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

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.

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