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

Thursday, January 04, 2007

More Trainwreck

One of the real pleasures of this last couple of weeks away from teaching has been my return to blogging. I can’t say how much I’ve missed it! Clearly, it’s some kind of addiction. Hopefully next term will be less demanding (I'll be teaching three rather than four courses) and I'll be able to post here more regularly.

Anyway, a few days ago I posted one of my regular critiques of the so-called “transhumanist” movement (that “so called” isn’t there to be mean, by the way, it’s there to register my continued puzzlement about how the patchwork of attitudes and beliefs to which various “transhumanist”-identified people seem to ascribe are supposed to constitute anything that rises to the level of an “ism” in the first place), with a post by an IEET colleague as my proximate inspiration. I was gratified to see that the post generated some interesting comments -– if less gratified to see that it may have hurt some feelings as well. Anyway, I do want to say that the best thing about the post in my view ended up being the conversations with Anne and Nato that took place in the comments, and I recommend that people go back and check out what they had to say, if the initial topic interested them.

Michael Anissimov posted a brief comment about the post on his blog Accelerating Future as well, and I want to take the occasion of responding to his comment as a chance to restate more briefly what I consider my central argument (which I think he missed). First off, let me say that Michael and I disagree with one another quite a bit and spar occasionally, but I tend to enjoy and benefit from our engagements more than I have done with many others who share his opinions.

Anissimov begins by mentioning some person named Danila Medvedev who has apparently criticized “transhumanism” (so-called) as a "worldview" confined to a small intellectual "elite," and then links to my argument as one that “echoes this sentiment.” Very quickly, first, I think a view has to address itself to more dimensions of experience than simply an attitude toward technology before it can properly claim to be a “worldview” in the first place (so “worldview” is not a word I would likely apply to “transhumanism,” so called); and second, I think it takes more than being a persistently small and marginal group of people to qualify as an “elite” one as well (so “elite” is not a word I would likely apply to “transhumanist”-identified folks as a group, either).

Be that as it may, Anissimov expands on my post, summarizing it as “waxing critical about transhumanists and the word ‘transhumanism’,” which certainly (as you see) I do. But in the post itself I repeatedly warn that it is a misreading and distraction from my point to take this as nothing more than a public-relations claim about “labels.” Anissimov responds to my argument by saying: “I think we might as well make as much noise under the banner ‘transhumanism’ as we can, and toss it around proudly, and counterattack people when they attack us, without trying to dilute ourselves into the politically safe world of roundabout rhetoric.”

I can’t emphasize enough that Anissimov seems to me to reproduce in his response precisely the mistaken (and I worry, distorting) viewpoint against which I was arguing in the piece itself. Again, I reminded people that my political perspective arises out of democracy and social justice movements, and that what I call “technoprogressive” politics (technoprogressive = technoscience-focused + progressive) is nothing more than a political focus on the ways in which concrete technoscientific developments either promise to democratize the world or threaten to diminish democracy and fairness. My central claim in the post itself was very simply that identity-politics is a deranging lens through which to analyze and intervene in technodevelopmental social struggle from such a progressive viewpoint.

The crucial moment in the post (for me) was this one:
The future isn’t a destination, it’s just more technodevelopmental social struggle. Futurity is a register of the openness of societies that are free, just as ongoing struggle is a register of that same freedom. This is why technoprogressive types, whatever their differences, all still should insist on the priority of political progress in any sensible project to achieve technoscientific progress. This vision of political progress relies for its force and intelligibility on a support of democratic stakeholder politics that is simply straightforwardly incompatible with any identitarian fantasy in which “technology” or “progress” or “the future” uniquely belongs to the perspective delineated by some one “we,” as against other proper stakeholders who are figured as “they.”

It is very difficult for me to understand how these claims can be interpreted as a call for “dilute[d],” “politically safe,” or “roundabout rhetoric.” I am saying exactly what I mean for exactly the reasons I am stating. Anissimov wants to contrast my attitude with his own, one in which “transhumanists” should “toss it [their unique “transhumanist” identities, that is] around proudly, and counterattack people when they attack us.” All of this seems to assume that my argument is nothing but a prudential recommendation of stealth or closetedness for “transhumanists” (a charge which provokes a certain perverse enjoyment in this out-proud faggot of two decades’ standing).

But all that I am really saying -- over and over and over again -- is that to the extent that one’s technoprogressive politics consists of the struggle to ensure that all the stakeholders to concrete technoscientific developments have a real say in the distribution of the risks, costs, and benefits of those developments, then the identity-politics of subcultural affiliation and battles against defamation and organizational outreach and all that stuff are pretty much a deranging distraction.

By all means, people, let your freak flags fly and more power to you all if you decide you are a “transhumanist” or a “Trekker” or a “Raelian” or a “Randian Objectivist” or a “Scientologist” or “Mormon” or who knows what other kinds of identifications and disidentifications might arise out of the churn of rapid, radical technoscientifc transformation. I really mean it. I adore the vitality and quirky originality of marginal subcultures, even the ones with which I cannot personally identify.

But please don’t confuse the politics of “transhumanist” subcultural identity with the technoprogressive stakeholder politics of safer, fairer, more democratic technodevelopmental social struggle. I think that the effort to legitimize “transhumanist” organizations sometimes takes the form of improperly hijacking the democratic technodevelopmental politics of the emerging technoprogressive mainstream, just as the effort to legitimize unpopular “bioconservative” arguments sometimes takes the form of improperly smearing the emerging technoprogressive mainstream with the paraphernialia of marginal “transhumanist” subcultural identity-politics. It isn’t an argument from stealth, but from clarity, to insist, as I will keep on doing, on the impropriety and danger of both of these moves.


pdf23ds said...

So what do you think about this:

Dale Carrico said...

pdf23ds wonders what I think about the argument available on the other end of the url:

After an admittedly quick read my response, in a word, is that I think this argument is wrongheaded.

Democratic societies should value diversity (because polycultures are more flexible, resourceful, and robust than monocultures, because diversity inevitably symptomizes freedom, because a diminishment of available lifeways is impoverishing even to those who do not avail themselves of them, and so on), even when some experts have come to decide that some forms of diversity are "suboptimal" from their, do remember, partial and defeasible perspectives. Now, before anybody freaks out and falsely claims that I am advocating vulgar relativism here, recall that my position is that societies should subsidize and police (via things like human rights and general welfare) a baseline set of standards to ensure informed nonduressed performances of consent, but thereafter respect the actual diversity arising out of the consensual performances that satisfy these basic standards.

As for what appears to me to be a claim that the sooper robots with their sooper robot powers will render mere HUmon ethics obsolete any moment now, my response is that I daresay we can cross that bridge if we come to it. And just to be clear: We haven't come to it, and I think such an encounter is less proximate than you may judge (or want) it to be.