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

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Flip-Flop Frame-Up

Democrats need to think more carefully about deploying the Republican frame of denouncing a politician for flip-flopping.

It is of course appalling to call Kerry a flip-flopper on the War, because his vote to authorize force as a way of empowering the President to take credible measures to inspect Iraq for WMD and enlist a real international coalition to police violations was anything but a war vote, certainly not any kind of vote to endorse a reckless policy of pre-emptive war without real support, much in the way of planning, or adequate evidence of threat. Bush's lies and incompetence are the problem here, not Kerry's intelligent and honest assessments of real complexities.

Yes, Bush is the bigger "flip-flopper," I guess. Yes, Republican hypocrites can be endlessly exposed in their opportunistic shifts in chase of cash and power. But, please, please find some other way to frame the thing you expose when you label a Republican a flip-flopper.

Democrats know that nuanced positions in a complex world are necessary. Democrats know that it is good to change your mind in the face of changed evidence.

If "flip-flopper" gets completely entrenched in the puditocracy, it just becomes a button to push with which to dismiss and deride anybody who struggles to govern sensibly and effectively in a world that is actually complex and changing. This must especially be the case in democracies in which representatives are properly expected to be responsive to those they represent.

Do we really want to make it a matter of political commonsense that only a politician who exhibits a stubborn refusal to back down in the face of dissent, disapproval, evidence, or consequences can be invulnerable to derision and dismissal as a "flip-flopper"?

Think it through! This is just as bad as when Democrats expose the corruption of a Republican politician and then bask in the momentary comfortable "populist" Republican framing of -- another corrupt politican! This is just as bad as when Democrats suggest Republicans are the ones who are really the big reckless spenders, who really grow Big Government, etc. Just because Republicans are lousy at governing and good at cronyism, doesn't mean we should use their sociopathic anti-governmental frames to express our outrage at their failures.

Why play into Republican cynicism about the "inevitable" corruption and ineffectiveness and brutality of government? We don't believe any of those things. We fight to make government accountable, effective, and progressive. We think democratic politics can solve problems and make life better for people.

Democrats need to defend nuance, defend flexibility, defend legitimate expenditure to address real problems, defend government as an institution uniquely empowered by legitimacy to reconcile contending ends, maintain order, redress grievances, address systemic ills.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Enhancement Medicine and Social Questions

Who Benefits When? Medical Enhancement and the Question of Fairness

We confront the prospect of the near-term arrival of medical techniques that could modify definitive physical and cognitive capacities, radically alter the norms of functional morphology, and extend at least some people’s lives well beyond the bounds even the luckiest among us have enjoyed till now. It is a moment of profound quandary and hopefulness. I share some of the concerns registered in this column written by the technoprogressive Annalee Newitz, that successful life-extension could put unsustainable strains on society, and that longevity for the rich but not the poor will likely exacerbate contemporary forms of unfairness. Newitz is a bit more pessimistic about these worries than I am -- and probably more realistic.

Newitz worries on the one hand that only the Bill Gates/Donald Trump-types of the world will afford enhancement medicine and, on the other hand, worries that enhanced humans in whatever numbers might burden the planet’s resources beyond its capacities. If there seems an initial whiff of paradox about a simultaneous concern that both too few and too many might enjoy enhancement sublimes away under scrutiny. Both the bastard bazillionairs argument and the unsustainability argument are variants of an appeal to fairness. In fact, they are complementary: one worries that benefits will be distributed unfairly, the other worries that costs/risks will be shouldered unfairly.

And because of her expectations about unfairness she can't endorse what she otherwise admits herself is awfully appealing. (I mean, if we actually agreed to deal fairly and seriously with the deep environmental and social problems that freight the prospects of longevity and enhancement medicine we would be talking about more life here, more health, and more choices for all –- what’s not to like?)

Now, to the extent that her worries might inspire Newitz to advocate a Bill Joy kind of relinquishment of longevity medicine and research I would have to strongly disapprove of that, inasmuch as any ban would likely simply displace research and development into unscrupulous and unregulated hands and so exacerbate the kinds of legitimate worries that would inspire the ban in the first place, all the while inevitably chilling less controversial kinds of medical research devoted to securing everybody normative health and lifespan as well. But I don’t really agree with Newitz’s detractors that she advocates anything like that. Honestly, I think she is just saying, sensibly enough -- don't let your fascination with superlative emerging technologies distract you from social repercussions that are unappealing.

I notice that despite her worries and reservations, Newitz pretty much suggests that if a longevity "pill" were available today she would be sorely tempted to take it. It’s hard not to sympathize with her. Honestly, in some ways her column seemed to me like an anticipatory spasm of liberal guilt at the fact that she would possibly undergo life extension despite her recognition that society as it is currently instituted would probably become less sustainable and less fair as a consequence.

Newitz writes: "Life is good, but only if everybody has equal access to it." It's a strong statement, but I concur with it. I think probably nothing short of inculcating this kind of norm will save a humanity flirting for the first time with radical prosthetic practices from itself.

Who Benefits When, Part Two: Trickle Down or Open Access?

One benefit of a limited initial participation in radical new technologies is that it has useful sequestration effects. Early adopters (whether they are particularly adventuresome or just happen to be able to afford high initial costs) serve as the lab rats in the high stakes world of technological development. If this initial select group suffers unexpected harm, at least it is confined in its effects. An early more general distribution of cutting-edge tech could shift a high-risk choice for which the appropriate standard is informed consent, into a potential existential risk for which very stringent applications of the precautionary principle might be appropriate instead. Early adopters aren't just beneficiaries, but often benefactors.

That said, I think the dilemmas of equality and diversity introduced by radical technological development are sometimes more complicated than a “trickle-down” sensibility allows for. Not all inequalities are created equal. Surely it is sensible to insist that modifications that confer strictly positional advantages that represent larger social costs should be discouraged, for example.

Part of the story of technological development looks like the accumulation of a toy-pile, and for this part of the story the rather reductive economic analyses of market-enthusiasts really do usually seem more or less adequate.

It certainly doesn't seem unduly burdensome to most Americans, for example, that rich people get to acquire better gadgets and gewgaws sooner than the rest of us. And it is true that these innocent inequalities tend to be an engine that gets better gadgets to more people as soon as may be (globalizing this tale makes it much more difficult to stay cheerful about its presumptions, but I'll just register that and not dwell on it for now).

Americans, for example, in general seem to have no problem with the fact that very talented or innovative people, or even randomly entertaining and lucky people sometimes live lavishly more pampered lives than the rest of us do. But most of us are considerably less content at the thought that the rich would have access to life-saving treatments that are not available to the less well-off, or that anybody should go hungry in the midst of our culture's great wealth. Market platitudes suddenly seem like anemic things indeed in the face of certain forms that inequality is prone to take in the world.

I suspect that confronted by the quandaries of radical technological development we will need both the hopeful and emancipatory sensibilties of progressives as well as the cautious, more respectful sensibilities of conservatives to help us through.

Technological development differentially distributes capacities to effect ends and this includes the capacity to exploit others. Over the longer term, there is a real worry that a sufficiently uneven distribution of longevity and morphological modification, or intelligence augmentation, or non-open-source access to nanotechnological powers, could re-write inequality in the image of a kind of pernicious speciation.

And one just needs to have a look how humans treat other species now to be reminded why such an outcome looks worrying. The proof is ubiquitous that the relatively more powerful are prone to abuse and exploit the relatively less powerful unless restrained by law, and this is cause enough to worry. Fears that "posthuman" radical modifications and augmentations would provoke especially catastrophic applications of this general tendency of course has no proof, because the pace and scope of modification we are talking about hasn't happened yet.

I say, let's regulate development to ensure better standards of safety, openness, and overview, to legitimate and fund encouraging avenues of development, and to police recklessness and abuse. This is a way to encourage development, not frustrate it. I say, let's be sure to distribute the risks, costs, and benefits fairly among all the stakeholders to development. This is a way to make development fairer, not to impose conformity or choke off innovation.

I Want More Life, Fucker! Enhancement and Upheaval

I agree with Newitz: I don't think the world can stably survive a state of affairs in which Bill Gates can cheerfully expect to live 300 years, while other millions expect to live to 30.

Contrary to some of our market libertarian technophiliacs, I don't think the word "envy" is big enough to encompass the stomach-knotting outrage such a prospect arouses in me.

I think that without an explicit and conspicuous commitment to fairness the distribution of radical medical benefits will exacerbate injustice and that this will in turn exacerbate dangerous social instabilities. Some market-fundamentalist types seem to consider these claims to somehow constitute a form of name-calling.

It's true, I also happen to consider the health, nutrition, and hygiene crises in much of the developing world right now to be an almost unspeakably obscene calamity, one already contributing to global terror and insecurity and an unconscionably stupid waste of human creative potential. Again, some liber-techians want to suggest that the public registration of ethical priorities like these with which they disagree amounts to some kind of hypocritical sanctimony and nothing more.

Market libertarian technophiles often seem to protest that any concern with questions of fairness is the squeal of envious losers for the earnings of worthy winners. They argue that the concern for fairness would clot the developmental flow of technology, so that none would enjoy its fruits. Fairness, they say, really means either everyone gets everything or nobody gets anything.

Of course, whenever one converses on the internet, I suppose, one risks this uncanny moment when everybody drops off the world’s edge into a comic book. Suddenly everybody has been clothed in flaming ideological drag on a bleak battlefield, libertopians arrayed against absolute egalitarians....

But, look, really, now, life-extension wouldn't be like other things. An unequal distribution of lifespan isn't like an unequal distribution of Jaguars vis-à-vis Saturns. Human lives aren't the same thing as cell-phones and laptops.

It's apparently easy for some to be suave in their contemplation of the prospect of being in the lucky minority that benefits early from an unfair distribution of life-extension treatments. But I hope my market-libertarian friends are really right when they imagine themselves snug exemplars of this Cyborg Elect. How especially brutal to find one doesn't make the cut after all, after dedicating oneself so devotedly and long to the proposition of a special life-worthiness in the moneyed elites!

You see, I just don't agree that only "envy" could explain the distaste with which some of us contemplate the proposed spectacle of rich people getting to live when less rich people don't. Too much about the acquisition and maintenance of wealth involves dumb luck and disavowed dependencies on the work of others for me to complacently accept as fair that poverty would (and does) impose on less lucky people the cost of avoidable illness or premature death. Red in tooth and claw may "nature" be, but civilization can do better than that.

Now, I notice that the very thought that a demand for fairness might slow the pace of development enough that its benefits might then elude them fills liber-techians with rage. But what if that demand for fairness has the consequence that a majority would receive these treatments quicker than the trickle-down beneficence of that feudal-aristocratic model? Why does their plebeian rage at exclusion appall the free-marketeers when their own does not? What's the difference? Lives are lives are lives.

Digression: Metaphors We Live (and Live and Live and Live) By

Part of the problem here, I think, is that people keep talking metaphorically about a "pill" that some but not others will be able to afford, and imaginging the effect of taking this pill will be the arrival of this new state called "longevity." To the already absurd oversimplications of exclusively market-oriented social analysis this adds two more layers of hopeless oversimplication to the way we are talking about these issues -- first, about the kind of interventions we're talking about and second, about the effect these interventions will produce.

Of course, instead of "a pill" what we will get will be roughly continuous with contemporary medicine, a vast messy proliferation of treatments for pathological conditions and kinds of damage, developing at different paces, the ultimate effects of individual treatments and their crazily complex interactions with one another unknowable for years upon years to come.

Second, instead of "anti-aging-ness" the effect of these interventions will simply be "health". Health, I expect, will be considerably more edifying than what passes for health these days, but health it will remain. For immortality and other comparable mystifications, good folks will continue to have to darken the doors of their local churches and poetry readings and brothels and bars just as they do at present.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I think the word "aging" will largely be relegated to the status of a folk-term like the word "instinct" is now. The seven kinds of damage on which Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey focuses his attention, for example, are conditions into which we might intervene to live healthy lives longer than has hitherto been possible or even imaginable. But who knows what new conditions and diseases may emerge in the aftermath of even the most resounding success for de Grey's SENS program of research? Death isn't a black be-robed skeleton with a scythe. It isn't a thing to vanquish with a pill.

Just like now there will be healthcare to provide through various therapeutic pathways to sprawling swarming diverse populations of worthy citizens, rich and poor. Healthcare inequity is already shaping up as a force for social instability and an inspiration for radical social reform. These issues are already globalizing in ways that are difficult to get a handle on. The kinds of medical breakthroughs radical techno-ethicians, technocultural critics, and progressive technology advocates speculate about are going to exacerbate this turmoil. Surely even liber-techians can grasp this as a practical possibility, however much it otherwise offends their sleekly calculating predatory sensibilties?

I Want More Life, Fucker! Enhancement and Upheaval, Continued

We are talking about entering the threshold era in which we develop for the first time medical techniques to enable greater-than-hitherto normative healthy lifespans and the enhancement of individual capacities. This will be an era with special problems and promises.

In the long term, to paraphrase Keynes, many who might otherwise live may be dead. Does anybody really expect people to complacently accept their lot on this issue as the mostly arbitrary prosperity sweepstakes has disposed of things? Even those who are satisfied (as certainly I am not) to pathologize as "envious" those who rankle at the unfairness of money buying, not just second cars or hot hookers, but literally years and years of healthy life, surely even they can see the sense of taking steps to ameliorate the social instability that will likely arise in such a developmental era?

I expect the Methuselah Mouse is going to be a mouse that roars.

I think the demand for access to more-than-normatively healthy-lifespan extending medicine is going to incubate a second occasion for genuinely revolutionary upheaval. I say this as one of those boring lefties who finds revolutions profoundly unappealing prospects: I strongly prefer versions of radical left politics involving nice matronly social workers with clipboards to the ones in which pumped up teenaged boys in revolutionary vanguards wave guns around.

All that aside, I honestly don't see any reason to accept the apparent premise of the market-firsters that an institutional concern with fairness would frustrate or slow development in the first place. Why wouldn't it incubate wider participation in experimental trials, enlist a wider investment in terms of time, lives, and resources, a wider quicker more flexible sharing of information, and hence accelerate development for everybody?

The costs of medical research are likely too high to inspire a direct or easy analogy to free-software models, but the current drumbeat of market-fundamentalist deregulation siphoning off money into Big Pharma marketing departments advertising libido enhancement to thousands in the developed world while millions in the developing world are dying from diarrhea scarcely seems like a plausibly prolongable model either.

It seems to me likely, for both good and ill, that the North Atlantic democracies, and much of the rest of the world, are now busy re-inventing themselves in the image of medical industrial complexes. Bioremediated states can be expected to derive their legitimacy differently than military-industrial-infotainment states -- by selling their citizens more than daydreams of security, but by enlisting them in civilization-wide projects of longevity and enhancement medicine figured as freedom.

Diffuse fears of global terror pale in the face of the existential terror of mortality, and it is hard to imagine states not wanting to get in on that action. Once medicine intervenes in the normative bound of three-score and ten, the prevention of premature death with no stable denotation becomes part of what states do in establishing justice and ensuring domestic tranquility.

Citizens are becoming not only legal but also experimental subjects, exchanging much of what presently passes for privacy for their public participation in the most extensive medical research programs imaginable. Although there is little sign that the experimental subjects have noticed it yet, they embody valuable data-points in exchange for which they might demand entitlements otherwise under social seige at present. As the benefits of increasingly ubiquitous automation have served to concentrate rather than democratize prosperity, more or more people are threatened with dispensibility around the world. In the brutal world of market rationality, the only thing worse than exploitation is irrelevance. As bodies on the net, individuals may rediscover their indispensibility. Otherwise, the legitimate discontent of the disappeared is more likely to express itself in murderous ways.

The strain on planetary resources introduced by universal participation in enhancement medicine is hard to fathom. Children must be incomparably rarer in a world where youth lingers incomparably longer. The shift into renewable and sustainable infrastructural architectures and utilities would be, if such a thing is imaginable, more urgent than ever. Perhaps people who expect to live longer might likewise become more rational, imagining themselves actual inhabitants of the futures into which their reckless and thoughtless conduct and consumption reverberates with consequence.

Every option on the game-board is transforming in its assumptions and consequences under pressure of ongoing and upcoming technological developments: the emergence of enhancement medicine, ubiquitous automation, insanely destructive devices...

In her "Manifesto for Cyborgs," Donna Haraway tossed off as an aside a comment that has haunted me for years: "Foucault's biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field." For legal and experimental subjects in the prosthetic democracies that are aborning now, amidst terror and strife and unbearable strain, the potentials for both abuse and for empowerment boggle the mind. There is more, much more, to come.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Republicans: Superhuman? Subhuman? You Decide

Michael Moore expresses the familiar exasperation:

"Only 30% of the country calls itself "Republican," yet the Republicans own it all -- the White House, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and the majority of the governorships. How do you think they've been able to pull that off considering they are a minority? It's because they eat you and me and every other liberal for breakfast and then spend the rest of the day wreaking havoc on the planet."

Be clear, folks. Because Republicans in the Taliban branch currently ascendant under Bush are utterly uninterested in governing, and want only to prevail in the election contest so as to assume the positions of power from which one dispenses loot to one's friends and (powerful) supporters, they can afford to be ruthless and ruinous in their campaigning in ways that can never be available to Democrats if we are to remain Democrats.

Democrats still want to govern, after all. We still want to solve problems, still want to make a case to our fellow citizens. We can never beat the Republicans on their own turf. To fight on their turf is to lose everything that matters before we throw a punch.

Also, it is precisely because Republicans know themselves to be a minority in both their hostility to reasonable governance and in their repudiation of the secular multiculural globe-girding society which is the way we all live now in the world as it actually exists, that they fight with such relentlessness and machine-like discipline. However many institutional locations they control in America, Republicans of the Taliban branch currently in power know themselves to be a hopelessly embattled minority out of step with every social, cultural, and historical current. To give an inch is, for them, to give up the ghost altogether and for good.

Democrats should not confuse the New Immoderate Republican willingness to lie and cheat in unprecedented ways with some kind of superhuman intellect, as too many liberals seem prone to in the cases of the flabby-brained Rushes and Roves. Democrats should not begrudge Republicans the desperate alienation that mobilizes their passions and frights them into lockstep.

The Republicans aren't black magicians. They have no inexplicable powers at their disposal. They sit on big piles of money they stole in the long bad days that are dying all around us. They fight with the ferocity of an army at its last stand. Democrats are winning. Democrats will win. Democrats deserve to win, for we are righteous. We don't need the black magic, we don't need the robot armies. We are making a world here.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Random Wilde

If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn't. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.

More Cackles from the Balcony

Suspicions about the rigged explosive letters that have been sent over the last few days to fourteen of the nation's governors so far are settling predictably enough onto some vile white-supremicist hate groups. It is now clear at last why we have heard comparatively little about this story, as Eric is quick to point out: The perpetrators likely aren't brown enough to be considered terrorists in Bush's America.

Cackles From the Balcony

Eric wonders if there is a new generation of Political Correctness afoot: Otherwise, how to explain the strange substitution of the term "undecided" for what is obviously complete drooling idiocy?

Saturday, September 11, 2004

MundiMuster! Tell President Bush to back off his threat to veto overtime pay protection.

[via the ALF-CIO] The U.S. House of Representatives has heard us and approved an amendment to restore overtime pay rights for some 6 million workers threatened with its loss under new Bush administration rules. The House action also maintains the one part of the rules that expands overtime coverage to 384,000 low-income workers.

President George W. Bush refuses to give up the fight and is threatening to veto important legislation in order to keep his outrageous, massive pay cut for working families in place--once again defying the wishes of the public and Congress with his actions.

One thing is clear--the Bush administration is determined to strip workers of their overtime pay. While Bush keeps fighting for his corporate allies, we need to keep fighting for working families who depend on overtime pay to make ends meet.

Tell George Bush to back off his overtime pay veto threat. Please act today by sending a letter to President Bush. We'll deliver your letter via fax with a copy to your U.S. senators, who are about to take up this important legislation. Please click the link, and then add your own words to your letter to personalize it with your own thoughts and feelings.

Crimes Mistaken for Commemorations

The grief and the grievances could not be more real, and they abide as the crimes have been compounded with new crimes and more crimes without end. Rage and revenge are the smallest, meanest, laziest, most thoughtless, most hurtful, most dangerous possible ways to respond to losses and to fear. We all know there are other ways. We all know real leaders are the ones who find the other ways, and help us find our way to them. George Bush has made a dangerous world more dangerous, a suffering world less just, a grieving world less comforted, a promising world harder to imagine. In November, we have to open the door to the wind again, and let the wide world rush in. It feels like years and years since I’ve taken a deep sweet breath! I know that hope is more difficult than fear is, more difficult than anger is, but to choke in rage and live in fear isn’t living at all. We’re strong enough to grieve 9/11, we’re strong enough to look around and build again and move on – but I just can’t bear grieving the loss of America anymore to a bunch of brainless bullies out to make a cheap buck. On November 3 I’ll find the strength to start forgiving again.

Ten Theses on Surveillance

As often happens among technology enthusiasts, there has been a flare-up of discussion about the politics of surveillance on one of the talk-fora I participate on regularly.

The terms of this discussion seem to me to drift into pretty well-worn grooves these days, defined roughly by the positions of "cypherpunks" like Tim May on one end, and advocates for "transparency" like David Brin on the other.

Maybe this says more about the salons I hang out in than about the actual issues at hand, but it seems to me that most of the positions taken up within the discursive universe defined by these poles make assumptions (a certain level of technological determinism, for example, as well as a reductive understanding of politics inspired by market libertartianism) that undermine the capacity of the participants to really get at many of the stakes and problems in play in the emerging politics of surveillance.

Anyway, somebody made the comment: "In the future, suveillance will be voluntary. People will pay to watch and pay to be watched." And, true to form, I took this innocuous comment as the prompt for a sprawling and probably misdirected response of my own. My only defense is that this is the topic of my dissertation, and I am a bit preoccupied with these issues at the moment, and so I hope I can be forgiven for going off occasionally somewhat half-cocked.

But, come what may, it seemed to me the ten theses inspired by that comment might have a more general interest and so I figured they might as well find their way to the blog:
First of all, be careful about treating the sentence "People will pay for x" as a synonym for "x is voluntary." Freedom is more than selecting options provided by the powerful for the delight and edification of the rest of us. (This is probably not what you meant, but it is a problem these formulations are prey to.) It is more likely that the techniques of surveillance that become customary in the next few years, for good or ill, will in fact define much of what comes to be taken and experienced and defended as "voluntary" in the first place.

Second, "surveillance" is too sweeping and complex in its impacts and development to ever deserve the straightforward whole-cloth application of a label like "voluntary" or "coercive." Some applications of surveillance techniques will facilitate domination, some will express consent.

Third, it is key to shift the discussion of surveillance away from technological determinist frameworks where we pretend that there is something inherent in the technologies themselves from which either inevitably dangerous or inevitably promising outcomes will unfold. It is not technology but prosthetic practices that are liberating or coercive, here as always.

Fourth, what we call "privacy" has always been unstable in its characteristics, and deeply responsive to technological development. (Warren and Brandeis's canonical "Right to Privacy" was a response to networked journalism and high-speed photography, and the category of privacy has been primary in the legal and cultural discourse through which democracies have grappled with the ongoing development of reproductive technologies, and now digital/biometric surveillance, for example.) Technology is not threatening privacy, so much as changing it. This is not new. This has always been the story of privacy. Still, it is also always right to worry whether particular changes afoot are welcome or not.

Fifth, the problem is not that we are exposed to greater and more exhaustive scrutiny, but that we are vulnerable to the uses to which such information can be put. It is not the availability of personal information that is threatening, but the capacity of power to impose definitive interpretations of information on us to facilitate our exploitation and domination.

Sixth, at the heart of David Brin's notion of "transparency" would seem to be the idea that there is a single stable truth of the matter to be exposed by ubiquitous surveillance which will protect the innocent from the depredations of the powerful. I believe that the world is susceptible to multiple pragmatically powerful descriptions, and that when surveillance power is asymmetrical (as it is now, conspicuously, and shows no signs at all of shifting away from) those descriptions will prevail primarily which maintain and consolidate established concentrations of power, whatever suffering this causes or justifies otherwise.

Seventh, these worries should not inspire us to repudiate new technologies but to insist on uses of technology that will be emancipatory. This means we must shift the focus of surveillance techniques onto authority itself, rather than acquiescing to the ongoing intensification of surveillance by authorities over the relatively less powerful.

Eighth, my libertarian friends -- whether of the market, socialist, green, or civil varieties -- who are still hypnotized by eighteenth century characterizations of power best embodied by absolutist sovereigns, would do well to study Michel Foucault as soon as possible. Foucault proposed, among other things, that the "coercive" application of power has become more diffuse, institutionally multi-lateral, and involves multiple micro-intense interventions into conduct to produce desired outcomes in a way that is at once more efficient as well as experienced by its objects (subjects) as less onerous. Dazzled by fantasies of Big Brother, too many lovers of freedom are distracted away from the actual workings of power, and the actual institutional locations from which domination is exercised, to the real cost of freedom. Foucault's word for these diffuse coercive mechanisms? "Surveillance."

Ninth, the focus of privacy activism, then, must be (1) to strengthen civil liberties which would protect us from the pernicious misuse of information gathered and deployed by the powerful to dominate others (for example, if gay people were not earmarked for special discrimination in most societies it would matter considerably less that information about homosexual conduct can be ever more easily exposed and published to the world), and (2) to challenge (within reason!) the veils of official secrecy through which powerful institutions maintain their asymmetrical power to impose interpretations over information (primarily through the logic of "security" and the "reason of state" -- or the corporate logic of intellectual property and proprietary information).

Tenth, we must at all costs resist the usual disavowal of politics through a focus on technical questions. This means we must reject out of hand the technophobic response of those whose fears about the dangerous misuse of technology will prompt them to repudiate the technologies themselves. Such a response will squander the energies of dedicated defenders of freedom on a hopeless cause. Technologies cannot be disinvented, and so activism must ensure instead that through reasonable regulation their uses and distribution are progressive. But we must reject with equal fervor the technophilic response of those who expect or desire that technological development will hurdle us past intractable political quandaries, rather than simply express them in new forms. Radical and progressive technology advocates cannot afford to make the mistakes of irrational exuberance that characterized the technophilia of "cyberspace," "cypherpunk," or "virtuality" enthusiasms of recent memory. Technology expresses political interests, it does not bypass them. Technological development is a space of social struggle, not the steady accumulation of objects in a toy-pile. When Aristotle defined human beings as "political animals" this was the first recognition that humanity is definitively cyborg. Technology will never deliver us from the contestatory, collaborative, conversational field of politics. Politics is who we are.

Now, get to it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

MundiMuster! Oppose Confirmation of Judicial Nominee Claude A. Allen

[via NOW] Action Needed: Your calls and email messages are needed to the members of the Senate to urge them to oppose the confirmation of Claude A. Allen. Allen has been nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and his appointment to that position would be nothing short of a civil liberties disaster.

The vote in the Senate could possibly take place as soon as today—but it could also be delayed into next week. The National Organization for Women strongly urges the defeat of this extremist right-wing nominee.

Please use this link to send an email to your senators.

Background: Claude Allen's nomination arouses concern for several reasons. First, he lacks the experience normally required to sit on the appellate bench: He has never been a lower court judge and has spent, at most, eight years practicing law. Second, in the course of his career as a political appointee for former Virginia Governor James Gilmore and George W. Bush, Allen has amassed a record of hard-line right-wing policies. Third, his behavior toward those disagree with him is often hostile or threatening, thus suggesting that Allen is temperamentally unfit to be a federal judge. Finally, the nomination of Allen, a Virginian, to a Fourth Circuit seat traditionally reserved for a Marylander, calls into question the legitimacy of his nomination, and he is opposed by both Maryland senators.

Allen has been hostile to women's reproductive rights. In 1997, he helped craft a Virginia state law that mandated parental notification for minors seeking to obtain an abortion and allowed judges to deny even mature minors a bypass. Allen also helped push through a law that would have made performance of a variety of vaguely-defined abortion procedures a Class 1 misdemeanor for Virginia physicians. As recent as the year 2000, Allen served on the Republican National Convention’s resolutions committee which supported retaining the party platform’s call for a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion.

However, Allen does not limit his ultra-conservative ideology to matters of reproductive freedom. He has consistently opposed comprehensive sexual and safe-sex education, insisting instead upon ineffective abstinence-only education. Allen has a clear record of hostility to groups working to educate vulnerable populations about HIV, even investigating those groups that publicly disagreed with him. Further, Allen clearly has anti-gay views and has made numerous public anti-gay and lesbian comments. Finally, while at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Allen has worked to limit federal anti-discrimination rules as part of President Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.”

Again, please use this link to send an email to your senators.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Random Wilde (Special, to John Kerry, Presidential Politics Edition)

One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.

Cognitive Modification and Consent

Emerging pharmacological interventions into mood, memory, and perception are growing more sophisticated and ubiquitous. These developments are taking place in the context of the disastrous racist and puritanical War on (some but not other) Drugs (by means of yet other Drugs), which perniciously distorts nearly every effort to think clearly about the issues involved.

My first impulse (as your typical "Pro-Choice" liberal feminist queer) is to say that of course people should always be able to do what they want with their own bodies and brains, so long as they do not endanger the health, safety, or wellbeing of others to whom they are responsible. But come to think of it, we will not be able to rely on a naïve voluntarism to govern decisions about the kind of radical cognitive modifications that are arriving soon, and of which contemporary pharmacological interventions are the first premonition. This is because the whole point of too much cognitive modification will be to intervene in the capacities and effects on the basis of which we judge something to be voluntary in the first place.

It is easy to imagine intelligence enhancements for which the case could be made that only someone who has undergone the enhancement itself is in a position to be considered fully informed about it. Is it easy to imagine cognitive modifications that would induce hyper-efficacious kinds of monomania or enable forms of exhilaration or special sensitivities that simply could not be judged "rational" or "sane" by the standards of normative conduct that underlie these judgments now.

What if a person seeks to erase significant stretches of painful memory or to efface what have been characteristic but are now unwanted elements of personality? (Or, to speculate in a wilder-eyed way for the longer term, what if a person chooses to immerse themselves via, say, a neural interface into a distributed network in a way that seems to subordinate their individuality to something more like a collective mind?) What of the claims of loved ones that such modifications will constitute a kind of suicide, or more strongly are signs of incompetence justifying custodial protection?

What is wanted in general for now is policy that simultaneously: one, encourages the development of useful neuroceuticals and increased research into their effects; two, liberalizes their availability to those who want to use them; three, restricts the circumstances in which their use would be imposed by authorities; and four, increases education into effects to ensure that individual choices are informed ones. But I fear this center will not hold for long.

Eventually, it may be that the contemporary association of "consent" with privacy will be displaced by a state of affairs in which the maintenance of consent will rely very conspicuously on public monitoring, reversibility of modification, and maintaining mediated pathways to intersubjective intelligibility even where there can be no assurance that political peers will be able to communicate with one another even in principle their individual stakes in the world they share.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Random Wilde (Special Dissertating Edition)

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.

MundiMuster! Assault Weapons Ban Ends MONDAY!

[via MoveOn] On Monday, September 13th, at midnight, the national ban on military-style assault weapons will expire, allowing these murderous weapons back on our streets.

Congress is feeling the heat and is prepared to renew the ban, if the president will only ask -- but President Bush is letting the ban expire, on behalf of the gun lobby. We've got to take action.

Please sign on to our emergency petition to President Bush and Congress to renew the assault weapons ban now:

Ask all your friends and family to sign. We'll deliver all of the comments by Friday, September 10th, before the ban expires, so we need as many people as possible to sign on today.

In 2000, President Bush campaigned on a promise to renew the ban. Yet today, after we've endured mass murders like Columbine and terrorists have bought assault weapons on American soil, President Bush is letting the ban expire.

Bush is jeopardizing our safety for the sake of an endorsement from the National Rifle Association. As reported in the newspaper The Hill, "The National Rifle Association's (NRA) endorsement of Bush is on hold until after the ban expires."

Since 1994, the assault weapons ban has taken the deadliest military- style weapons off our streets, dramatically cutting their use in crimes by 66 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and reducing the murder rates of police officers and the public.

This is not a partisan issue -- the assault weapons ban was supported by Presidents Reagan, Ford, Carter, and Clinton, and by Republicans Tom Ridge and Rudy Giuliani. The ban is supported by 74 percent of American voters, by Republicans and Democrats on the committees that investigated 9/11, and by virtually every police officers' association including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, International Brotherhood of Police Officers , National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), National Black Police Association, and Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association.

Yet President Bush is letting the ban expire, as he refuses to call on Congress to send him the ban renewal for his signature.

If he lets it expire, beginning Tuesday the 14th of September, an 18-year-old will once again be able to buy an AK-47 assault rifle in most states.

Don't let Bush put deadly assault weapons back on our streets. Go to:

MundiMuster! Senate leaders will soon move to approve the flag amendment

[via the ACLU] For more than a decade, numerous members of Congress have tried to amend -- with seemingly endless resources -- the U.S. Constitution to give the government the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag.

Civil libertarians have fought back hard with coalitions of veterans, religious leaders and other Americans who believe that such a constitutional amendment would undermine the very principles for which the American flag stands.

While our fight against the proposed amendment has begun to make some headway in recent years, the margins of our victories remain precariously thin. Supporters of the amendment continue to spend millions of dollars on lobbying candidates and members of Congress.

Now, Senate leaders are taking advantage of several Senators’ absence due to presidential campaigns, sickness or the aftermath of Hurricane Frances to slip this amendment through.

Protect the Constitution!

Click here, and enter your zip code at the bottom of the page to send a message to your senators now.

More Cackles from the Balcony

Eric wonders what on Earth the First Lady has been telling the President to elicit this provocative new campaign theme [W. via Digby]:

"We got an issue in America. Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many good OB/GYN's aren't able to practice their love, with women all across this country."

Monday, September 06, 2004

The Random Wilde

It is well for his peace that the saint goes to his martyrdom. He is spared the sight of the horror of his harvest.

More (Unsolicited) Advice for the Technophiles

I'm not a transhumanist, but I play one on google.

I think of myself as a techno-ethicist, technocultural critic, and progressive technology advocate. Many of my friends and colleagues are transhumanist-identified technophiles, but despite our many shared concerns and enthusiasms it just has never been clear to me how the term "transhumanist" is supposed to function as a coherent designation of identity, the kind around which one could organize any sort of effective identity movement. (I think "identity" is a rather outmoded way of organizing a personal narrative or political movement in any case -- so twentieth century!) Technology enthusiasm seems too general to constitute a way of life in need of promotion or protection, and the advocacy of specific developmental outcomes never seems to solicit universal assent among all the transhumanist-identified people presumably subsumed under the term. Not to mention, some of the people who are transhumanist-identified really, you know, freak me out.

Despite all this, I am quite happy to occasionally step up and analyze, advise, and admonish my many patient transhumanist-identified friends. Now is one of those times.

It seems to me that there is altogether too much of an emphasis on compiling enemies lists, circling wagons, and responding to sprawling laundry lists of the putative objections of critics in transhumanist discursive spaces and sites. I think all this imbues you with a cast of extreme embattlement, damaging defensiveness, and pointless distraction.

And, my dears, why so much explaining why transhuman-type organizations are not cults? Everybody knows that only people in cults ever do this.

You need to be coming up with alternative ways of framing issues that facilitate good technology outcomes, and ways of appealing to far more people. Think of all the people you are going to share the future with, and all the people who will collaborate in its creation. Surely you want to start addressing more of them some time soon?

You should be too busy offering up useful formulations for policy debates to be responding interminably to the misrepresentations of others. While it is often important to respond to errors and mistakes, it is best when this happens in the context of debates among people who already respect one another, rather than sniping from the sidelines. Until transhumanish organizations have a real place at the table I think it would be better to change the subject when wrongheaded technophobic viewpoints are aired, by providing progressive alternatives to them.

Whenever you come upon a social/bio-conservative formulation or framing that threatens to impede progress, try to think of an alternative formulation that circumvents it. Address the reasonable fears that drive the conservative position while keeping open the possibility of progress the conservative position seeks to foreclose. When you focus on what is wrong with a conservative framing of an issue it is too easy to consolidate the underlying terms and connections of the conservative outlook in a way that keeps it alive, even if you manage to poke holes in some specific position that expresses it.

Avoid hype at all costs. Don't deny or denigrate reasonable fears. Try to avoid jargon and neologisms, even if this seems to make an outcome that excites or terrifies you feel a little boring. Whenever it is possible to express your hopes or interests in terms of bland mainstream values, do so. Say it with me: Choice, healthy, safe, cheap, fair.

Whenever a long-term developmental outcome preoccupies your attention, ask whether there are more proximate developmental stages on which that superlative outcome depends, and whether they must be advocated for first. Think for the future, act in the present.

Imagine making the case for an outcome you desire for an audience of people who are reasonable but who don't yet agree with you on anything. Devote your creative intelligence to appealing to those who do not yet agree with you, rather than debunking those who disagree with you. Make the ones who disagree with you irrelevant and you won't have to waste so much of your time explaining to everybody why they're wrong.

Some more specific issues and examples:

[1] If it really is too late to debunk the pernicious rhetoric of "Frankenfoods," start to circumvent it now by forcefully pushing "superorganics" generally and market more conventional GM as high-end niche "designer" foodstuffs that will trickle back down once they demonstrate their safety and acquire allure.

[2] Nano-advocates should heed well the Frankenfood example -- "goo" is the least of your worries: nanotech is being framed as toxic chemicals and toxic waste.

Slightly longer-term, when robust Drexler type replicative nanoscale manufacturing hits the cultural radar screen in earnest I fear the only available frame will be WMD. That would be bad. Find a way to Green it and democratize it. Open source nano, baby. Propose and then work to ensure that the benefits of development are fairly shared among all those who shoulder its costs and risks. Work to provide global welfare entitlements via the unprecedented anticipated productivity gains of maturing nanotechnology. Let's insist on a global basic income guarantee and universal healthcare, at last (and at least)! Also, reassure people about safety concerns through conspicuous regulation and oversight by legitimate accountable public authorities.

[3] Advocates of longevity medicine are being Swift-Boated as immortality snake-oil salesmen -- and so you should make a point of distinguishing yourselves from both the people who promise and the ones who declaim eternal life via technology. Immortality is a theological concept freighted with unanticipated associations and unpredictable effects. Who needs it? Talk instead about genetic medicine, better health, and specific diseases and conditions -- including, as it happens, the seven kinds of damage de Grey identifies with senescence.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

A Girly-Man, On Negativity and What It Means to Say It "Works"

There are serious problems in the world, and when people get together they can figure out better just what the problems are and come up with more effective ways to solve them. This is the reason Democrats participate in politics.

Right about now, we are being told that we Democrats must “go negative.” We must fight the bloodbath of Republican lies, and bile, misogyny, racism, and homophobia, blood for blood, mud for mud. The pundits cluck and reluctantly shake their heads – negative rhetoric is divisive when we need to be united, is distracting when we need to be focused, is destructive when the world is already in shambles, but… it works.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe Kerry will indeed have to fight fire with fire. I have no doubt he can flex his muscles and roll around in the mud with our bullying pampered incurious President and the rest of the Taliban Branch of the Republican party that has inspired so much fear across the political landscape. Maybe that’s the way Kerry will in fact “win” come November.

But, speaking as a girly-man I suppose, let me tell you that there is all the difference in the world between winning and “working.” Every time somebody “wins” through this kind of dishonest posturing negative crap our capacity to make recourse together as serious people of good will to a political world we share to solve serious problems we face slips more and more irrevocably out of our fingers.

The Republican bad-boys who are basking in bad-boy negativity to win this bad-boy “contest” that has them so exercised have no interest at all in governing. If you don’t believe me, listen to what they say themselves about government. They don’t speak of governing well, governing better, they speak of shrinking government, constraining government, of drowning government in the bathtub. And look what they’ve done! The disasters of their governance, foreign and domestic, have piled up so vertiginously that they’ve started to function like Big Lies do – they’ve become invisible because they’re so ubiquitous you can’t even see past them anymore.

Democrats see things differently from Republicans. We want to participate in and reform our social institutions to address real needs. Republicans seem either to want to dismantle society altogether because they read in some Ayn Rand potboiler that this would be a swell idea, however many facts suggest otherwise, or they want to re-write society in the image of some airbrushed dream of a past in which somehow it isn’t a bad thing for a handful of rich white straight American guys to order everybody on Earth around every minute of the day (I suspect the social dismantlers ultimately amount to the same thing).

Because of this, you must understand that every time a campaign goes negative as this one is now the Republicans win. They win by alienating citizens from participating in our democracy. They win by unstitching the fabric of the society they want to dismantle. And, all too often, they literally win positions of power which inevitably they abuse -- and, after all, why wouldn’t they? They don’t believe in good governance. They see no difference between gangsters and governors and behave precisely accordingly.

I am not arguing that Democrats should take the "high road" that managed to defame and defeat the good-man-and-now-Republican-punchline, Michael Dukakis. But I do insist that Democrats actually know what they are doing. Know what you are losing to win. Maybe you can think of ways of being “tough” that don’t play quite so palpably into the hands of those who disdain the very idea of non-negative governance.

One day, Democrats will have to sit down and think of some way to win again a battle they have lost for now to their incalculable cost.

We must remind Americans once again that government can be legitimate. I'm not talking about tribal monkey identification with the nation you arbitrarily were born in or the basketball team of the high school you happen to live near or whatever Big Daddy happens to reside in the Oval Office from moment to moment.

I'm talking about commitment to the institutions of democratic governance. You know: Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide a common defense, and promote general welfare? Democrats must remind Americans that legitimate governments can create values other institutions cannot, that they can adjudicate disputes other institutions cannot, that they can address problems other institutions cannot. Americans should respond to threats to our democratic social institutions with the same unmovable visceral outrage that Republicans have taught them to respond with to the word “taxes.”

We have serious problems in this country, in the world, and in a near-future that confronts us with almost unimaginable technological disruptions, rushing upon us one after another like tidal waves. We need our problem solving institutions to be healthy and legitimate. We need serious people devoted to their work and maintenance. We need to unleash the creative intelligence of all our citizens. How on earth can this campaign, how can this moment be shaping up like this?

Go ahead and go negative if you have to, throw your weight around like playground bullies on television if you have to. But if you’re a Democrat, please don’t make the mistake of forgetting what you lose when you win this way. Please remember that going negative doesn’t work at all, it just might get you to a place where you can do the work.

I’m so damn disgusted I could cry. Girly-man, signing off for now.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Citizen Cyborg Makes Some Noise

Friend, colleague, comrade, socialist-feminist bioethicist, radical democrat, and techno-utopian James Hughes has a fabulous interview up on Neo Files with RU Sirius. Read it all, but here's a snippet or two:

Our growing freedom in our sexual and reproductive decision-making, and the slow progress in drug legalization, are closely related to the transhumanist value of bodily autonomy. A hundred years ago, Americans needed a prescription to use condoms, alcohol was illegal 80 years ago, and abortion was only legalized thirty years ago. [There are of course versions of the story of substance criminalization over the last American century that seem rather less rosy than this one, but the point is still well taken.--d] Increasingly this radicalization of individual liberty has become a part of international human rights discourse, with the spread, for instance, of the right to informed consent in medicine. Transhumanism seeks to push our understanding of medical rights beyond the right to refuse treatments to the right of access to safe, beneficial enhancement treatments.

Another closely related trend is the spread of liberal democracy within and among nations. We have a long way to go in the construction of democratic transnational institutions that can effectively address the threats to global security and inequality that threaten a safe, united transhuman future. But transhumanists take the long view. All the questions we have today in addressing the digital divide or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will become ever more pressing when we face the genetic enhancement divide and the proliferation of basement nano labs and AI research. It unfortunately looks like it will take some dramatic, even catastrophic, events to tip international opinion in favor of the kind of institutions we need, but the US subversion of the UN arms inspection process and other global institutions have made it increasingly clear that the unilateral alternatives are unattractive and counterproductive.

His most recent BetterHumans column is pretty darn good, too. James is very eager to take up the "transhumanist" label for himself and use it to carve out powerfully progressive social and political and cultural strategies, while I will remain deeply leery of the term myself until I'm much clearer about just what it finally actually seems to be settling into meaning. I mean, for now, there are some pretty breathtakingly right-wing temperaments who use that term to name themselves, too, and I simply can't see the connection between their "techno-radicalism" (which often seems like a disavowal of politics via corporate futurist hype) and James Hughes's and my own sense that technological development is a space of social struggle and will be emancipatory only if it is regulated to ensure that costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared. But, labels aside, his perspective is smart, committed, and endlessly provocative. Can't wait for his book to come out. Definitely check him out.

Berube: Republicans, Nutshell

[via Michael Berube] Four More Years! Four More Years! The Republican Agenda Emerges:

On health care: we will knock Democrats' teeth down their throats!
On jobs: we will kick Democrats until they die of internal bleeding!
On education: we will show America that John Kerry is even more liberal than Ted Kennedy!
On the deficit: John Kerry looks French!
On the environment: John Kerry's wife is a rich foreigner! who is insane!
On corporate crime: John Kerry shot himself to get out of Vietnam! and he was never there! and he didn't even know how to fire a gun!
On intelligence and security: John Edwards is a pretty boy!
On nuclear proliferation: John Edwards is a trial lawyer!
On Iraq: Democrats are traitors!