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

Sunday, January 18, 2009

So-Called Technoscientific Depoliticization Usually Conduces to the Benefit of Conservative Politics

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, in response a question about a superlative-minded technocentric of our acquaintance:
How can a self-declared "radical democrat" so easily switch from vilifying people because they are "libertopians" or "Rapture Nerds" to embracing them as soon as they declare their transhumanist faith or seem to attract enough buzz that they could be useful?

By making the mistake of thinking there is such a thing as a commitment to "technology in general" with a politics of its own, separable from conventional left against right politics -- superseding them in fact.

Of course, there is no such thing as "technology in general."

Particular techniques are fully susceptible of "naturalization" or "denaturalization," "artifactualization" or "deartifactualization" almost entirely according to their relative familiarity, or according to the relative disruptiveness of their applications in the present. That is to say, we are apt to describe as "natural" what might once have been conspicuously artifactual once we've grown accustomed to it, or to be struck by the artificiality of the long-customary should historical vicissitudes render its effects problematic.

There is an ongoing prosthetic elaboration of agency -- where "culture" is the widest word for prostheses in this construal -- and which is roughly co-extensive with the ongoing historical elaboration of "humanity." But this is a generality interminably articulated by technodevelopmental social struggle, there is no one politics we can sensibly assign it.

There are only techniques in the service of ends (and even these ends are plural in their basic character), and the ends tend to be inspired and articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in and expressive of pretty conventional political narratives -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against authority, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.

The pretense or gesture of a technoscientific circumvention of the political -- and affirming a "technology politics" indifferent to the primary articulation of technoscientific change in the world by democratizing as against anti-democratizing politics finally amounts to such an effort at circumvention in my view -- seems to me usually to conduce to de facto right wing politics, since it functions to de-politicize as neutrally "technical" a host of actually moral, aesthetic, political quandaries actually under contest.

This is a mistake as easily made by dedicated well-meaning people of the left or the right, as by cynical or dishonest ones, or simply by foolish people, whatever their political sympathies.

But it is always a mistake.

8 comments:

Andrew Dun said...

Very much agree.

I do tend to be suspicious that the notion of an intrinsically 'friendly AI' plays into this fantasy of political circumvention.

Reminds one also of the premise of Hume's fork; that one might never derive an ought from an is (or for that matter, an artifact...)

Just came across your blog recently by the way, and have been enjoying it. Looking forward to more...

jimf said...

> The pretense. . . of a technoscientific circumvention of the political -- . . .
> indifferent to. . . change in the world by democratizing as against
> anti-democratizing politics finally amounts to. . . effort at
> circumvention in my view -- seems to me usually to conduce to de facto
> right wing politics, since it functions to de-politicize. . .
> political quandaries actually under contest.
>
> . . .
>
> [I]t is always a mistake.

Ain't it a great trick, though? Cut 'em off at the knees!

Pretend that re-introducing "politics" into the discussion
is a mark of stupidity, of not "getting it", at worst;
or at best an indicator of rudeness, insensitivity to the
Zeitgeist of the in-group. In any case, a great excuse
to shout such boorish louts down, muzzle them, or outright
ban them from the discussion.

Antonin said...

One of the central points of Schismatrix (even though Sterling himself seems to have dabbled with some form of "The Future" recently)is that inescapable interrelatedness of technology and the cultural/political discourses surrounding technology in any given society.

A great book from before the End of History.

jimf said...

> Reminds one also of the premise of Hume's fork;
> that one might never derive an ought from an is
> (or for that matter, an artifact...)

The Friendly AI guru doesn't believe that, and neither,
it seems, do his acolytes.

They really seem to believe that there's such a thing
as "objective morality", which a sufficiently-advanced
AI could "compute", and so save us all the bother of
the messy politics (up to and including war and genocide
and the possible extinction of the human race and/or
extermination of life on the planet -- that's the mcguffin
that makes their "mission" so cosmically important).

There's no limit to what a "computer" can do, dontcha know.

A computer made of "computronium" (dontcha just love that
all-encompassing -- "-onium" suffix? Green Lantern's
power ring is made out of "powronium", you know) could
"simulate" not only an individual human being (and enough
of its environment so as not to make a difference),
but an entire planet full of human beings -- nay, an
entire universe -- heck, an entire multiverse of universes!

The sky's not the limit!

Dale Carrico said...

...End of History.

Surprise!

Dale Carrico said...

I'm a big fan of Bruce Sterling's work, too, btw. I think I've managed to teach at least one piece of his in at least one course somewhere every term for half a decade or so. I've taught my favorite of his novels, Holy Fire once, his funniest Distraction once, his book Shaping Things a couple of times, his Viridian Manifesto a few times, and his short story "Maneki Neko" half a dozen times at least. He's great to teach.

jimf said...

> A computer made of "computronium" . . . could
> "simulate" not only an individual human being. . .,
> but an entire planet full of human beings -- nay, an
> entire universe -- heck, an entire multiverse of universes!

By the way, I have no beef at all with Greg Egan's _Permutation City_ --
it's one of the best SF novels I've ever cozied up with while
sipping lemonade on a summer afternoon. If he says miracles
of simulation can be accomplished on a six-dimensional "TVC
[Turing-Von Neumann-Chiang] Grid", then I can suspend my
disbelief 'til next Tuesday, and enjoy the hell out of it.

But -- it's just a story. Like Superman (or Green Lantern).

Put 'em back in your pants, guys. There's nothing similar
to grab on to in the real world. Not now. Not in 2010.
Maybe not ever.

(Egan's _Diaspora_ is pretty good, too.)

Anonymous said...

There are only techniques in the service of ends (and even these ends are plural in their basic character), and the ends tend to be inspired and articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in and expressive of pretty conventional political narratives -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against authority, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.

Debunking Robot Cult is fun and all, but isn't this a bit too strong a statement? Simplistically, you can't campaign for universal healthcare if the most efficient medicines you know are opium, calomel and prayer. And you can't campaign at all, if you can't speak to your audience (Which needs numerous hard to discover and not easy to learn techniques, starting with language itself.)

Your own "secular pentagram" implies that "efficiency" isn't subservient to politics any more than the other way around, or so I understood it. They're interdependent, and in the right circumstances technology may inspire and enable different politics, different morals and even different aesthetics, - wind tunnels changed our notions of how a "hot car" looks as much as purely artistic considerations did.

The problem with "pro-technology" crowd as it is now is that in general they aren't really pro-technology at all. They aren't interested in actually existing techniques and their applications, but only in their own "reasonable projections". Like alchemists they just declare that lapis philosophorum, sorry nanotechnology, WILL look like they want it to and would work the way they imagine, with actual and significant discoveries judged solely on the basis of their likeness to their particular "Philosopher's Stone". Needless to say, this is as far from inquiry into "technology in general" as you can get.

Of course, genuine pro-technology politics is much more boring (academic freedom, acces to knowledge, critique of already-possible proposals, and not a single comic-book superpower in sight) and limited, - tecnology tells you what you can do, but that's not the same thing as telling whether it's worth it, - again your five modes are nice way to express that.