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

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It's Only Natural

My pal George Dvorsky and I have been talking about the idea of "denaturalization" and he has transcribed some of that conversation over on his blog Sentient Developments. I'd be interested to see if others might want to amplify the ideas we are grappling with. Here's a taste of his transcription, but check out his actual post for his more full contextualization and analysis:

I have heard some criticisms among environmentalists I respect about [the] “anti-nature” aspect of my argument. I can see the point of arguments that would say that technology is the form human "nature" takes, and I can see the point of arguments that say we depend for our survival on complex systems we imperfectly understand (which seems to be what some people mean by "nature") even if we impact them with our own activity and this must make us especially careful.

But I can't for the life of me figure out a way to weave these insights into the point I was making myself about technological destabilization as a risky but promisingly emancipatory force, and "nature" as a word people mostly use just to defend customs that have outlived their usefulness. I want to say culture trumps nature, and human dignity must come from critical freedom not uncritical customs from now on -- but I don't want to deny there is some sense in these objections.


Another way of describing denaturalization is the steady encroachment of intelligent interventions in what are normally autonomic processes; consequently, we must be wary of the motives that underlie these interventions. But we must also be wary of those arguments that take a non-interventionist approach, which can sometimes be an indifferent hands-off approach for merely romantic reasons, or sentiments that arise from the fear that we might make the situation worse (and that certain systems are optimized before intelligence intervenes -- a hard argument to sell).

One thing I don't buy, however, is that the complexity found in natural systems are ineffable and/or intractable. Because complexity is often merely a data or mapping problem, it's just a matter of time and diligence.

Another angle would be to include practical applications of personhood ethics in consideration of how it applies to utilitarianism. A trick will be to show a kind of cost/benefit analysis of non-intervention versus intervention in terms of its impact on all living, emotional, and experiential creatures. To do so, the value of say, maintaining a certain biological function for aesthetic (romantic) reasons, would have to be qualitatively determined, and then set against what we value through intervening in the process.

Non-interventionists need to be careful, however, in that they risk applying Darwinianism to their ethical worldview, which is not IMO tied into our collective set of values as thinking and compassionate creatures; rather, we need to be Lamarckian as we apply non-anthropocentric personhood values in our dealings with living creatures and systems.


I agree with all of this! When I tell people culture should trump nature I've been trying to say in a sloppy too-intuitive way what you are saying here, I think. It's funny, once "culture" is set in motion "hands-off" is always a kind of intervention itself, there is no way to not "intervene," the process of intervention has already begun. The question becomes where and how one intervenes, and non-intervention is always non-intervention in processes stamped by ongoing interventions. That's why I agree with you that the very notion of non-intervention is always a romantic mystification, pure ideology.

This stuff speaks to the Precautionary Principle discussion too (another topic on which I seem to swim against the tide) -- though for me the key thing with the Principle is not whether it generally recommends stagnation or development but who gets to participate in the decision-making about what forms intervention takes.

The Random Wilde

Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner. Conscience makes egotists of us all.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

More "Trouble"

I’ve been very gratified by the conversation emerging out of the column “The Trouble With Transhumanism” (Click here for Part One, and here for Part Two) I published earlier this month on

Fellow IEET Fellow Russell Blackford responded to the columns on Betterhumans itself, and then amplified his points in an interesting subsequent entry on the IEET blog.

Blackford shares my own ambivalence about the attribution of transhumanist identities but suggests that there is a place for some kind of label to describe tech-progressive advocacy. Ultimately, I am not sure I agree that identity politics can contribute much to the facilitation of progressive developmental outcomes (which is my own emphasis) in time-frames relevant to the urgency of some of the developmental quandaries we need to tackle, but for my money I think a better focus for a progressive identity-orientation would be to nudge the politics around such identities as “liberal,” “progressive,” “scientifically-literate,” "reality-based," “modern,” “Green,” “civil libertarian,” or what have you to embrace a quicker and safer development of emancipatory technologies and a fairer distribution of their benefits, costs, and risks than to try to scare up and then police a community around the troubled term “transhumanist” to achieve the same outcomes. This seems especially so to the extent that the “transhuman”-term seems freighted with (to me) unappealing associations with market libertarian politics, uncaveated hypnotized techno-utopianism, and reductive scientism.

Despite all this, I see the sense of many of his points, and found his interventions very helpful. And of course I agree that there are many transhumanist-identified people (especially the ones who gravitate toward James Hughes’ writings and efforts) doing worthy and interesting things that are well-deserving of support.

Jamais Cascio over at the endlessly wonderful WorldChanging blog offered an interesting brief review of my piece which provoked a very interesting unexpected discussion of Jurgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk, most of which I can’t make sense of with my poor excuse for a reading-comprehension of German.

But perhaps most interesting to me of all was Robin Zebrowski’s discussion of my column over on her blog hyper-textual ontology, and the very provocative and rich conversation it subsequently inspired (to which I added a few of my own too-cantankerous contributions).

Again, I am very pleased at all the comments, here, in private e-mail, and elsewhere. By all means, check them out and add to the conversation here or there if there is anything more to say for now. I’ve gotten a lot of food for thought and hope to return the favor soon enough. There are some more in-depth comments that I hope to sculpt out into more sustained blog-posts over the next few days. Until then, thanks to all for your ongoing provocations!

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Random Wilde (Another Dissertation Edition)

He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.

Casting the Net

Wikipedia and WorldChanging have the most useful and insightful coverage of the unfolding tsunami disaster as far as I can see.

Secrecy and the Subject of Privacy

For those of you who have asked me to say more about the dissertation I am currently finishing up (apparently, mostly in my downtime from what sometimes seems my rather more rewarding but unremunerative efforts at blogging), here is a section from the Introduction to the dissertation in which I outline the argument of its three main chapters. Comments, criticisms, questions are, as always, welcome.

I’ll start with a war story. It is a story about a battle written from the perspective of its recent aftermath. And as often happens with wars, many of its warriors still nurse the wounds they acquired in its skirmishes and betrayals, many still mouth the platitudes that drove its reckless energies, and some still pine for and fervently anticipate its resumption. While it is commonplace for a certain perplexity and even absurdity to attach to the actual details in retrospective accounts of war, it seems to me especially surreal to survey the scene of the conflict that preoccupies me here, a conflict which for all its noise and heat now seems in a way best captioned by that wistful old anti-war slogan: “What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came”?

In the first and second chapters of this dissertation, I will tell you the story of what Paulina Barsook has called “The Crypto Wars.” It is the story of what amounts to roughly a decade of skirmishes in policy, in law, in code, in mainstream op-eds, and in the incandescent online manifestoes of a few inspired technology alarmists and enthusiasts, all moved by the development and proliferation of then-new and now-ubiquitous digital networked tools designed either to keep or to expose people’s secrets.

The application of encryption techniques to transactions undertaken over digital networks, for example, has especially exercised the imaginations of the writer and activist Tim May and the coterie of “Cypherpunks” (the name of an anarchic collection of coders and cryptography enthusiasts, and of the influential, sometimes notorious, online mailing-list where they gather to discuss these topics) for whom he was a founder and a spokesman and something of a folk-hero. Encryption is simply the process of enciphering or transforming information so that it is unintelligible to anyone but an intended recipient.

In Chapter One, “Markets From Math,” I will discuss a series of rather exhilarated arguments, initially widely circulated online in the mid-1990s, in which Tim May and Eric Hughes, among others, predicted that more and more social and economic transactions would come to take place behind a veil of impenetrable encryption. The ultimate consequence of this emerging state of affairs for May and Hughes and the other Cypherpunks was no less than that conventional national governments would soon be rendered obsolete and contemporary societies across the globe swiftly transformed beyond recognition. All this would take place because states presumably would no longer be able to police routinely encrypted social interactions, levy sufficient tax revenues on ubiquitously encrypted economic transactions to fund their traditional functions, nor even maintain geographical borders in a meaningful way for citizens devoted primarily to their participation in globe-girding digital networks.

In Chapter Two, “Markets With Eyes,” I will focus on work by David Brin, a popular science fiction author and essayist, who countered this “cypherpunk” perspective soon thereafter in a number of comparably influential articles, many of which also first circulated online, and then in a book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? There Brin argued, contrary to the Cypherpunks, that whatever security and obscurity might be afforded by encryption techniques would soon enough be bypassed by the overwhelming multiplication of powerful surveillance technologies of other kinds -- for instance, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology inexpensively imbedded into, potentially at any rate, nearly all discrete objects on earth, the ongoing “realtime” tracking of individuals via the biometric profiles they cast in their commerce with the world (traces of skin, hair, blood, as well as finger, iris, and voice prints, for example), and the proliferation of vanishingly small, exceptionally cheap digital cameras, even, imagine, long rolls of paper-thin adhesive-sticker “penny-cams,” all of them archiving or downloading content continuously onto public and private networks. Rather notoriously, Brin went on to celebrate what initially seems the somewhat chilling prospect of an emerging ubiquitous surveillance society as generating in his terms a kind of radical “transparency” that would, he insisted, encourage more critical dialogue, more honorable conduct, and more accountable authorities.

Ultimately, Brin’s vision of a “transparent society” presumes a technological transformation of society no less sweeping and unprecedented in its scope than the “crypto-anarchy” championed by the Cypherpunks with whom he often differed so contentiously. But more intriguing than their differences, I notice that May and Brin share certain unexpected affinities and key assumptions in making their separate cases. Of these, what strikes me most forcefully (apart from the fact that adherents of both viewpoints seem to consider the outcomes they dread or desire as equally inevitably eventuating from the technological developments that preoccupy their notice) is that both May and Brin affirm at the base of their conceptions of social life a rather specific kind of individual subject. Whether uniquely imperiled or encouraged by surveillance, it is in each case a subject characterized essentially by the capacity to make promises and enter into reliable contractual obligations. It is at root a subject on the market. And true to this shared point of departure, both May and Brin sketch what amount to similarly utopian portraits of a society constituted in its totality by promises and contracts, attained either through or secured against the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance technologies.

I will read these shared assumptions in Chapter Three, “Markets Without Materiality,” through the lens of Michel Foucault’s use, in his book on the emergence of the modern prison, Discipline and Punish, of the figure of the Benthamite Panopticon (an ideal institutional architecture proposed to impose upon prisoners a presumably “beneficial” regime of absolute and total surveillance) to describe how the conscientious liberal subject of industrial capitalism has been constituted through discourses and practices of surveillance, broadly construed. What is intriguing to me is the extent to which May’s own “pancryptic” project reproduces rather than eludes the central features of the panopticon Brin would seem, on the contrary, to embrace. And central to the normative ideals of both crypto-anarchy and total transparency I observe a shared and definitive recourse to a discourse of privacy, treated either as indispensable to human freedom and dignity (in May and Hughes) or instead urgently to be dispensed with in pursuit of the same (in Brin), and for which privacy is taken to be above all else a matter primarily of secrecy.

This leads me, finally, to the work of N. Katherine Hayles. For Hayles, the history and preoccupations of information theory, from its inauguration in the Turing Test for personhood as a matter of adequacy in ideally mediated, disembodied conversation through to the contemporary vision of roboticist Hans Moravec to “upload” consciousness into imperishable data, has continually reiterated the gesture of an erasure of the body, and continually makes recourse to reductive accounts of communication as information flows or a play of patterns which disavow the definitive embodiment of these experiences. I propose that both the pancryptic and the panoptic utopias/dystopias of cypherpunks like Tim May and transparency advocates like David Brin, relying as they do on the technological facilitation of market norms either through the unprecedented consolidation or obliteration of the circulation of public information, represent a second, conspicuously political face of this dematerializing tendency in information theory. Market libertarian technophiles, often explicitly inspired by these information models, offer up accounts of political life and publish strident manifestoes demanding political transformation. Many of these accounts insistently denigrate and deny the reality of legitimate social and public experiences, while many more of them seem curiously oblivious likewise to the actual material complexities of the terrain to which they would address even their legitimate grievances. And few of these accounts seem even remotely prepared to grasp the significance of what seems to me a conspicuous contemporary rematerialization of new media networks, on which are flowing more and more palpably and significantly these days not so much any presumably disembodied digital information strongly susceptible to secrecy, but bodily secretions susceptible instead to biometric surveillance and to ownership by others as patentable sequences of information.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Against Fundamentalism and Cruelty: Russell’s “A Liberal Decalogue”

I just stumbled upon a lovely piece by Bertrand Russell, called “A Liberal Decalogue,” with which others may be well familiar but which I had never seen myself. It appears in his Autobiography, but apparently originated in an article for the New York Times in 1951, called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism.” It seems that liberalism has indeed long desired and deserved the self-image of a "reality-based community."

It is intriguing to set this alongside Judith Shklar’s definition of a liberal, made famous especially by Richard Rorty who took it up in his most important book so far, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Shklar has said that a liberal is “one for whom cruelty is the worst thing we do.” I append Shklar’s definition here to emphasise that while Russell’s piece may seem preoccupied with epistemology it is easy to discern a warm moralism in his ironical "Commandments."

Of course, even if you don’t want to pursue that particular line it is easy to see the relevance and usefulness of Russell’s skepticism in the service of truthfulness in an era boiling with Fundamentalists who, whether in priestly robes or lab-coats, imagine themselves conduits through which Truths greater and more sure than themselves flow and at the “promptings” of which too often too much blood is sure to flow, too.

Here, then, is Russell’s Decalogue, “not intended,” he writes, “to replace the old one but to supplement it.” This, he proposes, is his best effort to pithily sum up “the essence of the Liberal outlook.”
The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Random Wilde

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Snowball’s Chance in Hell (Holiday Cackles from the Balcony)

It has become something of an NPR tradition at Christmas time to replay David Sedaris’ "Santaland Diaries," a mildly funny, genial, utterly inoffensive trifle with about as much subversive bite as an episode of The Golden Girls.

Of course, the tradition-loving conservatives have always been notably selective about the “traditions” they are most eager to show their love. And for the rest? The shove.

While the conservatives seem conspicuously keen to conserve those traditions in which gays remain closeted, women and negroes remain servile, “religious” proprieties like public modesty and a relentlessly unwavering work ethic remain in force for the working poor and shrivelling middle-classes, and plenty of whores and cigars remain available for fat-assed fat-cat dullards and bullies to enjoy as they stoically contemplate whatever passes this year for the bottom-line, they exhibit indifference and even hostility to any number of traditions that manage to exceed the ambit of their rather dim, unadventurous imaginations.

As it happens, I often encourage Sedaris fans to direct their attention to the comedic genius of David’s sister Amy, and especially her radioactively incandescent series Strangers With Candy if they are looking for some for-real subversive comedy to noodle around with. And for those who act as though David’s NPR naughtiness is transformed by his bland homosexuality into some kind of sweeping critique of contemporary American hypocrisies a la Williams Burroughs, I encourage everyone to read instead (or at any rate additionally) the brilliant novels of Gary Indiana, whose sublime omnivorous queerness scalpels everything it touches, including himself, in a bloodbath that leaves you howling and a little shaky. (Resentment and Horse Crazy are his best novels, in my opinion.)

Anyway, this year NPR has seen fit to expurgate from the already vanilla-mild Santaland broadcast a potentially “offensive” minor bit involving flirtation among males. Here’s the passage (which I clipped from the ever-invaluable Atrios):
The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Snowball. Snowball tends to ham it up with the children, sometime literally tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I tend to frown on that sort of behavior but Snowball is hands down adorable -- you want to put him in your pocket. Yesterday we worked together as Santa Elves and I became excited when he started saying things like, "I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet!"

It made me dizzy, this flirtation.

By mid-afternoon I was running into walls. At the end of our shift we were in the bathroom, changing clothes, when suddenly we were surrounded by three Santas and five other elves -- all of them were guys that Snowball was flirting with.

Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas. He is playing a dangerous game.

As Eric pointed out to me, it’s rather flabbergasting that NPR’s robotic executives haven’t “done the math” (isn’t that, you know, “at the end of the day,” what these executive types are supposed to be good at?) and thought through the possibility that the fifty million Americans who voted for Kerry are likely to throng among the dwindling listener base of NPR, and that, more to the point, any hayseed dumbass benighted enough to find the passage in question “offensive” in the first place, whether they had the sense to vote for Kerry or not, certainly wouldn’t be among NPR’s listeners?

I am not among the progressives who are demanding the boycott or dismantlement of NPR because of their recent timidity and tremulousness -– funny how well-meaning liberal types can always be counted upon to do the bidding of Repugnican barking dogs and attack first the very sites in culture in which their own supporters, however insipid scared and compromised they may be, are most likely to reside -– but I do think NPR should be badgered and humiliated forthwith into doing the right thing.

Clearly they are scared of their own shadows, and if they can be bullied by brainless death-mongering pre-moderns of the Repugnican persuasion from covering war atrocities in the newsroom or diversity in their cultural programming, then they can be bullied by the likes of us into doing the right thing just as easily.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Congratulations WorldChanging!

Utne Magazine has awarded my favorite blog WorldChanging with the Independent Press Award for 2004 BEST ONLINE CULTURAL COVERAGE for 2004! I hope this draws a bazillion eyeballs to drink them in!

"Driven by a vision of progressive collaboration and reform, WorldChanging explores the democratizing potential of modern technology with sharp insight and unwavering idealism."

Another World Is Here!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Part Two

The concluding part of my two-column series "The Trouble With 'Transhumanism'" is now online and poised to sweep the world. Take a look and let me know if you like it. Also, as always, feel free to share any brickbats, bitcheries, or befuddlements I may have aroused in you. This sequel is sunnier I think than the somewhat grumpy opener, but perhaps not all will agree with me on that.

The Random Wilde (Possible New Year's Resolution Edition)

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Cackles From the Balcony

The President hopes to shave social security of security and thereby to “save” society from the kind of government that solves problems, since, after all, like any good neo-conman he’s agin’ gu’ment (even if, as Eric notes, his only successes in a distended career of personal and business disasters have involved his efforts to run governments, if only thereafter to run them into the ground).

All the while, perplexed liberals and others with brains sigh that market fundamentalists falsely flutter about an impending crisis by spewing economic projections so dire they would provoke an economic collapse sufficiently sweeping to nudge even a rosily reformed social security into catastrophe along with everything else, meanwhile promising easy money to them as gets with the reform program all on the basis of breathtakingly optimistic projections of happy returns on their privatized “contributions.” Perhaps the curious co-existence of these sad and ecstatic economic futures amounts for certain well-placed conservatives to the simple difference between a world in which they imagine themselves the beneficiaries of epic theft as opposed to one in which they are not.

That none of this makes much sense as a policy prescription is scarcely an abiding hurdle, however, so long as the conservative media releases the usual plague of toads to “convince” via the same interminable repetition that "elected" Bush for his support of the Kyoto Protocol he disdains, his support of the troops he recklessly kills, his concern for security he ignores to line the pockets of his billionaire friends, because of the WMD in Iraq that don’t exist, and the Saddam/Osama connection that doesn’t exist either that there is a crisis a-brewing for which only the genius of the market (read: corporate welfare for me, market discipline for thee) can “resolve.”

As they contemplate the pointless consequent ruin of their lives Bush’s benighted supporters can always blame gay marriage and political correctness for their lot.

Meanwhile, our Cardiologist in Chief, to swipe Bull Moose’s felicitous phrasing, assures us that like sinister smug Vladimir Putin, homespun horrorshow Donald Rumsfeld has, in fact, “a good heart.” One wonders what Dear Leader has to say on this score about his Vice President.

While I am too distracted by the thought that in a hooded terrycloth robe our Secretary of Defense would be literally indistinguishable from Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi to accurately assess the extent of goodness or not incarnated in Rumsfeld’s heart, one has to wonder if even the swamp-dwelling fundamentalists (of both the market and Christological varieties) who constitute his base may wonder if Bush’s heart-detection apparatus may be somewhat on the fritz at this point, or if, indeed, his own heart is quite where it should be.

Possibly the ongoing liberal secular onslaught against Christmas that has so exercised the mainstream imagination of loofah-loving Bill O’Reilly has likewise shriveled Dear Leader’s own ticker, rather like the Grinch’s was before he heard that swelling defibrillating chorus of penitent Whos.

As Eric recently pointed out to me, the happiness of the happy holidays is more or less the happiness of capitalism buzzing like a baby from Thanksgiving through to New Year’s Day, a scared up saga of ongoing relentless consumption and self-loathing invented by Coke, Hallmark, and Macy’s more than any sinister cabal of liberals demanding decent respect (the horror! the horror!) for Jews and atheists and other undesirable Hollywood types from the infinitely put-upon gun-toting wife-beating middlebrow Whites of America’s Bible-Belt this season or any other.

Nevertheless, the War Against Christmas (which can only be won by smothering the world in Christmas, utterly) captures perfectly the flavor of hysterical victimhood of Bush voters who despite literally controlling every branch of government and every public institution except for the annual MLA Convention (and who after all listens to what people in English Departments have to say?) still feel endlessly belittled and embattled and embittered.

I cannot for the life of me imagine where all this is going. But, you know, happy holidays to you and your’n.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Random Wilde

At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.

More on Democratic Supraintelligence

Provocation, inspiration, and friend Paul Hughes of the always lovely FutureHi collaborative blog has linked to an Amor Mundi post from last month, “Democratic Supraintelligence,” to which he has appended interesting comments of his own, and which has inspired something it didn’t manage to do in its first life here -– set an interesting conversation into motion. Have a look, and by all means weigh in this time around if you like.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Difficulty With Scripture

It tells you enough to get interested, but never enough to be of any immediate use.--Corwin of Amber

Friday, December 17, 2004

New Column Up

Part One of my latest two-part Progressive Futures column has been published over on BetterHumans. It's called, "The Trouble With 'Transhumanism'". Check it out and let me know what you think. The somewhat more constructive and positive-toned concluding Part Two will arrive early next week.

Cackles From the Balcony

Eric has directed my attention to this delightful dispatch from the front of the culture wars, via Media Week...

The number of indecency complaints ha[s] soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year, [FCC Chair] Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.”

All this reflects, no doubt, the latest Great Awakening of muscular Christianity in our country, as the Good Country People re-take the reins from the faggots and Jews and tofu eaters and uppity negroes and witches of the National Organization of Women, re-invigorating a war-loving gun-loving pollution-loving capital-punishment-loving Culture of Life in our long benighted One Nation under One God. Oh, but, what's this?
What Powell did not reveal—apparently because he was unaware—was the source of the complaints... nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group....

That's right. 99.8 percent of the complaints on the basis of which the creaking calliope of conservative media is coughing up the latest hairball of censorious moralizing are coming from a single location in culture -- a clatch of pinched church ladies and patriarchal prigs from some slaveholding swamp or tornado torn plain are dictating to the sprawling millions of huddled masses yearning to breathe free or at any rate enjoy the heady distraction of trash television just what culture should look like.

Reasonably enough, the article continues on,
The prominent role played by the PTC has raised concerns among critics of the FCC’s crackdown on indecency. “It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio,” said Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an artists’ advocacy group.

But of course the snake-handling fascists of the PTC could not disagree more:
“I wish we had that much power,” said Lara Mahaney.... Mahaney said the issue should not be the source of complaints, but whether programming violates federal law prohibiting the broadcast of indecent matter when children are likely to be watching.

They really do talk this way. Bloated with power like a tick on a pig, the unslakable conservative lust for power is scarcely satisfied by a literally unilateral imposition of its wishes on the FCC, any more than Repugnicans are satisfied with the ownership of every branch of the gu'ment they claim to disdain. And then, incarnating indecency, they flutter and extol: "Won't somebody please think of the children?"
“Why does it matter how the complaints come?” Mahaney said. “If the networks haven’t done anything illegal, if they haven’t done anything indecent, why do they care what we say?”

Quite so. Why should we. Let's all stop now, shall we?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Random Wilde

Imagination is a quality given a man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humor was provided to console him for what he is.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Understanding Movement Conservatism (And Defeating It)

Modern movement conservatism is driven by two impulses, the selective deregulation of "the economy" and the selective regulation of culture.

The “deregulation” of economic transactions benefits moneyed elites who have the advantage of capital, influence, and knowledge, and can always duress a “consensual” transaction to their own benefit. The regulation of cultural expression benefits the members of traditional moral communities distressed by the instability of modern techno-cultures.

Thoughtful, democratically-minded people are hypnotized by the contemplation of the apparent contradictions that drive such a movement. This conservative movement is a veritable assembly line generating scores of striking paradoxes and hypocrisies for its victims to document interminably as they are haplessly fed into its machinery. But the analysis of these contradictions is too often a superficial distraction from the actual work of defeating these movement conservatives.

The conservative drumbeat of deregulation without end is not driven by a libertarian hostility to government as such -- though some of its partisans sometimes selectively employ this rhetoric to justify their policies and plans. Movement conservatism is always only hostile to any regulation that hampers the short-term profit-making of the moneyed elites who direct the movement. Of course, the United States massively subsidizes research, production, and trade, and the conservatives would certainly have this state of affairs continue indefinitely. The United States is a planned economy occasionally playing desultorily at laissez-faire, and the proof of this is not to be found in our grudging tattered compromised social welfare programs but in the vast State cathedral that is the Department of Defense.

Religious conservatives and Big Business conservatives are both powerful minorities ruthlessly holding on to power in a complex techno-cultural world that has little need for either of them.

The apparent contradictions in their respective programs are all resolved at the straightforward pragmatic level of political alliance.

Liberals must not emerge from their latest reading of What’s the Matter With Kansas? or comparable tomes believing that religious conservatives don’t really truly want the to see the regulation of culture to better reflect their own parochial values above all else. They honestly do. Even if social insecurity exacerbates the urgency with which religious conservatives hold on to their values it is mistaken to assume that cultural values are therefore actually displacements of these questions of social insecurity. Even if it is often true that moneyed minorities are themselves secular and utterly cynical about the value-preferences of their cultural allies, this does not make the cultural conservatives dupes of moneyed elites ripe for liberal enlightenment and populist revolt. The conservative alliance may be troubled, as political alliances often are, but it is a working alliance, and an alliance that is delivering extraordinary results that are frankly unimaginable for either partner without the participation of both.

We are immersed in globe-girding information and communication networks that confront us with alternate practices of spirituality, meaning-making, and self-creation with which slow-paced slow-witted traditional fundamentalisms cannot hope to compete for our attention or our new needs. Meanwhile, scientific knowledge and technological development exposes the pretensions of traditional elites that they are uniquely deserving of their privileges or uniquely indispensable in complex techno-cultures constantly churning up new opportunities, problems, desires, difficulties.

The proliferative provision of free content online, free software/creative commons models of intellectual property, peer-to-peer networks, emerging modes of technologically facilitated co-operation and collaboration, gift and favor networks, guaranteed minimum income and zerowork movements, sustainability movements, leapfrog societies in the developing world -- these are the forces that threaten to undermine the authority of cultural and moneyed elites. And these are the forces that democratically minded people need to champion and nurture to defeat movement conservatism.

Meanwhile, movement democrats need to recognize the real power of their voices and their contributions to contemporary partisan politics that would enlist our aid and demand our dollars, all rendered especially conspicuous over the last half decade by the ambivalent partisan recourse to digital networks. We must demand that the DNC which claims to speak in our name re-write itself in the image of our actual values -- peace, fairness, sustainability, self-creation, diversity, and science.

Social Security, the DNC, and the Movement Democrats

Everybody knows that the Republicans have now set their gun sights on Social Security, one of the most conspicuously successful government programs left in the United States. From the perspective of partisan politics this amounts, absurdly enough, to a do or die moment.

The President claims that the program faces impending disaster. This is a lie. A L – I – E.

Even on the most pessimistic economic assumptions the system remains perfectly intact until 2045, at which point it could continue to pay out 75% of its benefits -- and all of this assumes that more responsible and modest efforts at reform preserving the spirit of the program would not be undertaken between now and then, when certainly they would be. Republican designs on the Social Security program are themsevles by far the most conspicuous threat Social Security faces today.

Democrats have literally no choice but to call the President on this appalling lie, and to defend the program for its success and indispensability. And so this must be the turn of the tide (or at any rate the latest opportunity for a turning of the tide).

Democrats simply cannot pretend that their Republican neighbors across the aisle are well-meaning partners in the project of functional democracy. The Republicans want to dismantle what remains of legitmate democracy and to consolidate the power of the special minorities of which their alliance consists.

The "partial privatization" of social security would drive unprecedented money into the hands of the financial service sector that represents much of the conservative moneyed constituency, while driving people for social support into the Mega Churches that represent much of their cultural constituency. It is as simple as that.

Movement conservatives cannot be reasoned with on this issue, they can only be fought. There can be no compromise here. The DNC, stinking with the rot of its DLC handlers, risked complete historical irrelevance in failing to oppose the obscene evil and predictable disaster of the Iraq War, and now confronts an exactly comparable test.

The devastating series of electoral losses of the last decade for the DNC look distressingly like nails in a coffin. (And frankly I think Ross Perot is more responsible for the first bright spot in this long ongoing electoral devastation than the DLC is, while Bill Clinton’s own impeccable skill as a politician coupled with the usual power of incumbency in an upswing of the business cycle virtually assured the second.)

An alternate archipelago of "movement democrats," of digital grassroots progressives like MoveOn and Democracy for America, and of new progressive media like Air America, the documentary film movement, and the liberal blogosphere are all emerging to confront the movement conservatives head on, to embrace the tide of technological change that defines our epoch, and demand justice from this historical moment.

If the DNC wants to be relevant in our day, it must be re-invigorated by the force of the movement democrats, and must conspicuously re-affirm its commitment to real equality, to general welfare, to diversity, to world peace, to science, and to progress.

Picking Howard Dean as party chair would be a step in the right direction (and I speak as somebody who never supported Dean as a candidate for President, preferring the more liberal and statesmanlike Kerry to Dean from the beginning -– and I still think Kerry was incomparably better as a candidate, would have made a great President in this particular historical moment, and hell I still think he may have actually won the goddamn election).

Anyway, movement democrats must recognize that those who strive to retain their power against the grain of history are actually opponents who must be fought unambiguously and defeated utterly. The good news is that even the conservatives themsevles will better thrive in the peaceful, prosperous, democratic world we are fighting them for than they could ever manage in the crabbed patriarchal superstitious hellholes they are fighting to maintain.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

AAR Latest

[Associated Press, via Seattle-Post Intelligencer]:

NEW YORK -- Air America Radio, a startup radio network that offers liberal talk and commentary, has signed a new contract with comedian Al Franken to stay on as its lead personality for at least two more years....

Air America also said that Rob Glaser, the chairman and chief executive of the technology company RealNetworks Inc., had joined the company as the chairman of its board. Glaser has also been an investor in the company....

Air America also signed a new contract with Randi Rhodes, another popular radio personality, for three years. Its contract with Franken is for two years, with an option to extend for another year... Air America also said it had new commitments of $13 million from investors.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Prosthetic Prolongation Will Predominate Even If Majorities Refuse It

I recently heard the Canadian philosopher Mark Walker make the interesting argument that should medical science advance enough to indefinitely prolong life-spans -- as many serious scientists like Aubrey de Grey are compellingly arguing might come to pass surprisingly soon -- then straightforward number crunching suggests the number of conventionally mortal people would come to represent a vanishingly small minority in relatively short order.

And this is true, Walker suggests, even on the most conservative assumptions –- such as (1) that only one in ten people adopt these technologies (when surely the proportion would be much higher in fact, as is the proportion who make recourse to contemporary medicine to more modestly prolong their lives in the face of disease and misfortune today) and (2) that only those who refuse such prolongation reproduce (one can imagine governments imposing such a restriction as a condition of longevity to ameliorate overpopulation pressures, for example, though it is unlikely).

For Walker the upshot of his argument is that what he calls “universal immortality” is “inevitable.”

As it happens, I have a lot of discomfort around technophilic “inevitability” arguments for hypothesized technological capacities. This is because in my view they tend to have the self-image of being scientific claims when their lack of caveats and evidence tend to make them function much more like conventional claims of faith.

Also I think unobjectionably broad discussions of technological inevitability (of the form: "if a desirable technological capacity can exist according to the laws of physics, then, other things being equal, eventually it very likely will") typically shift very quickly and rather sloppily into completely unsubstantiated claims about the comparable inevitability of expectations about the specific form, pace, distribution of effects, and significance of particular hypothesized technologies. The latter claims will often in fact simply be straightforward expressions of personal value or desire rather than testable claims about matters of fact, but with pretensions to the contrary.

On an altogether separate note, I also happen to think it is deeply mistaken for technophiles to confuse the idea of the likely prosthetic prolongation of lifespan through medical means with the essentially theological notion of immortality in the first place. "Immortality" seems to me a notion freighted with implications, confusions, hopes, and significances that prosthetic prolongation does not in fact speak to at all. Nor should it really want to take that business on as far as I can see.

In any case, I think that once you are talking about superlative states [skip over to the archived entry on June 12 for some more on this] like "superlongevity" the interesting difference will not be between currently normatively mortal people as against superlongevous ones (if that's a word), anyhow. The differences that make a difference will surely be between biological and nonbiological and postbiological persons, recognizably continuous and singular as against noncontinuous, collective, proliferative persons, etc.

For every one of these varieties of prosthetic personhood the manner of the life so prolonged will easily be as different from one another as the difference to any of them from more conventionally (to us) mortal persons.

I think lumping together these many techno-enabled modes of life-prolongation under the single heading of "universal immortality" as Walker and other technophiles often want to do would appear quaint at best to the lucky collaborators in superlative-state technocultures to come. I doubt the persons who instantiate the extremely lengthy (to us) varieties of prosthetic personhood will see themselves as all participating in the same process or exhibiting the same trait.

Anyway, I also think there is likely to be an ongoing and stable minority of recognizably mortal persons even in what we would consider superlative-state technocultures, as an occasional matter of cultural identity or personal aesthetics. But since this would likely be much more a matter of choice for them than it is for the likes of us, it seems even any lingering mortality would be transformed in its implications radically from our own experience of it.

My own guess is that this would be a negligible minority among the others (largely for the reasons Walker’s argument spells out: even a long-lived minority would outlive a conventionally mortal majority until few of the latter would remain, assuming at least a minority in every subsequent generation would opt as well for prolongation). But even if I bracket my doubts about the usefulness of smudging together the many radically different forms prosthetic personhood will likely take under the single term "immortality," I think the persistence of a negligible minority of discretionary mortals robs the argument of any "universal" conclusion.

Friday, December 03, 2004

MundiMuster! It's Your Money, Redux

I'm not so keen on the idea of rewarding corporate patronage of the Dems, who are clearly already too beholden to moneyed elites to the cost of us all, but the idea of punishing the conspicuous corporate patronage of Repugnicans goes down real smooth, if you ask me. Here's a site that has collected and categorized such information in a nicely convenient way.

ChooseTheBlue tells you what corporations donated to political parties.

If each American who voted for John Kerry spends $100 in 2005 on a Blue company instead of a Red company, we can move $5 Billion away from Republican companies and add $5 Billion to the income of companies who donate to Democrats.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Framing Framing

I am very pleased to see Democrats slowly coming alive to the significance of rhetoric in campaigning, an awareness that seems to be attributable very largely to the efforts of George Lakoff (or perhaps his recent high profile is rather a symptom of this wider shift). But I think it is crucial that all the useful talk of "effective framing" not become yet another occasion for liberals to endlessly assume personal responsibility (and so indulge in a fantasy of personal control) for structural conditions that are not in fact susceptible to remedy this way.

It doesn't matter how compelling your frame when the owners won't let you put your art up on the wall. Conservative media are a hurdle that cannot be overcome by even the most perfect framing of liberal values, goals, and policies.

Conservatives largely drive the news cycle. Even if many reporters and columnists are at least notionally liberal (as is usually the case with educated people), the owners of most media are conspicuously not. And the short segments and infotainment-aesthetic of commercial broadcasting create structural impediments to the discussion of policy as opposed to the endless circulation of gossip and conjuration of dramatic "confrontations" between personalities -- a condition that favors the conservative personalities (typically yes-men figureheads for moneyed elites) over liberal policy-makers (who typically govern well but campaign badly).

What must happen, along with the new experimentalism and heightened awareness of the importance of effective rhetoric, is the creation of real alternative but mainstream media through which liberal framing can express itself in the first place. This means that Air America Radio needs to keep acquiring affiliates (in so-called swing states, in large markets like LA and Chicago, and especially in Washington, DC), the emerging liberal flogosphere and digital grassroots organizing archipelago need to continue networking together, the talk of a liberal television network (possibly involving Al Gore?) needs to bear fruit...

Also, it is important to remember that the conservative think-tanks progressives bemoan these days came into existence precisely because conservative intellectuals couldn't cut it in the academy, and that much of the fundamentalist Mega-Church grassroots organizing and social service provision happening now on the right is a pale contemporary reflection of the Union Halls, Labor programs and organizing that once invigorated the American left. These movements and institutions and resources are tattered and torn but they are a world awaiting re-invigoration and re-invention.

Those who imagine the left confronts thirty years of building a culture to confront the contemporary conservative leviathan mistake the extent to which so many of the pieces from which a fighting left can be assembled are lying around in wait right now. They also fail to grasp the extent to which conservative effectiveness has derived from the special discipline and urgency of a desperate minority fighting to retain their hold on power and wealth they can no longer justify except to themselves and to defend values that strain against the broad currents of global culture.

Cackles from the Balcony

[via Salon] Karl Rove assures the readers of Newsweek that the President will place "strict constructionist" judges on the federal benches. No doubt, as Eric has pointed out to me, the reinstitutionalization of slavery in the United States will make some "Hollywood-types" in our nation's Cities and Universities pout and whine, but after all who cares what they think?

Rove also said of the President, "he values life, and he means it." Given the President's ferocious lust for ever more guns, ever more wars, ever more pollution, and ever more executions in American life could anybody honestly doubt his deep love of the life thing? Don't worry, Karl, we know well by now what your boy really values and how he means it.

Fundamentalist Devils, Postmodernist Angels

The Blight of “values” discourse continues to spread across the punditocratic terrain. The Wittgensteinian "whereof/thereof" has never seemed more fitting. (I see that Michael Kinsley reliably seems to be in a similarly snarky mood on this subject these days.)

Anyway, Anthony Stavrianakis in Spiked-Online writes about the rise of so-called “intelligent design” arguments (that is to say, fundamentalist Christians and others with one foot in the twenty-first century and another in the thirteenth, who decry the teaching of the theory of evolution in high school biology classrooms either because they are unpardonably ignorant or stupid themselves, or because they are simply eager to cynically manipulate others who are unpardonably ignorant or stupid to tighten their grip on power to serve their financial or otherwise socially conservative agendas).

Stavrianakis has tired, he says, of all the “well-worn clichés about the 'deep' south and redneck fundamentalist Christianity” that come up when talk turns to “intelligent design.” No, Stavrianakis chooses to focus his ire instead on “the value relativism characteristic of twenty-first century political debate.” It’s not all about hicks banning Darwin, folks, despite all appearances to the contrary, it’s... wait for it... elite, academic “post-modernists” who are to blame!

Stavrianakis is right to suggest that “I[ntelligent] D[esign] is less a critique of evolution than a political agenda,” and he may be right that at least occasionally “it feeds off a trait in political and scientific debate today whereby differing opinions are considered equally valid.” But I doubly disagree with the significance of this latter claim.

First, as someone trained and working in the belly of the “post-modern” beast (I’m in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley), I think his characterization of the environment of contemporary literary and cultural studies as a kind of empty-headed value-blindness is mistaken -- as is, come to think of it, any suggestion that humanistic intellectuals exercise much in the way of cultural authority in the United States these days in any case -- a mischaracterization that is driven by its own “political agenda.”

Second, the problem in my view is not any ominous “value-relativism” holding sway in diverse liberal secular cultures (if only!) which is somehow eating away at the solid science of stolid scientists. Precisely to the contrary, it is the stubborn consolidation of incompatible faith-based fundamentalisms that is clearly the trouble here. The clashing beliefs among fundamentalists are simply not amenable to rational disagreement or peaceful reconciliation in the first place. Meanwhile, this welter of incompatibly diverse believers intimately co-habit a techno-cultural world that is far too complex and unstable for them to accommodate successfully without making a few key adjustments at least in their public outlooks and practices (just like everybody else). Of course, most of these adjustments will look quite a lot like precisely the kind of “value relativism” Stavrianakis is decrying here as the problem at hand.

Science is a vast social and cultural project in which human beings collaborate to produce descriptions of the environment that deliver ever-greater instrumental and predictive power. A number of standards, methods, protocols, and norms, as well as a vast archive of historical descriptions and tools have accumulated to serve these ends.

Literary and cultural criticism sometimes seems to want to re-write itself in the image of science these days. Usually this is because some scholars want to make practical contributions to political ends and think of their work as documentary projects exposing ideology and yielding educational benefits akin to those of muckraking journalism. Or sometimes it is just because university administrators often seem to value research that confers instrumental power over that which confers meaning, and so some humanities scholars try to adjust the language of their projects to attract adequate funding. But the truth is that there is all the difference in the world between describing the world and appreciating it, and all the difference in the world between the indispensable work of science and that of criticism.

“What is worrying is that politically conservative Christianity has leapt on the contemporary idea that criticism means disagreement, rather than evidence-based critique,” writes Stavrianakis, restating a cracked conservative chestnut. Criticism is interested in documenting and appreciating the different ways in which individuals and cultures have made their inhabitation of the world meaningful to them. Science is interested in proposing and testing descriptions of the world to see the use of which ones deliver the greatest powers of prediction and control.

These are two distinguishable enterprises.

A cultural critic might study the way in which a particular Christian fundamentalist poet or politician reconciles the practice of their faith with the implications of evolutionary theory. Over the course of this project the critic might even consider the ways in which the strategies of the fundamentalist might parallel those of a particular atheist in interesting ways. But it would be strange indeed for the critic to suggest that the resulting work should be taught as a candidate-description rivalling an evolutionary description for scientific belief, and fit for testing as such. That would be exactly as odd as thowing a poem into a beaker of solution and calling the soggy aftermath a "reading."

Science attains after a kind of universality (at least at a generality that exhibits repeatability), but criticism is content to illuminate singularities as often as not (which can but need not exhibit a selective applicability beyond themselves).

It is true that scientists in their enthusiasm sometimes seem to bite off more than they can chew. They sometimes speak as though they are certain of what can inspire at best strong confidence. They sometimes speak as though descriptions are final when they can only be just the best on offer. They sometimes speak as though the grasp of consequences trumps the need for meanings, or deny the saturation of their own practice with singularity and meaning-making projects that speak to values other than their scientific ones. In such moments, scientists seem to me at best like poets, but at worst more like fundamentalists themselves than like proper scientists.

Criticism is useful for discerning these moments, appreciating them for their beauty, exposing them for their pretensions. But however useful it can sometimes be, criticism is not science and shouldn’t mistake itself or be mistaken as such. This is a vital strength of criticism, not a liability.

“Politically conservative Christianity is nothing to be concerned about in and of itself,” writes Stavrianakis, but I couldn’t disagree more. Politically conservative Christianity, in at least its American fundamentalist version, is driving or at any rate has been hijacked in the service of a project to re-write the secular American republic (such as it is) in the image of a secretive, defensive, moralistic, monolithic, militaristic republic with the means at its disposal to destroy the world (and it is the avowed desire of many of its partisans that such an outcome come to pass). You better believe this is something to be concerned about!

But I agree with Stavrianakis that it is “when [fundamentalist faith] comes masked as a progressive scientific theory [that] questions must be asked.” What I want to insist on here is that there is a distinction between values (of which there are a diversity of valid forms that make individual lives more meaningful) and scientific hypotheses (the differing candidates for belief among which are susceptible to testing by powerful standards known and affirmed by consensus scientific culture). Rather like the separation of Church and State, the crucial distinction of scientific from moral belief relies for its intelligibility and force on precisely the kind of tolerant, liberal, secular sensibilities conservatives like to disdain as “relativist."

Stavrianakis points to some interesting reasonable-seeming coded phrases and injunctions such as that educators should “teach the controversy” or “appreciate complexity,” both of which are often used by faith-based anti-evolutionists to introduce a wedge into the teaching of consensus science in biology classes. This is similar to the way in which paid scientific shills for corporate fat cats who care more about their profits than about the suffering caused by smoking cigarettes or the vast dislocations threatened by climate change like to deploy the reasonable-seeming phrase “sound science” to impose impossibly high standards of scientific certainty on reasonable belief and thereby create doubts about the verdicts of consensus science to frustrate reasonable, scientifically-literate regulations in the service of the public good.

This is not anything new. Rhetoric is exactly as old as science is, and if Stavrianakis wants to ensure that the descriptions at which consensus science arrives remain the force for public good they can be, I would suggest he pay more attention to the insights that “value relativist” cultural critics and rhetoricians have long understood and taken into account ourselves, rather than blaming us for the pernicious impact of anti-science social conservatism driven by the twin projects to consolidate the wealth of one minority against the majority, and to consolidate the moral/religious culture of another minority against the majority.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

More on the "Red Shift"

The latest data expose the curious "Red Shift" of election results from exit polls more exhaustively and conclusively than ever. We now know that forty-two of the fifty-one states in the Union swung towards George Bush while only nine swung towards Kerry, and there is still no satisfying explanation for this unprecedented discrepancy.

Exacerbating the perplexities is the fact that many of the states that swung against John Kerry swung to an extent that is well beyond the margin of error in exit polls. Exit polls - which simply ask voters how they actually voted rather than about their intentions - have historically been highly accurate.

Democratic Supraintelligence

Technophiles who drift uncomfortably in the direction of the megalomaniacal end of the temperamental spectrum often wax enthusiastic about the near term arrival of post-biological superintelligence. Undaunted by the relentless deferment of the "inevitable" arrival of even the modest artificial intelligence we've been promised interminably by enthusiasts for decades, they warn of and (let's be frank) pine for the near-term and inevitable arrival of greater-than-human artificial intelligence to this day in the same urgent, sometimes hushed, tones.

Not to delve too deep into my skepticism about this way of thinking, I will simply suggest that these starry-eyed projections (1) tend to overestimate our theoretical grasp of intelligence in general, (2) tend to underestimate the extreme bumpiness we should expect along the developmental pathways from which the relevant technologies could arrive, (3) tend to assume that these technologies, upon arrival, would function more smoothly than technologies almost ever do, and (4) tend to exhibit a rather stark obliviousness about the extent to which what we call technological development is articulated in fact not just by the accumulation of technical accomplishments but by social, cultural, and political factors as well, in consequence of which they simply rarely take these adequately into account at all.

I will leave as an exercise for their various psychotherapists the exposition of the perplexing particulars that drive these enthusiasts to ignore so much that is palpable when they declaim their pornographically implausible apocalyptic and transcendentalizing techno-transformative scenarios as inevitabilities. More interesting to me is the more modest suggestion that technologically mediated forms of intelligence, deliberation, collaboration, as well as prosthetic and neuroceutical amplifications of our capacities for concentration, memory, and other cognitive processes may soon put us in a better position to solve for once some of the deep and dangerous problems that confront us all -- many of these problems exacerbated for now beyond our reckoning by ongoing technological developments themselves.

Rather than figuring these hopes and fears for intelligence through what amounts to a rather embarrassingly adolescent-boy imaginary populated conspicuously by scary monsters, mecha metal, and bulging superheros (superintelligence: a mode of superlatively private, autonomous individual agencies), I prefer to figure them instead through the frame of technologically invigorated processes of democratic collaboration, contestation, and responsibility (supraintelligence: a mode of superlatively public, interdependent individual agencies).

Against the usually sociopathic fantasies of the curiously many techno-enthuisiasts who appear to want to craft and code pristine superintelligences with which to endow their robot armies, I dream instead of air-dropping billions of networked computers across the world, to weave more and more perspectives, desires, and intelligences into the global web.

(It's one good dream among many, of course -- and not one I hold in exclusion or preference to the ones that impel work to bring adequate food and medicine and shelter and transparent authorities to everybody as well -- there are many good and important dreams to choose from, after all.)

Anyway, I just noticed, via my favorite blog WorldChanging, that a company called SolarPC has announced the availability of a $100 personal computer called the SolarLite. It burns just 10 watts, has an aluminium case with a 20 year warranty, a lead free motherboard, is loaded up with free software, and the company is ready to fill orders of 100,000 units or more right about now. There are questions about the energy requirements of the computer, its monitor, and other things, so clearly this isn't an end-all and be-all they're talking about here, but the technological facilitation of democratic supraintelligence sometimes feels so near you can just taste it, can't you? So much better than dwelling a single day more on the dreary debacle of November 2!

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Another Stunning Earthshattering Mandate

It looks as if Republican Dino Rossi came out ahead in the recent recount for Washington Governor, by 42 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast. Could the decent conservative folks of Washington State have made more palpable, really, the nova-hot urgency with which they clamor to a man to dismantle the welfare state, to snatch away from women their abortifacients and birth control pills, to install a muscular Christian theocracy in which the faithful can await the Rapture in peace without the endless annoyances that accompany diverse, educated societies with relatively thriving middle-classes, for a screaming rain of bullets and bombs upon oil-rich lands everywhere, and for a deliriously expanded exhalation of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere? Could, like, the will of the people be more obvious?

It's Your Money

According to, "[s]ixteen company PACs [donated] 90% or more to Republicans. They include the federal PACs of

Phillips Int'l. (100%)
Cooper Industries (100%)
Flowers Industries (100%)
Harris Corp. (98%)
Illinois Toolworks (97%)
Outback Steakhouse (96%)
ExxonMobil (96%)
National City Corp. (95%)
Wendy's Int' l. (93%)
Anadarko Petroleum (92%)
Timken Corp. (91%)
Halliburton (91%)
Meadwestvaco Corp (90%)
Darden Restaurants Inc. (90%)
Branch Banking & Trust Co (90%)
Int'l Paper (90%)"

To these, Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, points out a few big-name corporations that donate disproportionately to Republicans over Democrats in more like the 80-90% range:

Caterpillar (89%)
J.C. Penny's, Inc. (89%)
Goodyear Tire, (89%)
Conoco Philips (89%)
Smithfield Foods (88%)
Chevron/Texaco (87%)
Ford Motor Company (84%)
Cigna Corporation (83%)
Owens Corning (83%)
Conagra Foods (83%)
Home Depot, Inc. (81%)
Baxter Healthcare (81%)
3M (80%)

Of course the smug sociopaths who impel the monstrous machineries of corporate globalization relentlessly on in their murderous motion have the kind of mutilated inner lives that drive them to covet a single extra dollar bill added to the smudged stinking wad in their pocket even if doing so demands they reduce the world to a smoking cinder with nothing left worth spending it on, but that doesn't mean that you have to help them do it.

And before you howl that the Democrats are just as beholden and compromised to the poisoned spigot.... Sure, sure, I know what you mean, and of course you're right to a point. The Democrats must be beholden to democracy and not oligarchy, else what's the point? But it's stoopid to deny differences that make a difference, and we have one here.

Jerome Armstrong goes on to point out in his that there is "a 10:1 ratio in the number of corporations favoring Republicans over Democrats, but for the actual money, it's much higher, 25:1 or greater." Spade's a spade time, people, and you know what to do.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Lynch Lapses, Praises Safliar

Zack Lynch pauses a moment in his ongoing contribution to provocative and useful neuroethical and neurocultural commentary to note that William Safire, “a giant” (indeed… but a giant what, one wants to know?), is leaving the troubled New York Times.

Lynch’s Brain Waves blog is a consistently excellent source of news and provocative speculation about neuroceutical research and neuroethical quandaries. I really loved his recent discussion of “enablement” as an alternate frame to break the unproductive conceptual deadlock of “therapy versus enhancement” as a way to leverage insights about the propriety of particular proposed genetic or cognitive medical interventions, for example. I would love to see how a discourse of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive “enablement” might weave into the too-technophobic too bio-conservative default discourse of disability studies in ways that could help us insist on a medical practice that spreads freedom rather than imposing conformity in the name of “health.”

Anyway, Safire apparently coined the term “neuroethics” and is off to work with the Dana Foundation, which is preoccupied with neuroscience research, so it makes perfect sense that Lynch would note Safire’s move there. But you really have to wonder what impels the suggestion that Safire is a “giant,” a font of continuing “insights” and “many notable contributions”...? Perhaps Lynch refers to the stunning mountain range of “career peaks” documented by Eric Boehlert in today’s Salon, “William Safire’s Dubious Legacy”?

Reading Lynch’s encomium I had that sick feeling in my stomach I get every damn time I realize that yet another person on whose insights I rely on matters of technological analysis reveals themselves as someone who endorses or celebrates a facile market libertarian or hard conservative political bent (always embarrassing in a thinking person you otherwise respect, but today in Bush’s America frankly flabbergasting).

I really think somebody needs to update Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument to explain just why it is that tech temperaments are drawn to conservative politics.

(And, no, railing at “postmodernists” -- whoever they’re supposed to be -- is not an adequate solution, nor is offering up another self-congratulatory declaration of the existence of a “Third Culture,” which amounts largely to scientists often awkwardly commandeering some questions that preoccupy humanist intellectuals, re-writing problems of ethics and morals and esthetics and politics in the image of [usually] evolutionary biology or [occasionally] subatomic physics by applying a few rough-and-tumble analogies in an embarrassingly loose fashion or a relentlessly reductive fashion, all the while refusing to engage in more than a superficial way in any of the actual conversations long underway among scholars, intellectuals, artists, academics in the humanities themselves, except, you know, to deride them, even the many of them who do indeed take the trouble to understand the relevant science – I know, I know... bitter, much?)

So, anyhoozle, is the liber-techian seduction simply a matter of an aversion to the messy give-and-take of ongoing political negotiation, I wonder? Is it the time-consuming sometimes tedious often fraught rough-and-tumble of irreconcilable contending stakeholders that lures so many radical tech-types to accept too quickly and too uncritically sedimented political formations and assumptions as good enough?

To the extent that the American market-fundamentalist pseudo-spectrum from neoliberal to neoconservative to market libertarian politics tries to figure “liberty” as a kind of neutral absence of personal violation (disavowing all the contingent positive values on which this relies for its sense and maintenance), and then pretends that proper social order can emerge spontaneously through the workings of a largely mythical “free market” (a shorthand for indefinitely many possible and historical legal and institutional arrangements, assumptions, and agreements, not one of which has or could ever either emerge or sustain itself “spontaneously”), maybe all these problematic assumptions provide technical temperaments an excuse to “bracket” the political altogether, shunt it all aside as a kind of automatic machinery cranking out adequate (or, more cynically, inadequate but as good as it will ever get) public goods, all the while permitting them the breathing room to focus on the falsifiable hypotheses and hands-on hunches that better please them.

Or possibly many techie types are already socially alienated in ways that make libertarian repudiations of the public appealing while simultaneously drawing them into deeply private modes of intellectual life one associates with deep readers, coders, basement tinkerers, and lab-techs (a description that hits me personally very close to home, so don’t assume I’m randomly pathologizing here).

Obviously I’m reading far too much into a brief column, so let’s just say Lynch’s blog-post was the occasion that triggered a faucet that’s been itching to spill. It’s just that I’m hyper-sensitive to the rightward conservative and market-libertarian drift of so much technology discourse. That’s because tech-progressives like me know we must rely for our sense of true progress as much on social progress (a wider, deeper enjoyment of freedom, defined as real hands-on access to and enjoyment of capacities on the ground by all people, everywhere) as on technological progress (the technical achievement of new capacities without which this social progress is no longer imaginable). Sometimes it seems that these necessary partners in the dance of true progress see themselves instead as deeply distrustful antagonists facing off on a cultural battlefield. I’ll admit my own distrust of what looks to me like technical reductionism and complacent social conservatism among too many techies leaves me at a loss as to how to break the impasse in a way that properly respects the contributions of both temperaments.

PS. Sorry about all the parentheses -- that always happens with me when I'm thinking out loud without time to edit or revise. Why is that, I wonder...? Pomo convolution, no doubt. Ah, me.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Republicans: Spared and Spoiled No More

Progressives outraged by medieval moralizers utterly miss the point when they triumphantly expose hypocrisies and then breathlessly imagine that this should somehow win them the "debate" on "morals" with social feudal-conservatives. The truth is it feels good to sin, and then when you're done you just repent without paying. To feel the force of hypocrisy as a shaming nudge to reform one's conduct rather than a ribbing of sin for one's added pleasure is to be already an adult rather than a smug spoiled child, and as often as not these days to be already a Democrat rather than a Republican.

Yes, yes, the fetid swamps of the South are tangled benighted dens of domestic violence, divorce, street crime, epidemics of alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, not to mention kudzu. And much the same goes for the barren tornado-torn mileage of the Midwest, a sprawling ghost-acreage except for the bright liberal oases of a handful of scattered cities.

Red-faced red-staters gulp down delirious swigs of tax largess from the productive civilized liberal cities they deride and disdain and then belch out their loud rants agin' gu'ment.

Republicans are squalling squalid infants stewing in their stink and howling with endlessly frustrated desires, for whom liberty simply means there will always be somebody around to clean up after them. Democrats, I fear, are the grown-ups whose largely thankless responsibility it seems is to be, for the time being, the parents of this staggering dumbfounded Republic. And that means we need to see to it that irresponsible citizens are no longer insulated from the negative consequences of their bad behavior.

It's time to cut their credit cards, time to send them to their rooms without supper, time to take away their privileges until they learn to show respect in a world of diversity and behave responsibly in a world with a long-term future. And they can be thankful that -- unlike some people I know -- we Democrats are neither so brutal nor unenlightened as to go in for spanking the daylights out of them as well.

American Eclipse

Simon Smith’s proud paean to his native Canada over on BH offers up reasons to be cheerful in dark times… as do the many recent reviews and discussions occasioned by the proximate publications of Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream and T.R. Reid’s The United States Of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.

Know-nothing Americans are diddling themselves while the world burns, floating like pollen grains over ballooning bodies on foreign fields and ballooning debts at home. Here we remain drugged and delirious in a toxic swell of fast-food garbage, fast-news glossolalia, and fast-cars guzzling gas.

The citizens of the United States have been insulated by wealth, privilege, and geography (all accidents parading as destinies and desert) from the consequences of their stupidity, cruelty, and greed. Americans are scarcely more evil than other human mammals, none of whom are well equipped for benevolent rule, but the legacies of apparently endless frontiers, racist slave-trades and native American genocides, and an embrace of religious fundamentalism have flavored our own short-spanned imperialist episode in especially unfortunate ways.

I think the Democrats in a Kerry Presidency with a Democratic Senate majority would have softened but not circumvented the tire-screech of reckoning that’s waiting in the wings. And now when the bloody bills come due the scene will be uglier, costlier, and sooner than it otherwise would, but the world will surely be better off without another brainless bullying empire throwing its weight around. If indeed the most important election of our lives has been lost, then for now the reasonable left must concentrate its attentions (at least until the 2006 mid-terms, and subsequent preparations for the Boy-King’s Impeachment and ritual humiliation) on ending the death-cult Republican war adventuring in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stopping them from casting their murderous bedroom eyes onto Syria or Iran.

Friday, November 19, 2004

MundiMuster! Voters Bill of Rights

[via Code Pink] Code Pink is looking to get 25,000 people to sign their Voters Bill of Rights by November 30. The first few items on the list glow with white-hot urgency, while items later on the list, like instant-runoff voting and the abolition of the Electoral College involve necessary structural transformations that will require long struggles (it will be crucial to see to it that the state-by-state democratization of the Electoral College does not perniciously advantage anti-democratic forces, for example). I personally wouldn't mind the added suggestion that we incentivize voting by outright fining non-voters, or ratcheting up the Federal Income Tax rate of non-voters by a single percent, as a compensatory contribution to the proper functioning of democracy. Even if it registers no more than the protest of "None of the Above," voting in the world's most powerful and long-lived democracy (such as it is) should be a duty like jury participation, if you ask me. In any case, here's the whole Voters Bill of Rights, click the link to sign, and please circulate the petition widely!

1. Provide a Paper Trail for Touch-Screen Voting Machines

It’s essential that every touch-screen voting machine in the U.S. be equipped to produce and store a voter-verified paper record of every vote cast. Each machine must incorporate open source coding tested by an independent agency before and during the election to guarantee optimum transparency. In addition, corporations that manufacture machines should refrain from political involvement.

2. Create Independent, Non-Partisan and Transparent Oversight

Officials in charge of administering, overseeing and certifying elections should not be party affiliated, running for another office, or publicly supporting any candidates. Unfortunately, partisan secretaries of state are currently able to issue rulings that favor their parties and themselves. Electoral commissions at all levels of government should be independently financed and free of control by any political party. Administrators should help increase voter confidence by inviting non-partisan observers, both domestic and international, to observe all aspects of voting procedures.

3. Celebrate Our Democracy: Election Day as a National Holiday!

Working people should not be forced to choose between standing in a long line to vote and being to work on time. While 30 states have laws giving workers the right to take time off to vote, many workers and employers are unaware of these laws. Holding national elections on a national holiday will increase the number of available poll workers and polling places and potentially increase overall turnout while making it much easier for working Americans to go to the polls.

Election Day is already a holiday in Puerto Rico in presidential election years, and many Puerto Ricans celebrate and make Election Day a fun and festive party with a purpose. In 2000, Puerto Rico's voter turnout was 82.6%, as compared to 51.16% in the United States – and Puerto Rico doesn’t even have any Electoral College votes.

4. Maximize Voter Access

Many citizens are discouraged from voting by unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions. Registration forms should be simplified, so no one is again disenfranchised for failing to check a superfluous box, as occurred this year in Florida, or for not using heavy enough paper, as occurred in Ohio. To ensure all qualified voters are able to vote, we should join states like Minnesota in allowing citizens to register to vote on Election Day itself.

Forcing people to wait up to 10 hours in line to vote is unacceptable and disenfranchises those who cannot afford to wait. To increase citizen’s options and maximize convenience, all states must provide for more early voting and election-day polling places. Resources should be allocated based upon the number of voters per precinct to ensure equal access and minimize the wait at the polls. Partisan voter challengers at the polls disrupt and undermine the voting process and should not be allowed within or near any polling location.

5. Count Every Vote!

To encourage more participation in the electoral process, voters must know that their vote will count and make a difference. Unfortunately millions of “spoiled”, “under-vote”, “over-vote”, provisional and absentee ballots–oftentimes ballots cast by people of color– are not counted during each presidential election. It’s basic: Voting precincts should be adequately staffed with sufficiently trained personnel and professional supervision; old and unreliable voting machines should be replaced; absentee ballots must with sent with sufficient time; and provisional ballots should count for state and federal contests regardless of where the vote is cast.

6. Re-enfranchise Ex-Felons

Why should ex-felons be excluded from voting? The permanent disenfranchisement of former felons, a practice that falls outside of international or even U.S. norms, is an unreasonable restriction that creates subcategories of citizenship. There are over four million American citizens in this category, particularly African American males, who are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. These lifetime voting prohibitions violate citizens' constitutional voting rights and must be repealed. Those states that permanently disenfranchise felons—Florida, Virginia, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa, Arizona, and Alabama—should amend their laws and practices to restore full citizenship to ex-offenders.

7. Implement Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Instant Runoff Voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (first, second, third choice) and if no candidate gets a majority of first choices, a runoff count can be conducted without the need for a second election. IRV gives voters the opportunity to vote for those candidates they like the most without worrying that their vote will help candidates they like least. Instant runoff voting has been used successfully around the world: Ireland uses IRV to elect its president, Australia to elect its House of Representatives, and San Francisco to elect its major city offices such as mayor.

8. Provide Public Financing for Elections and Equal Air-Time

In a system where the amount a candidate spends is directly related to the likelihood of success, it is not surprising that voters think politicians are more concerned with big campaign contributors than with individual voters. We need to establish full public financing of campaigns and free access to public airwaves. Broadcasters must carry debates and provide free time for all candidates and parties as a license requirement to use our public airwaves.

9. Ensure Third Party Candidates Easier Access to the Ballot and Debates

In our two-party system, third parties face a host of institutional barriers, from getting on the ballot to being included in debates to broadcasting their views. This discourages people from voting because alternative voices help enliven the political debate that is at the heart of any healthy democracy. Prohibitive ballot access requirements should be dropped and debates should be open to all ballot-qualified candidates and should be organized independently of the political parties themselves.

10. Abolish the Electoral College

It’s time to end the safe state/swing state dichotomy and make all votes equal, no matter the state of the voter. The President should be elected by direct, popular vote. Since a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College may prove infeasible, reformers should set their sites on amending their state laws to proportionally award their electors.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


As you can see, I've done a little house-cleaning on the blog, re-organizing the links, shifting techno-ethical and technology advocacy links forward, etc. Part of this is an attempt to shift my focus away from partisan politics, which has me feeling bleak and blustery still, to technological politics, which still inspires hope. I've also posted a permanent link to an expanded discussion of the terms "tech-progressive," "bio-conservative," "post-humanist," which I deploy regularly on the blog. Otherwise, I'm mostly dissertating still (which is hardly the most uplifting activity in the world). Links to the new chapters are coming soon, and I'll be soliciting comments and criticisms.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

As Suspicions Mount, the Daydream Mandate Recedes

Thom Hartmann’s latest article in Common Dreams, “Evidence Mounts That the Vote was Hacked” makes a compelling case for the horrorshow story Randi Rhodes has been been trumpeting all the livelong week on Air America, fearlessly, relentlessly, and almost all by her lonesome.

What do I think of all this?

Of course Bush stole this election, just as he did the one before. The artificially long lines, the campaign of insinuations facilitated by conservative media at the end of which citizens voted for candidates who opposed their own espoused positions on multiple issues or through which millions were completely mislead about vital and almost universally substantiated facts (no WMD, no Iraq-9/11 connection, unfundated mandates, devastating environmental policies, rampant unaccountability and secrecy, unprecedented cronyism and graft, etc.), and all this dickering about with paper trails, exit-polls, profiling, intimidation, challenges and caging lists, dirty tricks and the rest....

It is true, the theft is less conspicuous and less dramatic than the one abetted by the Supreme Court's outrageous criminal conduct last time around. It bespeaks deeper systemic frailties this time that are often hard to grasp or substantiate.

The particular case for fraud that is starting, finally but almost certainly too late, to acquire more mainstream attention is in fact the iceberg tip of a larger swarming mess of institutionalized disenfranchisement on which the New Republicans have relied to maintain their oil-slicked grip on power.

These death-cult money-lusting New Republican evangelicals (not to put too fine a point on it) may howl with derision at the pathetic conspiracy theorists and whiny sore losers of the left. But even if the specific contours of the case as it is getting traction in the media don’t add up perfectly, even if the breadth of theft cannot surmount the Boy-King’s squeaky-tight non-mandate, the bottom line is that this is the story that has emerged as the one through which the undeniable larger reality of epic disenfranchisement, general criminality and election fraud, and utter illegitimacy of this moment in our fragile democratic Nation’s history is expressing itself.

Market libertarians say taxes are theft, social libertarians say property is theft, and liberal democrats in Bush's America say the election was theft. None of it, I suppose, is true the way simple truths of the matter are sometimes true (when we are lucky), but it speaks to a deeper complex violation of legitimacy that is as true as can be.

I understand those who worry this discourse of election-stealing is irresponsible, but it seems to me any silent acquiescence to illegitimacy on so many levels as this is incomparably more damaging and irresponsible. And those really do seem to be the options on offer, unfortunately.

No doubt it is too little, too late, incomplete, impertinent, and vulnerable to ridicule. Nevertheless, the ozone stench of this story should shroud this sleazy second term like a personal stormcloud from now to the mid-term elections, whereupon we ride the stormfront on to a well-deserved impeachment soon thereafter.