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

Monday, August 02, 2004

Dispatches from Libertopia (Another New, and I am Sad to Say Probably Recurring, Feature)

It is a source of ongoing perplexity for me that people with whom I regularly have some of the most useful and provocative conversations about technological development will often (especially if they happen, like me, to be Americans) tend to belligerently espouse some of the most appalling and naïve political perspectives imaginable. (In fairness, they would likely say the same thing about me.)

The Fight Aging! blog to which I used to link on my homepage is a case in point. It has been for me a valuable source of provocative and usually sensible speculation about the technical aspects of genetic and especially longevity medicine. Unfortunately, it also occasionally goes off on these rather breathtaking anti-political rants that bespeak what looks to me like a profound social alienation and even hostility to mainstream democratic institutions and norms. I’ve deleted my link to them, with misgivings, just because I feel uncomfortable at even tangentially seeming to endorse (on a page to which friends, colleagues, and students of mine will sometimes refer) what seem to me the anti-social and anti-political perspectives that feverishly upwell from there from time to time.

This should matter to the Fight Aging! bloggers, among many other reasons, because the normative and institutional landscape they so disdain will certainly constitute the ongoing context for the developmental pathways that otherwise preoccupy them, and will loom large in shaping the developmental outcomes they claim to desire. I provide some theoretical background for the market-libertarian perspective as well as some provisional suggestions as to what inspires the specifically techno-libertarian versions of it in an earlier Amor Mundi entry, “Trouble in Libertopia.”

“Politics is a black hole, it really is,” writes “Reason” in a blog entry that has inspired my most recent exasperation with the liber-techians. He goes on, “Politicians have no powers other than those of destruction, harassment and hinderance [emphasis mine] – and like classic thugs they use their power to suck everyone into circus events and fight over spoils.”

This is classic negative-libertarian rhetoric, as I wrote in “Trouble in Libertopia”: “Against the purported spontaneity and inevitability of ‘market’ relations, so-called, the negative libertarians array the countervailing and always-only coercive machineries of national states. They reduce all government to violence and see in governing nothing but violence, and then declare, practically as a matter of fiat, that ‘market outcomes’ (and typically market behavior will be treated as synechdochic with corporate conduct) non-coercive…. [N]ever mind that legitimate governments, of course, whatever their flaws, routinely engage in social administration that is the farthest imaginable thing from physical threat. Once one puts the negative libertarian blinders on every nice social worker and dedicated public servant suddenly becomes a jack-booted thug and every corporate titan, even if he is little better than a mafia don, suddenly becomes a Randian Archetype of boundless benevolent creative energy.”

“Reason” cites enthusiastically a piece in Reason Online (no relation, it’s a market fundamentalist rag) by Brian Doherty that characterizes politics as “the system of coordinated violence and threats designed to force other people to do what you want them to, and people's attempts to game that system in a usually futile attempt to ‘make a difference.’“ I consider it plainly wrong, of course, to characterize politics as “co-ordinated violence” when it looks more to me instead like the co-ordinated effort to ameliorate violence (including the violence of exploitation), and to create institutional alternatives to violence for the adjudication of disputes between people who differ from one another in their conditions, their views, and their desires.

But beyond this, I think it is interesting to see this wrong-headed somewhat sociopathic outlook conjoined so obviously to the cynical deflation of anyone who would hope or try to “make a difference” through political engagement or organizing (the scare-quotes are Doherty’s), even when so many who try to do so through politics include among their efforts projects to reform for the better the very institutions that market-fundamentalist types rail against for their imperfections.

What does it mean to reduce all the efforts of people working to make “the system” (so-called) better as nothing but attempts to “game the system”? Where honestly does that kind of blanket cynicism leave us? (My guess is, as often as not, it simply provides a nice rationale for acting like an asshole and screwing people over for a quick brainless buck, all the while disdaining anybody who tries to live and to do otherwise as “naïve.” Not to put too fine a point on it.)

Anyway, the Doherty piece is a reaction against what he calls “this week of all-Kerry-all-the-time Democratic convention coverage” and this is very likely the inspiration for Our Man “Reason”’s own reference to “classic thugs [who] use their power to suck everyone into circus events and fight over spoils.”

Given the shameful choice of the consolidated corporate media to show very little indeed of the Convention one has to wonder at the kind of Princess and the Pea hyper-sensitivity that would recoil from this impoverished non-coverage, as if it constituted anything like “all-Kerry-all-the-time” in the first place. And quite apart from my own sense that “classic thugs” would enjoy a considerably better reputation than they do if it were true that they were associated in any way at all with “circus events” (which are, after all, fun for the whole family), I must say that I am intrigued at the way the “anti-politics” button on the techno-libertarian emergency console seems so conspicuously to be pushed by the Democrats, of all people, in this historical moment when Republicans are dismantling domestic institutions, engaging in unilateral military adventures abroad, and running up unprecedented budget deficits.

The always-excellent Chris Mooney quotes from John Kerry’s speech accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party as Presidential candidate a passage that really moved me, too:

So much promise stretches before us. Americans have always reached for the impossible, looked to the next horizon and asked: What if?

Two young bicycle mechanics from Dayton asked, what if this airplane could take off at Kitty Hawk? It did that and changed the world forever. A young president asked, what if we could go to the moon in 10 years? And now we're exploring the stars and the solar system themselves. A young generation of entrepreneurs asked, what if we could take all the information in a library and put it on a chip the size of a fingernail? We did that and that too changed the world.

And now it's our time to ask: What if?

What if we find a breakthrough to Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and AIDS? What if we have a president who believes in science so we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem-cell research and treat illness for millions of lives?

This was, of course, just one of many moments in the Democratic Convention when science and scientific culture was championed on the podium to roars of approval and joy by the Democrats who thronged the Fleet Center. Technological progress was offered up as a source of emancipation, inspiration, and hope, and took its place together with the good fights against poverty, unilateral military adventurism, racism, and sexism as a cause Democrats consider to be at the heart of their vision of the world.

It is curious indeed that techno-libertarians would disdain as nothing but hollow so wide, so established, so dedicated, so resourceful a body of people and potential allies, devoted to aims that align so conspicuously with some of their own (at least their professed aims). If it is true that the Democrats concentrate on more near-term possibilities rather than the superlative and radical and longer-term technological outcomes that preoccupy “Reason” and the other liber-techians, does it really not matter at all that so many Democrats are so open to supporting with them at least the proximate early steps along the developmental roads that could eventuate in the outcomes they claim to desire?

“Little comes out of throwing your support behind candidates except further support for a system of petty controls and evil tyranny….. Progress, creation, good lives and better medicine don't come from politicians,” writes “Reason” wrongly. But I submit that mainstream political effort can accomplish in a lightning flash the kind of outcomes that a lifetime of work outside of politics cannot dream of. “[Politicians] do not create or build - all they do is shout, threaten, tear down, abuse the power we give them and lay down roadblocks on the way to the future.” But of course politicians can and do create and build and mend and support, whatever the shortcomings of many of them. And when they do a good job they facilitate the creative and constructive efforts of others, too, by channeling funding, providing stability, promoting safety, co-ordinating energies, ensuring that costs, risks, and benefits are all more fairly shared by all the stakeholders to that creativity.

Is there corruption and ignorance and ambition that all too often stands in the way of the optimal functioning of the political shepherding of technological development? Certainly, there is. But who is more naïve, the one who is driven by a recognition of these flaws into a process that would reform practices and institutions to better approximate best ideals, or is it the one who would use these imperfections as a pretext to dismiss these ideals altogether, to attempt to dismantle the unfinished institutional attainments of democratic societies whatever their accomplishments?

And, anyway, who seriously holds the view that politics is exhausted by one’s participation in partisan Presidential politics? We do more as good citizens than vote for good Presidents. But this hardly justifies a denigration of our power and responsibilities when we are voting for our President, either. We must organize, and advocate, and criticize, and educate, and vote, too. How can serious and otherwise bright people not understand these things?

"Reason" proposes, to the contrary, that “[w]e ought not, to the extent we can help it, live in George Bush's America, or John Kerry's.” But it seems to me that “the extent we can help it” is in fact vanishingly negligible.

What is it with the persistent social obliviousness and anti-political antipathy of so many technophiles? It's like the self-appointed “digirati” at the irrationally exuberant height of the dot.Bubble all over again, all blithely imagining themselves to inhabit the Cyberspatial sprawl rather than the territorial nation-states where their desktops happened to reside, all smug and snug in “the new home of Mind,” all contemplating not as citizens or agents but self-styled futurist gurus these fuzzy game-theoretical tableaux that were "evolving," "emerging," "mobbing," "swarming," "spontaneously ordering" themselves, but heavens forbid never organized politically, never regulated, never voted for, all of them breathlessly awaiting the “inevitable” arrival of crypto-anarchy, or nano-santa, or techno-rapture, or just content to loll forever lackadaisically in their “Long [and now Longed-For] Boom.”

Do these guys not notice that the Net is being domesticated from wilderness frontier into another corporate-sponsored and corporate-censored theme park even as they tap away at their keyboards? Do they not notice that genetically engineered foodstuffs are now wrongly reviled and repudiated by many of the people who urgently need them? Do they not see molecular nanotechnology being defined out of existence and pushed out of sight into the archipelago of secret military labs for who knows who to pursue without regulation or oversight? Do they not worry what it will eventually have to mean that the incredible gains in productivity associated with ever more ubiquitous automation are facilitating an ever more conspicuous concentration of wealth among the few rather than greater prosperity for everybody? Do they not observe that at this very moment cognitive technologies that could re-write the range available to human experience look instead to be enlisted now by Big Pharma in the ongoing racist War on [some] Drugs [by means of other Drugs]? Do they see hopes for the genetic medical address of countless diseases dashed pointlessly against the absurd fear-mongering hyperbole of social conservatives arm-waving about cloned armies of immortal super-babies and who knows what other nonsense? How many political defeats do the radical technophiles have to suffer before they are willing to grant that politics might matter after all and that possibly they might benefit from getting better at it?

Little in the world is more conspicuous in this moment than that we live in Bush’s America, and likewise little in the world more conspicuous than that we will all do better to live next year in John Kerry’s America. I don’t subscribe to the cartoon cut-out viewpoint that this is a contest between a monster moron and a soldier saint (the rhetoric's fun, but I fear the reality's more depressing than that), but I still know a difference that makes a difference when I see one. A Kerry Administration won’t solve the problems that confront us, but simply will provide the smallest space in which it will be possible again for serious people of good will to work on those problems with some real hope of making a difference. No scare-quotes there for me, you see. I do believe in making a difference and in making recourse to politics (partisan and otherwise) to do so.

Just because people derive much of the meaning of our lives from our inhabitation of particular moral communities and much of our power from our warranted instrumental beliefs, doesn’t remove or insulate us from our inhabitation of a world that includes others with whom we significantly differ.

“We should shun politics and the parasites who live in that world,” writes “Reason,” I think, unreasonably. “We should turn our backs on politicians and rent seeking. We should instead focus on our own lives - building the future we wish to see through our work and ingenuity. It is better that our dollars and time go to our own individual visions than to bolster one or other of the competing gangs in government.” But the truth is that we share the world with more than just our friends and allies, and this will remain true even in a world riven more and more conspicuously by the transformations incubated by radical technological developments. Politics is ineradicable, and so the choices are to get better at it, or to have those who are get the better of you.


Martin Striz said...

As always, an uncredibly articulate and insightful read. You might be interested in a post that I made to my own blog wherein I critique libertarianism:

Mark Plus said...

Libertarians strike me as irrational regarding their risk assessments, because they tend to assume that they have the ability to become wealthy or even super-wealthy if it weren't for those hated government interventions. Even in the most utopian libertarian wet dream most people aren't going to wind up rich, whereas you have a 100% chance of becoming chronically ill or debilitated just by living long enough. (I think an economic principle called "Pareto's Law" shows how just a relative handful of people wind up rich under competitive market conditions. While the odds of falling into the fortunate end of the weatlth distribution are somewhat better than winning the lottery, they aren't high enough to depend on.)

So, unless these libertarians are already wealthy and could live off of investment income indefinitely if they became disabled tomorrow, like Christopher Reeve, they really should stop deceiving themselves about their self-reliance, personal productivity and relative invulnerability. Individual productivity of material wealth is largely illusory any way, because non-human "energy slaves" do the real work in a modern economy. We are going to see this illusion implode pretty quickly if the Peak Oil theorist are right and, as OPEC's president admitted the other day, we've maxed out on the world's ability to extract oil:
The enormous gulf between high-energy and low-energy societies was dramatized by Buckminster Fuller when he proposed the unit of an “energy-slave,” based on the average output of a hard-working man doing 150,000 foot-pounds of work per day and working 250 days per year. In low-energy societies, the nonhuman energy slaves are typically horses, oxen, windmills, and riverboats. Using Fuller’s unit, the average American at the end of the century had more than 8,000 energy-slaves at his or her disposal. Moreover, Fuller pointed out, “energy-slaves, although doing only the foot-pounds of humans, are enormously more effective because they can work under conditions intolerable to man, e.g., 5,000° F, no sleep, ten-thousandths of an inch tolerance, one million times magnification, 400,000 pounds per square inch pressure, 186,000 miles per second alacrity and so forth.”