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

Monday, February 28, 2005

Panopticon Paradise

Over at Salon, Heather Havrilesky's latest "I Like to Watch" reads out the sentence of death. The prisoner will eat a hearty meal.

Yes, I've been in graduate school a decade, yes, my Committee members are goggle-eyed at the deadlines I fail and fail to meet. Really, truly, if I don't finish this odious manuscript more than half a lifetime's work and a home-mortgage-sized mountain of student loan debt will all crash to the ground annihiliating the terrain for miles around with nothing in all the world to show for it as these things are normally reckoned, no signposts will remain to explain what on earth all of this was for... Disaster is waiting in the wings, peril abounds...

But come what may I will be watching "America's Next Top Model" this Wednesday night. Eric and I will order pizza and munch away basking in the radioactive awfulness of "American Idol," even when it surreally dilates over a succession of evenings with scarcely enough actual content to fill the human interest segment of a local news broadcast.

Heather helps explain what it's all about.

You know, I seem dimly to recall an argument in some coffee-table book or other by Baudrillard, in which he proposed that the presence of Disneyland, and Sea World, and the whole odd archipelago of amusement parks that surround Los Angeles like a bored invading army, are somehow able by radiating their own unreality so palpably to materialize the immateriality that is Los Angeles itself, to buttress that phantasmagoria of endless wanting into a real live place by bravura willpower alone, a special effect of stark contrast. These amusement parks were like veritable reality engines, Baudrillard said, conferring solidity on that dreamscape where the tar pits begin precisely where the rain of funny money ends. Like a Mama's warm "there, there," in the face of no there there.

It's hard not to see the function of the shows helmed by Miss. Misdemeanor, Tyra Banks, Paula Abdul as comparable in a way -- consolidating their own more real stardom in contrast with the humiliations their attendant wannabees slop through like blank-eyed otherwise comely pigs in a trough. Who knows what humiliations paved their own starbound hells like good intentions, they all evaporate in the relentless spectacle of sycophancy and cluelessness against which the stars rather vampirically glory like Olympians.

From the fact that the contestants are always even at their best second-rate copies of celebrities already grown stale in the original (look, another Whitney! another Justin!) we know that these contests are not roads to stardom in the least, that for these starry eyed tired-meat prostitute-types the road is already the destination -- the celebrity, such as it is, will almost certainly not outlast the contest itself. All eyes, no prize.

The prospective talents are scarcely more talented than (after all, sometimes talented) cruise-ship entertainers or show-queens belting out "Happy Anniversary" at Stucky's. And the hairball of pseudo-celebrity coughed up by the PR departments of these shows, a guest-spot on a UPN sitcom or straight-to-DVD crap-movie and then a straight shot to "The Surreal Life" and "Where Are They Now?" is only negligibly distinguishable from the "celebrity" of any random contestant spinning the Big Wheel on "The Price is Right," or for that matter every goddam shopper at Wal-Mart panned and scanned by surveillance cameras or any schmo who gets googled first by a stranger before arriving at a blind date.

The pleasure of these shows is akin I guess to the dark enjoyment the spectacle of the asshole who slips on a banana peal affords the mean lowdown abject id inside. But the deeper reality of the superficial reality signalled by these mediated celebrity-hunts is that privacy and publicity do not mean what once they did.

These dumb sad ferocious often blandly fuckable egomaniacs in these shows are too self-seduced and rampagingly sociopathic to have noticed that the protocols of real celebrity have changed, and that it is not their special genius that they are revealing to the world but something more quintessentially American, the farthest thing from singularity or creativity, but the endless re-conjuration of the audience itself...

The American, the consumer, the mass-audience, lord of the earth... a creature once described by William Gibson as "best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections."

Tribal Realities Against Democratic Realities

I like to listen to Air America Radio’s Unfiltered Show in the mornings (along with Randi Rhodes and Laura Flanders, I find Unfiltered’s Lizz Winstead and Rachel Maddow among the most consistently funny and right-on-with-your-right-on personalities on the network). Anyway, this morning Liz and Rachel interviewed Tim Lahaye, co-author of the stupendously popular Left Behind series of books dramatizing “the Rapture,” an apocalyptic end-time event that preoccupies the imaginations of many American Christian fundamentalists. I was rather flabbergasted to hear that something like one in eight Americans has read at least one of these books. Clearly, the popularity of the series is part of the tide (or possibly part of the Lunacy that draws the tide) that is the Rapture Right in American politics and culture in this moment.

Lahaye was very insistent that “good works,” compassionate conduct, efforts to relieve suffering, stewardship of the environment and communities, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of reasonable and moral good-behavior as these things are usually conceived in my neck of the woods are not in fact avenues to salvation in his view of Christianity, but very much just distractions from what really matters – which is that a person enter into a “personal relationship” with Jesus as their Lord and Savior. All of which is to say, so far as salvation is concerned, what matters in the end is simply whether or not one affirms membership in the tribe of fundamentalist Christianity.

Liberal and social democrats lately like to distinguish themselves as a “reality-based community” working together to solve real problems with good government, as against a “faith-based” community of religious and market fundamentalists driven by abstract ideals and indifferent to contrary evidence. Listening to Lahaye I was struck by the fact that the divide may not be so much between reality and faith as between inhabitants of two altogether different realities.

Part of what I am getting at is apparent as well in the ongoing exasperation of progressives at the rampaging hypocrisy and exceptionalism of so many of the most vocal and exemplary conservatives in contemporary American politics and culture. The frustration is so ubiquitous it has an acronym now: “IOKIYAR” (It’s okay if you are Republican”)…

Big government is bad, but it’s okay if it’s a Republican Administration that swells the ranks of government, corruption is bad, but it’s okay if it’s friends of Republicans who skim billions from no-bid contracts and gulp down subsidies and defraud consumers and investors with backroom deals among players with conspicuous conflicts of interest, election fraud is bad, but it’s okay if Republicans obstruct and manipulate voting processes and results, nation-building is bad, but it’s okay if Republicans prop up dictators and build and maintain military bases across the globe, traditional values are key, but it’s okay if it’s a Republican who is committing the adultery, chewing some hooker’s foot in a hotel every weekend, banging big-wigs as a rentboy between gigs insinuating the party line into the mainstream media, sniffing coke, lying into the teleprompter, lying under oath, blunting the definition of torture to facilitate its use, and on and on and on…. It’s okay just so long as whoever is doing it is on the Team.

But what if all this bewildering and utterly crazy-making hypocrisy isn’t really hypocrisy at all, strictly speaking? What if these people aren’t lying to us? What if they aren’t blind to the obvious? What if they simply see things radically differently?

When Bush promotes to his cabinet conspicuously unqualified incompetents and outright criminals in the eyes of the world to whom they presumably represent us all, and all for no other reason than that they are loyal to him, this seems to me precisely the same kind of judgment that guides Lahaye to say that initiation into the tribe of the Saved is all that matters.

Membership in the tribe is the only reality that counts. However one acts, whatever one has done, whatever one plans to do, whatever the probable consequences of one’s conduct, these are all details that derive their meaning by their location within the narrative in which one came to be a member in the tribe and exhibits proper loyalty to it. Every other consideration is a distraction from the reality of “character” that resonates between tribal members when they are in one another’s presence. Of one’s fellow-members one says, “he’s a good man,” and, being good, one renders honor and effort unto him. (Don’t even get me started about the women I – and they – are excluding in all these creepy locutions.) To look to deeds, to look to accomplishments, to look to intentions, to look to consequences is to be distracted from what is good in a good member of the tribe, what matters in a member: “one of us.”

Make no mistake: This is a deep clash in the sense of what is the proper reality on which we base political life in the first place. This is not a clash between the faithful and the realistic. This is a war of the worlds. This is a clash between the reality created by tribal membership against the reality created by democratic participation. I cannot even snarkily describe this as a “clash of civilizations,” because the tribalism I am talking about is in a key sense a non-civilizational mode of sociality.

That we are different from one another, that there are ineradicable differences in the aims and aspirations of human beings who must nevertheless live together and collaborate in some measure in the making and re-making of the world is, for Hannah Arendt, the inaugural insight of political thinking. “Plurality,” she wrote, “is the law of the earth.”

That more intimate, powerfully meaningful communities of affinity and conformity also arise in the midst of this deeper ineradicable churn of plurality is the reality that drives specifically moral, and not political, life. By morality I mean what Wilfred Sellars called the formulation and profession of “we intentions.” Morals, from mores: the acts of identification and disidentification that conjoin individual values with community standards.

But the “us” of morality, of identification, always relies for its force and intelligibility on the “them” of the immoral, the strange, the heathen, the other with whom one just as actively dis-identifies as one identifies with one’s fellows.

There can be no universal moral community. Even in their most evangelical, proselytizing, genocidal rages for order moralists require outsides against which to define the inside they cherish. And since there is no possible and perfect withdrawal, no feasible pure separation, no final (re)solution to the interminable, ineradicable plurality of human experiences and aspirations, eventually even the moralist must be reconciled in difference else be overwhelmed in it and undermined by it.

That recognition is the point of departure for properly political life, for immersion in the world of ongoing reconciliation that is at once the unmaking and the making of the world we share and of the wider we who share it.

The tribalists of the newly ascendant and ruling American conservative movement do not confront us with a new politics, but literally with the repudiation of politics from the perspective of a morality that cannot grasp its limitations (which is always what distinguishes morality from moralism).

And because we all live in the world whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, the only way to defeat the moralism of these tribalists (or at any rate protect democratic civilization and rights culture, such as it is, from the worst excesses of conservative religious and market moralisms) is to render as conspicuous as possible their own ineliminable reliance on the political reality they otherwise disdain.

The tribe of religious and market moralists consists primarily of pampered people altogether oblivious to the reality of the plurality of cultures, practices, and ways of life on earth, and they must be forcibly confronted with the reality of their impact and dependence on that plurality.

Democrats cannot continue to mistake as an example of political plurality the antipolitical hostility to plurality of the tribal moralists.

Especially, privileged Americans are too insulated from the consequences of their own decisions. They are cocooned even from the sense that they are making decisions at all, that their conduct could be otherwise, that their conduct has consequences other than the satisfaction or frustration of their own desires... And this state of affairs is an incubator for the worst kinds of moralism and hostility to political realism.

Only when the prices of the goods Americans and Europeans consume actually reflect their environmental costs, the costs to the lives of the laborers who make them, the costs to global justice of propping up the “friendly” regimes in which they are made, only then can we realistically expect the tribalists to re-enter the world they would rule as the global citizens we must all be if we are to survive, especially in this era of emerging technological marvels and horrors in which we find ourselves now. The “reality based” community must face the faithful with the realities in which they too are actors.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Healthcare and Private Perfections

In his Confessions St. Augustine, contemplating the excesses and indiscretions of his youth famously pronounced the verdict, “O Lord, how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous was I.” From Paul to the present, the Church has expressed especial hostility to the pleasures and meanings aroused in the free play of human bodies and brains in the world, and preached mortification of the flesh and faithful obedience as routes to the presumably deeper, more spiritual satisfactions the Church offers instead. But the Church’s real and ongoing commitment to the address and redress of suffering on earth, to good works as an incomparable path to redemption, constantly and forcefully re-embodies this quest for spiritual fulfillment and confronts the best, most righteous reformers of the Church with quandaries with which their worldview is finally deeply incapable of dealing. It is a hard thing, after all, to try to hold hope and hostility together in a single vision.

A case in point is the claim of Vatican officials last week to decry “what they called a ‘religion of health’ in affluent societies" and then "h[o]ld out… Pope John Paul's stoic suffering as an antidote to the mentality that modern medicine must cure all.”

To the extent that the Pope is “stoically suffering” rather than straightforwardly dead a dozen times over by now only because he has made repeated recourse to the most technologically sophisticated medical treatments in human history suggests that the term “health” is functioning at any rate ambivalently in this Vatican statement.

This becomes clearer still when Maurizio Faggioni from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life makes the sensible point that “[w]hile millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires."
He goes on to expand his point, to say, “[t]he medicine of desires, egged on by the health-care market, increases the request for pharmaceutical and medical-surgical services, soaks up public resources beyond all reasonableness."

"Health" is used in two different registers here, one demanded the other decried. On the one hand there is a commitment to the provision of “health care” to ameliorate unnecessary suffering, but on the other hand there is an almost hysterical hostility directed at what the Vatican decries, portentiously enough, as an unrealistic, superficial, and endlessly distracting “religion of health.”

The key move that distinguishes the two registers is of course Faggioni’s conjuration of a “reasonableness” that seems to translate pretty much into "moderation" appealing attractively to intuitions about fairness, and (to me) rather less attractively to "Puritanism" and an unquestioning faith in conservative social conventions. Faggioni’s move will of course be familiar to bioethicists who often like to deploy the distinction between “therapy” and “enhancement” to work their way through quandaries like these.

The problem is that distinctions like the one between "therapy" and "enhancement" are ultimately moonshine.

At the heart of the distinction of therapy from enhancement is always a fantasy of the normatively healthy body -- or even the normatively optimally healthy body -- a norm which will inevitably be saturated with parochial cultural and moralistic assumptions mistaken for factual descriptions. And consequently any effort to provide “health” according to these normative ideals will finally be as prescriptive as it is remedial.

But more to the point, every effort to use such a distinction to inform practice will set in motion forces that inevitably undermine the terms of the distinction itself. It isn’t possible to provide “health” according to any normative ideal without likewise empowering the provision of capacities incompatible with those normative assumptions and thereupon shifting what constitutes the “normative” in the first place.

Even the most conservatively therapeutic understanding of the ultimate goals of medical science and treatment, a Hayfleckian utopia in which everybody on earth enjoys the robust health and fulsome intellectual capacity of the healthiest among us today as we presently perceive them, as well as lifespans prolonged for all to the extent of the century or so available only to the luckiest among us so far, this still would set in motion a trajectory of scientific and technological development that would provoke unimaginable perplexities into the status of profound biological experiences such as pregnancy, sexual maturation, illness, aging and death.

Already, today, the fresh susceptibility of organisms to prosthetic and pharmacological intervention has transformed the status of "viability," "therapy," "normality," as stable measures of just when lives can properly be said to begin or to end, or as benchmarks against which to leverage intuitions about the proper scope of healthcare practice. So too neuroceutical interventions into memory, mood, and motivation trouble our received intuitions about what enables and constitutes proper consent.

Even the most modest provision of basic and decent health care, and ever more so according to how universally it is provided, will transform, quite possibly beyond recognition, what will count as “basic,” “decent,” and “normal” in the way of our expectations about what bodies properly are and what they are capable of.

The Vatican insists that all people should have access to "basic health care" but that there is a fantasy of “perfect health” in the developed world that is driven by “unfulfillable desires” and so is “unmanageable.”

It is impossible not to see the force of their point, but it is notoriously difficult to mainstain any such distinction between “basic” and “perfect” health that will hold up for long to scrutiny. None of us is in any kind of position to say definitively now just what will be “fulfillable” or not through the therapeutic address of medicine over the course of our lifetimes.

And, frankly, it seems to me the Church is one of the last places on earth one should look for any kind of “reasonableness” in working through quandaries of this kind. What are we to make of the way the word “desire” enters repeatedly into the Church’s discussion of medical practices they denigrate, for example? There seems to me, as it happens, to be a conspicuous continuity between “queer” practices and prosthetic practices, among them the epochal feminist embrace of reproductive technologies, a field of freedom and emancipation on which the Church has been perhaps the single most significant and consistent opponent of any kind of progress at all.

It is of course true that savage differences in the level of health care available to people in the world both expresses and horribly exacerbates the deep and deepening injustices in the contemporary distribution of wealth – both within so-called developed societies, and incomparably more terribly, forcefully demarcating the developed from the developing world.

But at what point will what the Church means by “manageable” healthcare goals nudge them from a useful and progressive analysis of the instabilities and calamities inhering in this kind of injustice, instead into more straightforward strategies to maintain their own pernicious hold on authority in a secularizing world? It seems very interesting in this connection to notice again that the Vatican describes “healthcare” in the terms of a rival “religion of health” when they want to condemn particular healthcare practices and goals as dangerous.

For me, emerging medical technologies enable and demand the universal provision of basic health care, at least the provision of adequate nutrition and basic hygiene and the therapeutic address of treatable diseases, all as a foundational social recognition that the unnecessary suffering of people anywhere on earth diminishes us all while securing basic capacities for everyone on earth unleashes intelligence, creativity, peace, and pleasure for which we are all of us conspicuous beneficiaries.

But I also embrace the inevitable individual recourse to these emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive technologies in prosthetic practices of self-creation and personal perfection.

These are in my view equally indispensable registers of moral and ethical prosthetic practice. They are, as it were, the public and private faces of progressive health care practice. And far from being incompatible, they are to my eyes absolutely interdependent.

Medicine becomes primarily a technique for maintaining and consolidating the control of established authorities whenever it is embraced only to the extent that it provides and imposes a normative standard of “health” just as those established authorities define it, all the while policing and repudiating the occasion for deeply destabilizing, subversive practices of personal self-creation that inevitably arise with the emergence of any new technological capacities.

It is an obscenity that big Pharma devotes millions to marketing competing treatments for erectile dysfunction to the developed world while millions die of cheaply treatable diseases in the developing world. But it would also be an obscenity for social and religious bio-conservatives to deny individuals the transformative recourse to emerging consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine. Remember that there is nothing in the least normal or natural about the historically unprecedented level of control human beings have come to take for granted in the present day over their sexual and reproductive capacities. The emerging neuroceutical address of our moods and memories provides the next conspicuous terrain for such fraught individual re-invention.

We can and in fact I insist we must value both the public and private faces of health care practice. Certainly we should not fall for corporate propaganda that would privilege the private over the public, or pretend that only the denigration of public healthcare provision enables desirable prosthetic pursuits of private perfection. But neither should we be bamboozled into a denigration of prosthetic practices of personal self-creation by cynically sanctimonious arguments from social and religious conservative authorities jealous of their power and sensitive to the precariousness of their position in a more secular world.

When a doctor in the Church intones that it is “[p]recisely in the handicap, in the disease, in the pain, in old age, in dying and death one can... perceive the truth of life in a clearer way,” you can be sure this is not so much the voice of wisdom and modesty and fairness one is hearing, but yet another echo of that immemorial priestly hostility to the life that is lived in bodies. We must hold instead in a single vision an awareness of frailty and suffering as an address that impels us to action, and a grown-up celebration of the pleasures and promises and dangers of new fleshly humanities that have outgrown the old tired and tyrannical crucifixations.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read.

Conservative Wants to Enslave Women to Make More Gay Babies

[via the Magic City Morning Star]

Republican Representative Brian Duprey has submitted a bill to the Maine State Legislature that would make it a crime to abort a fetus if the unborn "child" is determined to be carrying the as-yet-undiscovered and possibly-fantastical "homosexual gene."

Duprey calls this an "Act to Protect Homosexuals from Discrimination." One hopes that Duprey devotes comparable energies to protecting queer people from discrimination who have actually managed to be born. But I suspect that true to conservative form Duprey can smugly love the fetus and hate the child, protecting wee dykes and fags only so long as they are more or less wads of gum in Mama-incubator's womb, but always knowing full well that they can be bullied subsequently into suicide or clubbed to death by some Christian soldier in a full-froth of "gay panic" or forcibly therapized in an ex-gay ministry once they have actually burst fabulously upon the scene to find themselves in Bush's America or its devoted, deluded aftermath.

If you thought the vile "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the American military was nonsensical, Duprey's proposal pretzels the paranoid conservative discernment of queerness into unprecedented convolutions. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has the effect of turning the declaration "I am gay" into the quintessential "act" of homosexuality itself, an act for which a soldier is queered and expelled dishonorably even if they haven't had a chance yet to engage in such key homosexual acts (to my mind) as buttfucking, giving a blowjob, or even watching an episode of Strangers With Candy and getting the jokes. But in this latest efflorescence from the conservative mindset a fetus can already manage to "come out" in the womb by exhibiting a genetic marker that predisposes it to develop into a homosexual should it be lucky enough to grow to such an age as to get dishonorably discharged for saying "I am gay" to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Duprey reputedly got the idea for his bill from conservative fountainhead Rush Limbaugh. "I heard Rush saying that the day the 'gay gene' is determined to be real, that overnight gays would become pro-life," said Duprey. I can only hope Rush is as wrong in thinking such a thing as he usually is.

Setting aside reasonable suspicions that actual queer desires, acts, identities, and communities stand in a considerably more complex relation to genetic markers and dispositions than is conjured up in the weirdly stainless-steel technocratic fantasies of genetic determinists, I have to think lesbian and gay people know better in any case than to imagine a queer child would be better off being raised in a household so homophobic that a marker for a mere disposition to queerness would otherwise inspire their parents to annihilate them.

If a "gay gene" is indeed some day found and the genocidal energies of homophobic eugenicists are bodied forth by its discovery I can only hope that they will be a benighted minority too small to diminish through their sad shortsighted impoverishment of imagination the beautiful complexity and richness and diversity of the human family. But as far as I am concerned a woman's body is her own, and she is always absolutely right to end an unwanted pregnancy if she wants to -- even if she were my own mother and wrongly imagined she would have been happier to give birth to a straight child rather than to me.

The way to protect queers, people with disabilities (so-called), or other variously vulnerable humans from the fumigatorial fantasies of future eugenic moralists is to celebrate queer and differently-enabled lives today, to display their joys and ennobling struggles, and to document their many contributions to us all here and now. Only a Bush-era conservative would pretend that the way to protect some vulnerable people from harm is to violate and enslave other vulnerable people.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"More Than Human"

Bioconservatives like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama express horror and rage at the prospect that people will use technology to become “more than human,” while some radical technophiles seem ardently to desire precisely that.

I recently overheard a conversation among some self-identified “transhumanist” technophiles who, casting about for a nice tee-shirt slogan, cheerfully proposed the phrase, "Being human is not enough."

I have to admit the sensibility expressed either fearfully or hopefully in this sort of slogan is utterly incomprehensible to me.

"Not enough people are treated humanely" is a statement that makes powerful sense to me, but "human is not enough"?

Not enough for what?

It seems to me precisely an expression of our humanity (such as it is) that we would want to re-write ourselves in the image of our aspirations -- through experience, through education, through our cultural and now our prosthetic practices.

What exactly do people expect to happen, whether they dread or desire this outcome, that will make some of them "more than human"?

There is surely a difference between incarnating different-from-normatively-human life-ways (which is true of indefinitely many people already) and imagining you incarnate something "more-than-human" (which seems simply a way of mistaking difference for superiority -- something too many people already do as well).

To the extent that bioconservatives claim to be defending the value of “human dignity,” they really need to quit constantly handwaving in panic about superlative technological states like immortality, superbabies, and clone armies -- none of which are sufficiently proximate developmentally to illuminate deliberation about technology policy here and now -- and explain just how restricting women’s reproductive freedoms and clamping down on medical research to cure and ameliorate suffering from treatable diseases has anything to do with “human dignity” in the first place.

To the extent that trans- and post- humanisms still presumably emerge out of humanism as an ethical project, these "movements" really should be demanding that the category of "the human" be rendered as capacious as possible to better accommodate the consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification of humans now and in the futures we will share.

And as a matter of unsolicited, possibly unwelcome, practical advice to my technophile friends, a "slogan" is largely intended to pithily communicate your worldview to people who do not share it (but some of whom you presumably would want to). I think you should worry that the phrase “being human is not enough” expresses or will widely seem to express little but a disdain for humanity, or at any rate a disdain for those who choose not to embark on paths of prosthetic modification so radical as your own.

Isn’t it human to want to be healthy and happy? Isn’t it human to want to express yourself, to make your mark in the world? Isn’t it human to want to make the world a better place? Isn’t it human to want to better yourself?

This slogan, and the many variations on it that are commonplaces in so-called "transhumanist" discursive spaces, seem to me more like expressions of hostility than of hope. In a slogan from radical technophiles I would personally like to see something more like an invitation to the dance than yet another declaration of war.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Neurochemistry Suggests that Babies are not Conscious in the Womb

[via Stuff]
Babies - both human and animal - react to touch, sound, and other external stimuli in the womb, but do not consciously experience them, says a group researching animal welfare.

Professor David Mellor, of Massey University, said yesterday that the embryo and foetus are apparently never conscious, and actually spend much of their time anae[s]thetised.

"Consciousness first appears only after birth, associated with first exposure to air, gravity, hard surfaces, unlimited space and, usually, to cold ambient conditions," he said...

[Mellor] argue[s] that the embryo and foetus cannot suffer before or during birth, and that suffering can only occur in the newborn when the onset of breathing sufficiently oxygenates its tissues...

When a baby [is] born, breathing oxygen cause[s] a critical chemical messenger, adenosine, to be cleared from the bloodstream in seconds, allowing it to start experiencing consciousness.

This indicate[s] that stillborn babies that did not breath [also] did not suffer pain or distress - they simply went from being asleep in the womb to profound unconsciousness and death....

Touch, sound and other stimuli affected the foetus, and could cause it to move in the womb.

"But the evidence, accumulated over the last 25-35 years, is that this does not occur at the conscious level," he said. Babies born with no cerebral cortex - the part of the brain essential for consciousness - could also respond with movements and hormone release and heart rate changes."

If these results are further substantiated, then they strike me as doubly significant to my own political commitments. First, they clearly provide yet more scientific support for the position that the "standing" of a fetus or embryo must always and absolutely be subordinated to that of the woman whose body undergoes the biological process of pregnancy in the first place. But this also helps me answer those critics who have sometimes claimed that my position on abortion rights is somehow incompatible with my commitments as an ethical vegetarian and advocate of an animal rights position.

Clearly, it is perfectly consistent to insist that nonhuman animals (and especially, for example, dolphins, Great Apes, and the like) make ethical claims on us, while denying that fetuses or embryos do -- or at any rate that the claims of a woman to dispose of her own body as she chooses supercede any claims one might ascribe to a fetus or embryo in her body.

While complex questions remain about where one draws lines to determine the standing of various beings with whom we share the world and the kinds of claims on our care and effort these beings variously mobilize, there is little reason to think that there is some inconsistency in caring altogether less about the unborn (whether they are human or not) than about the actually living (whether they are human or not).

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Student Suspended for Filming Teacher's Violent Reaction to National Anthem Protest

[via NYCindymedia]
A high school teacher in Brick, NJ pulled a chair from under a student after the student refused to stand for the national anthem. The school suspended one student for filming the incident, but has yet to punish the teacher.

Well, that's nice!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Reply to a Reply

My "Neo-Conmen and Retro-Futurists" post didn't excite much in the way of comment hereabouts, but did provoke a wrongheaded but nicely witty response over on the Cyborg Democracy blog, and so I wanted to reproduce that reply and my own reply to it here, as a kind of alternate MundiMoot. Dig.

"Carl" writes:

In a spasm of political apoplexy, Dale Carrico writes:

There's a difference between a principled embrace of "mainstream" moderation and pluralism (obviously indispensable to any democratic technoprogressivism) and an accommodation of what counts as "mainstream" in this unspeakably scary and dangerous moment in which we are living.

Apparently the actual mainstream has vanished overnight, leaving in place a imposter mainstream with motives we can assume are dark (I think I read about something like this happening in a Greg Bear novel). Clearly the American experiment with democracy has failed if such a principled advocate of democratic processes as Dale has lost all faith in the soundness of the system's results.

From there, Dale goes on to offer us his best Clint Eastwood impersonation:

Given my ongoing troubled but ultimately enjoyable and productive association with so many who identify as transhumanists, it makes sense to insist as clearly as I can that in this historical moment no one is an ally of mine, or a fellow collaborator in any future I am working to build, who is not actively opposed to and resisting the Bush Administration and the institutional and ideological order supporting that Administration.

All those Bush-supporting transhumanist power brokers nationwide must be shaking in their cowboy boots right now. Does this mean you won't share the next good stash of psychotropic nootropics that you get your hands on? I know politics is hell, but we should at least try to remain civilized.

Finally, in a moment of lunatic zeal that would make Ann Coulter blush, Dale warns us of the bloodshed to come:

And as for the storm that is coming, driven mostly for now by radical biotechnologies (including neurotechnologies): unless these market and theocratic fundamentalists are put in their place I honestly fear that developments which could emancipate the world will instead bring unspeakable tyranny and apocalypse.

[W]hich of course raises far more questions than it answers. Are we talking about the "cats and dogs living together" apocalypse, or something more sinister like the release of neocon nanobot brain implants into the drinking water? Or are you referring to the well publicized plans to upload Bush's consciousness into a Jupiter-sized superintelligence which will rule over the world for centuries with its army of immortal Karl Rove cyborgs? Please clarify.

My sincere thanks to you Dale for the thought provoking comments. And while we're on the subject, I have bit of advice for you which I'll give in the form of a celebrity impersonation of my own: "Sell crazy somewhere else, we're all stocked up here."

And here, then, is my own reply:

Some of us settle into "The New Normal" more comfortably than others, I see....

Reader Carl has kindly proposed that the anger and fear on parade in this last li'l post of mine, inspired by the antics of the Bush Administration and their supporters, amounts to "apoplexy," "lunatic zeal," and "selling crazy."

He asks that I "clarify" what on earth might lead "a principled advocate of democratic processes" such as myself to such shrill extremity as to call crimes crimes, liars liars, thieves thieves, thugs thugs, and dangers dangers (I'm paraphrasing).

Honestly, honey, you've got to be kidding me.

I'm talking about warmongering Straussian snakes and rapture-right fundies blowing their wads across the globe and lying lying lying while corpses and debts are ballooning, I'm talking about Grover Norquist libertopians dismantling the safety net, siphoning cash to their bazillionair bomb-building friends, and dreaming of drowning good government in a bathtub, I'm talking about homophobes (including closet-case rentboys and the values-voters who love them) and gun-loving capital-punishment loving pollution loving champions of a so-called "culture of life" eagerly dismantling civil liberties before our eyes.

I know it seems like a comic book, I know it seems like it can't possibly be real, but there it is, as plain as day and dark as the darkest night.

Anyhow, if I may nudge this discussion back to the developmental tech politics that draw us together here in fact, it is my view that we need incomparably more accountable democratic institutions, a far more robust and entrenched rights culture, radically wider welfare entitlements, and global safety regulation, impact-assessment, and inspection regimes to have the slightest hope of survival through the developmental upheavals to come.

In every way the Bush Administration seems to me to be taking things surreally quickly and devastatingly in the wrong direction.

And, if I may say so, comparing me to Ann Coulter makes little sense at all, except I will grant that our Adam's apples exhibit, in certain lights, a superficial similarity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Introduction to Internet Activism

I stumbled onto this really fine Introduction to issues, technologies, and practices of Internet Activism over at Social Design Notes. The author is soliciting comments and discussion. It provides a nice and clarifying survey of the scene.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.

Eating the Hand That Feeds Them

Taxes are not theft, my deluded pampered market libertarian friends, and neither is property theft, my deluded well-meaning libertarian socialist comrades. I fear we must all walk and chew gum at the same time and recognize that taxation, theft, and ownership are three different things.

These are interdependent categories but are never properly reducible to one another. Certainly all of these categories can be pushed to limits that will take on the coloration of the other categories, but any analysis that thinks of the one entirely in terms of the other is misleading you and facilitating your manipulation for purposes that are not your own.

Of course, one of the greatest difficulties for progressives and democrats in the United States of North America at the moment is that they quail before the epic task of (re-)educating a hostile and profoundly anti-intellectual culture into a real understanding that a working and legitimate state is indispensable to the establishment of justice, the provision of security, and the promotion of general welfare.

This oft-remarked American anti-intellectualism isn't, in my view, by the way, any kind of special frailty or sin uniquely pronounced and so uniquely uncircumventable in Americans as people, but is mostly the straightforward consequence of a few accidents of history (vast readily exploitable resources, geographical sequestration from enemies with comparable levels of organization and technology, a constant influx of diversity), alongside, needless to say, the not-at-all-accidental enslavement and ongoing exploitation of whole classes of human beings, all of which has insulated privileged Americans more than is usually the case from the negative consequences of their own bad decisions.

Apart from the pernicious impact of an ongoing special vulnerability to fundamentalist ideologies, I think the notorious incuriosity, complacency, and mediocrity of American society (which has probably frustrated a few evil developments along with the good) is probably mostly the stubborn straightforward bovine unresponsiveness of comfortable mammals rather than anything particularly diabolical.

Anyway, taxes are a price we pay for civilization and democrats face a steep hill in taking up their proper defense to mostly lazy, uncritical, and pampered Americans. But this is simply a task that cannot be put off any longer.

When Republicans say that "government is the problem," Democrats must respond that nobody who thinks such a thing should ever be entrusted with a position in government, since it is bad government not all government which is the problem, and those who cannot grasp in principle the very notion of good government are inevitably its worst abusers: Governments are administered to solve problems other institutions cannot. When Republicans say that taxes are "your money," Democrats must respond, as Chairman Dean has always done, that Republicans cannot be trusted with your money, and that all of us as citizens have the power: It's your Government.

I say all of this as a preamble to linking to something I found in a column earlier today, making a point I have often heard and which always frustrates me -- namely, that despite all the blustering "rugged individualist" anti-tax talk of the swamp-dwelling snake handlers of the so-called "Red-States," it is persistently the inhabitants of these states who gulp down the tax largess of the civilized "Blue States" they disdain. Here is a link to the article I read today, but of course this is a point that has often been made (not that the lesson seems to have penetrated the brains of those who most conspicuously need to understrand it).

It is crucial that this point be made by Democrats. It exposes very conspicuously the basic difference that relatively cosmopolitan secular society works (to the extent that it is allowed to do so) incomparably better than the backward relatively feudalist enclaves in which conservatives like to collect together to congratulate one another about their superiority no matter what the facts are. And it also speaks to very deep notions of fairness that Americans are very likely to respond to in ways that will benefit democrats.

But it is important that the point be embedded in a larger critique that serves democratic purposes rather than conservative ones. The basic unfairness of liberals forever subsidizing their own exploitation by those who disdain them must not feed into the general popular frustration with taxation as such -- which of course will always arouse at least the same resentment that inclement weather does, even among those who recognize its indespensability. Democrats must always insist that taxation as such is not a problem, but that taxation without representation is always pernicious, so that we redirect the populist resentment of unfair taxes into a movement to ever more radically democratize the social institutions that rely on taxation for their funding.

Democrats must shift the language away from talk of "bigger" or "smaller" government (which in fact assumes that government is oppressive in nature, even if possibly inevitable or necessary, and that we must tinker with its scope to protect us from its dangers) to talk of good against bad government (which assumes, exactly to the contrary, that government can be good and that its legitimacy requires that it be good, and that we must reform it to ensure that it is as good as may be). Likewise, Democrats must shift the language away from talk of tax "burdens" and tax "relief" (which assumes taxation is a violation in nature, even if possibly inevitable or necessary, and that we might liberate citizens by reducing its scope), to talk of the real problems that governments solve with the money they demand, and how accountable governments are to the citizens on which they depend for that money (which assumes, exactly to the contrary, that taxation can be good and that its legitimacy requires it address real problems that cannot be resolved otherwise and that the institutions it empowers are ever more responsive and accountable to democratic citizens).

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Interesting post over on kos this afternoon, inspired by l'Affaire Propagannon, about how blogging might transform muckracking investigative journalism -- and there's even a lovely neologism, blogracking, to describe the new phenomenon.

A Democrat in Power, on Power: Empowering

From Dean's speech earlier today, accepting the Chairmanship of the DNC:

I've found that the path to power, oddly enough, is to trust others with it. That means putting the power where the voters are.

That is something Republicans will never understand.

But we do.

Wonderful, isn't it, the effect blogging can have on some people?

Neo-Conmen and Retro-Futurists

It’s easy to see the appeal of radical technology for conservatives, especially for advocates of what passes for “conservatism” in the United States of North America in this historical moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, conservatives see in technology what they see in everything: money and power.

Technology is the prosthetic elaboration of agency. And technology will serve indefinitely many possible ends.

When conservatives express worry about technological development they are registering the worry that the elites with which they identify will lose some of their grip on power if technological development empowers everybody, or if it destabilizes the customary pieties they deploy to keep those they exploit confused and distracted. When conservatives embrace technological development their enthusiasm derives from the contemplation of the prospect of profits or of new tools to consolidate their social control.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why technoprogressives of any stripe would want to waste much time teasing at the superficial similarities (of which there will be some to find in the comparison of literally any two general viewpoints) between their own perspectives and those of conservatives, or, worse, cynical warmongering “neoconservatives.” Surely we can leave such arias and apologias for the neoconservatives to craft themselves from their prison cells when it finally comes to that.

My perplexity at all this comes on the heels of many expressions of (to my mind) a weird recent enthusiasm that has apparently suffused many technophile-types of the “tranhumanish” mode (whether they are the more appealing progressive sort or the more zany reactionary kind we all grew to pity and enjoy in the bubble-era of irrational exuberance and libertopianism) at the fact that declining second-rate conservative public figures like Willian Safire and Glenn Reynolds have been making some selectively positive noises lately about some of the radical technologies that have long interested few but the most radical technophiles.

In the 90s to indulge in serious nonderisive speculation about molecular-scaled replicative manufacturing or robust longevity or rejuvenation medicine or galactic-scale engineering thought experiments or what have you was often a profoundly marginalizing sort of activity. But as some of these sorts of developments and their problems have grown more palpable to more and more people in their developmental proximity this kind of speculation has likewise grown more mainstream. Technophiles can surely be more sensible in their alliances these days than perhaps they have been in the past.

I can’t help but discern the traumatic taint of such past marginalization (beggars can’t, after all, be choosers!) in the embarrassing tinge of real desperation that would inspire anybody to feel ecstatic at a public mention by individuals so compromised and at once conspicuously on the wane in their influence as Safire and Reynolds and their ilk.

Can I just point out once more that it doesn't take much in the way of insight to recognize that there is likely to be gobs of money to be made in future radical technological development? Of course the usual noise brigade of opportunistic monkey me-firsters are going to jump on the bandwagon for any developmental outcome that looks like translating into big profits! And their relentless hype and inevitable misconduct will easily frustrate at least as much as it facilitates the developments that interest people who are attracted to discursive spaces like this.

What takes real intelligence is the ongoing project to conjoin technical development to an increase in justice and welfare in the world. But without both more technical power and more justice it makes no sense to talk about progress at all. Without social justice a technophile is just an asshole looking to throw his weight around, and such saucer-eyed savages are no allies of mine -- whether they know what the terms nanotechnology or neuroceutical or negligible senescence mean or not.

I have often written and still believe that deliberative technological development will benefit both from the cautious temperaments of conservatives and the hopeful temperaments of progressives. But the things happening in the name of "conservatism" in the United States of North America have little connection to such cozy abstractions.

My own celebration and advocacy of certain radical technological developments derives from my commitment to social justice, rights culture, prosthetic practices of self-creation, personal (via morphological freedom) and geopolitical (via leapfrogging) emancipation.

That commitment to social justice is absolutely prior to any superficial support of technology funding in this moment. And certainly any "support" of technology that has a primarily deregulatory emphasis is not in fact a support of technological progress at all in my view, any more than a politics that advocates outright bans would be.

In this era, even any so-called "neutral" or "de-politicized" support of technology, let alone technology enthusiasm emerging out of explicitly reactionary market or theocratic fundamentalist politics, will too likely just amount to the support of technology to further concentrate wealth in the hands of few, exacerbate injustice, and empower slaughter.

So-called "conservatism" in America has veered into a surreal crystallization of market libertarian ideology as the usual big business apologia, white-racist patriarchal militarism, and religious fundamentalism. There's a difference between a principled embrace of "mainstream" moderation and pluralism (obviously indispensable to any democratic technoprogressivism) and an accommodation of what counts as "mainstream" in this unspeakably scary and dangerous moment in which we are living.

The "transhuman" term is compromised already with the deep liability of a strong historical association with market libertarian ideology, and any uncritical embrace of figures and positions from the veering Right in this moment consolidates those associations. These sorts of things do matter.

There's a thing about big tents. A tent big enough to accommodate aggressive fundamentalists will usually be a tent empty of anyone but aggressive fundamentalists.

I am certainly not a self-identified "transhumanist," but as a person who does technocritical theory from a politically radical democratic perspective it is impossible not to be drawn to the vitality and originality of the work of many self-identified transhumanists, just as it is impossible not to be fascinated at least in an ethnographic kind of way by some of the incomparable quirks that transhumanist-identified folks seem so often to exhibit as a culture –- not least the strange attraction to eighteenth century political ideology for folks presumably focused on a far-flung future, not to mention a curious tendency to “naturalize” whatever passes for a ”market” norm while they promisculously denaturalize everything else in sight.

Given my ongoing troubled but ultimately enjoyable and productive association with so many who identify as transhumanists, it makes sense to insist as clearly as I can that in this historical moment no one is an ally of mine, or a fellow collaborator in any future I am working to build, who is not actively opposed to and resisting the Bush Administration and the institutional and ideological order supporting that Administration.

I will of course hold out my hand to reasonable and repentant conservatives and moderates when the present storm has passed.

And as for the storm that is coming, driven mostly for now by radical biotechnologies (including neurotechnologies): unless these market and theocratic fundamentalists are put in their place I honestly fear that developments which could emancipate the world will instead bring unspeakable tyranny and apocalypse. There is no comfortably moderate way of saying that, and so I won't even try.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

IPPF Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights

[via Planned Parenthood International]

In 1995, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and its 127 member associations approved a Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, based on international human rights instruments. A summary follows:

1. The right to life should be invoked to protect women whose lives are currently endangered by pregnancy.

2. The right to liberty and security of the person should be invoked to protect women currently at risk from genital mutilation, or subject to forced pregnancy, sterilization or abortion.

3. The right to equality and to be free from all forms of discrimination should be invoked to protect the right of all people, regardless of race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family position, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, to equal access to information, education and services related to development, and to sexual and reproductive health.

4. The right to privacy should be invoked to protect the right of all clients of sexual and reproductive health care information, education and services to a degree of privacy, and to confidentiality with regard to personal information given to service providers.

5. The right to freedom of thought should be invoked to protect the right of all persons to access to education and information related to their sexual and reproductive health free from restrictions on grounds of thought, conscience and religion.

6. The right to information and education should be invoked to protect the right of all persons to access to full information on the benefits, risks and effectiveness of all methods of fertility regulation, in order that any decisions they take on such matters are made with full, free and informed consent.

7. The right to choose whether or not to marry and to found and plan a family should be invoked to protect all persons against any marriage entered into without the full, free and informed consent of both partners.

8. The right to decide whether or when to have children should be invoked to protect the right of all persons to reproductive health care services which offer the widest possible range of safe, effective and acceptable methods of fertility regulation, and are accessible, affordable, acceptable and convenient to all users.

9. The right to health care and health protection should be invoked to protect the right of all persons to the highest possible quality of health care, and the right to be free from traditional practices which are harmful to health.

10. The right to the benefits of scientific progress should be invoked to protect the right of all persons to access to available reproductive health care technology which independent studies have shown to have an acceptable risk/benefit profile, and where to withhold such technology would have harmful effects on health and well-being.

11. The right to freedom of assembly and political participation should be invoked to protect the right to form an association which aims to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights.

12. The right to be free from torture and ill treatment should be invoked to protect children, women and men from all forms of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

More Random Wilde

I know, what with dissertating and teaching I'm neglecting the blog too much these days. At least my students are picking up the slack over at TEC, coming up with all sorts of interesting things to talk about. I'm going to post up some dissertation writing soon here, as well as some stuff related to next month's talk in New York. For now, here's some more of the usual Oscariana to suckle:

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

"I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world."