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

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Listen, Transhumanist!

My close friend and ally, the socialist-feminist technoprogressive bioethicist James Hughes recently published a marvellous book, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. An abbreviated version of the technoprogressive program he advocates at the close of his book contains the following recommendations, among others:
"2.1 Defend the rights of all human beings oppressed because of their bodies

2.1a Support rights for great apes, dolphins and whales
2.1b Guarantee the right of all persons to control our own bodies and minds

We need not only a broader concept of the citizen, the bearers of rights, but also a more radical understanding of the rights those citizens can claim. Self-ownership should include the right of sane adults to change and enhance their bodies and brains, to own their own genes, to take recreational drugs, and to control their own deaths. Procreative liberty, an extension of the right to control our body and life, should include the right to use germinal choice technologies to ensure the best possible life [one must add: on terms arising out of a scene of informed, nonduressed decision, rather than on terms imposed by elites in the name of some parochial conception of "optimality" --ndc] for our children. Strong democratic government is required not only to protect these rights, but to ensure that the technologies are tested for safety, and that consumers understand their risks and benefits. We need to ensure all citizens have access to these options, not just the affluent....

3.1 Support science education and federal research into transhuman technologies

3.2 Promote rigorous, independent safety testing of [emerging -- ndc] technologies, rejecting both free-market laissez-faire and Luddite bans.... International agencies should be empowered to enforce global regulations on the safety of industrial and medical technologies. The U.S. Congress should re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment, and the size and mandate of the EPA and FDA should be expanded to rapidly vet the safety of new industrial materials, drugs and medical devices.... [one must add: we should facilitate the democratization of this deliberative development by using peer-to-peer (p2p) architectures to implement citizen juries and impact assessments as well as access to knowledge (a2k) mandates to abolish secrets of state and proprietary secrets that distort the scene of informed, nonduressed consent in matters of technoscientific oversight -- ndc]

3.3 Protect genetic self-ownership, and the genetic and intellectual commons from patent madness....

4.1 Build and defend universal health systems with choices....

4.2 Establish a guaranteed basic income and expand the social wage....

5.1 We need global agreements not just to expand "free trade," but also to protect worker rights and set environmental and safety standards for agriculture, industry and medicine. The United Nations needs the authority to tax corporations and nations, and the power to collect those taxes. We need to add a second chamber to the United Nations that represents the world on a population basis, not just as nation-states. We need a permanent, standing international army with a clear mandate to enforce world law, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reform the UN Security Council to make it a more legitimate body for governing world force.

5.2 We need to strengthen the capacity of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program to disseminate new technologies to the developing world. Agencies in the developed world should expand research into technologies appropriate to the needs of the developing world, and support programs of technology transfer to the developing world. International institutions such as WHO, FAO, UNCTAD, UNDP, and UNESCO [I would add: the ILO -- ndc] should be expanded to support technological diffusion in the developing world....

5.3 The world needs international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency to be expanded into a global infrastructure of technological and industrial regulation capable of controlling the health and environmental risks from new technologies. We need to expand programs like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the British and American programs monitoring near earth objects into global programs to monitor the health of ecosystem and the threat from asteroids.

There is quite a lot to chew on there, of course (and there is still much more to say about peer-to-peer media formations, strengthening commons formations, facilitating renewable energy and decentralizing basic infrastructure), and I strongly recommend that any readers of Amor Mundi who have not yet done so go out right now and scoop up James's book.

Although I have a few wee quibbles about terminology and formulations and would supplement or differently emphasize some of his recommendations (some suggestions about this appear parenthetically) the fact is I find it very easy to endorse his program, both in its specifics and its spirit. I think it is very important for technoprogressives to think as Hughes does of the ways these different recommendations relate to and depend on one another, and on the ways emerging and disruptive technological developments must change how progressives talk about our values in general.

Radical and social democrats and democratic socialists and others of the democratic left must emphasize what is newly possible, newly dangerous, newly destabilizing in ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle. We must re-think what consent, equity, diversity, fairness, safety, and freedom might come to mean in the ongoing flow of radical technoscientific churn.

But you may have noticed that the program I have quoted here begins with agenda item number [2.0]. Before I quote Hughes's own [1.0], which I have omitted so far, let me say first that I have described James Hughes as a "socialist-feminist technoprogressive bioethicist," but that this is not how James describes himself. This is not to say that James would take umbrage at my characterization of him, particularly, but just that this isn't his own self-description. What James thinks of himself as first of all is what he calls a "democratic transhumanist."

Now, since I think of James as something of a kindred spirit and a very close ally I find it congenial to describe him as technoprogressive because I think of myself that way. But it causes me great discomfort and annoyance to describe him as a "democratic transhumanist" because I wouldn't describe myself in those terms in a million years.

That said, here is the Item of James Hughes' program that I have not yet quoted:
1.0 Build the Transhumanist Movement

We need transhumanist think tanks, journals, conferences and lobbyists. We need transhumanists meeting the bioLuddites toe-to-toe in the public square, defending the rights of persons to use reason to control their own affairs. We need transhumanist clubs and study groups on the campuses, and in every city in every country, educating the public about the threats and promises to come. We need a movement fighting for a positive future, and not just fighting the future.

I imagine it goes without saying, but I will say anyway that this is not a part of James's program I can endorse personally. Honestly, I cannot say I even understand it, entirely. Certainly it is hard for me to connect this Item of his program to the urgency of the Items that follow it, nor can I quite get a handle on how it is supposed to make much of a contribution to the work that would facilitate the other Items.

Now, "transhumanists" are technophiles who entertain some wonderfully off-the-wall notions about emerging and projected technologies. In the years since I first read about them I have regularly found that some of the speculations that seemed the most off-the-wall in "transhumanist" conversation ended up migrating in breathtakingly short order to the front pages of mainstream newspapers and scientific journals as very proximate real-world concerns. It is hard not to feel real fondness for "transhumanists" for their knack for this sort of thing.

I've always been attracted to the vitality of marginal intellectual movements like that of the "transhumanists" -- sex radicals, vegans, pacifists, zerowork advocates, militant atheists and the like. Intellectual edge-cities like these are a spur to my own thinking, a check on complacency and orthodoxy, a source of real pleasure, inspiration, provocation, and an endless archive of unexpected insights and perceptions. And as a life-long geek and sf enthusiast the "transhumanists" appeal to many facets of my personality even while many of them have always jarred violently against other facets just as deeply.

I discovered the "transhumanists" (or at any rate some of them) about fifteen years ago, while I was writing my Master's Thesis in Georgia on connections between queer theory and technocultural theory. I have long observed many of the strands of and strains within "transhumanist" discourse since then. I have pondered them with ethnographic fascination, and sometimes with something of a psychotherapist's eye (it is very hard to resist this at times). I have regularly sparred with "transhumanists," especially on a vast range of political questions.

What follows is adapted from something of an open letter I recently posted in an online "transhumanist" forum, on the subject of "movement transhumanism" and the "democratic transhumanism" of its most reasonable variation:

To James Hughes and the other "democratic transhumanists," to my CybDemite colleagues, allies, and friends, and to other presumably "transhumanist"-identified or "transhumanist"-sympathetic technocentrics, technocritics, technoethicists, technophiles and technowhosits here assembled: Listen up!

It seems to me that there is never more than a modest portion of the people who are actually "transhumanist"-identified who actually agree with James Hughes's reasonable published program of "Democratic Transhumanism," especially as a programmatic whole or in the actual sense he intends these recommendations. No doubt some "transhumanist"-types might genuflect in the direction of some of the Items in it, but most will mean in "endorsing" them quite different things than Hughes does himself.

Bring most of Hughes' programmatic Items up in actual "transhumanist"-fora and, as night follows day, the libertopian noise brigade will start barking and whining about Socialists Among Us! Next up, a host of self-described "apolitical" types who will quiescently purr while the most outrageous market fundamentalist pieties and genetic determinist apologias for bigotry are disgorged will then suddenly rise to their feet and pout and stamp about how the "socialists" (by which term they seem to denote anybody to the left of or including the neoliberal free-marketeer Bill Clinton) are perniciously "politicizing" their forum.

Even more crucial than the fact that few actual "transhumanist"-identified people would endorse Hughes's "transhumanist" program is the fact that an incomparably smaller fraction of the people actively participating in the various actually-existing movements to implement versions of Items [2.0 through 5.3] of his program are "transhumanist"-identified themselves or even would -- be honest! -- so identify if anybody made that option available and clear to them.

This is more than a terminological problem. The terminological trouble testifies to deeper conceptual confusions, demographic realities, and poisonous historical legacies.

Do you know what I'm talking about here, "democratic transhumanists" out there? Am I wrong about this? I keep looking and looking but I fear I'm plenty reality-based enough to worry that the numbers just don't seem to add up for a workable consistently unrepentent technoprogressive "transhumanist" caucus, especially so long as "democratic transhumanists" endlessly have to deliver handjobs to the free marketeers and reductionists among them to get anything done at all.

This is nothing against James Hughes himself -- or at least I hate the thought that he would take it that way. As I have often said and will continue to say, I agree with James Hughes on any number of issues. He is right-on with his right-on. And I love the ragtag fugitive fleet of CybDemites and DemTrans types he has gathered together largely by the sweat of his brow...

But I have to wonder just why do libertarians and free-marketeers end up cropping up even in the modest scattered spaces that get built to provide progressive "transhumanish" alternatives to them? Why do retro-futurists and neoconmen end up getting treated as respectable intellectuals in even these more progressive salons where everybody presumably knows better?

Given the conceptual and demographic realities that appear to be in play (and canoodling around with "transhumanist" organizational membership surveys that split market fundamentalists into libertarians, conservatives, upwingers, and the rest doesn't eliminate the underlying reality of right-wing ideological commonalities that conjoin them), most of what it will actually mean to try to implement Hughes's programmatic Item [1.0] on the ground is that:

(One) Any relatively reasonable liberal, moderate, social, and radical democratic technology critics and advocates who actually find their way to and long remain among the "transhumanists" will have to patiently pretend the market libertarians and retro-futurist neoconservatives among them aren't really clueless marauding sociopaths even though we know that they are.

(Two) These democrats will provide the thugs and dupes a respectability among our own academic and activist allies they could never acquire for themselves in a million years.

(Three) The democrats will endlessly dilute their own critiiques and recommendations for the sake of the free marketeers and reductionists even though the democrats know full well there isn't really time for shilly-shallying given the mad-urgency of the issues we are addressing, eg, climate-change, world poverty and malnutrition, imperiled reproductive freedom, digital surveillance, intellectual property regimes, weapons proliferation, etc.

(Four) Democrats will endlessly squander their time explaining political basics to the libertopians (eg, "free trade" is a slogan not a law of nature, since the state is indispensable justice demands that it be democratized not smashed, taxes aren't the same thing as slavery, the US is not a market but a planned economy that stealths its planning under the heading of defense spending and is a welfare state providing welfare mostly for the already rich, etc. etc. etc.) all the while working themselves into incomprehensible explanatory knots to avoid offending wingnuts even when the democrats are making the most manifestly reasonable and obvious sorts of recommendations imaginable.

(Five) Democrats will alienate most sensible allies who have to wonder just why anybody would waste their time with a clatch of clueless smug know-nothing techie-boys who want to bring back the McKinley Adminsitration but this time, you know, with robots so they might have some small chance of actually getting laid occasionally, and

(Six) Democrats will inevitably blunt their own political instincts and best insights through their ongoing association with these reactionaries.

Here's an easy-to-remember rule for technoprogressives whose standards have been scrambled and ears have been tinned by overlong association with technophiliac free-marketeers: No panel or committee with more than one market libertarian or neoliberal/neoconservative market fundamentalist on it for every four members on it in total will reflect anything but the most irrelevantly parochial perspective imaginable for a task force that would address its recommendations to the world beyond American technophilia. You'll have to pay close attention in making these determinations, since many free marketeers won't actually admit to their market fundamentalism in mixed company. You will actually have to read what they say before you decide they belong on your panel, or editorial board, or task force. I know that's a lot to ask....

Look, techno-progressive sensibilities in the "transhumanist movement" have Stockholm Syndrome.

There is an undeniable widespread technophobia across the political and cultural left that has been inspired, reasonably enough, by the real and relentless corporatism, militarism, harmful health-hyping, and environmental catastrophe with which technological development has come to be freighted the long twentieth century through. This has made it quite difficult to make the traditional revolutionary left case for the emancipatory power of science and technology.

In the 80s and 90s it seemed that only a few sf geeks and socially alienated types took things like space elevators, rejuvination medicine and replicative nanoscale technology seriously.

I know. I was there.

Finding a person who even knew what these things were practically ensured you were talking to someone who thinks Ayn Rand is a serious writer. (Newsflash: She isn't. She is instead a manifestly, terminally, howlingly, embarrasingly, in fact earthshatteringly bad writer. Please make a note of it.)

All this was, you know, just a terrible historical accident. It was a specific conjunction of disaffected temperaments, fatally exacerbated by the irrational exuberance of the era, when WIRED-culture embraced libertopia and extropia and momentarily made it look like short-sighted stupidity conjoined with uncritical technophilia and bottomless brainless greed might manage for once to build a house worth living in. (Newsflash: It didn't. And it never will. Please make a note of it.)

Technoprogressive sensibilities lurking and making-do among the "transhumanists" can put all of that behind them now. You really can, people.

The digital, biomedical, nanoscale developments you've been worried about and planning for and trying to explain to your well-meaning but wrongheaded uncritically technophobic peers are now so proximate that everybody is talking about them now. Many people are making the connections that have long enthralled lefty technocentrics and sent them into the cold comfort of the bomb builders, statisticians, and market ideologues of libertechian "transhumanism."

These aborning conversations appear largely to be bypassing the "transhumanists" altogether, except for occasionally using them as rhetorical straw men to torch.

And why wouldn't they?

So many among the "transhumanist"-identified were and remain market fundamentalists, facile genetic determinists, climate-change deniars, corporate-military apologists, boys-with-toys, parochial know-nothings. Due to the efforts of amazing people like James Hughes (whose theoretical work and tireless organizational efforts many Old School "transhumanists" heatedly bemoan and disdain, even as -- it seems to me -- he more or less single-handedly keeps their tired asses on the cultural radar-screen in the first place) "transhumanism" is in fact more than it once was, is more than I thought it could be, and has something more of a chance at making a positive mark on a future worth living in than I thought possible.

But I don't think it was worth it, and I don't think it is enough.

I want to talk about technology and development in places where there are lots of women around, where many languages are spoken, where there are Greens, and skeptics, and nonjudgmental people of faith, and perverts, and poets, and punks, and policy-wonks, and pacifists, and folks with small modest businesses they love, and veteran activists, and theory-heads. I like to be around people who think of themselves as citizens of the world already. The left has no problem bringing scientists, atheists, activists, queers, witches, wonks, graphic artists, and drug-experimentalists together already. Progressives in "transhumanist" spaces are more welcome than ever before, but they are still endlessly careful and defensive. Why? Progressives invented progress, you know? Progress already defines us. There is just no reason to make nicey-nice with the libertopian libertechian sociopaths anymore.

Those "transhumanish"-types with more genial temperaments than my own will recoil at my bluntness. They will puzzle over my "negativity" as they hum blandly along into irrelevance or worse. They will scowl at my incivility in refusing to be civil with the uncivilized.

I'm sorry. I honestly am. I don't mean to be forever griping at and upsetting most the people who I actually like best among "transhumanist"-identified folks. But there are only so many obvious stumbles and disappointments I can take.

Too many of my disappointments are coming from the best among the "transhumanist"-identified people I know, while so many of my pleasant surprises are coming from academics and activists on the left who are growing more literate in and sympathetic to radical science and technology discourse, all without the endless garbage and oafishness of the "transhumanist" default culture.

The fact that I'm writing this down and not just walking out on you all given all these worries and complaints should tell you how committed I feel to my friendship with some among you....

So. Listen, "transhumanist":

Show me what I'm missing here. Show me how I'm wrong. Show me why "transhumanism" with all its pathologies and troubled legacies and weirdnesses really is the most fertile soil in which to plant the seeds that need planting, to organize and mobilize the energies that would implement Items [2.0-5.3] of Hughes's program. I agree with James that something like his program is precisely where we need to be going if emerging and ongoing disruptive technological development is to fulfill many of its emancipatory promises.

So, reassure me. You better believe if I need this reassurance then almost anybody else you'd want in your corner will need it, too. If you can't, cut bait and start again. I'm telling you, the world is changing. Different conversations, different coalitions are possible now.


Tom FitzGerald said...

Y'know, I'm not in a mood for reassuring anyone about transhumanism right now. Instead, I might ask--if I were looking for other techprogressive conversations and coalitions instead, where would you recommend that I go?

Tom FitzGerald

Dale Carrico said...

Of course WorldChanging is pretty dependably fabulous. And they are relentlessly positive compared to a certain caustic cuss I know who blogs hereabouts.

Mike Treder, CRN said...

Dale, don't you think your denunciation of our CRN Task Force structure is premature, considering that you haven't even discussed it with me yet?

Before you embark on a castigating rant that includes my name, I'd rather that we talk first. That way, misunderstandings might be cleared up, and hurt feelings avoided.

Also, the best way for you to ensure that your socio-political viewpoint is properly represented on the task force is to join us.

Please do!

Mike Treder

Pace Arko said...

"Look, techno-progressive sensibilities in the 'transhumanist movement' have Stockholm Syndrome."

Yow! Satellite guided wit, man!

However I one or two points to contest:

There are more progressives among the nerds of the last 30 years than the followers of Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle would have you believe.

Name any science fiction writer of a right-wing stripe and I can name a better one who leans to the left. And we all know that one of the great grand daddies of science fiction, Herbert George Wells, was a Fabian Socialist through and through.

And I think I was there too--back in those early days after Engines broke. I noticed visionary thinkers on the left that sat up and took notice just as soon as those on the right did. How can we forget Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility or the early days of the EFF or the Whole Earth Catalog?

Perhaps it just seems like the early advocates of this stuff were mostly anarcho-capitalist weirdos becuase those folks are more prone towards organized cultishness, something we on the other side of the aisle are rightly suspicious of.

I do agree with you and dispair over this tendency towards technophobia that has emerged in the left over the last 60 years. Minimata, Alamogordo, Bophal and the Holocaust gave left-leaning techno-advocates a very bad beating over the years.

I remember marching in a nuclear freeze rally back in 1982 (I was an 18 year old physics student back then.) and I noticed the difference between my handmade sign, a big hand in a peace or victory gesture, which read, "Technology to liberate humanity, not destroy it," and the other signs that just said, "No Nukes." In my naivete, I almost wrote, "nuclear energy to liberate humanity, not destroy it," but even then I knew that wouldn't sit well with my fellow marchers.

I felt very good to be in that march. I felt like I was making a common stand with everyone else in that march who wanted the intermediate range missiles out of Europe and who wanted nuclear weapons to be eliminated.

But at the same time, I felt like a decidedly square 1950's egghead for having the impulse to advocate nuclear energy while reviling nuclear weapons. It was like I was a Dow Chemical scientist trying to cover up Agent Orange by playing up the Green Revolution in India. It was alienating even though I mostly agreed with everything else everyone else said at that rally.

But maybe I learned something from that. It clarified something in my head over the years. Progressives had to learn to avoid the perils of overenthusiasm and carelessness. They started the 20th Century full bright hope. The Panama Canal was being built. A new, cheap energy source, oil, would free us from having to cut down all the trees. Maleria was being conquerored. Cities were getting decent sewage systems at least. Unions were forming. In some places people were advocating franchise for women.

Then World War One happened. You know the rest.

I think wisdom is nearly always painfully acquired. Sometimes you have to have your nose rubbed in your mistakes in order to really change for the better. The technological disasters of the 20th Century. The lingering, grinding legacies like global warming and accidental exotic species migration are teaching us something.

Maybe the hope is coming back. Maybe we've learned how to do it right this time. No more hype about "too cheap to meter" and pure technofixes. No more gloom about "all science and technology is a tool used by the partriarchy to oppress the poor, women and indiginous peoples and to destroy the earth."

This century the techno-realism starts. I think in the end it will save us, especially from ourselves.

It's about time we reclaimed the optimism stolen and misused by the right.

Dale Carrico said...


You write:

"There are more progressives among the nerds of the last 30 years than the followers of Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle would have you believe.

Name any science fiction writer of a right-wing stripe and I can name a better one who leans to the left. And we all know that one of the great grand daddies of science fiction, Herbert George Wells, was a Fabian Socialist through and through.

And I think I was there too -- back in those early days after Engines broke. I noticed visionary thinkers on the left that sat up and took notice just as soon as those on the right did. How can we forget Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility or the early days of the EFF or the Whole Earth Catalog?

Perhaps it just seems like the early advocates of this stuff were mostly anarcho-capitalist weirdos becuase those folks are more prone towards organized cultishness, something we on the other side of the aisle are rightly suspicious of."

There are a lot of interesting and encouraging observations packed in tight here. I quite agree with you about visionary left sf -- although I will admit to a perverse love of Heinlein despite the surreally awful opinions and attitudes he often espouses.

I also agree with you about CPSR, although I am a bit more ambivalent about the early days of EFF and Whole Earth. Don't get me wrong! I thought the folks at Whole Earth were the coolest cats in town -- for many of the same reasons I feel that way now about the folks who bring us WorldChanging today -- but I think there was a real libertopian streak in EFF that has somewhat but not yet entirely evanesced today, and a sort of left libertarian naivete that the Whole Earth mindset is likewise prone to. I don't know if you have read Cameron and Barbrook's essay "The California Ideology," but they nail the tendency on the head. I think that essay is available online, scout around for it. Certainly left libertarians should not be mistaken for venal market libertarians or retro-futurists of the Ayn Raelian type, but there is a certain Burning Man as Spontaneous Order vibe that makes its home in the technophiliac left that amounts to a stealthy endorsement of the very same market mechanisms, and in refusing to make an argument for itself is sometimes even harder to combat for critical technoprogressives who know that what is necessary is to democratize the state, not smash it.

Your larger history lesson squares very much with my sense of things. The left unquestionably learned such technophobia as it has in the school of 20th C Hard Knocks. I think and certainly I hope you are right to suggest we on the technoprogressive left have found our way to some wisdom in the process.

As for the "optimism" of the technophiliac right ring marketeers and retro-futurists -- make no mistake! Their idea of optimism is a predator salivating at the prospect of a meal. And not to put too fine a point on it, most of us appear to be in the lunch box.

DryaUnda said...

My only question is: how come you didn't post a link to this entry in the WTA mailing lists?

Or did I miss that?

P.S. Great straight-to-the-point stuff, noy just tawk. :)