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

Monday, February 25, 2008

Consumerism Forever!

Transhumanist James Hughes linked to an interesting graph designed by Nicholas Felton showing the adoption of new technologies since 1900. To subscribe to the technodevelopmental News Headlines service which provided the link check out the IEET website.

What interested me most about the item was Hughes' summary of the data via this subject line: "Optimistic Kurzweilian Data on Adoption of Consumer Products." Felton's own summary of the data is much more objective, if you ask me: "Consumption Spreads Faster Today."

What would it be about the relentless acceleration of consumer practices that would make techno-utopian transhumanists feel "optimism" exactly?

The graph charts the adoption of many technologies, including clothes dryers and air conditioning that provide negligible real benefits for at least some of their adoptees compared to still-available practices that preceded them, but the adoption of which did produce incredible waste and pollution. Other technologies charted by the graph include autos, vcrs, microwave ovens, and cellphones.

Perhaps we should simply measure how high how quickly landfills rise and calculate "progress" that way? I certainly feel the optimism!

And how on earth would this data seem to echo with Kurzweilian implications for transhumanists? Raymond Kurzweil thinks technological development is accelerating toward a history-ending transformational event, The Singularity, resonating with millennial overtones.

I happen to think that techno-utopians are to an important extent confusing the instability of neoliberal financialization of the economy with "acceleration" (or my personal favorite, "acceleration of acceleration," when the futurological congress goes for the really hard sell) largely because that's what financialization looks like to its beneficiaries and to those who identify with those beneficiaries -- that is to say, right up to the moment when the whole Ponzi scheme crashes and burns. I also happen to think that those who believe Moore's "Law" will spit out a Robot God one day are drinking the same Moonshine that has inspired cybernetic totalist types wrongly to predict every year on the year the imminent arrival of artificial intelligence with the absolute behavioral regularity of the robots they so pine for.

Why does anybody think a data point suggesting that color television was adopted more rapidly than black and white television before it, or cellphones were adopted more rapidly than telephones before them is cause for optimism, exactly? My partner Eric quipped that this is like imagining we're closer to techno-rapture because car manufacturers have adopted anti-lock brakes.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

"confusing the instability of neoliberal financialization of the economy with 'acceleration'"

As many, many do.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, and given that this instability amounts to intensifying precarization of already vulnerable people around the world, the fact that techno-utopians frame this as acceleration toward a desirable future and hence marked with a kind of teleological positivity means that even the most well-meaning among them will often misread actually reactionary, precarizing, exploitative, and duressed technoscientific changes as progressive, empowering, individualizing, and free. Hence, so much of the topsy turvy weirdness of so-called "technoprogressives" endlessly flogging legibly conservative and even reactionary political frames about security as first priority, technocracy trumping democracy, healthcare championed in the tonalities of eugenics, market fundamentalist genuflections to spontaneous order, self-appointed defenses of The Enlightenment Project justifying selectively racist wars on monolithic construals of religiosity and selectively anti-intellectual wars on monolithic construals of humanities academics, and so on.

I talk about these things like a broken record here on Amor Mundi, but, I fear, to little avail.

De Thezier said...

given that this instability amounts to intensifying precarization of already vulnerable people around the world, the fact that techno-utopians frame this as acceleration toward a desirable future and hence marked with a kind of teleological positivity means that even the most well-meaning among them will often misread actually reactionary, precarizing, exploitative, and duressed technoscientific changes as progressive, empowering, individualizing, and free.

What troubles me is that I suspect that the well-meaning techno-utopians you speak of *know* that they are misreading and misrepresenting these changes since they often express incisive criticisms of these changes at other times. I don't want to indulge in pop psychology but I hope one day I will be able to get to the bottom of this cognitive dissonance.

Greg in Portland said...

Well, to be fair, if you assume that certain technologies are liberating, beneficial, or even inherently revolutionary (as Transhumanists certainly do and most of us do to some extent) then you want those technologies to get adopted as widely as possible as fast as possible. It's just that along with rapid adoption of cool stuff like the internet comes adoption of mountains of crap that ends up indeed as literal mountains of crap as Dale mentioned.

Unfortunately I think the accelerative trend here is due to the increasing sophistication of advertising and the fact that most people are uncritical technology omnivores.

Dale Carrico said...

to be fair, if you assume that certain technologies are liberating, beneficial, or even inherently revolutionary (as Transhumanists certainly do and most of us do to some extent)

Just so you know, I, for one, do not believe that there is such a thing as an inherently liberating or beneficial technology. Not one. A technoscientific insight or application becomes emancipatory entirely as a consequence of the way it is taken up by the stakeholders to that change, how its costs, risks, and benefits are distributed. This is not to deny that social struggle itself is beholden (especially now), in a precisely complementary fashion, to the vicissitudes of technoscientific change. They are. But there is no inherently revolutionary (I guess unless you mean by "revolutionary" just lots of big dumb change, rather than socially transformative changes at a structural level, usually largely for the better) or emancipatory technology in the absence of progressive technodevelopmental social struggle to make it so.

This is obvious when you think about it, but I think there are few things more important that get overlooked by techno-enthusiasts (including many who give lip service to this idea if you get the against the wall, but fail to respect it in their actual formulations otherwise).

I agree with you about the role of advertising, which does seem quite wedded to producing the endless impression of accelerating progress, even when nothing is really improving at all, or precisely to the contrary, things are getting worse. And so, we are told that we should be transported with joy at the amazing development of the "easy-pour spout" or the shift from metal cans to molded plastic jugs for one's instant coffee, or, in a particularly flabbergasting example, alerted that a bottled water company has harnessed the genius of capitalism to bring us water in a bottle designed, gasp!, to be held in one's hand -- yes, at last, one's actual hand! Why didn't I ever think of that? Thank god that fountainhead capitalism is here to bring us vans with fold down middle seats for the first time even though we've had these for years, and jumbo size shakes instead of regular size ones, and many other startling innovations for which we rightly worship the brain trust of our investor class betters. Man, it's just plumb crazy, isn't it, though?

Dale Carrico said...

I suspect that the well-meaning techno-utopians you speak of *know* that they are misreading and misrepresenting these changes since they often express incisive criticisms of these changes at other times. I don't want to indulge in pop psychology but I hope one day I will be able to get to the bottom of this cognitive dissonance.

I think even people who would otherwise hesitate to lie to others will gladly lie to themselves -- and then to others in consequence -- when they think doing so will make them immortal, deliver them superpowers, and make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I think once you drink the culty kool-aide -- even if that first sip is smugly cynical and opportunistic and ironical -- it is harder to spit it back up later than one would ever have dreamed.

Greg in Portland said...

But there is no inherently revolutionary (I guess unless you mean by "revolutionary" just lots of big dumb change, rather than socially transformative changes at a structural level, usually largely for the better) or emancipatory technology in the absence of progressive technodevelopmental social struggle to make it so.

I think I disagree with this. I think some technologies do essentially force a revolution in human affairs in the same way a sprinkling of catalyst into a reaction vessel will speed a reaction so much that the quantitative change in reaction rate becomes essentially qualitative. I think the THers are right in thinking that nanoassemblers, real AI or significant life extension would force a major shift in people's lifestyles and thinking. They go wrong in their Randian faith that all these things will just work out somehow for the best and that the market will produce optimal results. They ignore the social struggle aspects you talk about a lot. Even where they speculate that all might not be well their nightmare scenarios usually revolve around mad scientists, terrorists or other anarchic forces outside the status quo. This sets them up as stooges of Establishment interests that understand the revolutionary nature of these technologies as well and that have their own ideas of how to direct that revolution so that it extends their power and privilege, perhaps even writing it into the human genome or making some similar radical alterations in the world so as to forever close off opposition and dissent. In their view the revolution will be televised and they'll try to make sure the sponsors are Nike, Northrup Grumman and Halliburton. That's my pessimistic view of how it'll all play out actually. All the geewiz stuff will get here soon enough and it won't make a damn bit of positive difference because the same assholes will still be running everything and will have lots of new shiny clubs to beat us all with.

Dale Carrico said...

nanoassemblers, real AI or significant life extension would force a major shift in people's lifestyles and thinking

But haven't you already walked back the claim a bit? We weren't talking about major changes -- we were talking about liberatory changes, emancipatory changes, revolutionary changes.

Hurricanes, invasions, and pandemics cause major shifts, too, but it would be curious to imply these changes are always emancipatory, surely?

And I must admit that I am already worried a bit about the use of the word "people" here -- since it is more to the point that some people would very likely benefit more, others less, possibly some not at all, possibly some would be ruined by these changes. Whether we want to describe these different fortunes as progressive or not will depend on social struggle.

I happen to think progressive democracy will prevail because incumbent interests didn't anticipate the popular use of p2p to shake things up, push back, nor the impact of climate change on the viability of the status quo on which they depend.

Greg in Portland said...

It's all semantics I think. I just used "major shift" because many leftists attach positive connotations to a "revolution" and that wasn't how I meant it. By "inherently revolutionary" I was simply trying to convey that some technologies really do change everything. The change can be bad or good for different groups of people but things are never the same again and a return to the status quo ante becomes impossible. Incumbent interests are divided into two basic groups. There are those who feel threatened by new technology and seek to stop or slow it (the RIAA and MPAA would be examples of this tendency as would certain energy companies who waste millions trying to convince us that there's 1000 years worth of oil left and that global warming is a hippie myth). Other incumbents are all too ready for new technology and ideas. It's those guys we should be worried about, not the fuddy-duddies who will just get run over by change but the faux-hipsters selling freedom.

peco said...

Just so you know, I, for one, do not believe that there is such a thing as an inherently liberating or beneficial technology. Not one. A technoscientific insight or application becomes emancipatory entirely as a consequence of the way it is taken up by the stakeholders to that change, how its costs, risks, and benefits are distributed. This is not to deny that social struggle itself is beholden (especially now), in a precisely complementary fashion, to the vicissitudes of technoscientific change. They are. But there is no inherently revolutionary (I guess unless you mean by "revolutionary" just lots of big dumb change, rather than socially transformative changes at a structural level, usually largely for the better) or emancipatory technology in the absence of progressive technodevelopmental social struggle to make it so.

Maybe some technologies are emancipatory most of the time (the Internet)? The Internet could be bad overall, but it isn't now, and it would be very hard to make it that way.

De Thezier said...

Dale Carrico said:

Just so you know, I, for one, do not believe that there is such a thing as an inherently liberating or beneficial technology. Not one. A technoscientific insight or application becomes emancipatory entirely as a consequence of the way it is taken up by the stakeholders to that change, how its costs, risks, and benefits are distributed. This is not to deny that social struggle itself is beholden (especially now), in a precisely complementary fashion, to the vicissitudes of technoscientific change. They are. But there is no inherently revolutionary (I guess unless you mean by "revolutionary" just lots of big dumb change, rather than socially transformative changes at a structural level, usually largely for the better) or emancipatory technology in the absence of progressive technodevelopmental social struggle to make it so.

Although I understand and agree, do you realize that, if decontextualized, what you have said in the past can be (mis)interpreted to say the opposite of what you just said:

"Because I believe that technological development is the last remaining historical force abroad in the world that could plausibly be described as potentially revolutionary, and because I believe that we might make of technological development our most tangible hope that humanity might truly and finally eliminate poverty, needless suffering, illiteracy, exploitation, inequality before the law, and social injustice for everyone on earth I am often mistaken for a technophile."

De Thezier said...

Dale Carrico said:

I think even people who would otherwise hesitate to lie to others will gladly lie to themselves -- and then to others in consequence -- when they think doing so will make them immortal, deliver them superpowers, and make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I think once you drink the culty kool-aide -- even if that first sip is smugly cynical and opportunistic and ironical -- it is harder to spit it back up later than one would ever have dreamed.

Hmmm... Well said. I guess that's why I think sticking a finger down one's throat and throwing it up is the only solution. In other words, nothing people say to you will change your mind until you decide to change your mind.

Dale Carrico said...

Maybe some technologies are emancipatory most of the time (the Internet)? The Internet could be bad overall, but it isn't now, and it would be very hard to make it that way.

Democratizing p2p is far more vulnerable than you might imagine. Read Lessig's Code and learn the lesson. As for tech being emancipatory sometime and not sometime... uh, sure. My whole point is that it is social struggle that makes the difference to account reliably for the sometime (not to deny the impact of chance).

Dale Carrico said...

you realize that, if decontextualized, what you have said in the past can be (mis)interpreted to say the opposite of what you just said

No utterance is invulnerable to distortion by decontextualization. But what makes technodevelopment potentially revolutionary in the earlier formulation you quote is precisely the fact that it can be opportunistically taken up through democratizing progressive social struggle to revolutionary ends.

Jackie said...

Dale said: I agree with you about the role of advertising, which does seem quite wedded to producing the endless impression of accelerating progress, even when nothing is really improving at all, or precisely to the contrary, things are getting worse. And so, we are told that we should be transported with joy at the amazing development of the "easy-pour spout" or the shift from metal cans to molded plastic jugs for one's instant coffee, or, in a particularly flabbergasting example, alerted that a bottled water company has harnessed the genius of capitalism to bring us water in a bottle designed, gasp!, to be held in one's hand -- yes, at last, one's actual hand! Why didn't I ever think of that? Thank god that fountainhead capitalism is here to bring us vans with fold down middle seats for the first time even though we've had these for years, and jumbo size shakes instead of regular size ones, and many other startling innovations for which we rightly worship the brain trust of our investor class betters. Man, it's just plumb crazy, isn't it, though?"

I was one of those poor babies who was sat in front of the television (I can't blame my parents too much, for being immigrants with two jobs to work) and I didn't really kick the habit of watching television until I was about 18 when I read Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. By god, I felt a sickness with the capitalist system that made it simply impossible for me to ever watch television with an ounce of trust again. No matter how skeptical people are prepared to be about other things (activists, gays, academia, whatever) they wholly allow themselves to be duped and befriended by the happy or triumphant images they see displayed on their TVs connected to products they don't really need.

I am thinking of the rock climber in that commercial introducing the water bottle that can "fit into your hands". Fuck that guy, for selling his well sculpted body to be used for the benefit of one of the most wasteful and useless concoctions of those capitalist fat cat robber barons.

Dale Carrico said...

Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man...

Ah, a classic! Love that book.

jfehlinger said...

> The graph charts the adoption of many technologies,
> including clothes dryers and air conditioning that
> provide negligible real benefits for at least some
> of their adoptees compared to still-available practices
> that preceded them, but the adoption of which did
> produce incredible waste and pollution.

I remember clothespins! My mommy hung the wash out
on the clothesline in the back yard, and when I visited
grandma I was expected to reel the clothes out and back
on her really spectacular line strung up between her back
porch and a telephone pole across the yard, a continuous
loop of rope wrapped around grooved metal wheels at either
end.

Both mommy and grandma ended up with dryers before they
went on to the great consumer paradise in the sky, but
those were rather late additions to their homemaking
careers.

The astonishing thing these days is that in many towns
and suburbs like the ones I grew up in, you'd be in violation
of the law if you put an "eyesore" like that out for the
neighbors to see! Civilized people are expected to own
dryers, or to use the local laundromat -- end of story.
If you want to revert to the "still-available practices"
out of a principled consideration of the energy costs,
you might just have to go to court to re-acquired the
privilege.

(I'm wondering just how long it will be before not owning
a cell phone puts me into some kind of "socially
irresponsible" category of near-vagrant.)

Martin said...

Did anybody else notice that the market penetration of radios is HIGHER than the penetration of electricity between about 1934 and 1947? What were the other 3% or so of radios running on?

Minor point really, but it makes me wonder about the data gathering.

jfehlinger said...

> What were the other 3% or so of radios running on?

Batteries?
http://antiqueradio.org/bsupply.htm

peco said...

My point was that some technologies are almost always emancipatory (unless something very unusual happens).

(Example: There is a movement A that wants C to happen, but that movement doesn't have much power. There will pretty much always be a C (unless something catastrophic happens). This is plausible--for example, people want fairness, so there will almost always be a movement for some sort of fairness. If technology B helps C much more than it helps its opponents, is technology B responsible for A happening? Without B, A could never have happened. C is necessary too, but it can't possibly be eliminated. It is like the air--it is necessary for A to happen, but it is predictable.)

(If a movement has existed for a very long time, and a technology directly helps that movement succeed, which one was more important?)

peco said...

I have never heard a techno-utopian both praise and criticize a specific technology. You can criticize a specific technology but think that most technologies are good, so they aren't contradicting themselves. If most technologies are good, then getting all technologies adopted faster would be good overall, even if it helps some bad technologies.

(I'm assuming that no minority of technologies are so bad that getting them adopted outweighs the benefits from the other ones. Even if there were extremely bad technologies, techno-utopians can still be consistent if they don't think those technologies are extremely bad. They would be wrong, of course, but not inconsistent.)

De Thezier said...

peco said: I have never heard a techno-utopian both praise and criticize a specific technology.

I have. Techno-utopians are often techno-dystopians at the same time which is why "superlative technocentrics" might be a better term to describe them. They are often the only ones who are trying to convince the world that, for example, molecular nanotechnology *will* enable humanity to create post-scarcity paradise on Earth or guarantee its own extinction in a "grey goo scenario" where out-of-control self-replicating nanorobots consume entire ecosystems, resulting in global ecophagy. Artificial intelligence and androids are also seen through this superlative technocentric prism which often blinds the viewer to the fact that these technologies may never come to exist or, even if they do come to exist, may never accomplish the things they wish or fear they could.

jfehlinger said...

De Thezier wrote:

> Techno-utopians are often techno-dystopians at the same time
> which is why "superlative technocentrics" might be a better
> term to describe them.

Does anybody else get the feeling that some of these people
are just wound up too tight? I mean, like, bouncing off the
walls like a Superball.

Have you ever seen Ayn Rand on TV? That's the sort of thing
I mean. Just -- hyper. And ready to jump to extreme conclusions
based on the thinnest shreds of evidence, and calling that
**intelligence**!! (or even "genius").

The Objectivists even had a technical term for this sort of
thing. They called it "integration", and considered it a
virtue. It was a sign of having worked so hard on one's
"premises", and having worked out the kinks in one's mind so
thoroughly, that one didn't have to hesitate a moment before
passing judgment on any new piece of information coming along.

A psychiatrist might offer other tentative diagnoses based on
this symptom -- hypomania, for example. Or Narcissistic
Personality Disorder. Or Asperger's Syndrome.


"In the case of Randism, part of the unofficial doctrine is that rational
people can discern the truth about things at a glance, by a swift act
of 'integration'. (Enemies of Randism are described as
'unfocussed': correct thinking is characterised as 'focussing'.
The impression conveyed by this questionable metaphor
is that the more rational you are, the more you will focus,
and if you are very rational, you will he able to discern the
truth just by looking because, you see, everything will be
sharply in focus.)"

"Alice in Wonderland" by David Ramsay Steele (Part 2)
http://www.la-articles.org.uk/alice2.htm


"Machine intelligences had no survival instinct to override
their judgment, no ability to formulate rationalizations,
or to concoct other mental tricks to obscure the true
causes and conclusions of their cognition from themselves. . .

Sophotech existence (it could be called life only by
analogy) was a continuous, deliberate, willful, and
rational effort. . .

For an unintelligent mind, a childish mind. . . their beliefs
in one field, or on one topic, could change without
affecting other beliefs. But for a mind of high intelligence,
a mind able to integrate vast knowledge into a single
unified system of thought, Phaethon did not see how
one part could be affected without affecting the whole.
This was what the Earthmind meant by 'global'. . . .

[B]y saying 'Reality admits of no contradictions' . . .
[s]he was asserting that there could not be a model
of the universe that was true in some places, false
in others, and yet which was entirely integrated and
self-consistent. Self-consistent models either had
to be entirely true, entirely false, or incomplete."

-- John C. Wright,
_The Golden Transcendence_, pp. 140 - 146


On the other hand,

"If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you
will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the
quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good
judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity,
or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical
for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase
for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman
is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man
who has lost everything except his reason."

-- G. K. Chesterton, _Orthodoxy_, Chapter 2 "The Maniac"


"I didn't know that any of the Big People were like that.
I thought, well, that they were just big, and rather stupid:
kind and stupid like Butterbur; or stupid and wicked like
Bill Ferny. But then we don't know much about Men in
the Shire, except perhaps the Breelanders.'

`You don't know much even about them, if you
think old Barliman is stupid,' said Gandalf. 'He is
wise enough on his own ground. He thinks less
than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through
a brick wall in time (as they say in Bree)."

J. R. R. Tolkien, _The Fellowship of the Ring_
Book II, Chapter I, "Many Meetings"

peco said...

I have. Techno-utopians are often techno-dystopians at the same time which is why "superlative technocentrics" might be a better term to describe them. They are often the only ones who are trying to convince the world that, for example, molecular nanotechnology *will* enable humanity to create post-scarcity paradise on Earth or guarantee its own extinction in a "grey goo scenario" where out-of-control self-replicating nanorobots consume entire ecosystems, resulting in global ecophagy. Artificial intelligence and androids are also seen through this superlative technocentric prism which often blinds the viewer to the fact that these technologies may never come to exist or, even if they do come to exist, may never accomplish the things they wish or fear they could.

Oh. Never mind.

De Thezier said...

jfehlinger said:

Have you ever seen Ayn Rand on TV?

Ayn Rand Mike Wallace Interview 1959 part 1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ukJiBZ8_4k

Ayn Rand Mike Wallace Interview 1959 part 2
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMTDaVpBPR0

Ayn Rand Mike Wallace Interview 1959 part 3
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEruXzQZhNI

Marc_Geddes said...

yeah jim,

the singularitarians definitely act as if there's something permanantly lodged deep up their arses. They're hyper-pumped up all the time. No sense of humor either.

Listen you Robot Cultists... listen up sonny boys...

Bayes is a major component of rationality, which supercedes all the logics that came before it, true enough , but is it the secret of the universe? No way!

There's yet another REALLY HUGE form of rationality as far beyond Bayes as Bayes is beyond Aristotle. And kiddos, you ain't got a clue what it is yet. You ain't got a hope in hell of getting your Robot God without it either.

The Robot cultists are focusing on the right thing, *reflection*, but they have not yet grasped its true nature. They are trying to shoe-horm 'reflectivity' into 'bayes'. They do not yet realize that Bayes is not all, and that rflectivity is BIGGER THAN BAYES.

Bayes can only handle decision making, it cannot fully deal with communication. And reflectivity is really about communication.

What they need is a mathematical formalism capable of dealing with analogy making and ontology merging...cross domain *logical communication* in other words. This is beyond the scope of Bayes.

You heard it here first kids. Geddes has done it again ;)

Greg in Portland said...

In the case of Randism, part of the unofficial doctrine is that rational
people can discern the truth about things at a glance, by a swift act
of 'integration'.


I think every cultish system does this. There's a need to have an opinion about every little thing under the sun. This is where you get "Socialist Realism" or "Jewish Physics" (the latter a derogatory of course).

Marc_Geddes said...

And if my last post wasn't clear enough for the Robot Cultists, read this interesting post by 'Roko', on the 'Future of Humanity Blog':

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/03/mental-paintbru.html#comments

"I think that we're missing a whole chunk of theory about how you can iteratively build complex representations from simple ones, and how you can take limits of conceptual representations, and then how you can manipulate those limits."

Good boy...Good! This 'Roko' has potential. As I understand it, he's at an actual university however, a respected student, and is not one of the Robot Cultists.

Of course, readers should see my post on 'Everything-list', dated Aug of 2007:

http://groups.google.com/group/everything-list/browse_thread/thread/e106724667b67cff/e2aacb2675959833#e2aacb2675959833

"A few more specific ideas were suggested, namely that the
mathematics of Calculus (and especially the concept of a 'Limit') could be highly relevant to the solution to the twin puzzles of
consciousness and reflectivity. "

Dale Carrico said...

I'm sure "Roko" will be well pleased to hear of your endorsement, Mr. Geddes.