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

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy

For technoprogressives, there is no question that even radical and disruptive technological developments can be empowering and emancipatory when they are funded and regulated by legitimate democratic authorities and accountable processes to ensure that their costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly distributed among all the actual stakeholders to these developments. But it is no less true for technoprogressives that such developments threaten catastrophes to individual health, safety, and to the environment as a whole, as well as to exacerbate injustice and facilitate exploitation whenever they do not reflect these democratic values and processes.

The most legitimate concern of many bioconservatives (and of those who tend to sympathize with their arguments for now) is that the rich and powerful will enjoy medical enhancement and longevity long before the rest of us do, or that powerful elites will control digital surveillance technologies or unprecedented nanotechnological capacities that will consolidate their power in unimaginable ways. The NBIC convergence of nanoscale technologies, biomedical technologies, information technologies, and cognitive/neuroceutical technologies promises unprecedented human emancipation but threatens no less than the literal rewriting of social injustice as a form of dreadful speciation.

To the extent that bioconservatives value "natural" -- that is to say nothing but customary -- distributions of power and authority over values like consent, equality, health, and an end to needless meaningless suffering, they find themselves on considerably shakier ground than this. And so, it seems to me that technoprogressives should address such legitimate and urgent concerns about technoconstituted social injustice as our own focus. This would force the biconservatives to distinguish themselves from us by foregrounding instead the far less appealing social conservatism, elitism, and embarrassing anti-democratic, anti-scientific biases that constitute the actual core of their temperament and political stand.

Unfortunately, most committed technocentric critics and advocates are either technophobes who will already incline to the bioconservative perspective or technophiles who are often unpardonably complacent about issues of social justice. Far too often privileged techno-utopians and enthusiasts will trivialize questions of social justice altogether as if they were merely the complaints of "envious" people that "the rich" will get all the good toys first, rather than the expression of the truism that technological inequality tends to correspond to unacceptable political inequality. Too often technophiliac (non-)responses to social concerns veer dangerously close to twirling a bright shiny object in front of the eyes of the relatively less prosthetically-empowered as if to distract them from the conspicuous consequent threat of their relative political powerlessness. "Why, in techno-utopia" -- kissing cousin to libertopia, I'm afraid -- "even the poorest of the poor live like the princeliest of the princes in olden tymes," they froth. "Look'ee at this here big screen tee-vee! this air-conditioned shag-carpeted domicile! this candy-dish chock-full of viagra capsules!"

The proper technoprogressive response to concern about conspicuously unequal distributions of emerging technological capacities, then, is to recognize explicitly that this is primarily a worry about the developmental threat of pernicious antidemocratic distributions of power, and to foreground just how eminently sensible a worry this is based on overabundant historical experience.

Further, I propose the following initial, provisional programmatic redress of social injustice as an indispensable part of a properly technoprogressive advocacy of radical, disruptive technological developments (comparably technoprogressive alternative recommendations are, of course, welcome):

First: Technoprogressives demand a basic income guarantee as an indispensable complement to any general championing of disruptive technological development. This effectively eliminates poverty from social life and sustains every citizen as a stakeholder with enough freedom to contract the terms of their participation in society as they see fit. This income (together with a life-long stakeholder grant in education and retraining) would foreground the value of citizen participation in a properly technoprogressive democratic civilization, empowering citizens to contribute free creative content, to participate in new collaborative forms of media oversight and policy deliberation, in addition to voting on policy-measures and representatives for public office.
Let me add two quick side notes here:

ONE. Don't forget that the media has always been subsidized. Even in relatively "minarchist" Founding-Era America the architects of the republic recognized the indispensability of media to working continental-scaled democracy: hence, the establishment of a postal service and roadways, and later the subsidization and regulation of every media form as it emerged on the scene right up to the recent creation and support of the internet.

A basic income guarantee can be defended as a comparable subsidization of peer-to-peer networks and media (including collaborative forms of in-depth security and surveillance/sousveillance) on this view, quite apart from its many other justifications.

TWO. Also, remember that Marshall Brain has called for the provision of a basic income guarantee to ameliorate pernicious income consolidation facilitated by automation in the present day. This, then, is not some pie-in-the-sky speculation about a distant possibly-fanciful post-scarcity nano-topia, but a very progressive, forceful, conspicuously relevant contribution technoprogressive critics and advocates can focus on right now to make a difference today that will illuminate future promises and enlist enthusiasm about a better future.

Second: Technoprogressives demand universal basic health care provision as well as a stakeholder grant in enhancement medicine as an indispensable complement to any general championing of research, development, and the support of consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine. This effectively eliminates the greatest threat to the lives of the relatively less powerful (unecessary suffering, the burdens of untreated illness) and enlists every citizen as a participant in a civilization-wide peer-to-peer experiment in better-than-well health-care provision and rejuvination medicine. This stakeholder grant in healthcare and enhancement would foreground the value of morphological freedom (for more on this term, look here and here) in a properly technoprogressive democratic civilization, empowering citizens to engage in proliferating projects of self-creation, as peers celebrating a prostheticized explosion of bodily and cognitive and lifeway diversity.

For democrats and technoprogressives social justice cannot tolerate unequal distributions of authority beyond a certain point (we are, I fear, well past that point at present in the precarious North Atlantic democracies) -- but it is just as true that our sense of justice demands the preservation and celebration of inequality in its forms as distinction and diversity.

Part of the danger of framing worries about technodevelopmental injustice in terms of conflicts of "rich" against "poor" is that this so impoverishes the conceptual resources available to us as we would address these difficulties. What is wanted is a prosperity that renders this distinction altogether irrelevant.

There need be nothing in the least dangerous or pernicious, for example, about some especially lucky or talented or pretty people accumulating absurd fortunes so long as this doesn't encourage authoritarian concentrations of power in consequence and so long as those who lack such fortunes do not thereby lose their power to meaningfully consent to the terms in which they live their lives or lose their capacity to contribute as peers in the projects of democratic civilization.

The key is the strongest possible support of a civilization that values equality, diversity and the discretionary at once -- which will include as one of its least interesting entailments the existence of some people who are vastly rich, just as it would still surely entail the existence of some whose embrace of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity might seem superficially similar to the lives of some mildly impoverished people in the world today.

Be that as it may, there is also a case to be made for encouraging particularly enthusiastic, reckless, adventurous people, whether situated by wealth or by temperament, to take up new prosthetic and medical practices before the rest of us do, who can function thereby as a comparatively safely sequestered minoritized advance test-population working out conspicuous technological bugs before they manage to ruinously disseminate among majorities.

It may be true, I suppose (but I do not concede the necessity or even likelihood of this), that developmental regulation to facilitate these democratic ends might slow the pace of development with the consequence that some of the richest most powerful people today might wait longer to gain benefits they might otherwise enjoy sooner. But it is hard for me to understand why their frustration is inherently more relevant than that of the incomparably many more who would be no less frustrated in their stead, and who would certainly gain these benefits themselves more quickly in consequence of a democratization of developmental risks, costs, and benefits.

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