MemeTherapy -- Is there a substantial distinction between a technoprogressive and a transhumanist?
Dale Carrico -- “Technoprogressive” is just a shorthand way of saying “technology-focused progressive.” My impression from the transhumanist-identified people I know is that most of them see themselves as part of a cultural movement with a unique shared identity and a coherent political program of the kind I would tend to associate with organized parties or membership organizations.
I write about “technology” topics that seem to interest a lot of transhumanist-identified people and as a consequence of this I am regularly mistaken for one myself. I’m never completely comfortable when that happens, but I’m also never sure if it’s that big a deal ultimately. A friend and colleague of mine, the bioethicist James Hughes, is transhumanist-identified and I agree with him on a very wide range of concrete political topics and goals. But then there are also curiously high numbers of transhumanist-identified people who advocate what look to me like the most reactionary views imaginable. But even if I can’t personally make much sense out of “transhumanism” as a coherent movement or concept in general I think it’s not so much at this abstract level of analysis as in political struggle itself that you really figure out who your allies are in fights for peace, justice, and democracy.
The fact is I’m simply a person of the democratic left who’s very interested in the cultural politics of disruptive technoscientific developments. When I take stock of the scene of dem-left movements in the world today it seems useful to me to think of these movements as part of a process of technodevelopmental social struggle.
People are taking up p2p tools to organize and speak truth to corporate-military elites. People are fighting intellectual property regimes that focus on short-term profits for Big Pharma rather than treatable conditions for the world’s poor. People are getting the word out about tools on hand and on drawing boards to overcome the catastrophic model of extractive petrochemical industry and shift to renewable, sustainable, decentralized energy. People are working to ensure that women are able to safely end unwanted pregnancies or ensure they have access to ARTs to facilitate wanted pregnancies. People are struggling to protect the teaching of consensus science in schools and to ensure that our democratic representatives make recourse to the advice of good science when they make policy to address problems of climate change, budget priorities, family planning, rational security, environmental toxicity, harm reduction and so on.
That’s the politics of emerging technoscientific change, here and now. And these politics will only grow more and more fraught with the convergence of NBIC (which stands for nano- bio- info- cogni-) technoscience and especially with the emergence of radical genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine. The political struggles now and to come will be to ensure that the costs, the risks, as well as the benefits of global technoscientific developments are all fairly distributed to all the stakeholders to those developments. And that looks to me like pretty standard dem-left politics applied to our new circumstances.
We all know that human beings now inhabit a world with unprecedented power to destroy itself through weapons of mass destruction, industry-induced climate change, engineered pathogens, just as it has an unprecedented power to save itself from asteroid impacts, pandemics, and poverty. Without democratic controls to protect us, short-sighted human beings with superlative technologies at their disposal are too likely to destroy the world.
But the transformative power of technology, taken up by people-powered democratic politics can reinvigorate the good old radical vision of the global left, so much of which has seemed to languish through the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this century. The slogan that names this connection for me is, “technology needs democracy, democracy needs technology.” And for me, grasping this connection is at the heart of what makes me describe my politics as technoprogressive rather than simply progressive.
But once you’ve grasped this basic connection it seems to me that most of the real political force for technoprogressive arguments arises out of pretty straightforward dem-left commitments. The identity politics of the transhumanists seem to be lodged at the level of a shared commitment to technology in general. This doesn’t really make much sense to me, since both the empowering and pernicious impacts of technodevelopment happen at a more specific level that that. I think this leads otherwise progressive folks to mistake as allies explicitly anti-democratic people who share with them nothing but this general enthusiasm for “technology” –- even if the uses to which their “allies” would put actual technologies are altogether reactionary. I guess that’s the most substantial thing I can think of to distinguish technoprogressive from transhumanist outlooks—apart from things like an unpleasant historical association with market libertarian nonsense from the irrationally exuberant high-tech 90s boom, and a slight ongoing drift toward scientific reductionism that seems culturally impoverishing to me. But the fact is that some transhumanists these days consider themselves technoprogressive as well and I can’t see anything particularly wrongheaded about that in principle.
MemeTherapy -- We’re seeing the left in the US using the internet in some innovative ways (Daily Kos, Dean campaign fundraising). Do you see this trend continuing and if so what innovations do you see (or would like to see) coming up next?
Dale Carrico -- Well, the key thing to realize is that this is not so much a “trend” as the latest effort of the democratic left to opportunistically take up new tools to reshape politics to emancipatory ends. There is nothing inherently democratizing in these technologies. They are deeply vulnerable to legislative assaults, media distraction, and outright violence at the hands of established elites.
Now, it’s true, just as digital networks eliminated the infrastructural bottlenecks represented by the overhead of print publication and broadcasting, so too peer-to-peer formations transform the costs of creative collaboration, deliberation, assessment, and so on. When technology changes the basic institutional terms in this way it’s sure to have transformative impacts. But the technology itself provides no assurance that the transformation will be progressive. We only know that we confront an opportunity to change things, to end entrenched corporate media monopolies, to halt the elite looting of the commons, to demand greater transparency from authorities, to facilitate more democratic policy deliberation and so on.
In the United States, one of the most interesting struggles one sees is really within our notionally-left organized politics. Corporate “insider” machine politics represented (somewhat cartoonishly, but it’ll do for now) by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) is arrayed against the Netroots formations represented (again, a little cartoonishly) by dKos, the Dean candidacy, and so on. There is an important sense in which the DLC represents fairly typical American “machine”politics, defined in the Reagan era of anti-governmental hostility and most triumphant in the corporatist-friendly Clinton White House. Far from the arrival of any left-wing technotopia it seems to me we are witnessing skirmishes on a technodevelopmental terrain unsettled by Peak Oil and p2p, a struggle simply to nudge American political discourse leftward after the disastrous decades long skew of nearly all civic discourse and organized politics to the corporate-militarist right. Things are rather messier and my hopes more modest than one might otherwise want, I fear.
In the coming years people will talk about the politics of nanotechnology, biotechnology, desalination technology, renewable technology, robotic technology and so on. But the actual work to make these technodevelopments more progressive will be mainstream dem-left struggles to implement universal healthcare, basic income guarantees, support international criminal and environmental courts, ensure compliance with global disarmament and species protection treaties, champion global fair-trade, labor, and carbon emission standards, instituting international regulatory and monitoring regimes for tsunamis, weapons trafficking, pandemics and so on. The devil, as always, will be in the details.
MemeTherapy -- What kinds of things are you working on now?
Dale Carrico -- I’m very interested right now in the transformation of digital networks via biotechnology, biometrics, and medical administration into global bioremedial networks. I think the basic terms of personal and civic subjecthood are transforming under pressure of a collision between a normalizing model of liberal healthcare administration against what I call an “experimental subjection” model of consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification. The liberal model is defined by an ideal of universal “basic” healthcare provision at which we never really arrive in fact, while the experimental subjection model is defined by an ideal of morphological freedom at which we probably will never arrive either. What remains is likely, as ever, to be a shifting politics of risk, profit, and stress management that will look more democratic the more we manage to ensure the scene of consent is as informed and nonduressed as possible by keeping access to knowledge open and poverty at bay for all.
More on the "technoprogressive" term and its promotional appropriation by the Robot Cult here.
More on James Hughes and what he peddles in the name of "Democratic Transhumanism" here.
More on what eventually happens when you try to play nicey nice with Robot Cultists here.
More Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.