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

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

MundiMuster! "I Saw What You Did Last Summer"

I'm still deep in the weeds of the last days of teaching (read: grading) my summer courses, but blogging will resume apace soon enough. I can't resist a quick report of a grassroots campaign recommending that folks mail ticket stubs from their viewings of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" to the White House:

George W. Bush
1600 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington DC 20500

On the stub or on an accompanying note one should append this little feelgood sentiment: "I saw what you did last summer." Ouch!

Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Random Wilde (Weekend Edition)

"All sympathy is fine, but sympathy with suffering is the least fine mode. It is tainted with egotism. It is apt to become morbid. There is in it a certain element of terror for our own safety. We become afraid that we ourselves might be as the leper or as the blind, and that no man would have care of us. It is curiously limiting, too. One should sympathise with the entirety of life, not with life's sores and maladies merely, but with life's joy and beauty and energy and health and freedom. The wider sympathy is, of course, the more difficult. It requires more unselfishness. Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature - it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist - to sympathise with a friend's success. In the modern stress of competition and struggle for place, such sympathy is naturally rare, and is also very much stifled by the immoral ideal of uniformity of type and conformity to rule which is so prevalent everywhere."

Friday, June 25, 2004

TV04 Talk: Vulgar Biocentrism Among the Technophiles

I'll be giving a talk, "Vulgar Biocentrism Among the Technophiles," Saturday, August 7, at the University of Toronto as part of a Conference, "Art and Life in the Posthuman Era."

In the talk I discuss the figurative content of biological science and technology, and the argumentative work these figures commonly do in the imagination and advocacy of radical technophiles.

Here's a longer description of what I'm up to in the talk:

"The first half of the twenty-first century is likely to be shaped most conspicuously by scientific interventions into biological processes, from ever more powerful genetic medical therapies and enhancements, bio-informatics, and bioengineered and superorganic foodstuffs, to the emergence of molecular manufacturing.

"The sweep and scope of biotechnological intervention already reverberates into the language and culture of the societies that are witness to them.

"Biology has a second life beyond its scientific content and technological applications. It is a rich field of metaphors and tropes to which thinkers and advocates and critics in diverse fields make separate recourse in their efforts to make sense of the world and anticipate and shape its futures.

"I argue that it is important for progressive technology advocates and critics to be conscious of our occasional reliance on this figurative dimension of biology, from our use of 'existence proofs' from biology to justify our faith in particular technological outcomes (for example, projected versions of molecular nanotechnologies the specific details of which would often be in fact different in key ways from existing biology) or the way we understand public life (for example, understanding culture through the problematic metaphor of the 'meme') or the way we justify or champion particular organizations of society or the economy (for example, the selective embrace of biology in the market naturalist formulations of 'bionomics').

"It is not my view that the embrace of a biological imaginary across culture is a negative or distortive development, and in fact I consider it practically inevitable and embrace aspects of it myself.

"But I recommend special care about the selective deployment of congenial aspects of biology to underwrite as objectively preferable what ultimately amount to subjective judgments of value. To the extent that 'transhumanism' is suspicious of the normative and ideological force of the 'natural' as a category, one would expect transhumanist discourse and criticism to resist the use of 'naturalizing' metaphors drawn from biology to underwrite its own judgments."

Thursday, June 24, 2004

CAMR Letter to President Bush

Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research
2021 K Street, N.W., Washington D.C. 2006

June 23, 2004

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Bush,

We write on behalf of U.S. patients, advocates, caregivers, academic
institutions, scientists and researchers to request that you expand the
current federal policy regarding human embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells stand as a crucial link to the scientific puzzle
that may mitigate the pain and suffering of more than 100 million
Americans and provide new therapies and other scientific opportunities
for countless diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS,
heart disease, spinal cord injury and cancer.

The Administration's policy on embryonic stem cell research was met with
great hope and excitement, as we all recognized the thought and
diligence with which you approached your decision. The controls you
established allowed critical research to move forward while staying
within the moral and ethical boundaries that you deemed appropriate.

Since the current policy went into effect almost three years ago,
numerous developments have emerged that demand a reassessment of this
policy. When the policy was announced on August 9, 2001, the
Administration believed more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines were
available for research. Today, estimates from the National Institutes
of Health (NIH) show the number of available lines at only 19, well
short of what the policy intended.

Most all of the scientific community agrees that for the full potential
of embryonic stem cell research to be reached, the number of stem cell
lines readily available to scientists must increase. On May 14, 2004,
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni wrote to members of Congress that "more
cell lines may well speed some areas of research."

Mr. President, now is the time to update the current policy. For those
of us with a personal stake in the possibilities of embryonic stem cell
research, this really is a race against time. In the past three years,
more than 4 million Americans have died from diseases that embryonic
stem cells have the potential to treat.

We recognize your strong support of medical research and your clear
desire to help the millions of Americans suffering from disease. We
urge you today to continue this commitment by expanding the sope of the
current federal policy on human embryonic stem cell research.


Alliance for Aging Research
Alpha-1 Association, Alpha-1 Foundation
The ALS Association
The Alzheimer's Association
American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery
American Association for Cancer Research
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association of Neurological Surgeons and Congress ofNeurological Surgeons
American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
American College of Neuropsychopharmacology
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Diabetes Association
American Federation for Medical Research
American Gastroenterological Association
American Liver Foundation
American Medical Association
American Pediatric Society
The American Physiological Society
Americans for Medical Progress
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
American Society for Bone and Mineral Research
American Society for Cell Biology
American Society for Microbiology
American Society for Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics
American Society for Reproductive Medicine
American Society for Virology
American Society of Hematology
American Thyroid Association
Appalachian State University
Arthritis Foundation
Association of American Medical Colleges
Association of American Universities
Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
Association of Independent Research Institutes
Association of Medical School Pediatric Department Chairs
Association of Professors of Medicine
Association of Reproductive Health Professionals
Association of Subspecialty Professors
Axion Research Foundation
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Biotechnology Industry Organization
Boston University, Boston University School of Medicine, BostonUniversity School of Dental Medicine
Brain Tumor Action Network
Brain Tumor Society
Burroughs Wellcome Fund
California Institute of Technology
Californians for Cure
Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation
Cedars-Sinai Health System
Children's Hospital Boston
Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation
Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation
The Civil Society Institute
Coalition of National Cancer Cooperative Groups
Columbia University Medical Center
Committee for the Advancement of Stem Cell Research
Cornell University
Coriell Institute for Medical Research
Council of Scientific Society Presidents
Dana Farber Cancer Institute
The Daniel Heumann Fund
Duke University Medical Center
Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
The Endocrine Society
FASEB (Center for Genome Research)
The Forsyth Institute
Genetic Alliance
Genetic Society of America
Genetics Policy Institute
The Gerontological Society of America
Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America
Hereditary Disease Foundation
The Implementation Group, Inc.
International Foundation for Anticancer Drug Discovery
The International Myeloma Foundation
International Society for Stem Cell Research
Jeffrey Modell Foundation
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
The Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
Kidney Cancer Association
Lupus Foundation of America
Lymphatic Research Foundation
Magee - Womens Hospital of VPMC, Magee-Womens Research Institute
Massachusetts Biotechnology Council
Medical College of Wisconsin
The Mount Sinai Medical Center
National Alopecia Areatea Foundation
National Association for Biomedical Research
National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges
National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs
National Center for Policy Research for Women & Families
National Coalition for Cancer Research (NCCR)
National Eczema Association for Science and Education
National Health Council
New York University School of Medicine
North American Brain Tumor Association
North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research
Northwest Association for Biomedical Research
Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy
Parkinson's Action Network
Project A.L.S.
Prostate Cancer Foundation
PXE International
Quest for the Cure
Research and Education Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
Resolve: The National Infertility Association
Rett Syndrome Research Foundation
San Gorgonio Corporation
Sarcoma Foundation of America
Society for Neuroscience
Society for Pediatric Research
Society of Women's Health Research
Stanford University School of Medicine
Stem Cell Action Network
Stem Cell Research Foundation
Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation
Stony Brook University
Student Society for Stem Cell Research
Texans for the Advancement of Medical Research
Tourette Syndrome Association
University of California System
University of Chicago
University of Colorado
University of Florida Health Science Center
University of Illinois
University of Iowa
University of Minnesota
University of Nebraska Medical Center
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Pennsylvania
University of Rochester
University of Southern California
University of Utah
University of Vermont
University of Washington
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Washington University in St. Louis
WiCell Research Institute
Wisconsin Association for Biomedical Research & Education

Monday, June 21, 2004

The Random Wilde

"Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing."

PS. There are just two weeks left in my summer session teaching -- and blogging will probably remain a bit light until I'm through with this term. But there's always a little time for Oscar!

Sunday, June 20, 2004

MundiMuster! Support the Clean-up in Bhopal, India

[via] In response to a suit filed by Bhopal survivors, a court in New York has agreed to consider survivors' claims for getting Union Carbide to clean up the toxic wastes in Bhopal.

For this to happen, the Indian Government needs to submit a letter to the New York court expressing its support for the survivors' claims, and assuring the court of the Government's interest in having Union Carbide clean-up the contaminated site and groundwater.

The DEADLINE set by the New York court for receipt of such a letter is June 30, 2004.

1) Fax the Indian government:
2) Join the nationwide hunger strike:
3) Call, write, and email the Indian government below

Contact the Ministry of Chemicals, Government of India:
* Demand that the Government of India say "YES" to a cleanup in Bhopal.
* Demand that the Government send the letter to the New York court by June 30, 2004, expressing support to survivorsí claims for environmental remediation by Union Carbide.

Address your calls, faxes and emails to:
1. Mr. Ram Vilas Paswan, Minister of Chemicals
Tel: 011 +91 11 23386519, 23386364. Fax: 011 +91 11 233 86519
Email: (cc

2. Mr. Ashok Tomar, New York Consul General.
Tel: 212 774 0600. Fax: 212 734 4980

3. Or send the letter below to the Government of India.

1. Ask for Mr. Ashok Singh Tomar, Consul General, New York.
2. Subject of the call: To urge the Government of India to submit a letter by JUNE 30 supporting Bhopal survivors' claims in ongoing lawsuit in New York court seeking remediation of contaminated factory site and surroundings by Union Carbide.
3. More than 5000 tons of toxic wastes abandoned by Union Carbide in Bhopal represents an ongoing source of pollution.
4. Nearly 20,000 people in the vicinity are forced to consume contaminated water due to the inaction by the Government and the company.
5. After two decades of inaction by Government and industry, survivors approached the Second District Court of New York seeking remediation of contaminated site and groundwater by Union Carbide.
6. Clean-up should be paid for by the Polluter -- Union Carbide. Costs of clean-up can run into several hundreds of crores, and shouldn't be passed on to taxpayers.
7. The Second District Court of New York has indicated that it will consider the claim if it receives a letter BY JUNE 30 from the Government of India indicating the Government's support of plaintiffs' claims for remediation by Union Carbide.
8. Reiterate that you are calling to press upon the Government to submit a letter to the New York court supporting the survivors' claims for clean-up by Union Carbide.

The world's worst-ever industrial disaster devastated the Indian city of Bhopal nearly 20 years ago, in 1984. Union Carbideís deadly legacy continues to haunt the people of Bhopal. Toxic wastes abandoned by Union Carbide remain strewn in and around the factory site representing an ongoing source of pollution. Poisons from these wastes have contaminated the groundwater serving more than 20,000 people.

After two decades of inaction by the company and the Government, survivors and residents from the contaminated areas filed a suit in the Southern District Court of New York seeking clean-up of the contamination by Union Carbide.

A March 17, 2004, order of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, USA, ruled that survivors claims seeking clean-up by Union Carbide should be considered by the New York District Court if ìthe Indian government or the State of Madhya Pradesh seeks to intervene in this action or otherwise urges the Court to order such relief. The New York District Court has given the Government of India until June 30, 2004, to submit such a letter.

A Celebration of Surlyness: The Random Wilde (Weekend Edition)

Again, from "The Soul of Man Under Socialism":

"The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute. Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No; a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious is probably a real personality, and has much in him. He is at any rate a healthy protest. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy and sold their birthright for very bad pottage. They must also be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under these conditions to realise some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance."

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Must We Put the Self on the Shelf?

My friend and fellow progressive technology advocate, the socialist-feminist bioethicist James Hughes wrote an interesting column in BetterHumans a while back, expressing his skepticism about much of the rhetoric of “extreme life extension.” I re-read the article, entitled “The Illusiveness of Immortality,” just this morning and it still has me thinking.

Hughes’s skepticism emerges from a somewhat unexpected direction. Like me, he has little doubt at all that medical knowledge and pharmacological, genetic, and prosthetic techniques may well soon overcome many of the diseases and conditions that afflict human organisms, especially the diseases of aging that afflict our normatively “later” stages of life, as well as ameliorating or intervening altogether in the more fundamental biological processes that constitute what we somewhat superstitiously call “aging” in the first place.

“No,” he writes “my problem with immortality is simply that I don't exist." He continues on: "You don't either. Our so-called personalities are just roiling masses of evolving impulses, memories, thoughts and sensations. There is no central chip, no core thought, no essential memory, that makes you you.”

Too often the rhetoric of "life-extension" seems to imply an hysterical dedication to a monolithic or stable personal selfhood, but one that is simply indefinitely extended or rendered in its supposed invulnerability to the infirmities of decline somehow a more perfectly self-sufficient self. William Burroughs savages this sensibility in his hilarious incandescent rant-poem “Immortality,” when he writes: “The tiresome concept of personal immortality is predicated on the illusion of some unchangeable precious essence: greedy old MEEEEEEEE forever. But as the Buddhists say, there is no MEEEEEEEE, no unchanging ego.”

Of course, it is hard to imagine how selves so construed could survive indefinite extension “intact” any more than they could the more brutal truncation of mortality they currently face. And as Hughes goes on to suggest, the same medicine that will preserve and enhance the healthy lifespan and so would inspire such fancies of stable prolongation will likely provide opportunities for radical modifications and augmentations of human organisms in the service of their unimaginably proliferating projects of personal perfection, any number of which would scramble beyond recognition the current narrative organization we denote as the “self.”

What worries me is that we can recognize a radical dynamism of the self, we can recognize the naivete that would affirm the “self” as some kind of unchanging substance – and yet still recognize the viability of “selfhood” as a way of organizing personal experience and intentions.

Hughes proposes a future with “more life, less selfishness” and I applaud the sentiment wholeheartedly. But we should take care to remember that neither is “life” an abstract substance that deserves to be produced and augmented monomaniacally as an end in itself, in the way of an impersonal utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number,” as Hughes puts it later in his article. The life that interests me is still lived in lives, and lives are lived in the real but insubstantial selves that incarnate them.

When I propose that selves are real but insubstantial, I do not mean to imply that selves inhere in spirits or souls, but in stories. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has said of the self that it is a “center of narrative gravity.” He proposes the intriguing hypothesis that the Platonic dialogue of the “I and the me” that constitutes the uniquely human way of having selves, arose from a habit of subvocalizing -- in the interests of strategically useful secrecy -- the human organism's linguistic exploration of her ongoing options. Whatever one wants to make of that, what remains for me is the compelling figure of the self as a kind of narrative organization of experience, memory, and desire. Such a self may be, as Richard Rorty would insist, absolutely contingent, but nonetheless profoundly worthy of respect, and indeed still the source of the very notion of respect.

Life, it seems to me, is no more to be respected in the abstract than any other process. It is when we find in life our likeness that we find it respectable. Selves are the flavors that “life” takes on, and we affirm them in their kinship and yet their unrepeatability, their irreplaceability, and in the incomparable riches and lessons they hold for us. Hughes writes that "[a]t best, we need to pretend there is a continuous discrete self so that we can have an orderly society and an orderly life.” He is right that there is much that is damaging and pathological in the insistence on perfect continuity, independence, and self-evidence in the ideology of selfhood, but I think he is wrong to consequently dismiss the self as a “pretense.”

However long our lives, however enriched our capacities, we will most of us still need selves and all of us an abiding respect for them, although likely much more capacious ones, to make sense of the proliferating and diverging demands of beings who are transformed by technology and yet share a world as peers. However transformed by technological development, a culture of rights must long remain a culture of selves. Perhaps what Hughes highlights in his provocative article is less that the self is an illusion, so much as that the self largely amounts in the end to a public goods problem.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Random Wilde

"Work is the curse of the drinking class."

Mark Poster on Posthumanism

I came upon an interview with one of my diss committee members, Mark Poster, in the latest issue of qui parle, a literary journal published here at Berkeley, and, anyway, among the many interesting things he has to say in it he makes a few comments on "posthumanism" that seemed to me especially intriguing. Here are some excerpts:

"Culturally-mandated subject positions have become more and more tenuous. I grew up in the '50s, and... I think that a lot of the solidity of the culture of the 1950s [he means for white Americans who imagined themselves to inhabit the mainstream] has disintegrated and fragmented in various ways. Groups have emerged into the public -- the new social movements -- insisting on their right to be citizens in their own terms.

"The types of practices that involve self-construction -- of lives and of positions and so forth -- have increased, and part of this has to do with the Internet, even if just a small part... [T]he multiplicity of cultures in the new media is increasing in the sense that, for example, you're urged in online chat rooms to define for yourself who you are or who you want to present yourself as being. Here it is understood that such self-presentation and self-constitution is not simply an affirmation of who you are already, but that you're going to discover who you are in the process of defining who you are and through interacting with people on that basis. So I think that Foucault's late ethics, a kind of Nietzschean aesthetics of ethics is, prophetically, increasingly built into the life circumstances and communication practices of people, and it's going to become more and more typical of how they behave.

"This is where I think we find the 'posthuman,' because such a diversification of cultures of the self is not going to be closed off from animals and machines. The issue of where to draw the line[s] between animals, machines, and humans is going to become increasingly important as part of the emerging posthuman culure[.]

"It's somewhat ironic that the stability of humanism was based on rather fixed identities that you didn't have any control over: you were a free agent and you couldn't change that, you were, to remember Rousseau, forced to be free...

"Maybe [posthumanism i]s Hegel's absolute spirit coming to know itself and be itself and realize itself, but without the teleology of the philosopher, without knowing that this is the end or that it's even going to work[.]"

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Today's Random Wilde

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it."

Kerry's Vision for an Invigorated Space Program

John Kerry responded to questions submitted to him by Space News and, and Brian Berger has compiled and discussed the highlights in an article that appeared recently on I recommend the whole piece, but provide some direct quotes from Kerry's responses below:

"NASA is an invaluable asset to the American people and must receive adequate resources to continue its important mission of exploration... However, there is little to be gained from a 'Bush space initiative' that throws out lofty goals, but fails to support those goals with realistic funding...

"The most critical element of our space program should be reducing the costs and increasing the reliability of space transportation to and from low Earth orbit. This is just one of the many critical areas lost in the Bush initiative.

"The civil space program acts as an engine of innovation for the entire country, making its enormous benefits hard to quantify but even harder to discount... I'm excited by potential advances in pharmaceuticals that microgravity could lead to... Unique drug treatments produced in the microgravity environment may play a vital role in reducing the cost of health care and in developing defenses against chemical and biological terrorist attacks....

"While reducing the Bush Administration's reckless deficits will be one of our early challenges, continued investment in a reinvigorated NASA that is innovating, creating jobs, and returning real value to the American taxpayer is what you can expect under a Kerry presidency."

Monday, June 14, 2004

MundiMuster! Boycott Virginia

Two groups have formed to convince LGBT travelers to boycott the state of Virginia following the passage of a law banning gay marriage, civil unions and all other same-sex partnerships.

The law is considered the most repressive legislation in the country for gay couples and their children. is calling on people not only to boycott Virginia as a tourist destination but also to pass up products made in the state.

The website is the brainchild of Jay Porter and his partner David Smith who live in Seattle. The website name plays on the state's tourism motto, "Virginia is for Lovers." Porter says the state law is of concern for all Americans.

He points to clothing company J.Crew which markets across the country but has a customer service and distribution center in Lynchburg, Va.

The second group is specifically targeting the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown in 2007. Virginia is expecting millions of visitors for the yearlong event.

Make Love Legal says it hopes to put a dent in the billions of dollars the state stands to bring in as a result of the celebration.

"This whole idea is: Don't spend your money in a place where people hurt you," Diane Horvath, the Richmond attorney who is behind Make Love told the Pilot newspaper.

Virginia already had a so-called Defense of Marriage law when the new bill arrived on the desk of Gov. Mark R. Warner. Attempts by Warner were rebuffed by the legislature, and in April the original act was passed a second time leaving the governor no choice but to sign it.

Virginia's leading gay rights organization, Equality Virginia, is planning a legal challenge, as well as statewide protests on June 30, the day before the law takes effect.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The Random Wilde (Weekend Edition)

"[A]ll authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralizing. People, in that case, are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realising that they are probably thinking other people's thoughts, living by other people's standards, wearing practically what one may call other people's second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment. 'He who would be free,' says a fine thinker, 'must not conform.' And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism among us."--The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Saturday, June 12, 2004

The Politics of Progressive Technology Development: Arguments From Stage Management Versus Arguments From Superlative States

Many people are initially inspired (or appalled) by the sensawunda conjurations by radical technophiles of what I call Superlative State Technology: replicative nanoscale machinery nudging us into a post-scarcity gift society, genetic and prosthetic medicine delivering physical immortality, a hedonistic imperative that eradicates any unpleasant sensation for the sentients who could suffer one, a universe-wide diaspora via traversible wormholes, sprawling consensual (or not) hive-minded communities, quasi-transcendental "Omega Point" apotheoses, abrupt totalizing developmental discontinuities in history like the Vingean "Singularity" (either in its common acceleration of acceleration variant, or in the more rarefied arrival of more-than-normatively-human post-biological intelligence variant), replicative upload and/or AI arms races (what I call "boomergoo" scenarios), etc.

Of course, what makes these heady confections especially breathtaking is that the technophiles who propound them are no longer content to confine their projections to far-flung Stapledonian-scaled futures we could scarcely reach ourselves, but often confidently insist (they have pie charts) that millions now living will live themselves through the sweeping transformations they delineate.

I'll admit that in my time I've enjoyed the same delighted and deranging rush at these speculations as most technophiles have. However, I think that there is in fact little we can say now from our pre-Superlative locations to clarify beyond a certain basic point the special quandaries that would arrive with such Superlative States.

Once you "get" the fact that technological development will likely make things quite unexpectedly different quite unexpectedly soon, it is not clear to me there's much benefit beyond the pure exhilarating entertainment value in dwelling on such Superlative States.

More to the point, Superlative States would inevitably arrive at the end of developmental trajectories consisting of multiple stages, each one of which will involve their own quandaries and debates and difficult problem-solving.

I think it will almost never be the case that these "intermediary" problems and issues would be much eased or clarified or even tangentially addressed by contemplating projected Superlative developmental end-points.

In fact, I would expect that too keen a focus on Superlative States would tend, on the contrary, (one) to distract technology advocates from the urgent complexities of these intermediary stages and their problems, would inspire too many advocates and critics (two) to trivialize the intermediary stages in their "modesty" compared to the Superlative States, and (three) would tend to make technology advocates impatient and incomparably more vulnerable to hype, careless in the face of the delicate and necessary efforts at negotiating the contending claims of multiple stakeholders at every stage, and disastrously less critical in general.

It is too easy to confuse projected Superlative States with teleological end-points that will then be read as expressing the deeper essence or ultimate "meaning" of particular trajectories of technological development. Bioconservatives hostile to the ongoing emergence of genetic medicine and techno-immortalists who champion genetic medicine in fact share a distressing tendency to act as though the actual meaning of finding a cure to Parkinson's Disease through genetic medicine would somehow be that this marvellous achievement would be a milestone along a developmental road eventuating in either (depending on your ideological positioning) an incomparably triumphant or disastrous technoconstituted human "immortality".

But, honestly, how on earth are we better able to assess the promises and costs of remediating particular diseases by bringing into the discussion the abstract fears and fantasies associated with the idea of eternal life, whatever that's supposed to mean? What would it clarify exactly about the historical impact of the printing press to say of its invention and use that it was a step along a developmental path that eventuated in the Internet, or might one day eventuate in the Holodeck?

My own expectation has come to be that whatever the special quandaries of Superlative State technological capacities, like extreme longevity or morphological freedom or uncontrollable replication, we will more likely address these with the very problem-solving resources we will have acquired through and in consequence of the developmental stages that lead up to their emergence themselves, rather than turning our attention to abstract speculations that took place when these forces first were set in motion.

Now, I have to say I don't think it is exactly fair to characterize this emphasis of mine as "conservative," "stealthy," or somehow "dishonest" -- though other progressive technology advocates have accused me occasionally of all of this.

Definitely I think that there are a host of obvious pragmatic considerations that suggest anyone interested in an effective progressive politics of developmental technology advocacy is better served by focusing on the proximate before the distant, the intermediate problem before the end-state problem. If this has the secondary effect of making radical technology advocacy more moderate and hence less threatening and hence easier to make common cause with as advocates marshall the forces they need organizationally to struggle for the outcomes they claim to desire, well, I mean, obviously, so much the better -- surely?

Friday, June 11, 2004

Advisor, Advise Thyself!

My little tongue-in-cheek "advisory" bumper stickers for technology advocates last post has provoked some interesting comments that inspire me to respond and to amplify them a bit.

First, George warns me that Canada is not all that it may seem in my liberal dream of Canada, here in the America (unless of course California secedes -- anyone? anyone?) of the Killer Clown Administration. I follow George's excellent and often provocative blog Sentient Developments for (among other things) news of Canada, especially where the politics of technology development and civil liberties are concerned, so I know what he is talking about here. Anyway, I intended in part to evoke with the phrase "California Ideology" the very excellent essay by that title written by Richard Barbrook which diagnoses the conjunction of civil and negative (market fundamentalist) libertarianism among technophiles in a way matched in its perspicacity only by Paulina Borsook's excellent (and funnier) book Cyberselfish (how odd that their last names are so similar...), against which I meant to counterpose an "idea" of Canadian reasonableness and civic-mindedness that of course does not always play out on the ground, but which I hope will eventually prevail everywhere.

Now, Michael, in his very interesting and serious intervention, writes quite a number of things that deserve comment. I'll confine myself for now to just a few. He states at the outset: "I deeply feel your conservative approach misses the severe urgency of preparing for the imminent near-future arrival of what you might call 'superlative technologies'."

First, I will admit that there is a rich pleasure in being called "conservative" that I only get to experience in my conversations with radical technophiles, inasmuch as my atheistical antiwar queer ethical-vegetarian feminist environmentalist social-to-radical democratic world-federalist leanings disqualify me from the privilege in almost any other context I can think of!

But it's true, to the extent that technological development is the last remaining historical force at large in the world to which we might justly assign the label "revolutionary," I think that those of us who would grapple to articulate that force to achieve outcomes that will benefit us all can well use both the enthusiasm and hopefulness of progressive temperaments and the caution of more conservative temperaments.

Michael continues: "In the past few weeks I've been researching nanotechnology in depth. By any measure, this technology alone is 'superlative' relative to our present-day levels of technology."

Actually, I do not agree with this. "Superlative" technology is a term I use to describe technological developments that can only eventuate from long developmental processes (even if developmental acceleration makes "long" a term we can quibble about) each stage of which will impose its own set of technical, theoretical, political, regulatory quandaries.

My point is that it is almost never useful to focus on a superlative outcome to the cost of a focus on the more proximate developmental stages on which it depends, especially when these would appear to be particularly fraught (as they are with most of the technologies that interest radical technophiles -- biotechnology, genetic medicine, automation, nanoscale manufacturing, etc.).

I will expand on this point about "superlative states" in my next entry to Amor Mundi. For now, I want to caution strongly against a watering down of this point as happens when you say next -- "Heck, nukes are 'superlative' relative to throwing spears, aren't they? I realized that I could have easily replaced all mentions of Singularity and AI in our earlier arguments with references to nanotech and assemblers, and much of the fundamental shock factor would remain."

My point is not at all about a failure of imagination or nerve that might occur in the contemplation of certain kinds of technological transformations of our capacities. The argument is about repudiating a purely technocratic understanding of what technological development amounts to. For development to be progress requires politics and policy, both of which require a focus on developmental stage-management rather than any pining after transcendentalizing superlative states.

Michael continues: "For example, you link the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology from your site, but I have a sneaking suspicion (perhaps unfounded) that you have not read that site in detail." On the contrary, I believe CRN to be lodging itself more explicitly in the kind of developmental politics I am talking about than almost any other technology advocacy organization -- the possible exceptions being the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, the Converging Technologies Bar Association, and the Creative Commons (all of which I also link to).

"To make a long story short, what Mike and Chris are arguing is that, within the coming decade or two, either 1) billions of humans beings could be dead, or 2) our Earth could be in a state of 'near-utopia'. (Mike's interview with Dr. J includes that exact phrasing.)" I believe that in making "the long story short" in just this way, Michael has removed everything that is useful in what CRN says and retained only that which inspires panic and passivity to the cost of what they are arguing about and advocating for.

"Chris and Mike's arguments ultimately emerge from cut-and-dry number crunching and theorizing in the domains of chemistry, physics, and so on. But their arguments are shocking and horribly disturbing." But what is extraordinary about CRN is the extent to which their arguments emerge just as "ultimately" from the very sensible positions they take on questions of regulation, oversight, international relations, and the politics of war and development to which they conjoin their number-crunching. Why highlight just the one over the other dimension in their analyses?

Michael goes on: "I strongly suggest you read the follow[ing] 'Top 30 Essential Studies in Nanotechnology'." I second his recommendation -- and am in a position to do so because I have already read them myself. (Please, let us not drift into the common technocratic technophilic mistake of imagining that those who call attention to other dimensions than engineering in technological development do so because they know less than the technophiles do about the relevant science. While this may be true to a frustrating extent, there will be times when we do so because we know about more than just the science.)

"The 'rational state of mind' to be in with respect to nanotechnology, at this moment, is one of panic," Michael proposes. But I think this is ultimately an elitist and damaging assumption. I think there are reasonable ways to proceed in this moment with respect to molecular nanotechnology (and many of them, as it happens, are being advocated by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology), and that these reasonable measures can be communicated intelligibly to mainstream constituencies and accountable authorities and undertaken to the benefit of all.

"I wish that saying 'less inevitability more choice' would make it so," Michael goes on to say. Remember, my slogan was directed to the technophiles here. However dire one's diagnoses, framing development in terms of inevitability will nudge you into the midset of panic or passivity, and either attitude can hinder your ability to respond effectively to your own concerns, come what may.

He continues: "But nanotech will inevitably be developed this decade or the next despite any wishes to the contrary. Human opinions cannot change the laws of physics." It may of course be true that a form of nanotechnology -- maybe even robust Drextech -- will emerge within twenty years, but it is absolutely wrong to say that this development is inevitable. And from my own perspective what matters more still is that it is far from "inevitable" what form this technology would take and with what consequences. And it is impossible for me to see how a focus on superlative outcomes can possibly better prepare us than a focus on proximate policy to accommodate the arrival of nanotechnology in whatever forms.

"If we approach the future with a linear (or soft exponential) view of progress, we will be forced to face harsh consequences when our model fails to map to reality." What Michael means by "non-linear" discussions of technology almost always become in my view a kind of quasi-religious poetry or a self-congratulatory technocratic discourse oblivious to the sociopolitical context of development. What counts as "linear" development from the perspective of those who actually inhabit it, might look to an external or retrospective observer "exponential," after a fashion. Who can say? The force of my point is that the discourses and practices of progressive technology advocacy should remain focused on the proximate and on developmental stage-management, on funding, oversight, and regulation to ensure costs, risks, and benefits are fairly shared by all the stakeholders to ongoing development.

Leave superlativeness (the sublime) to the poets. We've got work to do.

With depressing behavioral predictability there follows this claim: "There will be no politics, no economy as we know them after the arrival of MNT." I fear that only an impoverished understanding of politics would inspire this statement. I don't mean that as an insult. It's just as fair to say that I have an impoverished understanding of chemistry vis-a-vis Chris Phoenix.

Politics arises from the fact that we live among peers who differ from us. Even indefinitely more powerful and knowledgeable peers will have contending ends that must be reconciled should these peers continue to exist among one another.

Michael writes: "Our current paradigms are more fragile than they seem, and would be radically rearranged in a post-MNT world, nevermind a post-AI world. Life ain't going to be like it used to be, and many transhumanists still don't get this." But radicals never needed nanotechnology to "get this" kind of point.

You would be surprised how much stays the same when how much changes. Be that as it may, I think that the starry-eyed contemplation of total transformation is never productive for those of us who would have a hand in articulating the developmental flows that would eventuate even in such a total transformation, and so we should probably keep that sort of thing to a minimum.

(I will restrain myself from going deeply into my suspicions that, as often as not, the talk of total transformation among technophiles arises less from a hardboiled assessment of scientific realities the rest of us are too softhearted or softheaded to bear, but is inspired by a pining after such total transformation that bespeaks a profound social alienation that has nothing to do with science in the first place. I don't happen to think this is true of Michael, actually, since I know him to be an uncommonly genial and well-adjusted fellow, but I have to wonder sometimes about some of the company he keeps!)

Michael continues on: "Placing 'Singularity' opposite 'regulation' makes me think you associate the Singularity with disregulation. That's not what the Singularity is." As it happens, my primary inspiration was that the two words had "gul" in the middle, so that combining them was pleasantly euphonious. I meant that phrase to telescope this much more complex sensibility: Progressive technology advocates must focus on regulating technological development to facilitate outcomes that benefit us all, rather than on the conjuration and contemplation of superlative quasi-transcendental developmental outcomes that make people too panicky or passive to participate in the politics that will shape to an important extend whatever outcomes will eventually arrive.

He goes on: "The 'Singularity' means the creation of an intelligence smarter than you. It's dangerous because an intelligence significantly smarter than you could kill you (and all humans) quite quickly if it didn't want you around. Humans are just bags of flesh dotting the landscape, trivial obstacles to a superintelligence with nanotechnology." This is a much longer argument and we have had parts of it before. First, his definition of singularity here is not the default "acceleration of acceleration yielding total transformation" definition that has taken hold of the imagination of so many radical technophiles, however methodologically more clear his own happens to be.

But even on Michael's own terms I question the view of "intelligence" and the functional impact of "smartness" it seems to assume. I think that singularity-talk that focuses on the arrival of greater-than-normatively-human postbiological intelligence tends to overestimate the smooth function of technology and underestimate the sociopolitical contexts in which development occurs and disseminates its effects. I think that the singularitarian conjuration of an apocalyptic outcome here can only have the impact of causing us to act unreasonably now, when we should be making policy interventions that would limit the likelihood of outcomes like the one he mentioned.

And another comment: "'Less immortality more genetic medicine'. Hm. Is this an 'angle' you're arguing for - that we should be talking about genetic medicine as a subgoal of gaining more credibility as a subgoal of garnering support to make real immortality possible within a few decades?" Yes, that is a part of it. But I also think it is obscene to realize that bioconservatives will use a fear of "immortality-engineering," which to me is a pretty much meaningless and irrelevant sort of phrase in any case, to impede the arrival of a cure for Parkinsons Disease.

I think "immortality" is a term freighted with all sorts of associations that make people think unclearly about genetic medicine, genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive enhancement and even, frankly, engineered negligible senescence. I think that what would happen to a very long-lived person won't look much like what people tend to actually think of when they use the word "immortality." I think that long-lived beings would grapple with discontintuities and mergings of selfhood quite as traumatic to our existential inhabitation of personal selfhood as mortality here and now. And so, while I agree that the biological science for radically extending healthy lifespan may indeed be just as promising as the most enthusiastic "immortalist" technophiles say it is, I think it is still right to worry that there is an important element of the neurotic "denial of death" in the psychology of many advocates for technologically mediated extreme longevity, and that the damaging impact of this neurosis is not ameliorated by the fact that they have "done the math." This is a long and as yet undeveloped conversation that will no doubt continue on into the future on its own terms.

Michael continues: "Less clone more cure, less evolution more creation, less hype more reasons, less Bright more Separation of Church and State, less America more globe, less California ideology more Canada ideology, I agree with all of these things." Thank heavens!

And, finally: "As far as 'less AI more automation' goes, that's fine and dandy (I wouldn't horribly mind), but according to my current model, all it takes is one un-empathic AI that can improve its own hardware and abilities and we're all dead, dead, dead. You can't take precautions and you can't fight back against something that's smarter than you. You just die and that's it. I feel that AI is worth focusing on because it is potentially so lethal. A %0.001 chance of humanity being exterminated would be far more than enough to make this a really big deal." But, of course, we can all of us focus on only so much. If the chance of a devastating outcome is sufficiently negligible, then the scale of the disastrousness of the outcome isn't really my first concern in determining whether it gets my attention, when so many other disasters and promises impinge on my awareness. Part of what I mean when I propose a greater focus on automation, is that I would rather we devote more time to thinking about the sorts of issues that preoccupy Marshall Briain in the here and now (link left).

Thanks as always for a very provocative and clarifying discussion! My best to you and to all.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Advice for Technophiles

In a nutshell, what would I like to see more of and less of in the discourse of progressive technology advocates and critics? Less ranting agin gument more policy, maybe? Less singularity more regulation. Less immortality more genetic medicine. Less clone more cure. Less evolution more creation. Less inevitability more choice. Less "super" more "open". Less AI more automation. Less hype more reasons. Less "more than human" more "more kinds of human". Less "Bright" more Separation of Church and State. Less America more globe. Less California Ideology more Canada Ideology. I'm just saying.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Today's Random Wilde

"The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything."

Hump Day, As It Were

Wednesdays are my most intense teaching days this summer session, and I'll admit the blogging urge feels distant and dull here in the aftermath of hours on my feet -- but I wanted to register this at least, for now: Amor Mundi, for all intents and purposes, is one month old today! To celebrate? I've got a stack of papers to grade! Caloo Calay...

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Random Wilde

"What I mean by a perfect man is one who develops under perfect conditions; one who is not wounded, or worried, or maimed, or in danger. Most personalities have been obliged to be rebels. Half their strength has been wasted in friction. Byron's personality, for instance, was terribly wasted in its battle with the stupidity, and hypocrisy, and Philistinism of the English. Such battles do not always intensify strength: they often exaggerate weakness." (Still mining the riches of his essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism.")

Private/Public, Mores/Ethics

I am busy these days working on my dissertation, an analysis of the politics of privacy (which is freighted with other considerations in the liberal imaginary, like dignity conceived as autonomy or as a kind of bodily self-determination, and also the idea of legitimate private possessiveness), especially as these politics are emerging under pressure of the ongoing convergence of digital networked media and biotechnologies.

Anyway, part of the strangeness of the project for me is that rather than locating my own meditation on the "liberal subject" (as commonplace a preoccupation as you could ask for in a humanities dissertation these days, I know), in "authorship," "citizenship," or any number of other places one could think of, my own focus on "privacy" seems puzzling in a feminist like me, since feminism has critiqued the very idea of the private realm as perniciously gendered.

What is powerful about the feminist slogan "the personal is political" is how handily it repudiates all the moves that historically "naturalized" the many ways women have been institutionally exploited by calling these operations pre-political, personal, family, "private matters."

Privacy has of course been conceived historically through the figure of the oikos or household, always imagined as secured and withdrawn from the public demands and rewards of the polis, and this usage reverberates into many of the political discourses of privacy to this day. But it seems to me there are other models on offer now to think through what privacy means to modern people.

For example, I think that the very widely affirmed liberal value of a robust separation of Church and State ultimately arises from an understanding of the private and the public that doesn't derive from an oikos/polis distinction.

The point of the Separation is not, for one thing, to denigrate spiritual life, but precisely to create a space in which the innumerable forms of religious faith, spiritual practice, and personal projects of self-creation (including the many marvellously atheistical and aestheticized ones) can flourish alongside one another. And this space is not a household, but instead a more intimate kind of public space, a community of affinity, one that can solicit but never compel membership.

Part of what I am trying to get at here might become clearer when I point out that I personally think it is important to distinguish morals and ethics.

Morals (eg, "mores") are norms through which you identify with particular communities and disidentify with others. These communities always have outsides against which they define themselves.

Ethics, on the other hand, involve norms that aspire to universal assent. Humanism is such a framework, and there are others, anti-humanist, post-humanist, otherwise.

It is right to be skeptical about whether or not ethical norms actually ever attain universality, or whether in fact they amount simply to morals with delusions of grandeur. But I think it is still an important conceptual innovation to distinguish norms which contain the assumption of us/them as against norms which aspire (even if only contingently, strategically, or what have you) to universal assent.

I suspect that just as oftentimes people who claim to be mobilizing ethical claims are in fact are making very provincial moral ones, it is also true that those who would claim that only moral norms exist still leverage certain moral claims on the idea of norms that aspire to a wider assent than that of particular contingent communities to which they explicitly belong. For one thing, since one belongs to innumerable moral communities at once, most of which are constituted through norms that compete with one another, it is helpful to have an ethical clearinghouse to help adjudicate among them. Definitely I would disagree with the view that either morals or ethics are reducible to, subsumed within, or prior to the other.

So, I guess what I am meandering toward here is the suggestion that part of the project of secularization has involved the wayward and somewhat bumbling shift of the politics of privacy from a celebration of sheltered spaces provisionally secured from the demands of public life through a "depoliticized" exploitation of women and others, to the celebration of the role of personal projects of self-creation in the midst of communities of peers. Central to this rearticulation of the politics of privacy has been the emergence of the Separation of Church and State as a pillar of civic order for the liberal imaginary.

Clearly, I need to just finish this damn dissertation asap.

Monday, June 07, 2004

The Random Wilde (Special: For All the Randroids in Blogland)

"Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people's lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one's neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently." (Still excerpting from "Soul of Man.")

MundiMuster! Bridge the Gap in Health Care on June 19

[via Democracy for America] “Our health care system is in crisis. Nationwide, 44 million people have no health insurance and 74 percent of those without coverage come from working families. We cannot allow this to continue.

"So I am asking you to join tens of thousands of other Americans on June 19th for a national day of action to "Bridge the Gap in Health Care" between those who have coverage and those who don't. Americans for Health Care, Jobs With Justice, Rock the Vote and our friends at SEIU are sponsoring events from the Golden Gate to the Brooklyn Bridge.

"To find an event near you, or to start your own event, go to:

"This crisis affects everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, income, education, employment, or age. It is not just tragic -- it is immoral. At this moment, there are 8.5 million children in our country without health care.

"Costs are rising uncontrollably and fewer people can afford to keep what coverage they do have. While you have been reading this letter three more people have lost their health care coverage. This is completely unacceptable. On June 19th we will demand action and tell our elected officials that we haven't forgotten about health care -- and neither should they:

"If you can't attend an event, please tell your friends, family, and colleagues why you support this national day of action. You can also join me and more than 250,000 other Americans who have declared ourselves "Health Care Voters":

"When you become a Health Care Voter, you pledge to support candidates who propose detailed, feasible plans for ensuring quality, affordable health care for all. When we speak with one voice on this issue we can make change happen:

"We ought not be the last industrialized country to guarantee health care to all its people. We can solve this problem, but only by working ogether. We must stand up and demand that our elected officials start orking for the 44 million Americans who are uninsured and the millions ore who are underinsured.

"Please help ensure that all eyes remain focused on this crisis; the longer we wait to do something, the worse this problem gets. Please act now -- lives depend on it.”

MundiMuster! It's Time for Accountability from the Bush White House

[via the DNC] “Dear Jack Stack,

George Tenet's surprise resignation as CIA director comes at a time when the Bush administration is facing tough questions about its record protecting the security of the American people. Just this week:

 President Bush consulted with a private lawyer about the investigation into which White House officials revealed the identity of an undercover CIA agent last year. The American people still don't know who in the Bush White House revealed this information.

 The FBI began administering lie detector tests to administration officials to determine who leaked extremely sensitive intelligence about Iran to the Bush administration's close ally Ahmed Chalabi, who has been accused of passing it on to Iran.

And the Bush administration has still refused to hold anyone accountable for the intelligence failures that led to September 11, the lies about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, our failure to plan for post-war Iraq, and the failure of leadership that lead to the torture at Abu Ghraib prison.

At every turn, President Bush has passed the buck, pointed fingers, and blocked investigations. America's security depends on responsible leadership from the White House, leadership that we have not seen from Bush.

Take Action:

Sign our petition to President Bush demanding that he take immediate steps to bring real accountability to his national security team -- even if it means cleaning house.

Tell a Friend:

Help us hold Bush accountable. Spread the word and tell your friends about our petition.”

Sunday, June 06, 2004

The Only Fitting Reagan Tribute

Shut up, and support stem-cell research.

Promote File Sharing and the Culture of Creativity

[via bOINGbOING] Here is an excerpt from a letter sent by Cory Doctorow by way of the “Action Centre” provided by the so-called Campaign for Creativity (which to all appearances wants in fact to constrain creativity by strengthening and extending current European copyright regimes):

“In a world where 80 percent of the music ever recorded isn't available for sale anywhere, the [peer-to-peer] networks have revived what is, quite literally, the largest library of human creativity ever assembled. They did it for free, and the library has resisted the best attempts of the most powerful entertainment companies in the world to burn it to the ground.

“Your role as lawmakers should be to help us keep the library standing. Instead of disasters like the IPR Enforcement Directive (whose Anton Pillar orders make a mockery of due process) and the EUCD (whose anti-circumvention provisions chill speech and innovation), give us balanced IP laws that take into account the public interest in allowing technology to flourish.

“If rights-holders are indeed financially challenged here (and that's a big if -- every audit of their claims of economic harm has found nothing but hot air and funny book-keeping behind those claims, and the film studios just had their best box-office year in the entire history of their industry) then solve the problem in the traditional manner: Give the public the opportunity to buy a blanket license like those employed by radio stations, a license that, for the payment of a simple fee, would grant Europeans the right to go on using the best tool ever devised for disseminating and reproducing creative works without facing prison and fines for building the biggest library ever assembled.

“That's how to promote creativity. That's how to preserve the public interest.” Doctorow’s full right-on-with-your-right-on essaylet is available here.

No Real Choice?

I am sorry to say this, citizens, but the voting booth is a place where you have a job to do. The President will not be your father, your lover, your best friend, your therapist, or your first crush. The voting booth is not your confessional, it is not your burning bush, it is not your crown of thorns.

If you need more than this take an art class, volunteer at a hospice, start blogging, agitate and educate your fellow citizens about prison abuses, the horrors of the drug war or nuclear proliferation, or the inequities of education and health care in America. Don’t be fooled into diminishing the significance of what you do as a citizen in the voting booth by trying to imbue that act with the kinds of significance you can only find elsewhere.

More and more people seem seduced by the fantasy of imposing their moral vision unilaterally upon their fellow citizens – whether they pine for a socially conservative fantasy of a nineteenth century clambake with servile negroes, pregnant women, and unhappily married girly-men in the foreground, and a church steeple dolefully intoning in the background, or whether they pine to impose on the milky unimaginative morons of the Midwest a life in the United Federation of Planets.

Charley Reese has an editorial up at that expresses a sentiment that is commonplace among progressives (of whom, by the way, he is conspicuously not one) and others, but reading it among so many others this morning I have had a straw that breaks the camel’s back moment.

“Once more," he writes, "Americans will be forced to vote for a man instead of a policy. It doesn't say much for self-government that the American people are almost never given a chance to vote on major policy issues.”

It is surreal that anyone would still claim that the choice between electing (this time) George W. Bush President versus the presumptive Democratic Party nominee John Kerry does not represent a choice with radically different consequences to the actual lives of millions of human beings in the United States and around the globe. Anyone who claims that the differences between the Administrations of these two Presidents would not amount to a difference that would make a difference at the level of "major policy issues" is an idiot or a liar (and likely both).

This sort of argument was already palpably stupid when Naderites made it last time around. The fact that intelligent and well-meaning people are provoked to express comparable frustrations in the aftermath of the blunders and crimes of the Killer Clown Administration suggests to me that there is a deeper dissatisfaction in play here.

I think that the complaints that politics offers up “no real choices” to an important extent registers a misguided dissatisfaction with and misunderstanding of the realities of politics in a world where people are actually importantly different from one another.

Reese writes: “The trouble is that Sen. John Kerry, as his campaign has developed, is saying essentially this: I support the same goals as President Bush, but I can pull them off better than he can.”

This means, despite the innumerable differences in their records, expressed convictions, policy recommendations, and the manifold differences we can expect between them in literal outcomes, Reese inhabits a perspective from which all these conspicuous differences vanish to reveal some deeper “essential” similarity that matters more to him than these many "superficial" differences.

It is not that I think apathetic Democrats will stay away from the polls, or be distracted by the pointlessly quixotic support of Third Party candidates (who are literally unelectable without serious and difficult institutional reform first, and who could not govern even then without serious and difficult social and cultural change as well). No, I agree that Democrats are disciplined as never before in their shared opposition to the Killer Clown and his gang of cronies.

But polls suggest that Bush is the most polarizing President in living memory – and given that most of us remember Clinton this is a flabbergasting fact to contemplate. We need to remember what it means to accept as legitimate the governance of an Administration with whom we disagree.

Of course, I know that it matters that Bush was not elected by a majority of Americans and that he stole the Presidency by means of a compliantly politicized Supreme Court. Of course, I know that it matters that on most issues sprawling majorities of American citizens affirm progressive stances on both foreign and especially domestic policy issues, but that these people are systematically disenfranchized and these stances likewise systematically distorted and diminished by corporatized media.

But I disagree that this is the whole story or that it is even the most important dimension of the problem symptomized by ongoing political polarization. More and more people are expressing the attitude that compromise is unacceptable to their political sensibilities, when compromise is literally the essence of democratic politics.

Politics is significantly superficial, citizens. Voting, I fear, is drab. This does not detract from its dire seriousness or the seriousness of our duties in respect to it. The good that the North Atlantic democracies do, like the evils they are capable of and party to, are impersonal, compromised, and bureaucratic. If John Kerry is running for office in a campaign written in prose rather than poetry, be thankful you are being treated as a grownup for once.

Now weigh the consequences of your vote, set aside your dreams of unilaterally imposing your perfect vision of a perfect world upon a nation of millions of fellow-citizens with whom you know you disagree about that perfection, and just do your goddamn job and vote for Kerry.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Random Wilde (Weekend Edition)

For the weekend, a lovely longer passage, still from "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," for you all to ponder: "All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure which, and not labour, is the aim of man - or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends."


My friend James Fehlinger just offered me his translation into Quenya (for me the most beautiful of J.R.R. Tokein's realized languages of the Middle Earth universe), of my blog's name Amor Mundi. Everything is prettier in Quenya, it really is. Screw Esperanto, I think we would have world peace in no time at all if we all just switched to Quenya (although the actual content of the stories in the Middle Earth universe gives me pause in making that prediction, come to think of it).

This reminds me of the story that Professor Tolkein claimed to believe that the prettiest phrase one would ever find in the English language was "cellar door," which one has to admit has an elvish air about it. Interestingly enough, Gertrude Stein was once asked what the most beautiful word in the English language was and, if my memory serves me correctly, she proposed her own very elven candidate: "celery." Namarie...

Ghosts of Futures Past: Arcosanti

Alex Steffen over at WorldChanging shared a passage snipped away from his upcoming book which he’s now pruning and polishing. If something this beautiful hits the cutting room floor, I can only imagine how stunning the book that remains will be. I’ll admit to prejudice, though. Arcosanti has been a focus of wistful imagination for me since I was a little kid, like Paris is for some people. I still mean one day to see it, and despite the sadness of Steffen’s piece there’s quite a lot in what he says that renews my eagerness to check it out myself. Here are a few tastes of the larger piece:

“Arcosanti… is now funded almost entirely through the sale of bells. It is essentially one big crafts guild. Which is a fine thing to be. Indeed, sitting there in the evening light, with birds chirping, and [a] young potter smiling my way, I can see the appeal: fuck it, let's all throw aside our worries and make bells. It'll be a good life. But it's not the City of the Future. [Actually, this seems to me among the pleasanter plausible futures I can think of, this side of the goo bestiary.]....

“We continue our walk. We pass a couple apartment buildings. The buildings themselves are a bit weathered and, well, not my architectural preference (very 70's, very blobject, very Planet of the Apes), but they are well-designed (they all employ passive solar, many have "sky theaters" built into the roof for sitting out and viewing the stars at night). The public space is great. There's an amphitheater with a waterfall running down the middle of the seats.... Sometimes the entire community gathers at night on the roofs of buildings overlooking the canyon, and lights are shone against the cliffs of the other side, and dancers perform in front of them, sending huge shadows writhing on the basalt walls....

“Arcosanti's half life is long over, and it is headed for it's own tiny heat-death. Sure, it's still growing, but the vision and the reality have too long diverged, and my sense was that the True Believers needed desperately to convince themselves that the dream was still alive. Maybe it is. Who am I, really, to say otherwise? Let them build their utopia in the desert, if they can pull it off.

“But Arcosanti isn't the future anymore. It smells too much of museum dust. It's the embalmed husk of a future, and a future that's older than I am, at that. I get in my car, and drive back down the rutted road, and wonder if I'll find some fresher dream ahead.”

A lovely piece, thanks to Alex Steffen for sharing it!

Fun With Identity Politics

[via The New Statesman] “A few weeks ago, there was a nasty incident when members of Peter Tatchell's OutRage! group joined a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Their placards read: ‘Israel: stop persecuting Palestine. Palestine: stop persecuting queers’. The slogans had been inspired by the arrest and torture of Palestinian gays by Hamas and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. When the demonstration went into Trafalgar Square, the gay protesters were surrounded by an angry crowd of Islamic fundamentalists, Anglican priests and members of the SWP, and were variously denounced as ‘racists’, ‘liars’ and ‘Zionists’.”

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Random Wilde

"Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic." ("The Soul of Man Under Socialism")

The "Blogosphere" Is Not the World

Kevin Drum over at Political Animal posts some blogospheric stats that show (in case you haven't noticed already) just how different the "blogosphere" is from the “real world”:

"1. Less than 10% of political bloggers are women. This compares to about 50% in the real world.

2. Approximately 20% of blog readers are women. Once again, this compares to about 50% in the real world.

3. If Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan are typical — and I suspect they aren't too far off the mark — the blogosphere is incredibly elite. About 90% of blog readers have college degrees and an astonishing 50% have advanced degrees. Among top bloggers, my personal count indicates that the top six have advanced degrees (Instapundit, Marshall, Kos, Atrios, Sullivan, Volokh) and nearly all of the top 30-40 have at least an undergraduate degree.

4. 11% of blog readers are libertarian. What's more, nearly all major "conservative" blogs are more accurately described as libertarian than truly conservative. This probably has something to do with the blogosphere's roots in the heavily libertarian tech world — read Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish if you're interested in learning more about the history of high-tech libertarianism — but in any case it means that true conservatism is heavily underrepresented in the blogosphere.

5. However, using the blog version of conservative as our guide, conservatives are still heavily overrepresented in the blogosphere despite the hype that liberal blogs have received lately. It's true that there are four liberal blogs among the top ten (Atrios, Kos, Marshall, and PA), but if you take a look at the next 20 it's about 80% conservative.

6. And now for the truly shocking news: California dominates the top of the political blogosphere. Among the top dozen bloggers, half are Californians (Kos, Volokh, LGF, Kaus, Den Beste, and PA). And of those, five are from Southern California.”

There's lots of room for quibbling -- what's a "political blog" and does a blog that is at least occasionally "political" count as one? If we notice that many blogs that are considered conservative are better described as negative libertarian (market fundamentalist) than conventionally conservative, shouldn't we also mention that many of the splashiest liberal blogs look awfully centrist to progressive eyes? Anyway, I very enthusiastically second Drum’s suggestion that everyone should read Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish to get some handle on libertechians. It's amazing how apt it remains post-bubble post-Bush post-Belle Epoque. Insert histrionic, you know, sigh here.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Today's Random Wilde

This afternoon, in my Argumentative Writing class here at Berkeley, I taught what has to be my favorite piece by Oscar Wilde, his essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism." This is a text I return to time and time again in my classes, since it almost never fails to be provocative and entertaining and illuminating for students. I'm amazed that so much of it is still laugh-out-loud funny over a century after its writing (not to mention after teaching the thing so many times). Also, it is pretty flabbergasting just how much of the essay -- which weighs in at 30 or so odd pages -- is fabulously quotable. And so, I'll be drawing my Random Wildishness from "Soul of Man" for the next few days as a salute. Even restricting my attention to this one essay the witticisms can be called up more or less randomly, anyway. For today: "[A] community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime."

Iraq 'Supermax' Prisons Won't Wipe Away Abu Ghraib Stain

[via AlterNet] “In his five-point plan for Iraq reconstruction [so-called], President Bush touted his plan to build a modern maximum-security prison in Iraq as one way to wipe away the horrid stain of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The irony is that the type of maximum-security prison Bush wants to build has come under fierce assault from prison reformers, lawmakers and even some prison officials in the United States. These prisons, popularly known as a supermax prisons, have been the target of prisoner lawsuits in Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, and Illinois. In 2000, the Justice Department brought federal charges against prison guards for shooting inmates at Pelican Bay, California's supermax prison.

“Supermaxes have been called by the prisoners, 'torture chambers,' where they are subjected to flagrant human rights and civil liberties violations, and appalling psychological and physical abuses.”

The ''10/90 Gap''

Justice De Thezier posts over on Cyborg Democracy about what a group of Toronto researchers are calling "The 10/90 Gap" - namely, the fact that less than ten per cent of health research spending is used to fight conditions that lead to ninety per cent of the world's death and illness. Looking at six leading medical journals over the course of a year they point out as well that diarrhea, malaria, malnutrition and measles, which kill millions in the developing world annually, received scant coverage, while diseases that affect rich and poor, like HIV/AIDS and heart disease are widely studied. The editor of the Canadian Medical Journal, which published the study, said there aren't enough studies on the diseases to print, and that more scientific outreach to developing countries is needed. (Ya think?)

For more on this, see also the worthy work done by Medecins Sans Frontieres and especially the MSF Access to Essential Medicines Campaign.