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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The World Needs Democracy, Not Saving (And Especially Not Self-Appointed "Saviors")

Given the planet-scaled disasters that have properly come to preoccupy our attention -- from disruptive climate change, to global pandemics, to proliferating weapons of mass destruction, to the ongoing precarization of humanity via the dominance of neoliberal market fundamentalist ideology -- it is not surprising to hear progressive people phrasing their hopes and fears more and more often as matters of the need to save the world.

In general, I think this is a seduction democratically-minded people should try to resist.

Certainly, my point is not to deny the scope and urgency of the planetary problems that beset humanity. But I think it is crucial to resist the messianic paraphernalia that inevitably freights projects of world-saving: the embarrassing narcissism of the self-appointed elites who eagerly assume the role of would-be world-saviors, the terrible bulldozing of the "niceties" of democratic process and respect for diverse aspirations and perspectives that quickly occurs when the hardboiled "realism" of world-saving rationality gets its way and then gets seriously underway, the scared, scarred sycophancy of the True Believers who swarm out of the woodwork, craving surrogate parents to order them around, and all-too-eager to police human plurality into deathly conformity in exchange for a consoling pat on the head from their masters.

Of course, many of the problems I am thinking about here have been diagnosed most clearly by concerned scientists: climate-change, toxicities, pandemics, landmines, wmds, etc. At the same time, many of the villains exacerbating these problems in the name of shabby corporate and military competitive gain are especially eager to undermine the good scientists and consensus science that exposes their criminal conduct. Meanwhile, many of our reasonable and superlative hopes to overcome these problems and progress beyond them are pinned on technoscientific accomplishments: new medical cures, renewable energy technologies, abundance via molecular manufacturing, global information and communications technologies and social software. Given all this, it has come to seem ever more "natural" that we would turn to science in particular as the location to which we genuflect when we hanker after a savior.

Now, few who read this blog on anything like a regular basis would ever think to accuse me of hostility to science or to technological progress. But I do find terribly worrying the way in which so many self-identified "champions of science" I encounter seem to me in their own enthusiasm perniciously to rewrite science in the image of a messianic religiosity of the worst, most fundamentalist, most authoritarian kind.

There has always been a tendency, and certainly there now remains an impulse, to vulgar reductionism and scientism in an enormous amount of contemporary technocentric salon culture. There is a kind of triumphalist and eliminativist materialism that plays out in too much sociobiology (much of which -- and you guys might as well face up to it here and now -- is going to end up looking like phrenology and phlogiston look to us now). It returns in the smug self-congratulatory dilettantism of's so-called "Third Culture" (which takes up Snow's account of a confrontation of scientific with humanistic culture, but then pretends that another episode of Old School scientism constitutes an "overcoming" rather than just a new skirmish in this confrontation). One finds it in the bland obliterative universalism of many of the grander information theories out there and, even more, in the nearly ubiquitous informational metaphors technocentrics seem so enamored of: culture conceived as viral informational patterns or "memes," political plurality conceived as "bias" to be overcome in the service of technocratic "objectivity," organisms conceived as instantiations of genetic information, consciousness conceived as a computer, immortality conceived as identities "uploaded" into computers, and so on. This tendency is described at length in the work of Katherine Hayles and diagnosed as well by Jaron Lanier as the curiously cult-like embrace among technophiliacs and "futurists" of an attitude of "cybernetic totalism." It is there in the various know-nothing caricatural critiques of "postmodernism" one finds arising out of the self-appointed inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition who like to decry the "fashionable nonsense" of contemporary theory -- as well as in the rampant dimness of the "Brights" -- usually in ways that activate the ever-available resources of American anti-intellectualism, saucer-eyed conformism heralded as "individualism," and Puritanical moral panic. (Some progressives, incidentally, have lately jumped on the anti-pomo bandwagon themselves, no doubt thinking such a stand is of a piece with the necessary defense of "reality-based" policymaking and good government, not to mention as an understandable form of populist protest against the dense difficulty of so much contemporary theory. It is easy to see why this move is attractive at first, but it seems to me to be deeply wrongheaded, not to mention the fact that it puts otherwise sensible progressives in bed with lizard-brained reactionaries).

Quite apart from the ill-informed parochialism and wooly-headed sensationalism of so much of this strain of "pro-science" "pro-technology" "futurology," it is important to stress just how well and how often this reductionist scientism plays into complementary conservative politics. Sometimes it does so by justifying literal defenses of a technocratic elitism that would circumvent democratic process in the name of "necessity": The people are too ignorant, stupid, emotional, or whatever to deliberate in their own best interest in a complex technoscientific world such as our own, and so on and so forth. Sometimes it plays to conservatism more straightforwardly, by championing the interests of incumbent elites above others: Given the extent to which technodevelopmental policy is almost exclusively understood in terms of corporate and military competitiveness, this tendency is well-nigh inevitable (and note how often the technocratic attitude I mentioned first of all will amount in practice to the defense of such elites). Or sometimes it does so in bolstering a cynical "apoliticism" or "anti-politicism" that amounts in almost every case to a de facto endorsement of the status quo. ("Politics is so divisive, let's focus on the engineering!" "Don't be so negative all the time!" "Don't get so open minded that your brains fall out!" they cry to the calliope crank of a cash register ka-ching!)

I happen to suspect, incidentally, that the heart of much of the abiding hostility to so-called "postmodernism" (or however our solid stolid self-annointed scientismic champions are decrying the rampant "relativism" of effete elite literary and humanistic criticism these days) in technocentric salon discourse is the usefulness of these critiques as a way of selectively decying as "politicization" the introduction of anything but neoliberal political considerations -- that is to say, anything undermining the global corporate-militarist "free market" ideology of the so-called "Washington Consensus" -- into technoscientific developmental deliberations.

Now, I realize that there are contexts in which the intervention of a novel figure (the meme, the singularity, spontaneous order) or vocabulary (consequentialism, evolutionary psychology, existential risk assessment) can break the crust of convention, shake up sleepy incumbent orthodoxies, invigorate intellectual energies to solve shared problems, and so on. More to the point, I will admit that I have felt personally the compelling tug of quite a bit of the work and energy and ingenuity arising out of technocentric salon culture, whatever its conspicuous blindspots and silly narcissisms. I adore its can-do let's-put-on-a-show! interdisciplinarity, I share the selective reverence for Darwin, I appreciate the whole part-time garage-inventor hacker ethos, I enjoy many of the same science fiction novels and movies with explosions in them that they do (even the crappy ones), I suffered as a geek in high school as did so many of them and haven't entirely forgotten or forgiven, either, I was handwaving to my indifferent and perplexed family members about atheism and nanotechnology twenty years ago as were so many of them… believe me, I understand the subculture, I get where this stuff is coming from, I get it.

But I just think that there happen to be some very useful technoprogressive interventions to be made by technocentric discourse at just this historical juncture, insisting on certain demarcations in our practices of reasonable belief ascription (especially in sensibly distinguishing the quite different work and reasonable warrants for scientific as opposed to moral as opposed to political beliefs), and by resisting reductionism (especially where reductionism amounts to the suggestion that descriptive vocabularies available mostly to elites say the way the world is without remainder and justify technocratic circumventions of democratic deliberation), right about now. Also, frankly, it always pays to remember the speed with which what was really, truly, at least momentarily, a vital and subversive subculture can sometimes harden with alarming stealth and speed into an orthodoxy and elite apologia -- especially when corporate-military incumbents sniff out a line of self-serving justificatory hype there amidst all the hellraising.

By way of conclusion I will add that I think quite a lot of contemporary criticism of religion at the moment is coming out of this worrisome technocentric scientistic salon culture, and that this point of origin perniciously misdirects what I would otherwise cheerfully welcome as a much-needed critique of fundamentalist social formations. I refer of course especially to the polemics arising out of the new atheistical militancy (like the popular writings of Sam Harris and the latest work of Richard Dawkins) who are raising such a ruckus these days. Some of this work I still welcome as an urgently useful reinvigoration of the tradition of Anglo-American freethought in an era of noisy moneyed bloodthirsty gay-hating racist religionists brandishing clubs, but some of it simply makes me cringe and squirm -- for reasons some of which are well expressed by Terry Eagleton, others of which I will get to in a moment. Too often these works -- and even more so the mainstream discourses through which their works are popularized and disseminated by their enthusiasts -- seem to indulge in reckless overgeneralizations ("the Islamic world," "people of faith") that get actually-existing triggers pulled that get actually-existing innocents killed. Meanwhile, they mistake as essentially a matter of faith or religiosity what looks to me personally more primarily a matter of authoritarian, racist, patriarchal political and social formations. This latter argumentative move of theirs seems doubly troubling to me since for one thing it renders people ignorant, intolerant, and insensitive to the crucial progressive and democratizing (even secularizing!) force of many historical religions and traditions of esoteric mysticism, while at once letting people who claim -- or proclaim more like -- "scientific worldviews" for themselves to imagine themselves "therefore" wonderfully immune to the authoritarian trappings of priestly religiosity (which, I'm sorry to say -- and here I circle back to the criticisms of technocentric reductionism and scientism with which I began -- I think is the farthest imaginable thing from the truth).


Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Is it possible that to "break the crust of convention," to "shake up sleepy incumbent orthodoxies," to "invigorate intellectual energies to solve shared problems" is as close to "speaking truth" as one should ever need to get? If you would answer yes, then I would get the impression that your approach to truth may sometimes, as in this example, be more concerned with the terms of dialogue than with the motions of action. Discursive conventions and orthodoxies? What about habits of *action* that inhibit democracy? (I realize I may be implying a bold boundary between dialogue and action that may not exist.)

Dale Carrico said...

I don't usually think of truth as something we get "close to" or can become "distant from."

Definitely I don't think of old beliefs I used to hold but have now discarded for better ones as beliefs that were "out of touch" with the world somehow. As descriptions I held and used, they arose in the world and have exactly the same "proximity" to the environment as the better beliefs I went on to replace them with. It's just that they came to seem less felicitous to me than some alternative on offer in light of ends that mattered to me: prediction and control of the vicissitudes of my environment, maintaining membership in communities of interpretation or affinity crucial to my identity, assimilating unexpected existential materials in my ongoing project of narrative self-creation, soliciting universal legibility as a judging subject and citizen, reconciling diverse aspirations among peers in as fair and nonviolent a way as possible, and so on.

I think of truth as something that is good in the way of belief, as William James put the point. From an instrumental- scientific- prudential point of view, descriptions that are good in the way of belief are those on offer which we come to accept for now (through the application of shared but contingent standards and practices) as providing the greatest powers of prediction and control. But the social protocols yielding the goods in the way of belief differ when the good is a matter of facilitating moral identification/ disidentification, or a matter of facilitating the ongoing political reconciliation of diverse human aspirations among a plurality of peers who share a world, and so on.

Now, I think when we are casting about for a metaphor that would capture what it is about some descriptions that makes them better or more warranted as candidates for belief in these various modes, usually it is far more trouble than it is worth to speak of proximity, closeness, likeness, and so on.

These metaphors of "faithfulness" tend to mobilize and empower unappealing authoritarian models of belief-ascription, where it looks to me like what is wanted rather are more experimentalist and democratic ones. I tend to turn to metaphors that stress conversation, improvisation, and performance instead of mirrors, approaches, finalities.

In common or garden variety parlance, there are times when the most urgent quandary is to determine whether or not somebody on whom you depend is telling the truth or lying to you. There, I recommend a focus on what conduct tells you over what words do.

It is only when some instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, or political problem confronts us that we should struggle to "break the crust of convention" or struggle to weave some new convention to ease, overcome, or circumvent it. There is nothing inherently more desirable about the demolition or maintenance of conventions, only their facilitation or inhibition of our ends.

That is to say, when philosophers in particular turn to truth-talk, well, I think then we are all better off when we struggle to ensure the focus remains on solving problems and never on "devotion" to Truth.

The latter focus feeds and releases the murderous Priests in our hearts and in the world. The Priests believe that the world has preferences in the matter of the way it is described, and they tend to believe that they speak the language in which these preferences are expressed (or at any rate are "closer" or less "biased" to that Holy language).

But I would like to think that I have put away such childish things.

I do not crave the Priestly assurances that my variously warranted beliefs are not just good in the way of belief in light of my different ends, but also put me "in touch" with the voices in his head that he ascribes to the world, or the world's God.

Even when I am wrong I am already as in touch with the world as I will ever be. Indeed, I cannot make much sense of that notion so beloved of the Radical Skeptic (the Priest's kissing cousin) that there could be such a thing as a practice of description or belief-ascription that could separate me from my environment somehow. Sure, there are foolish beliefs I can ascribe to that will trip me up, threaten my social standing, confound my sense of self, render me unfit for the scene of consent, muck of negotiations, and so on. But the problem with these bad beliefs isn't that they fail to reproduce the sound and shape of the words with which the world speaks itself, as the Priests would have it. My bad beliefs are quite as worldly as my better beliefs are.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

When you wrote that there "is nothing inherently more desirable about the demolition or maintenance of conventions, only their facilitation or inhibition of our ends", you clarified my misunderstanding. I had started to think that you by default preferred demolition over maintenance. Yet I agree: If in one part of the Library of Babel we find what we need, why go elsewhere?

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

By the way, thanks for linking to Jaron Lanier. I really enjoyed his provocative essay.