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

Sunday, January 22, 2006

What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?

I just revisited this short and breathtakingly clearheaded piece from 2004 by Phil Agre, a professor at UCLA to whom I am also indebted for his writings on privacy and digital media. I recommend it to anybody who hasn't already read it. Conservatism, quite simply, as always and ineradicably a repudiation of democracy and a pining after aristocracy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement, if one wants to retain any sense of the beauty of life.

Monday, January 09, 2006

World Without Work?

According to an article over at BBC News, "[r]esearchers from Gothenburg University in Sweden have been studying published data on what makes people happy... They believe working to achieve a goal, rather than attaining it, makes people more satisfied[.]"

In a discussion of the article happening on the technoliberation list friend and ally James Hughes points out that "[t]his is the kind of research that Luddites and 'workerist' progressives point to to suggest that a post-work, basic income society would be bad for us."

(Of course, conservatives are just as likely to point to such studies to rationalize their own feudal "work-ethic" ideology, since we all know how they love to preach about austerity measures and "market discipline" for the "unworthy poor" all the while grubbing endlessly for corporate welfare, usually in the name of "Defense.")

Anyway, Hughes also suggests that the study raises questions for many of us who advocate for basic income guarantees as part of our technoprogressive politics. "To what extent," he asks, "can people shift their work-satisfaction motivations and socialization from for-profit labor to voluntary, non-profit labor?"

Now, it seems to me that a world in which conscript and duressed labor is eliminated by the introduction of a global basic income guarantee wouldn't in fact be a "post-work" world at all. It isn't even clear to me how the question of basic income has much bearing finally on the question whether or not meaningful goal-directed activity is usually an important part of a flourishing person's life.

The public provision of a basic life-long guaranteed income should be thought of first of all as the implementation of safeguards against arbitrary misuses of authority in peoples' workplaces. It would provide everybody with the means to "opt out" of the current circumstances in which they attain their livelihoods. Thus, it would provide a constant check on misuses of power in the workplace by institutionalizing a permanent position of security from which workers could renegotiate the terms of their employment and demand redress for abuses without fear of unjust reprisals. It would also encourage people to grow and take chances, try new things, learn new skills, invest in new enterprises to the benefit of all, and all without the threat of utter devastation to bedevil and constrain them. A world with a basic income guarantee would still be a world in which many worked for profit, surely, and in which many more would work voluntarily in projects that are especially important or satisfying to them, or provided unique benefits for them.

The fact that most technoprogressive positions on basic income connect it to assumptions about the likely proximate emergence of ubiquitous automation and longevity medicine introduces special complications to our arguments, certainly, but I don't personally think even we technoprogressive types are arguing for a "post-work" world, either, really. I think we are arguing instead for a radicalized version of the "liberal" world Alasdair MacIntyre once derided (and which Richard Rorty then notoriously defended) as a world of "managers, therapists, and rich aesthetes."

Even if ubiquitous automation is implementable in principle I doubt its absolute ubiquity will be achieved precisely because many people will derive a therapeutic benefit from certain kinds of voluntary manual labor, just as they might likewise crave the interpersonal contact afforded in many service and civil support jobs. I argue for the use of digital peer-to-peer information and communication networks to implement more collaboratory policy assessment in representative democracies and scientific citizen juries and clinical trials and the like. I argue as well for the public subsidization and encouragement of citizens to put creative and editorial content on the web. Quite a lot of this incentivized employment would constitute demanding and satisfyingly goal-directed work, and much of it would also require comparably demanding certification, education, training and re-training.

It seems to me that quite a lot of what people I know seem to mean when they speak of "hard work" is to register how hard it is to cope with stultifyingly repetitive, palpably meaningless, humiliating jobs in which they are subjected to the whims of capricious authorities in rather feudal hierarchical institutional arrangements from which they cannot easily escape if they are to maintain the way of life to which they have grown accustomed. To the extent that the cited study means by "work" demanding, meaningful goal-directed acitivity, I fear far too many of us are already in the post-work world. What advocates of basic income seek to do is democratize the authoritarian organization of this post-work world, such as it is.

The arrival of ubiquitous automation and computation, molecular nanotechnology, and rejuvination medicine in a progressive and democratic world offer up at last the hope of the life of a rich aesthete for us all. I have little doubt, however, that most of us will still find room in our lives for the valuable and demanding managerial work of democratic citizens engaged in peer-to-peer collaboratory policy assessment and administration. And I suspect that there will be a growing and deeply emancipatory space for the therapeutic work that keeps us in touch with the needs of people different from ourselves, work that provides support for others even as it provides the means to satisfy our own needs always to become people whose futures will differ in ways we cannot yet completely fathom from our pasts.

PS. Definitely take a look at the way this conversation has played out on technoliberation. James Hughes and Martin Striz, both of whom are good guys and smart cats take issue with some of the things I say and some of the ways in which I say them, and the dialogue has seemed very interesting and useful to me.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Experimental Subjection and Democratic Citizenship

We troubled democratic citizen-subjects who once, not too long ago, were the subjects of Kings are now all of us becoming, whether we are ready or not, something altogether different and new. We are becoming "experimental subjects."

Human beings are being transformed into variously incarnated nodes in unfathomably vast and complex, globe-girdling and yet at once eerily intimate, emerging bioremedial networks. And it seems to me that the ideal of informed consent is likely to loom ever larger in the story pluri-prostheticized cultures will tell themselves to reassure themselves about the changing role and status of democratic citizenship as we are nudged irresistably into these vexed positions as experimental subjects. Will experimental subjection empower citizens as peer-to-peer collaborators in emancipatory projects of prosthetic self-creation or will it reduce most citizens into deeply duressed misinformed lab-rats in service to the mighty?

What do we mean when we speak of "consent," and what do we tend to denote as performaces of consent that are "informed" ones? What are the institutional conditions that facilitate and might strengthen these performances? I am only just beginning to think about these questions in any kind of depth but I wanted to do a little thinking out loud here on Amor Mundi, while at once enlisting your participation in this conversation. Ultimately, I think this conversation will shape technoprogressive discourse and practice as much as any other for the forseeable future.

Let's say that "citizenship" in democratic medical-industrial administrations is in the process of reimagining itself as a matter of consensual, ideally peer-to-peer, collaboration in an ongoing civilization-wide project to implement morphological freedom past the longevity singularity (the moment when average human life expectancy sustainably increases one year per year).

If that is even close to being true, then the kinds of unprecedented relinquishments of hitherto private medical information required by these profound medical interventions as well as the kinds of fraught processes of deliberation that will be expected to issue out in legible performances of "consent" to the high risks of experimental subjection will demand the elimination of the hint of duressed consent in any cultures that hope to retain the self-image of representative democracy.

Otherwise, the status of the "experimental subject-citizen" will amount to a dreadful form of exploitation in which social injustice is "naturalized" as a kind of pernicious speciation. Just as democratic civilizations cannot truly claim to have ended the scourge of military conscription until they have actually ensured that all citizens have realistic alternative pathways to survival and flourishing other than military service available to them, so too "voluntary" medical trials will bespeak exploitation rather than consensual emancipatory self-creation if vulnerable people disproportionately take up the costs and risks of experimental subjection while elites disproportionately benefit from this state of affairs. This is yet another reason why technoprogressive politics return so often to the advocacy of basic income guarantees in some form or other.

Also, key to any properly democratic medical-industrial administration of experimental-subjection founded on "informed consent" will be the implementation of legitimate and trusted collaboratory information-assessment. Laws that establish minimum standards for forms of information-dissemination that describe themselves as "news," laws that treat any elected official speaking under governmental seal as under oath and prosecutable for perjury, laws to require the publication of all scientific research that attests to public health and safety risks according to the verdict of scientific consensus, proper funding of sound peer-review traditions for consensus scientific culture might all contribute in some form to the emerging mix of technoprogressive institutional reforms to accommodate our emerging and unprecedented prosthetic powers to our shared commitments to democracy, social justice, plurality, and personal flourishing.

I think it goes without saying that the rich North Atlantic democracies in particular confront near-term institutional crises around the global distribution of developmental costs, risks, and benefits, as well as around the creation and maintenance of trusted processes of deliberation glutted as we are in information, misinformation, propaganda, and advertizing hype. Progressives need to ascend above any vestigial bioconservative nostalgia or blanket technophobia we may be holding on to in the midst of our distress and propose, here and now, scientifically literate and technologically savvy positions on these issues. There is still time for democratic progressives to take up the unprecedented technoconstituted developmental forces humanity has released in the world and direct them as best we can in the service of our values.