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

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Democratic Supraintelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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