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

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It's Only Natural

My pal George Dvorsky and I have been talking about the idea of "denaturalization" and he has transcribed some of that conversation over on his blog Sentient Developments. I'd be interested to see if others might want to amplify the ideas we are grappling with. Here's a taste of his transcription, but check out his actual post for his more full contextualization and analysis:

I have heard some criticisms among environmentalists I respect about [the] “anti-nature” aspect of my argument. I can see the point of arguments that would say that technology is the form human "nature" takes, and I can see the point of arguments that say we depend for our survival on complex systems we imperfectly understand (which seems to be what some people mean by "nature") even if we impact them with our own activity and this must make us especially careful.

But I can't for the life of me figure out a way to weave these insights into the point I was making myself about technological destabilization as a risky but promisingly emancipatory force, and "nature" as a word people mostly use just to defend customs that have outlived their usefulness. I want to say culture trumps nature, and human dignity must come from critical freedom not uncritical customs from now on -- but I don't want to deny there is some sense in these objections.


Another way of describing denaturalization is the steady encroachment of intelligent interventions in what are normally autonomic processes; consequently, we must be wary of the motives that underlie these interventions. But we must also be wary of those arguments that take a non-interventionist approach, which can sometimes be an indifferent hands-off approach for merely romantic reasons, or sentiments that arise from the fear that we might make the situation worse (and that certain systems are optimized before intelligence intervenes -- a hard argument to sell).

One thing I don't buy, however, is that the complexity found in natural systems are ineffable and/or intractable. Because complexity is often merely a data or mapping problem, it's just a matter of time and diligence.

Another angle would be to include practical applications of personhood ethics in consideration of how it applies to utilitarianism. A trick will be to show a kind of cost/benefit analysis of non-intervention versus intervention in terms of its impact on all living, emotional, and experiential creatures. To do so, the value of say, maintaining a certain biological function for aesthetic (romantic) reasons, would have to be qualitatively determined, and then set against what we value through intervening in the process.

Non-interventionists need to be careful, however, in that they risk applying Darwinianism to their ethical worldview, which is not IMO tied into our collective set of values as thinking and compassionate creatures; rather, we need to be Lamarckian as we apply non-anthropocentric personhood values in our dealings with living creatures and systems.


I agree with all of this! When I tell people culture should trump nature I've been trying to say in a sloppy too-intuitive way what you are saying here, I think. It's funny, once "culture" is set in motion "hands-off" is always a kind of intervention itself, there is no way to not "intervene," the process of intervention has already begun. The question becomes where and how one intervenes, and non-intervention is always non-intervention in processes stamped by ongoing interventions. That's why I agree with you that the very notion of non-intervention is always a romantic mystification, pure ideology.

This stuff speaks to the Precautionary Principle discussion too (another topic on which I seem to swim against the tide) -- though for me the key thing with the Principle is not whether it generally recommends stagnation or development but who gets to participate in the decision-making about what forms intervention takes.

The Random Wilde

Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner. Conscience makes egotists of us all.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

More "Trouble"

I’ve been very gratified by the conversation emerging out of the column “The Trouble With Transhumanism” (Click here for Part One, and here for Part Two) I published earlier this month on

Fellow IEET Fellow Russell Blackford responded to the columns on Betterhumans itself, and then amplified his points in an interesting subsequent entry on the IEET blog.

Blackford shares my own ambivalence about the attribution of transhumanist identities but suggests that there is a place for some kind of label to describe tech-progressive advocacy. Ultimately, I am not sure I agree that identity politics can contribute much to the facilitation of progressive developmental outcomes (which is my own emphasis) in time-frames relevant to the urgency of some of the developmental quandaries we need to tackle, but for my money I think a better focus for a progressive identity-orientation would be to nudge the politics around such identities as “liberal,” “progressive,” “scientifically-literate,” "reality-based," “modern,” “Green,” “civil libertarian,” or what have you to embrace a quicker and safer development of emancipatory technologies and a fairer distribution of their benefits, costs, and risks than to try to scare up and then police a community around the troubled term “transhumanist” to achieve the same outcomes. This seems especially so to the extent that the “transhuman”-term seems freighted with (to me) unappealing associations with market libertarian politics, uncaveated hypnotized techno-utopianism, and reductive scientism.

Despite all this, I see the sense of many of his points, and found his interventions very helpful. And of course I agree that there are many transhumanist-identified people (especially the ones who gravitate toward James Hughes’ writings and efforts) doing worthy and interesting things that are well-deserving of support.

Jamais Cascio over at the endlessly wonderful WorldChanging blog offered an interesting brief review of my piece which provoked a very interesting unexpected discussion of Jurgen Habermas and Peter Sloterdijk, most of which I can’t make sense of with my poor excuse for a reading-comprehension of German.

But perhaps most interesting to me of all was Robin Zebrowski’s discussion of my column over on her blog hyper-textual ontology, and the very provocative and rich conversation it subsequently inspired (to which I added a few of my own too-cantankerous contributions).

Again, I am very pleased at all the comments, here, in private e-mail, and elsewhere. By all means, check them out and add to the conversation here or there if there is anything more to say for now. I’ve gotten a lot of food for thought and hope to return the favor soon enough. There are some more in-depth comments that I hope to sculpt out into more sustained blog-posts over the next few days. Until then, thanks to all for your ongoing provocations!

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Random Wilde (Another Dissertation Edition)

He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.

Casting the Net

Wikipedia and WorldChanging have the most useful and insightful coverage of the unfolding tsunami disaster as far as I can see.

Secrecy and the Subject of Privacy

For those of you who have asked me to say more about the dissertation I am currently finishing up (apparently, mostly in my downtime from what sometimes seems my rather more rewarding but unremunerative efforts at blogging), here is a section from the Introduction to the dissertation in which I outline the argument of its three main chapters. Comments, criticisms, questions are, as always, welcome.

I’ll start with a war story. It is a story about a battle written from the perspective of its recent aftermath. And as often happens with wars, many of its warriors still nurse the wounds they acquired in its skirmishes and betrayals, many still mouth the platitudes that drove its reckless energies, and some still pine for and fervently anticipate its resumption. While it is commonplace for a certain perplexity and even absurdity to attach to the actual details in retrospective accounts of war, it seems to me especially surreal to survey the scene of the conflict that preoccupies me here, a conflict which for all its noise and heat now seems in a way best captioned by that wistful old anti-war slogan: “What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came”?

In the first and second chapters of this dissertation, I will tell you the story of what Paulina Barsook has called “The Crypto Wars.” It is the story of what amounts to roughly a decade of skirmishes in policy, in law, in code, in mainstream op-eds, and in the incandescent online manifestoes of a few inspired technology alarmists and enthusiasts, all moved by the development and proliferation of then-new and now-ubiquitous digital networked tools designed either to keep or to expose people’s secrets.

The application of encryption techniques to transactions undertaken over digital networks, for example, has especially exercised the imaginations of the writer and activist Tim May and the coterie of “Cypherpunks” (the name of an anarchic collection of coders and cryptography enthusiasts, and of the influential, sometimes notorious, online mailing-list where they gather to discuss these topics) for whom he was a founder and a spokesman and something of a folk-hero. Encryption is simply the process of enciphering or transforming information so that it is unintelligible to anyone but an intended recipient.

In Chapter One, “Markets From Math,” I will discuss a series of rather exhilarated arguments, initially widely circulated online in the mid-1990s, in which Tim May and Eric Hughes, among others, predicted that more and more social and economic transactions would come to take place behind a veil of impenetrable encryption. The ultimate consequence of this emerging state of affairs for May and Hughes and the other Cypherpunks was no less than that conventional national governments would soon be rendered obsolete and contemporary societies across the globe swiftly transformed beyond recognition. All this would take place because states presumably would no longer be able to police routinely encrypted social interactions, levy sufficient tax revenues on ubiquitously encrypted economic transactions to fund their traditional functions, nor even maintain geographical borders in a meaningful way for citizens devoted primarily to their participation in globe-girding digital networks.

In Chapter Two, “Markets With Eyes,” I will focus on work by David Brin, a popular science fiction author and essayist, who countered this “cypherpunk” perspective soon thereafter in a number of comparably influential articles, many of which also first circulated online, and then in a book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? There Brin argued, contrary to the Cypherpunks, that whatever security and obscurity might be afforded by encryption techniques would soon enough be bypassed by the overwhelming multiplication of powerful surveillance technologies of other kinds -- for instance, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology inexpensively imbedded into, potentially at any rate, nearly all discrete objects on earth, the ongoing “realtime” tracking of individuals via the biometric profiles they cast in their commerce with the world (traces of skin, hair, blood, as well as finger, iris, and voice prints, for example), and the proliferation of vanishingly small, exceptionally cheap digital cameras, even, imagine, long rolls of paper-thin adhesive-sticker “penny-cams,” all of them archiving or downloading content continuously onto public and private networks. Rather notoriously, Brin went on to celebrate what initially seems the somewhat chilling prospect of an emerging ubiquitous surveillance society as generating in his terms a kind of radical “transparency” that would, he insisted, encourage more critical dialogue, more honorable conduct, and more accountable authorities.

Ultimately, Brin’s vision of a “transparent society” presumes a technological transformation of society no less sweeping and unprecedented in its scope than the “crypto-anarchy” championed by the Cypherpunks with whom he often differed so contentiously. But more intriguing than their differences, I notice that May and Brin share certain unexpected affinities and key assumptions in making their separate cases. Of these, what strikes me most forcefully (apart from the fact that adherents of both viewpoints seem to consider the outcomes they dread or desire as equally inevitably eventuating from the technological developments that preoccupy their notice) is that both May and Brin affirm at the base of their conceptions of social life a rather specific kind of individual subject. Whether uniquely imperiled or encouraged by surveillance, it is in each case a subject characterized essentially by the capacity to make promises and enter into reliable contractual obligations. It is at root a subject on the market. And true to this shared point of departure, both May and Brin sketch what amount to similarly utopian portraits of a society constituted in its totality by promises and contracts, attained either through or secured against the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance technologies.

I will read these shared assumptions in Chapter Three, “Markets Without Materiality,” through the lens of Michel Foucault’s use, in his book on the emergence of the modern prison, Discipline and Punish, of the figure of the Benthamite Panopticon (an ideal institutional architecture proposed to impose upon prisoners a presumably “beneficial” regime of absolute and total surveillance) to describe how the conscientious liberal subject of industrial capitalism has been constituted through discourses and practices of surveillance, broadly construed. What is intriguing to me is the extent to which May’s own “pancryptic” project reproduces rather than eludes the central features of the panopticon Brin would seem, on the contrary, to embrace. And central to the normative ideals of both crypto-anarchy and total transparency I observe a shared and definitive recourse to a discourse of privacy, treated either as indispensable to human freedom and dignity (in May and Hughes) or instead urgently to be dispensed with in pursuit of the same (in Brin), and for which privacy is taken to be above all else a matter primarily of secrecy.

This leads me, finally, to the work of N. Katherine Hayles. For Hayles, the history and preoccupations of information theory, from its inauguration in the Turing Test for personhood as a matter of adequacy in ideally mediated, disembodied conversation through to the contemporary vision of roboticist Hans Moravec to “upload” consciousness into imperishable data, has continually reiterated the gesture of an erasure of the body, and continually makes recourse to reductive accounts of communication as information flows or a play of patterns which disavow the definitive embodiment of these experiences. I propose that both the pancryptic and the panoptic utopias/dystopias of cypherpunks like Tim May and transparency advocates like David Brin, relying as they do on the technological facilitation of market norms either through the unprecedented consolidation or obliteration of the circulation of public information, represent a second, conspicuously political face of this dematerializing tendency in information theory. Market libertarian technophiles, often explicitly inspired by these information models, offer up accounts of political life and publish strident manifestoes demanding political transformation. Many of these accounts insistently denigrate and deny the reality of legitimate social and public experiences, while many more of them seem curiously oblivious likewise to the actual material complexities of the terrain to which they would address even their legitimate grievances. And few of these accounts seem even remotely prepared to grasp the significance of what seems to me a conspicuous contemporary rematerialization of new media networks, on which are flowing more and more palpably and significantly these days not so much any presumably disembodied digital information strongly susceptible to secrecy, but bodily secretions susceptible instead to biometric surveillance and to ownership by others as patentable sequences of information.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Against Fundamentalism and Cruelty: Russell’s “A Liberal Decalogue”

I just stumbled upon a lovely piece by Bertrand Russell, called “A Liberal Decalogue,” with which others may be well familiar but which I had never seen myself. It appears in his Autobiography, but apparently originated in an article for the New York Times in 1951, called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism.” It seems that liberalism has indeed long desired and deserved the self-image of a "reality-based community."

It is intriguing to set this alongside Judith Shklar’s definition of a liberal, made famous especially by Richard Rorty who took it up in his most important book so far, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Shklar has said that a liberal is “one for whom cruelty is the worst thing we do.” I append Shklar’s definition here to emphasise that while Russell’s piece may seem preoccupied with epistemology it is easy to discern a warm moralism in his ironical "Commandments."

Of course, even if you don’t want to pursue that particular line it is easy to see the relevance and usefulness of Russell’s skepticism in the service of truthfulness in an era boiling with Fundamentalists who, whether in priestly robes or lab-coats, imagine themselves conduits through which Truths greater and more sure than themselves flow and at the “promptings” of which too often too much blood is sure to flow, too.

Here, then, is Russell’s Decalogue, “not intended,” he writes, “to replace the old one but to supplement it.” This, he proposes, is his best effort to pithily sum up “the essence of the Liberal outlook.”
The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Random Wilde

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Snowball’s Chance in Hell (Holiday Cackles from the Balcony)

It has become something of an NPR tradition at Christmas time to replay David Sedaris’ "Santaland Diaries," a mildly funny, genial, utterly inoffensive trifle with about as much subversive bite as an episode of The Golden Girls.

Of course, the tradition-loving conservatives have always been notably selective about the “traditions” they are most eager to show their love. And for the rest? The shove.

While the conservatives seem conspicuously keen to conserve those traditions in which gays remain closeted, women and negroes remain servile, “religious” proprieties like public modesty and a relentlessly unwavering work ethic remain in force for the working poor and shrivelling middle-classes, and plenty of whores and cigars remain available for fat-assed fat-cat dullards and bullies to enjoy as they stoically contemplate whatever passes this year for the bottom-line, they exhibit indifference and even hostility to any number of traditions that manage to exceed the ambit of their rather dim, unadventurous imaginations.

As it happens, I often encourage Sedaris fans to direct their attention to the comedic genius of David’s sister Amy, and especially her radioactively incandescent series Strangers With Candy if they are looking for some for-real subversive comedy to noodle around with. And for those who act as though David’s NPR naughtiness is transformed by his bland homosexuality into some kind of sweeping critique of contemporary American hypocrisies a la Williams Burroughs, I encourage everyone to read instead (or at any rate additionally) the brilliant novels of Gary Indiana, whose sublime omnivorous queerness scalpels everything it touches, including himself, in a bloodbath that leaves you howling and a little shaky. (Resentment and Horse Crazy are his best novels, in my opinion.)

Anyway, this year NPR has seen fit to expurgate from the already vanilla-mild Santaland broadcast a potentially “offensive” minor bit involving flirtation among males. Here’s the passage (which I clipped from the ever-invaluable Atrios):
The overall cutest elf is a fellow from Queens named Snowball. Snowball tends to ham it up with the children, sometime literally tumbling down the path to Santa's house. I tend to frown on that sort of behavior but Snowball is hands down adorable -- you want to put him in your pocket. Yesterday we worked together as Santa Elves and I became excited when he started saying things like, "I'd follow you to Santa's house any day, Crumpet!"

It made me dizzy, this flirtation.

By mid-afternoon I was running into walls. At the end of our shift we were in the bathroom, changing clothes, when suddenly we were surrounded by three Santas and five other elves -- all of them were guys that Snowball was flirting with.

Snowball just leads elves on, elves and Santas. He is playing a dangerous game.

As Eric pointed out to me, it’s rather flabbergasting that NPR’s robotic executives haven’t “done the math” (isn’t that, you know, “at the end of the day,” what these executive types are supposed to be good at?) and thought through the possibility that the fifty million Americans who voted for Kerry are likely to throng among the dwindling listener base of NPR, and that, more to the point, any hayseed dumbass benighted enough to find the passage in question “offensive” in the first place, whether they had the sense to vote for Kerry or not, certainly wouldn’t be among NPR’s listeners?

I am not among the progressives who are demanding the boycott or dismantlement of NPR because of their recent timidity and tremulousness -– funny how well-meaning liberal types can always be counted upon to do the bidding of Repugnican barking dogs and attack first the very sites in culture in which their own supporters, however insipid scared and compromised they may be, are most likely to reside -– but I do think NPR should be badgered and humiliated forthwith into doing the right thing.

Clearly they are scared of their own shadows, and if they can be bullied by brainless death-mongering pre-moderns of the Repugnican persuasion from covering war atrocities in the newsroom or diversity in their cultural programming, then they can be bullied by the likes of us into doing the right thing just as easily.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Congratulations WorldChanging!

Utne Magazine has awarded my favorite blog WorldChanging with the Independent Press Award for 2004 BEST ONLINE CULTURAL COVERAGE for 2004! I hope this draws a bazillion eyeballs to drink them in!

"Driven by a vision of progressive collaboration and reform, WorldChanging explores the democratizing potential of modern technology with sharp insight and unwavering idealism."

Another World Is Here!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Part Two

The concluding part of my two-column series "The Trouble With 'Transhumanism'" is now online and poised to sweep the world. Take a look and let me know if you like it. Also, as always, feel free to share any brickbats, bitcheries, or befuddlements I may have aroused in you. This sequel is sunnier I think than the somewhat grumpy opener, but perhaps not all will agree with me on that.

The Random Wilde (Possible New Year's Resolution Edition)

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Cackles From the Balcony

The President hopes to shave social security of security and thereby to “save” society from the kind of government that solves problems, since, after all, like any good neo-conman he’s agin’ gu’ment (even if, as Eric notes, his only successes in a distended career of personal and business disasters have involved his efforts to run governments, if only thereafter to run them into the ground).

All the while, perplexed liberals and others with brains sigh that market fundamentalists falsely flutter about an impending crisis by spewing economic projections so dire they would provoke an economic collapse sufficiently sweeping to nudge even a rosily reformed social security into catastrophe along with everything else, meanwhile promising easy money to them as gets with the reform program all on the basis of breathtakingly optimistic projections of happy returns on their privatized “contributions.” Perhaps the curious co-existence of these sad and ecstatic economic futures amounts for certain well-placed conservatives to the simple difference between a world in which they imagine themselves the beneficiaries of epic theft as opposed to one in which they are not.

That none of this makes much sense as a policy prescription is scarcely an abiding hurdle, however, so long as the conservative media releases the usual plague of toads to “convince” via the same interminable repetition that "elected" Bush for his support of the Kyoto Protocol he disdains, his support of the troops he recklessly kills, his concern for security he ignores to line the pockets of his billionaire friends, because of the WMD in Iraq that don’t exist, and the Saddam/Osama connection that doesn’t exist either that there is a crisis a-brewing for which only the genius of the market (read: corporate welfare for me, market discipline for thee) can “resolve.”

As they contemplate the pointless consequent ruin of their lives Bush’s benighted supporters can always blame gay marriage and political correctness for their lot.

Meanwhile, our Cardiologist in Chief, to swipe Bull Moose’s felicitous phrasing, assures us that like sinister smug Vladimir Putin, homespun horrorshow Donald Rumsfeld has, in fact, “a good heart.” One wonders what Dear Leader has to say on this score about his Vice President.

While I am too distracted by the thought that in a hooded terrycloth robe our Secretary of Defense would be literally indistinguishable from Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi to accurately assess the extent of goodness or not incarnated in Rumsfeld’s heart, one has to wonder if even the swamp-dwelling fundamentalists (of both the market and Christological varieties) who constitute his base may wonder if Bush’s heart-detection apparatus may be somewhat on the fritz at this point, or if, indeed, his own heart is quite where it should be.

Possibly the ongoing liberal secular onslaught against Christmas that has so exercised the mainstream imagination of loofah-loving Bill O’Reilly has likewise shriveled Dear Leader’s own ticker, rather like the Grinch’s was before he heard that swelling defibrillating chorus of penitent Whos.

As Eric recently pointed out to me, the happiness of the happy holidays is more or less the happiness of capitalism buzzing like a baby from Thanksgiving through to New Year’s Day, a scared up saga of ongoing relentless consumption and self-loathing invented by Coke, Hallmark, and Macy’s more than any sinister cabal of liberals demanding decent respect (the horror! the horror!) for Jews and atheists and other undesirable Hollywood types from the infinitely put-upon gun-toting wife-beating middlebrow Whites of America’s Bible-Belt this season or any other.

Nevertheless, the War Against Christmas (which can only be won by smothering the world in Christmas, utterly) captures perfectly the flavor of hysterical victimhood of Bush voters who despite literally controlling every branch of government and every public institution except for the annual MLA Convention (and who after all listens to what people in English Departments have to say?) still feel endlessly belittled and embattled and embittered.

I cannot for the life of me imagine where all this is going. But, you know, happy holidays to you and your’n.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Random Wilde

At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.

More on Democratic Supraintelligence

Provocation, inspiration, and friend Paul Hughes of the always lovely FutureHi collaborative blog has linked to an Amor Mundi post from last month, “Democratic Supraintelligence,” to which he has appended interesting comments of his own, and which has inspired something it didn’t manage to do in its first life here -– set an interesting conversation into motion. Have a look, and by all means weigh in this time around if you like.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Difficulty With Scripture

It tells you enough to get interested, but never enough to be of any immediate use.--Corwin of Amber

Friday, December 17, 2004

New Column Up

Part One of my latest two-part Progressive Futures column has been published over on BetterHumans. It's called, "The Trouble With 'Transhumanism'". Check it out and let me know what you think. The somewhat more constructive and positive-toned concluding Part Two will arrive early next week.

Cackles From the Balcony

Eric has directed my attention to this delightful dispatch from the front of the culture wars, via Media Week...

The number of indecency complaints ha[s] soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year, [FCC Chair] Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.”

All this reflects, no doubt, the latest Great Awakening of muscular Christianity in our country, as the Good Country People re-take the reins from the faggots and Jews and tofu eaters and uppity negroes and witches of the National Organization of Women, re-invigorating a war-loving gun-loving pollution-loving capital-punishment-loving Culture of Life in our long benighted One Nation under One God. Oh, but, what's this?
What Powell did not reveal—apparently because he was unaware—was the source of the complaints... nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group....

That's right. 99.8 percent of the complaints on the basis of which the creaking calliope of conservative media is coughing up the latest hairball of censorious moralizing are coming from a single location in culture -- a clatch of pinched church ladies and patriarchal prigs from some slaveholding swamp or tornado torn plain are dictating to the sprawling millions of huddled masses yearning to breathe free or at any rate enjoy the heady distraction of trash television just what culture should look like.

Reasonably enough, the article continues on,
The prominent role played by the PTC has raised concerns among critics of the FCC’s crackdown on indecency. “It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio,” said Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, an artists’ advocacy group.

But of course the snake-handling fascists of the PTC could not disagree more:
“I wish we had that much power,” said Lara Mahaney.... Mahaney said the issue should not be the source of complaints, but whether programming violates federal law prohibiting the broadcast of indecent matter when children are likely to be watching.

They really do talk this way. Bloated with power like a tick on a pig, the unslakable conservative lust for power is scarcely satisfied by a literally unilateral imposition of its wishes on the FCC, any more than Repugnicans are satisfied with the ownership of every branch of the gu'ment they claim to disdain. And then, incarnating indecency, they flutter and extol: "Won't somebody please think of the children?"
“Why does it matter how the complaints come?” Mahaney said. “If the networks haven’t done anything illegal, if they haven’t done anything indecent, why do they care what we say?”

Quite so. Why should we. Let's all stop now, shall we?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Random Wilde

Imagination is a quality given a man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humor was provided to console him for what he is.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Understanding Movement Conservatism (And Defeating It)

Modern movement conservatism is driven by two impulses, the selective deregulation of "the economy" and the selective regulation of culture.

The “deregulation” of economic transactions benefits moneyed elites who have the advantage of capital, influence, and knowledge, and can always duress a “consensual” transaction to their own benefit. The regulation of cultural expression benefits the members of traditional moral communities distressed by the instability of modern techno-cultures.

Thoughtful, democratically-minded people are hypnotized by the contemplation of the apparent contradictions that drive such a movement. This conservative movement is a veritable assembly line generating scores of striking paradoxes and hypocrisies for its victims to document interminably as they are haplessly fed into its machinery. But the analysis of these contradictions is too often a superficial distraction from the actual work of defeating these movement conservatives.

The conservative drumbeat of deregulation without end is not driven by a libertarian hostility to government as such -- though some of its partisans sometimes selectively employ this rhetoric to justify their policies and plans. Movement conservatism is always only hostile to any regulation that hampers the short-term profit-making of the moneyed elites who direct the movement. Of course, the United States massively subsidizes research, production, and trade, and the conservatives would certainly have this state of affairs continue indefinitely. The United States is a planned economy occasionally playing desultorily at laissez-faire, and the proof of this is not to be found in our grudging tattered compromised social welfare programs but in the vast State cathedral that is the Department of Defense.

Religious conservatives and Big Business conservatives are both powerful minorities ruthlessly holding on to power in a complex techno-cultural world that has little need for either of them.

The apparent contradictions in their respective programs are all resolved at the straightforward pragmatic level of political alliance.

Liberals must not emerge from their latest reading of What’s the Matter With Kansas? or comparable tomes believing that religious conservatives don’t really truly want the to see the regulation of culture to better reflect their own parochial values above all else. They honestly do. Even if social insecurity exacerbates the urgency with which religious conservatives hold on to their values it is mistaken to assume that cultural values are therefore actually displacements of these questions of social insecurity. Even if it is often true that moneyed minorities are themselves secular and utterly cynical about the value-preferences of their cultural allies, this does not make the cultural conservatives dupes of moneyed elites ripe for liberal enlightenment and populist revolt. The conservative alliance may be troubled, as political alliances often are, but it is a working alliance, and an alliance that is delivering extraordinary results that are frankly unimaginable for either partner without the participation of both.

We are immersed in globe-girding information and communication networks that confront us with alternate practices of spirituality, meaning-making, and self-creation with which slow-paced slow-witted traditional fundamentalisms cannot hope to compete for our attention or our new needs. Meanwhile, scientific knowledge and technological development exposes the pretensions of traditional elites that they are uniquely deserving of their privileges or uniquely indispensable in complex techno-cultures constantly churning up new opportunities, problems, desires, difficulties.

The proliferative provision of free content online, free software/creative commons models of intellectual property, peer-to-peer networks, emerging modes of technologically facilitated co-operation and collaboration, gift and favor networks, guaranteed minimum income and zerowork movements, sustainability movements, leapfrog societies in the developing world -- these are the forces that threaten to undermine the authority of cultural and moneyed elites. And these are the forces that democratically minded people need to champion and nurture to defeat movement conservatism.

Meanwhile, movement democrats need to recognize the real power of their voices and their contributions to contemporary partisan politics that would enlist our aid and demand our dollars, all rendered especially conspicuous over the last half decade by the ambivalent partisan recourse to digital networks. We must demand that the DNC which claims to speak in our name re-write itself in the image of our actual values -- peace, fairness, sustainability, self-creation, diversity, and science.

Social Security, the DNC, and the Movement Democrats

Everybody knows that the Republicans have now set their gun sights on Social Security, one of the most conspicuously successful government programs left in the United States. From the perspective of partisan politics this amounts, absurdly enough, to a do or die moment.

The President claims that the program faces impending disaster. This is a lie. A L – I – E.

Even on the most pessimistic economic assumptions the system remains perfectly intact until 2045, at which point it could continue to pay out 75% of its benefits -- and all of this assumes that more responsible and modest efforts at reform preserving the spirit of the program would not be undertaken between now and then, when certainly they would be. Republican designs on the Social Security program are themsevles by far the most conspicuous threat Social Security faces today.

Democrats have literally no choice but to call the President on this appalling lie, and to defend the program for its success and indispensability. And so this must be the turn of the tide (or at any rate the latest opportunity for a turning of the tide).

Democrats simply cannot pretend that their Republican neighbors across the aisle are well-meaning partners in the project of functional democracy. The Republicans want to dismantle what remains of legitmate democracy and to consolidate the power of the special minorities of which their alliance consists.

The "partial privatization" of social security would drive unprecedented money into the hands of the financial service sector that represents much of the conservative moneyed constituency, while driving people for social support into the Mega Churches that represent much of their cultural constituency. It is as simple as that.

Movement conservatives cannot be reasoned with on this issue, they can only be fought. There can be no compromise here. The DNC, stinking with the rot of its DLC handlers, risked complete historical irrelevance in failing to oppose the obscene evil and predictable disaster of the Iraq War, and now confronts an exactly comparable test.

The devastating series of electoral losses of the last decade for the DNC look distressingly like nails in a coffin. (And frankly I think Ross Perot is more responsible for the first bright spot in this long ongoing electoral devastation than the DLC is, while Bill Clinton’s own impeccable skill as a politician coupled with the usual power of incumbency in an upswing of the business cycle virtually assured the second.)

An alternate archipelago of "movement democrats," of digital grassroots progressives like MoveOn and Democracy for America, and of new progressive media like Air America, the documentary film movement, and the liberal blogosphere are all emerging to confront the movement conservatives head on, to embrace the tide of technological change that defines our epoch, and demand justice from this historical moment.

If the DNC wants to be relevant in our day, it must be re-invigorated by the force of the movement democrats, and must conspicuously re-affirm its commitment to real equality, to general welfare, to diversity, to world peace, to science, and to progress.

Picking Howard Dean as party chair would be a step in the right direction (and I speak as somebody who never supported Dean as a candidate for President, preferring the more liberal and statesmanlike Kerry to Dean from the beginning -– and I still think Kerry was incomparably better as a candidate, would have made a great President in this particular historical moment, and hell I still think he may have actually won the goddamn election).

Anyway, movement democrats must recognize that those who strive to retain their power against the grain of history are actually opponents who must be fought unambiguously and defeated utterly. The good news is that even the conservatives themsevles will better thrive in the peaceful, prosperous, democratic world we are fighting them for than they could ever manage in the crabbed patriarchal superstitious hellholes they are fighting to maintain.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

AAR Latest

[Associated Press, via Seattle-Post Intelligencer]:

NEW YORK -- Air America Radio, a startup radio network that offers liberal talk and commentary, has signed a new contract with comedian Al Franken to stay on as its lead personality for at least two more years....

Air America also said that Rob Glaser, the chairman and chief executive of the technology company RealNetworks Inc., had joined the company as the chairman of its board. Glaser has also been an investor in the company....

Air America also signed a new contract with Randi Rhodes, another popular radio personality, for three years. Its contract with Franken is for two years, with an option to extend for another year... Air America also said it had new commitments of $13 million from investors.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Prosthetic Prolongation Will Predominate Even If Majorities Refuse It

I recently heard the Canadian philosopher Mark Walker make the interesting argument that should medical science advance enough to indefinitely prolong life-spans -- as many serious scientists like Aubrey de Grey are compellingly arguing might come to pass surprisingly soon -- then straightforward number crunching suggests the number of conventionally mortal people would come to represent a vanishingly small minority in relatively short order.

And this is true, Walker suggests, even on the most conservative assumptions –- such as (1) that only one in ten people adopt these technologies (when surely the proportion would be much higher in fact, as is the proportion who make recourse to contemporary medicine to more modestly prolong their lives in the face of disease and misfortune today) and (2) that only those who refuse such prolongation reproduce (one can imagine governments imposing such a restriction as a condition of longevity to ameliorate overpopulation pressures, for example, though it is unlikely).

For Walker the upshot of his argument is that what he calls “universal immortality” is “inevitable.”

As it happens, I have a lot of discomfort around technophilic “inevitability” arguments for hypothesized technological capacities. This is because in my view they tend to have the self-image of being scientific claims when their lack of caveats and evidence tend to make them function much more like conventional claims of faith.

Also I think unobjectionably broad discussions of technological inevitability (of the form: "if a desirable technological capacity can exist according to the laws of physics, then, other things being equal, eventually it very likely will") typically shift very quickly and rather sloppily into completely unsubstantiated claims about the comparable inevitability of expectations about the specific form, pace, distribution of effects, and significance of particular hypothesized technologies. The latter claims will often in fact simply be straightforward expressions of personal value or desire rather than testable claims about matters of fact, but with pretensions to the contrary.

On an altogether separate note, I also happen to think it is deeply mistaken for technophiles to confuse the idea of the likely prosthetic prolongation of lifespan through medical means with the essentially theological notion of immortality in the first place. "Immortality" seems to me a notion freighted with implications, confusions, hopes, and significances that prosthetic prolongation does not in fact speak to at all. Nor should it really want to take that business on as far as I can see.

In any case, I think that once you are talking about superlative states [skip over to the archived entry on June 12 for some more on this] like "superlongevity" the interesting difference will not be between currently normatively mortal people as against superlongevous ones (if that's a word), anyhow. The differences that make a difference will surely be between biological and nonbiological and postbiological persons, recognizably continuous and singular as against noncontinuous, collective, proliferative persons, etc.

For every one of these varieties of prosthetic personhood the manner of the life so prolonged will easily be as different from one another as the difference to any of them from more conventionally (to us) mortal persons.

I think lumping together these many techno-enabled modes of life-prolongation under the single heading of "universal immortality" as Walker and other technophiles often want to do would appear quaint at best to the lucky collaborators in superlative-state technocultures to come. I doubt the persons who instantiate the extremely lengthy (to us) varieties of prosthetic personhood will see themselves as all participating in the same process or exhibiting the same trait.

Anyway, I also think there is likely to be an ongoing and stable minority of recognizably mortal persons even in what we would consider superlative-state technocultures, as an occasional matter of cultural identity or personal aesthetics. But since this would likely be much more a matter of choice for them than it is for the likes of us, it seems even any lingering mortality would be transformed in its implications radically from our own experience of it.

My own guess is that this would be a negligible minority among the others (largely for the reasons Walker’s argument spells out: even a long-lived minority would outlive a conventionally mortal majority until few of the latter would remain, assuming at least a minority in every subsequent generation would opt as well for prolongation). But even if I bracket my doubts about the usefulness of smudging together the many radically different forms prosthetic personhood will likely take under the single term "immortality," I think the persistence of a negligible minority of discretionary mortals robs the argument of any "universal" conclusion.

Friday, December 03, 2004

MundiMuster! It's Your Money, Redux

I'm not so keen on the idea of rewarding corporate patronage of the Dems, who are clearly already too beholden to moneyed elites to the cost of us all, but the idea of punishing the conspicuous corporate patronage of Repugnicans goes down real smooth, if you ask me. Here's a site that has collected and categorized such information in a nicely convenient way.

ChooseTheBlue tells you what corporations donated to political parties.

If each American who voted for John Kerry spends $100 in 2005 on a Blue company instead of a Red company, we can move $5 Billion away from Republican companies and add $5 Billion to the income of companies who donate to Democrats.