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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Guarding Against Technoprogressive Avant-Gardism

I'll start with a typical intellectual's sort of insight on practical technodevelopmental politics, useful enough as far as it goes.

If technoprogressives are right to insist that technological development is always also and first of all social struggle, then it is key to recognize the somewhat paradoxical priority of politics over technology for progressive technological development. This explains why technoprogressives know to prioritize a shared commitment to democracy and fairness over a shared enthusiasm for particular technologies as the source of their solidarity.

The funding of, regulation of, assessment of, deployment of, distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of, meaningful dissemination of and education about technologies are always ineradicably political. Enthusiasms about particular technologies will themselves always be articulated by political positioning, just as different political assumptions will expose deep differences in superficially shared commitments to the role of technological development in securing human freedom, dignity, diversity, and choice. What people mean by "freedom," "dignity," "diversity," and "choice" will be articulated by these political assumptions more than anything else.

We should certainly expect that an "avant-garde" of committed technoprogressive activists and intellectuals will advocate a coherent general program and theoretical perspective -- even more likely, a few of them -- that discerns a shared sensibility or common aims in certain figures (Condorcet, Wells, Dyson, Haraway, etc.) and certain momentous ongoing social struggles (sustainable development, reproductive freedom, copyfight/p2p, Green/fair trade alternative globalization, basic income, etc).

But it seems misguided to me to expect or demand all of the individuals actually contributing to technoprogressive campaigns, struggles, and cultural work to recognize their efforts as such a contribution or even to approve necessarily of such a consequence should it be explained to them. And so, technoprogressive intellectuals (like me) must resist the temptation to identify the struggle itself with whatever it is we say about it or, even worse, imagine that we are somehow directing that struggle. We are, I suppose, just making sense of the struggle as best we can with the tools at our disposal like everybody else does and contributing to that struggle as best we can with the gifts and efforts we bring to bear like everybody else does.

It will be very useful of course to articulate a program from which these larger connections can be discerned, to provide a wider and more historically informed perspective which recommends developmental interventions, practical tactics, unexpected rhetorical moves, strategies for outreach and alliance, etc. and which provides further resources for understanding the implications and interdependencies of particular contingent developments. But what should be the role of such programs or perspectives for their "adherents"?

I think political programs and theoretical perspectives are tools that enable us to better discern and understand currents and struggles and opportunities already afoot in the world, and to help nudge them in desirable directions and into desirable affiliations where possible. I personally think it is better and more practical to join on to ongoing efforts and struggles that are contributing now to technoprogressive ends according to the criteria suggested by a program or perspective than it would be to attempt to create a mass-constituency or mobilize a mass-movement around any kind of explicit shared belief in the terms of a program or perspective.


Pace Arko said...

I must say this essay is a little vague and just a touch too convoluted. Not that I disapprove but I think you should consider it a work in progress.

As near as I can summarize you seem to saying that it would be a bad idea to somehow unify like-minded technoprogressives into some ideological straightjacket and that instead we should stay diverse and trust our judgement to pick and support efforts that align with our thinking. Is that right?

For example, instead of forming some kind of tech-progressive party or movement with a political party, we should instead support copyfight and the legal defense of open source or fight efforts to stop over-the-counter sales of RU486. Right? You're saying that this would be a good thing because it will give us tech-progressives flexibility and freedom to change our minds.

If that's what your saying, then I agree. It would really suck if we are suddenly forced to toe some party line for ideological purity. I've always been a pragmatist at heart. The taoist approach, to roll with the punch, to hit the ground running, to duck and weave is so much cooler!

Hm. Now I'm not making sense. Oh well.

Dale Carrico said...

This convoluted essaylet is a series of practical recommendations masquerading as an abstruse statement of principle, and that is possibly the source of its confusion.

I want to find a way for the designation "technoprogressive" to remain general in the way the designation "progressive" already is. In this way, it can function as a discursive location that is broadly unifying for technocentric advocates of democracy and social justice but remain open to diversity and ongoing contestation among the people drawn to gather there.

I think of the technoprogressive term as a conceptual clearing in which discursive democracy is encouraged so as to faciliate the deliberation and organization of which practical democracy consists. But what is key is to recognize that a shared commitment to democracy and social justice is the precondition for that gathering, it is not dispensable.

Come what may, technoprogressives are drawn to think about ways we can use technology to deepen democracy and use democracy to ensure technology benefits us all. The term itself draws the people who share these commitment together, and then, just as significantly, strives to keep the conversation arising out of that shared commitment an ongoing one. There is an important sense in which freedom does not only emerge from that conversation but also consists in the conversation itself.

Part of the point I was trying to get at with the avant-gardism discussion, was that I wanted to anticipate the objection that I personally clearly have a number of opinions and recommendations and programmatic formulations to offer that are considerably more specific than this general sort technocentric progressivism. That is true, I do. But I value the way in which technoprogressive discourse and practice will support a multiplicity of these more specific programs, campaigns, perspectives, and arguments -- among them my own.

I especially want to refuse any identification of my own more specific views with the "technoprogressive" term as such, however tightly associated I become with the term. I want to insist on the urgent usefulness of a general discursive and practical location that does not harden into an orthodoxy around any specific program or platform or doctrine beyond a commitment to a left construal of democracy and social justice conjoined to technocentrism.

Technophilia is a strange attractor for reductive scientisms, puritanical rages for order, transcendentalizing enthusiasms, fantasies of making everything new that devolve into genocide. The example of transhumanism, I'm afraid, provides a series of illustrations of the pitfalls I want desperately to avoid.

There is the irrational exuberance of its extropian phase. A coterie of sometimes socially alienated people seek to bypass political deliberation altogether through instrumental calculations which they believe would prove compelling and universal (at least among reasonable worthies). Soon enough, as is usual, this "consequentialist" instrumentalism becomes a complacent endorsement of the pieties of the existing order. This eventuates in highly politicized efforts cloaked in a self-congratulatory "apoliticism" that would "naturalize" contingent market protocols as "spontaneous orders" and appropriate the language of genetic science to "naturalize" racist, misogynist, classist assumptions. And all of this despite an insistently reiterated doctrinal antinaturalism otherwise! These days the extropians disavow the extremity of their discredited libertarianism and retrofuturism, but there is little doubt that such vitality as the culture manages to maintain derives to this day from the vestigial remains of that rather embarrassing libertopian and scientistic reductionist core.

Next we have the singularitarian phase, a more or less unambiguously transcendental mysticism with a priestly caste to boot. Soon enough this phase runs out of steam to be displaced by a Bayesian triumphalism that clothes something like commonsense American pragmatism in the same stubbornly priestly transcendentalizing vocabulary. These days singularitarians sound rather like wonks without a budget talking about a science actual professionals are undertaking at a far remove from their own enthusiasms.

"Democratic transhumanism" has provided a completely unexpected jolt of vitality to the "transhumanist" culture -- both by drawing in new creative thinkers and activists and by providing an internal antagonist rallying the otherwise rather exhausted and diminished "transhumanist" default culture. "Democratic transhumanism" is a fully technoprogressive movement, and James Hughes' "democratic transhumanist" program is the most coherent, sustained, and important technoprogressive body of work in existence to this day. Because "democratic transhumanists" fail to consistently prioritize politics over technology, however, they misrecognize as allies individuals who are commited to irreconcilably different ends than their own (in an era when the unspeakable crimes of American conservatives make this sort of alliance even more than usually unacceptable for progressives). At this point, the alliance of democratic and anti-democratic "transhumanists" around a shared superficial technophilia is providing respectable cover for reactionary politics at odds with their own, rendering non-transhumanist-identified technoprogressive positions uniquely vulnerable to incomparably and pointlessly damaging rhetorical attacks, and immersing "democratic transhumanists" in abjectly ridiculous compromises and ritual gestures of respect for conspicuously disreputable positions through the interminable internal antagonisms of "transhumanist" realpolitik crazily blunting the relevance, clarity, and sensitivity of their formulations and intuitions in the wider arenas opening up to technoprogressive positons in this key historical moment due to the palpable proximity of the threats and promises of ongoing and emerging disruptive technological development.

So, I am trying to avoid a tangle of what I take (possibly mistakenly) to be significant hurdles and pitfalls, but most especially to find the language with which I can affirm in the conspicuous and public way he deserves my respect for and solidarity with my friend and ally James Hughes all the while remaining true to what seems to me a rather urgent repudiation of the "transhumanism" with which he himself identifies.

Hence, an essay that was, as you say, "a little vague and just a touch too convoluted." I would be very pleased to hear whether or not this latest elaboration is clarifying or just adds insult to injury.