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

Friday, July 06, 2007


Give them a minute or two, and you can almost always count on contemporary technophiliacs to find their way these days to the topic of "acceleration." Catch post-Vingean and Kurzweilian Singularitarians in a full froth of starry-eyed pontificating and you might even get them to carry on about the "acceleration of acceleration" itself. Where once they might have inclined to enthuse about "Future Shock," our own sublime technophiliacs are now more apt to fixate on its kissing cousin, accelerating change.

Now, nothing could be more obvious than the fact that "technology" isn't actually monolithically doing anything at all, not accelerating, converging, transcending, flatlining, line dancing, or any such thing. Quite apart from the sticky issue of the conspicuous historical constructedness of what will count from moment to moment or from culture to culture as technology in the first place (pacemakers? eyeglasses? writing? language? posture? the familiar? the unfamiliar? the unfamiliar as it gradually becomes familiar?), the simple fact is that even conventional technodevelopmental trajectories (weaponry, medicine, couture, communication, transportation, and so on), and their even more complex subcategories, all change and "develop" along jittery, complex, weirdly interimplicated pathways, devices building upon prior discoveries and discourses, subject to geographically and historically diverse normative, infrastructural, economic, and regulatory pressures, morphing, vanishing from use completely, some developments accelerating breathtakingly, indeed, but others just as conspicuously decelerating, stalling altogether, and so on.

What is it that gives so many technophiliacs the cocksure certainty right about now that ours is an era of technoscientific acceleration? And by what sleight of handwaving do technophiliacs leap from factual (and hence, presumably, falsifiable) claims about accelerating rates of technoscientific change to what looks like a re-emergence of the somewhat disreputable Old School faith in a Providential "natural" progress, but this time with eschatology's foot on the accelerator pedal?

And how can technophiliacs square their impressions with the equal assurance of so many technophobes who, looking upon the very same planetary scene, instead fret, precisely to the contrary, that humanity is careening ever more speedily toward a stymieing cliff's edge of catastrophic climate change, Peak Oil, currency collapse, idiotically reinvigorated arms races, water wars, sparring feudalisms and incommensurable fundamentalist faiths, and so on, discerning in every sociocultural corner symptoms of exhaustion, dashed hopes, failed imagination, political backtracking, sprawling monoculture, and broken technological promises? My point is certainly not to affirm the dark visions of catastrophists over the triumphalists, especially to the extent that disasterbatory discourse functions so often to facilitate what Al Gore has decried as the doubly defeatist leap directly "from denial to despair," with the common denominator of passive acquiescence where what is needed is urgent action. But given this clash of epic handwaving and doomsaying aren't our technophiliacs even given pause in their faith in an acceleration without pause?

It is troubling to observe with what regularity accelerationalism seems to figure itself as not just change but as change with a direction, a trajectory, and hence an acceleration metaphorically gifted with a kind of momentum, with a limit shattering, objection-bulldozing urgency all its own, a spectacle of acceleration culminating curiously often in the proposal, offered up in the tonalities of ecstatic pleasure, that "humanity" is revving up to some kind of "escape velocity" or New Age "transcendence." All this, rather than simply discerning a deepening disruption of customary formations and attitudes and lifeways under technoconstituted pressures of global trade practices, information and communication networks, weapons proliferation, climate change, and so on, let's say, in which one finds a prompt to institutionally facilitate deliberation, regulation, accountability, or collaborative problem-solving.

Of course, among the first casualties of an accelerationalist cast on these complexities is the "nostalgic" "romantic" "sentimental" notion that "we" (the ones with our hands on the buttons) have time to consult with everyone affected by change in the face of the racing pulse of that change, as it hyperbolically accelerates. And to any qualms that may arise in the faithful from this glib circumvention of democratic ideals accelerationalism is quick to assume the face of a fatality, at once a tidal wave too brutal to brook consultation as well as a Providential thread promising ends that justify the means (nothing nostalgic, romantic, or sentimental in that move).

There is, to be sure, a palpable fingernails on a chalkboard ugliness in the fact that these frantic futurists seem too well pleased to permit a vanishingly small minority of actual humans to stand for "humanity at large" in these angelic aspirations of theirs. But this is, after all, one of the oldest tricks in the humanist book, inasmuch as the universal rights and values of humanism have rarely extended to all humanity, and rarely even to the humanists' own servants -- and so I suppose it is unfair to hold this sort of parochialism against folks who are likely to insist quite happily that they are posthumanists after all. Nevertheless, it does seem that it might repay scrutiny to ponder why such urgent and recurrent escapist imagery issues from folks otherwise so firmly convinced of their this-worldly hyperrealism. At what point do we begin to wonder whether accelerationalist discourse isn't just another secular upwelling out of America's deep puritanical, misanthropic, apocalyptic psychic archive but, you know, this time with robots? Be that as it may, it's hard to shake the sense that the ecstatic partisans accelerationality might just be the last stubborn holdouts caught up in the dot-eyed irrational exuberance of the Long Boom rhetoric of the late 1990s. It's as if they're still under the impression that the Concorde is still taking cocktail orders and flying at supersonic speeds, that the ISS is right on schedule and Moonbase Alpha around the corner, that HAL really truly is about to make his softspoken appearance on the scene, that even now a bottle of safe cheap super rejuvenation pills is on its way to their doorstep via FedEx, and that those quintessential "California Ideologues" the Extropians really were right to promise us back in the day that Heinleinian anarcho-capitalists in labcoats would deliver us all from death and taxes any minute now.

I can't help but wonder whether many privileged technophiliacs aren't simply mistaking as this "acceleration" they keep going on about what amounts in fact to the increased economic volatility brought about by the ongoing financialization of nearly all commerce in North Atlantic societies over three decades of neoliberal policy prescription. The rhetorical project of neoliberalism ("free market" ideology), to which so many technophiliacs remain wedded to this day, amounts after all to a systematic redescription of conditions of general insecurity conjoined with elite wealth concentration as though it represented the desirable condition of individual liberty. And it is easy to see how the attribution to the increasing volatility and stress of neoliberal societies of the progressive directionality of "acceleration" would nicely comport with such a project of redescription, just as it is easy to see how the attribution of a "creative destruction" that unleashes "spontaneous order" to what is in fact the neoliberal dismantlement and privatization of publicly accountable social welfare programs would likewise be a boon to this sort of neoliberal PR.

Needless to say, all of these moves are bleakly familiar ones by now across the canon of mainstream futurist literature. To be sure, volatility might very well look like an accelerating thrill ride to its relative beneficiaries (or to those who are adequately insulated by privilege to identify with the beneficiaries whether they number among them or not, strictly speaking). But what this volatility looks like to the overabundant majority of people on earth is, of course, better known as precarity.


jfehlinger said...

> What is it that gives so many technophiliacs the cocksure certainty right
> about now that ours is an era of technoscientific acceleration? And by what
> sleight of handwaving do technophiliacs leap from factual (and hence,
> presumably, falsifiable) claims about accelerating rates of technoscientific
> change to what looks like a re-emergence of the somewhat disreputable
> Old School faith in a Providential "natural" progress. . .?

Put the blame on Mame, boys. This seems to have been the default religion
of MIT in Cambridge, Mass., USA (home of Raytheon, Digital Equipment
Corporation, KLH audio, and all the assorted hi-tech companies of Boston,
Route 128, and environs) for the past half-century or more. Since
World War II unloosed the government's purse-strings to all the Radar
O'Reillys there, I guess. Kurzweil is a graduate of MIT, you may recall,
and Marvin Minsky's been spouting this stuff (in _Scientific American_,
as well as to his students) since the mid-60s.

In a way, I suppose, you can't blame 'em -- the road from the vacuum tube
to the Pentium is an impressive one. Will it turn into a stairway to the
stars? Who knows. Whatever gets you out of bed in the morning.

> It's as if they're still under the impression that. . . HAL really
> truly is about to make his softspoken appearance on the scene. . .

Ah, dear old Artie Clarke, the Percy Dovetonsils of the propeller-head
set. _Profiles of the Future_ convinced me that I might have a
chance at temporal immortality, back when I was 11 years old. Also
that a human brain would have been replaced by a matchbox full of solid-state
circuitry by now. If I were more firmly ensconced on the autistic
spectrum, maybe I'd still believe it.

Marc_Geddes said...

The end of Concorde: