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

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?

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