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

Monday, August 05, 2013

Phony Futurological Foresight

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot in response to this comment:
What I think you're saying is that you don't put stock in predictions that have no underlying causal model. That might be a self-consistent viewpoint, though with social processes -- global warming depends on the social process of carbon emission -- I'm not sure how much we really know. I would agree that we're farther from predicting technological change than predicting global warming. But unfortunately, technology has been essential to most changes in the human condition. So I think your view reduces to saying we can't know anything, except this little part that, maybe, we can actually model. Or as the story goes, looking under a lamp post for a wallet you dropped on the other side of the street because the light is there. I wonder then how much it makes sense to care about the long-term future, under this view.
Far from saying we can't know anything, I am insisting that there are real standards on the basis of which to distinguish the contributions real disciplines make from those of pseudo-science as well as faith-based initiatives and subcultural enthusiasms from real policy-making. Part of what it means to be reasonable is to accept as the best on offer those candidates for belief which satisfy criteria of warrant -- but another part of what it means to be reasonable to judge which domain of belief applies to the effort at hand and to know what the relevant criteria of warrant actually are. That's why I keep harping on the fact that futurological scenario spinning is a literary genre or marketing phenomenon or fandom rather than a social science -- so that your expectations and judgments of futurology are based on the proper criteria. My pluralism is neither nihilist nor relativist (though I get that complaint a lot from the priestlier precincts of science-qua-scientism triumphalists), but rather pragmatic and situated.

So, to your broader points, let me begin with something I say all the time: All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture and so there is not even a monolithic thing called "technology" to develop or not in the first place in my view, to characterize in single way, to treat as the protagonist of a single narrative: there are disparate processes of research, funding, publication, regulation, distribution, marketing, application concerning different artifacts and techniques, proceeding at different paces, in respect to different stakeholders. In the most general sense, what is produced as "natural" or as "artifactual" is a contingent and rather more normative discursive phenomenon than appears in utterly mystified futurological and tech-talk -- de-naturalizing technologization is a function of familiarity and unfamiliarity, attention and inattention, fears and fantasies of agency, the mobilization of a host of mythical tropes and so on. So I probably don't accept the terms on which you are constituting objects as inside of and outside of historical struggle and sociocultural positioning at a pretty fundamental level when it comes to it.

Now, politics is the reconciliation of ineradicably diverse ends and the most equitable solution of shared problems in the shared world. Politics and plurality are indissolubly connected and I prefer to think of "futurity" as the openness in the present arising from this ineradicable diversity while "the future" tends on my view to be a disavowal of that openness in the service of a particular stakeholder vantage on the present foreclosing possible presents/presences. "Predicting technological change" is a phrase that is nearly equal parts meaningless and evil in my view. "Technological change" is better described in this view as "technodevelopmental social struggle" in which one seeks to engage to facilitate better outcomes from specified positions but hardly to "predict" in some alienated way above the fray. "It" IS Us. Technoreductive ideology tends to reframe freedom as the amplification of incumbent powers as futurology tends to reframe history as extrapolated parochial currencies -- this is worse than wrong.

Politically, freedom is the ongoing openness and essential unpredictability of futurity present(ed) peer-to-peer, there is no progress, merely the circumscription or ramification of ends arising out of the openness. It is ethical definitions of the political field that make it possible to tell progressive and aspirations stories. I would define freedom ethically myself as the struggle for ever more sustainable democratic equity-in-diversity, for example, but part of what I know about the political futurity in which my ethical vantage is embedded is that there are other tales to tell with which I must contend.

To conclude, I would say that the best way to care about the long-term future is to care about sustainable equity-in-diversity in the present, because I think in caring about those with whom we share the world, young and old, and in developing the techniques and knowledges for solving our shared problems we make a present to the collective character and common archive and legacy of reason to which generations to come will gratefully make recourse in their own presents. Phony futurological foresight is an exercise in disavowal and distraction and denial that no one will thank us for -- even as our delusive and frankly disgusting futurologists endlessly congratulate themselves about how they are truly fighting battles and solving problems centuries ahead of time.


Alex said...

Mainstream economics takes "technology" as a coherent, useful concept. So you're climbing a steep hill if you want to convince anyone otherwise. What sources would you cite?

Secondly, I probably have to recognize my own steep hill in claiming that possible future technological changes should be *the* major driver of policies oriented toward the long-term future. That is a minority view although Krugman's comments this past year and Al Gore's latest book hint to me this may be changing.

I cite Hanson's as a relevant argument.

What are the "real standards" you mention? I do think the idea of only trusting what you can model is an interesting and maybe viable position but we had better be clear. It's awful vague to just say, well I think climate change is a threat and a genetic rat race isn't, and there are real standards for deciding this.

I think with your last paragraph you imply that no useful predictions can be made about future technology since by definition these would inform current policy and rule out focusing only on present problems.

Predicting future technology seems useful to avoid the case that current institutions can't handle the resulting rapid changes. There seems a better chance of dealing with change if you have discussions in advance so that people can form opinions and prepare plans and organizations.

So the "technodevelopmental social struggle" is better informed with some intelligence on the movements of an opposing army, before it actually moves.

I agree that we should admit the openness of the future. In fact when I say predict I seldom mean close off futures but instead to add new ones. Having a "basket" of general scenarios weighted by probabilities seems useful. Specific, detailed long-term scenarios are useless except for illustration, and I think on this blog you quite properly skewer many of these. But I think much of the "basket" for the next century should still be filled with really bizarre outcomes, which I can only justify by appealing to arguments and data as opposed to openness or closure.

Dale Carrico said...

The necessity to pluralize, historicize, and politicize facile monolithic deterministic and autonomous characterizations of the technological is taken for granted in an enormous amount of scholarship associated with STS (science and technology studies) EJC (environmental justice criticism) technocultural theory, new media/digital humanities as well as some work in philosophy of technology. No doubt much of this is dismissed as fashionably nonsensical pomo relativism by those statisticians, consequentialists, liberal eugenicists, bomb builders, and meme hustlers who brandish the hard chrome dildo of tech.

By the way, once pluralized, historicized, situated in stakeholder struggle, attentive to consensus science in the relevant fields and focused on the equitable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits to change I am the last person to deny the relevance of technodevelopmental struggle to history and politics. Indeed, that is the subject that interests me the most. I disapprove of mainstream and superlative futurology because I think it displaces rather than engages with the reality of technodevelopmental social struggle and progress.

Now, I do indeed think long-term predictions about specific technodevelopments (I don't agree the phrase "future technology" is even meaningful) is obviously foolhardy given the impact of an ineradicable diversity of stakeholders as well as constituencies devoted to all the processes of research, regulation, distribution, application to which specific techniques and artifacts are beholden -- which is not to say that we cannot usefully characterize them and situate them in the present in ways that help us understand their force and role in ongoing/emerging change. Beyond that, the narratives are mostly marketing and subcultural signalling -- when they pretend to be social science they are essentially opportunistic mystifications.

I think it is foolish to think the next century will be more bizarre than the last century was -- given how bizarre the last century was that might not seem so conservative really -- but I think it is worse than foolish to embed current and emerging technoscientific change in narratives redolent of fantasies and fears of omnipotence or impotence.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.