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

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Trouble With Technocentricity

Too much technocentric discourse seems to me to be premised on the false confusion of the plurality of actually existing and actually emerging technologies with a vast abstraction called "Technology (in general)." Connected to this confusion, too much technocentric discourse also seems to me to be premised on the false confusion of the plurality of actually existing and actually emerging technical developments, ongoing and anticipated technoscientific changes with a vast abstraction called "Development" or, worse, "Progress" (in the sense of a "naturalized" progressive techno-teleological tendency or even Destiny).

Perhaps the confusion of technologies for Technology is facilitated by a more fundamental lack of clarity about the ways in which even a properly pluralized understanding of given technologies will often still fail nonetheless to distinguish artifacts from techniques as well as from the still more complex historical and cultural articulation of personal and collective capacities. It should surely be part of the work of serious technocentric discourse to remind us of these sorts of differences, at least where they make a difference, and to chart the complexities of the emerging technodevelopmental terrain in ways that are sensitive to the different entailments of such differences. Instead, too much technocentric discourse assumes a perspective of generality that facilitates the reduction of these many differences to the terms of just one aspect or other, or a perspective from which these differences vanish altogether or at any rate can be readily trivialized (as, for example, the effetely frivolous or even nihilistic concerns of "relativist intellectuals" in "The Humanities" who lack the solid stolid seriousness of he-man science types still committed by all appearances, flabbergastingly enough, to consequentialist, reductionist, and naïve realist vocabularies of various sorts).

Perhaps the confusion of changes for Development is facilitated by a more fundamental lack of clarity about the ways in which even a properly pluralized understanding of historical and planetary technoscientific changes will often still fail nonetheless to grasp the extent to which the situational dynamic of these changes is driven as much (and often more) by the shifting exigencies of the social, cultural, and political contexts of these changes as by the prevailing state of the art, scientific consensus, and so on (that the instrumental, scientific, engineering conditions are themselves articulated by social, cultural, and political exigencies on their own terms should also go without saying, although technocentricity in its most attention-grabbing variations also regularly disdains even this basic understanding). It should surely be part of the work of serious technocentric discourse to remind us that emancipatory progress (in its technoscientific dimensions quite as much as its political and social ones), such as it is, is always a collaborative achievement rather than some spontaneous stepwise unfolding of logical implications. Further, serious technocentric discourse should insist that technoscientific change is never a matter of an indifferent accumulation of logically useful inventions but a complex and proliferating, sometimes inter-implicated but never monolithic, swarm of provisional accomplishments and failures. What is painted too often in the broad brushstrokes of "Development" or "Progress" is in fact a matter of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle consisting of both contested and collaborative efforts of invention, funding, regulation, publication, debate, testing, application, education, appropriation, distribution, and so on, each effort deeply and unpredictably responsive to shifting conditions in the physical, institutional, political, cultural, and even intimately inter-personal environments in which they take place. It is responsive to the exigencies of advantage, resistance, fashion, ambition, rivalry, intrigue, economy, passion, inspiration, and forever bedeviled and bedazzled by chance.

All this is true, quite obviously, of the facile futurists online who like to attract attention and whomp up apocalyptic panic about the prospect of "Robot Armies" and "Clone Armies" (and in so doing make it incomparably more difficult to talk in a useful way about the actual regulatory quandaries of networked malware, weapons proliferation and automation, informed consensual healthcare decisions related to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicine, and so on), or who would whomp up religious enthusiasms about the prospect of Digital Immortality and Nanobot Superabundance (failing, in the first instance, to grasp that life is lived in bodies, come what may, and hence that a digital existence, whatever that might be, would not properly be the thing we mean by a "lived life," however prolonged it might be; and, in the second instance, failing to recall that scarcity is already maintained artificially and for political reasons here and now and hence that poverty is not a problem susceptible of a strictly technoscientific solution but one that demands democratic political will most of all). But these sorts of figurative and conceptual oversimplifications and derangements also saturate a great deal of presumably serious technocentric academic discourse as well, and not just online fanboy technofetishists and sub(cult)ural technophiliacs -- especially in too much digital networked media discourse and in too much bioethical discourse.

How often is the topic of so-called "information overload" (treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a "problem of contemporary life" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) in academic media discourse as much as in cynical hyperbolic promotional discourse really better understood as simply the anxiety of credentialed incumbents and would-be popular "experts" to the loss of much of their editorial and curatorial authority given the emergence of peer-to-peer formations that do this work as well and more democratically?

How often is the topic of so-called "accelerating development" (sometimes even more hilariously hyperbolized as an "acceleration of acceleration," and, again, treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a "fact of contemporary life" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) in academic "technology discourse" as much as in cynical hyperbolic promotional discourse really better understood as simply the increasing volatility of "market" economies exacerbated by confiscatory neoliberal policies of increasing "financialization" of wealth and "informalization" of social support, but as seen from the perspective of the relatively privileged beneficiaries (for now) of these immoral and short-sighted policies or of those who, even more pathetically, identify with these beneficiaries whether they actually number among them or not?

Closely connected to this ideologically useful metaphorical conjuration of a monolithically accelerating development where in fact conditions of incomparably complex and unpredictable technoscientific changes actually prevail is the no less ideologically useful and curiously transcendentalizing metaphorical conjuration of "converging" development (where the projected point of convergence, usually implicitly but surprisingly often explicitly -- at least in some of the more careless and popular versions of the discourse -- is invested with hyperbolically utopian or dystopian, heavenly or hellish, superhumanizing or subhumanizing characteristics) where in fact conditions of incomparably complex and sometimes interestingly inter-implicated technoscientific changes actually prevail.

How often is the topic of so-called biomedical "enhancement" (as usual, sometimes embraced as a dreamy superhumanization, sometimes rejected as a dreaded subhumanization, but, again, as usual, treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a matter "on the developmental horizon" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) among academic and thinktank ethicists as much as among Hollywood scriptwriters and popular polemicists really better understood as the parochial and stealthy moralizing condemnation of some actually existing and actually desired human morphologies, capacities, and lifeways (especially certain queer lifeways, certain differently enabled ("disabled") lifeways, and certain experimentalist lifeways (among them, consensual perversions and promiscuities, spiritual disciplines, radical and not-so-radical body modifications, spiritual and recreational drug use, and so on)) all under the presumably universalizing cloak of "health," "harm reduction," or "hygiene" advocacy or, somewhat terrifyingly, in the name of "optimality"?

In each of these cases a particular stakeholder position (or a framing of issues that preferentially benefits a particular stakeholder position) is proposed, via monolithicizing, depoliticizing, instrumentalizing language as if it were a general or even universal problem demanding a comparably general address, a problem that solicits consensus -- as instrumental problems always do, but as moral, esthetic, and political problems rarely do, or do very differently. The key term for me here is "depoliticizing," and it might be helpful as a way to get a handle on what I am talking about to turn here for a moment to Roland Barthes's formulation late in his book Mythologies, in a section entitled, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech.” If you haven't read Barthes it's probably best to follow Barthes's own recommendation and substitute the phrase "bourgeois ideology" wherever he uses the word "myth" here (it's not quite the same thing, but you would need to read the whole book to get the benefit of making the distinction):
[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men [sic] have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]

Most of the book Mythologies consists of a series of short essaylets in which Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, mass-mediated events, general attitudes, and so forth. In each essay he exposes the way something that is actually a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which arrived as a consequence of a trackable history of collective collaboration and contestation, any episode of which might easily have turned out quite differently, and which continues just as likely, therefore, to remain radically open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has been posited as and come more widely to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so on. Especially interesting for technocentric discourse is the fact that there is a sort of book-within-the-book in Mythologies, in which Barthes corrals together a series of essays that explore technoscientific and technodevelopmental themes in particular, offering up readings of Verne, Einstein, plastic products, an anonymous supersonic test-pilot, and so on, in each demonstrating how transcendentalizing, hyper-individualizing, reductionistic framings of popular technoscientific discourse serves very bourgeois ends, inculcating the work ethic, cynicism, hyper-individualism, conformism, consumerism, circumscription of imagination, reliance on elites, and so on. That is to say, Barthes proposes that bourgeois futurology (I would say "neoliberal" politics, or the politics of "incumbency" instead of the now unfashionable "bourgeois" politics) ironically naturalizes and so consolidates the notional and institutional buttresses for the maintenance and amplification of the bourgeois status quo, a paradox I often refer to myself as "retro-futurism."

It is crucial to grasp that the depoliticization (via abstraction, reduction, instrumentalization, naturalization) of the actually contingent and plural stakeholder situation of technodevelopmental social struggle is doubly anti-democratizing: first, because it preferentially benefits already incumbent and elite stakeholder positions in particular, inasmuch as these are the ones best situated to substitute their parochial perspective for a more general one and, second, because, in a very straightforward sense depoliticization is inherently anti-democratizing. This is because democratic politics is defined and impelled at the most basic level by a desire for the deepest and widest possible politicization and repoliticization of the terms of the given and shared world as possible, as a matter of course, whatever concrete outcomes particular democratically-minded people also happen to advocate in the spirit of democratization. Whatever its institutional implementation, whatever its campaigns and preoccupations from epoch to epoch, democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, democratization is the widening and deepening of that participation and that say, and anti-democratization is its denigration or frustration. When Jamais Cascio, for example, advocates not only for particular outcomes that he believes to be more sustainable, more fair, and more democratic, but also more generally devotes himself to advocating what he describes as an "opening of the future," it seems to me that he (the rarest of professional futurists) grasps the importance of this distinction very well.

It feels especially good to mention Jamais Cascio in this connection, and by way of conclusion, because this allows me to make a few summarizing points nearly simultaneously. I spend a lot of my time on Amor Mundi deriding would-be professional futurists and sub(cult)ural technophiliacs who often seem to fancy themselves far- and forward-thinking even when their political worldviews are not easily distinguishable from that of nineteenth century social darwinists, eugenicists, and free-marketeers and even when their most regularly reiterated interests tend to be so firmly lodged in the competitive position of current corporate-military elites. But the fact remains that technodevelopmental social struggle really is in my view the most urgent, dangerous, and promising terrain for radical, democratizing, Green, consensual planetary politics in our own time. The fact remains that it makes perfect sense in my view that the "discourse of technology" would be invested with the personal and collective dread and wish-fulfillment of a diverse humanity deranged and traumatized and whipped up into an uncritical frenzy by unprecedented powers, threats, and changes and that all this properly demands our most serious, careful, urgent attentions. The fact remains that there seems to me to be an exciting, vitally important emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the United States of America and across the planet knitting together what might initially have seemed to be disparate concerns into an ever more unified, ever more popular, ever more emancipatory movement, conjoining (a) democratic and anti-authoritarian education, agitation, and organizing via peer-to-peer networked formations, (b) research, funding, and institutionalization of decentralized and renewable energy provision, (c) advocacy of universal informed nonduressed consensual recourse to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicines, (d) championing universal education to promote critical, literary, scientific, and civic literacy, (e) defending the right of women to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies as well as to make recourse to ARTs to facilitate wanted ones, (f) circumventing technodevelopmental wealth concentration via automation, outsourcing, and crowdsourcing through the advocacy of a non-means-tested universal basic income guarantee, (g) overturning militarist budgetary priorities, regulating the trade in and use of arms of all kinds, dismantling private armies and policing forces, repudiating the ongoing automation and abstraction of death-dealing, and (h) turning the tide of confiscatory intellectual enclosure by encouraging access to free creative content through public subsidy of citizen participation in networks, universal public access requirements for research funded by the public, limiting current legal copyright terms, widening fair use provisions, radically circumscribing state, corporate, and academic practices of secrecy, and repudiating the legal fiction of corporate personhood.

Given all this, I clearly think that what is wanted is more, not less, technocentricity in theory, in criticism, in analysis, in policy, in commentary, and so on, and my frustrations with so many would-be futurologists and technocentric polemicists is precisely that they seem to enable and exacerbate the worst of the confusions and complacencies it should be their work to disable and diminish. What is wanted, it seems to me, is more technoprogressive technocentricity, pluralizing rather than reductionist, politicizing rather than naturalizing, social rather than instrumental, peer-to-peer rather than authoritarian, consensual rather than neutral, open rather than optimal, Green rather than corporate-militarist, democratizing rather than elitist. I can't say that I always agree with every little thing Jamais Cascio says, and I certainly wouldn't want to saddle him with the insinuation that he agrees with anything I say, but I will say that he is a widely respected, popular, professional "futurist" who comes pretty close to demonstrating both the possibility and usefulness of something like a technoprogressive technocentricity in the sense I mean. (And I'll bet that to the extent that he did agree with the things that I am saying here, he would say them more clearly than I'm managing to do.)

Although I spend so much of my time ridiculing the facile retro-futurism of so much "serious" or would-be serious futurological discourse (especially in what I critique as its pernicious Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Modes) and so it is easy to come away with the mistaken impression that I would be happiest if the whole absurd largely self-appointed Futurological Congress would shut down altogether this is the farthest thing from what I want, really. What I want is less reductionist, naturalizing, transcendentalizing, hyperbolizing, instrumentalizing, depoliticizing, corporate-militarist, prescriptively optimizing futurism and retro-futurism.

No comments: