativity. And this is the very site it becomes most difficult to address when Superlative Technocentrics demand we engage with them always only in "technical" debates (in a sense of "technical" that never really connects to much in the way of reality, whatever the protests to the contrary about Superlativity's superior scientificity).

The force of these re-directions into "technicality" is always to keep our focus squarely fixated on the abstract far-futures they populate with their engineering mirages, and never on the present. (These remain far-futures even when Superlativity tries to argue that acceleration -- or, even acceleration-of-acceleration -- renders the "far-futural" into a pseudo-proximity substituting for the terms in which the diversity of stakeholders here and now struggle to articulate their aspirations in the actually emerging, actually proximate technodevelopmental terrain).

But make no mistake: It is in the technodevelopmental terrain of the present that Superlative discourse works its real effects. And this is none too surprising, because it will be precisely in the technodevelopmental social struggle of these diverse stakeholders to ongoing and proximately emerging technoscientific change that we all do the actual work of education, agitation, organization, and analysis to provide the ongoing and growing material archive of a living, collaborative, responsible foresight, peer-to-peer.

The idealizations of Superlativity may solicit identification in their marginal adherents, but they do not constitute the "foresight" they are so pleased to congratulation themselves for. Foresight in the service of democratic, consensual, diverse, fair, sustainable, emancipatory futures looks to me instead to be more properly an open, ongoing, pragmatic peer-to-peer process.

Superlative Technocentricities and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms substitute faith for foresight, priests for peers, and the pieties of neoliberal incumbency for an open democratic futurity.

Whatever the technical idiosyncracies, whatever the fundamentalist ethnographic peculiarities, it is this last political point that is my own worry and focus here.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Still More on Superlativity

Nick Tarleton writes: Of course the technological ability to do something does not mean it will be done. But, if I’m understanding Dale’s argument correctly, I think it fails to take into account the degree to which MNT and AGI can empower small groups to achieve Superlative goals on their own, largely independent of any “social, cultural, and political forces”.

Depending on just how “largely” you mean by “largely independent” here I probably do decisively disagree with the idea that particular radical idealized technodevelopmental outcomes are unilaterally achievable through the fervent exertions of marginal sub(cult)ures who happen to fetishize these outcomes here and now for whatever reasons.

That said, I do think Nick has more of a handle on the sort of critique I am proposing than some others seem to do. As against those Superlative Technocentrics who would accuse my critique of facile fraudulence he would probably accuse it instead of facile obviousness. (Please input requisite smiley for those who aren’t properly attuned to ruefully ironic writing styles.)

Strictly speaking, Superlative technodevelopmental outcomes are not achievable at all in my view, since they aspire at the transcendental in my own technical usage of the term.

“Superlative” doesn’t mean for me “big changes” -- there are few who would deny that ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle is causing and coping with big, sweeping, radical change. For me, in this context, “Superlative” means investing technology with a kind of autonomy for one thing (there is a wide literature elaborating this problem, as it happen), but also a kind of sublime significance. This tends, in my view,

[1] to rely on an appeal to intuitions and iconography derived from or familiar to customary religiosity, and it is

[2] typically enlisted in the service of satisfying what are more customarily religious needs to overcome alienation, a quest for “deeper” meaning, a connection to ends more synoptic than those of parochial experience, and in ways that are

[3] prone in my view to activate irrational passions I would often associate with such religiosity as well, undercritical True Belief and groupthink, craving for authoritarian power or obedience to such, not to mention often being

[4] correlated, as religiosity so often is, to disdain of one’s body as well as disdain of the diverse aspirations and alien lifeways of one’s fellows, and so on.

(This critique of organized religiosity should not be taken as an endorsement of some of the recent critiques made by the so-called militant atheists, who seem to me -- whatever the strengths and pleasures of their discourse for a cheerful decades-long atheist like me -- (a) to mistake the perfectly reasonable esthetic or modest social role of religion in the lives of many of the variously "faithful" for a form of inevitably deranging irrationality that leads them, then, (b) to misconstrue as epistemological what is actually the political pathology of authoritarian fundamentalist formations that would opportunistically organize social discontent and moral identification in the service of tyrannical ends as well as (c) to mischaracterize as generally and dangerously irrational what are in fact promisingly secular societies, like the United States in my view, simply through a skewed interpretation of reports of religious belief by people who might mean radically different things by such reports and, in consequence, (d) to lose faith in the good sense and reliability of their fellow citizens and in the democratic processes that depend on these.)

Be that as it may, Nick suggests that I fail to take into account how Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Molecular NanoTechnology (MNT), so-called, "could" empower small groups to achieve Superlative goals. As I mentioned in an earlier response to Michael Anissimov, I actually do agree that discussions of the impact of relatively sudden shifts in the asymmetrical distribution of forces and capacities sometimes enabled by technodevelopmental change are certainly very important indeed. Ever more sophisticated malware and technical interventions at the nanoscale will likely yield effects of this kind many times in years to come…

However, I just don’t agree that one’s capacity to talk sensibly about such effects is much helped by

[1] highly general, rarely particularly caveated, too often more logical than pragmatic discussions of the “possible” engineering feasibility of particular idealized non-proximate (and hence profoundly uncertain) outcomes which are

[2] invested, nonetheless, with radical projected properties that activate irrational hopes and fears in people without much at all in the way of connection to the demands of the actually-existing proximately-upcoming technodevelopmental terrain we are coping with here and now and which proceed in ways that

[3] consistently and even systematically de-emphasize, denigrate, or altogether disavow the realities of the articulation of actual technodevelopmental social struggle by psychological, cultural, social factors and so on, and, hence,

[4] render the conclusions of the discourse highly suspect but too often also tend to

[5] disallow or at any rate skew democratic deliberation on technodevelopmental questions (and sometimes, I fear, not so much accidentally as because of the anti-democratic sentiments of partisans of the discourse itself) -- especially when these formulations attract popular attention or unduly influence policy-makers.

This is, I fear, what takes place too typically under the heading of discussions of “AGI” and “MNT.”

More on Superlativity ("Technicality," "Feasibility," and "the Real World")

Brian Wang writes: You have indicated that there are clear and easy to argue limitations of Suplerative tech (which is molecular nanotechnology, AGI). Great then it would be easy for you to list them.

Once again, I have indicated that there are clear limitations of Superlative Tech discourses. There are no Superlative Techs to which I or you or anybody can point to list such limitations. Incredibly enough, you ask me to list what I mean by these limitations, right after you actually quote a list of these limitations of Superlative Technology Discourses which I did provide and to which I referred: “vulnerabilities to hype, tendencies to naive technological determinism, reductionisms and other oversimplifications of developmental dynamisms, disdain for developmental aspirations alien to your own.”

Am I missing a lot of information that you have provided on real world complexities?

In the topsy-turvy world of Superlativity I will be smugly chastised for my incomprehension of and inattention to “real world complexities” -- precisely because I am talking about the characteristic exaggerations, oversimplifications, distortions, and skewed priorities of actual technodevelopmental complexities facilitated by particular modes of discourse and their customary assumptions, metaphors, political associations, and so on -- and chastised for this by people who seem to mean by the “real world” their own discussions of the logical feasibility of projected and idealized technodevelopmental outcomes like Drexlerian nanotechnological post-scarcity abundance, biomedical or even digital immortalization of human selves, and the “urgent dilemma” of whether an imaginary entitative postbiological superintelligence will be friendly or not.

Brian quotes other material I have written here on Amor Mundi describing political campaigns and institutions that I champion, like a basic income guarantee, a more democratized United Nations, planetary environmental, labor, and military nonagression standards and laws enforced by actually respected world courts, and universal education and healthcare provision. Of course, these are ideals, they are not the same sort of thing as the surreally implausible "predictive" technodevelopmental projections of Superlative Technocentrics. I don't think it is hypocritical in the least to engage in the one while deriding the other. I would certainly never try to pretend that blue-skying about ideal institutions was some kind of engineer’s “feasibility study.” Neither can I claim to have high confidence that any of these pet political outcomes of mine will arrive in just the forms I am sketching here and now (in part just to make the point in the midst of our present distress that real democratic, peaceful, and sustainable alternatives are imaginable), especially not in my own lifetime -- techno-immortalist handwaving notwithstanding -- largely due to my awareness of the very kinds of technodevelopmental complexities and uncertainties, the unpredictable dynamisms I keep pointing out to the apparent exasperation of the Superlative Technocentrics in the first place.

Brian accuses that “He [me] wants to have his cake of not getting into a technical debate while at the same time (eating it) claiming the correctness that the issue is settled in terms of a superlative projection and the superlative projector of being wrong and fanciful and naive.”

Now, it seems to me that I am engaging in a kind of technical debate, as it happens, just one from a disciplinary location Brian is possibly unfamiliar with or perhaps uninterested in. If, however, by "technical debate" Brian means to designate only a much more circumscribed kind of discussion of logical and engineering feasibility of particular projected non-proximate outcomes, I hate to break it to him, but quite a lot of his own discussion fails to qualify as such, either, when we look at things clearly -- inasmuch, in my view, as "feasibility" discourse in its peculiar Superlative modes regularly tends to express symptomatically the kinds of psychological, cultural, social, and political assumptions and preoccupations I keep pointing to, all under cover of its assiduously asserted “technicality.”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Scattered Speculations on Superlative Technocentrisms and Sub(cult)ural Futurisms

What follows is the (somewhat edited) text of my reply to friend of blog Michael Anissimov in an ongoing exchange prompted by the discussion a few days ago of Superlative Technology Discourse. Michael posted a very considered reply to my post and I have been meaning to recommend folks to read his critique and the exchanges it inspired. Whatever our differences I do want to say that I find the conversation usually enjoyable and occasionally illuminating and to thank Michael for soldiering so gallantly on.

Michael says that “Many people identify with the vision put forth by Eric Drexler [who clarified and popularized the idea of molecular manufacturing].” And at the end of his original response to me he claimed also to “strongly identify as what Dale would call a Superlative Technologist.”

Finding a vision appealing or provisionally agreeing with an argument is not identification with it in my view. What, politically, then, is the force of insistent claims of strong identification with particular futurist scenarios in the context of technodevelopmental social struggle?

Let me put it this way: There should be in my view no such thing as “the future” with which some “we” identifies the better to fight to unilaterally implement it on an identity politics model. Mine would be a politics of open futurity and technodevelopmental advocacy for provisionally preferred outcomes in the context of more planetary democracy, rather than any politics of an idealized Future with which I identify in the present and mean to bulldoze my way through to with a few like-minded tribe-members.

Futures, like the present, properly belong to everybody, and will reflect the struggles of everybody, including the “theys” outside our various “we’s.” This is not a facile denial that one properly has goals and organizes to facilitate them, but an insistence that a democratizing technodevelopmental politics will fight above all for open futures, not “optimal futures” with which a parochial subculture presently identifies.

Before I get accused of quibbling here, let me just say that politically what I want is what Jamais Cascio describes as an Open Future, above and beyond any particular technodevelopmental outcomes I might presently be advocating for as safer, more fair, more emancipatory, and so on. Sub(cult)ural futurologies, like Superlative Technocentrisms, tend to substitute highly linear and monological technodevelopmental trajectories and targets for what more technoprogressive perspectives recognize instead as the ongoing and finally unpredictable technodevelopmental social struggle of ineradicably diverse stakeholders to distribute the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change as fairly as they can by their lights.

Enormous numbers of practical implications flow from sub(cult)ural futurisms, by the way: special vulnerabilities to hype, tendencies to naive technological determinism, reductionisms and other oversimplifications of developmental dynamisms, disdain for developmental aspirations alien to one's own, and so on.

And there is also, of course, the unfortunate tendency of those who identify with particular futures rather than provisionally advocating for technodevelopmental outcomes to confuse disagreement with defamation.

In his initial response Michael exhorts me to attack ideas and not people -- without realizing that his strong expressed identification with particular futurological scenarios makes it well nigh inevitable that attacking certain ideas will always be perceived as attacks on the people who claim a sub(cult)ural identity organized by their shared investment in such futurological idealizations.

Now, look, almost everybody gets a bit defensive in argumentative contexts, me included, and my obvious personal enjoyment of acerbic back-and-forth is more than usually provocative of this -— but I do think Sub(cult)ural Futurisms structurally exacerbate this problem beyond bound.

Michael continues: The superlativity aspect isn’t symptomatic of whatever crazy pathology you try to project upon the advocates of these technologies.

Well, first, in some partisans for Superlativity I am quite sure that personal pathology is in play. Sorry, but I do think this is so and I do think it matters. More to the point, I think the Sub(cult)ural modes of political organizing to achieve ends within the complex dynamism of technodevelopmental social struggle will attract certain pathologies and exacerbate them. Superlative rhetoric risks doing the same, not only symptomizing but organizing and facilitating undercritical, hyperbolized, linearized formulations of our technodevelopmental terrain. Ongoing and upcoming technodevelopmental transformation is and looks to continue to be deep, sweeping, intense, radical, unpredictable, deranging of custom and assumption, and easily as threatening as it is promising. Superlative Technology Discourses and the organizations that traffic in them are saturated with apocalyptic and transcendental imagery, unearned certainties and unexaminable pieties, littered with gurus and would-be priests, exactly as one would expect and exactly as endless critics have and will continue to point out. You can pout and stamp your feet about it or you can try instead to better understand why radical technodevelopmental discourse is likely to activate irrational passions and actually seek to address these problems (hint: identity politics may well be the worst imaginable mode of political organization possible under such circumstances in my view).

Second, I still don’t think Michael and many others completely grasp the nature of discourse-analysis and rhetorical critique. No doubt you all understand well how propositions (stated and implied) exhibit relations of logical entailment that can be analyzed to better understand the workings, strengths, and limitations of an argument.

But there are many other dimensions to which discourse is also susceptible of useful analysis. The overabundant majority of discursive formulations make constant recourse to figures (metaphors and the like) to render their abstractness more concrete, and there is a kind of entailment that obtains from the way we know the furniture of the world operates when it becomes part of the figurative picture an argument paints. When MLK calls justice a river, for example, it is because we know how rivers behave that we know he thinks justice is a powerful force, possibly irresistible, that it is natural, that it may seem violent, that it can be damned, diverted, and obstructed, and so on —- but not all of these analogies may obtain and we often need to disentangle the conclusions one’s clarifying figures have earned from the unearned ones, and sometimes we realize that claims or even different metaphors appear that contradict this picture and recognizing these differences often connects us to deeper perplexities or problems in the argument itself.

There are also implications that can be disinterred from the etymological examination of a discourse’s definitive or recurring terms, or from an argument’s citation of conventional topoi (these are genres of topical debate the give-and-take within which can sometimes seem as ritualized as a minuet if you know what to look for), or from familiar framings of certain ideas that might bear a family resemblance to others, or to habits of association one can discern through acquainting oneself with idiolectical, dialectical idiosyncracies, jargon, habitual citations, customary associations, ritualized subcultural signaling and so on.

The intuitive force of certain ideas, concepts, formulations will derive as much from these figurative and citational practices as from logic, and when I try to discern these sorts of relations it is because I am trying to understand what makes a discourse tick, what makes it compelling to some (even if it remains, for precisely the same reasons, alienating to most), trying to locate its vulnerabilities the better to attack it when it is mobilized in the service of outcomes I disapprove of or the better to shore it up when it is mobilized in the service of outcomes I approve of. It’s as simple as that.

Third, it is simply the case that what we say or do means more in the world than we intend it to (just as it is also true that we rarely fully grasp the scope of our own intentions anyway —- as evidenced by the fact that we will often retroactively assign to past conduct or utterances a different intention than the one we would have honestly reported at the time we initiated it), since actions always have unintended consequences and since utterances depend for their force on the contexts that are never completely understood. Constantly taking offense at my so-called attribution to them of malign or pathological intentions whenever I try to understand the structural, logical, figurative, etymological, topological, tropological, citational, performative entailments of their discourse could not be more beside the point in most cases.

Michael: For instance, nanofactories would benefit greatly from scaling laws, allowing them to have greater throughput than macroscale factories. I didn’t make up the fact that scaling laws are extremely beneficial to manufacturing because of “worries about finitude, mortality, control, the force of chance in human lives, the demands of diversity, and so on.” And you’re hinting that I and others do, which is ludicrous.

Michael didn’t make up scaling laws, but the significance he attributes to his application of them to the very particular idealized outcome with which he identifies (by his own admission) when he talks about “nanotechnology” is a choice that is articulated by factors that are scarcely given in the scaling laws themselves. Rest assured, I am glad to hear that Michael personally is not anxious about human finitude or mortality, developmental disruptions of self-control, the demands of chance and diversity (even if such anxieties are rather extraordinarily widespread in my view), and that the irrational passions, the fears and fantasies of agency, that are often so activated by technology discourse in light of such anxieties and which seem almost embarrassingly conspicuous in Superlative Technological variations are not a factor in play in his own life or rhetoric. He will no doubt be much the happier for it. If one can believe his protestations to such Olympian detachment, that is to say.

But to protest as he does that it is ludicrous for me to discern the trace of these anxieties in the discourse more generally is, to put it lightly, a hard sell. However, to reduce my discourse analyses to ad hominem attacks or armchair psychologizing as he also does is probably a more fruitful rhetorical avenue -— even if it is an utterly wrongheaded and superficial move, it is likely to seem plausible, especially to True Believers already sympathetic to his outlook.

Michael: If molecular manufacturing is possible, it could be used to make a solid block of diamond 10 meters tall out of nothing but acetylene feedstock and solar energy.

Now, the above statement can be considered a technological statement, or it can be considered a science fictional BS statement based on some special psychological obsession I have with extremely large diamonds. A smart person looks at it as a technological claim, not a psychological obsession.

This is an awfully disheartening response from Michael, I must say. First of all, there are surely indefinitely many projected outcomes that, should they come to pass according to some particular scenario, would have practical implications compatible with our current understanding of the laws of physics. But it will not be these laws of physics that cause just that one projected outcome to be the one that captures one's attention, or the popular imagination, or becomes a focus of collective dread or desire. Those factors will indeed be psychological, cultural, social, and political as much as anything else. I try to talk about these questions in a way that is actually sensitive to that reality.

Michael: But you seem to look at many technological claims about the feasibility or projected capabilities of future technologies as science fictional BS statements when they are actually about certain physical properties in the projection.

Not all science fiction is BS. I am an avid reader of it, and an avid reader of much of the specific sf that preoccupies the transhumanist, singularitarian, and Superlative imaginaries in fact -— a temperamental contiguity that makes the Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Technocentrics a long-abiding source of fascination to me, from a psychological and ethnographic standpoint at the very least.

It pays to remember that while sf sometimes likes to bill itself as an extrapolative or projective literary genre, there is a widely held alternate view that the force and meaning of much of the greatest sf literature derives from the way it functions as a kind of allegorical commentary of contemporary problems.

I think an enormous amount of presumably non-fictional futurological scenario making solicits the same kinds of identificatory and disidentificatory energies, functions as a kind of surrogate critique of the present in the form of a futural projection. I think contemporary cultural anxieties and political quandaries are regularly displaced onto the safer ground of projected futures.

This will be palpable to transhumanist-types in the example of fear-mongering bioconservative discourse about clone armies, designer super babies, and chimeras and the like, which are often as much about scarcely disguised reactionary hysteria about the political demands of younger generations, about the threat to their position and comfortable attitudes posed by racial and sexual diversity and so on, as they are sensible regulatoary quandaries. Superlative discourses play out similar anxieties, certainly, but these will be harder to see clearly for those who are on the inside.

Michael castigates: If you want to argue against the feasibility of a technology, discuss the technology.

But as I have said over and over again, the feasibility of particular technodevelopmental scenarios isn’t the only or even always the primary thing that interests me. Nor do I honestly think that feasibility is really always at the center of their attention when technocentrics engage in what they themselves would think of as discussions of such “feasibility.” Stealthed beneath the surface of discussions of engineering and feasibility typically all sorts of parochial preoccupations are getting aired symptomatically, all sorts of normative assumptions are getting sedimented. What I am interested in above all else is what makes certain logically possible technodevelopmental outcomes personally and collectively compelling, and the connection of these compelling and provocative discourses to current progressive and technoprogressive politics and policy.

Again, my first aspiration is to facilitate open futures and the democratization of technodevelopmental social struggle. I do not identify even with those scenarios and outcomes that seem to me at present the most emancipatory ones, nor do I have any interest in or pin practical hopes on tribal identification with others who might happen to agree with my assessments of which scenarios and outcomes are the most emancipatory ones for now. I think such identification incubates technocratic elitism in people of the left and the right, and that it endorses assumptions conducive to the corporate-militarist status quo (a paradoxical entailment that leads me sometimes to speak of retro-futurism).

The fact is that consensual modification medical techniques, nanoscale manipulation, sophisticated malware, decentralizing and renewable energy and service provision, p2p networked formations are all part of the technodevelopmental terrain that preoccupies my own attention and in which I invest many of my own provisional emancipatory hopes. These preoccupations are very close to many of the ones that get pointlessly (and yes sometimes pathologically) transcendentalized, hyperbolized, oversimplified in Superlative Technocentrisms in my view. This frustrating but tantalizing proximity is, no doubt, the source of much of my fascination with these discourses and their advocates’ ongoing interest in mine. I do think that the Superlative derangement of otherwise mainstreamable technoprogressive formulations is more than interestingly symptomatic or wrongheaded, though, but actively pernicious inasmuch as it substitutes less-democratizing for more-democratizing formulations and —- again, I’ll say it, even knowing how you dislike this part of my critique —- activates irrational passions at precisely the worst possible time, a time when democracy without technology will fail, and technology without democracy will destroy the world.

Michael continues: Don’t put its advocates down on the couch and try (poorly) to psychoanalyze them. I can imagine you in the days before nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, saying that those who believe such a technology is possible are suffering from phallic fantasies derived from a hyper-masculine military-aggressive complex.

I am hoping Michael can see by now why this is a flabbergastingly facile and inapt understanding of my critique.

Michael: By looking at everything through the lens of cultural theory and rhetoric, you’re missing huge pieces of the puzzle.

I agree with that, of course, which is why I try not to do what Michael is accusing me of here. But it remains the case that my interests are my interests, my training is my training, and I make no apologies for the fact that my analyses focus on different dimensions of these issues in a different language than is customary for your readers. I am quite sure that I have a contribution to make on my own terms -— a contribution in areas that are enormously neglected among you —- but I am also content that many who read me will disagree with that, and some even decide that my different style and focus betokens my idiocy, insanity, superficiality, or fraudulence. This sort of thing goes with the territory, surely?

Michael: I do think the cultural theory and rhetoric lenses have a place, but to apply them indiscriminately


to every piece of text that enters your field of vision leads inevitably to false inferences.

Well, I don’t do this, and my contribution is my contribution. But, the general point is a worthy one, and it might not hurt for me to take it to heart. Let's all take Michael's wise words here to heart.

Michael writes: I am willing and able to look at technological changes through a social and cultural lens, but also an economics lens, an ethics lens, a scientific lens, a military lens, and more.

Michael, to be blunt, I don’t think you are exhibiting much self-awareness here.

He asserts: I am not a technological determinist

Even though this is something he said earlier on in this very response I am currently addressing:

The superlativity aspect isn’t symptomatic of whatever crazy pathology you try to project upon the advocates of these technologies. They fall out of the specs of the technologies themselves.

I’m sorry, but there isn’t a dime thin difference between this attitude and that of technological determinism, which provides the context in which one must read his own continution of his protestation:

I am not a technological determinist, although I do believe that inherent characteristics of a technology can strongly influence the way it is treated.

Can? Sure, who’s denying that?

The social, cultural, and political forces that articulate technoscientific change (funding, invention, testing, publication, regulation, education, marketing, appropriation, distribution and so on) don’t enable technique to trump physics. But technological determinism is defined by the confusion or even insistent foregrounding of physics over these social, cultural, and political forces in one’s accounting of the vicissitudes of technoscientific change.

Michael continues, with panache: Since I look at these changes through many different lenses, I am multi-faceted where you are being narrow.

Whatever gets you through the night, guy.

Michael: You incorrectly identify discussions of highly advanced technologies with libertarian egoism, which to me, is the silliest thing in the world.

I correlate Sub(cult)ural and Superlative variations of Technology Discourse with the rhetorical idiosyncracies of neoliberal and American market libertarian rhetoric, and I correlate the justifications for elitism, the naturalization of market and corporatist assumptions, the shared preoccupations with security, terror, and disaster, the shared disdain for popular input, and any number of other features of Superlativity with the rhetoric through which the neoliberal project continues to market and justify itself.

Sorry if some folks think that is silly. I’m quite sure I am right.

Michael: Hundreds of scientists and futurists of all political orientations have discussed MNT and human-level AI.

No shit, Sherlock. But irrelevant to my point.

On a different note, Michael says: Thanks for clarifying your views on uploading. If you are a functionalist, then you must believe intelligence can be characterized as a series of data flows.

I said I was a materialist about mind and intelligence, and I daresay there are some characterizations of functionalism that I might ascribe to, but his definition here isn’t one I would agree to at all.

Information is always instantiated on a material carrier, the content of “data-flows” are non-negligibly constituted by their actual materialization, and so one can easily grant that mind is material and not supernatural, and that intelligence may well be incarnated on a pluralty of possible material substrates, while remaining skeptical that this materialized intelligence is translatable to a different one. I have no investment in being called a “functionalist” or not on whatever construal Michael has seized on, and I don’t think I need to have a position on that to explain my skepticism about the notion of mind uploading. Human intelligence is embodied, and is likely to be radically impoverished or utterly distorted by disembodiment -— and my point is a materialist and naturalist one, no souls or miracles required.

Michael: As for the nanotechnology issue, only a minority of advocates want to see it as being used to sweep away politics and democracy.

It is commonplace to invest the projected arrival of nanotechnology in something like its particular Drexlerian variation with the arrival of an abundance that will circumvent the impasse of stakeholder diversity and provide a technical fix for problems that look to me ineradicably social, cultural, and political. The point isn’t to call people closeted totalitarians, but to delineate structural entailments. Perfectly nice, civic-minded, concerned people can nonetheless feel the appealing tug of anti-democratizing discourses without becoming conscious anti-democrats. If only technodevelopmental abjection were so simple as Michael seems to think I think it is.

Michael continues: This may have been a more predominant view in the mid-90s, where libertarianism was more in vogue due to the dot com boom, but now I think 90% of nanotechnology advocates are way more level-headed.

The ethnographic point about 90s technophilia is certainly true, although I think Michael wildly overestimate the percentage of explicitly libertopian technophiles from that era who have learned any lessons at all from the last disastrous near-decade of corporate-militarist privatizations, deregulations, and "free trade" pieties. Again, technocratic elitism, reductionism, naturalization of market and corporatist assumptions, and so on yield anti-democratizing effects and are especially helpful to the neoliberal project. That obviously doesn’t mean that all the people who maintain the one discourse explicitly intend these effects (although I think more of them do than Michael may feel comfortable admitting), since I think too few people who maintain these discourses have given much thought to the sorts of connections I am talking about.

Michael wags a finger: But I believe you will continue to describe the situation as if the majority sees nanotech in the way that you fear, because it makes for interesting writing.

Thanks, Doc, I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t feel ready to send you a check to compensate your diagnostic efforts just yet.

Michael: If you’re skeptical about AI, I understand. But because you are skeptical, your criticisms of discussions among people who accept the premise that AI is possible in the near term are necessarily biased.

Well, that’s certainly convenient is you’re lucky enough not to be an AI skeptic then.

Michael: But if you shared their premise, would what they are talking about, hard takeoffs from human-equivalent AI to superintelligence in days or weeks, for instance, be all that implausible?

I think if this is something you lose sleep over you have wildly skewed priorities.

Michael: You probably can’t answer that question, because you don’t, in fact, believe human-equivalent AI is possible in less than a century or something.

Intelligence is a short-hand for a constellation of capacities. There are obviously devices that already surpass some of the normative human performance in some of the dimensions regularly subsumed under the term intelligence. Collective intelligence, and especially peer-to-peer networked organizing, expressivity, and problem-solving may well constitute a mode of artificial superintelligence on some understandings, and it is one of my own preoccupations. If one is talking about dangerous malware, including replicative and recursive malware, I agree this is enormously important -— already, here and now, and not in a way that is particularly illuminated by projections or idealizations. If you are talking about entitative post-biological (super)intelligence with intelligible intentions, malign or not, and deserving of rights and such, well, I think that is not even on the radar screen, and I think that a fixation on it as a presumably urgent political matter is, to put it as kindly as possible, a skewed preoccupation.

Michael: Maybe these technologies are inherently anti-democratizing themselves, because they make possible the consolidation of godlike power into single entities?

I don’t think technologies "themselves" are ever inherently anti-democratizing or emancipatory. It is the way we organize through and in the face of them, it is in our distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits associated with them that they become anti-democratizing or emancipatory forces.

Michael's point about instrumental asymmetry is important, though —- rather in the way that it is important to address the ways that mediation can facilitate killing through its apparent abstraction —- but I still think the focus should not be “technological” per se, but inspire an awareness that we must lessen the authority of elites and flatten hierarchical authoritarian structures we have tolerated too long lest they avail themselves opportunistically of such unprecedented technical capacities in the service of domination, exploitation, and confiscatory wealth concentration.

Michael: If these technologies are inherently anti-democratizing, then it makes it all the more difficult to keep the world as democratic as possible in spite of that.

Things are looking mighty bleak for democracy, then. Don’t everybody cry all at once, I guess. Look, I simply disagree. Democracy is never easy but it is certainly possible and desirable, and emancipation is possible and desirable, and I simply won’t eagerly or “reluctantly” concede its demise in the face of technodevelopmental “inevitabilities.”

Michael: It’s also possible, in some circumstances, that the majority opinion is wrong, i.e., democracy breaks down and makes things worse.

Democracy doesn’t mean mob rule, and it doesn’t require one believe that majorities are always right (which is one of the reasons most notionally democratic societies also have rights and guarantees that are institutionally safeguarded from easy contestation). Democracy is just the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. The stakeholders with whom we share the world testify to a diversity of aspirations and histories and perspectives and one needs to persuade them one is right where we differ disputatiously from them or compensate them in ways that they are reasonably happy with on their terms where one manages provisionally to prevail over them.

You can go on about how envious, or irrational, or unserious you think everybody is if that’s what happens next in this particular conversational dance-floor turn, but I have to say I think so-called elites are no less susceptible to irrationality and evil than popular majorities are, and I’ll take my chances with democratic contestation, thank you very much. Whatever my annoyance with some popular attitudes, I do trust people to testify to their actual interests better than profit-mongers or priests will (whether of the conventional or scientistic varieties -— and I say this as a staunch defender of consensus science), and I trust popular deliberation over elite imposition for the facilitation of most robust, most sensible, most fair, most representative public decisions.

In something of a surprise move, Michael end thus: For instance, the book “Silent Spring” made a huge deal of DDT, which led to its being banned in hundreds of countries worldwide, subsequently leading to millions of deaths from malaria due to the lack of cheap mosquito repellent. To say that democracy (majority opinion) is correct at all times and under all circumstances is naive.

Uh, okay. Well, Rachel Carson is a hero in my book, and she isn’t responsible for the deaths of millions of people due to malaria (as if only the delirious application of toxic DDT can save the interminably overexploited “underdeveloped” regions of the world), and Michael needs to understand better that he simply can’t say idiotic things like this on some occasions and then whine to me later (as he has regularly done, check the archive) about what a progressive democrat he actually is and how his feelings have been hurt by some impersonal discursive analysis I've posted here and there showing that quite a lot of public technophilia gets spouted by reactionaries in the service of reactionary causes. This is an awful note to end an otherwise congenial exchange, but, honestly, what odd things these Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Technocentrics do sometimes say.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Still Keeping an Eye on the Trojan Elephant

“I don’t know about you, but my children can’t afford another Republican president…” and "You just can't out-hypocrite a Republican…" Not bad. Reminds me of Dean's still unsurpassed sound-bite body-blow, "You can't trust the Republicans with your money."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wanna wanna wanna!

Introducing the XO Laptop from olpc, Give 1, Get 1.
Starting November 12, One Laptop Per Child will be offering a Give 1 Get 1 Program for a brief window of time. For $399, you will be purchasing two XO laptops—one that will be sent to empower a child to learn in a developing nation, and one that will be sent to your child [read: your "inner child"] at home. If you're interested in Give 1 Get 1, we'll be happy to send you a reminder email. Just sign up in the box to the left and you'll receive your reminder prior to the November 12 launch date.

Update: The incomparable Rachel Maddow has just mentioned this on her show. I hope olpc is ready for a stampede.

The Idiocy of Elitism

Atrios puts the point with characteristic concision:
One of [my] personal pet peeves, something which comes up at panel type things, is when people blame "the masses" for their ignorance, or something similar. The masses hate George Bush and hate this war and don't really think the appearance of the word "fuck" in a college newspaper deserves endless media attention. They've arrived at these views largely all by themselves, despite the bizarro reality conveyed by our elite press.

It is well known that majorities have long supported progressive positions on health care, the environment, drug liberalization, and many other things as well. It's true that for much of my life majorities weren't too supportive of queers like me, but I've always trusted them to show sense in the face of mass exposure to the non-threatening and usually dull as dishwater realities of queerness -- just as I've always assumed it would be among timid media "elites" and Washingtonian muckety-mucks that the dumb-dumb atrocity of the closet and all it represents would linger endlessly on. I was right to think so.

When I contemplate the very basic atrocities that seem to me to need redress -- curtailing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, implementing universal healthcare, installing steeply progressive taxes, ending war profiteering and shuffling surreally skewed militarist budgetary priorities, demolishing the legal fiction of corporate personhood, constraining intellectual property and widening access to information, providing ample free easily-accessed clean water to everybody on earth, drug legalization, ending capital punishment, making informed consensual acts like prostitution and suicide legal, supporting a world court war-criminals, environmental poisoners, human-traffickers and the like actually fear, implementing a planetary non-mean-tested basic income guarantee -- I despair of the possibility of nudging the vapid "elite" press or the "credentialed" experts or the nervous "professional" handlers or the rich ruthless fucks of our "aristocracy of merit" a single inch in the direction of any change for the better, even should change emancipate the world and failure to change reduce the world to a septic sewer. But when I contemplate the so-called "masses" whose ignorance, stupidity, superficiality, and emotionalism I should presumably fear as an official member of the overeducated effete elite pinko commie queer secular humanities set… well, I must admit, I feel quite sure I can count on their sense incomparably more, that I can trust their integrity, imagination, collective intelligence, good humor, capacity for tolerance, and tolerance for change incomparably more than that of our incumbent and especially our moneyed elites.

It is among my deepest, most fervent hopes that emerging peer-to-peer forms of creative expressivity, networked media, journalism, collaboration, research and publication, fund-raising, political organizing will give permanent voice to the actual plurality of stakeholders in the world, unleash the unprecedented intelligence and imagination of collaboration, and smash utterly the dumbass slaughterhouse of elitism and incumbency. It is on p2p democracy, more than anything else, that I am pinning my hopes for a world on the brink of perishing from the smug-self-certainty of military "elites" and the blind blanketing destructive greed of corporate "elites."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

No Limits! (And Other Foolishness)

I always cringe whenever some "inspirational" business huckster barks into the mic or at the dinner table about how "innovation," "production," "enterprise" or whatever slogan the Amway mindset has latched onto at the moment has "no limits, man!" so, you know, we should all presumably become dot-eyed marauding maniacs and "go for it!" and "take no prisoners!" or what have you.

Such attitudes seem to me always to depend on, or even simply straightforwardly to translate to, the ugly awful fervently held faith that there will always be someone else around to clean up our messes for us.

This expressed disdain for the very idea of limits always amounts to and sometimes baldly testifies to a disdain for the actually-existing living plurality of people who are superfluous to or at odds with the streamlined trajectory at which our stubbornly insensitive, er, "motivated," go-getter imagines he is getting himself to.

Nowhere is this disdain more conspicuous to me than among Superlative Technocentrics, nearly all of them caught up in a frenzy of self-promotion, self-selection, and delusive mutual reinforcement as they handwave from the palpable and urgent reality of ongoing and emerging disruptive technoscientific change to what is instead an essentially irrational and certainly pseudoscientific transcendentalizing talk of omni-predicated technologies delivering post-bodily "immortality," post-embodied "consciousness," post-economic "abundance," post-historical "singularity," and so on.

While I am quite conscious of the ways in which the overwhelming inputs from planetary networked media, the biomedical intervention into customary understandings about when lives can properly be said to begin and end and with what expectations about capacities and changing function we might properly invest them, the intervention of instrumental rationality into production at incomparably small and large scales, the unprecedented appearance on the scene of weapons of massive and insane destructiveness and so on, are all deranging our collective sense of the limits that hitherto have been taken to define the human condition. That this sudden, intensive, and extensive transformative technodevelopmental storm-surge has been treated by some as a portent of an upcoming overcoming of human finitude as such, as the looming confrontation with a techno-transcendentalizing overcoming of the very idea of limits altogether has always seemed to me a curious confusion. And given the frequent coloration of such claims by fairly conventional theological notions of omni-potence, omni-science, and omni-benevolence this curious confusion seems to me all the more curiously conventionally religious, especially considering the barking militant anti-religiosity of so many who seem to indulge in this sort of handwaving technology-talk in the first place. To me, it has always seemed more sensible to say that the technodevelopmental derangement of customary limits is experienced quite as much as the emergence of a new limit -- the loss of our ability to claim with the sort of confidence we've sometimes depended on just what our definitive limits actually will consist of in matters of political and ethical concern that perplex us -- as it is the more emancipatory overcoming of certain old limits.

Be that as it may, I'll admit that it is easiest to focus one's critical attentions on the flabbergasting practical naivete of Superlative technodevelopmental accounts that rely on loose analogies (there are, to be blunt, differences that make a difference between human brains and computers, biological organisms and nanofactories, aging bodies and well-maintained mansions, stakeholder deliberation and the unilateral implementation of optimal outcomes deduced from ideal formulations), accounts that overestimate the state of our knowledge of the relevant technoscience, accounts that overemphasize the smooth function of technology in general, accounts that underestimate the role of social, cultural, and political factors on the vicissitudes of technoscientific change and its impacts, and accounts that treat complex dynamisms as linear processes and complex phenomena as simple monoliths.

It is also easy to focus on the, shall we say, symptomatic dimensions of Superlative Technology discourses, with their bevy of boastful boys, with their curiously conspicuous comic book iconography, with their eager self-marginalizing subcultural politics (hence the incessant vulnerability to and defensiveness about charges of weird Robot Cultism), with their non-negligible exhibition of body-loathing (from their occasional expressions of old-school Cyberpunk disdain of the "meat-body" to their widespread ongoing incomprehension of disability activists who quite righteously insist, "nothing about us without us"), with their ongoing difficulty in nudging their demographic much beyond its conspicuous -- tho' admittedly not exclusive -- white maleness in a world in which whites and males are minorities otherwise, with the lingering presence of "market fundamentalist" intellectuals among them and being taken seriously by them as they are almost nowhere else (after all, the neoliberal and neoconservative policies which gave "anarcho-capitalist" and "free-market" abstractions the only actual life they ever had or will ever have were undertaken by incumbent interests with the cynical understanding that these "ideas" provide ideal cover for confiscatory wealth concentration, but there are few actually intelligent people who still believe in these market fundamentalist pieties on their face, if anybody ever did, apart perhaps from a few awkward earnest Randians, poor things).

But the actual focus of my own critique of Superlative Technology discourses (even if I'll admit I have often directed my jeremiads against these more conspicuously vulnerable dimensions of Superlativity) is on their pernicious anti-politicizing and, more specifically, their almost always anti-democratizing force. Needless to say, I do indeed think the highly fetishized, irrationally hyperbolized, faithfully transcendentalized, falsely monolithicized, obsessively singularized technodevelopmental outcomes that preoccupy Superlative Technocentrics are the farthest thing from plausible in their specific Superlative formulations. But even if I were to grant them more than the negligible plausibility of logical possibility (which is quite enough for most Superlative Technocentrics, and I'll let the reader puzzle through the implications of that low bar given the force of True Belief it seems so often to underwrite), the fact remains that I still do not agree that Superlativity provides the best discursive lens through which we would best cope with the extraordinarily sweeping implications typically attributed to these outcomes by the Superlative Technocentrics themselves.

(A side note: Exactly in analogy to the "New Normal" of contemporary terror-alerts, the attribution of such sweeping implications to what amount at best to thought-experiments and at worst to science-fictional vignettes -- only without the accompanying pleasure of narrative or characterization -- is precisely what functions to make the Superlative demand for a substitution of a focus on proximate for projected and idealized outcomes the hallmark of "seriousness" by their lights, contrary to all sense and in fact in a way that is immune to the interventions of common-sense, strictly speaking.)

If the Superlative Technocentrics were actually right to imagine that billions of people now living will find themselves all too soon living in a future transformed by Friendly or Unfriendly post-biological intelligences, nanotechnological superabundance, biomedical immortality, or the like (and I do think they are far more likely to be wrong than right and I think this matters enormously), even granting them this, I think they are profoundly wrong to imagine that our best way to facilitate the best, least violent, most fair (or whatever) versions of these Superlative outcomes is to contemplate and prepare for the Superlative outcomes themselves, in the abstract, as these outcomes suggest themselves to us in our own impoverished vantage (an impoverishment exacerbated all the more by marginal and anti-democratic modes of Superlative deliberation). Such contemplation and preparation circumvents the ongoing and plural stakeholder contestation that will certainly articulate the unpredictable developmental forces and the dynamic developmental pathways along which such outcomes would actually "arrive" (were they to do so), ignores the practical, scientific, technical, pedagogical, regulatory, cultural knowledges arising out of our collective day to day responsiveness, competition, and collaboration in the plural presents from which no less plural futures will present themselves, that will not only shape but actively constitute our foresight and provide the living archive to which future generations or the communities in which we will ourselves later belong will make our collective recourse as we struggle to cope with these outcomes and their alternatives.

To be sure, this is not the denigration of foresight as such that Superlative Technocentrics will be sure to accuse it of being, but simply an insistence that foresight properly emerges from the ongoing contestation and deliberation of the plurality of actually-existing stakeholders to the emerging technodevelopmental terrain rather than from an idealized projection of Superlative outcomes onto the future by the impoverished perspective of a marginal minority and from the impoverished position of that future's past. This means that serious futurists (Jamais Cascio provides a well-respected example here) would always propose multiple technodevelopmental outcomes in their proposals, no one of which solicits identification but all of which, taken together, capture the texture of an upcoming technodevelopmental terrain in its dense plurality. And so, too, serious futurists would always stress the contingency, non-autonomy, and diversity of the impacts of technodevelopmental outcomes from the perspective of the plurality of their stakeholders. Serious futurists, finally, should always understand and emphasize that the rationality of foresight is more inductive than deductive; and, to the extent that such futurism would be democratizing rather than merely profitable for incumbent interests (and, hence, strictly speaking, better described as retro-futurism), futurists must grasp that the pragmatic point that deliberative foresight foregrounds induction over deduction translates in political terms to a foregrounding of openness over optimality.

(Regular readers may be surprised to see me talk about the very possibility of a "serious futurological practice" given all the abuse I tend to heap on self-identified futurists here... but the simple truth is that it seems to me there are good reasons to think that futurism, so-called, might very well manage for another generation or so -- as psychoanalysis managed to do for well over half the twentieth century -- to remain one of the few places where something like actual philosophical thinking might take place in a way that will be taken seriously even by anti-intellectual Americans. That is more than enough to get me to pay serious attention to it.)

Again, the simple truth is that I think that the preoccupations of no small amount of Superlative Technology Discourse is symptomatic rather than serious. As often as not, it symptomizes (as does so much literary sf, much more provocatively) the fears and fantasies of people caught up in disruptive technoscientific change, it symptomizes (as does so much neoliberal discourse, which remains complementary and often still explicitly correlated to technocratic discourses generally and Superlative Technology discourses particularly) the social, subcultural, and political marginality of many of the personalities drawn to these discourses.

But if the outcomes the Superlative Technocentrics have battened on to really were to come about in some form, the facilitation of best, safest, fairest, most democratic versions of these outcomes will arrive from ongoing plural stakeholder discourse rather than from the unilateral implementations of elite and abstract discourse. That is why my own technoprogressive politics (which is no less technocentric than that of the Superlative Technology discourses when all is said and done) would direct its energies to securing, subsidizing, and celebrating peer-to-peer formations of technoscientific practice, education, regulation, funding, and of p2p education, agitation, and organizing for radical democracy (including the democratization of the planetary economy) in general as a more practical technodevelopmental politics -- more practical even in the event that technodevelopmental outcomes come to assume anything like the contours that preoccupy the imaginations of Superlative Technocentrics.

If Singularitarians, so-called, really are as worried about scary Robot Gods as they seem to be, then it seems to me a far more practical focus for their attention and action would be to participate in contemporary anti-militarist and anti-globalization movements to diminish the role of the secretive and hierarchical command formations in the midst of our democratic society and to overturn the legal fiction of corporate personhood with all its pernicious antisocial and antienvironmental implications -- which are the locations in society out of which anything remotely resembling the Superlative fears and fantasies of these Singularitarians are likeliest to emerge. Otherwise, the ongoing regulation and monitoring of already existing and actually emerging malware seems to me incomparably more likely to provide the practical resources to which we would make collective recourse were we eventually confronted with recursively self-improving software, whether rightly taken to be intelligent or entitative or not, rather than whatever our own abstract fancies might now offer up to those -- including, as likely as not, some of us -- who inhabit days to come (between now and which there would be, after all, many intervening days filled with people quite as intelligent as we are, but incomparably better informed, and directing themselves to these actually urgent problems according to the terms in which they actually occur, likewise coping with ongoing and emerging malware and so on, peer-to-peer).

If Nanosantalogists really want nanofactories to incubate a high-tech gift society without reducing the planet to goo, then it seems to me a far more practical focus for their attention would be to participate in the contemporary copyfight and access-to-knowledge movements that would keep the nanofactory instructions out of the hands of incumbent elites, and to participate (as it seems to me my friends at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology already often do, at least when they are at their best) in movements to empower planetary regulation and oversight of pandemics, tsunamis, climate change, weapons proliferation, the manufacture and trafficking in toxic substances, and so on, since it will be the experiences and insights we acquire in these fraught and urgent already ongoing efforts that will provide the real archive on which we would really, truly depend were we to find ourselves confronting the Superlative fears and fantasies of these Nanosantalogists.

If Technological Immortalists, so-called, really want to inspire and fund and implement a SENS program to overcome the suffering and pathologies we customarily associate with human aging, then it seems to me a far more practical focus for their attention would be to embrace the rhetoric of the Longevity Dividend, to refigure what deGrey describes as the Seven Deadly Things (or whatever number this eventually amounts to, a habit of qualification and caveat being a welcome thing from especially speculative scientists) as seven separate medical conditions among countless others likewise demanding elaborate foundations and diverse research teams, and, above all else, to refrain altogether from idiotic talk of "living forever" or "immortality" in the first place (given the admission by most Technological Immortalists that theirs is not a program that would elude disease, violent, or accidental death even if it managed to achieve its already implausibly Superlative ends, it is curious -- that is to say, importantly symptomatic -- that they should be so reluctant to eschew these essentially faithful rather than factual discourses). But more to the point, it seems to me that enthusiasts for longevity and rejuvenation medicine should be devoting considerable efforts to movements to secure universal healthcare, to address neglected diseases among the planetary precariat, to provide clean drinking water and basic healthcare to everybody on earth, to defend the informed nonduressed consensual recourse to wanted therapies (whether normalizing or not) and protection from unwanted therapies (whether normalizing or not) in the context of contemporary modification medicine, to end the so-called war on (some) drugs (together with the fraudulent marketing and mandated use of other drugs) wherever its racist anti-democratizing tentacles reach, and so on.

Superlative Technocentrics are likely to recoil from suggestions like these, dismissing them as stealthy, well-nigh "closeted" half measures, but the truth, I'm afraid, is that their own monological fixations and hyperbolic derangements of these sensible -- even urgent -- recommendations bespeak either a profound misunderstanding of the complex, dynamic, ineradicably politicized technodevelopmental terrain as it actually exists, or a derangement that symptomizes their own irrational passions, born of social marginalization, short-sighted greed or hostility, neurotic fears of contemporary change and lack of personal control, straightforward narcissistic personality disorder, or the like.

It is well known (that is to say, known among the few odd people like me who keep up with this sort of thing at all) that I advocate what I describe as a technoprogressive political viewpoint which regards ongoing and emerging technoscientific change as at once the most dangerous and most promising field of contemporary democratic-left and emancipatory politics. For me, "progress" has come to be a matter of technodevelopmental social struggle first of all, the contestation of a plurality of stakeholders to the ongoing articulation and distribution of technoscientific costs, risks, and benefits. It is from this perspective in particular that I understand the urgent struggles against neoliberal corporate-militarism, environmentalist movements, planetary human rights and social justice movements, and so on.

While this perspective is no less technocentric than that of the Superlative Technocentrics I so regularly critique our differences could not be more stark otherwise (but this one point of continuity is enough to keep me on my toes lest my own technoprogressivity drift here and there into a problematic Superlativity quite in spite of myself). Not only do I think that the best, most democratizing, most emancipatory technodevelopmental outcomes can be facilitated by politics that are perfectly intelligible to the democratic-left progressive mainstream imagination (as Superlative Technocentricity very definitely is not), but I also think that there is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream on the American political scene and elsewhere around the world that is conjoining the forces of the left blogosphere and Netroots and other emerging p2p democratic formations, the defense of consensus science, copyfight, free press and open media, access to knowledge (a2k) movements, commitments to a politics of choice that encompasses both abortion and ARTs and consensual drug policy, growing demands for renewable energy and sustainable production, and other strands of the contemporary technoscientific tapestry, from the ground up, peer-to-peer, all around us, right here, right now.

Why Superlative Technocentrics would prefer their far-flung and hyperbolized futures over these actually-existing popular technoprogressive energies is entirely beyond me. No doubt only their therapists (or possibly, for a few of them at least, their financial advisers) know for sure.

Everything Solid Melts Into Laissez-Faire

Here is a statement I read over on the European Tribune (one of my favorite blogs), and which I quote here without much in the way of considered comment, but more as a solicitation of comments:
Most software indulges in version numbering along an unbounded trajectory. It seems that those applications can endure an almost endless progression of added features for the next release. It seems quite in line with the neoliberal consensus that better is always more, in an ever increasing amount… [T]he tendency of the dominant software releases to use unbounded version numbering seems symptomatic of the neoliberal pathology that will not recognize the convergent nature of maturing technologies, in an effort to encourage consumption of ever 'new' products.

There were so many comments and associations that occurred to me immediately and simultaneously upon reading this that I haven't really put them together in any kind of systematic or properly argumentative way.

I find myself thinking of Jeron Lanier's snarky Fifth Law: "Software inefficiency and inelegance will always expand to the level made tolerable by Moore's Law"…

I find myself thinking of PR practices of "repackaging," which seek to elicit the "experience" of progressive emancipation through consumption by continually trumpeting as new features traits that commodities have already had all along (especially hilarious to me is the recent commercial in which some insipid environmentally toxic bottled-water company has some appealingly crunchy Green athlete -- natch, up is down, it's the Bush era -- straining up some cliff face and clutching at his water bottle while the voiceover enthuses, and I'm paraphrasing, at long last capitalism has provided us with a bottle cleverly designed by our geniuses of innovation so that one can actually hold it in one's hand!)…

I find myself thinking of the basic contradiction of capitalist societies highlighted by eco-socialists and others, of the different dynamisms of reckless Grow or Die! expansionism confronted with the limits and complex interdependencies of the ecosystems in which all enterprise and production always take place and on which it always depends…

I find myself thinking of the technocrats and especially the current crop of digital utopians, from Daniel Bell to the irrationally exuberant WIRED magazine set of the 1990s through to the corporatist-militarist "revolutionaries" of the technophiliac and science-phobic (these attitudes are continuous, this is not a paradox) Bush Administration with their Total Information Awareness and Shock and Awe "smart bombs" and abstract "ownership society" and anti-democratizating master plan of debt, deregulation, and dismantlement of civic institutions, all of whom would seek continually to "dematerialize" both production and the performative substance of political contestation in their theories, the better to compel the intransigent material resistances of the furniture of the world and the plurality of its stakeholders into a shape that conforms to the restless and idealized flows of capital, desire, and incumbent fancy…

I find myself thinking of four decades of public intellectuals declaring the "end of ideology," the "end of philosophy," the "end of history," the "death of distance," foregrounding services and then marketing and then financialization and then information in the influential daydreams they mistook for documentation and deliberation, all the way through to contemporary Superlative technocentric fantasies of selves reduced to streams of spiritualized digital data (a formulation preceded by and prepared for by decades of reductive accounts of selves reduced to "expressions" of genetic information), commodities reduced to "instantiations" of software instructions by angelic nanoabundance (a formulation preceded by and prepared for by, among other things, decades of PR accounts of commodities as indifferent sites for the distinguishing emblemization of designer logos), deliberative politics reduced to the consequentialist computation of "optimal" outcomes by Robot Gods (a formulation preceded by and prepared for by the anti-democratic Cold-War politics of neoliberal incumbency, with its corporate think-tanks, technocratic military experts, and corporate broadcast-mediated manufacturing of consent)…

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I realize, by the way, that my posting frequency is way down at the moment. I'm teaching three courses that are preoccupying my attention these days. In two of the courses I'm teaching this term environmentalist analyses and discourses are so central that I am already certain I'll leave the term with a much more detailed sense of what a more technoprogressive Green looks like. Once I've gotten back into the rhythm of things I should post more often again, and more substantively (more substantive at any rate than these steam-venting registrations of disgust at corporate-militarist criminalities that I've been tossing off here and there lately). My friend Jamais Cascio has been saying interesting things lately that I want to talk about when I get a chance, and I've been scrabbling around his back catalogue as well for gems. I think he may well be the only self-identified "futurist" I have any patience or use for at all these days. More later.


[via Think Progress] The Iraq war is costing roughly half a million dollars a minute at this point. Anybody who doesn't think that there are better ways of spending that money in the service of justice, domestic tranquility, actual security, and general welfare has to be dangerously, certifiably insane. You know, a Republican.

When I think how few seconds' monetary fuel of the bloody-minded war machine's continued operation it would take to pay off the student loans I'll be saddled with for years and years and years (loans I acquired as a student during which I was always working in addition to studying, by the way), it makes my head spin. But quite apart from that, just think of the kinds of sweeping planetary civilization-wide benefits that would have bloomed from a comparable investment in renewable-energy (getting us off this blank endlessly catastrophically reiterated "blood-for-oil" atrocity treadmill in the first place) or education ("impossible! tax and spend! no free lunches!" scream the thought-hating corporate-militarist "free marketeers" as they roll in their blood-soaked tax-paid billions) or planetary projects to provide the "miracle medicine" of clean water to the millions upon millions of people who needlessly die, along with all their potential problem-solving intelligence and creative expressivity, due to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, cheaply treatable water-borne diseases ("hippy! relativist!" snarl the wingnuts, can't you see "we" are in a "Clash of Civilizations" with the scary nonwhites? more blood, more bullets, more shock, more awe!).

Half a million dollars a minute. Every dollar a waste, a diminishment of the measure of our hope, a derailment of some possible collaboration to address a shared problem, an exacerbation of the world's heartbreak and tension and loss that will demand its due who knows when and how, minute by minute, dollar by dollar, blood drop by blood drop. What a desperate idiotic desolation it all is.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and the Next Left

Naomi Klein's new book is being released in just four days. Like a new novel by Gary Indiana, a new film by Almodovar, or a new work of theory by Judith Butler, I'll admit that a book from Naomi Klein qualifies as something of an Event for me personally. (Of course, a new season of Ultimate Fighter or Project Runway is also something of a modest-scaled Event for me, so perhaps that isn't as epic a recommendation as it initially seems to be.) But, anyway, just as with the works of Mike Davis and a few others, you can be sure that I'll drop everything to read Klein's book the moment I get my hands on it.

Neoliberal confiscatory wealth concentration, precarization, and militarization has revealed itself as the universal catastrophe of the worst fears of the dem-left -- fears patiently and regularly re-iterated for three decades mostly to chirping crickets. In nearly every case, neoliberalism (and its fraternal twin, neoconservatism) has been devastating to the environment, devastating to personal rights, devastating to democratic equities, devastating to the prospects of peaceful plural planetary co-existence peer to peer, and devastating to the working institutions of commonwealth.

From the facile self-congratulatory pieties of pop-thinking Randians and their various marginal but loudmouthed libertopian and Dynamist fellow-travelers, to the suave Hayekian rhetoricians of Mount Pelerin, to the anti-government authoritarian hypocrites of Movement Conservatism from Reagan, Norquist, Gingrich, through to our current Killer Clowns, to the smug corporatist enablers of the DLC Machine and the "Third Way" thinktank archipelago, neoliberalism has opportunistically availed itself of occasions of tragedy and general distress. Whether in the midst and aftermath of shattering storms, pandemics, wars (often orchestrated or deliberately exacerbated for just this purpose), with all their immediate derangements and disorientations of collective sense and will, neoliberals have managed to dismantle democracy and create, protect, and consolidate its alternate "market libertarian" architectures of closed, secret-proprietary corporate-militarist incumbency, step by step by step, under cover of the dislocations of collective shock.

As an aside, to those bioconservative or superlative-technocentric readers of mine who imagine themselves "serious" because only they are "brave enough" and "informed enough" -- as it were -- to contemplate the desperate dangers of thought-experiments like goo runaways, forcible uploads, human-animal hybrid armies, designer sooperbabies, or unfriendly Robot Gods -- get real! You guys are functioning as, at best, a mostly useless, indirect, sometimes disavowed surrogate discourse for the symptomatic expression of concern about actual contemporary dangers, problems, and anxieties of our present distressing circumstances and the irrational forces that are driving them, and, at worst, as a straightforward distraction from and active enabler of those very same irrational forces -- especially the privatization and deregulation schemes you carry water for even when you disagree with them in principle, the mass-mediated denialism and hyperbole that go hand in hand with technocentric superlativity, and the anti-democratizing technocratic elitism you endorse, sometimes "reluctantly" and all too-often with full-throated enthusiasm. But I digress.

Like Mike Davis (in book after book after book -- I still don't feel as though I've completely recovered from his Planet of Slums), like David Harvey (in excellent books like his recent Short History of Neoliberalism), Naomi Klein is one of a growing number of sharp critics of neoliberalism offering up forceful critique with the comparably forceful rhetoric our urgent circumstances demand.

From the excerpts I've read, Klein's contribution is to document the exacerbated edge of neoliberal precarization (the ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today’s world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms and status under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, collective bargaining, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live). While precarity is actually an engineered state of anti-democratizing isolation and inattention, it is sufficiently continuous with the basic precariousness of life in general to be mistaken for the dangers and costs of the frail finite human condition as such, even when its ready amelioration is resisted most brutally always only by incumbent interests who preferentially benefit from the status quo. It seems to me that Klein is delineating an exacerbated precarity, the state of shock, an artificial state deliberately induced and maintained just long enough to facilitate the implementation and consolidation of decisive policies and institutions of corporate-militarist incumbency in punctuated moments of engineered collective duress.

The website associated with the book is, just as you would expect it to be, a treasure-trove of useful resources. Among these, there is a slick companion film (it's about six minutes long) directed by the excellent Alfonso Cuaron. It's definitely worth a long look.

Here's an excerpt from the official site's description of the book's thesis:
At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts.... New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened….

These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks -– wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy....

Based on... four years of on-the-ground reporting in disaster zones, The Shock Doctrine vividly shows how disaster capitalism -– the rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock -– did not begin with September 11, 2001. The book traces its origins back fifty years, to the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, which produced many of the leading neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers whose influence is still profound in Washington today. New, surprising connections are drawn between economic policy, “shock and awe” warfare and covert CIA-funded experiments in electroshock and sensory deprivation in the 1950s, research that helped write the torture manuals used today in Guantanamo Bay.

In the provocative analogies, visceral framing, concise formulations, unapologetic dem-left radicalism of texts like Klein's, Davis's, Harvey's (and ever more popular programs like Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! or the Rachel Maddow Show) I discern an incisive hopeful fighting spirit in a democratic left that has seemed instead mostly demoralized for the more than two decades I've been aware of it and grew to identify with its ends (my upbringing, unfortunately, was far from progressive or intellectual).

The connections of these pro-democracy and anti-corporate-militarist struggles have not yet woven their way together with the emancipatory energies I also discern in the emerging technoprogressive mainstream. By this emerging technoprgressive mainstream I mean to indicate what look to me like potent coalitions between the people powered movements of the left blogosphere, peer to peer (p2p) formations more generally, access-to-knowledge (a2k) movements, struggles to defend practices of consensus science and public education, copyfight and FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) movements, resistances to biopiracy and the enclosure of the genetic commons, networked bioregionalisms, movements to fund research and subsidize universal access to renewable and decentralized energy from the wind and the sun, as well as movement to fund medical research into both neglected diseases and emerging therapies as well as to ensure universal consensual access to wanted (always coupled with absolute protection from pressure to undergo unwanted) medical therpies: for example, ensuring universal access to contraception and safe legal abortion for women to prevent and end unwanted pregnancies as well as access to ARTs to facilitate wanted pregnancies, providing wider access to neuroceuticals that modify mood and memory by informed people who want them for themselves or informed parents who want them for their kids while at once rejecting their mandated use by authorities or misleading marketing by their manufacturers, ensuring access to transsexual therapies and surgeries to those who want them while eliminating the default pressure to therapies and surgeries imposed on intersex infants, subsidizing prosthetic modification for differently enabled people (including people with currently normative morphologies and capacities who desire non-normative ones) while protecting differently enabled people from enforced or pressured normalization, and so on).

It is certainly interesting to discern the ready continuities between the politics of peer-to-peer participation, the politics of intellectual property focused on commonwealth over incumbency, and the politics of consensual healthcare practices that become so conspicuous the moment one assumes a technoprogressive perspective in particular. But what I really find myself thinking about here today are the promising connections between this emerging technoprogressive mainstream and the growing urgency, vitality, and confidence of planetary progressive movements of the more conventional radical dem-left exemplified by folks like Klein, Goodman, Davis, and so on.

Once planetary pro-democracy, social justice, environmentalist, anti-corporate-militarist struggles conjoin with technoprogressive struggles [1] for a universal non-means-tested basic income guarantee to subsidize peer-to-peer democracy and circumvent ongoing wealth concentration via automation, networked outsourcing and crowdsourcing, [2] for universal consensual access to basic as well as to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicine, and [3] for planetary institutions to provide for the peaceful and democratically legitimate resolution of planetary disputes over limited resources, contested developmental outcomes, and the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes to the always diverse stakeholders to that change, I believe this planetary progressive and technoprogressive conjunction will represent an unprecedented emancipatory force for peace, democracy, and justice in our world.

It's strange, I've never felt so enraged, heartbroken, and disgusted by the present... nor more hopeful for what might well come next.