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

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Technoscientific Progress in a Diverse Shared World

Keith Elis is very angry with me (scroll down a bit to find his comments at the end of this link) for talking the way I do about science, technology, and progress, and he wants to warn my readers that I am up to no good here at Amor Mundi.

Among other things, he charges that I am playing fast and loose with my definitions, especially when it comes to the word "progress," and seems to think that I am trying to confuse people deliberately the better to seduce them into service to who knows what sinister ends. Something to do, he suspects, with championing a "progressive social order" by which I mean, apparently, well, fascism of all things.

It is hard to understand what Elis finds so nefarious in my philosophical practice, and I may be missing his point here to be honest. But to the extent that philosophy responds to problems at the level of public discourse, it is fairly commonplace in analytic traditions to try to relieve intractable argumentative tensions by introducing distinctions or coining phrases that circumvent the impasse (if only by seducing everybody into changing the subject), just as, to the contrary, sometimes one introduces new definitions, images, frames precisely to introduce tension, to shake up stale orthodoxies that no longer respond well to changed circumstances or new opportunities.

Why this is so eeeevil I can't for the life of me figure out. Elis very rightly says, "Dale believes that science and technology should be democratized in the interest of a progressive social order." Indeed, I definitely do. I propose that we can only properly speak of technoscientific "progress" -- or progress more generally -- when the costs, risks, and benefits of change are fairly distributed to all the stakeholders to that change by their lights. Elis finds this an outrageous thing to say.

He says my insistence on this distributive dimension of progress, properly so-called, in matters of technoscientific change is a violation of any "kindergartner's" understanding of progress. This may be true, since Elis's objections may indeed simply be a matter of youthful ignorance. He also claims I am violating everyday usage. He describes this everyday usage with the term "a prole's understanding" as if to suggest I fancy myself some kind of aristocrat dictating to "men of the people" represented by himself.

Anybody who reads my blog with any regularity will know how appalling I would find such a characterization, given my advocacy of democratizing peer-to-peer formations and endlessly reiterated jeremiads against the politics of incumbent interest and self-appointed elites and so on. So I'll return to the charge of my anti-democratic motives and practices in a moment. For now, suffice it to say it doesn't seem to me Elis has earned his conclusions, to say the least.

First, though, I think it is well worth noting just how perplexing it is that Elis would put so much argumentative weight on his premise that everybody actually thinks of progress as he seems to do, as a kind of socially indifferent accumulation of stuff produced by politically neutral scientists and engineers.

He writes: "Most of us proles would see the phrase 'technoscientific progress' and understand it to mean development or advancement in scientific or technological capability. We proles can grasp this, and since we basically agree on what the words mean, we are able to communicate with each other about these concepts."

Now, to this I would say "advancement" is always advancement toward an end, and that there is more than one end toward which one can advance, and that what will look like "advancement" to some is very likely not to so look to others. Again, what we have here is far from a politically neutral blandly or universally "forward" movement. What Elis simply accepts unproblematically as "development" in his prole kindergartner's definition I prefer to describe as "developmental social struggle." I'll admit my phrase is gawky and awkward, but as I mentioned before it sometimes seems to me a good thing to introduce a tension into customary pieties that obscure urgent facts that matter (such as the description of change that preferentially benefits some people to the cost of others as only "beneficial" when it palpably isn't).

What Elis seems to accept as a matter of "natural" advance or development looks to me like an ongoing collective process with diverse stakeholders, always with relative beneficiaries and losers, a process fraught with struggle, costs, risks, alternatives, missed opportunities, and so on. And given this, it seems to me this is a process that should be democratized the better to respond to that actually existing diversity of situations and aspirations since, after all, we share the world with our diverse peers and it is usually best to be peacefully reconciled with them as much as one can manage, far better even than to optimize one's particular parochial desired end to the cost of such reconciliation.

I don't agree with Elis that this is exactly a stunning original or subversive set of concerns to raise on my part, since it seems to me to represent a fairly conventional progressive critique applied to questions of the complex impact of technoscientific change.

And note that I said "progressive" just now.

I wonder did Elis find that usage incomprehensible in reading it? The truth is, he likely already is fully aware that "progress" is a word that is used to describe the struggle to achieve deeper democracy, more fairness, greater justice, wider diversity, secure consent, and so on.

Few people really think of "progress" exclusively or even primarily as the robotic crunching along of Moore's Law or some such socially indifferent technical trajectory. What he would present in his critique as some flabbergasting effort to subvert commonsense understandings of progress is in fact little more than an effort to remind dumb privileged technophiles that our social and political understanding of progress applies to technoscientific change quite as much as it does to our other collective progressive human practices.

It is, of course, the technophiles who would drain technoscientific change of this social and political content, the better to ensure that change always best reflects the parochial interests with which privileged technocrats tend to be poised or imagine themselves to be so poised to preferentially benefit from themselves. (Rather puts the "Keith Elis, Man of the People" gambit in a different light, doesn't it?)

By way of conclusion, let me return to the concerns Elis raises about the anti-democratizing "elitism" of my rhetorical practice more generally (a charge I would obviously take very seriously, even if I finally disagree with it). For me, in Elis's disdainful estimation, "the common meanings of words and phrases are there to manipulate any way he chooses without consulting the rest of us." This seems to me an especially curious response to ideas posted on a blog. Am I not consulting you by publishing my words? To offer up a phrase to the hearing of the world is to release it into the world's care. It remains for the world (well, to those few folks in the world who read my obscure little blog) to care for it or not, to do with it what they will.

Elis is in rather a full froth at this point in his critique, imagining he has hit upon something fairly damning and so he amplifies his point: "Why a progressive would want to de-democratize language, the most democratic force in the world is a mystery that can only be resolved by Dale." Not to put too fine a point on it, I worry that Elis may have read too much Ayn Rand. I admit I am indeed a bit mystified as to what is so "anti-democratizing" in my practice of rhetoric. It seems to me I am just trying to figure things out, to hold up countervailing and inter-implicated contemporary discourses together in thought, finding ways of getting language to address our own urgent circumstances. I doubt Elis will believe me when I say this, or perhaps he'll just dismiss it as gobbledegook, having decided for some reason that I represent some amalgam of Ellsworth Toohey and Lord Voldemort (Elis intones at one particularly delicious point in his critique of my fun and games with definitions that "To avoid psychosis, Dale accepts neurosis." Things are looking rather bleak for poor Dale, are they not?). But I have to wonder is every poet anti-democratic for proposing a novel metaphor to expand the expressive resources available in language? Is anybody who coins a phrase or a new term to accommodate some new discovery or possibility thereby anti-democratic? Of what does language's "democracy" consist for Elis, exactly, if not its openness to change through the practices of those who invigorate it in using it, both literally and figuratively?

There is quite a lot in Elis's diatribe about how I'm a "big shot" and an "elite" and so on, which, quite apart from squaring rather poorly with the reality of my life as a not particularly well-paid itinerate lecturer teaching at a couple of institutions from term to term, seems to suggest that Elis is dealing with issues that have more to do with his own circumstances and insecurities than they do with his apparent target. Be that as it may, since Elis wonders in closing how I might go about defining democracy (he is quite sure that whatever I say it will be perverse), I will oblige him by repeating the definition that recurs in many of my writing here in Amor Mundi. Probably perversely to Elis's eyes, I happen to think democracy is more an open process than a utopian eidos implemented in a linear fashion, and so I will speak of "democratization" rather than "democracy" to italicize this point.

I define democratization as an ongoing and interminable collective process of institutional experimentation, education, agitation, organizing, and social struggle to ensure ever more people have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them. I don't know if that definition passes muster for Elis or not, but that is what I mean when I talk about democracy. I don't claim to speak for Elis or anybody else in proposing this definition. My goal is not to dictate the terms of reality terminologically (a fool's errand if ever there was one), but to get a practical handle on real problems and open myself to real emancipatory possibilities. It seems to me a commitment to progress demands nothing less.

24 comments:

Eric said...

"It is hard to understand what Elis finds so nefarious in my philosophical practice, and I may be missing his point here to be honest."

He's angling for a piece of Jonah "Pantload" Goldberg's next hit book: 'Liberal Fascism II: Electric Boogaloo'

jfehlinger said...

> There is quite a lot in Elis's diatribe about how
> I'm a "big shot" and an "elite" and so on. . .

Well, that's a different tack than that taken by some of your
other Singularitarian critics, one of whom (I can't remember
whether it was Mr. Fact Guy or Giulio Prisco) pointed out that
you're a nobody whom nobody would be paying attention to
if it weren't for the treffic being steered your way via
Michael Anissimov's Accelerating Future.

;->

De Thezier said...

I had an interesting exchange with Keith Elis (which indirectly involved you) that everyone can read on the Cyborg Democracy blog at http://cyborgdemocracy.net/2008/01/2-weeks-later.html

I wonder if any of this is connected...

jfehlinger said...

De Thezier wrote:

> http://cyborgdemocracy.net/2008/01/2-weeks-later.html

Elis is quoted there as saying:

> There is a large [large?] group of people out there. . .
> [who] were initially 'wowed' by transhumanism, . . .
> [and then] became increasingly dissatisfied. . .
> These folks interpret their dissatisfaction and decision
> to disengage as evidence of inherent problems with transhumanism.
> "There's nothing wrong with me; it must be you." This is just
> a bald lack of self-criticality.

The technical term is "alloplastic defenses".

It's claimed to be characteristic of certain personality
disorders (particularly NPD), but I've never seen it
used to characterize ex-cult members, **except** by those
left behind in the cults.

jfehlinger said...

De Thezier wrote:

> I wonder if any of this is connected...

Well, Michael Anissimov seems to be on vacation (or
hitting the campaign trail for the WTA board), so
I guess the other Singy-Dingies are taking turns
manning the PR desk.

;->

peco said...

There is quite a lot in Elis's diatribe about how I'm a "big shot" and an "elite" and so on, which, quite apart from squaring rather poorly with the reality of my life as a not particularly well-paid itinerate lecturer teaching at a couple of institutions from term to term, seems to suggest that Elis is dealing with issues that have more to do with his own circumstances and insecurities than they do with his apparent target. Be that as it may, since Elis wonders in closing how I might go about defining democracy (he is quite sure that whatever I say it will be perverse), I will oblige him by repeating the definition that recurs in many of my writing here in Amor Mundi. Probably perversely to Elis's eyes, I happen to think democracy is more an open process than a utopian eidos implemented in a linear fashion, and so I will speak of "democratization" rather than "democracy" to italicize this point.

Here's a quote from an interesting blog post:

In the Brahmin caste, status among both men and women is defined by scholarly achievement, success in an intellectual profession, or position of civic responsibility. The highest-status Brahmins are artists and scientists, but Brahmins can also be doctors or lawyers, although it is much better to be a doctor than a lawyer, and much better to be a lawyer than a dentist (a trade which was perhaps once Brahmin, but is now definitely Vaisya). Ideally, as a Brahmin, if you are a doctor you should be primarily concerned with caring for the poor; if you are a lawyer, your practice should focus on civil liberties and social justice - cardiology and corporate law are slightly de trop. An increasing number of young Brahmins consider themselves "activists" and work for "nonprofits" or "NGOs," lending some credence to the theory that the Brahmins are our ruling or governing caste. Entry into the Brahmin caste is conferred almost entirely by first-tier university admissions, although getting into Harvard doesn't mean you don't still need to make something of yourself.

---

The author is saying that "Brahmins" (whom Keith Elis is calling "elites") are intellectuals.

Dale Carrico said...

I learned from Edward Said that the job of the proper public intellectual is to understand and intervene against the workings of incumbent authority, else become a functionary of its smooth exercise. If you want to see who the elitists are look who it is defending and valorizing incumbency and who it is that keeps insisting you look where are the guns are pointed, listen to the voices that are silenced, and follow the money. I do know any blanket anti-intellectualism is easily as self-defeating (or cynical) as would be the uncritical embrace of crony credentialism. And I know well what side I am on.

peco said...

(The author wasn't saying that intellectuals are bad.)

Dale Carrico said...

And I am saying intellectuals are bad when they are functionaries of incumbency and good when they facilitate freedom. Same as everybody else.

peco said...

Those would be "Optimates" or "Vaisyas." The author is saying that intellectuals are a separate "caste" and that they have the most actual power, which makes them elites (again, this doesn't make intellectuals bad). MM does think that some (many?) intellectuals are bad because they have too much power and promote "Universalism." (You would be in the group, along with other progressives.)

Dale Carrico said...

Great. Whatever.

peco said...

Read the post. I can't explain this well.

Greg in Portland said...

You can't explain it Peco because it's bullshit. I've seen this stuff too many times to count. The basic theme is always the same - intellectuals are bad because they don't "produce" (whatever the fuck that means). This link of yours is just basic right wing faux sociology. The author starts out by depriving himself of one of his most powerful tools in his denigration of class structure (which he refuses to even call by name) and then moves on to suck the pus from numerous wingnut tropes like the "welfare mother" and the "crazy black" all the while disguising all of it in using bastard hindi. It's a brilliant gambit - if you're moron enough to put your pieces on his chessboard.

Keith Elis said...

Dale's re-definitions amount to an undemocratic appropriation of power. His attempt to control the meaning of signs and symbols, whether successful or not, whether posted on a blog or not, whether of pure intent or not, cannot be squared with a democratic agenda.

Perhaps Dale believes the end justifies the means. That is, if his intent is to facilitate a progressive democratization of costs, risks, and benefits, putting to work the tools of the anti-democratic opposition is acceptable.

It's not acceptable. And Dale's response is rather defensive as a result.

I don't think this point is or should be at all controversial. What is controversial is my amateur psychoanalysis of Dale. In my analysis I identified a certain pressure he feels as a result of embedded contradictions in his rhetoric. I further suggest that this pressure spurs him to anti-democratic control of signs and symbols. Now I see that this same pressure also, simultaneously emplaces blinders which prevent his seeing it at all.

The embedded contradiction I refer to can be thought of syllogistically:

Dale's viewpoint is progressive.
Progress is naughty.
Ergo, Dale's viewpoint is naughty.

Dale's own friends and political allies have also identified this contradiction in his viewpoint. Dale has admitted as much in his writings from 2005. My controversial conclusion from this admission, drawn by connecting very proximate dots, is that Dale feels forced to resolve this contradiction by telling us what progress 'really' means.

How is this not a self-serving attempt to control the meaning of signs and symbols?

Dale expends a great deal of time and effort -- more than I could have mustered -- defending this activity. But, none of his flailing can change the basic fact that democratic ends require democratic means.

And I'm disappointed in Dale's lack of comment on my use of Kipling.

Dale Carrico said...

Dale's re-definitions amount to an undemocratic appropriation of power. His attempt to control the meaning of signs and symbols, whether successful or not, whether posted on a blog or not, whether of pure intent or not, cannot be squared with a democratic agenda.

What are you talking about? I'm proposing definitions and arguments to better understand the world and communicate my sense of the world to others who are willing to give me a hearing. This is controlling and anti-democratic? What would a "pro-democratic" "anti-control" use of language look like on your view? A complete acquiescence to the "status quo" as determined by Keith Elis?

How is this not a self-serving attempt to control the meaning of signs and symbols?

Well, yes I am trying to understand things and where I think I have done this persuade others that my understanding is worth a hearing. I guess that's "self-serving" in a way.

[I]f his intent is to facilitate a progressive democratization of costs, risks, and benefits,

It is.

putting to work the tools of the anti-democratic opposition is acceptable. It's not acceptable.

Unacceptable? That's some tough talk, there. So are you planning to sue me, big shot? File a complaint? Expose my "authoritarian" rhetoric in public?

And Dale's response is rather defensive as a result.

?

I don't think this point is or should be at all controversial.

Unfortunately for you, "controversial" would be a generous word to describe the bullshit you're spewing.

Dale feels forced to resolve this contradiction by telling us what progress 'really' means.
How is this not a self-serving attempt to control the meaning of signs and symbols?


Not that you deserve a serious response, but I'll try to explain this slowly so that you can understand: Bad things have happened in the name of progress and good things have happened in the name of progress. Despite my awareness of bad things that have happened in the name of progress, I still see fit to describe myself as progressive.

I go on to describe what progress properly entails in my view (that is to say both accumulative and distributive dimensions, both more knowledge and more fairness), and what is lacking in those views of progress that have yielded bad consequences (usually a reductive and/or parochial perspective on best outcomes).

This is analysis and argument, not fascism you tool.

I have no idea what planet you have to be on to see this activity as authoritarian or whatever.

Oh, wait, yes I do know what planet you are on. You are on Robot Cult Singularitarian True Believer Planet.

You people really are as dumb as a bag of hair, aren't you?

jfehlinger said...

Keith Elis wrote:

> Dale's viewpoint is progressive.
> Progress is naughty.
> Ergo, Dale's viewpoint is naughty.

Hm, no, I don't think Dale ever suggested that
"progress is naughty".

Dale is an SF geek, like most of the folks who ever got involved
with Transhumanism, or Singularitarianism, whether or not they
ended up as promoters or critics.

I suspect that Dale, like me, might think it was really
cool if immortality, or radical increases in human intelligence,
or artificial intelligence, or nanotech assemblers, were
really in the offing.

But they ain't, Blanche, and for reasons that have nothing
to do with politics or psychoanalysis.

The the thing that **does** have to do with politics
(and psychoanalysis) is whooping-up religious intensity over
paradisiacal or apocalyptic science-fiction scenarios
with little basis in reality.

peco said...

You can't explain it Peco because it's bullshit. I've seen this stuff too many times to count. The basic theme is always the same - intellectuals are bad because they don't "produce" (whatever the fuck that means). This link of yours is just basic right wing faux sociology. The author starts out by depriving himself of one of his most powerful tools in his denigration of class structure (which he refuses to even call by name) and then moves on to suck the pus from numerous wingnut tropes like the "welfare mother" and the "crazy black" all the while disguising all of it in using bastard hindi. It's a brilliant gambit - if you're moron enough to put your pieces on his chessboard.


I don't see that theme.

De Thezier said...

Dale, in case you are interested in knowing more about Keith Elis, you can read his bio at http://www.linkedin.com/in/keithelis

jfehlinger said...

De Thezier wrote:

> [I]in case you are interested. . .
http://www.linkedin.com/in/keithelis
[ and http://www.keithelis.com ]

Dale wrote:

> [Keith Elis wrote:]
>
> > It's not acceptable.
>
> That's some tough talk, there.
> So are you planning to sue me, big shot?

"[Keith Elis, J.D.]. . . holds a law degree from UCONN Law School"

Watch out, he's a lawyer! :-0

And, he has a public reputation at stake:

"Professionally, I spend my days. . . solving financial problems,
uncovering investment opportunities, and managing risk for the people
who have entrusted me with these tasks."

This profession does not mix well with public involvement with a cult or
proto-cult. Cf. Joe Firmage, UFOs, and the Integral Institute.

Shall I supply the appropriate syllogism? No, maybe I'd better
not.

jfehlinger said...

de Thezier wrote:

> I had an interesting exchange with Keith Elis (which indirectly involved you)
> that everyone can read on the Cyborg Democracy blog at
> http://cyborgdemocracy.net/2008/01/2-weeks-later.html

A post which seems to have been removed and is no longer available, except
in Google's cache.

Let me guess -- it was removed because you violated WTA-talk's policy
that content there is supposed to be viewable by subscribers only.
Or at least, that was the excuse.

De Thezier said...

A post which seems to have been removed and is no longer available, except in Google's cache.

Yes, I noticed that unauthorized deletion yesterday...

Let me guess -- it was removed because you violated WTA-talk's policy that content there is supposed to be viewable by subscribers only. Or at least, that was the excuse.

I don't know if that is the excuse but I intend to find out.

De Thezier said...

Let me guess -- it was removed because you violated WTA-talk's policy that content there is supposed to be viewable by subscribers only. Or at least, that was the excuse.

Perhaps but it seems that Keith Elis wrote to James Huhes, the owner of the Cyborg Democracy blog, to complain that I had posted his message from the wta-talk list without his permission so it was removed.

Since I wrongly assumed that Keith would approved of me doing this without his permission, I privately and now publicly apologize to him.

jfehlinger said...

de Thezier wrote:

> Since I wrongly assumed that Keith would approved of
> me doing this without his permission. . .

Well, that's a lawyer for you. ;->

Seriously, though, his wariness about having his views circulated
in any but the "protected" environment of WTA-talk does nothing
to bolster his arguments, such as they were.

n8o said...

Haven't we been over this before?

Why is it people constantly confuse criticism with calls for control or censorship? Wouldn't posting to a blog be the last thing a thoughtful fascist would do, after attempting to actually silence his opponents, rather than drawing attention to their case?

Didn't Prisco already make this mistake?

Yes, Dale can "control" the definitions of the language he uses. But that doesn't force anyone to accept his frames. In fact, the fact that such frames are laid open on the table, rather than assumed, makes the negotiation over definitions explicit, which is more honest and useful than some. Even if you don't accept Dale's definition of progress, you can still have useful discussion about the components underlying that proposed definition (which is the point) by virtue of the fact that he's laid it out for discussion at the outset.

There is no arm-twisting, here.