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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


It is certainly true that practical public deliberation is indispensable to help us anticipate and plan for technodevelopmental problems and especially costly, risky technodevelopmental disruptions. But it is also palpably true that very often, in practice, the public discussion of superlative or projected future technologies is only partially or apparently practical and functions instead primarily as a kind of symbolic arena through which people express altogether contemporary commitments and preoccupations. And so, for example, I suspect that no small amount of the heat and noise that accompanies conventional contemporary discussions of "clones" and "designer babies" and the like is really driven by the ways in which these discussions serve as surrogates for discourses about familiar intergenerational tensions between parents and children, concerns about the socializing impact of public education, reflect vestigial racist preoccupations with "miscegenation" or xenophobic concerns about immigration or otherwise conservative anxieties provoked by confrontations with difference.

Consider United States Senator Sam Brownback’s recent “Human Chimera Prohibition Act,” for example, takes as its point of departure what appears to be a straightforward bioethical proposition; namely, that “advances in research and technology have made possible the creation of chimeras.” Chimeras are defined for the purposes of the Act as “beings with diverse human and non-human tissue.” The Act then goes on to prohibit the creation of such chimeras because, “respect for human dignity and the integrity of the human species may be threatened by chimeras.” Although Brownback is not explicit about it, the Act certainly seems to imply the assumption -- and it is a controversial assumption to say the least! -- that what already amounts to an at-best abstract and frankly ill-defined “threat” to what he calls the integrity of the human species outweighs any benefits that might eventuate from the creation of “chimerical” organizations, on however broad a definition, even benefits such as the therapeutic elimination of suffering and disease that drives this sort of development in the first place.

The Act does go on to conjure up a host of “threats to human dignity and integrity” that presumably preoccupy it, saying “serious ethical objections are raised to some types of chimeras [NB: the qualification of “some types” here is never explored in the language of the Act, and certainly the Prohibition that follows lacks qualification] because they blur the lines between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual.”

Now, it seems to me that humans are already animals in a nontrivial sense. (And as an ethical vegetarian I happen to think that this is a “line” that could use further blurring from time to time.) How human nonhuman animal chimericality blurs a line between “male and female” is, I will confess, utterly mysterious to me, and its unique threat to “parentage” is likewise a bit befuddling, frankly. And why would chimeras threaten the boundaries that demarcate one individual from another more than, say, blood transfusion, organ transplantation, or even the influence of a charismatic teacher might do?

What strikes me most forcefully, then, about this Act is that the “natural” order, the integrity it would presumably protect is itself the chimera -- a fantasy, a mirage.

Brownback’s Act is a kind of declaration of pre-emptive bigotry against chimerical persons who have not yet arrived on the scene -- which is already worrisome enough as an idea, surely. But I think the Act should be read even more as a threat to certain actually existing citizens who remain unnamed in it -- transsexuals and intersex folks, nontraditional families (so-called), people who make recourse to assistive reproductive technologies, and so on.

The chimera is not so much a practical threat to a conception of human dignity that demands certain lines be drawn indelibly. The chimera is a figure that testifies to the recognition, and to the anxiety this recognition occasions, that these lines are already blurred, and that to much of the world these are lines well lost.

Brownback’s Act is a disavowal masquerading as a prohibition. It is a melancholy biomoralizing project to renaturalize the terms, to re-inscribe the lines of a parochial moral order in crisis.

So, too, neuroethical quandaries about therapeutic interventions in mood and memory are often framed neuromoralistically. That is to say, they are framed as threats to the integrity of conscious intention, to the ready narrative coherence of selfhood, to the creative originality of the author, to the absolute culpability of the delinquent, to the rugged individualism of the owner... But those who have been provoked and transformed in the give and take of critical engagement and argument, in the collaborative production of creative content peer-to-peer, in the throes of erotic or psychedelic experimentation, or in the reading of Beat poetry, whatever it may be, such people are all already likely to be well-aware of the essential and dispensable fictiveness of the cognitive integrity presumed and valorized by such discourses.

There are, let us say, more generous, more capacious, less threatened alternate rituals of legible personhood available for our incarnation in the world. And, again, I think it is these actually-existing alternate practices of personhood that are under the most urgent and proximate threat when talk turns to the absolute prohibition of even informed, nonduressed, consensual cognitive modification in the name of cognitive integrity. And this remains true even when the explicit objects of this prohibition are superlative technologies projected onto far-flung futures.

This post is adapted from a section of a longer talk, "Alone With My Thoughts: Public and Private Faces of Cognitive Self-Determination," which I delivered last weekend at Stanford University as part of the "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference," organized by (among others) the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technolgies and the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. I want to take this opportunity to thank again all of my friends and colleagues at the IEET and CCLE for an excellent conference and marvellous few days.

Today's Random Wilde

Hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Two Questions

Over on technoliberation I have tried to provide initial responses to a couple of questions that seem to me pretty pertinent for any technoprogressive stance. Hopefully, the discussion of these questions will continue on there from here.

Question One

In light of the fact that two billion people lack access to essential medicines and forty thousand people die daily as a result and poor people lack access to essential medicines because research and development do not address their priority health needs, because health systems are inadequate, and because existing medicines are unaffordable to them; when and how exactly [do you] expect "all humans can be guaranteed sufficient intelligence to function as active citizens"?

This is why "progressive" always has to have priority over "techno" in legible-left technoprogressive formulations, in my opinion. In the absence of a clear commitment to progressive democratic politics in the world we live in now it is too easy for a stated "commitment" to social justice and emancipation to be empty and abstract. If one's commitment to justice is always projected onto a future that will arrive elsewhen, then this is not always going to be usefully distinguishable from those in the present who simply disdain a commitment to justice altogether.

And the problem goes deeper than that. Unless we actively strive to ameliorate suffering and injustice here and now with the tools that are available here and now there is no reason at all to assume that these ends would be the ones to which "superlative" technologies would be put even when they did arrive on the scene in that longed-for future.

Distributing lifestraws and insecticide-treated mosquito nets, supporting treatments for neglected diseases that are widespread but unprofitable because they target the "developing world," fighting disastrously injurious subsidies the North Atlantic agribusiness, overcoming antidemocratic patent and copyright regimes, supporting Apollo Projects and green-roof initiatives, fighting for "net neutrality," and the facilitation of p2p global initiatives, funding public stem-cell research, nanoscale science, genetic and cognitive technoscience, insisting that family planning initiatives respond to the recommendations of consensus science rather than fundamentalist matrons and patriarchal prigs, strengthening global institutions and treaties to monitor and regulate climate change, biodiversity, weapons proliferation, pandemics, human trafficking...

Other issues we talk about here, like facilitating global rights culture, a global culture of consent, universal basic health care, lifelong education, global basic income guarantees, strengthening and democratizing the United Nations, and such -- while not as conspicuously (pornographically) "techno"progressive as discussions of clone armies and FAI, I suppose, are no less vital preparations for the emerging (not distant futural, but already emerging right now) technoscientific worlds that pose such hopes and dangers for our democratic values as technoprgressive folks in all our diversity.

All these struggles do more than do technoprgressive work in the present, they inculcate sane and emancipatory technoscientific norms in secularizing democratizing societies. Inculcating these habitual associations rather than, say, immediate concerns with short-term profit-making or national military advantage, is one of the few things we can do to better assure that so-called superlative technologies will be emancipatory rather than horribly exacerbate injustice, exploitation, and suffering whenever they arrive.

Question Two

Rather then struggling to end "body-based oppressions (disability, fat, gender and race) to aesthetic prejudices" through social solutions such as education and laws, won't morphological freedom, the ability to change one's body, including one's abilities, weight, gender and racial characteristics not only facilitate body modification influenced by internalized discrimination (disabledism, weightism, sexism and racism) and Western cultural colonialism but reduce human biodiversity?

Sexism, heterosexism, racism, human-racism all exist, they all do real work in the world. There is no question that modification practices will be articulated by these conventions, just as film-making, writing, enterprise, teaching, muddling through relationships all bear the imprint of these conventions right now.

Some will modify themselves in ways that cite these irrational conventions of embodiment very literally, they will try to be conduits through which these norms express themselves rather directly and no doubt sometimes in ways that are in significant measure stultifying. But so too many will modify themselves in ways that cite these conventions ironically, parodically, creatively, subversively, while some will actively resist them.

It is already true that we all "do" our race, our sex, our gender differently from one another. The multiple conventions that bear down on us all offer us the promise of social legibility while threatening us with stigma should we color outside the lines too much. But whatever their promises, whatever their threats they do not align into a seamless whole. They make competing demands on us. Many of us are forced into creative compromise just to navigate all the things we are and that are asked of us. Just think how such competing demands will be exacerbated by modification medicine!

To a crucial extent the damage done by these conventions has been made possible by the fantasy that some norms and not others were "natural" ones, or "naturally valorized" ones. But modification will expose this fraud for all to see. Morphological freedom will teach the world the lesson Oscar Wilde already understood well over a century ago: "To be natural is such a difficult pose to keep up." Without the foundation of givenness or inevitability it is difficult to see why normality would exert quite the devastating force it has done, hitherto.

Recall that human embodiment and identification have always been a dance of biology with culture. The regime of normalization that governed the now-obsolescing era of modern medicine's many wonders (and crimes) is no more "natural," certainly, than would be a regime of variation in a era of morphological freedom to come. What is quite clear is that the exposure of the artifice of the natural will either give way to a regime of consensual prosthetic practices of a piece with the ongoing deepening of democracy, or it will express the parochial attitudes of particular elites deploying superlative medicines self-consciously instrumentally and anti-democratically.

Again, the either-or (no doubt this is an oversimplification, by the way, as either-ors tend to be) here looks to me to be a political one more than a technological one.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Technoprogressive Mainstream

Hale Stewart blogs at BOPnews and as bonddad at DailyKos, both regular reads of mine and hundreds of thousands of other participants in the vital left blogosphere.

Here is the conclusion of a fairly typical post of his comparing the assumptions that distinguish Clinton's economic policy from Bush's and the lessons we can draw from the results:
The answer to the current situation of weak jobs and wage growth and runaway spending is straightforward.

1.) Balance the budget. This will require repealing some of the rich's tax breaks. My heart bleeds.

2.) Target economic areas that will create jobs. I would personally target alternative energy, nano technology and stem cell research, although there are many others.

3.) Give the middle class -- and only the middle class -- a tax break.

All we have to do is follow the directions.

I'm certainly no rampaging Clinton fan (though it's hard not to be fond of him, despite all the neolib DLC-enabling awfulness, just for provoking such reliably and deliciously symptomatic freakouts among religious and market fundamentalists), and needless to say these recommendations are far from adequate to a social democrat like me who demands as well universal single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income guarantee.

But what I want to draw your attention to is Recommendation Number Two. Take a good, long look... Alternative energy, nanotechnology r & d, and stem cell research.

The days when progressive democrats had to put up with kooky libertopian robot cultists if they wanted to have any kind of serious conversation about nanotechnology, digital networks, modification medicine, or other possibly proximate disruptive technological developments are finally over, people.

If you want to follow "Net Neutrality" (terrible term), the attacks on consensus science and scientific literacy, emerging renewable energy technologies, existential risk management you need to be paying attention to Daily Kos (everybody should read DarkSyde, among other consistently good diarists there), the Center for American Progress, the Apollo Alliance, AlterNet.

The next American mainstream democratic left is shaping up before our very eyes, and it is a left arising out the Netroots rather than inside the Beltway, a left that does its democracy peer-to-peer rather than in corporate boardrooms. And it has a considerable head of technoprogressive steam.

I keep telling you wonderful, beautiful technoprogressive types out there, it's long past time to toss aside that Stockholm Syndrome you shouldered through the long dread night of the irrationally exuberant extropian digirati.

There is simply no reason in the world for technoprogressives to continue to play nicey-nice to murderous sociopathic free-marketeers any more. There is no reason to read their Tech Central Stoopid or their Postrelian paeans to "dynamism." There is no reason to quietly cringe and politely flutter at their genuflections toward the racist Bell Curve. There is no reason to pretend you think there is anything to admire in the facile philosophizing of romance pulp-novelist Ayn Rand. There is no reason to give a single inch to the climate-change deniers, "Intelligent-Design" scam artists, desperate clingers-on to the myth of "safe cigarettes" and other profitable and hence "benign" toxicities. There is no reason to pretend you haven't noticed how often the guys who crow and stamp about "political correctness" are just assholes wanting to be assholes. There is no reason to treat libertarians as anti-war peers when libertopian ideology fueled so much of the rhetoric that exacerbated the worst devastations of that ongoing catastrophe. There is no reason to expect anybody who says government is evil in its essence to have any abiding contribution to make to the work of making government better.

You should be happy about this.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Idoru Adoru

Rather than watch the Wedding Singer vs. the Stepford Wife matchup on American Idol tonight (if there be any among you who share my own reality tv addiction in the first place), I recommend you open this fan site for the incomparably talented and superlatively adorable Elliott Yamin instead. They have created a nice continuous compendium of all of his Idol performances that you can run in the background. We Yaminiacs will just have to settle for this until somebody with sense gets the man into a recording studio.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years. To hear them talk one would imagine that they were in their first childhood. As far as civilisation goes they are in their second.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sometimes, Democracy Is Like That

A while back I posted a brief, perplexed comment here about the fact that I am often accused of exhibiting a sort of “negativity” in my writing that is off-putting and counterproductive. In my dissertation, for example, there are extended close readings of texts by “Cypherpunks” Eric Hughes and Tim May (in chapter two), David Brin (in chapter three), and David Friedman (in chapter four) that some seemed to regard as unfair and even as derogatory. More recently, I have received a spate of comparable complaints in response to my reading of a short text by John Smart I posted here on Amor Mundi a week or so ago.

This time around, I think I am in a better position to say what is afoot when at least some folks respond negatively to what they call my “negativity,” and why I think such responses are for the most part symptomatic distractions highlighting why I am on the right track when I am being what they call “negative.” But before I get to that I think it is time to say first a little bit about what it is I think I am up to when I read a text, and what I think such reading is good for.

I’m a critic, I criticize. My mode of critique is one I call, quite simply, “reading,” but it is clear that by reading here I do not mean to describe exactly that commonplace activity that goes by the name reading when one is superficially reading People Magazine on the bus on the way to work in the morning.

When I read expository, argumentative, even polemical writings, I try to read them closely, and in this I read them in much the same way that I read works of fiction or films closely. That is to say, I look in argumentative writing for the logical entailments among its explicit and implicit propositions (scouting for key contradictions, warrants, substantiations, assumptions, etc.), of course, but I tend to focus even more on the argumentative work done through their imagery and their figures, for the effects they achieve through their citation of generic and topical conventions, for various significant symptomatic omissions, aporias, and stylistic idiosyncracies, all sorts of things. Often the elements of a work that strike me as most interesting and as the ones that do the most compelling argumentative work do so against the grain of the ones you would highlight in a straightforward propositional analysis.

I happen to think many technophiles in this particular historical and cultural moment of advocacy and enthusiasm are often caught up in and even entrapped by certain recurring argumentative gestures: claims about “inevitability,” claims about "development" construed in a monolithic way to which a single “definitive” characteristic is then attributed, like, accelerating, disrupting, converging, superhumanizing, subhumanizing, etc. Furthermore, many technophiles seem to share a set of compelling metaphors that have come to assume the status of a kind of orthodoxy among them: evolutionary metaphors, for one, the figure of “spontaneous order” for another, and what Jeron Lanier has sometimes referred to as "cybernetic totalism" for yet another. And part of the work I try to do is to highlight the ways in which these assumptions, gestures, and metaphors play out in various concrete pieces of writing. In highlighting these dimensions of the culture of technology advocacy in this historical moment, through readings of exemplary texts like David Brin’s or Tim May’s or John Smart’s, my point isn't to "expose" some nefarious plot or impugn the motives of people I don't know and have every reason to expect are perfectly intelligent and conscientious as far as that goes. What I see myself as doing is trying to delineate a kind of larger language of technology-talk in this historical moment, the broader culture of customary framing in which particular arguments tend to be embedded just now, and which delineate the shared bounds within which even contrary technodevelopmental arguments and values are staked out.

Further, I happen to think the assumptions that drive much contemporary technology advocacy are reductionist (for one example, they might try to impose the proper standards for warranted assertibility in consensus science onto improper contexts, such as in the assertion of moral, ethical, political, or esthetic beliefs) and anti-democratic (either, for example, in the service of particular elite agendas, or in a way that undermines the openness of ongoing stakeholder politics more generally) and hence contrary to my own commitments to a humanistic -- or maybe humanely post-humanistic would be a better way of putting it -- and deeply democratic technoscientific culture.

But the truth is, of course, that those who deploy these assumptions in making their various cases for the technodevelopmental outcomes they prefer often are just competently making use of the language and culture of the day as it is ready to hand. If I try to expose the limitations of this culture through the texts that exemplify it, it is key to realize that I am often pitching my critique at a level that does not necessarily make any claims whatsoever about whether or not the authors of such exemplary texts themselves explicitly or consciously affirm all the entailments I discern in them myself.

In fact, given my larger beliefs about the radical openness of language and the way the rhetorical content of a text radically depends on the context in which it circulates, the last thing in the world I would ever assume is that the force of an argument is entirely under the conscious control of its "author" in the way I think my critics have to mean when they personalize my critiques and assume I am attributing malign motives to the writers of the texts I read critically.

Since the points I am making in my readings seem to be odd and unfamiliar to the audiences at which I am aiming them it becomes especially difficult to always lodge them in a second meta-critique that would make all these added complexities always explicit all the time. I actually do go out of my way to try to gesture at these interrelations here and there at least, just so that readers are occasionally reminded of the sort of critique I am making. Frankly, I happen to think that one of the reasons that contemporary literary and critical theory is often derided among popular technoscience enthusiasts (with whom I otherwise have some measure of affinity, at least when their politics lean left) for its “unreadability” and “fashionable nonsensicality” is that theory in this mode incessantly tries to register all these complexities in anticipation of all-too-familiar objections, and that this is a very difficult, if not impossible, business to articulate in a legible and also compelling way.

Here on Amor Mundi I devote quite a lot of my time to critiques of what I consider the reactionary nostalgia and anti-democratic moralism of the bioconservative politics of “nature.” But be assured that I consider technophilia an uncritical, or at best superficially critical attitude toward technological change as well. To the extent that technophiles denigrate popular technodevelopmental deliberation as “impractical” this perspective is exactly as reactionary, elitist, and anti-democratic as bioconservatism is. To the extent that technophilia affirms historically contingent market protocols as “spontaneous orders,” or affirms sexist, racist, heterosexist, class privileges through the figure of “evolution” this perspective is exactly as nostalgic, moralistic, and perniciously “naturalist” as bioconservatism is.

I happen to know that there are plenty of people who think my own attitude is too technophiliac. My own writings about the possibilities for emancipatory and democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle sometimes have been read by others rather like the way I have read those who presently protest my unfairness and negativity toward them. But, look, disagreement isn't always comfortable. It seems to me a sure sign of unexamined privilege more than anything else to imagine one is somehow entitled to coddling even by those who honestly think one's views facilitate truly negative outcomes and then offer up reasons to justify their views. My critics don't have to know my intimate heart or read everything I have ever written to be in a position to identify as best they can the logical entailments or generic conventions cited by a particular text of mine and then to discuss the argumentative work they think my text is doing as it circulates legibly in a world of comparable texts.

Of course, I hate to think intelligent, politically righteous critics of my work might decide that a text of mine is naïve, or morally pernicious, or might undermine justice in a way they think I personally approve of. Who doesn’t feel distress in such scenes? But the fact is that these misunderstandings are usually overcome readily enough in conversation, and there is nothing about a harsh close reading that forecloses such conversation. I personally regard close reading as a sign of seriousness and hence a gesture of respect, even when I consider a particular reading mistaken or misguided. I take serious critics quite seriously, and feel defamed by not a single one of them, even when they are harsh with me.

It is fine for the objects of my critiques (and their partisans) to disagree with my assessments of their texts or to disapprove of my methods of reading texts in general, but it is hard to square the discomfort and pique with which some folks respond to my readings with a real commitment to the agon of a truly democratic culture of criticism that duly and seriously registers the actual perspectives of the actual diversity of stakeholders to technodevelopment in the world, a cultural outcome I personally welcome and even demand.

As for me, I am uninterested in the kindness of strangers but quite eager to benefit from their criticisms. I do not need to know whether or not an author affirms a commitment to democratic politics in whatever construal, to highlight rhetorical forces afoot in their writings that are more trouble than they are worth if what is wanted is to do the work of deepening democracy in an era of global technodevelopmental transformation. If critics discern such antidemocratic propositions, figures, and gestures at work in my own writing you better believe I want to hear about it -- precisely because I want to do the work of democracy as best I can. I wouldn't take such a reading as personal defamation (unless it was explicitly defamatory, of course), however uncomfortable it made me, but as contribution to a conversation among peers collaborating in the work of democracy in a serious way.

I think that for reasons related (among others) to the ones Snow delineated ages ago in his "Two Cultures" argument, recent generations of science and technology enthusiasts have rarely been forced to take seriously modes of argument and critique like the ones I tend to produce. Perhaps these modes of argument have sometimes seemed technoscientifically rather illiterate or have seemed uncritically technophobic in ways that my own certainly are not, and so possibly dismissing them altogether might not have seemed so devastating a loss after all. But as NBIC technologies become ever more proximate -- with all their destabilization, problems, and promises in tow -- this splendid isolation seem ever more unworkable and nudges ever more of those who seek smugly to maintain it to near irrelevence. Technoscientific deliberation is going to become very interesting and unpredictable indeed for all of us as more and more of the actual stakeholders to technodevelopment take their places at the table and testify to their experiences and to their righteous hopes and fears. I for one am looking forward to this outcome, and am pleased to have a hand in facilitating it where I can. Bruises are sure to accompany the thrills of pleasure and flashes of insight to come as we struggle to figure out how we use the same familiar languages to say and do extraordinarily unfamiliar things in matters of passionately shared concern, as we convulsively collaborate in the making of shared futural worlds. Sometimes, democracy is like that.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

MundiMuster! Support DC Congressional Voting Rights

[via Progressive Democrats of America]
The DC Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act (HR-5388) is being marked up in the House Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Tom Davis (R-VA), who is sponsoring this legislation with the enthusiastic support and co-sponsorship of DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). The vote will be taken THIS THURSDAY.

This historic act would give DC residents, who have long paid heavy federal taxes and who continue to fight in wars without real representation, Congressional voting representation in the House for the first time in 200 years! While DC residents deserve full Congressional representation, including two Senators, this legislation is a major step in the right direction and is being supported by DC Vote which has put out an action alert at

HR-5388 would permanently increase the number of Representatives by two, and add one seat temporarily in Utah, which was next in line for an additional seat at the last census. The Utah seat will be added “at large” so as not to trigger a redistricting process which would have likely unseated the lone Utah Democrat. Whether or not Utah will retain the seat will be determined by the usual national reapportionment process after the next census.

According to DC voting rights legislative strategists, it’s important to focus on encouraging the Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee to co-sponsor this legislation. While six Republicans already support the bill, we have identified 7 Republicans whose support could be earned by a sufficient number of constituent contacts. The six Committee Republicans already supporting HR-5388 are: Chair Tom Davis (VA), Vice-Chair Christopher Shays (CT), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), Todd Russell Platts (PA), Chris Cannon (UT), and Darrell E. Issa (CA).

The seven Republicans to target are:

John L. Mica (FL)
Steven C. LaTourette (OH)
Candice S. Miller (MI)
Michael R. Turner (OH)
Kenny Marchant (TX)
Lynn A. Westmoreland (GA)
Charles W. Dent (PA)

If you are a constituent of any of these Committee Members, please urge them to support this legislation! You can use the DC Vote action alert at or call or e-mail them directly. For this call, you should not identify yourself by party affiliation, but merely as a constituent who feels this issue is important!

Thank you! Progressive Democrats of the District of Columbia
(Where Taxation Without Representation still reigns!)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Random Wilde

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Out of the Short Dutiful Phone Call and into the Street!

As it happens, Mother’s Day did not originate as yet another day to pretend you maintain something resembling actual human relationships with the people you probably claim matter to you most by occasionally buying them cheap crap, dying daisies, and recycled sentiments extruded onto on pastel-soaked cardstock. I surely won’t have been the first one to have called your attention to this, but everybody needs to be reminded of it from time to time.

And so: Mother's Day in the United States first came into being in 1870, in Boston, through the publication of Julia Ward Howe's “Mother's Day Proclamation.” Howe's "Mother's Day" was a call to women to mobilize their unique power as women and as mothers for disarmament, reconciliation, and against militarism. In 1872 Howe went on to call for this pacifist women’s holiday to be observed each year across the nation.

Here, then, are the words of Howe’s original “Mother's Day Proclamation”:
Arise then... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God --
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Smart's "Laws on Technology"

Nato Welch recently called my attention to John Smart's "Laws on Technology," over the course of a discussion on the technoliberation discussion list. I thought Smart's Laws were interesting and useful to a point, but I'll admit that I found their framing rather disturbing in some ways.

Let me walk through some of my perplexities in real time, and please take these as exploratory readings rather than settled beliefs. Here is Smart's First Law of Technology:

"1. Technology learns ten million times faster than you do."

First, a very quick initial point: I know that there is some lovely writing that plays around with this metaphor (for example, Brand's How Buildings Learn), but I actually don't think it is a mere quibble to insist that the technophiles really need to get much more careful about how they deploy the metaphor of "learning" to artifacts. Artifactual responsiveness, adaptation, and change do not always deserve to be called "learning." There is something quite pernicious that begins to happen when one pretends to assume a perspective from which the categories of ethics and the categories of engineering become indistinguishable. More on this later (and let me say that seeing those first two words the first time -- that is, "technology learns" -- I already suspected that there would be "more on this later." By this I mean to point out that Smart's Laws look to me to be an instance in a technophilic genre with very familiar moves, and hence part of what I also mean to critique here through the discussion of Smart's piece is that wider genre). The "Law" continues:

"We all better get used to this fact of modern life."

Speaking of very familiar moves, here, already, is another one: The typical technophilic threat, a daydream clothed in the cadences of prophecy, the usual prelude to a reductionist model of technological development as a socially indifferent accumulation of useful inventions (usually imagined to be an arrow on a Cartesian grid rocketing inevitably and ever-more-rapidly up, up, up!), a model that will denigrate or simply airily decry as an irrelevance any mention of democratic politics. Look what comes next:

"Whether you measure it by communication (input, output) rates, computation (memory, processing) or replication rates, technological evolutionary development generally runs at least seven orders of magnitude (10 million times) faster than genetic systems with regard to important rates of computational change."

Notice that what was termed "learning" in the Law seems now to be described in terms of "evolutionary development" and "rates of computational change." I know to expect this sort of thing, but I do want to pause to say that there may be important differences afoot here that make a difference. When some technophiles go on to say what appear to be curiously counterintuitive things about "post-biological" intelligences you would do well to notice that the groundwork for the plausibility for such claims tends to be prepared for them by the apparently innocuous but actually exactly equally curiously counterintuitive things they say about biological intelligence in the first place (like pretending they know what intelligence consists of in the first place, like denying that so far it has always been definitively embodied, like daydreaming about the smooth function of technologies in general, like denying the extent to which what counts as development is articulated by social formations, etc.).

"We should expect great things from our technological progeny, relatively soon in the human story."

Suddenly artifacts are metaphorically humanized through their redescription as "progeny"? Suddenly we are meant to be assured that we should "expect great things" in store? This, even though it is unclear why we shouldn't expect unprecedentedly hideous things instead given the disjunction between human learning and technodevelopmental change indifferent to this human learning? And finally we get a gratuitous reassurance that this story is the "human story," after all? This, even when so much about the "Law" might seem to go against the grain and the scale of readily intelligible "human stories" in their present formation?

If anything, I fear Smart's "Second Law" amplifies these concerns for me:

"2. Humans are selective catalysts, not controllers, of technological evolutionary development."

Initially this seemed to me a sensible, even crucial insight. Namely, that no individual or social positionality, however knowledgeable or influential, unilaterally or intentionally drives or controls technodevelopment. This seems to me true, and importantly so. For me, this is so because technodevelopment isn't a program, it is a world. And human worlds are defined by the irreducible plurality of their interdependent stakeholders, just as human actions undertaken in human worlds always have unintended consequences.

But, then I saw how Smart fleshed out the "Law" in his own terms:

"Technology's development is primarily directed by both latent universal information (hidden in the laws and boundary conditions of our unique universe) and it's own emerging learning capacity."

It seems to me there are no human beings in this picture at all. What I took to be a recognition of the radical openness of human worlds and human actions, seems instead the conjuration of an endless joyless merciless mechanism. Technodevelopment may as well be a crystallization process in some mineral lattice caught by time-lapse photography. Brute technological capacity foams spontaneously outward to embrace what a no less brute Universe makes logically available to it.

Now, I am the last one to deny that what consensus science provisionally takes to be the laws of the universe offers up the best descriptions on offer of the relevant boundary conditions to what is technologically possible, and, further, that the scientific discovery of intrumentally and predictively powerful consensus scientific descriptions and experimentally powerful engineering implementations are an important measure of technodevelopment.

But this level of description just simply radically underdetermines the actual articulation of the trajectory of technodevelopment, which is a moment by moment track of compromise formations between the stakeholders to these developments, articulated by contingent social, cultural, moral, architectural constraints quite as much as abstract epistemological considerations. Technodevelopment has a human face even if it is not beholden to individual intent. This is crucial to understanding technodevelopment as social struggle.

Smart goes on to concede:

"Only secondarily is its development directed by human intent. We cannot stop the developmental progression of a wide range of technological advances, but we can massively delay and dampen the evolutionary path of harmful technological applications (e.g., nuclear weapons proliferation, CBW research, pesticides and pollutants, first generation nuclear power technology), while greatly accelerating and improving the balancing and beneficial technologies (e.g., communications, computation, automation, transparency, immune systems R&D), and phasing them in in ways that improve, rather than disrupt, human political, economic, and cultural systems. There lies the essence of our individual and social choice."

Although Smart's formulation kinda sorta reluctantly backdoors social struggle in through the evocation of the various scenes following those parenthetical "e.g.'s" at the end, the fact is that the larger argumentative scene that frames them here is an absolutely antipolitical one, a figure of change, development, and order as a spontaneous mineral crystallization followed by what looks like a consignment of human choice, in its essence, to the "choice" of whether or not we will passively ride the wave of this spontaneous crystallization construed as "progress" (a political category, after all) or frustrate it through meddling.

I mentioned before that the initially implausible but not exactly astonishing evacuation of embodiment and sociality at the heart of reductive characterizations of consciousness sets the scene for the subsequent in fact quite astonishing claims that many technophiliacs start making about artificial superintelligence when they really speak their minds. Just so, too, believe me, those who accept uncritically mechanistic or spontaneous metaphors and models of technodevelopment -- whatever their conscious or explicit political commitments may be -- seem to me to become especially susceptible to what would otherwise seem altogether absurd market libertarian hooks that happen to dangle within reach of their mouths, or seem at any rate to be curiously reduced to wriggling infantile helplessness in the face of such formulations despite their frank absurdity.

Then we get to Smart's "Third Law":

"3. The first generation of any technology is often dehumanizing. The second generation is generally indifferent to humanity. The third generation, with luck, becomes net humanizing."

I would argue that this "Law" is in fact an overgeneralization from the parochial conditions that prevail under a social formation (our own) in which technodevelopmental research and development is driven almost exclusively by multinational corporate-military organizations.

The abstraction of artifacts generated through these technodevelopmental forces corresponds to the abstract inhuman distance of these funding and distributive organizations from human majorities (you might think of it as an alienation thesis applied to disruptive technodevelopmental change).

But isn't it actually easy to remember and easy to imagine, however, artifacts that respond quite immediately and directly to human needs on a human scale? (Granting that human needs and humane scales hardly need to be considered "natural," but must be seen to change historically from epoch to epoch, in large part in consequence of the vicissitudes of technodevelopmental transformations themselves.)

Smart continues:

"The consequences of this law are frequently self-evident."

The highly questionable and selective history he uses to illustrate this point suggests the contrary:

"But it's wide applicability is often forgotten, from civilization (first generation was the age of monarchy, slavery, and perpetual state warfare), to industrialization (first generation was the polluted, dehumanizing, child labor utilizing factory), to automobiles (first generation uses dirty fossil fuels, and originally had few safety features), to televisions (first generation are noninteractive, and separate us as often as they socialize us), to calculators (first generation cause us to lose even mental calculation skills even when we wish to retain them, as they have no educational software abilities), to computers (first generation are expensive and have terrible interfaces and are restricted to an educated technological elite), to the internet (first generation is buggy, primitive, hacker-infested, and far too anonymous), to cell phones (first generation increase motor vehicle accidents, requiring too much human attention)."

It is difficult to know where to begin. Look how the timescales and the generality deployed from example to example wildly diverges. Civilization as such is analogized to cell phones? Aren't we still in the "first generation" of industrialization and television according to the terms of his criteria? And doesn't it matter that, hence, any such monolithic construal of their histories first of all fails to demonstrate the "humanization" the Law itself predicts but also proceeds at a level of generality for which many of the interesting vicissitudes that would preoccupy, say, serious scholars of either "industrialization" or "television" are treated as essentially undifferentiated? Does it matter that the way in which what is taken as the "first generation" of each of these developments is said to be dehumanizing radically differs from instance to instance? How is this a "Law" at all?

Smart concludes:

"I'm sure it is a constant challenge to our designers to think deeply and minimize the inevitable dehumanization that occurs with any new technological deployment. Three steps forward, two steps back, six steps forward, two steps back —- the eternal dance of accelerating change."

The challenge here is one to "designers." But what about private funders and public granters, regulators, educators, tinkerers, and the rest? To whom and to what are they beholden, then? Or are they, too, all "designers" in this formulation? Or do they even register as real in this conjuration of the technodevelopmental terrain? What work is it doing for Smart to assume in advance that any new technological deployment will inevitably be "dehumanizing" in this way? Just what must "we" settle for if this is so?

That emerging technologies always risk "dehumanization" in some (one hopes, better defined) sense is a powerful curb on uncritical technophilia, and hence no doubt very much to be cherished. But that word "inevitable" still trips a number of alarms in my mind.

[Update: As you will discover when you click the link to the text I am reading here (and certainly you should actually read his piece rather than relying on my own gloss of it here), Smart has modified his formulations to introduce some welcome caveats as well as to eliminate the references to "inevitability." This scarcely satisfies all my concerns with the rhetoric of the piece, but it seems to me this new version foregrounds what was interesting in his argument while backgrounding the moves that made it seem facile.]

Nevertheless, let me conclude by drawing a more positive moral from my engagement with this interesting piece by Smart:

Whenever technodevelopment is driven by the abstract antidemocratizing urgencies of parochial short-term corporate-military profit-making it may indeed be best to assume that technodevelopment will be more dehumanizing than need be. That is to say, it will impose undue costs on the most vulnerable, it will proceed with an eye to short term gains over long-term consequences, it will displace public risks and damage onto the vulnerable and onto future generations, and will exacerbate injustice and consolidate the privileges of elites by disproportionately distributing developmental benefits and profits to them and not to others. Even in the absence of what I believe to be the necessary political struggle to render technodevelopment radically more democratic, sustainable, and fair, this technodevelopmental process is, according to Smart, already sometimes ameliorated or "humanized" through retroactive piecemeal reforms, reappropriations, and refinements of disruptive technologies.

If this is true, then it makes sense -- and this is where Nato and I found our way to in discussing Smart's piece -- to champion a2k (Access to Knowledge) and copyfight struggles: First, to widen, democratize, and so accelerate this more modest technodevelopmental humanization, and, second, to more radically undermine the abstract corporate-military technodevelopmental regime as such, and faciliate the peer-to-peer alternative that will consign corporate-militarism to the dustbin of history.

Those of us who take up such a politics will do well, however, always to bear in the forefront of our minds the extent to which the technodevelopmental forces we take up and struggle to shape to democratic, emancipatory, and progressive ends are social and political and cultural through and through and that metaphors of "spontaneity" always speak stealthily with the voice of constituted authorities, even when we ourselves imagine we are fighting the resistence against such authority.

Social struggle is not spontaneous. Social struggle is not natural. Social struggle is not inevitably progressive.

We must strive to make these things happen. And we are on our own. That is to say, we just have each other.

Today's Random Wilde

What are American dry goods? American novels.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Peter Singer: Gengineering Past Ethical Impasses

The following exchange occurs in an interview published today on in connection with the appearance of ethicist Peter Singer's new book (co-written with Jim Mason), The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter:
SALON: [I]f it were possible to genetically engineer a brainless bird, grown strictly for its meat? Do you feel that this would be ethically acceptable?

Singer: It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That's the huge plus to me.

SALON: What if you could engineer a chicken with no wings, so less space would be required?

Singer: I guess that's an improvement too, assuming it doesn't have any residual instincts, like phantom pain. If you could eliminate various other chicken instincts, like its preference for laying eggs in a nest, that would be an improvement too.

In the interview Singer clearly advocates as he has always done -- and definitely I agree with him -- that one should become vegetarian both to ameliorate nonhuman animal suffering and to diminish the environmental catastrophes associated with modern factory farming methods introduced to more "cost-effectively" indulge the apparently unslakable American taste for corpses to eat.

But it is interesting to note that he is also willing to entertain technological interventions as ways to ameliorate nonhuman animal suffering. In an entry a few month's past, I noted that from my own perspective (I've been an ethical vegetarian for over a decade and a half) I would have no objection to the creation and eating of "flesh" cultured from a cell extracted from a donor animal, so long as I was satisfied that the best scientific consensus indicated that this process introduced no health or safety risks to those who consumed flesh so produced, nor caused death or suffering in the donor animal.

This seems pretty close to the first hypothetical scenario Singer entertains in the exchange above. The second scenario is one I am personally far less happy about, as -- to be fair -- Singer appears to be as well.

Since Singer is a rigorously utilitarian ethician, as I am not myself, he is disinclined to make an ethical case from an attribution of rights to animals, whether human or nonhuman. Given his willingness to entertain both changes of personal conduct as well as technological interventions to ethically ameliorate suffering, I wonder how he would feel about neuroceutical interventions that might render human beings "satisfied" with their own exploitation as an alternative to an emancipatory politics to overthrow such exploitation.

I personally do make moral, ethical, and political claims that depend on attributions of rights, and so I find it easy to repudiate the prosthetic production of cheerful slaves. For me, part of what it means to be able to participate in a legible scene of public consent is that one can never consent to the loss of consent.

As it happens, by the way, I suspect that I actually agree with Singer when he asserts that "philosophically I have doubts about the foundations of rights." It's just that I am not particularly troubled by a groundlessness of rights as he seems to be. I see rights as a kind of human language, as social "rites" that we substantiate or invigorate in the performance of them rather than as deep "natures" or "substances" we presumably discern in others lucky enough to bear them as we do. For me, the rites that are rights are a kind of shorthand for complex dynamic pragmatic protocols that help us facilitate desirable outcomes like the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, the elimination of duress from consensual relations, and the negotiation of abiding tensions between the key democratic values of equity and diversity. While my ethics are utilitarian enough that I feel the same ferocious normative tug to ameliorate suffering wherever I can that Singer does, my respect for the language of rights definitively articulates the forms my interventions will take in these ethical efforts.

Of course, nonhuman animals do not participate in such scenes of consent -- although genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification may well change this for at least some nonhuman animals soon enough -- and it may be that this question of consent helps explain why Singer might entertain the tweaking into winglessness of a bird to be exploited as food as an ethically improved state of affairs while, one would hope, he would not consider the tweaking into slavishness of a person to be exploited for labor as an ethically improved state of affairs. But I would be curious to know from any Peter Singer fans out there among my readers -- many of whom have surely read his work more widely and carefully than I have done -- how he would distinguish these cases from his own perspective.

Cackles from the Balcony: The Boy King Can't Recall Any Mistakes but He Can Think of a "Highlight" of His Presidency

[via Reuters]
"You know, I've experienced many great moments and it's hard to name the best," Bush told weekly Bild am Sonntag when asked about his high point since becoming president in January 2001.

"I would say the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5 pound (3.402 kilos) perch in my lake," he told the newspaper in an interview published on Sunday.

Never mind that strictly speaking this was if anything a private moment rather than a "Presidential" moment, particularly. Never mind that on top of everything else he's probably exaggerating anyway.

When Democrats win back the Legislative Branch let's be sure as a first order of business to grant Dear Leader his wish in gratitude for all that he's done for our country, Impeach the Killer Clown, and send him back to his phony ranch to fish to his heart's content.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Love Her!

How do I love Tilda Swinton? Girl, let me count the ways! I stumbled on her in the late 80s in a college screening of the late, great Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, and it was in other Jarman pics that she took on the thundercloud contours of something like fullscale divadom for me, especially in Edward II and Wittgenstein. But for me the crowning accomplishment was her breathtaking collaboration with Sally Potter in the adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando. There have been other intriguing projects, and certainly, more recently, she has breathed unexpected moments of real life into what were otherwise dead dull things like Kooky Cruise's Vanilla Sky and Zenmaster Keanu's Constantine. And her White Witch made what already had shaped up into a gentle and endearing adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into something really fine in my book.

Anyway, that's the windup, here's the pitch. Read Tilda Swinton's beautiful and brilliant May 4, 2006 address to the San Francisco International Film Festival. I'll post this snarky bit to draw you in, but it's the poetry that happens elsewhere that compensates the price of the ticket:
Last year, in the course of my recently developed pastime as studio spy, in the process of promoting two fantasy films for different Hollywood studios, I was advised on the proper protocol for talking about religion in America today. In brief, the directive was, hold your hands high where all can see them, step away from the vehicle and enunciate clearly, nothing to declare.

At the press conference in London for Disney's film, I was asked to chilling frisson in response, if I were still a member of the Communist Party. A friendly Spanish journalist reassured me later, sotto voce and with apology for her (American) colleague, that in Spain things are more clearly understood. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

The fact is, as I clarified that day, I never stopped being a communist. The fact IS that the Communist Party of Great Britain no longer exists as such. That the party was morphed into the democratic left over ten years ago. That my membership of the party was an act of faith born out of an alliance with ideals of fairness and a commitment to a welfare state that it was clear to me then was in the process of being deserted by the parliamentary left.

But I love the idea of goose-stepping old Walt D. making over $700 million dollars with the help of a Red Witch. He is more than welcome. At least we made her whiter than white, the ultimate white supremacist, and we managed to railroad the kneejerk attempt to make her look like an Arab. And maybe, just maybe, on top of all that, Disney might have ended up underwriting the most expensive advertisement teaser for Derek Jarman's and Lynn Hershman's back catalogue that any of us could ever have imagined. Besides, I always was a believer in the essential message of the Narnia film -- in my universe, beavers CAN talk. The rampant old church that cinema is. You never can tell who's gonna jump up into the pulpit.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.

Taylor Mead: A Simple Country Girl

In his brief introduction to Taylor Mead's congenial companionable new book, Gary Indiana writes:
Taylor Mead is living proof that brevity is the soul of wit, and usually the proof of wisdom, too. He can sum up an evening, a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime in five or six words. He paints complete portraits of people in one or two line poems. He packs encyclopedic understanding of life and its joys and deflating ironies into the smallest conceivable number of words. Some of Taylor's apercus are only true of certain moments, but others strike me as always true, especially when I'd prefer that they weren't.

I'll admit that it was Gary Indiana's introduction, and hence, presumably, endorsement, that compelled me scoop up this volume on impulse. In general my responsiveness to poetry is a sometime thing, spotty, not particularly reliable. And so, I tend to be nervous and unsure around it, the way I am around friends with dogs. I'll take up Ginsberg, cummings, and Stevie Smith, only occasionally, and with equal pleasure. Neither Auden nor Wallace Stevens red-light the control board the way I feel they're supposed to. It's not, you know, exactly an educated palate. But loving Gary Indiana's work as I do, I was happy to give this volume a go, and I am very glad to have done. It's marvellous and hilarious stuff. A few examples, and then go buy the book for yourself:


You're famous!
Shut up!!

No Use

It's not there.

The Story of My Life

You're too handsome to argue with
I'll just turn over

I don't understand the attraction
between women and men
but I am not going to have you arrested

I am very pessimistic
but I have a good time anyway

It can't just be me, aren't these exactly the thing you need to be reading right now?

It's funny, now that I have the book I realize that the author Taylor Mead is also an actor who has one of the better moments in the Jim Jarmusch filmic-essaylet anthology Coffee and Cigarettes, a somewhat miss or hit project for which I have real fondness anyway. (My very favorite moment in that film, by the way, is not in Mead's essaylet, and involves a Tesla Coil.) But it's odd to realize that I've gone from being a Taylor Mead ignoramus, to being a fan with some of his work ready to hand and a real itch to find more. Suggestions about where to turn next from any fans out there?

Let's Wiki Wrongdoing!

People For the American Way has created a new site, to provide a well-organized, well-substantiated, easily accessible public clearinghouse for factual information about wrongdoing commited by the Bush Administration.

Based on the same technology as Wikipedia, this site encourages citizens to collaborate in adding and editing both topics and content documenting wrongdoing in the Executive Branch. The space is defined by just two simple rules:

1. is intended to be a factual resource and not an op-ed page, and so contributors should post only factual claims there and refrain from posting commentary or ill-substantiated speculation.

2. All factual claims should be supported with links to sources widely regarded as credible (produced by a recognized authority or published by a reputable news source).

Needless to say, the distinctions between descriptive and prescriptive claims, or between factual and speculative discourse are difficult to maintain, especially when the deployment of the distinctions themselves can be fraught with precisely the political significance that would draw citizens to participate in the creation and support of such a site in the first place. The insistence on sourcing is helpful, but of course the criteria that define "reputable" and "credible" sources are themselves neither innocent nor sure.

I suspect that the discussion pages available one click away from each wiki-entry will become fora where many interesting battles of value and of fact will be fought. I hope these discussion pages will be treated as valuable supplements to the documentary entries themselves, available to those who seek out broader contexts and a clearer sense of the contested stakes out of which provisional consensus documentary descriptions arise. I think these public but backgrounded contentious discussions and these public and foregrounded consensus factual accounts ideally will complement one another, so long as they do not hopelessly contaminate one another. Definitely I will observe this experiment in peer-to-peer democracy and critical collaborative citizenship with great interest.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Politics: Two Points of Departure

[1] I think the point of departure for a political understanding of the world is that there will always be a plurality of stakeholders in any social formation whose ends will differ in ways that cannot be reconciled without contestation and compromise.

[2] I think the point of departure for a democratic understanding of the world is that we should create, maintain, and improve (through experimentation and reform) spaces that provide nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes arising from this political plurality and which provide all these stakeholders with as much and ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them.