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

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Technoprogressivism Is a Tide, Not a Tribe

Technological development is a political force to be reckoned with, indeed there are vantages from which it has come to seem a world-historical force with which politics is reckoning (and of which more and more politics is coming straightforwardly to consist in an unprecedented kind of way) more acutely than any other in play.

But since technological development impacts everybody in the world it doesn't make much sense in my view to think of the politics of technodevelopment in terms of the needs of just one kind of person among the many who will share the world eventuating along the ongoing, ramifying, perilous, and promising course of that development.

For me technodevelopment is much like democratization, secularization, industrialization, globalization... there cannot be the question of "mainstream politics" resisting the politics of technodevelopment, because technodevelopment will articulate every aspect of mainstream politics -- in fact it already is. Even the most bioconservative politics are utterly defined by technodevelopmental issues.

Certainly, I want progressives, champions of democracy, defenders of social justice and universal rights to shape the direction of that technodevelopment more than bioconservatives will, or market fundamentalists will, or corporate-militarists will. And certainly I am dismayed to see the extent to which these anti-democratic movements sometimes seem to have comandeered not only the means through which technological development is implemented but the very language through which our hopes for that development are expressed. But just who are the technoprogressives who push back against those who would seize developmental forces in the service of an endlessly prolonged domination of the few over the many? How should technoprogressive citizens and advocates think of themselves when they engage in the social struggles of which a more democratizing development consists?

I have said before that progress is not a natural force but a great work. It is a social struggle, a long collective and collaborative effort.

It is also important to insist that progress is a rich wide tide and not a missile's trajectory. It is a tendency, not the stainless steel implementation of an engineer's blueprint.

I think that there are a host of technoprogressive intitiatives and campaigns and affinities and identities, from post-naturalist Greens struggling for sustainable development to fair trade globalizers and world federalists struggling to implement the UN Millenium Goals and to facilitate the emergence of democratic institutions for global governance, from anti-militarists to advocates for global basic income guarantees and global basic healthcare provision, from feminists and queers embracing assisted reproductive technologies and transsexual surgeries to morphological freedom fighters embracing emerging consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive practices of self-creation, from non-anthropocentric personhood theorists fighting for the standing of human and nonhuman animals, whatever their different enablements and morphologies, from copyfighters and defenders of the creative and genomic commons to champions of free software, from enthusiasts of peer-to-peer models of democratic participation, policy deliberation, scientific research, institutional accountability, and social administration to advocates for socially responsible nanotechnology, rejuvination medicine, and solar diaspora.

I have written elsewhere, in a more specific context but a similar vein, that it seems to me an arrant absurdity to expect or demand that the participants in these many struggles and adherents of these many perspectives would literally cohere in anything but the broadest sort of way...

It is easily possible and often useful to ascend to a theoretical perspective from which one can discern these many projects as contributing each their own little tiles to a technoprogressive mosaic of stunning beauty and joy on its own terms. But it is crucial not to mistake the pattern discernible from this rather arid perspective with an explicit particular program some little unified band of self-identified extropians, futurists, post-humanists, Raelians, singularitarians, upwingers, transhumanists, technocrats, technorealists, or, yes, any unattractively tribal construal of my own pet term, technoprogressives, happen to hope or believe will somehow "sweep the world."

That is always just an embarrassing and messianic fantasy. It is a dreadfully twentieth-century way of understanding civic life, personal identification, and political organization. I think we have amply learned the lessons of movements that try to sweep the world. I think we know now that they do more harm than good.

Tribal technophiles will sometimes try to convey the sense of their ambitions by proposing an analogy with gay politics. The analogy is considerably more apt than they may realize. Consider the way in which assimilationist gay politics modeled on an imperfect analogy with a conventional mid-twentieth century American civil rights struggle was displaced by a lesbian and gay political model when feminist critiques pointed to the sexist limitations of that construal of gay politics. Lesbian and gay politics was then displaced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual politics, which in turn was displaced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender politics. These displacements may seem merely matters of addition, but they each produced deep, denaturalizing, antiassimilationist, antiessentialist effects on the queer political imaginary they reinvigorated. Think of the transformation of that politics by AIDS, then by the necessary subsequent (not yet complete) re-direction of AIDS politics into the frame of a global pandemic, the complementary taking up of other biomedical politics and cultures, breast cancer, other STDs, etc. Think of the investment of queer politics with the politics of sex radicalism, of metrosexuality, of secular urbanity, of Punk, of body-modification...

Identity politics are breaking down, and their last spectacularly proliferative efflorescence in queer politics attests conspicuously to their dissolution. All of this arises in large part as a conseqence of the confrontation of "identity" as a model of meaningful narrative selfhood and citizenship with exactly the kinds of destabilizing denaturalizing forces of technodevelopment that interest technoprogressive temperaments in the first place.

Why on earth would technoprogressives want to take up a tired old identity model at the precise moment when identity politics are failing elsewhere? Especially when technoprogressives are among the people who presumably are more focused than almost anybody else on the very technodevelopmental forces articulating this failure and the emergence of newer forms of personhood and political life...

Bioconservatives and technoprogressives are not two pressure groups among others, like the vile Gun Lobby or Big Pharma, eager to wine and dine various paritsan hacks for better pork in the next spending bill. To think in these terms is to mistake a chessboard for the earth itself. Bioconservatism and technoprogressivism are two sprawling sensibilities encompassing shifting complex coalitions of groups and campaigns in a vast culture war consisting of countless social struggles and proximate campaigns to articulate the shape and direction of technodevelopment in the service of either conservative or progressive ends over the long term.

I think technoprogressives should strive to influence the rhetoric and programs of as many elements within the progressive coalition as possible in general, rather than trying to form a group sufficiently substantial to assume a place among others within that coalition. "We" aren't making the world safe for a tribal band of self-identified "technoprogressives" -- we are saving the world from and through technology by rewriting progressivism as far as is possible in the image of technoprogressivism.

Never underestimate the power of ideas and words and images to shape the world. Sure enough, we cannot perfectly control or direct technodevelopment. Every intention has unintended consequences, every promise will eventually eventuate in the need for forgiveness. But we can and must unleash the creative forces and hopes that will nudge technodevelopment in emancipatory directions. Otherwise it is not a few technophiliacs but the whole world that will be lost.

I like the "Agenda" (apart from his point one) James Hughes proposes at the conclusion of his extraordinary "Democratic Transhumanism" essay, just as I like lots of things I read about on WorldChanging, or from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, or from Creative Commons, or from folks like Annalee Newitz, Chris Mooney, or Bruce Sterling, just as I like the many related sorts of proposals I make myself here and there. I agree we should elaborate on them. I agree we should organize campaigns. And I am very excited about the prospects.

But... I just hope people don't think of these discussions as a "Continental Congress" to culminate in yet another Declaration of Principles for yet another tribe of insular technophiliacs to "sign on" to.

I want a technoprogressive tide, not a tribe -- a clamor of different contending voices moving in broadly the same democratizing and emancipatory direction, but providing constant novel insights, constant checks on abuses, constant reinterpretations of our values, constant reinvigorations of our hopes, constant responsiveness to dangers.

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