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

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Enthusiasm

Upgraded from the Moot, mostly just to post something new... I'm SWAMPED by end of term review of student theses right now...

Richard Jones wrote (and I am excerpting from a much longer, excellent comment with which I entirely agree):
Transhumanists look forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm, and bioconservatives regard it with horror. I can't say I'm massively enthusiastic about it myself, but this is more because I can't see it actually delivering enough to meet either these hopes or fears. It seems to me to be another area where, with the passage of time, we don't see so much accelerating change to a future that fascinates or appalls, but the recognition that everything seems more complicated than it once seemed. Certainly, in the 8 years since the human genome was published, the idea that most diseases would be simply associated with genetic faults that could easily be corrected seems a lot more further away. If any progress is to be made in Alzheimer's disease, it isn't going to be through germ-line GE.


Amor Mundi's resident Bioconservative sniper these days, John Howard, replied:
Transhumanists look forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm, and bioconservatives regard it with horror.

Exactly right -- and Dale looks forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm. Ergo Dale: search your feelings, you *know* it to be true!


I am enthusiastic about individual informed nonduressed consensual recourse to, as well as disinterest in, particular medical techniques, whether normalizing or not, whether old-fashioned or emerging, however they are actually wanted, whenever they are well regulated and reasonably safe, and especially to the extent that progressives can make them universally available and struggle to make the risks, costs, and benefits of their development fair.

This is a perfectly mainstream-legible progressive position as far as I can see.

I don't even think about "technology" in the way that gets demonized by stupid bioconservatives or fetishized by stupid transhumanists. I don't believe there is a monolithic technological "it" to be "enthusiastic" about in the way that gets deployed in the rhetorical skirmishes between ecstatic transhumanists and hysterical bioconservatives, especially not when "it" becomes fantastically inflated by some of them on both sides to designate some epic battle between "pro-" and "anti-" "technology" politics in some sweeping fashion that simply makes no sense at all as an abiding antagonism among the thoroughly historicized, technologized, acculturated tool-using language-using collaborative beings human beings simply are.

Speaking in the way bioconservatives and transhumanists do (and technophobes and technophiles more generally) is almost always just to redirect attention and deliberation from the actual questions of scientific warrant and stakeholder impact that are really under contest at particular junctures within technodevelopmental social struggle as it is actually playing out in the world. This redirection is never sensible or helpful, though there is no question that it is a good way to whomp up irrational passions for the benefit of opportunists and flim-flam artists of various descriptions.

I consider Richard Jones to be making a complementary point when he predicts (exactly as I would) that "with the passage of time, we don't see so much accelerating change to a future that fascinates or appalls, but the recognition that everything seems more complicated than it once seemed."

Just to repeat myself, I don't believe in the notion of "technology" in general. I think it is better to think of "technology" as a verb (technodevelopmental social struggle, processes of discovery, regulation, invention, distribution, appropriation, interpretation and so on) than as stable objects disembedded from the vicissitudes of history and then, even worse, invested additionally with superlative aspirations.

Definitely, I especially abhor the notion of the customary treated as "natural" (a rhetorical gesture typical and well nigh definitive of bioconservative discourse) or the parochial treated as "optimal" (a rhetorical gesture all too typical and well nigh definitive of the transhumanist discourse on "enhancement" medicine, so-called).

My enthusiasm is for actually informed actually nonduressed actually wanted consensual practices that solve shared problems and contribute to free lifeway multiculture.

"Transhumanism" at its worst is an outright Robot Cult consisting of an archipelago of organizations devoted to promoting the cause of a "movement" with which its members identify, filled with many people who behave recognizably like cultists always do. And even at its "best" Transhumanism represents in my view (to the extent that one can attribute to it views that manage to be both coherent and unique to its adherents in the first place) an undercritically hyperbolic technology-centered discourse, reductively scientistic in its values, anti-democratically technocratic in its ideal of governance, invested in a eugenicizing prioritization of "optimality" over either diversity or consent, and, most crucially of all, offering up an understanding of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle in essentially theological terms coupled with the strategies of subcultural identity politics to invest its membership with superlative aspirations.

Bioconservative John Howard calling me a transhumanist "deep down" or in my "heart of hearts" or "unbeknownst to myself" or "in the closet" or whatever is, frankly, stupid and just plain flabbergastingly ignorant given how much time I've devoted to the critique of transhumanism and its fellow-travelers. Handwaving away all my interventions and analyses of transhumanism's pernicious hyperbolizing and anti-democratizing effects as utter irrelevancies says to most readers, I hope, much more about the assumptions or psychological dynamics driving Howard's bioconservative framing of the technodevelopmental terrain than it does about me.

21 comments:

Martin said...

Didn't a physicist post a scathing critique of nanotechnology on this blog not too long ago? I, too, found myself becoming increasingly skeptical, or at least pessimistic, about biotechnology during my graduate studies in molecular biology. Transhumanists should take into serious consideration the fact that experts in the relevant fields tend to be far more skeptical than they are. It was one reason why I drifted away from the transhumanist community a few years ago. While my sympathies still strongly ally with their dreams and aspirations, I don't think the radical technological restructuring of humanity that they desire will happen anywhere close to the timescales that they predict. It certainly won't happen within our lifetimes (your best hope is for sufficiently advanced cryopreservation in 40 or 50 years).

Aubrey de Grey is a classic example. How many times has he missed the mark, now? He's a computer guy by trade, and he's making predictions about the progress of SENS that no actual biomedical researcher agrees with. And when his predictions are wrong, he blames lack of funding. Well, it's not just that. There is a large component of randomness in research. Although on a global-wide, statistical level, scientific progress appears smooth (and exponential), it actually happens in fits and spurts at the local level (the level of individual research programs).

It is no coincidence that IT/computer folks overpopulate the transhumanist community. Infotech is progressing rapidly and exponentially, which gives them a biased view of how sicence works in general. Not all science works that way.

BTW, in a few years, we are going to hit the limits of current transistor technology. After 50 years, Moore's Law will end. That will be the conclusion of one long spurt. Then there will be another spurt, some other technological paradigm, then another plateau, and so on. That's how technoscientific progress actually works.

I think my position is close to yours, Dale. I look forward to technological progress, but I wouldn't call myself a transhumanist. That's an extreme position. A zealous over-optimism about the power of technology.

Martin said...

I would also like to add that one of the things that I'm most certain about is that there will be trade offs to all of our technology. There always have been, and there always will be. So don't expect utopia anytime soon.

John Howard said...

I am enthusiastic about individual informed nonduressed consensual recourse to, as well as disinterest in, particular medical techniques, whether normalizing or not, whether old-fashioned or emerging, however they are actually wanted, whenever they are well regulated and reasonably safe, and especially to the extent that progressives can make them universally available and struggle to make the risks, costs, and benefits of their development fair.

Uhh, so does that include germline genetic engineering? I suppose it doesn't, since consent is impossible with germline GE (and not in the sense that consent is always duressed, but in the sense that the person that is affected by it doesn't consent to it).

This is a perfectly mainstream-legible progressive position as far as I can see.

Do you feel that germline GE (and same-sex conception) are mainstream progressive positions? If so, progressives are pretty surruptitious about it.

Dale Carrico said...

consent is impossible with germline GE... in the sense that the person that is affected by it doesn't consent to it

If you're talking about the fetus, I fear you've just illegalized conception altogether, haven't you, then?

Do you feel that germline GE (and same-sex conception) are mainstream progressive positions?

I think support of informed, nonduressed consensual recourse to wanted, well regulated, universally available, fairly developed, wanted therapies is a perfectly mainstream progressive position.

There is, of course, no same-sex conception to actually support in the actual world. Pay close attention to what is actually being supported and disapproved of through the conjuration of the spectacle of not-yet existing technique, by fear-mongering bioconservatives or by hype-whomping transhumanists.

As for me, I expect that fraudulently promoted, unsafe, deregulated for-profit, dangerously developed, prohibitively expensive versions of such therapies would not be supported by mainstream progressive opinion (and rightly so), while scientifically warranted, reasonably safe, well regulated, transparently developed, fairly available therapies would indeed be supported by mainstream progressive opinion (and rightly so).

Your bioconservative horror of techniques you've fixated on as "unnatural" is deranging your capacity to focus in on the actually relevant factor to a properly progressive perspective: that what matters for human dignity is the respect for informed nonduressed consent and the celebration of the lifeway diversity arising out of its exercise, not the policing of consensual lifeways that happen to scare you because of their "difference" from your parochial preferences.

John Howard said...

If you're talking about the fetus, I fear you've just illegalized conception altogether, haven't you, then?

It isn't the non-consent of germline GE that bothers me, but it ought to bother you, who has fetishized consent and thinks it has something to do with whether or not to allow or criminalize something. Likewise, the non-consent of conception doesn't bother me, because in my view, there is never any truly non-duressed consent to anything. And as I said earlier, the only thing that seems to be outside of other people's influence is the decision of two gametes to join together. SOmetimes they do and sometimes they don't, and it seems to be up to them, not the people trying to get them to join. I think the more intentional the conception is, the less consent the resulting embryo has, which I think reduces human dignity for all people. It's better to be able to believe that we made our own decision to exist and ae responsible for ourselves, than to think another person chose our traits and created us. We have to recognize that our parents welcomed us and cared for us even if they might not have wanted us or planned for us.

Dale Carrico said...

It isn't the non-consent of germline GE that bothers me, but it ought to bother you, who has fetishized consent

I value consent, I don't fetishize it. Your disrespect of it makes you a bad person in my view, by the way.

and thinks it has something to do with whether or not to allow or criminalize something.

It's a wild and cra-a-a-a-zy view, I know. Completely irrelevant to why we think stuff like slavery and kidnapping are wrong, for example.

Likewise, the non-consent of conception doesn't bother me, because in my view, there is never any truly non-duressed consent to anything.

Tell me you can't tell the difference between consent and nonconsent, "truly," the next time you get raped, you stupid jackhole. Stop playing high-school debate games. It's not "cute." And it's not "clever." The criteria on the basis of which one would judge consent informed and nonduressed hardly demand omnipotence. You're not even trying to be serious anymore.

John Howard said...

Oh, I know there's things that I consent to and things that I don't, and those have legal meaning as well as emotional meaning. But the point that there is never any true consent is very relevant here, and I;m very serious, because you seem to think that if there is consent, then something has to be legal, it's automatically OK. Consensual slavery is not OK. Consensual murder is not OK. And you are way too unconcerned with how biotech companies will manufacture consent with marketing and by laying on guilt trips and appealing to everyone's selfishness and insecurity.

John Howard said...

I meant true *unduressed* consent, in the sense that we can't escape from outside influences to pursue our "own" desires - all of our desires are a result of duress.

Martin said...

I think the more intentional the conception is, the less consent the resulting embryo has, which I think reduces human dignity for all people.

The embryo has the same amount of consent whether the conception is natural or not -- none.

It's better to be able to believe that we made our own decision to exist and are responsible for ourselves...

Can you find a single person who made their own decision to exist? Can you find a single person who had a say in their genetic make up? I think most people would want to be liberated from the deficiencies in their family history.

...than to think another person chose our traits and created us

Because the genetic lottery is a better option?

We have to recognize that our parents welcomed us and cared for us even if they might not have wanted us or planned for us.

And that wouldn't change if you implemented germline GE, unless you designed people to be insensitive to oxytocin.

Dale Carrico said...

you seem to think that if there is consent, then something has to be legal, it's automatically OK. Consensual slavery is not OK. Consensual murder is not OK.

This is what I "seem" to think, despite never saying or implying anything but the opposite of that?

And you are way too unconcerned with how biotech companies will manufacture consent with marketing and by laying on guilt trips and appealing to everyone's selfishness and insecurity.

I'm "unconcerned" about corporate-militarist duress and misinformation despite calling attention to these very things endlessly?

It looks to me as if you are trying to commandeer legitimate progressive concerns in the service of reactionary prohibitionism. It wouldn't be the first or the last time a conservative tried that kind of bullshit.

Dale Carrico said...

we can't escape from outside influences to pursue our "own" desires - all of our desires are a result of duress.

No shit, Sherlock. Clearly, I do indeed believe that one can intelligibly speak of nonduressed consent even for finite beings embedded in history and plurality who have an unconscious. So too do you, no doubt, at least when you're not trying to bamboozle people into believing there's nothing tyrannical about your desire for a bioconservative police state prohibition on non-existing medical treatments, even if they arrive in warranted, safe, fair, wanted forms just because you are afraid of the different lifeways they would produce.

Robin said...

decision of two gametes to join together.

Are you frigging kidding me?! This is your actual position? That gametes DECIDE to join together? That they're capable of rational deliberation and decision-making?

Holy fuck, Dale. This guy isn't a bioconservative - he's a full on crackpot with absolutely no sense of how the world actually functions, from the microscopic level right up to the cultural level.

Don't you just love when the rods and cones in your eyes decide to see color? And when your heart decides to pump blood? Sometimes my toenails talk to each other when they're deciding just how long they want to grow.

Totally turning into whackjob central over here.

John Howard said...

Robin, you show me the fertility lab with 100% fertility rate on the very first "cycle", or convince me that couples are never surprised by unintentional conception, and I'll accept your theory that conception is up to the people doing the conceiving and not up to the gametes themselves.

John Howard said...

Dale, calling attention to corporate-milatarist duress is not enough. There is also family duress, lover duress, neighborduress, one's own (acquired) delusions duress, college-professor duress (that one is huge, and you are probably an expert at it), etc. People will feel an obligation to use germline genetic engineering, they will feel an obligation to use same-sex conception, the idea of there being choice or consent is an obscene joke here. It won't exist!! Only those religious sects that rule out medicine, like Jehova's Witnesses and Christian Scientists, won't choose to have their child pre-cured of X Y and Z, and they are obviously under very strong duress to not choose it. It's a thousand times more obvious than it usually is, when I think I am freely "choosing" my breakfast cereal or my cigarette brand or whether to keep dating someone or not. My mom consented to her heart surgery, but she had to! The alternative was dying of a heart attack!

Robin said...

and I'll accept your theory that conception is up to the people doing the conceiving and not up to the gametes themselves.

That isn't my theory at all. Like I said, you really don't have a good grasp of how things work. This is such a great example of a false dichotomy that I'm going to put it on a critical thinking exam, and watch all of my freshman students immediately recognize what a bad argument it is. If you really think the alternative to rational gametes is conscious-level choice by the human beings involved, I think you need to go take a very (very) basic biology course and come back when you understand how the body works.

I guess we have sentient tumors, too? Since I don't know anyone who *decided* to get cancer.

Dale Carrico said...

John, I know all that already. If you think the very idea of consent is rendered meaningless because we are embedded in our histories then there isn't any point in talking to you. Why are you trying to convince me of an argument, hasn't my historical, familial, institutional embeddedness already determined the outcome of our exchange? Your Mom was more free not less because she could make recourse to the surgery that saved her life. You aren't less free because you are subject to the planet's gravity. You don't really believe what you are saying, it is just facile high-school debate-team bullshit. It's an embarrassment.

If you are actually worried about sociocultural pressures yielding badly informed or pressured decisions (like any decent progressive person already is), then devote yourself to efforts at education and popularization of the better truths, along with your insistence on access to reliable information and protection of the vulnerable from duress (and provision of basic healthcare and income to insulate everybody from the exactions of conspicuous duress in the first place).

But, no... no amount of sensitivity or organizing to make the scene of consent actually-informed or actually-nonduressed will be "enough" for you. "Enough" requires the bioconservative prohibitionist police state. You know, for kids! Freedom's on the March! Up is Down!

You don't seem to want to work to educate people (and risk the discovery that you are wrong), you don't seem to want to work to ensure they are supported in their informed decisions (and risk the discovery that they want a world different from the one you want), you just seem to want to impose your unilateral will on them, whether they agree with you or not, just to keep your customary pieties intact.

Disgusting.

John Howard said...

Robin, it's a matter of how we think of our existence. Were we brought forth by other people's will, or did we call ourselves forth where circumstances allowed for us to? You have already ruled out God from this discussion, and I am fine with sticking to scientific determinism draped with an evolved moral meaning. We can rule out being brought forth by other people's will, because we know that babies are often accidents and other people cannot conceive when they try. It's not a matter of degree, where if people tried hard enough and had perfect tools they could do it every time, no, the new life will always have the ultimate decision and be able to thwart the highest technology, all the best tools do is make circumstances very conducive to the decision to be. But this does not mean our human dignity is not insulted. It's like our life becomes the result of being tricked into existence. It's like finding out that the test you took was rigged to be easy for you to pass. But we did pass, and we did choose to be born, even when we were tricked into it in a test tube. So we retain that much human dignity, but it is scarred, resentful forever. Intentional conception is an insult to human dignity and reduces our sense of personal responsibility and appreciation of each other.

John Howard said...

I'm trying to convince you because history has made me want to try to convince you more than it made me want to go on a bike ride this afternoon (but I think I will do that after this post). The arguments that history has me making interact with the history that formed you and we will soon learn if the Big Bang has flung its matter in such a way that my arguments affect you or not. Whether they will or not was decided 14 Billion years ago. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice, but to Carry On! (that "but" was unfortunate, Steven Stills isn't perfect either)

Consent isn't rendered meaningless by this, though. We still have to play it out and live in it while we do, we are still autonomous beings who have created a framework of laws and customs in which to live, and consent is an important concept to our laws. But it shouldn't be put up on a pedestal such that only consent matters. Lots of things people consent to are not and should not be allowed, and lots of things that people don't consent to should be done anyway. Consent is a really immature thing to base your politics on, it's really vaccuous and dangerous, especially when we see that it leads to forcing an exploitive market based liberal eugenics on the world. I don't consent to that! But I recognize that it is useless to merely withold my consent, I have to convince Congress somehow that my view is correct so that they use their authority to enforce that decision. You should have to do the same thing, instead of hiding in the status quo of people being too frightened to discuss with this issue. Instead of intimidating people with taunts and insults, you should help me advance this question to the front of the debate, where we can discuss it as a question of priorities and costs and benefits.

John Howard said...

You don't seem to want to work to educate people

I am working very hard educating people about this (germline GE and same-sex conception). Have you been to my website? Lots of people are offended that I am trying to bring this issue to public light at all. The ignorance about this topic, and the news blackout, is criminal.

Dale Carrico said...

I'll save the undergraduate discussion of free will for an actual undergraduate classroom in which I'll actually get paid for it.

I'm quite content that basing politics on a legally/institutionally substantiated scene of consent is far from "immature" (though I quite understand how it would cause no end of annoyance to a bioconservative hoping to enforce police-state prohibitions on safe wanted therapies he disapproves of because they make him feel less special) or "vacuous" (though I quite understand that these arguments must have seemed seriously hot and smart when you were thinking through free will at age sixteen after smoking pot for the first time with your friends).

Dale Carrico said...

The ignorance about this topic, and the news blackout, is criminal.

Yes, John, the ignorance and indifference to your hyperbolic fearmongering about future therapies really is criminal. Surely, it's time to get some of those criminals behind bars! Otherwise, what's next? Cats and dogs sleeping together? Mass hysteria!