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

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"The Future" Is a Racket

There is no such thing as the future at which any particular political or cultural movement can be said to be aiming more than any other. "The future" is a mystification, usually a distraction, through which disavowed contemporary political commitments express themselves in the guise of tomorrow's dawn.

Progressives fight for freedom, not for "the future." "The future" is little more than a funhouse mirror-image of some parochial present. For progressives it is not "the future" but futurity that must remain in our sight. Futurity is novelty, it is an openness to differences, it is endless contestation, it is a welcoming in of many contrasting voices and demands, it is an embrace of contingency, it is an acceptance of uncertain outcomes as a price for inclusion. Futurity is just as ineradicable a dimension of any properly human freedom as democracy is, as social justice is, as development is, as rights and the rule of law are.

There is no tribe, no program, no teleological end, no organization, no chosen people, no official membership, no church, no avant-gard, no monolithic movement, no favored nation that holds futurity whole and entire in its hand or in its gaze. And whenever futurity is eclipsed in the progressive vision, the politics it advocates will settle soon enough into one among many other conservatisms hungry to prevail over difference.

This is not to say that particular progressives do not aim after discernible, concrete ends like a global basic income guarantee, universal health care, a global people's parliament, a global fair trade organization, universal suffrage, transparent governance and social administration, a robust human rights culture, morphological freedom, strengthening the institutions and protocols that yield scientific knowledge, lifelong education, training and therapy for all, sustainable prosperity and democratic technological development. Of course we do.

But the point for progressives will always be to enlist ever more collaborators in these good works in their difference, not to mobilize some monolithic zombie army to enact anyone's particular perfect plan to achieve some of these goals. That is not politics. At best it is administration. At worst, I fear, it is futurity wrapped in the straightjacket of some shabby version of "the future" somebody came up with somewhere.

"The future" is a racket, it has something to sell you: stock tips in what amounts to some sad get-rich scheme, or perhaps the promise of membership in some ideological movement that offers you belonging and a few commanding pieties to fill the hole where your freedom should be.

Technological development is overabundantly too complex to be accommodated within any singular framework, however marvellous or well-meaning. There are indefinitely many particular developmental outcomes that can be described as progressive, and they do not align into a seamless, coherent, consistent program. Progressives know that just as our present is a future from out of the past in which there are indefinitely many good things being done and remaining left to do, so too will the futures from out of our present be rich and contradictory in their promises and demands. Progressives must have more than vision and conviction and foresight, but the humility that arises from a recognition of the partiality of even the most reasonable perspective and an embrace of the democratic clash of opinions and desires in all its unpredictability, frustration, and awful glory. Futurity is incomparably more than "the future."

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Technoprogressive ARTs

"ART" is an acronym that stands for assisted reproductive technology, a designation that refers to various artificial methods that are sometimes used to achieve wanted pregnancies. ARTs can include medications that induce ovulation, intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, eventually, very probably, reproductive cloning, among a proliferating number of other techniques.

In more everyday parlance I have sometimes heard that "A" in ARTs fleshed out into the phrase artificial or alternative reproductive technologies instead, and I do think it is interesting to contemplate the force of such terminological substitutions on the ARTificial imaginary.

I personally prefer to think of ARTs as alternate reproductive technologies, because the term alternative better bespeaks for me the connection of ARTs to the progressive politics of choice as well as to what seems to me most radical and appealling in the politics of choice: its palpable emancipatory queerness.

I have written elsewhere about how the politics of choice should be construed in a broad way that encompasses more than the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies taking place in their own bodies, but to facilitate wanted pregnancies, to make informed medical decisions more generally -- from consensual drug use to end-of-life issues -- to embrace the diversity of loving "families we choose," and onward toward a technoprogressive politics of morphological freedom.

Bioconservative efforts to convince the general public to repudiate or lawmakers to ban ARTs have so far altogether failed to gain traction in the American political imagination.

I would argue in fact that these bioconservative efforts have represented a spectacular failure. As far as I can tell, they have had as their most conspicuous effect their contribution to a compensatory contemporary reconnection of the politics of the mainstream American left to a vigorous renewed championing of technological development regulated in the service of the common good.

As a technoprogressive this development is welcome to me indeed after many long decades of frustration with a left largely paralyzed in technophobic despair over the dehumanizing and environmentally catastrophic prevailing corporate-militarist models of development together with a cynically apolitical pastoral luddite romanticism in an anti-science left-wing New Age.

Today, instead, I see promising connections emerging in the widespread mainstream support across the left for stem-cell research, medical research more generally, support for the development of renewable energy (as with the technoprogressive Apollo Alliance), a reconnection to the venerable left ideal of a "reality-based" rather than "faith-based" address of shared problems, a renewed respect and hunger for higher education, and a defense of the fragile protocols on which consensus science depends for its good works (the excellent technoprogressive Chris Mooney has come to represent for the moment the most visible iceberg tip of this dimension of a more technoprogressive mainstream left political culture).

Bioconservative panic over ARTs and shrill bioconservative paeans to the special "dignity" and "meaning" to be found in avoidable illness and suffering seem surreally out of step with a society devoted to the collaborative redress of human suffering and the personal pursuit of human happiness in its incomparable diversity of forms.

Bioconservative and more conventional social conservative resistance to ARTs are conspicuously driven by the fear that these ARTs will be more than assistive and open up instead disruptive, emancipatory possibilities for alternative forms of social and personal reproduction that threaten the assumptions and customs with which these conservatives parochially identify and on which they imagine they depend to maintain their hold on power. Nowhere is this more clear than in the recent effort of some Republican lawmakers who have drafted new legislation that would make marriage a requirement for any kind of motherhood in the state of Indiana. This legislation included specific criminal penalties for unmarried women who do become pregnant by means other than "sexual intercourse."

Part of what is most interesting about this mean, obscene, and breathtakingly repressive conservative effort is that it functions not only to criminalize the prostheticization of reproduction for single mothers, lesbians, and other "inappropriate mothers" and "inappropriable others," but it simultaneously functions to re-naturalize and re-normalize the prostheticization of reproduction whenever reprotechs allign within certain valorized normative heterosexual frames. What is assisted in "assisted" as opposed to "alternative" reproductive technologies is precisely always only normal and naturalized heterosexual reproduction yoked inextricably to the delusively "normative" nuclear family.

Notice that "sexual intercourse" in the proposed Indiana legislation is actually rearticulated through prostheticization but still framed by normative assumptions. If ARTs are deployed always only to facilitate legible heterosexual reproduction and the social reproduction of the nuclear familial norm, then it is a buttress to "natural" reproduction even when this "natural" reproduction is in fact radically and ineradicably prosthetic.

This underlines what seems to me the crucial but usually overlooked insight that "technology" is never essentially and rarely even interestingly a matter of whichever toys happen to preoccupy the attention of technophiles and technophobes from moment to moment. It is significantly, rather, a matter of the technocentric discourses and practices through which various subjects, objects, and abjects are rendered more or less "familiar" or "unfamiliar," more or less "natural" or "contestable" through the lens of technologization. The more superficial question of whichever real or anticipated tools enrapture the attention of the technophiles and technophobes in their glossy mags and airbrushed tv-spots and breathless conference talks will typically be little more than symptoms of the working of these deeper discursive machineries.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out.