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

Friday, November 08, 2013


Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, ages ago:
To the extent that Robot Cultists regard themselves as a sooper-genius elite and/or explicitly worship gurus and celebrity tech CEOs they regard as a sooper-genius elite and/or implicitly worship plutocratic elite/incumbent interests through their devotion to hyper-consumption, gizmo-fetishism, technofixes for disease/climate crises/poverty, etc. it isn't the least bit difficult to grasp the structural affinity of the transhumanoid/singularitarian techno-transcendentalists to reactionary politics. One hears a self-congratulatory pining after aristocracy in many of their works (sometimes inflected with eugenicism, sometimes just scarcely stealthed class privilege/nationalism), and, needless to say, the sorts of "spontaneisms" that crop up so often among futurologists of both the crypto-right market and the pseudo-left luddic anarchisms almost always amount to an endorsement of maximal consumption and acquiescence to the status quo. It is no surprise to me to find futurological discourse in the service of reaction, as I always say, "Every futurism is always a retro-futurism."
That last quote is a futurological brickbat near three others that complete the point:
V. Futurity is a register of freedom, "The Future" another prison-house built to confine it. VI. Futurity is the openness in the present arising out of the ineradicable diversity of calculating, contending, and collaborative stakeholders who struggle to make and remake the shared world, peer to peer. VII. Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands.
Okay, so the context for all this is that I responded to an Alex Steffen tweet that provoked me without thinking about it too much. He didn't respond to my response but I did find myself thinking about it more after just tossing off my own tweet. Here's the exchange, such as it is:

You might think the disdain for "antique futures" in Steffen's tweet would be one with which I sympathize, and maybe it should be, really, maybe I am being critical in a hair-trigger way...

But I must say that the phrasing set off alarm bells for me. The term "creatives" for one thing almost inevitably means "privileged people" in such formulations in a way that denies the endlessly exhibited but usually disdained creativity and flexibility and imagination and problem-solving of precarious exploited people -- it's a term like "makers" which ultimately seems less about affirming making than it does setting the stage for a false excoriation of majorities as "takers." It's also one of those terms and phrases forever reminding us of the strangling tight coupling of the futurological and the neoliberal imaginaries, phrases like "thought leader" and "enabling innovation" and "accelerating change" and "propagating memes" and on and on. We signal affiliations with language choices, especially in constrained communication contexts like tweeting, and I am very suspicious of futurologists challenging "creatives" to gain "future-relevant skills" in the face of obsolete "antique-future" institutions. I can't help it I'm gagging on neoliberalism.

I also think that the future figured in Steffen's adjectival "future-engaged" and "future-relevant" embeds the futurologically usual future-as-imagined/projected-destination rather than future as an openness in the present (including all future presents), a figuration of the futural that makes actual engagement of the kind Steffen might mean -- in the most generous construal of his tweet -- difficult to impossible in my view.

In this connection, it isn't really surprising that Steffen speaks of skills the relevance to "the future" of which he already thinks he knows as an "expert" futurist -- future-as-destiny tends, after all, to trap us in a pernicious and falsifying instrumental logic of freedom-as-capacitation against the indispensably (which is not to say exhaustive) political logic of freedom-as-consensual/dissensus [civitas]. One almost expects to hear Steffen going the whole TED-squawk hog, and evangelizing about charter schools and STEM-jobs that will win The Future's North Atlantic trade war with China while incubating new institutions for profitably geo-engineering our way to sustainable resilience blah blah blah. I mean, probably Steffen doesn't fall for any that moonshine in its baldly reactionary futurist forms, but if he doesn't I want to know why his good sense doesn't extend then to a recognition of the inter-implication of such corporate-militarist claptrap with talk of "challeng[ing] creatives... to gain new future-relevant skills" in the first place? My worry is that, like Jamais Cascio, he shrinks only from the bald exposure of the reactionary assumptions and aspirations of the futurological imaginary with which he remains a collaborator (in both senses).

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