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

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Democracy Among the Experts

A demand for more deliberative development is exactly as central to my own version of technoprogressive politics as is the demand for sustainable development.

That phrase, "deliberative development," may conjure up the facile and fussy image of "progress" by plan or by committee meeting, a vision of a domesticated development smoothed, controlled, and constrained by experts. But the fact is that technodevelopmental social struggle releases inherently unpredictable forces into the world. It is ineradicably dynamic, interminably contentious, ideally open... So just what do I mean by deliberative development after all?

For one thing, deliberative development would indeed involve highly transparent, generously funded processes of consensus science coupled with a scientifically literate professional policy apparatus to assess risks, costs, and benefits and advise our elected representatives as they struggle to do their job to regulate, study, and fund research and development to promote general welfare. In practice, this would inevitably amount to proliferating committee meetings and inspection tours and licensing standards and granting bodies and blue-ribbon panels and published conference proceedings and impact studies and public hearings and all the rest. I happen to like nice social workers and dedicated public servants and credentialized do-gooders as a type, and I pine for a civilization in which their indispensable work is generally more appreciated than demeaned, and so this is not a vision that inspires in me the dread and disgust that will have overcome many a (self-described) "rugged" "no-nonsense" critic at this point in my account.

But I do want to insist that, even for me, the real force of any such ramifying procedural elaboration must be the deeper democratization rather than any quixotic domestication of technodevelopmental social struggle. The object will be to anticipate and document technodevelopmental outcomes in their variety on the multiple, contending stakeholders to that development, and hence to give those stakeholders a voice in articulating the form developments take from moment to moment, to better ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscience are as fairly shared as may be by all of those stakeholders on their own terms.

Given the devastating debasement of consensus science and the corrupt substitution of lobbying for deliberation under the present Bush Administration, I hope that my focus on deliberative development as a commitment to transparent processes and sound standards makes a certain kind of sense. But it is crucial to point out that the ideal of deliberative development is also a commitment to enrich and democratize the terrain of policy analysis as much as possible across its many social, institutional, and cultural layers. It is in highlighting this second dimension that I hope it becomes clearer that deliberative development is not a matter of constraining but democratically expressing technodevelopmental social struggle, not a matter of domesticating but democratizing the forces of collaborative and individual creativity.

The ongoing, experimental implementation of this dimension of deliberative development might well involve the use of digital networked media to engage citizens more directly in the assessment of alternate science and technology initiatives, perhaps to use social software to re-invigorate the concept of citizen juries on developmental questions, to create extensive occasions for citizens to testify to their own sense of technodevelopmental costs, risks, benfits, and problems, and, perhaps most promising of all, to implement peer-to-peer models of research over customary corporate-militarist models wherever possible.

Such a commitment also demands, in my view,
[1] the promotion of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills for all citizens through a stakeholder grant in lifelong education and training,
[2] universal access to networked information and communication technologies,
[3] a liberalization of "fair use" entitlements and other measures to protect and widen access to the common archive of human knowledge, as well as
[4] ensuring the availability of clear and dependable sources of information from consensus science and the most representative possible diversity of stakeholder positions on policy questions at issue.
This commitment to dependable information might also very well require more stringent regulation of advertising claims to limit fraud as well as explicit legal standards to define just what can go by the name of "news." Eventually, the commitment might also provide a rationale for the public subsidization of some consensual genetic, prosthetic, neuroceutical modifications of memory, concentration, or temper.

In general, I think that what are sometimes broadly conceived as "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches to good governance are in fact both indispensable to the facilitation of progressive and technoprogressive developmental outcomes. I have noticed that this kind of bifocal perspective on developmental politics comes up again and again in my own technoprogressive formulations. And so, for example, I advocate democratic world federalism and peer-to-peer collaborative democratization at once and as part of a single technoprogressive vision of global governance. I realize that each lens of such a bifocal approach has its own palpable dangers and terrors to display. Some progressives are wary of threats to social justice and democracy from especially one direction, others from another.

But I think we should be careful not to fetishize only one mode of governance as the more properly or more essentially democratic one over the other. A fetishization of "top-down" implementations of progressive visions facilitated their perversion in state-capitalist models all through the twentieth century, for example, while the current overcompensatory fetishization of "bottom-up" implementations renders the contemporary left imaginary -- and especially any technology-focused left in an era like our own, when corporate profit-making almost exhaustively defines the global technodevelopmental terrain -- deeply vulnerable in my view to appropriation by libertarian ideology and its always ultimately conservative, facile self-congratulatory fables of "spontaneous order."

And so, yes, I really do think that deference to the advice of credentialed experts is indispensable to good governance and certainly to technoprogressive governance. The problem these days isn't the administrative recourse to scientific and professional expertise; it is the substitution of public relations and partisan calculus for the recommendations of consensus scientists and other professionals.

Certainly, I keenly grasp the vulnerability to anti-democratic elitism in any "rule of experts." But many things count as democratic within their proper bounds that are vulnerable nonetheless to misuses that render them anti-democratic at their extremes (what passes for "free markets" provides an obvious example). I was recently reminded that Bakunin made a useful distinction between being an authority and being in authority that seems relevant here.

I think it is important for progressive and technoprogressive people to embrace a wide-ranging experimentalism and pluralism when it comes to the practical implementation of the rather broad value of democracy. So long as experts are beholden to elected representatives and elected representatives held accountable for their conduct (including the uses to which they put expert advice) I don't think we should think of their role as anti-democratic, nor should we necessarily be too quick to write them off as just regrettable but instrumentally necessary for the proper function of governance. I worry about the politics that gets stealthed under cover of presumably pre-political "instrumental calculation" in political discourse. I say, rather, that there are more-democratic and less-democratic implementations of a representative policy apparatus beholden to the verdicts of consensus science and that democratic technoprogressives want more democratic rather than less democratic implementations is all. I was going to say, "it isn't rocket science," but then at least sometimes, of course, it will be.

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