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

Monday, November 22, 2004

Lynch Lapses, Praises Safliar

Zack Lynch pauses a moment in his ongoing contribution to provocative and useful neuroethical and neurocultural commentary to note that William Safire, “a giant” (indeed… but a giant what, one wants to know?), is leaving the troubled New York Times.

Lynch’s Brain Waves blog is a consistently excellent source of news and provocative speculation about neuroceutical research and neuroethical quandaries. I really loved his recent discussion of “enablement” as an alternate frame to break the unproductive conceptual deadlock of “therapy versus enhancement” as a way to leverage insights about the propriety of particular proposed genetic or cognitive medical interventions, for example. I would love to see how a discourse of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive “enablement” might weave into the too-technophobic too bio-conservative default discourse of disability studies in ways that could help us insist on a medical practice that spreads freedom rather than imposing conformity in the name of “health.”

Anyway, Safire apparently coined the term “neuroethics” and is off to work with the Dana Foundation, which is preoccupied with neuroscience research, so it makes perfect sense that Lynch would note Safire’s move there. But you really have to wonder what impels the suggestion that Safire is a “giant,” a font of continuing “insights” and “many notable contributions”...? Perhaps Lynch refers to the stunning mountain range of “career peaks” documented by Eric Boehlert in today’s Salon, “William Safire’s Dubious Legacy”?

Reading Lynch’s encomium I had that sick feeling in my stomach I get every damn time I realize that yet another person on whose insights I rely on matters of technological analysis reveals themselves as someone who endorses or celebrates a facile market libertarian or hard conservative political bent (always embarrassing in a thinking person you otherwise respect, but today in Bush’s America frankly flabbergasting).

I really think somebody needs to update Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument to explain just why it is that tech temperaments are drawn to conservative politics.

(And, no, railing at “postmodernists” -- whoever they’re supposed to be -- is not an adequate solution, nor is offering up another self-congratulatory declaration of the existence of a “Third Culture,” which amounts largely to scientists often awkwardly commandeering some questions that preoccupy humanist intellectuals, re-writing problems of ethics and morals and esthetics and politics in the image of [usually] evolutionary biology or [occasionally] subatomic physics by applying a few rough-and-tumble analogies in an embarrassingly loose fashion or a relentlessly reductive fashion, all the while refusing to engage in more than a superficial way in any of the actual conversations long underway among scholars, intellectuals, artists, academics in the humanities themselves, except, you know, to deride them, even the many of them who do indeed take the trouble to understand the relevant science – I know, I know... bitter, much?)

So, anyhoozle, is the liber-techian seduction simply a matter of an aversion to the messy give-and-take of ongoing political negotiation, I wonder? Is it the time-consuming sometimes tedious often fraught rough-and-tumble of irreconcilable contending stakeholders that lures so many radical tech-types to accept too quickly and too uncritically sedimented political formations and assumptions as good enough?

To the extent that the American market-fundamentalist pseudo-spectrum from neoliberal to neoconservative to market libertarian politics tries to figure “liberty” as a kind of neutral absence of personal violation (disavowing all the contingent positive values on which this relies for its sense and maintenance), and then pretends that proper social order can emerge spontaneously through the workings of a largely mythical “free market” (a shorthand for indefinitely many possible and historical legal and institutional arrangements, assumptions, and agreements, not one of which has or could ever either emerge or sustain itself “spontaneously”), maybe all these problematic assumptions provide technical temperaments an excuse to “bracket” the political altogether, shunt it all aside as a kind of automatic machinery cranking out adequate (or, more cynically, inadequate but as good as it will ever get) public goods, all the while permitting them the breathing room to focus on the falsifiable hypotheses and hands-on hunches that better please them.

Or possibly many techie types are already socially alienated in ways that make libertarian repudiations of the public appealing while simultaneously drawing them into deeply private modes of intellectual life one associates with deep readers, coders, basement tinkerers, and lab-techs (a description that hits me personally very close to home, so don’t assume I’m randomly pathologizing here).

Obviously I’m reading far too much into a brief column, so let’s just say Lynch’s blog-post was the occasion that triggered a faucet that’s been itching to spill. It’s just that I’m hyper-sensitive to the rightward conservative and market-libertarian drift of so much technology discourse. That’s because tech-progressives like me know we must rely for our sense of true progress as much on social progress (a wider, deeper enjoyment of freedom, defined as real hands-on access to and enjoyment of capacities on the ground by all people, everywhere) as on technological progress (the technical achievement of new capacities without which this social progress is no longer imaginable). Sometimes it seems that these necessary partners in the dance of true progress see themselves instead as deeply distrustful antagonists facing off on a cultural battlefield. I’ll admit my own distrust of what looks to me like technical reductionism and complacent social conservatism among too many techies leaves me at a loss as to how to break the impasse in a way that properly respects the contributions of both temperaments.

PS. Sorry about all the parentheses -- that always happens with me when I'm thinking out loud without time to edit or revise. Why is that, I wonder...? Pomo convolution, no doubt. Ah, me.

1 comment:

sheprd said...

This is a great blog, why have you stopped posting for so long?