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

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Trans Ho Hum

Another comment posted over at Pam's place.

I honestly don't know if I believe there really are many people who would refrain from taking the live longer younger healthier pill if such a thing were actually safe and cheap and universally available... but I don't understand why we allow such superlative nonsense to become the frame through which we think emerging and projected genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical techniques, however radical and disruptive their impacts are on our customary assumptions about flourishing human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways in the world.

I think progressive technoscience politics should focus on democratizing the scene of technodevelopmental deliberation, through p2p, a2k, plos-model open research, copyfight, media de-consolidation, transparent and noncorrupt regulatory oversight of Big Pharma (no more revolving door between regulators and the industries they regulate), redirecting skewed budget priorities from cosmetic and for-profit medicine into treatable and neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world, eliminating proprietary secrecy that creates barriers to people (including our elected representatives) making informed healthcare decisions and definitely eliminating proprietary secrecy for research results indicating public harms, stringent controls on misleading advertising claims, fighting corporate biopiracy, prioritizing literacy, critical thinking skills, and science education, shifting from puritanical to harm-reduction models of social welfare provision, expanding the genomic commons, promoting seed-sharing and water sovereignty, supporting permaculture practices, and so on.

I think that the specter of designer sooperbabies, shiny immortal robot bodies, clone armies, mind uploading, people with gills and wings and six fingers on each foot or what have you -- sometimes ecstatically pined for by handwaving technophiles, sometimes apocalyptically decried by hair-tearing technophobes -- almost never contribute much in the way of clarity or sense to our thinking about ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental social struggle as it is actually playing out in the world. I think we shouldn't give the transhumanists so much credit and so much rhetorical power to frame our collective imagination of our open future, whether we sympathize with their aspirations or worry about them (as I do).


Mitchell said...

Dale: "I think progressive technoscience politics should focus on" (lots of reality-based stuff).

That's an entirely reasonable agenda. I think even an ideological opponent who objected to your framing of the issues would have to agree that you are at least talking about real things and real options from start to finish.

However, one can agree that all that is real, and worth somebody's attention, perhaps even the majority of "mainstream" attention, and still expect God-in-a-box stuff a very short time afterwards, historically speaking. That expectation derives from a few simple premises and I have not seen anything here to refute them. So there must be an effort to meet that challenge.

Dale Carrico said...

If you say so, Mitchell.

It seems to me all that I have to show is that what superlativity really amounts to is indeed, as you say, the expectation of "God in a box," and then sensible people will already know what to do with it.

You point out that I haven't "refuted" the "simple" premises that organize superlative outlooks. But what you, like other transhumanists and singularitarians and techno-immortalists seem to demand is that even your critics concede the basic rationality of your project and then proceed to haggle with you over what you yourselves imagine to be its terms at a "technical" level.

In my view, there is nothing actually happening in superlative discourses in the first place that is worthy of consideration on its own terms except its rhetorical content, its solicitation of identification, investment, and aspiration.

Superlativity piggybacks on some technical discourses that have content which it nibbles at their edges, but the actual contribution of superlativity is to invest this content with super-predicated aspirations and sub(cult)ural significance.

That is what interests me, that is where I lodge most of my critique, that is the location in culture at which both my analyses and critiques are pitched. You can dismiss or decry or disavow the relevance of criticism in this mode, but you must realize that when you do so it is you who are shunting aside whole areas of inquiry and understanding and at costs that are real even if you decide that they are negligible.

If one is firmly transhumanist-identified I don't expect you to be particularly convinced by my critique, I don't expect you to consider your True Beliefs to be "refuted" by what I say. I am probably not playing a "language game" that shares enough of the rules on the basis of which you would accept arguments as "refutations" in the first place.

But when a superlative technocentric goes on to try to dictate the terms on which any effort to challenge their worldview is offered, however, I must say that it a bit funny. This is like a member of some organized religion refusing to accept as a legible challenge to their faith anything but inter-sectarian doctrinal squabbles that, whatever their contentiousness, all share the same essential articles of faith.

I don't engage in the "technical" debates superlative technocentrics seem to regard as the only legitimate concerns they will entertain as worthy of consideration, for a few reasons:

First, they are not my own areas of expertise. Of course, most transhumanists and other superlatives are not experts in these areas either, their self-image as knightly champions of Science battling the forces of Endarkenment notwithstanding, hence their devotion to so many views and predictions that fail to square with actual scientific consensus.

Second, I disagree that anything interesting or actually unique to superlative discourse is happening at this so-called "technical" level in any case. As it happens, as a rhetorician and critical theorist it seems to me I am qualified both by temperament and training to offer up an engagement with superlative discourse at precisely the level and location at which it is actually operating.

From my perspective, to be blunt, superlativity is just made up bullshit. It hijacks real world concerns occasioned by ongoing disruptive technoscientific change and emerging technoscientific capacities. It deranges their terms through a super-predicated discourse that essentially mimes while instrumentalizing theological omni-predicates. In consequence, it activates irrational passions where sensible technodevelopmental deliberation is most needed. As it happens, it is also incredibly vulnerable to appropriation to anti-democratizing ends, endorsing technocratic elitist, scientistic reductionist, normative eugenicist, and the terms of neoliberal development discourse in the service of incumbent interests.

I get it that transhumanists would rather talk about the "serious" and "technical" reasons why some True Believers think the Robot God will arrive on the scene in twenty years versus fifty years, or the "serious" and "technical" reasons why some True believers think nanoscale technique will create a utility fog utopia versus a nanofactory utopia, or the "serious" and "technical" reasons why some True Believers think they will be techno-immortalized through the gradual adoption of robot bodies versus uploading their minds into digital networks, and so on. That's why they are transhumanists, presumably.

It seems to me that all I have to do is point out to most people that these are indeed the "serious" and "technical" views transhumanists are debating, indicate what argumentative and sub(cult)ural work this hyperbolic discourse is doing for transhumanists, delineate what larger rhetorical and conceptual lineages transhumanist discourses are lodged in, and show how our thinking about actually ongoing technodevelopment through the lens of this discourse (whether supporting it as superlatives do or opposing it as bioconservatives do) deranges our perceptions, expectations, and priorities here and now.

Some transhumanists and other superlatives seem to think it is the authors of made up bullshit who get to set the terms on the basis of which anybody can go on to call bullshit on their made up bullshit. Alas, for you, this is not the case.