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

Saturday, February 12, 2005

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.

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