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

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Robot Cult Is Right!

Upgraded from the Moot, "h+ ftw" (this means roughly "transhumanist, for the win!" or, something like "Robot Cultists Rule!") comments: "I must feel sorry to say this, Mr. Carrico, but Michael Anissimov is right." To discover in what Michael Anissimov is "right" according to my enthusiastic Robot Cultist, poor mite, follow the link. I have summarized the text you will find there thusly:

Shorter Michael Anissimov:
"If this one idea that doesn't make any sense (embodied human intelligence can be "digitized" without loss) is treated as 'true' then all sorts of other ideas that also don't have any connection to reality (techno-heaven, sooper-brains, sweet sweet soma, whole earth as wilderness park for robot tourists, magic for realz, telepathy, borg-collectives, and immortality) suddenly seem worthy of serious public consideration as well, even though they aren't, except possibly as science fiction, and even as science fiction these topics are a bit tired (well, that last part is mostly me, but you get the gist)."

That is to say: Classic Robot Cultism.

And I'm not at all "sorry" to say this.

Before you complain that I haven't done justice to the role of "functionalism" in this unkind abbreviation I must say that neither has Anissimov in the original -- not by a long shot -- and that this lack is incomparably more injurious to his "case" (it is really too generous to so describe his extended indulgence in the usual superlative wish-fulfillment), since his whole "conclusion" presumably relies on the "truth" of this "functionalism." Now, it seems to me that "functionalism" names a philosophical discourse more than a thesis, really, one with many contested variations and contested positions and contested implications among which Anissimov provides no substantial sense of his own preferred version or reasons for his preferences let alone reasons to think why he thinks these preferences straightforwardly "true" when every version on offer is in fact utterly controversial.

I recommend that poor H+ FTW either take up the actual science that inevitably bedevils the slick hype-nosis of the Robot Cultists and learn earlier rather than later the value of critical thinking and/or university education and/or therapy -- or else you can just go back to church with the rest of the Robot Cultists and continue to congratulate yourselves on how "right" you -- and only you -- are to insist that actually embodied intelligence could or will somehow migrate into cyberspace or that human life could or will somehow manage to be prosthetically immortalized or that history could or will end through nano-cornucopia, paradisical virtuality, or the singularitarian arrival of the Robot God, and, you know, start waiting.

I must say, that if the silly handwaving of the transhumanists, extropians, techno-immortalists, singularitarians, cybernetic totalists, and libertechians didn't compel the attention of the unwary to the cost of us all through its eager activation of irrational passions -- mostly panic and greed -- always already occasioned by disruptive technoscientific change, through its appealingly facile oversimplifications of technodevelopmental complexities, through its misleading pseudo-priestly neologistic and guru-friendly mumbo jumbo masquerading as "cutting edge science," through its dramatic media-ready framing of issues of general concern, through its ready appropriation by incumbent interests ever eager for new rationalizations for elite-technocratic control and corporate-militarist responses to global problems (usually caused or exacerbated by themselves in the first place), that is to say, if the Robot Cultists were not positioned to do so much real and abiding damage at a time when sensible deliberation about technoscientific change has never been more urgent in fact, then it would surely be better by far just to ignore their foolishness altogether, along with the few hundred mostly North Atlantic white guys who preach it.

Unfortunately, these formulations both filter out into the mainstream in dangerously deranging ways while, more fortunately though no less tediously and embarrassingly, represent in their very extremity clarifying crystallizations of reductionist, elitist, eugenicist tendencies that prevail more generally already in mainstream neoliberal development discourse.

Good Question

Dean Baker has a question:
Who cares if some banks don't participate in getting handouts? Citibank, Bank of America, and many other major banks have no choice. They will go bankrupt without assistance. If some banks actually can get by without the government's assistance, why would we want to force it on them?

I'm no Dean Baker, but it seems to me that many CEOs (and one-day would-be CEOs) sitting atop massive shitpiles of their own making still seem to labor under the impression that they are King of the Mountain, throwing tantrums at the very insinuation that unprecedented taxpayer bailouts of their irresponsible looting spree might come at the price of their unearned multimillion dollar bonuses and lavish crapstyles or subject them to more public scrutiny or regulatory oversight.

If they refuse to concede the fact of their failure let them experience the reality of it. I say, nationalize anything failing that is "too big to fail" by buying it at its bargain-basement price in failure, workably break it up into competing enterprises, and then run it with qualified public servants working at middle-class wages until it returns to solvency and can be reprivatized at a profit that benefits the taxpayers who bailed it out. If it can't be broken up or profitably reprivatized and yet still remains "indispensable" to the economy, it needs to be considered a permanent not-for-profit public institution.

Those who think "qualified" people won't work as public servants for middle class wages don't understand the world we are living in, and need to be educated, if you ask me (and many punished), before they do more damage to the world on the basis of their seriously skewed self-congratulory elitist assumptions and greedy superficial short-term priorities.


If you can't figure out how to pay your taxes, if you lie about extra-marital affairs, if you have little to recommend you but your famous last name, or if you have lobbied in a for-profit enterprise in the area which you would govern, honestly, get the hell out, Democrat or not, well-meaning or not. There are hundreds of millions of American citizens. Even if not everybody is equal to every pressing challenge to good government, still nobody is indispensable.

Zombie Wisdom from the Washington Press Corpse

When Republicans control the White House, the House, and the Senate it just plain makes sense that Republicans and their views would be a disproportionate presence on network news programming. When Democrats control the White House, the House, and the Senate it just plain makes sense that Republicans and their views would be a disproportionate presence on network news programming.

Depeche Mode Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

The grabbing hands grab all they can...

Today's Random Wilde

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

"What Is the Difference?"

Contemplate the following exchange from the Moot:

Seth to Giulio: "[Y]our identity... includes all of it, the squishy, the science, the diarrhea, the philosophy, all of it."

Giulio to Seth: "[I]t also includes being poor, helpless, without education and health care. So in the name of a fixed God-given 'plenitude of identity,' should we conclude that BIG, social justice, education and health care for all are all bullshit? If not, what is the difference?"

Just to be clear, Giulio Prisco -- considered one of the leaders of "movement transhumanism," founder and officer of many of its conspicuous organizations, regular contributor to what passes for its official and "intellectual" discourse -- doesn't seem to be able to distinguish, on the one hand,


the political aspirations of democratically-minded progressives who would educate, agitate, and organize to

(i) increase access (ideally to planetary universality) to well-regulated safer ever-advancing consensual healthcare and to

(ii) increase welfare entitlements to the vulnerable (ideally consummating in the provision of a planetary universal basic income guarantee) to better ensure that nobody, not even those who are sick, hurt, lonely, unlucky, unemployed, uneducated, misunderstood, dissenting, atypical, nonconformist is never threatened with homelessness, starvation, isolation, impaired access to legal redress, durressed "consent" to risk, exploitation, or criminality

from, on the other hand,


the superlative aspirations of Robot Cultists who pine for technoscience, somehow, somewhen, to

(i) "exchange" their actually-existing mortal organismic bodies for incomparable imperishable digital or robot bodies, to

(ii) "exchange" their embodied intelligence for incomparable digital computer networks, and to

(iii) "exchange" the terms of political economy from those at hand in which a diversity of stakeholders collaborate and contend over ends in a shared and limited world for a post-political world in which materials science, plastics, robotics, nanoscale replication or what have you (a retreat from materiality altogether into a "superior" virtuality is sometimes pined for as an alternative but complementary proposal to the same purpose) overcomes the impasse of stakeholder plurality altogether.

I have put the word "exchange" in quotations in each of the examples of superlative technocentric aspiration because the mechanisms through which one would presumably find one's way from an embodied intelligence into an artificial superintelligence, from a mammalian mortality into digital or robotic superlongevity, or past the impasse of plurality in finitude into post-political superabundance is always at best a metaphorical conjuration, not just ill-specified as a technical matter (such a state of affairs would merely inspire calls to divert public resources from the solution of actual shared problems to the propping up of superlative wish-fulfillment fantasies), but such a departure from conventional usage in respect to the terms at hand, "intelligence," "person," "life," "politics" as to be, strictly speaking, incoherent.

This is nothing new, of course, but just a straightforward expression of the superlativity thesis in the first place. A reasonably short version of my critique of superlativity is available here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Would You Hit It?

Anne Corwin is Talking Sense on Superlativity

Just because I think superlativity tends to distort dialogue and make it difficult to focus on what can actually be done in the real world does not mean I disparage the power of human imagination or our capacity to change things for the better.

When I say that superlativity is annoying and damaging to longevity-medicine dialogue, I am saying that no, it will not in any way, shape, or form help your grandmother live longer if you go around spouting off and gesticulating about how someday super-AIs will be able to extract the molecular patterns of people long-dead out of the atmosphere and reconstitute those people in some strange zombie homeopathy.

What will help is advocacy to improve elder care so that people don't end up wasting away in nursing homes. What will help is good, solid research. What will help is a shift in attitude away from judging people on the basis of how many hours they can put in the cubicle farm and toward greater valuation of all kinds of people, regardless of age or disability or anything else.

I'm sorry if that sounds plodding and boring, but I actually want people to live, and I am not getting the sense from actually looking at reality that engaging in homeopathic zombie and upload fantasies in any context outside science fiction or salon philosophy is going to help anyone actually live.

The whole piece is over at Anne's blog, Existence Is Wonderful.


Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

"Anonymous Inquirer" wants to know: Dale, how do you distinguish yourself from what's known as a Luddite? ... [W]ouldn't you be the sort who would cheer on a march against the corporatist profiteers putting honest people out of work with their cost-cutting technology?

Strictly speaking, I advocate the provision of a basic guaranteed income and universal healthcare (and in the meantime ever more healthcare coverage, ever more welfare entitlements until we arrive at a social world truly beyond duress at last) so that being put out of work -- or, say, going on strike -- for any reason at all threatens nobody with disaster.

Definitely, you are right, I do disapprove of the ongoing concentration of wealth facilitated by outsourcing (especially via certain information and communication techniques), crowdsourcing (especially via p2p formations), and automation (the usual suspects).

I don't think we can generalize from the specific deployments of technique in the service of these inequities to a case against "technology," though, any more than one can champion "technology in general" because a surgery saves your life or you found true love via the Internet.

Nor do I think it makes any sense in such cases to focus on the flashy devices and techniques present on the occasion of this injustice rather than on the decisions to deploy them to inequitable ends that might have been otherwise. In other words, I don't think it is clarifying to think of your example as a matter of "technology" rather than immoral, unethical, elitist politics.

In popular parlance, a "luddite" is a person who despises or fears things that are designated technology. You are right that I consider a blanket aversion to (or celebration of) technique strictly speaking unintelligible and very much beside the point. But as a matter of everyday speech, I know to what the label refers and it doesn't name my own attitude very well.

As for the historical Luddites who were angry that certain rich people were deploying novel devices in a class war against certain customary lifeways -- they were exactly right to fear the disruption and abjection of their lives and exactly right to fight back, and I have said so on more than one occasion.

Again, strictly speaking, it actually confuses things to focus on devices rather than on the elitist politics that deployed the devices in the service of injustice or to imagine that the historical Luddites, because they smashed looms introduced to render them dispensable by people who palpably wanted them dispensed with (and succeeded, remember) would smash any other useful device that came their way under other circumstances.

"Inquirer" continues: [Y]ou think technology is good for us only to the extent that it enables some progressive political goal. So, to speed things along, let's take the converse. Imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals.

The point is that "progress," including technoscientific progress is not primarily a matter of the accumulation of a toypile, but a matter of politics.

I don't think it makes much sense or is ever much to any purpose to try to "imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals" because I think that would actually be a matter of conservatives or authoritarians deploying technique in the service of non-progressive ends.

I don't think there are "inherently" democratizing as against authoritarian technologies as a general sort of matter.

I think the focus on things passing for "technology" in the churn of technodevelopmental social struggle is usually a distraction.

What is wanted is to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are distributed equitably among the diverse stakeholders to that change on their own terms, that whatever the devices and techniques on hand that all people have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and that all people consent in a legible, informed, nonduressed way to the terms of their personal (cultural, prosthetic) lifeways to the extent that this is possible.

Technodevelopmental Determination

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

While it would be wrong to propose a universal rule here, I think in general the capacities alleged to inhere in any given device or technique radically underdetermine their actual historical deployment to progressive as against reactionary ends. The determination is ultimately political, not technical. That is why moral, ethical, social, cultural, political discussions of technoscientific change -- and hence any discussion of progress -- should always substitute (at least in your own head) for the deranging false generalization "technology" the admittedly gawkier more awkward phrase technodevelopmental social struggle of a diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific change.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Biology IS Special

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot, a continuation of the discussion in the prior post (possibly with a different interlocutor, though):

I wrote: "Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities."

"James" responded: Yes, this is quite true, right now.

So, get back to me when your counterexample isn't made up bullshit.

Magical thinking isn't daring, it's dumb.

James writes: I agree with everything else in [your] post -- I just feel strongly about assumptions that biology is somehow special. It's not. Carbon's just what initially won out over everything else.

But, the thing is, biology is special, surely?

Actual lives, actually embodied intelligence, actual persons, are all actually special.

I know James will (rightly) disapprove being made to seem as though he would explicitly deny this (since I doubt he would), but I worry that we are lead to denigrate the ways in which actually existing lives are vulnerable and actually existing intelligences are embodied when we indulge in what James surely intends as a more specialized usage of the term "special" here. (Although I do find it intriguing that James goes so far as to indicate not only disagreement but "strong feeling" on this question of not connecting intelligence too forcefully to the living world even when there is not as yet any empirical reason at all not to do that very thing, especially where, for example, the parts of intelligence connected to "strong feeling" are concerned.)

James writes: There is nothing inherently "intelligent" about biological systems, nor is there anything inherently "dumb" about non-biological systems. Intelligence is a product of the complexity of the system in question; whatever makes it up is a triviality (this is likely, anyway. God knows how long it will take to find out, though...).

To admit the truth that every life in the world you know is lived in a body and every intelligence you encounter and actually come to terms with is vulnerably lived and historically situated doesn't commit one to some grand claim about intelligence being a property "inherent" always only in biology to the logical exclusion of everything else or what have you.

I don't have any interest in making such a claim. I don't think there is any reasonable occasion that impels me to that claim. I don't think there is any reason for people sensibly to care about such a claim. I don't agree to play the game of that final parenthesis in which we are suddenly called upon to make and compare "predictions" and argue about attributions premised on caring about whatever is presumably being zeroed in on in this discussion of "inherence" or not of intelligence in life.

To be honest, asserting either that intelligence inheres always only in biological beings -- or worse, asserting the contrary -- just seems to me to make people talk confusedly about things that do exist in terms of things that don't exist.

I am convinced that a great many people who talk this way do so simply because they are scared of their vulnerability or ultimately of dying and they want to linger "spiritually" or "informationally" beyond lived life and death and the denial of life's and intelligence's palpable incarnation somehow facilitates their denials of this. Obviously not all who talk this way do so for this reason, but many seem to indeed.

Others I am convinced who talk this way do so, oddly enough, because they don't like the humanities, their aesthetic temperament disdains the derangements of literal language in the figurative, they are impatient with the paradoxes and intractable dilemmas of theory, they grow painfully frustrated with the interminable processing of political or psychological difference, and so on, and a denigration of life's mess avails them a measure of more secure and instrumentally efficacious preoccupations -- which undeniably do have their beauty and power after all.

I realize the "made up bullshit" comment with which I began all this was unduly harsh. But the fact is the denial of the specialness of actually embodied intelligence, actually vulnerable lives is a truly extraordinary claim and I have never once encountered the extraordinary reason that justifies making it, nor certainly have I understood the curious tendency of those who make it to pretend that there is something extraordinary instead about the contrary claims that intelligence is embodied and life vulnerable when literally every intelligence and life has testified to precisely this and none the other.

"Technology" Changes the Game

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot

I wrote:
There is an ongoing prosthetic elaboration of agency -- where "culture" is the widest word for prostheses in this construal -- and which is roughly co-extensive with the ongoing historical elaboration of "humanity." But there are only techniques in the service of ends, and the ends are articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in pretty conventional political narrative -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against tyranny, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.The pretense or gesture of a technoscientific circumvention of the political seems to me to conduce usually to de facto right wing politics, since it functions to de-politicize as neutrally "technical" a host of actually moral, aesthetic, political quandaries actually under contest. This is a mistake as easily made by dedicated well-meaning people of the left or the right, as by cynical or dishonest ones, or simply by foolish people, whatever their political sympathies. But it is always a mistake.

To which someone "Anonymously" responded:

Your "always" triggers me Dale. Technology changes the rules of the political game.

My replies to their (italicized) comments follow:

Weather changes the rules of the political game. Pandemics change the rules of the political game. Personalities change the rules of the political game. The devils, as well as the angels, are in the details.

When I insist that "technology" does not exist "in general" this is far from a denial that a diversity of techniques and devices exist and have an impact in the world. Quite the opposite.

There is no such thing as a "technology" that subsumes or subtends all the instances to which that description attaches in a way that can be isolated as a factor with a general predictable impact on political, social, cultural, historical change.

It is the deployment of technologies and the exercise of techniques arising out of unique historical situations, playing out unpredictably in historical dynamisms, and in the service of a diversity of ends that yields technodevelopmental effects.

To ascribe an outcome to "technology" is almost always vacuous. That this sort of utterance has become such an explanatory commonplace is enormously curious and even suspicious.

When most people became literate, it was possible to discuss politics with a much broader group of people.

And "becoming literate" = "technology" in this example?

What, everybody suddenly got bonked in the head with a book or maybe even a printing press? Just think of the complex multivalent practical, cultural, economic, institutional, legal, moral, psychological dynamisms and trajectories that materially fleshed out "becoming literate" in different historical, demographic, personal situations.

What developmental generalization are you drawing from that complex that presumably also obtain for all other instances of the "technological" including inventing and distributing and making use of the cotton gin and the internal combustion engine and the crossbow and anaesthesia and the technique of perspective painting?

If/when people are able to upload and thereby create close to immortal entities they wont have the same priorities as people restricted to living less than a century.

Here we go. Look, you are playing fast and loose with the English language in an all too customarily religious manner here, if I may say so. "If/then" statements cite causal conventions arising from and depending for their intelligibility on our experience of a world with mid-scale furniture and communicative peers and so on behaving in familiar ways.

When a religious person speaks of their expectation of personal resurrection as a soul and of its ascent into an immortal afterlife in Heaven these utterances can only be taken by sensible people as metaphorical utterances without literal reference or as public signals of subcultural membership in a moral or otherwise interpretative community, rather like a secret handshake -- or less charitably they can be taken as expressions of extreme confusion or insanity.

Precisely the same goes for statements about "uploading." When I dismiss these utterances you misunderstand me if you assume I am disagreeing with you on a matter of a testable hypothesis -- even when the form my dismissal takes is "never gonna happen." I am saying that what we mean by "persons," what we mean by "living" cannot coherently accommodate "uploading" or "immortality" and that people who say these things must be speaking metaphorically or subculturally (indeed, Robot Cult-urally) or be deeply confused or possibly a little crazy. Life is lived in vulnerable bodies, intelligence is performed in squishy brains and squishy socialities.

I believe that a majority of the elderly able to do so will do it,

When you use the verb "able" and the pronoun "it" here in respect to "uploading" you make the mistake of imagining you know something about which you are talking. Unfortunately, you don't.

and they will be both a minority (of earths total population) and a very resourceful group.

See, you are indulging in a full froth of faithful handwaving and imagine yourself to be engaging in some sort of policy wonk discourse. This is a problem.

If/when we are able to live comfortably on other planets, environmental issues on this planet wont be as important as they are now.

No doubt the same would be true if we could live in other dimensions or perform spells with wands. That human life on other suitably terraformed planets is logically feasible in ways that interdimensionality or magicality likely are not is irrelevant given that the scientific and, more to the point, political, legal, practical problems of environmentalism are urgently proximate in ways that render remote developmental possibilities like interplanetary diaspora and logical impossibilities like practical wand magic exactly equally irrelevant (at best) to those who would attend to actual problems.

Every second wasted in the contemplation of techno-utopian "solutions" to real problems -- however earnest -- is functionally equivalent to time devoted to the active frustration of problem-solving or active denialism about the problem in the first place. Again, at best it is a matter of handwaving by the faithful confusing itself and others for policy discourse.

Whatever political system that will evolve within the next hundred years I don't think the above will change.

Political systems don't "evolve." And I have no idea what actually substantial thing you have described in "the above" is presumably not going to change or what significance you think attaches to whatever invariance you think you have hit upon.

If the world were otherwise than it is, its problems would be different than they are, too.

Uh, sure. So what?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shorter Prior Post

Obama has flipped the script, but to an unexpected extent both the Village Commentariat and the Left Netroots still seem to me to be reading from the old script.

A Period of Adjustment in the Netroots?

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

Of course, I still read dKos, Sirota, Digby with pleasure and profit -- and it would be utter foolishness to forget the years and years during which they were often among the few places where anybody was talking any kind of sense -- but they really all do seem to me a bit off their game post-Obama compared to pre-Obama.

I think all of them are underestimating Obama's boldness and savvy (apparently, even after watching his masterly primary and general election campaigns and unprecedentedly authoritative transition) as well as underestimating the indispensable value of progressives being critically supportive of rather than undercritically denunciatory about his admittedly imperfect but still progressive-enabling moves.

Please, if you can help it, don't confuse what I am saying for a recommendation that progressives should be uncritically enthusiastic of the actually centrist Obama.

There is a question of striking a balance between buoying up all this positive energy and hope and directing it to positive use, of appreciating the actual complexity and facility of Obama's moves in the service of practically possible progress, and the necessity of pressing a too centrist, too militarist, too corporatist (and sometimes, of course, just plain wrong on my view) Obama from the left to the benefit of all.

Judging that balance is a thing people of intelligence and good will can differ on. But as I said, a lot of my favorite Netroots people -- from Atrios to Open Left have sometimes felt to me, for the first time almost ever in any kind of consistent way, simply a bit off tone and off point in their reactions to Obama's moves.

The last time I felt this way about progressive discourse was when people I respected were telling me there is no difference that makes a difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I saw the point then, too, of course. I am hardly insensible to the charge that both parties have long been too beholden to corporate-militarism. But recognizing that, you then determine whether your resistance is revolutionary or reformist, and opting for the latter you throw aside your narcissism and easy perfectionism and take up some ugly compromised sausage-making.

If I may go out on a limb here, I believe that Obama essentially replaced the Democratic Party with his own organization after he prevailed over the incumbency represented by the Clinton machine largely without anybody noticing it (Clinton at State is the consummation of this move, complete assimilation), I believe that Obama is currently creating a more congenial alternate GOP for post-Movement Republicans to move into in much the same way and that his bipartisanship is far from the usual capitulation but an effort to marginalize the better to consume Nixonian/Reaganite Republicanism to spit it out as an Eisenhower Republicanism he can work with (and probably has more sympathy with than, say, I would), and now I also believe that Obama is attempting to re-invent the Middle East conflict rather than getting tangled up in the usual heartbreaking intractable construction of it. I mean, this is all oversimplification, but I just keep getting the feeling that the people who usually talk the most sense on politics in my view are rather missing the scope and boldness and promise and risk of Obama's characteristic politics.

You really do have to go back to FDR to find anything like this kind of near-revolutionary reformism, this progressive-enabling pragmatism -- and, no, FDR wouldn't do the same things FDR did then now if he were really FDR, either.

Today's Random Wilde

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

Would You Hit It?

It's Centaur Wednesday, Y'all!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Zombie Wisdom from the Washington Press Corpse

It's very good for the Republicans that they look like obstructionists in a time of national crisis, demanding as the "solution" to our economic catastrophe the very unpopular and discredited tax-cutting and deregulatory policies that caused the catastrophe and were decisively repudiated in the election that booted them from power.

More Than One Retro-Futural Elitism

Upgraded and elaborated from the Moot:

There is a difference worth noting between the techno-elitists who don't care if majorities are flattened so long as the "superior" minorities with which they happen to identify flourish and prevail, as against the techno-elitists who don't care if majorities are silenced so long as the "superior" minorities with which they happen to identify achieve and stay in control of things -- since they are quite convinced they have all the answers that matter, largely because they are uninterested in or otherwise deaf to most of the questions actually on offer. Superlative technocentricity in especially its eugenic, technocratic, and more insistently transcendentalizing modalities is full of this sociopathic sorry delusory sort of business. Hence, in kernel, the paradoxical tendency of so many would-be futurisms to amount to anti-democratizing retro-futurisms politically.

Still in the Tank for Obama

Yes, yes, brainless Boehner is telling the GOP to vote against the stimulus even though the stimulus was crafted at Obama's insistence in order to attract GOP support through useless, utterly discredited, frankly immoral tax cuts rather than vitally necessary potentially transformative public spending. (This was a campaign promise of his, you know, were you sleeping in class?)

Rather than just leaping to the assumption that this reflects Obama's naivete or disorganization or stealth corporatism, has it not occurred to anybody that this might be a set-up? Democrats will still get their stimulus and it will still be incomparably more progressive than anything I could have dreamed of since Clinton's first term (Clintonism Failed, btw, y'all), meanwhile the dwindling Republican minority are exposed in harsh headlines and sound-bite hairballs as extreme out-of-touch ideologues and obstructionists in a moment of unprecedented national crisis.

Am I the only one who observed Obama's masterly maneuverings during the primary? Obama dog-whistled his awareness of who's who and what's what with his "I won," but everybody is leaping to the Lucy and the Football analogy anyway.

Progressives have been betrayed and abused beyond reckoning since RFK's assassination and Carter's difficulties gave way to the Movement Conservative world-destroying bullet-spraying looting spree, but shake off the Stockholm Syndrome, people, and open yourselves to the possibilities that we have elected a President (yes, imperfect, yes, rather centrist, yes, he really listens to the vile Lawrence Summers) who has actually learned a thing or two from history, who actually knows something of what he is doing, who actually demands that we push him into progress rather than promising to deliver it?

I don't get why so many progressive people are ill-disposed to attend to differences that make a difference the better to build on them, rather than endlessly decry as betrayals what look like suboptimal compromises on the left wing of the possible.

It's good to push a centrist like Obama from the left -- and he actually seems to welcome this -- but this relentless naysaying among so many writers I habitually turned to for commonsense through the long nightmare of the Killer Clown Administration feels to me weirdly disproportionate and undercritical and pointlessly demoralizing.

I think Obama is doing great and I think the Democrats are doing better than I expected. Still in the tank, I suppose.

Today's Random Wilde

The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.

Groove Junkies Help Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Would You Hit It?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Zombie Wisdom from the Washington Press Corpse

President Obama is breaking his promise of bipartisanship unless he capitulates to the will of the discredited despised losing Republican minority on questions of taxes, torture and indefinite detention, and abortion.

Today's Random Wilde

In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.

Joan Jett Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Would You Hit It?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Anne Corwin on the Pernicious Impact of Superlativity on Healthcare Discourse

Excerpted without comment from Existence is Wonderful, Friend (and friend of blog) Anne Corwin is making good sense:
There is no magical property to handwaving that somehow makes handwaved potential outcomes more likely to happen, and I am quite worried in fact about the effects of large groups of people thinking that they can personally stave off age-related illness and death through sheer indignation at its occurrence (and in doing so, potentially losing sight of the fact that while they're fantasizing about nanorobotic cell repair, we still have kids in the United States dying because their family couldn't afford proper dental care).

What Do Transhumanists Actually Believe In?

To continue from my last post with the discussion of Russell Blackford's recent defense of the superlative technocentricity of the so-called Cosmic Engineers, I want to shift my attention away from what seems to me to be a curiously misplaced preoccupation in Blackford's piece with presumably fashionable and tyrannical political correctness among the relativist academic Left (of all things) to the one statement in the entire piece that seemed to me to name something like what Blackford thinks "transhumanism" actually, positively, substantially stands for. He writes:
I will always be looking for avenues to argue as strongly and effectively as I can for what I believe -- which includes the idea that technology can improve the human situation and enhance human capacities.

I find this statement problematic at two different levels.


As an everyday sort of utterance it seems to me that the belief that "technology can improve the human situation and enhance human capacities" is as vapid a commonplace as one could ever hope to find.

Is there anybody on earth who manages consistently to disagree with this belief? Even deep ecologists who devote their lives to the critique of "the technological society" tend to defend the notion of "appropriate technology," after all, and even the ones who haven't exactly thought the matter through still tend to use pencils and wear eyeglasses and visit the doctor.

The idea that one invents tools to do wanted things with them is surely rather built in to the notion of "technology" in the first place? One doesn't want to end the story there -- there are questions about what is wanted in what sense, with what consequences, and so on, but we'll turn to a slightly deeper intervention in a moment.

As for "enhancing human capacities," this is a bit trickier, but at the same everyday speech level as the one in which almost everybody as a matter of course already believes technology can be helpful it is also true that almost everybody already believes as a matter of course that healthcare is a good thing (where it is made to be as safe and fair as may be and so on), and that healthcare is a matter of intervening in dis-ease to render ease.

Again, there are questions whether rendering ease is quite the same thing as "enhancement" but we'll get to that in a moment.

At this first level of attention, though, I just want to point out that there is a really substantial sense in which the belief Blackford declares to be his own and seems to identify with "transhumanism" constitutes such a complete commonplace that the question becomes against whom does Blackford really imagine himself to be in disagreement and why on earth would anybody imagine one needs a new (?), unique (?) "movement" or "program" to affirm or defend or promote these commonplaces?


Once we set aside everyday usage and interrogate these commonplaces in a more analytic way we find that they don't really hold up to scrutiny at all (this is no argument in my view against their perfect usefulness in their everyday usage; that would require a different argument).

Although I have no trouble at all making sense of the everyday utterance that "technology can improve the human situation," this is not at all an utterance I would be comfortable to affirm in a careful accounting of technoscientific change.

If one is taking greater care around these claims in an effort to understand technodevelopmental social struggle the first thing one will immediately observe is that while some technoscientific changes improve the situation (whether in the short term or in the longer term) of at least some human beings (though rarely all, and never in the same way or to the same extent) some do not, and that the logical possibility that technology can improve things for some is less to the point than determining just whose lot will be improved, and how much, for how long, at what cost, at what risk, to whom and on what terms, and then determining how best case outcomes might be facilitated in light of all this.

What one discovers soon enough is that it is never "technology" as such that "improves" things for anybody.

There is no such thing as "technology" at that level of generality in the first place, and it does a terrible disservice to sense to imply otherwise. Rather, there are historically situated technoscientific vicissitudes caught up in the ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle of the diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific change who share the world.

Further, it is the uses to which technoscientific discoveries are put that determines their impact for good or ill. These uses are driven by moral, esthetic, ethical, and political values -- and are not somehow determined by what passes for "technology" itself in any given moment of technodevelopmental social struggle.

This matters, because it means that even those who focus on the political problems and promises of technoscientific change in particular will rightly attend more to the terms of fairly conventional political value than to the particulars of technoscience to the extent that their concern is actually more political (facilitating equity, diversity, and consent, say) than specifically scientific.

The same sort of concern is very much alive when one wants to look closely at the notion of "enhancing human capacities." Enhancement is always: enhancement -- in the service of some ends over others; enhancement -- according to whom as against who else.

While we can agree that healthcare provision is being rendered non-normalizing in an unprecedented way by emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies, the determination of what non-normalizing interventionals are "enhancements" is not somehow determined by the therapies at hand but through the scene of actually informed actually nonduressed consensual self-determination in planetary multiculture.

To the extent that "transhumanism" wants to imply that political ends like the "improvement of the human situation" are determined by scientific developments apart from political contestation and consensual self-determination then this seems to me a facile, too-familiar, dangerously anti-democratizing thesis of reductionism coupled to technocratic elitism.

To the extent that "transhumanism" wants to imply that it can dictate the terms on which non-normalizing healthcare will yield "enhancement of human capacities" and when it will not apart from political contestation and consensual self-determination then this seems to me a moralizing, too-familiar, dangerously anti-democratizing thesis of eugenicism coupled to technocratic elitism again.

To the extent that "transhumanism" wants no more than to imply that tools can be useful and healthcare can be a good thing, well, I'm afraid one doesn't need to join a Robot Cult to advocate such commonplaces, indeed one probably needs to find one's way to a Luddite Cult as marginal as the Robot Cult itself to find anybody who consistently disapproves such commonplaces.

Now, if one wants to profess faith in a technologically determined human destiny aspiring toward the accomplishment of secularized theological omni-predicates, digital superintelligence, therapized superlongevity, virtual or nanotechnological superabundance then I daresay one probably does need to join a Robot Cult to find a community of the like-minded, and the same goes for those who would recast eugenic parochialism as an emancipatory program in this day and age.

None of these results seem to me to conduce much to the benefit of those who would declare "movement transhumanism" a reasonable enterprise as it actually plays out in the world.

Robot Cultists Battle the Relativist Menace of the Academic Left?

Australian bioethicist and fine science fiction author Russell Blackford has published a surprising sort of defense and endorsement of the Order of Cosmic Engineers and their recent "Yes! to Transhumanism" manifesto. You may recall that I have ridiculed both of these myself (here and here). Of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, Blackford writes that it "includes a veritable who’s who of notable transhumanist thinkers," which I certainly agree is true -- very much to the cost of a movement transhumanism that would be considered as anything but a Robot Cult.

When I say that Blackford's defense and endorsement of all this is surprising what I really mean to emphasize is the form it takes. First off, Blackford quotes the entire "Yes! to Transhumanism" manifesto, without criticism or elaboration, and only then does he propose to look at the piece in a critical way. That is to say, he doesn't just link to it, but re-publishes the entire text within his own, rather than focusing in on particular selections he approves of or finds especially relevant. This seems to me to imply a kind of blanket endorsement of the whole, as at least worthy of serious attention in its entirety.

As a result, we are fully halfway through his whole piece before we arrive at the sentence: "All that now said, what should we make of the manifesto itself?"

And what does he make of the manifesto itself? I have to confess I'm at a bit of a loss to say.

Blackford describes the piece as "timely," presumably because there are burning debates taking place among the various movement transhumanist organizations at the moment about tactics, promotion, direction, and so on. I must say that these flare-ups occur among the transhumanists fairly regularly (I was a fly on the wall for more than a few), usually provoking a spate of new online manifestoes and breathless founding of organizations, but never as far as I can see cashing out in any significant differences in the sorts of things transhumanist-identified people really talk about or the numbers of people talking about them in the way they talk about them.

One would like to hear how these debates might be "timely" in some larger sense, how they might bespeak larger technodevelopmental quandaries in some way rather than sectarian he-said she-said squabbles among marginal Robot Cultists. Blackford is actually quite capable of translating these local squabbles into more generally relevant terms, but that doesn't seem to be his interest here. That's too bad, if you ask me, and a missed opportunity.

Blackford then goes on -- rather mystifyingly to my mind -- to change the subject entirely. Leaping into the Wayback Machine he declares, as if this were 1990 or something, that "no one should feel constrained to be 'politically correct,' if this means subscribing to whichever ideas are currently fashionable with the academic Left." Are people really still agonizing over the bugaboo of political correctness? And is it really the case that only the "academic Left" exhibits this tyrannical impulse?

From my own nook teaching humanities courses in a Bay Area University Rhetoric Department and an Art School committed to some construal of "theory" I am presumably in the belly of the beast if there is an "Academic Left" in a position to issue proclamations about political correctness, and I am here to tell you that nothing so monolithic exists as "the academic Left," that I haven't heard a demand for "political correctness" in two decades' time, and that in the age of the corporate university humanities education is far from all-powerful but is indeed scarcely hanging by its fingernails over an abyss.

Still, we are fully a paragraph further now into Blackford's actual "turn to the manifesto" he is defending and what we are hearing is: "I don’t subscribe to the various kinds of epistemic relativism that are fashionable on the Left, nor its crude cultural relativism." In the next paragraph, still without any actual contact with the manifesto presumably being defended: "I intend to put unpopular views -- unpopular with the academic Left as well as the general public -- as fearlessly as I can." The next paragraph: "Most of all, I don’t want to be beholden to what is fashionable, from time to time, among the ranks of the academic Left." A sentence later: "I also don’t see the need for transhumanist organisations to be beholden to the academic Left or notions of political correctness."

Quite apart from what seems to me a rather… skewed? …sense of the monolithic character of theoretical and political commitment among the professoriate, not to mention what seems an investment of that imaginary monolith with oppressive powers that simply don't square with anything remotely like my own sense of reality, quite apart from that, I am not sure why this particular line of criticism is one that connects us to the reasons why Blackford is defending the Cosmic Engineers exactly. Is the idea that there is a cabal of transhumanists who read Derrida holding back the emergence of the Robot God and Nano-Santa's treasure cave by demanding "lefty political correctness" rather than allowing transhumanists to let their freak flag fly?

"I’m not a fan of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, or Stanley Fish," Blackford assures us. Are there a lot of transhumanists who feel otherwise? I've been arguing with Robot Cultists for nearly two decades and I have yet to meet one who has read substantially among these figures at all, although many dismiss them without reading them in the usual manner. Incidentally, I think one can reasonably distill a broad even programmatic viewpoint in the shared space of the thinkers "Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker" Blackford claims to be a "fan of" as opposed to the laundry list of poststructuralist, feminist, literary, and psychoanalytic theoryheads he disapproves -- but I strongly disagree that these figures he's corralling together in his disapproval are anything like so easily synthesized into an affinity group. Stanley Fish and Luce Irigaray? What on earth is their affinity supposed to consist in exactly?

While Blackford is quite conversant in the fashion of denigrating as nothing but fashion certain debates among some scholars in the humanities he happens to disapprove of or be disinterested in -- it is really a bit mysterious to me why this is what he is talking about at all when presumably what he is doing is defending these Superlative Technocentrics. How does Blackford's endorsement of ridiculous Robot Cultists land us back in the tired Culture Wars? For me there is a real disconnect happening here.

After decrying the sinister mavens of political correctness of the academic left, Blackford does go on to add that he would "hate to see transhumanism turn into something much closer to a theological system." On my view he's rather out of luck here, inasmuch as transhumanism, like all superlative technocentricities, seems to me an essentially theological viewpoint, producing subcultural identification among a community of True Believers in a constellation of imaginary technodevelopmental "outcomes" amounting to secular variations on traditional religious omni-predicates. I have to assume that Blackford would disagree with this characterization but no alternative to it is forthcoming from him, any more than there is any actual engagement with the substance of the Order of Cosmic Engineers he is presumably defending.

He talks about the need for "inclusiveness" and "debate" if the "trasnhumanist movement" is to "thrive," which certainly sounds reasonable enough. But, as always, I am left wondering what worldly result is imagined to follow from such "thriving" in "movement transhumanism"? What is the actual content in the service of which it is desirable that "transhumanism" thrive? Clearly, there are limits to the debate it can be open to or the ends it can be inclusive of if it is to remain intelligible as some particular thing in the first place? But what is that thing? Apart from the relativist menace of lefty politically correct postmodernist intellectuals in the humanities it isn't clear who is to be cast outside of thriving transhumanism, nor is it clear to me why this is a particularly urgently relevant villain to transhumanism in the first place -- even if the villain really existed in the form Blackford is lampooning -- I mean, why not fixate on bioconservatives rather than effete elite aesthetes in the context of a militarized and corporatized anti-intellectual world in which few of them can even make a living let alone constitute some authoritarian force keeping down the righteous enlightenment technocrats of the futurological congress?

Blackford writes: "I have no wish that someone who disagrees with me be ostracised for it or that anyone’s ideas be censored." Fair enough, I suppose, but I cannot think Blackford would hesitate to describe views he truly finds dangerous or ridiculous or both as precisely that for reasons he would offer up to the scrutiny of others. "I’ll be making alliances with like-minded people wherever I can find them, whether they are inside and outside the transhumanist movement." But this seems to me to assume he affirms at any rate the mild "ostracism" of not allying with those with whom he is not so like-minded. While transhumanists hold many eccentric positions on questions of technodevelopmental priorities and possibilities and plausible timelines, because they form a sub(cult)ure in their belief they often seem to confuse strong disagreement with their premises as defamation of their identities. I have to assume that Blackford (a strong critic of organized religiosity otherwise) sees the problems and dangers of this sort of thing, and that when he declares "Let a thousand flowers bloom!" he would include among the flowers we shouldn't cull those that disapprove what others enthuse about, demur where other assent, criticize proposals offered up to public scrutiny. I hope that Blackford would not mistake any of that for intolerable ostracism and censorship in the context of consensual secular multiculture -- even if it is coming from a lefty like me who writes and teaches literary and critical theory Blackford personally has little patience for.

I have one more quick point to make, but I'll save it for my next post.

California's Hostage Crisis

A cabal of movement conservatives who want to destroy government and install a feudal market libertopia here are holding the entire state of California hostage to their anti-tax anti-government ideology because idiosyncrasies in our state constitution enable this, and because our confused ineffectual Governor is the punchline of a joke that was never funny in the first place.

One hears a lot of cries of "a plague on both their houses" about politicians in Sacramento from the editorial pages and on the subway but even granting the schlerotic incumbency that compromises Democratic Party politics this kind of equivalent condemnation is actually worse than wrong: Not only does it attribute to some generalized incompetence and corruption what is actually mostly the fault of extreme right-wing ideologues hell-bent on destruction (and succeeding), but it actually disseminates an uncritically anti-governmental sentiment that mirrors, endorses, and rewards the very ideological perspective responsible for California's incomparable mess.

California is home to some of the most progressive majorities in the Union and well-informed highly-motivated progressives in California have been instrumental in recent stunningly successful national Democratic politics, and yet here at home we are flabbergastingly ill-informed and apathetic, sleepwalking while the worst exemplars of the "movement conservativsm" we so resolutely repudiated on the national stage are actually managing here the feat that has always driven them; namely, to shrink the government through insolvency, deregulation, and engineered failure to a size that is small enough to drown in a bathtub.

Where government is of the people, by the people, and for the people make no mistake who is drowned by those who would destroy government. The so-called "ain't no such thing as a free lunch" crowd are stealing the sandwiches from our mouths and calling it liberty. It's a problem when you're governed by people who think government is the problem. Lawlessness, corruption, insolvency, failure ensues as a matter of course. Until these ideologues are exposed for what they are, blamed for what they've done, and decisively repudiated in their fully discredited ideas you can be sure that there is no end in sight to our present hostage crisis.

Condensed Critique of Transhumanism

UPDATE/Preface: The journal Existenz has published and made freely available online my essay Futurological Discourse and Posthuman Terrains, which now seems to me the best, most concise and yet elaborated introduction to my critique of transhumanism, and so I would preface the recommendations that follow with the suggestion that the Existenz article might also be a better starting point for some readers. The Existenz essay is rather densely philosophical in places, however, while many of the pieces that follow are more humorous or more readily digestable, and so I don't think that essay is a perfect substitute for the following by any means.

"Transhumanism" is essentially a techno-transcendental digital-utopian and/or "enhancement"-eugenicist futurological discourse and futurist sub(cult)ure. (Sometimes, I understand that the term has been used in connection with some trans activism as well, but that is not what I am talking about here -- and I want to be clear that I have devoted a lifetime of activism and writing and teaching to resisting sexist, heterosexist, cissexist patriarchy.) I have chosen the following handful of pieces as providing a condensed critique of the various "movement transhumanisms." This is the aspect of my anti-futurological critique which seems most interesting to most folks (for better or worse). Hundreds of posts, arranged by futurist topic as well as by the individual futurological author getting skewered are also to be found in my Superlative Summary for the real gluttons for punishment among you. While transhumanism is, strictly speaking, just one of the sects in the superlative futurological Robot Cult archipelago (others include the Extropians, Singularitarians, techno-immortalists, crypto-anarchists and bitconartists, cybernetic totalists, nano-cornucopiasts, geo-engineers, and so on) transhumanism does overlap considerably with most of the others and exhibits a certain rhetorical and subcultural representativeness.

As someone who respects real science and advocates real public commitments to science and critical thinking education and real public investments in research and sustainable infrastructure, I am annoyed of course with the deranging futurological frames and narratives of techno-transcendentalists (immortal cyberangels! nano-magick utility-fog!) and disasterbators (Robocalypse! grey goo!) who cater to the fears and fantasies of the uninformed and skew policy priorities (for instance, the futurological enablement of reactionary talk about raising the retirement age), not to mention the straightforward pseudo-scientific blathering of uploading circle-squarers (my critique in a phrase: you are not a picture of you) and cryonics cranks, cheerleading over drextechian genies-in-a-bottle, GOFAI-deadenders (my critique in a phrase: Moore's Law isn't going to spit out a sooper-intelligent Robot God Mommy to kiss your boo boos away, sorry), geo-engineering apologists for corporate-military eco-criminals, facile evo-devo reactionaries, not to mention all manner of digital utopian hucksters and TED-squawkers.

But to step back from the obvious, I also regard mainstream futurology as the quintessential discourse of neoliberal global developmentalism, market-mediation, and fraudulent financialization. There is a certain strain of delusive utopianism that drives neoliberalism's callous immaterialism (eg, its focus on branding over labor conditions, its focus on fraudulent financialization over sustainable production) and hyperbolic salesmanship through and through, but what I describe as superlative futurological discourses represent a kind of clarifying -- and also rather bonkers -- extremity of this pseudo-utopianism. While there is obviously plenty that is deranging and dangerous about such techno-transcendental or superlative futurological discourses and the rather odd organizations and public figures devoted to them, what seems to me most useful about paying attention to these extreme and marginal formations is the way they illuminate underlying pathologies of the more prevailing mainstream futurological discourses we have come to take for granted in so much public policy discussion concerning science, technology, and global development.

Among these parallel pathologies, it seems to me, are shared appeals to irrational passions -- fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence -- shared tendencies to genetic reductionism, technological determinism, and a certain triumphalism about techno-scientific progress. I also discern in both mainstream and superlative futurology a paradoxical "retro-futurist" kind of reassurance being offered to incumbent and elite interests that "progress" or "accelerating change" will ultimately amount to a dreary amplification of the familiar furniture of the present world or of parochially preferred present values. Also, far too often, one finds in both mainstream and superlative futurology disturbing exhibitions of indifference or even hostility to the real material bodies and real material struggles in which lives, intelligences, lifeways, and human histories are actually incarnated in their actual flourishing diversity.

An easy way to think of the relation I am proposing between these two modes of futurology is to say that mainstream futurology suffuses our prevailing deceptive hyperbolic corporate-military PR/advertising discourse, while superlative futurology amplifies this advertising and promotional hyperbole into an outright delusive promise of personal transcendence (superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance) of human finitude and this fraudulent speculation and public relations into outright organized sub(cult)ural religiosity.

The first four pieces below subsume transhumanism within the terms of my critique of superlative futurology, the next one focuses on the structural (and sometimes assertive) eugenicism of transhumanist "enhancement" discourse, and the final piece tries to provide a sense of the more positive perspective out of which my critique is coming:
A Superlative Schema

The Superlative Imagination

Understanding Superlative Futurology

Transhumanism Without Superlativity Is Nothing

Eugenics and the Denigration of Consent

Amor Mundi and Technoprogressive Advocacy
More recent pieces, Ten Reasons to Take Seriously the Transhumanists, Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Nano-Cornucopiasts and Other Assorted Robot Cultists and White Guys of "The Future" and Ten Things You Must Fail to Understand to Remain A Transhumanist for Long may provide more accessible, certainly more pithy and snarky, summaries of many facets of the critique. Of course, if pithy is what is really wanted, my mostly aphoristic Futurological Brickbats anthology is possibly worth a look.

For those who are interested in the always controversial but not really very deep issue of the "cultishness" or not of the various superlative futurological sub(cult)ures, and just how facetious I am being when I refer to these futurological formations as "Robot Cults," I recommend this fairly representative post dealing with those questions (which do pop up fairly regularly). Perhaps more serious, at least potentially, there is this rather disorganized and muckraking archive documenting and exploring key figures and institutional nodes in the Robot Cult archipelago, exposing some of their more patent ties to reactionary causes and politics.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Back to the Salt Mine

Already I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the teaching this term. Not a good sign. Off to lecture on Aristotelian rhetorical appeals and the notion of authorial intention now...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can This Really Be True?

The following rather flabbergasting statement appears in the description of Chuck Todd's new book (sheesh! that was quick!) How Barack Obama Won:
By the way, since 1928 there has not been a winning Republican presidential/vice-presidential ticket without a Bush or Nixon.

Uh, I dunno, wow?

Today's Random Wilde

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Upgraded from the Moot

Reader JimF says:
I have no beef at all with Greg Egan's Permutation City -- it's one of the best SF novels I've ever cozied up with while sipping lemonade on a summer afternoon. If he says miracles of simulation can be accomplished on a six-dimensional "TVC [Turing-Von Neumann-Chiang] Grid", then I can suspend my disbelief 'til next Tuesday, and enjoy the hell out of it.

But -- it's just a story. Like Superman (or Green Lantern).

Put 'em back in your pants, guys. There's nothing similar to grab on to in the real world. Not now. Not in 2010. Maybe not ever.

Diaspora is pretty good, too.)

Upgraded without comment. Agree with the substance, agree with the dismissive tone, agree with the specific insinuation that this is largely a matter of boys-with-their-toys, agree that Egan is great sf.

Would You Hit It?

It's Centaur Wednesday, Y'all!


Yesterday, I left the house quite a bit earlier than I needed to for my first day back teaching, because Eric and I both wanted to go to the Berkeley campus to gather with others on Sproul Plaza (a large, paved open space amidst several administrative buildings, in case you don't know Berkeley well) to watch the swearing in of our new President on a huge screen there.

Even though I fully expected a throng I have to admit I was a bit shocked by the size of the crowd, thousands and thousands of people filling the plaza, surrounding the building behind us to fill another plaza behind that and swelling further into campus past Sather Gate. Amazing. The energy was lovely, people cheered Aretha and hissed Cheney, but it was all rather good-natured, really.

When President Obama addressed the Nation our crowd applauded mostly at the same phrases I expect attracted cheers across the country -- including cheers for rather hawkish statements I personally wasn't exactly thrilled about, but that's fine, it didn't spoil the thing for me in the least.

I do think there were two moments in the speech when Obama's utterances provoked in Berkelyites spontaneous outbursts of joyous clamor that were probably not at all typical for the Nation at large, at least not at this level of enthusiasm.

The first was when Obama outlined the ecological and economic crises he has inherited and then said: "These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics." When he said subject to data and statistics, the crowd went apeshit crazy with joy. It was utterly charming and so heartfelt in its spontaneity and intensity.

The second moment was when Obama said "we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers." Apart from the lovely truth of the overall sentiment there, it was just good to hear the millions of "nonbelieving" citizens (of course, senso strictu, though, non-believers actually believe in plenty) in this secular nation of ours registered in their existence as an part of our vital plurality. Upon hearing that inclusion of nonbelievers the good people around us offered up a full-throated cheer to the heavens.

I must say it felt good to be in that crowd of my fellow Americans at that moment, especially given what an organized faith-fest so much of the debate about and then substance of the inaugural has turned out to be.

Given all that, I'll add that the Rick Warren thing turned out to be utterly anti-climactic. His speech seemed lame, as though some not very bright encyclopedia salesman had wandered briefly onto the set and muttered some apt but uninspired vacuities. When Aretha Franklin appeared right after Warren and sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" America was treated to Obama's true Invocation as far as I'm concerned (unless Gene Robinson's Invocation Sunday is taken for the true priestly kick-off whistle).

For me, Aretha was one of the real highlights of the whole thing. Another surprise -- and Eric reported the exact same reaction -- was that we agreed DiFi gave one of the best speeches of the day (that is, Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is a regular rather too corporate-militarist source of annoyance to us).

Eric took some pictures of the crowd, maybe I'll post them once the rush of week week teaching is past.

Monday, January 19, 2009

This Land Is Your Land -- Despite HBO's Efforts at Censorship

Gene Robinson's Invocation -- Despite HBO's Effort at Censorship

Made for You and Me

Those who click on the YouTube link to the beautiful restored Pete Seeger and Bruce Springstein performance of "This Land Is Your Land" I posted yesterday will now discover this message: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Home Box Office, Inc."

One is reminded of these lines from the restored version of the song captured in this public celebration of our shared joy in electing our President Barack Obama to the Executive Branch of our democracy:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

According to Joe Sudbay over at AmericaBlog HBO censored openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson's Invocation for the event, which means, apparently, that nobody can ever see that -- despite the explosive political significance of that Invocation in the context of lying homogay bigot Rick Warren's Invocation scheduled for the Inaugural itself -- since HBO imagines it owns the rights to the material reality of a news event it happened to broadcast.

Hey, HBO, turning tides can drown you if you're too dumb to pay attention to what's happening around you. It will be enjoyable to observe these greedy brainless corporatist fucks walking this one back.

Some Readers May Be Surprised to Discover….

…that I don't drive and have never possessed a car, that I have never owned nor do I particularly enjoy using a cellphone, that I don't have a laptop, nor do I make regular recourse to what pass for "hand-held devices" especially since, unaccountably, forks, pencils, bars of soap, and paperback novels seem not to count as such anymore. I have never found the inconvenience of lacking these things in my life to outweigh the inconvenience of introducing them into my life. I'll cheerfully concede both that circumstances in my life could alter in ways that would change this calculation for me and so, too, that other people leading other lives than mine might have already sensibly calculated the conveniences and inconveniences differently than I have. Nevertheless, I will venture the opinion that people need considerably less than they think they do and that more of them are made miserable by their inconveniencing conveniences than they seem to be aware of. This is not luddism on my part, but, if you'll forgive me, simple intelligence.

Today's Random Wilde

One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.

Would You Hit It?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pete Seeger and Bruce Springstein Help Make Amor Mundi More Positive

From the Inaugural Concert this afternoon, hundreds of thousands of voices raised in song, singing what progressives long considered America's true national anthem, Woodie Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land. Do some of the powerful words you hear in this performance of the restored song seem unfamiliar to you? Here they are:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

So-Called Technoscientific Depoliticization Usually Conduces to the Benefit of Conservative Politics

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, in response a question about a superlative-minded technocentric of our acquaintance:
How can a self-declared "radical democrat" so easily switch from vilifying people because they are "libertopians" or "Rapture Nerds" to embracing them as soon as they declare their transhumanist faith or seem to attract enough buzz that they could be useful?

By making the mistake of thinking there is such a thing as a commitment to "technology in general" with a politics of its own, separable from conventional left against right politics -- superseding them in fact.

Of course, there is no such thing as "technology in general."

Particular techniques are fully susceptible of "naturalization" or "denaturalization," "artifactualization" or "deartifactualization" almost entirely according to their relative familiarity, or according to the relative disruptiveness of their applications in the present. That is to say, we are apt to describe as "natural" what might once have been conspicuously artifactual once we've grown accustomed to it, or to be struck by the artificiality of the long-customary should historical vicissitudes render its effects problematic.

There is an ongoing prosthetic elaboration of agency -- where "culture" is the widest word for prostheses in this construal -- and which is roughly co-extensive with the ongoing historical elaboration of "humanity." But this is a generality interminably articulated by technodevelopmental social struggle, there is no one politics we can sensibly assign it.

There are only techniques in the service of ends (and even these ends are plural in their basic character), and the ends tend to be inspired and articulated by pretty conventional moral and aesthetic values and embedded in and expressive of pretty conventional political narratives -- democratization against elitism, change against incumbency, consent against authority, equity for all against excellence for few, and so on.

The pretense or gesture of a technoscientific circumvention of the political -- and affirming a "technology politics" indifferent to the primary articulation of technoscientific change in the world by democratizing as against anti-democratizing politics finally amounts to such an effort at circumvention in my view -- seems to me usually to conduce to de facto right wing politics, since it functions to de-politicize as neutrally "technical" a host of actually moral, aesthetic, political quandaries actually under contest.

This is a mistake as easily made by dedicated well-meaning people of the left or the right, as by cynical or dishonest ones, or simply by foolish people, whatever their political sympathies.

But it is always a mistake.

Superlativity and Existential Risk Discourse

Updated and adapted from the Moot, in response to the question:
[D]o you think there is a place for deliberation about risks like nuclear war, pandemic disease, infrastructural collapse, etc. as a single class of entities?

Do I think these places for deliberation actually exist? Of course they do.

As it happens, I actually don't know that I believe there is ultimately more use than not in treating WMD proliferation (as exacerbated by militarist nation-statism), catastrophic climate change (as exacerbated by extractive-industrial production), proliferating pandemic vectors (as exacerbated by overurbanization), resource descent (as exacerbated by corporate-industrial agriculture practices), together with speculation about dramatic meteor impacts and gamma ray bursters, and I certainly don't think it makes any kind of sense to treat all these concerns as essentially of a piece with the silly pseudo-problems that preoccupy Robot Cultists, like how to cope with unfriendly Robot Gods, or planet-eating nanoblobs, or gengineered sooper-brained baby centaur clone armies.

The main point is that one needn't join a Robot Cult to find serious discussions of actually-proximate global security issues.

Indeed, very much to the contrary, Robot Cult versions of these discussions tend to contribute little but hyperbole and disastrously skewed priorities to these topics in my view -- although, no doubt, they also contribute a smidge of unearned credibility to Robot Cultists themselves who just love opportunistically to glom on to complex technoscience questions and exacerbate the irrational passions they inevitably inspire, substitute a confectionary dusting of hokey neologisms for relevant expertise, and then embed contentious issues in a dramatic science fictional narrative that compels attention but usually without shedding much light, all in the service of whomping up membership numbers, donor dollars, and media attention for the organizations with which they personally identify in their sub(cult)ural superlativity.

Today's Random Wilde

The typewriting machine, when played with expression, is no more annoying than the piano when played by a sister or near relation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Programming Note

Teaching begins again this week both at Cal and at SFAI and so the weekend is given over to the pruning and polishing of syllabi and to responding to the avalanche of e-mails I'm already getting from students begging to be let into overfull sections or pointing out insolvable scheduling dilemmas created by administrative errors. Joy.

Today's Random Wilde

Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.

Would You Hit It?

Friday, January 16, 2009

How Awful It Was

Heard this morning on Stephanie Miller…















WingnutTrons Demand Their Place in the Futurological Sun

A reader alerts me to a new group of conservative-identified transhumanists who seem to think that organized techno-utopian "movement transhumanism" is in grave danger these days of growing insufficiently right-wingnutty in its advocacy of Robot Cultism, and have decided to do something about it, by gosh. In this, they're rather like the Yes!Trons I recently lampooned for bemoaning instead that organized techno-utopian "transhumanism" is getting too "moderate" in its advocacy of Robot Cultism these days. As I said at the time, when it comes to trying to imagine what would pass for a "too moderate" form of declaring your aspiration for techno-immortalization via brain uploading into a cyberspatial treasure cave amid Robot Gods, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Be all that as it may, though, it is clearly time to add a new specimen to the Robot Cult bestiary in honor of our freshly frustrated future-forward reactionaries (look, Ma, they're sooper-oxymoronic!). To the familiar techno-utopian sects of the triumphal reductionists, corporate-militarist technocrats, eugenicists, transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, cryonicists, uploaders, upwingers, nano-cornucopiasts (I'll leave the Mormons, Freemasons, Scientologists, Raelians, and Randroids to the side for the time being) and so on we have added a new PR-inspired refurbishment of the membership of the World Transhumanist Association and its stealth arm the IEET into "Humanity +" (don't laugh! that probably just means you're "Humanity -"), selling their brand of "the future" like it's Tupperwear with a burping lid, yielding the HumanityPlusTron sect of the Robot Cult. We have the Order of Cosmic Engineers and comparable kooks who say "oh my YES!" to full-throated Rapture of the Nerds superlativity and who are having no truck at all with the moderation and political correctness of the HumanityPlusTronic sect, yielding the freshly-minted Yes!Tron sect of the Robot Cult. And so now, too, apparently, we have a cohort of unapologetic retro-futurists and libertopians in full on movement-conservative Obama-epoch panic, yielding a bright new reactionary WingnutTron sect of the Robot Cult as well. The futurological funhouse has never seemed more disordered or more wacky!

Another reader has pointed out that "[w]hat's interesting about this new development is that if 'Conservatism Plus' and the conservative wing of the transhumanist movement takes off it will be harder for anyone to claim that said movement has 'matured' by becoming overwhelmingly 'progressive.'" This is true as far as it goes, but I must say it's hard to imagine what this "taking off" would look like exactly. Four white guys slurping large chocolate shakes at a Wendy's in Sunnyvale praising The Bell Curve and imagining themselves to be Heinleinian archetypes?

Quite apart from that I wonder just how sustainably convincing anybody ever found this whole "transhumanism is maturing into progressivism" line anyway...

It's true enough that during the catastrophic consummation of the Killer Clown administration these last few years transhumanist public discourse nudged leftward a smidge from the irrational exuberance of its Extropian daze (no death OR taxes, man!). But given the flabbergasting ferocity of the libertopian market-fundy climate-change denialist racist gun-nut fringiloquence of so much of that era of transhumanism there was frankly nowhere for superlativity to go but left. What is shocking is that the Ayn Raelian wing of the Robot Cult commands to this day more attention and respect among these more "mature" more "mainstream" so-called "democratic transhumanists" than they remotely manage among any other self-described progressives I've ever heard of.

I mean, it's bad enough so many actually mainstream democratic-minded people are still cozy with so-called "moderate" neoliberal corporatists like Rubin and DiFi, but I can't think of any self-described progressives -- who don't also buy into some version of Robot Cult futurological nonsense -- who would still treat full-on Machinery of Friedman anarchocapitalist market fundamentalist extremists and reactionary reductionist Bell-Curve apologists as "serious" intellectuals and tea party interlocutors.

And, anyway, whatever one's declared sympathies in the matter of political self-description, if your arguments ultimately conduce to the benefit of corporate-militarism or other right-wing political formations then who cares if you call yourself progressive or not?

Take a Hard Look:


I believe that the transhumanist deployment of a presumably "neutral" discourse of "enhancement" nudges them into a eugenic right-wing policing of lifeway diversity in accordance with their own parochial values insufficiently sensitive to questions of informed nonduressed consent in matters of emerging non-normalizing healthcare.


I think the so-called "big-tent" defended in the name of pragmatism by self-described "democratic transhumanists" in particular actually functionally evacuates that "left" of most of its critical force. This is very much in the spirit of the a-politicism (which is usually a functional endorsement of the status quo and hence a de facto conservatism) and even anti-politicism (which is usually a functional denigration of democracy and hence a de facto conservatism again) that prevails in technocentric discourses more generally. This in turn connects to and abets the usual facile technological determinist conceptions of technoscientific change in society that render the material history of technodevelopmental social struggle nearly invisible, usually to the benefit of incumbent interests who are always all too eager to describe their parochial interests as "natural" or "technical" rather than political (hence open to contestation) at all.


I think their growing emphasis on risk and even existential risk discourse replays the anti-democratizing rhetoric of the so-called war on terror in a futurological form.


I think their sympathies with massive geoengineering technofixes to environmental catastrophe (over appropriate and appropriable p2p-permaculture practices) function to keep hope alive for the extractive-industrial climate culprits even after their crimes are exposed as such.


I think their dissemination of the "acceleration of accelerating change" frame functions to justify elite circumventions of democratic deliberation about technoscience questions (it also happens, in my opinion, to mistake as "acceleration" what looks to non-privileged people simply like destabilization and precarization produced by anti-democratic neoliberal policies of global financialization of the economy).

Do you want me to go on? Do I need to?

The fact is, I think that first few paragraphs of this post in which I just made fun of all this silliness and called Robot Cultists silly names was really likely more apt, more forceful, and more enjoyable than this latter delineation of structural tendencies to conservatism inhering in superlative technocentricity whatever its declared affiliation.

We'll see what (if anything) draws the eye and ire of the Moot.