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

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Technology" Changes the Game

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot

I wrote:
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 there are only techniques in the service of ends, and the ends are articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in pretty conventional political narrative -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against tyranny, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.The pretense or gesture of a technoscientific circumvention of the political seems to me to conduce usually 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.


To which someone "Anonymously" responded:

Your "always" triggers me Dale. Technology changes the rules of the political game.

My replies to their (italicized) comments follow:

Weather changes the rules of the political game. Pandemics change the rules of the political game. Personalities change the rules of the political game. The devils, as well as the angels, are in the details.

When I insist that "technology" does not exist "in general" this is far from a denial that a diversity of techniques and devices exist and have an impact in the world. Quite the opposite.

There is no such thing as a "technology" that subsumes or subtends all the instances to which that description attaches in a way that can be isolated as a factor with a general predictable impact on political, social, cultural, historical change.

It is the deployment of technologies and the exercise of techniques arising out of unique historical situations, playing out unpredictably in historical dynamisms, and in the service of a diversity of ends that yields technodevelopmental effects.

To ascribe an outcome to "technology" is almost always vacuous. That this sort of utterance has become such an explanatory commonplace is enormously curious and even suspicious.

When most people became literate, it was possible to discuss politics with a much broader group of people.

And "becoming literate" = "technology" in this example?

What, everybody suddenly got bonked in the head with a book or maybe even a printing press? Just think of the complex multivalent practical, cultural, economic, institutional, legal, moral, psychological dynamisms and trajectories that materially fleshed out "becoming literate" in different historical, demographic, personal situations.

What developmental generalization are you drawing from that complex that presumably also obtain for all other instances of the "technological" including inventing and distributing and making use of the cotton gin and the internal combustion engine and the crossbow and anaesthesia and the technique of perspective painting?

If/when people are able to upload and thereby create close to immortal entities they wont have the same priorities as people restricted to living less than a century.

Here we go. Look, you are playing fast and loose with the English language in an all too customarily religious manner here, if I may say so. "If/then" statements cite causal conventions arising from and depending for their intelligibility on our experience of a world with mid-scale furniture and communicative peers and so on behaving in familiar ways.

When a religious person speaks of their expectation of personal resurrection as a soul and of its ascent into an immortal afterlife in Heaven these utterances can only be taken by sensible people as metaphorical utterances without literal reference or as public signals of subcultural membership in a moral or otherwise interpretative community, rather like a secret handshake -- or less charitably they can be taken as expressions of extreme confusion or insanity.

Precisely the same goes for statements about "uploading." When I dismiss these utterances you misunderstand me if you assume I am disagreeing with you on a matter of a testable hypothesis -- even when the form my dismissal takes is "never gonna happen." I am saying that what we mean by "persons," what we mean by "living" cannot coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality" and that people who say these things must be speaking metaphorically or subculturally (indeed, Robot Cult-urally) or be deeply confused or possibly a little crazy. Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities.

I believe that a majority of the elderly able to do so will do it,

When you use the verb "able" and the pronoun "it" here in respect to "uploading" you make the mistake of imagining you know something about which you are talking. Unfortunately, you don't.

and they will be both a minority (of earths total population) and a very resourceful group.

See, you are indulging in a full froth of faithful handwaving and imagine yourself to be engaging in some sort of policy wonk discourse. This is a problem.

If/when we are able to live comfortably on other planets, environmental issues on this planet wont be as important as they are now.

No doubt the same would be true if we could live in other dimensions or perform spells with wands. That human life on other suitably terraformed planets is logically feasible in ways that interdimensionality or magicality likely are not is irrelevant given that the scientific and, more to the point, political, legal, practical problems of environmentalism are urgently proximate in ways that render remote developmental possibilities like interplanetary diaspora and logical impossibilities like practical wand magic exactly equally irrelevant (at best) to those who would attend to actual problems.

Every second wasted in the contemplation of techno-utopian "solutions" to real problems -- however earnest -- is functionally equivalent to time devoted to the active frustration of problem-solving or active denialism about the problem in the first place. Again, at best it is a matter of handwaving by the faithful confusing itself and others for policy discourse.

Whatever political system that will evolve within the next hundred years I don't think the above will change.

Political systems don't "evolve." And I have no idea what actually substantial thing you have described in "the above" is presumably not going to change or what significance you think attaches to whatever invariance you think you have hit upon.

If the world were otherwise than it is, its problems would be different than they are, too.

Uh, sure. So what?

19 comments:

James said...

"Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities."

Yes, this is quite true, right now. There is nothing inherently "intelligent" about biological systems, nor is there anything inherently "dumb" about non-biological systems. Intelligence is a product of the complexity of the system in question; whatever makes it up is a triviality (this is likely, anyway. God knows how long it will take to find out, though...).

I agree with everything else in this post--I just feel strongly about assumptions that biology is somehow special. It's not. Carbon's just what initially won out over everything else.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, this is quite true, right now.

Get back to me when your counterexample isn't made up bullshit. Magical thinking isn't daring, it's dumb.

Dale Carrico said...

By the way, biology is special.

Actual lives, actually intelligence, actual persons, all actually special.

To admit this doesn't commit me to some grand claim about intelligence being a property inherent always only in biology to the exclusion of everything else or what have you. I don't have any interest in making such a claim, I don't think there is any reasonable occasion that impels me to that claim, I don't think there is any reason for people sensibly to care about it.

Asserting this (or worse, its contrary) just seems to make people talk confusedly about things that do exist in terms of things that don't exist.

Sometimes I am convinced they do this because they are simply scared of dying and they want to linger "spiritually" or "informationally" beyond death and the denial of life's and intelligence's palpable incarnation somehow facilitates their denial.

Sometimes I am convinced they do this because don't like the humanities, their aesthetic temperament disdains the derangements of literal language in the figurative, they are impatient with the paradoxes and intractable dilemmas of theory, they grow painfully frustrated with the interminable processing of political or psychological difference, and a denigration of life's mess avails them of more secure and instrumentally efficacious preoccupations -- which undeniably do have their beauty and power after all.

I realize the "made up bullshit" comment was harsh -- but the fact is the denial of the specialness of actually embodied intelligence, actually vulnerable lives is a truly extraordinary claim and I have never once encountered the extraordinary reason that justifies making it, nor certainly have I understood the curious tendency of those who make it to pretend that there is something extraordinary instead about the contrary claims that intelligence is embodied and life vulnerable when literally every intelligence and life has testified to precisely this and none the other.

seth said...

Anonymously:
"When most people became literate, it was possible to discuss politics with a much broader group of people."

Dale:
"And "becoming literate" = "technology" in this example?"

This claim illustrates a couple of problems, and following one of them exposes a historical example of one of the political consequences Dale is, I think, always pointing toward when he exposes mythical-thinking-posing-as-"scientific-thinking."

First of all, I don't think it's accurate to think of literacy as a technology. Literacy is a capacity enabled by the technology of written language (as opposed to aural language, the previously dominant technology), and expanded by the technology of printing.

With that sorted out, we can consider the effects of the technology in terms of what it enabled. Notably, it took a very, very, long, long time for the technology to reach the masses such that "most people became literate," and the technology reached the masses in large part as a result of changing political circumstances, through progressive contestation between stakeholders.

Moreover, I'm not sure that it's even now accurate to say that this technologically enabled ability has reached "most people." I don't know what the human literacy rate is, but the literate have always been able to use legal writing (i.e. law) to disenfranchise various groups of people. Obviously, not all such disenfranchised groups are disenfranchised exclusively owing to illiteracy, nor are all disenfranchised groups even predominantly illiterate. But disparate degrees of particular kinds of literacy have always made it easier, in a number of ways (law is one, literary traditions that justify and conceal exploitation is another) for one group of human stakeholders to exploit another.

seth said...

The point being, of course, that it's the ongoing manipulation through contestation of political realities that allows a technology to benefit (or exploit) the human community. Technology has a role, but not one that's determinatively significant for most stakeholders.

giulio said...

Re "I am saying that what we mean by "persons," what we mean by "living" cannot coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality"... Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities."

What you mean by "persons" and "living" cannot coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality". What I mean by "persons" and "living" can. Simply speaking, you take vulnerability and squishiness as part of your definition of living person, and I don't.

What is a "living person"? I don't care about abstract definitions, but I believe I am a living person. As a living person born in the 20th century, I certainly have vulnerable and slimy parts at the moment. But I don't consider them as central and defining features of my identity. I consider other things as central defining features of my identity, and these other features would coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality".

Dale Carrico said...

As a living person born in the 20th century, I certainly have vulnerable and slimy parts at the moment. But I don't consider them as central and defining features of my identity.

If that is really true, then you are literally insane.

Dale Carrico said...

Simply speaking, you take vulnerability and squishiness as part of your definition of living person, and I don't.

If this were really true, then you would be talking gibberish, misusing language in those moments in which you seemed to be talking about life and intelligence and persons in public places. In everyday speech you almost surely use these terms just the way I do, you just pretend you can jettison them in the specialized context of these discussions for other reasons, perhaps because (only your therapist knows for sure, certainly not me) you are scared to die and you want the Robot God to save you and you think if you are a really good boy who claps really hard about technical progress and pretend that you are essentially a data-stream rather than a mammal then maybe He will grant your prayer in the fullness of time.

Dale Carrico said...

The point being, of course, that it's the ongoing manipulation through contestation of political realities that allows a technology to benefit (or exploit) the human community. Technology has a role, but not one that's determinatively significant for most stakeholders.

I agree with Seth. While it would be wrong to propose a universal rule here, I think in general the capacities alleged to inhere in any given device or technique radically underdetermine their historical deployment to progressive or reactionary ends. The determination is ultimately political, not technical.

giulio said...

Re "If that is really true, then you are literally insane."

Try to explain yourself instead of hiding behind cheap insults (as usual). I said that I, like everyone else atm, suffer from diarrhea, flatulence and other squishy symptoms of vulnerability, but I don't consider them as central and defining features of my identity. On the contrary, I love my family and friends, I appreciate literature science and philosophy, and these are central and defining features of my identity. So what is insane here?

giulio said...

Re "you want the Robot God to save you and you think if you are a really good boy who claps really hard about technical progress and pretend that you are essentially a data-stream rather than a mammal then maybe He will grant your prayer in the fullness of time."

Why not, even if I might have chosen a different wording. I certainly value my data-stream-ness more than my mammal-ness. I must admit to having fun with some (not all) mammal things, but only the Robot God knows how much fun data-streams can have. Better than diarrhea for sure.

Dale Carrico said...

The stupid! It burns us!

eyu said...

What developmental generalization are you drawing from that complex that presumably also obtain for all other instances of the "technological" including inventing and distributing and making use of the cotton gin and the internal combustion engine and the crossbow and anaesthesia and the technique of perspective painting?

Some technological changes don't cause political changes. Some do. All he is saying is that some technological changes cause political change. Recent economic changes have definitely made democracy possible - think of how hard it would be for the poor and illiterate 80% of the population to gain power. Technological changes have been an important cause of the economic changes, so as a whole they must have been responsible for at least some of the political changes.

Dale Carrico said...

Some technological changes don't cause political changes.

Name One.

(Hint: You can't, because you're wrong.)

seth said...

"Try to explain yourself instead of hiding behind cheap insults"

G, you've been playing at being here long enoughto be able to understand that such insults aren't cheap, in that you've been debating the same point/set of points for a long time now without having ever been able to demonstrate anything. You just keep saying the same thing; and its all just pie in the sky.

Repeated and seemingly unavoidable attachments to unsupportable positions are stupid, and should be called out as such. It's not an insult, it's an opportunity for you to decide that you want to be more coherent than you currently are.

"these are central and defining features of my identity."

bullshit. your identity is a totality, a plenitude. it includes all of it, the squishy, the science, the diarrhea, the philosophy, all of it.

there has never been a moment in which YOU were not defined by all, 100% of the package that you constitute. you don't get to pick the parts your proud of/fixated on/fetishize and speak so loudly about them so as to be able to pretend they are the totality, or even the net. the fact that you don't like certain aspects of your life doesn't mean that their part of your life.

you've given an idea (with many holes) the status of truth, and with that faith, you say very silly things, repeatedly, and constantly portend a kind of legitimacy that your faith-in-practice preempts your having.

giulio said...

Re "bullshit. your identity is a totality, a plenitude. it includes all of it, the squishy, the science, the diarrhea, the philosophy, all of it."

In many cases, it also includes being poor, helpless, without education and health care. So in the name of a fixed God-given "plenitude of identity", should we conclude that BIG, social justice, education and health care for all are all bullshit? If not, what is the difference?

seth said...

rather, the fact that you don't like certain aspects of your life doesn't mean that they're not part of your life.

Dale Carrico said...

Seth and Giulio have the following exchange:

Seth to Giulio: "[Y]our identity... includes all of it, the squishy, the science, the diarrhea, the philosophy, all of it."

Giulio to Seth: "[I]t also includes being poor, helpless, without education and health care. So in the name of a fixed God-given 'plenitude of identity,' should we conclude that BIG, social justice, education and health care for all are all bullshit? If not, what is the difference?"

Just to be clear, Giulio Prisco -- considered one of the leaders of "movement transhumanism," founder and officer of many of its conspicuous organizations, regular contributor to what passes for its "intellectual" discourse -- doesn't seem to be able to distinguish, on the one hand,

[a]

the political aspirations of democratically-minded progressives who would educate, agitate, and organize to

(i) increase access (ideally to planetary universality) to well-regulated safer ever-advancing consensual healthcare and

(ii) to increase welfare entitlements to the vulnerable (ideally consummating in the provision of a planetary universal basic income guarantee) to better ensure that nobody, not even those who are sick, hurt, lonely, unlucky, unemployed, uneducated, misunderstood, dissenting, atypical, nonconformist is never threatened with homelessness, starvation, isolation, impaired access to legal redress, durressed "consent" to risk, exploitation, or criminality

from, on the other hand,

[b]

the superlative aspirations of Robot Cultists who pine for technoscience, somehow, somewhen,

(i) to "exchange" their actually-existing mortal organismic bodies for incomparable imperishable digital or robot bodies, to

(ii) to "exchange" their organismic intelligence for incomparable digital computer networks, and

(iii) to "exchange" the terms of political economy from those at hand in which a diversity of stakeholders collaborate and contend over outcomes in a shared and limited world for a post-political world via materials science, plastics, robotics, nanoscale replication or what have you (a retreat from materiality altogether into a "superior" virtuality is sometimes pines for as an alternative proposal to the same purpose) overcomes the impasse of stakeholder plurality altogether.

I have put the word "exchange" in quotations in each of the examples of superlative technocentric aspiration because the mechanisms through which one would presumably find one's way to from an embodied intelligence into an artificial superintelligence, from a mammalian mortality into digital or robotic superlongevity, or past the impasse of plurality in finitude into post-political superabundance is always at best a metaphorical conjuration, not just ill-specified as a technical matter (such a state of affairs would merely inspire calls to divert public resources from the solution of shared problems to the propping up of superlative wish-fulfillment fantasies), but a departure from conventional usage in respect to the terms at hand, "intelligence," "person," "life," "politics" as to be, strictly speaking, incoherent.

This is nothing new, of course, but just a straightforward illustration of the superlativity thesis in the first place.

eyu said...

Dale: "add gamemode 3 (no game over) and make it the default in non-AI non-script.txt games" (the introduction of a new (rarely used) game mode for an insignificant open source RTS)

This doesn't even affect the internal politics of the RTS.