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

Friday, March 07, 2008

You Don't Have To Join a Robot Cult To Be a Technoscientifically Literate Secular Progressive Democrat

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot. Friend of Blog Greg took issue with some of my arguments in the recent exchanges with Giulio Prisco. Here's some of our give and take on the subject.

Greg writes: [I]t may seem obvious that much of so called transhumanism is, well obvious (who doesn't want to see an end to cancer or live longer).

Let me be clear here. To the extent that "transhumanism," so-called, consists of views held incredibly widely by people almost none of whom are transhumanist-identified themselves -- like the view that consensual, effective, universally available medicine is a good thing, generally speaking -- then the "obviousness" afoot here doesn't say anything about "transhumanism" particularly, surely?

What if I invent some koo-koo cult called technoscientilogism that claims as an axiom that 2 + 2 = 4. Have I just rendered technoscientilogism obvious, whatever its other axioms may be (for example, Technoscientilogism Axiom 23: "I for one welcome our new ant overlords")? Can I now claim that people who have never even heard of technoscientilogism but who affirm as true that 2 + 2 = 4 are really, truly "closeted" technoscientilogists?

[Q]uite a few [bioconservatives] don't [believe medicine in general is a good thing]. Some of them got high appointments in the Bush administration (you know [Kass] and Fukuyama).

"Bioconservative," for those of you who are newcomers to these discussions, is a term that describes positions that oppose particular medical or other technological interventions into current human and cultural limits -- usually as defined by fairly parochial social and cultural norms -- in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category.

As it happens, I doubt many bioconservatives would refrain from therapies that would save their lives or the lives of their loved ones or eliminate their suffering if given the chance, and so even this is a more complex question than it sometimes appears to be, involving assessments of specific procedures, funding priorities, efforts at cultural and ethical interpretations of emerging techniques, and no doubt in some cases opportunism and hypocrisy, too.

Be all that as it may, however, I think it is important to grasp that Bioconservatism and Transhumanism, whatever else one might want to say about them, represent exactly equally marginal, and in fact rhetorically co-dependent, extremities in contemporary technodevelopmental discourse.

One is undercritically technophobic, the other undercritically technophilic. But both discourses activate irrational passions occasioned by uncertain, disruptive, intensive emerging technoscientific change in the world.

Both discourses have attracted opportunistic public partisans connected with incumbent interests. The bioconservatives were certainly first and most conspicuous in the context of the Bush Administration, but there has been change in the wind on this score and I expect this change to increase immensely in years ahead. One should pay close attention, since there are plenty of reasons neoliberal corporate-militarists might want to take up transhumanist formulations (no doubt properly fumigated of the more egregious expressions of Robot Cultism without which their membership organizations would not have survived over the last fifteen years), formulations insisting on presumably "apolitical" functionalist rather than consensualist understandings of medical "enhancement" that conduce to the engineering of docile and dedicated conscientious capitalist subjecthood as norm, formulations strongly prioritizing "existential risks" and highly centralized industrial-model "geoengineering" as responses to them, as well as formulations in which developmental "acceleration" and complexity is said to justify elite technocratic circumventions of democratic deliberation, and so on.

[T]here actually is a point to affirming the value of medical advancements and morphological freedom.

As you know, I quite agree with you. But it is crucial to realize that advocating medical research and development as well as choice and consent in reference to reproductive politics, neglected diseases around the world, ending the racist War on Drugs, celebrating the autonomy and dignity of the actually-existing and emerging variety of differently enabled people and lifeway multiculture are all already widely affirmed values, all of them embedded in longstanding political and cultural campaigns in the progressive democratic left.

"Transhumanists" who want to talk about living forever in computers and not having bodies that have to poop and about superintelligent AIs that are coming to solve our problems for us or about nanobots ending stakeholder politics by delivering Santa free lunches, and all the rest of that nonsense are contributing literally nothing at all but confusion and hyperbole to the politics of progressive technodevelopment. And a quite sizable number of these "transhumanists" are loud and proud political reactionaries or ignorant scientistic reductionists anyway. Who needs it?

The problem is that if you listen to the so-called "transhumanists" too long (seduced by the enjoyable geeking out discussions of science fiction and blue-sky futurology to which I admit I myself am all too susceptible after all) you can really lose sight of where the action actually is, what the narrative thread in play really amounts to, and who your political friends and foes really are as a technoscientifically literate secular progressive democrat.


AnneC said...

The problem is that if you listen to the so-called "transhumanists" too long (seduced by the enjoyable geeking out discussions of science fiction and blue-sky futurology to which I admit I myself am all too susceptible after all) you can really lose sight of where the action actually is, what the narrative thread in play really amounts to, and who your political friends and foes really are as a technoscientifically literate secular progressive democrat.

The whole "bioconservatives versus transhumanists" thing initially seemed to me to be a novel formulation of stuff I'd already noticed -- however, it became clear after spending a bit of time experimenting with that framework that "bioconservatives" weren't necessarily the big, evil threat "they" had been made out to be (just as transhumanists aren't all obsessed with running around attaching tentacles to everyone and threatening human dignity with their circuit-board tattoos).

The "biocon vs. transhumanist" Grand Eternal Battle is more of a circus than anything else per my current impressions -- that or a quasi-grownup version of a high school speech and debate team meet, albeit with more robots and fetuses.

This is not to say that useful discussion never happens, or that people identified as either "transhumanists" or "bioconservatives" in the aforementioned circus never have interesting things to say outside the full-on circus context. Sure they do. (In fact, I keep half-expecting to be called out as a hypocrite by someone who reads my writings in various fora, seeing as I do tend to agree on at least a monthly basis with points made by various people who seem like they can't stand each other, or each other's ideas.) But I'm so over the idea that "transhumanism" is engaged in some mighty war with the Forces That Would Have Us All Suffer and Die.

There are real forces making actual people actually suffer and die right now, and while indeed some of those people are suffering and dying due to the oppressive dictates of Moral (Wannabe)Majorities and what-not, simply opposing "bioconservative" threats to health does not remove one from the obligation to examine one's own policies and principles and politics. I think that what can be dangerous and seductive is the notion that once you've joined what you think is the Good Team, things you do are good by some kind of definition -- not based necessarily on how it affects people, but on how well it meshes and expresses consistency with other views or frameworks you prefer.

Overall, I tend to most appreciate and support (and this has nothing to do with what subculture or group a person claims alliance with, if they claim any alliance) the contributions of persons who have a genuine respect for morphological liberty (rather than a token one that amounts to "I support the freedom to be configured in such a way that I'm neither grossed out or compelled to feel sorry for you"). I also like it when I come across people who seem capable of (and compelled in the direction of) questioning and pointing out pervasive cultural background assumptions, and who understand the nuances of particular issues that sadly often get reduced to falsely dichotomous polarized positions (and who understand that correctly calling something a false dichotomy is not the same thing as employing "wishy-washy postmodern relativism").

And...I'm sure a lot of people would be surprised at some of the folks I'd put in the above category, seeing as they certainly don't always agree with each other!

Dale Carrico said...

I couldn't agree with you more Anne. What remains interesting in these two discourses, given their extremity and marginality, is the way their partisans generate formulations that are taken up (sometimes in diluted forms) by incumbent interests and by mainstream discourse, and also -- on the contrary -- the way they can symptomize and crystallize in particularly clear ways already prevailing attitudes and norms.