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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

GOP: Gangsters On Parade

[via TPM]
The Minnesota election dispute has now lasted for almost five months, with the seat vacant for the last three of them -- but that might just be the beginning, with NRSC chairman John Cornyn telling the Politico that it could take "years" to resolve.

Cornyn... is promising Republican resistance to any potential effort to seat Al Franken while Norm Coleman continues to challenge the result. And Cornyn is clear that this means Franken can't be certified the winner if Coleman takes it [next] to the federal courts, not just [conceding] at the state level...

TPM asked DSCC communications director Eric Schultz for comment. "Republicans have made it clear they will hold this Senate seat hostage in order to pursue their political agenda -- at the hefty expense of Minnesota having full representation in Congress," said Schultz. "We're all awaiting the three-judge panel to return its verdict, and once they do, we will have yet another confirmation that Al Franken won the election -- and hopefully he can get to Washington to do the job he was elected to do."

America's Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen, strong-arm threats and hostage-taking, in addition to the torture, war-mongering, looting of infrastructure, crony capitalism, and war-profiteering they've indulged in so gleefully for fourteen years: Nothing But Gangsters.

From Futurological Confusions to Futurological Delusions

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, friend of blog "Martin" rightly summarizes an element of my critique of superlative futurology that has been the subject of several recent blog-posts:
Right, the science is a means to an end: immortality, superintelligence, superhealth, etc. It is unclear if, how, and when those goals will be achieved. I don't know how one can assert that nanotech will be used to achieve any of those goals when we don't know what form nanotech will take.

That is right, as far as it goes (and it goes far enough to be fairly damning on its own to the presumptions of the futurologists and Robot Cultists and so on), but, remember, we are in a position to make an even more forceful critique.

It actually isn't at all new for True Believers to handwave about "immortality, superintelligence, superhealth, etc," after all. Priests and gurus have been selling that sort of crapola for centuries.

It actually matters that there are conspicuous conceptual confusions that beset notions of superintelligence, superlongevity, and a politics-circumventing superabundance if you really take the time to submit them to scrutiny. It's not just that the goals are questionable as to developmental timetables, it's not just that the technoscientific assumptions deployed in their service are marginal and yet treated as consensus.

It's that other things are afoot when people pine after or claim to be able to secure for the properly faithful an immortalization of life when life as it is lived in the world has always been a vulnerable embodied metapbolism of organisms with their environment... or to produce a spiritualized certainty-bearing superintelligence when intelligence as it is experienced in the world has always been embodied, social, contingent... or to arrive at a superabundance (whether technocraticized, roboticized, plasticized, fabbicized, nanoboticized, utilifoggicized, digitized, virtualized, femtocized, or who knows what the magick presently preoccupying the futurological congress happens to be) that could circumvent the actually ineradicable impasse of stakeholder politics in which a diversity of equitable peers differ on ends in a shared world, an impasse that cannot be circumvented but can only either be democratized (if you are of the left) or authoritatively controlled by force and its threat according to privileged ends (if you are of the right).

These aren't problems of misplaced confidence in marginal technoscientific or even pseudo-scientific notions mistaken for warranted consensus (although, of course, there is a whole hell of a lot of that kind of thing going on around here wherever corporate futurology and Robot Cultists are on the scene), but it is a problem of using words in a deeply problematic or confused way in order to feed personal delusions or sell some scam.

Zombie Wisdom From the Washington Press Corpse

No President has used a TelePrompter before Obama and since nobody has ever heard Obama say anything that wasn't fed to him by a TelePrompter we must entertain the possibility that our President is a Pod Person. It would be unserious, nay, the height of irresponsibility not to game out these scenarios endlessly on the tee vee in the midst of our nation's present distress.

Of course, in fact every President has used a TelePrompter since they arrived on the scene (although, it is true, few as consummately as Obama does -- but then, Obama does many things consummately well), of course, Obama has spoken off-the-cuff and conversationally and unprepared endlessly many times, and while he tends to becomes a bit more professorial and ironic in these moments (and it's true that sort of thing tends to push Amurca's dumbass anti-intellectual buttons to his cost, although at present this anti-intellectualism is trumped a tad by Amurca's sheeple looking for daddy to save them buttons in times of crisis so they're cutting him some slack as an egghead expert, but who can doubt that he'll reap the whirlwind come re-election time when another would you have a beer with him crisis erupts)than he does in his prepared speechifying he is still conspicuously intelligent, thoughtful, flexible, generous, and of course, our last president really was a brainless pod person ventriloquizing a cabal of literally evil neocons who brought the country to the brink of economic and ecological ruin while seeking to install a police state, but, hey, whatev.

Today's Random Wilde

The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.

Not Laughing With You

If nothing else the Robot Cultists -- especially in their nano-cornucopiast, singularitarian priesthood, and Ayn Raelian modalities -- have brought camp back to sf.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Spring break's over and the next month is something of an ever-intensifying climb through to the end of term. Looking for something to match the mood, I pulled down four Sirk DVDs from the shelves and watched them one after another, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Tarnished Angels, Imitation of Life. Now I'm feeling very histrionic.

Would You Hit It?

Today's Random Wilde

Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.

Far Out

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot: Far out ideas are crucial of course to the progress of science, and rightly cherished as such, but they don't actually count as warranted science until they manage to attract an actual consensus.

If scientific consensus finds some technoscientific claim unwarranted chances are that it is just that, unwarranted, even if it is true that some such views eventually do achieve consensus and so contribute to scientific progress. (Hi, there, would-be singularitarians, techno-immortalist uploaders, sooper-longevity pill-poppers, holodek dreamers, eugenicist schemers, drextech cornucopiasts, nice to see all your fresh-scrubbed froth-mouthed faces again!)

Futurological subcultures not scientific, they are better conceived as fandoms, communities of shared enthusiasm that identify with idealized outcomes or with would-be gurus (or sometimes even figures who themselves might otherwise pass muster as proper scientists or scholars or experts however marginal some of their notions might be) and substitute insular echo-chambers, passionate tribal devotions, and uncritical True Belief for the actual substantiation, experimentation, falsification, publication that yields scientific consensus.

In the really extreme modalities of futurological sub(cult)ure I criticize most emphatically here, like the eugenic transhumanists, the techno-immortalists, the singularitarian Robot God priesthood, the nano-cornupiasts, and so on, I fear that these tendencies are particularly pronounced, too often caught up in, at best deeply vulnerable to, the cul-de-sac of outright cultishness and all its unfortunate authoritarian paraphernalia.

Transhumanism As a Minuet of Truisms and Delusions

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Anonymous" wonders:
Would you agree with the critics who argue that transhumanism is a form of neo-Gnosticism?

I would agree with the critics who point out that the things transhumanists believe are either:
(a) truisms you don't have to join a robot cult to believe

(things like: that humans are conditioned in deep, definitive ways by the historical circumstances, social, cultural, artifactual in which they live, as everybody in the humanities has known for centuries, and that, properly so-called, progress is both a technical and political struggle, as most contemporary secular progressive democrats will also already tell you)

(b) palpably false and even flabbergastingly silly ideas that only somebody dumb or panicky enough to join a robot cult would ever fall for

(things like: that somebody -- maybe quite soon! -- will create "intelligence" without a brain and then invest a Robot God with superintelligence that will solve all our problems for us, and that somebody -- maybe quite soon! -- will invent a way to make all the right people invulnerable and immortal by turning "us" into software and plugging into imperishable robot bodies or networks, and that somebody -- maybe quite soon! -- will create swarms of nanobots that will cater to our every wish and make all conflict a thing of the past).

Not to mention, transhumanism too often amounts to a variety of eugenicism, which may be even worse than the robot cult problem.

Pondering whether or not transhumanism looks neo-gnostic once we assume a vantage of sufficient abstraction above it looks to me true enough as far as it goes, but to be less useful when all is said and done than simply noticing that wherever transhumanism is not peddling itself as reasonable by re-inventing various wheels to no good purpose it tends instead to be advocating batshit crazy nonsense, and some of it in the service of ugly authoritarian notions.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Futurological Immaterialism and Neoliberal Immaterialism

The literally fraudulent financialization of the US Economy under neoliberalism is completely off the rails, of course, and the critics are railing at last and en masse, still too little and possibly too late, but years and years and years after the wheels started coming off for all to see it seems that some are connecting at least some of the dots constituted by the breadcrumb trail of rapid episodic irrational exuberances of market-bubbles-and-looting-sprees consummating the Eyeblink Empire of postwar "Washington Consensus" corporate-militarism.

There are still more dots that remain for us to connect, if you ask me.

I would point out, for one, that the so-called "acceleration of acceleration of change" that corporate-militarist futurologists and especially Robot Cultists so love to hyperventilate about (and actually this "accelerationalism" is a mainstream corporatist trope, but the so-called Singularitarians are its reductio ad absurdum) derives its plausibility as a notion from our shared experience of the instability of this neoliberal financialization. Indeed, apart from a few technical vicissitudes incomparably more modest than their hype ever remotely justified, the so-called "acceleration of acceleration" really amounts to nothing but that instability of neoliberal financialization only simply as that instability is experienced by the relative beneficiaries of that financialization, or those who at any rate identify with those beneficiaries.

More dots.

The singularitarian nerd-rapture chorus line who have crowed loudest but not alone about this technoscientific "acceleration" toward digital transcendence, that is to say the ones who fulminated about a kind of historical "progress" but one without the materiality of actual social struggle in it, are usually the very same futurologists and techno-utopians who crow about an "intelligence" coded in software that is always imminent but never arrives, one without the materiality of brains or sociality to incarnate or substantiate it. They are often the very same futurologists and techno-utopians who pine for the enhanced "experience" of a "virtual reality" without the materiality of friction or chance or sublimity or entropy to substantiate it. They are often the very same futurologists and techno-utopians who pine for an immortal life "lived" somehow without life but as immaterial information in the cyberspatial sprawl or in invulnerable robotic shells, life as an endless prolongation of static senseless death-in-life where nothing can matter lest in mattering it "kill" the dead-alive "immortal" machine.

In the concluding chapter of my dissertation, Markets Without Materiality I discuss a futurological work by market fundamentalist David Friedman (son of the shock doctrine market fundamentalist guru Milton Friedman) in which he enthuses about the desirability or even necessity of a retreat into virtual reality as a means to escape the dilemmas posed by surveillance technologies according to another libertarian thinker, David Brin. I am compelled in that conclusion to note
the curiosity of the spectacle Friedman’s argument is making of itself here…. Robert Heilbroner has famously described economists as “the worldly philosophers,” as collaborators in the most relentlessly materialist humanist tradition on offer. And [yet] here, to preserve the norms and assumptions of political economy an heir to that tradition, one who has described as his chief contribution to it simply that he takes some of that tradition’s commonplace assertions to “their natural conclusions,” finds that he must denigrate the very material and bodily foundations on the basis of which that tradition has always defined itself and distinguished itself from all others. To retain what he takes to be a political economist’s conception of worldliness, a political economist finds he must disdain the world.
Life is lived in material bodies, intelligence is incarnated in material brains, material situations, material dynamisms, peer-to-peer, social struggles play out in material histories materially circumscribed by finite ecosystems, mortal lives, error-prone efforts.

To deny or renounce these materialities in flights of fantasy, whether in fundamentalist religiosity or market fundamentalism or techno-utopian True Belief, is always to be supremely foolish to say the least and usually testifies to an infantile dread and denialism of our ineradicable and actually constitutive finitude, contingency, vulnerability, a dread and denialism that, whenever it is permitted to guide our affairs, leads always only to waste, deception, aggression, disaster.

Here in the consummation and bankruptcy and ruins (and not for the first time) of market ideology, we are reminded (and not for the first time) that the pace at which the tidal forces of "supply and demand" and the "education via unprofitability of ignorance or error" and the "rationalization via capital flight of panics and bubbles" and comparable "market mechanisms" manage to compensate for disruptive events and bad information is too different from the pace at which metabolism is maintained in human bodies and life is lived in human history for these mechanisms to sustain those lives and that history in a human way, however wholesome they may be in their own inhuman term.

Meanwhile, the assumption of infinite growth without which "market orders" could not be mobilized toward their indefinite ends in the first place is altogether too perilous to the actually-existing limits of ecosystems to sustain the planetary biosphere on which we all ultimately depend for our survival let alone flourishing. The life of that dead abstraction the market (a very different thing from the heterogeneous marketplaces in which people have gathered to trade goods and stories in their definitely different ways throughout history) is not curtailed by the end of your life, its mechanical pulse is not diminished in the cessation of your living pulse, its digital time is unfolding at a pace aloof from your life-time, its blind indifferent voracious ends are no more your ends than would be a glacier's, it is indifferent to the differences that are your all.

Since I borrowed the title of this blog from Hannah Arendt's motto, "for the love of the world," it will come as no surprise that my preoccupation with futurological discourse and Robot Cult nonsense more generally derives from my strong sense that these discourses arise from and express a profound hostility to and alienation from the world that must be loved in its material mattering, a material mattering very much including its materially situated materially inter-personal political substance, if it is to last and not be lost to us.

In this the futurologists are very much of a piece with (though some perhaps dupes of) more mainstream discourses of corporate-militarism, which likewise disdain the materiality of their suffering peers and of their creative peers, of true production and of true prosperity, of historical struggle and the actual experience of freedom in the world.

To love "the future" on whatever construal is in my view above all to disdain the present, or more particularly it is to disavow that futurity that is materially present in the present, in that diversity of peers whose palpable presence bespeaks the openness in the present to change for the better in acting in concert (in both collaboration and in contestation) with our peers who share the world.

We are not robots, progress is not a robot, history is not a robot, intelligence is not a robot, your brain is not a robot, experience is not a robot, peace is not a robot, creation is not a robot, production is not a robot, prosperity is not a robot, justice is not a robot, the environment is not a robot, life is not a robot.

There are differences that make a difference in the human world, differences that matter in human history, and to attest to a robotic indifference to these differences is not to exhibit prophetic insight or superior strength but to side with death out of idiotic greed or panic in the most brainless way imaginable.

Futurology is the quintessential discourse of this debased epoch of corporate-militarism. Let us leave "the futures" to the traders in futures, the robots to the robotic, and the rackets to the racketeers. There is still time to reconnect to the futurity available in the presence of our peers we call freedom, and in freedom build something better in the world. Fuck the futurologists and the financiers and the fraudsters.

Casting About for the Slogan that Kills Pan-Planetary Futurological Droolocracy

A very nice and well meaning reader to all appearances, at any rate one who sympathizes with my critiques of corporate-militarist futurology in general and the various modalities of Robot Cultism I critique more specifically -- transhumanists, extropians, techno-immortalists, singularitarians, and so on -- has been e-mailing me with a strange request (or so it seems to me), asking me to imagine the following scene:
If you were present at one of their board meetings, what's the most succinct, politely phrased, but devastating question you would ask?

Or from another e-mail:
I'm sorry to pester you if you felt it didn't merit a reply and forgive me for repeating myself, but I would be VERY interested to know what question you would pose in their boardroom.

I don't know if this means she is about to have occasion to address the boys of the Long Now Foundation or Singularity U some time soon, and is looking for rhetorical tips in the oh-no-she-di-int department, or if this is just a thought-experiment she imagines would be particularly clarifying of the critique.

As I said, she seems well-meaning enough, and so I did give some thought to the request (readers are welcome to take up the challenge in the Moot, certainly), but I admit my way of thinking just doesn't run that way when all is said and done. They say that romance-novelist-cum-libertopian-guru Ayn Rand once boasted that she could capture the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot, but of course her "philosophy" isn't one, and this very boast testifies (on one foot as it were) to the unremitting awfulness one otherwise has to slog through one of her terminally awful ponderous preposterous pontificating phone-book sized "novels of ideas" to really grasp otherwise.

I once heard (this may be entirely apocryphal) that the philosopher Robert Nozick daydreamed of the "perfect riposte" that would either logically compel assent in an interlocutor or create reverberations in the brains of the unpersuaded that would do them in on the spot. It seems to me an extraordinarily revealing sort of fantasy, if there's any truth in it. I personally just don't think it is all that productive to try to distill complex critiques into what are presumably hoped to be perfectly devastating unanswerable questions, or what have you. I don't put much store, either, in the perennial geek fantasy of stopping the earth-chewing sooper-robot with the single command "calculate pi to the last digit!" Whereupon: "Aaaaaaarrrrrgggg!" (The scenario has surprisingly many variations, all of them idiotic, among them, one notes, some geoengineering scenarios.)

Frankly, I think the boardrooms of corporate-militarist futurological think-tanks of the usual mainstream neoliberal and neoconservative varieties (as well as the more marginal and lurid Robot Cult organizations and movements and ramifications of futurological discourse that provide the best yuck-yuck material in every sense) are chock-full of facile reductionists and dumb-dumb determinists who already speak that kind of language, that dream of a unilateral instrumental efficacious brute-force take-no-prisoners he-man discourse, who think it makes them smart that they think this way rather than the truth that it makes most of them into insensitive nonsensical bulldozing bullies who turn everything they touch into shit, and who sell this robotic moon-shine to a saucer-eyed lotus-eating populace who all-too-often all-too-eagerly lap it up on the road to the sunny self-lobotomization they fancy will represent their futurological emancipation when in fact they are simply substituting their souls (I speak as an atheist) for pet rocks.

I think it would be wrong to poke these guys' eyes with contrarian slogans, however "devastating," in a bumper-sticker cat-fight, however momentarily enjoyable that might be, when it concedes them the more devastating victory of fighting on their terms, and so risks adding one more voice or vote to the pan-planetary shit sandwich of consumption mistaken for freedom, prophecy mistaken for understanding, and multiplication mistaken for diversity.

Today's Random Wilde

The salesman knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it.

Pith and Prolix

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, for shits and giggles, friend of blog "Kate," comments on Thursday's Science Not Sales, and, possibly, by extension, of Sunday's far more interesting Science, Politics, and Administration, the acorn from which sprung Thursday's addendum, that: "This reads to me like a very long explanation for the term 'self-delusion.'"

Making much more out of this innocuous comments than I should as I drink my first cup of coffee and contemplate a day of garage cleaning, I reply, rather too expansively (mmmm coffee...):

Don't grow too complacent about the adequacy of short explanations, even if you're right to appreciate them once you've arrived at them via the hard road of working through longer ones.

With short explanations arrived at too hastily and too often you're too easily left with the delusion that the bumper stickers you've memorized constitute masterly intelligence when in fact you're one of those silly people who can't distinguish differences that make a difference.

It's like people who watch TED talks online who fancy themselves intellectuals in consequence. (Often just as true of the ones who deliver TED talks. Me-ow! Me: ow!)

It's not just science that isn't sales, neither is thinking more generally.

And so, to your point in particular, there is more than one way to be deluded about the beliefs one affirms as scientific, but also more than one way to be deluded about one's beliefs more generally, since there are, after all, reasonable and unreasonable beliefs we hold in matters of morals, aesthetics, ethics, and politics, too.

For me, personally, the interesting thing about this post, and the one that preceded it, is that it concerned itself with the proper demarcation of the scientific from the political while attending to those elements in each that render them most like one another. I agree with you that there are vulnerabilities to delusion that inhere in that fraught and porous demarcation. Understanding it requires many long explanations.

For them as has the patience and hankering for it, and are edified by such things, these long explanations are the occasion for thinking, and for understanding. An end in itself, for those who are drawn that way, the unexamined life is not worth living, and so on and so forth, and the beat goes on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Science Not Sales

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

In my recent post Science, Politics, and Administration, I wrote, among other things:
Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive rather than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid science of consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly mistake themselves for champions of science or who are indulging in rank fraud.
To this, an "Anonymous" commenter replied (this is much abridged, do follow the link for the whole exchange):
In my view, this isn't the best way to spot crackpottery. Oh, yes, crackpots always channel Einstein, Wright brothers, Tesla, Von Braun, etc. ad nauseum. But, unlike the genuine articles, they want special treatment of some kind for their ideas. Always…. [The] Wright brothers built their "flier" (and half a dozen various flying prototypes) first, and then sought investors. Some imitate those examples faithfully, and whether their ideas make it or fail miserably, I respect them. But do crackpots, con men and their dupes do that? Never! They don't bet their lives and fortunes on their ideas, they want a sure thing. So they go to courts, to TV, to gullible venture capitalists, to the internet, organize their own diploma mills, and get their share of "degrees", "fame" and sometimes, alas, quite real money. Their "success" is of course, as fake as their ideas and methods, even financial one…. The sheer hypocrisy of this fake-dissent is enough to make those types absolutely intolerable. Any dissenters are welcome, except fakes.
These points are well taken, surely, but I don't happen to doubt that at least some pseudo-scientific crackpots and futurological fraudsters are indeed willing to struggle selflessly and even die (at least professionally) for their dumb ideas, or might at any rate be too stupid or caught up in a full froth of True Belief to grasp that these are the stakes in the game they are playing at.

What matters to me is that we insist on the distinction of marginal hypotheses that are indispensable in principle despite their marginality to the process by means of which we arrive at ever more capacious consensus technoscience over the long run, and actual scientific consensus worthy of the name and warranting our reasonable belief as such many of the present pillars of which began as marginal notions but no longer are so.

I think that most non-crackpots who are strong champions of presently marginal notions will concede that their views do not yet represent consensus science even if they rightly or wrongly expect them one day to achieve that distinction.

They best not compensate for their marginality by pretending to a certainty that nobody has, they best not handwave about the ignorance or irrationality of their detractors rather than seek to better substantiate their cases the better to persuade them, they will surely be aware and best welcome the custom that it is the extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidences and that their marginality puts the onus on them, they will best reasonably qualify their claims in the face of objections rather than hyperbolize and make to bulldoze them over, they best behave like scientists rather than salesmen (or futurologists, all of whom are salesmen).


Half a dozen comments seem to have been swallowed. I'll wait to see if they appear in the fullness of time, but it may be there's been some sort of hiccough. If a recent comment of yours doesn't appear, please don't imagine I've disapproved of you.

UPDATE: I found a couple of the swallowed comments in my e-mail queue (I delete stuff there pretty quickly else I would drown in the stuff), but definitely some of the comments are lost. Robin had a funny one I'm sorry to have lost, there were a couple more substantial enough to respond to. Sorry, guys.

Slavoj Zizek Is a Blogger

His books are not books in the customary sense. Rather, he is blogging lucratively onto pulp posts that are published as books once they accumulate sufficient weight to tip the scales of gatekeepers in the midst of the distress of their terminal crisis. And the standards and assumptions of that chimeric rhetorical mode, not quite journaling not quite journalism not quite meditation should bear on our evaluations of Zizek's productions of the last ten years or so. This is not a condemnation of Zizek so far as that goes -- tho' there are plenty of things he's blogged over the years that I have disapproved of, who cares -- but a vindication as much as anything, really, something to account for his idiosyncratic practice (the seat-of-the-pants tempo and repetitiveness and kinda sorta editedness of the writing, the ripped from the headlines topicality and copious citations of online sources in footnotes just itching to be clicked, the vertiginous juxtapositions of high and low culture -- a distinction he actually depends on for his writerly special effects, not one he is effacing in his writing) as well as to account better for my own continued enjoyment of his blog-post anthologies all these years despite feeling more than a little appalled by him most of the time.

More Geoengineering

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot. Jose Garcia wrote:
I don't think seeding the oceans with iron filings was ever a very respectable idea in the first place.

Still there is biochar which seems like a credible geoengineering strategy. And I think we're going to be forced to think about geoengineering at some stage because going zero carbon may not be enough.

Look. People need to start planting trees and region-appropriate home gardens, in addition to going zero carbon, regulating toxic materials and manufacturing processes to within an inch of their lives, and so on. Carbon isn't our only problem, given aquifer spoilage and soil erosion and the bursting of the bubble of the "miracle" of petrochemical input-intensive industrial agriculture. Inasmuch as biochar was already a pre-Columbian agricultural technique and most projects employing it today seem to be rather small scale, I am wondering whether "geoengineering" is really the right word to use to describe any effort at carbon-pollution remediation through local practice up-scaled (always only where region appropriate) via education, regulation, price incentivization, and so on.

I know enough about organic gardening to know that people who want to believe in technofixes consistently and even systematically underestimate the resilience of even devastated ecosystems that are finally being cared for rather than mistreated, and I suspect that at least some talk of tipping points being crossed that force us "reluctantly" to accept the necessity of geoengineering interventions and nuclear archipelagos and so on ultimately express the failure of imagination one has come to expect of corporate-militarists more than anything else.

I disagree strongly if you are implying that seeding the oceans with iron fillings was never treated as a respectable idea by those who think such things are respectable in the first place and megaphone them endlessly and so distract us from more local and distributed and scalable strategies that are known to be effective but are less likely to be profitable for incumbents.

Although I don't know enough about every other geoengineering strategy "on offer" to suavely trot out all the dangers and limits and hyperbole occasioned by each one (as neither unfortunately do the overabundant majority of those who handwave most enthusiastically about these strategies to the cost of sense) I do know that skipping from one scam to another to another as each is exposed as hype while the more difficult work of gathering reliable data, implementing piecemeal regulation and price incentivization, better design practices, general education, facilitation of organic, local, wholesome, carbon neutral practices at the proper scale and intensity can be done but likely won't be done while greedheads are endlessly jerking off to their effort-deferring guilt-denying profit-making authority-retaining fantasies of "greening" corporate-militarism via geoengineering isn't exactly the best idea.

Actually, as I have said before, I don't rule out geoengineering interventions in principle -- even though, as with most things futurological, many of these are entirely fantastic daydreams of megascale engineering that don't really connect up at the level of data or do-ability with the urgency of environmental problems at hand nor with accomplishments of more local strategies with track records of actual successes that could be effectively scaled via regulation, education, facilitation and so on.

My whole point is that I am skeptical about geoengineering, skeptical of those who prefer such interventions over others, skeptical of the hyperbolic discourse through which they are advocated, skeptical of their occasional genuflections to "reluctance" and "skepticism" that never has any impact on their actual advocacy.

I think it is not a co-incidence that corporate-militarism would shift from a very public denialism about environmental problems directly to a very public advocacy of geoengineering solutions to environmental problems.

The continuity between these two positions of incumbents maintaining control through extractive/industrial/capital-intensive/broadcast formations possibly matters more than the discontinuity between the two of first denying and then admitting the existence and scale and seriousness of environmental problems.

This isn't to attribute any bad motives to Jose at all, by the way, since he may well be as aware and concerned about the damage done by denialist discourse and futurological technofix-hype discourse as I am here, but just wants to ensure that the widest possible range of strategies remain on the table. I would agree with that enthusiastically.

The truth is that I expect the inherent drama of geoengineering interventions together with their likely comparative profitability to incumbents will ensure that these interventions will always draw more than their share of serious attention and consideration, whether they warrant it or not, and so we needn't worry so much about their neglect as about their preferential treatment despite the scale and intensity of their impacts in ill-understood environmental systems on which we depend for our lives.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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.

The Netroots and Its Trauma

Back in the long long ago when the Killer Clown Administration was in power and the Villagers were wrong about pretty much everything and the Netroots were right about pretty much everything and despite being right were derided by all the people who were supposed to be on our side, one of the things the Netroots realized was that the Villagers were incapable of seeing the obvious because -- among other things like selling out or experiencing a human, all too human, hardening of the orthodoxies (as RAW once put it so elegantly) -- so many of them had had the traumatic collective experience of losing to Nixon and then Reagan (the frowny and smiley faces, respectively, of the cultural politics of resentment that were really the politics of rich white people against FDR) because, or at any rate this is what the hairball of conventional wisdom that got coughed up on the subject really amounted to, all the dirty fucking hippies were completely right about about how evil, ugly, and ruinous war and greed and intolerance were, but the truth is lots and lots of Americans apparently wanted to be racist, sexist, homophobic, repressed censorious mild alcoholic assholes and greedheads for a few more decades, anyhow, running a corporate-militarist global empire at the point of a catastrophically expensive gun and with dollar signs backed by lies in their eyes that would eventually get exposed as such. And so, anytime people pointed out obviously true facts on such subjects it triggered dirty fucking hippy trauma and got ignored while ponzi-scheming motivational speakers and futurologists and sociopathic war-mongers got treated as "very serious" even when they were also always wrong.

Forgive what is obviously something of a facile pop-psychologizing oversimplification, surely, but many folks in the Netroots who were right about everything including being right about the reason they were treated as unserious despite being right about everything, now seem to me to be exhibiting symptoms of a rather similar malady.

Netroots darling (and I like him, too!) Frank Rich describes AIG as Obama's "Katrina Moment."

Duncan "Atrios" Black (who I truly adore) says of a familiar bit of terminological hanky panky in Geithner's choice of "legacy assets" over his more apt moniker "shitpile" that this "Reminds Me Of The Bush Administration."

Somebody over at the excellent Talking Points Memo says of an easily explicable Geithner "dodge" of a question about what we will do if his plan fails (if he were to answer it to the critic's satisfaction it would either be used as evidence that he expects his plan to fail or would be read as a threat to interests Obama is trying to play ball with) that this "[e]cho[es] the architects and supporters of the success-bonanza that is the Iraq war." (Atrios immediately linked to this rather flabbergastingly faulty analogy and, endorsing it, said, "Please make it stop!" in full-on trauma mode.)

AIG is Katrina, Geithner is Rumsfeld, calling overvalued assets undervalued is WMD, Obama is Bush.

It was difficult being right when everybody was wrong, it was difficult to be derided by everybody when you were right, it was difficult to see the vindication of the ways in which you were right ignored by those who were wrong, it was difficult to be derided as unserious by those who were wrong both before and after you were proved to be right. It was maddening to hear immoral minorities described as moral majorities, welfare for the rich described as free markets, corrupt incompetent conservative governance described by conservatives as proof that government is corrupt and incompetent, warmongering described as patriotism, tyranny described as security, separation of church and state described as unamerican, creationism described as science, consensus environmental science described as pseudo-science, greed described as good, pre-emptive war against nations that posed no threat to us described as defense and then military occupation described as democracy and then torture described as keeping us safe, obvious lies described as obvious truths, palpable viciousness described as palpable virtue.

I get all that. I was right there with you. I said the same things you were saying about all that. I was even trying to teach courses in critical thinking and rational engagement (I teach in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, and also I teach critical theory at the San Francisco Art Institute) in the midst of all that madness and crime and waste and distress. I get it.

But you cannot lose yourself in that time and in that trauma, because that time is past and our problems are different now. This isn't to deny that things are awful -- who sanely could? -- or that people aren't behaving badly -- who sanely could? -- or that too many of the same players are on the scene -- at least until we force their prosecution, or watch their print-publications go bust -- or that incumbent interests don't need a progressive righteous push from the genius of the people, peer to peer -- hell, yes, they do!

But AIG is not Katrina. Geithner is not Rumsfeld. The Banksters aren't WMDs. The neoliberal meltdown -- though it too is a matter of epic-scaled fraud -- is not Iraq. Obama is not Bush.

The fact that I even have to say that should tell you something. If you cannot distinguish differences that make a difference, like the fact that Obama is not Bush, you have lost your way. You have lost your way. Take a break, take a nap, take a pill, take a vacation, take some therapy.

Obama is not Bush but neither is he a sooper-genius with a secret plan, or an angel, or a saint, or a comic book superhero come to save us. I'm not saying any of those things, so if that's what you are hearing you are deep, deep in a well of Bush-epoch trauma here that you need to get a hold on. Obama isn't progressive enough for my tastes, so we need the Netroots to push him from the left, to "make him do it" in the way of FDR, to avail ourselves of this moment of change. But the Netroots just aren't going to be as much help as they otherwise would have been if we don't stop losing our minds this way.

Overvalued assets might be denominated undervalued in the fullness of time if one is counting on re-regulation, re-materialization of the economy via green initiatives, de-precarization of working class citizens through healthcare and education funding, re-empowering organized labor as a countervailing power to neoliberal financial interests, and comparable measures to actually produce an economic recovery without yet another bubble. The banksters exist and are truly powerful. It doesn't matter that they are evil lying fraudulent scumbags, they aren't going to vanish, or give up without a fight, or get put up against a wall in a freedom loving country. So, instead you make ugly decisions, and make ugly compromises, and short term sacrifices while playing long term games, and ultimately innocent vulnerable people really do get screwed more than they should and elite assholes get away with hideously more than they should (hi, I'm history, have we met?) and you get past the anger and work to make those crimes and tragedies less likely while compromising with the culprits as you do so because that's what a lot of the work looks like, hoping to recoup some of the largesse with progressived taxes later and hoping to catch some of the worst of the worst through more vigorous regulation and policing later, too, hoping a world with more healthcare and education and science will provide some justice and equity and second chances for the vulnerable, and then you go on and on and on and on.

Mistaking Obama for Bush, mistaking compromise with powerful assholes as capitulation to them or identification with them, is unhelpful, it is stupid, and it is wrong.

Stop speaking from the trauma of the Bush years, Netroots, things are going to be more ambiguous, sloppy, compromised, and hopeful now. You can't fixate on ugly compromises at the level of detail, especially not if that fixation provokes Bush acid-flashbacks that send you off into the deep end, always contextualize the ugly compromise as one moving part among others in motion, and determine where you need to nudge to limit the damage and facilitate the change you can believe in. Yeah, I like Krugman's proposals better than Geithner's, too, at least in the abstract and, yeah, Summers seems odious to me, too. Stop fighting Bush anyway, Bush is gone. We'll get the banksters and fraudsters on the rebound, and maybe even sooner than you (or they) think.

Technofix Technoflummoxed

Yesterday, I posted a quick link to an article from the beeb's technoscience bureau under a bit of snark of a title: Yet Another Geoengineering Technofix Fails to Live Up to the Hype. The pic of a tattoo based on a Tom of Finland drawing accompanying the link probably attracted more attention than the link itself. But there was an intriguing "Anonymous" comment in the Moot that seemed to disapprove of the conclusion I drew from the article. The following is upgraded and adapted from that Moot:

"Anonymous" protests my titular reaction to and summary of the article at the end of the link, namely that "Yet Another Geoengineering Technofix Fails to Live Up to the Hype." "Anonymous" comments:
The article did not say that iron fertilization is infeasible. It says that diatoms blooms sequester more carbon than other kinds of blooms and that diatoms didn't bloom because of local conditions (lack of silicic acid).

So, you contend that the article is about how this technofix does indeed live up to the hype?

Let's see now.

Title of the article: "Setback for climate technical fix."


Opening paragraphs: "The biggest ever investigation into 'ocean fertilisation' as a climate change fix has brought modest results. The idea is that putting iron filings in the ocean will stimulate growth of algae, which will absorb CO2 from air. But scientists on the Lohafex project, which put six tonnes of iron into the Southern Ocean, said little extra carbon dioxide was taken up."


First quotation from an expert: "There's been hope that one could remove some of the excess carbon dioxide... But our results show this is going to be a small amount, almost negligible."

There's a lot more where that came from.

Is it that you are hoping people don't follow the link?

Is it that you see only what you want to see?

Is it that you think my statement that this technofix fails to live up to its hype is equivalent to saying experiment conclusively demonstrates logical impossibility of geoengineering intervention yielding any impact?

If yes, it isn't, so you're wrong.

But, then, since I'm not a futurologist (corporate-militarist hack) I need much more than handwaving about logical possibility to become enthusiastic about a proposed intervention, especially one that would yield so many effects at such a scale into such complex systems in the face of so many unknowns. But I hardly expect that sort of intelligence from futurologists, even though, of course, as we all know, they are all soopergeniuses.

I liked this part of the article especially:
Some scientists have long argued that the iron fertilisation vision was flawed because lack of iron was not always the factor limiting growth; and this result appears to provide some backing for that contention.

But Kenneth Coale, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, who has led several iron fertilisation experiments, said the initial burst of phytoplankton growth was consistent with previous findings.

"To date we've conducted experiments in what amounts to 0.04% of the ocean's surface," he told BBC News. "All have indicated that iron is the key factor controlling phytoplankton growth, and most have indicated that there is carbon flux (towards the sea floor) -- this is one that didn't."

"A key aim for the future," he said, "was to understand better the various ecosystems contained in the ocean in order that fertilisation could be conducted in areas containing the 'right' kinds of organism."

In other words, there are debates here rather than cocksure certainties, and these debates are proceeding in the direction of ever more modest and qualified claims, as is so overabundantly usual in such matters that it is always safe to assume that those who pretend otherwise will be revealed in the fullness of time to be charlatans and dupes.

And so, the futurological technofix scenarists are substituting hope for knowledge, exactly as usual, whomping up enthusiasm and writing checks their asses can't cash, exactly as usual, surfing "trends" and coughing up hairballs of self-congratulatory narrative in the hope that some of these just-so stories will "catch on" and become "fashionable notions" they can hang their hats on for a while so that they can play at being technical experts rather than just science fiction authors who can't actually manage to produce science fiction with actual characters or narrative drama or compelling themes or realistic settings and so they pretend instead that their fictions are hypotheses of some kind, exactly as usual, indulging in facile public relations for incumbent interests while selling others, and often themselves, on the notion that this makes them some kind of scientists somehow, paragons of scientific rationality "on the edge," supreme champions of science even, exactly as usual.

Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering seems such an easy fix compared to actually altering (through regulation, price incentivation, education, better design) our manifestly idiotic extractive-industrial-consumer behavior? Possibly they are doing this because geoengineering solutions tend to look so linear, simple, monolithic in the face of the terrorizing dynamisms, complexities, unknowns of the problems they would address and this appeals to the mindset of instrumental rationality one finds in so many engineers, investors, and wonks (not to mention the masterminds in the Department of Defense) who are the real players in this scene. Possibly they are doing this because in their industrial-scaled hugeness and capital-intensive centralization such geoengineering scenarios require appealing genuflections to the status quo in the face of environmental devastations of that status quo, approaches that conduce especially to the benefit of corporate-militarist incumbent interests who will still finance and own these would-be pharaonic sooper-projects, decide how they are administered in backrooms and CEO suites, need establishment media hacks, er, expert gatekeepers, to seal the deal and sooth public nerves and coddle the "talent," and so on.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Futurology is the quintessence of neoliberal discourse: Hyperbolizing derangements of sense in the service of elite or incumbent advantage, peddled as neutral cost-benefit analysis. Hype, hence that word in my title.

By way of conclusion, by the way, I do not utterly and absolutely discount the whole set of interventions that could conceivably get filed under the heading "geoengineering" as ways to think about ameliorating at least some environmental problems. Extractive-industrial-petrochemical-technoscience got us into most of these difficulties and possibly at least sometimes it will turn out that interventions arising out of that scale really are the best on offer to address them.

But I am very skeptical of these scenarios. I am very skeptical of the people who peddle them so enthusiastically. I am very skeptical of the people who nod knowingly and approvingly when these notions are spun. And I am even more skeptical of those who aren't skeptical about all this smoke and mirrors. And among these I definitely include those who say they're skeptical and then always advocate them anyway, so demonstrating their skepticism isn't worth a damn.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Would You Hit It?

Queen Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Dangers of DVD

Eric just responded to my own abashed confession that I see the actor Michael Sheen whenever someone says the words "Tony Blair," even though the real Tony Blair is very much alive and on the scene, by admitting that he sees the actor instead as well.

Knock on Wood

Nate Silver: "[I]n spite of numerous assertions to the contrary inside both the blogosphere and the mainstream media, there's little evidence that the bonus controversy is hurting Barack Obama."

Progressives would do well to read on beyond the comforting first few paragraphs, however:
This is not to suggest that there aren't longer-term risks for the White House…

Populist sentiment, ultimately, may prove to be both the greatest asset and the greatest risk to the Administration as it tries to enact its agenda. Can the Administration rely on the populist vanguard to shift the Overton Window on matters of class? Or will the broad-based left-of-center coalition that elected Obama cleave itself into halves, making it harder for the Administration to achieve political consensus?

Yet Another Geoengineering Technofix Fails to Live Up to the Hype

Oh noes, futurologists, better get your rocketships ready to escape to your nanotech treasure cave in the asteroid belt, asap!


Even if I sympathize with those who are most upset about Timmy G. and the Banksters, I strongly disapprove of the way this is being framed across much of the left Netroots as some kind of analogue to the blatancy of the WMD lies or comparable Bush Administration in(s)anities, and I disapprove even more strongly the way all this framing feeds discourse that looks to me to whomp up generalized cynicism and disgust rather than rally progressives to the support of Democrats, very much including Obama, trying to do difficult good things we want.

It Is Easier To Say What's Wrong Than What's Next

That isn't to deny the necessity of saying what's wrong, but it is to point out that facilitating pragmatically possible progressive outcomes in the midst of what's wrong is much harder than saying what's wrong.

People who blunt the only tools they have on hand to do what they want aren't behaving intelligently. Simple as that.


The point is not that we cannot criticize the President. The point is that if you want criticism to have progressive purchase you need always to criticize what is wrong in a way that does maximum pain to those who are best positioned to frustrate your aims while limiting the damage to those who are best positioned to facilitate your aims.

Yes, the Administration's handling of the catastrophic consummation of neoliberal corporate-financialization of the economy is bad. It's worse than bad. Saying so isn't particularly insightful, which isn't to suggest that not saying so is more insightful, but saying so in a way that makes bad things worse is even less insightful.

Geithner's head on a platter will do less good than you probably feel it would in this moment (that is not to deny that it might do some good).

Progressive people need to remember
[1] that re-regulation of the idiotically perniciously de-regulated (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Commodity Futures Modernization Act, anyone?) corporate-militarist crony capitalist practices is a puzzle-piece actually, explicitly, very publicly on offer, do-ably on offer, supported by people in power with a fight on their hands but a fight they are (or were) equal to with the support of a popular President and spunky Democratic Congressional majorities,

[2] that re-materialization through green initiatives of the idiotically perniciously financialized economy is a puzzle-piece actually on offer, same sort of fight, same sort of stakes,

[3] that re-capture of three decades of idiotic pernicious "elite" wealth capture via welfare for the rich and "Defense" spending takes less time than you might think once you make the tax (including capital gains) code more progressive, and that is a puzzle-piece actually on offer,

[4] that re-instatement of organized labor as countervailing power (does anybody remember G.K. Galbraith?) through EFCA and other federal orders sympathetic to organized labor of the idiotic pernicious corporate-elitist tilt of the Nixon-Reagan (the frowning and smiling faces of the cultural politics of racist resentment that sold the bloody implementation of the corporate-militarist aka neoliberal/neoconservative New World Order) generational epoch is a puzzle-piece actually on offer,

and that confusing the appalling puzzle piece that is AIG or the Banksters more generally for the whole puzzle skews your sense of the terrain in a way that makes you less likely to get what you want if you are a progressive and more likely to pile on with people you hate who want to keep you from getting the things you actually want.

When Obama Administration figures like Geithner or somewhat sympathetic figures like Brad Delong describe things as "risky and distressed but probably fundamentally undervalued assets" which Atrios then describes as "hoping to find ponies in the shitpile," of course Atrios is right in a significant sense, but I do think he is wrong to think that this means Geithner or Delong are necessarily lying or deluded or stealth neocons replaying the nightmare of Bush WMD lies in the leadup to the Iraq debacle or whatever nightmare flashback is making so much of the progressive blogosphere lose its wits in this moment (a disgusting moment, to be sure, losing its lunch is perfectly appropriate).

Did people who voted for Obama really expect him to go Tyler Durden and dynamite the skyscrapers with all the Wall Street trough-feeders in them? Did people expect him to announce some "soak the rich" plan in his inaugural address? What dream world were you inhabiting?

What the Obama Administration giveth they also can taketh away, and every poison pill he hands out gives him that much more breathing space to move the other puzzle pieces into place. (And before you start squawking about how I am attributing "secret plans" and "genius moves" onto Obama here -- first, endlessly reiterated public utterances and plans aren't "secret" in any available sense of the word, and, second, what apparently look to you like "genius moves" look to me like precisely appropriate and expected "competence" and "intelligence" from a President, so maybe the problem is that you are a stupid person, or maybe you are exhibiting the bigotry of lowered expectations in the aftermath of the Killer Clown administration, who knows.)

The corporatists are idiotically cooing, thinking they've gotten away with the cookie from the cookie jar, the stock exchange is up (indicating nothing fundamental about the real economy or the real lives of real people coping with their problems in the real world any more than it ever does, but nicely shutting up a lot of greedy brainless assholes who fancy themselves the Masters of the Universe who do no small amount of mischief when they aren't busy congratulating themselves), the Republicans have lost their one talking point (not that they had any right to it, but still), and Obama is one day closer to EFCA, and Congressional progressives are wielding populist outrage like a mallot to hammer through re-regulation, and the budget's spending on green rematerialization of the economy and healthcare provisions to begin to help de-precarize the long-exploited working people of America is moving ever onward, and more progressive taxation is waiting in the wings to recoup some of this largesse that afforded Obama the time to implement the larger structural elements of a recovery that isn't premised on another bubble for once.

I don't like Geithner, I hate Summers, I don't think center-left Obama is as reliable a progressive populist as any number of completely unelectable people not on offer might have been, I suspect Krugman's prescriptions are economically incomparably more sound than the ones we're getting, and I suspect that his political prescriptions weren't so bad either, though the latter is less certain and in any case aren't in the cards so do what you can with what you have. Matt Taibbi's ubiquitous The Big Takeover provides one among an innumerable number of left "big picture" takes that render themselves more or less useless because they all contain somewhere or other the line with which he himself actually begins his piece: "It's over -— we're officially, royally fucked." Any big picture that contains no pragmatically facilitative big picture is just another drain on your time and imagination and energy that won't do any of you any good at all. Yeah, yeah, I know all that shit, too. We all know all that shit. Do something about it or get out of the way.

Channel the rage into re-regulation of the deregulated economy, green re-materialization of the financialized logo-ized "economy," re-capture of crony-capitalist wealth capture through progressive taxation, de-precarization of precarious workers through extension of public healthcare and public education. These are actual battles moving onto the actual legislative and policy terrain.

Support the President who supports you in these struggles, help him don't undermine him. Insist he live up to your image of what he can be, and when he fails you as he will, insist again on the next thing. Support progressive congresscritters who are fighting for more progressive social measures than center-left rather than strong-left Obama ever would, but which center-left Obama will not veto.

Fight for what you want and stop whining, and assuming the worst, and endlessly playing out your paranoid fantasies like history is all about you.

If something you say makes a Movement Republican smile, stop saying it. Even if it is true. Find a different way of saying what is true and important in it that doesn't make them smile.

Get smarter. Get used to not getting what you want in a world where people disagree with you for dumb reasons. Keep on fighting. Grow the fuck up.

Four More Years

When Democrats can't tell the difference between Obama and Bush that is really good news for Democrats. The achievement of Democratic goals like facilitating collective bargaining, providing more and better healthcare, and shifting to a renewable economy is much more possible when Democrats throw up their hands and ventriloquize Republican talking points.

How Did Obama Wreck Everything in Just Ten Weeks When Everything Was Going Fine?

The question on every serious person's lips.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Science, Politics, and Administration

It is important to grasp the key difference between the province of science and the province of politics that is the difference between consensus and dissensus.

It is true that the process through which we arrive at candidate descriptions for warranted scientific belief is one that celebrates its outliers and dissenters and anomalous results. The process of scientific discovery, elaboration, testing and publication is a public process, involving the collaboration and contestation of a diversity of stakeholders. That is to say, the process of arriving at warranted scientific belief offers us one of science's most political faces or aspects. But while science cherishes surprises and paradigm shattering theories and stubborn champions of discredited or insufficiently substantiated hypotheses as indispensable motors of scientific progress, it aspires to confirmation and consensus, and much more to the point, it actually provisionally achieves these.

Scientific truth is whatever the rough consensus of practicing scientists and sufficiently scientifically literate people says it is. That means I think that "scientific truth" really is a shorthand we use to describe whatever is published in respectable middlebrow high school and undergraduate college science textbooks each generation. This constellation of warranted descriptions changes from generation to generation under the pressure of discovery as well as the pressure of humanity's changing sense of the possible and the important (the latter changing itself in part in turn under pressure of changing scientific beliefs).

Over the centuries, we have hacked out a host of good but imperfect criteria on the basis of which we judge candidate descriptions scientifically warranted, good in the way of pragmatic belief: coherence, testability, repeatability, elegance, and the rest. None of these criteria has never failed to direct us to candidate descriptions that were subsequently set aside for better ones, and so none of them has ever rightly bestowed us either certainty or finality. Reasonable warranted consensus scientific beliefs confer degrees of confidence which are quite indispensable enough to assign this mode the dignity of its own province, separate from mores, aesthetics, ethics, politics. These criteria do generally manage to shepherd our scientific consensus of beliefs toward more predictive and instrumental power, but still subject to other-than-scientific vicissitudes in our mores, tastes, aspirations, and associations that shift our sense of the possible and the important in ways that impact what it is we seek to predict and control in the first place.

Those who prefer to emphasize scientific outliers as definitive rather than simply indispensable to science over the stolid solid science of consensus tend to be crackpots or dupes who foolishly mistake themselves for champions of science or who are indulging in rank fraud. This is something of a pickle in mass-mediated (and possibly no less so in p2p network-mediated) democratic societies the administration of which depends, among other things, on allocations of public monies invested in the service of public goods the legitimacy of which is based in confident recourse to consensus science, often in cases where only small minorities are sufficiently informed to render judgments as to the state of that consensus and so one must depend on the reliability of professional or peer credentializing formations. Sometimes reasonably warranted scientific belief requires that one knows the science, and sometimes it requires instead that one knows who to trust who knows the science.

In this accountable administration of public goods politics offers us its most scientific face or aspect. The very legitimacy on which democratically accountable social administration depends is possible only because (and only when) a scientific consensus of belief can be achieved in respect of some public good. But those who prefer to emphasize such administration as definitive rather than simply indispensable to politics over the ineradicable interminable unpredictable collaboration and contestation of a diversity of peers who share the world tend to be tyrants (often mild-mannered, well-meaning technocratic ones, mind you, but misguided, dangerous tyrants all the same) or zealots who have mistaken moralizing for politics. Moral policing, too, is a kind of administration after all.

Politics is whatever arises out of the ineradicable diversity of peers who share the world. When you form an argument in the expectation that you might meet with disagreement, or testify to an aspiration or an experience in the expectation that you might meet with incomprehension, or seek to co-ordinate effort or act in concert to achieve some end attentive to the differences in the abilities, interests, situations, opinions of your collaborators that might frustrate or facilitate that achievement you have entered the province of the political. While it isn't true that all politics properly so-called is democratic, even non-democratic and anti-democratic politics arise out of our awareness of and assumption of a strategic vantage on our immersion in and impingement upon the ineradicable interminable diversity of our peers -- and so, the blackmailer and the tyrant and the slaveholder still act within the province of the political when they work to maintain their appalling advantages and control over their victims all the while in keen awareness of the unpredictable dynamisms, opportunisms, and resistances that inhere even in a brutalized and immiserated diversity of humanity.

But in an era that genuflects to democracy in spirit even where it betrays democracy in fact, it is not just the ineradicable fact of human diversity but very particularly a diversity that bespeaks the widest possible self-determination of our peers that defines the political properly so-called. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and the politics of democratization are the struggle to ensure that ever more people have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them.

The complementary paradoxes of late modernity are, first, that it is only in the moment in which our technical abilities first arrived at the unprecedented capacity of destroying all humanity that we achieved the technical capacity to overcome poverty, inequity, and compulsion, and so accomplish the emancipation of all humanity and, second, that these newfound instrumental powers that placed the experience of freedom equally within reach of the full diversity of humanity were confused with the substance of that freedom thereby rendering its accomplishment as remote as ever (and, not incidentally, cutting us off in that remoteness from the deliberative intelligence without which we are at the greatest possible risk of unleashing our unprecedented technical powers in the service of our destruction).

Contrary to Amartya Sen who identifies development with freedom, it seems to me that the collaborative and agonistic process through which development occurs is in fact incidental to freedom once (and only to the extent that) development has accomplished the provision of reliable knowledge and general welfare that ensure the scene of consent is truly informed and nonduressed. Development is the facilitation but not the substance of freedom, and while development is indispensable to the achievement of a world in which freedom is available to all (and therefore, for democrats like us, available at all, since, for us, as per King, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere), to confuse the administrative facilitation of freedom with freedom itself is to lose it. In reducing freedom to instrumentality we are reduced to instruments, we relinquish our subjecthood in subjecting ourselves to an objecthood, however "powerful."

And so, while it is true that one finds dissensus at the margins and even as the motor of scientific process, it is consensus, such as it is, that constitutes the substance of science as a province of reasonable warranted belief. And so, too, while it is true that one finds a convergence onto the administration of public good on the scene and even as the precondition for political freedom, it is dissensus that constitutes the substance of political freedom as a province of reasonable warranted belief, just as it is only ubiquity of tolerated dissent that provides a reliable indicator of a democratic society, that is to say a (multi)culture of consent.

YouTube the Cabinet!

A New p2p-Democratization Strategy Emerges? (Kinda sorta not kidding.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Adventures in True Futurology: In the Long Run We Are All Dead

Stare into my crystal ball… I see… I see… No shiny immortal robot bodies for you, my poor pouting l'il robot cultists…. no robot sex-slaves or nano-santa treasure caves for you to wallow in… no cyborg shell to harden and hotten your ageing vulnerable bodies and boners… no IQ-boosting plug-in to deliver you the indefeasible sooperbrain you pine for… no longevity pill to prolong your scared scarred insensate slog through life's swamp… no Robot God to solve your problems or end it all for you… just a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension.

And a girl has to celebrate everything passing by.

(Sondheim always helps make Amor Mundi more positive!)

Futurological Blah Blah

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot: A couple of days ago I posted a little survey of a few very recent or soon to be voted on administrative and legislative decisions that represent promising puzzle-pieces in an emerging story of a slow liberalization of the failed policies of the generation-long racist puritanical War on (some) Drugs.

The failed policies are real, the people they have failed are real, the liberalizations are real, the struggles, the education, the agitation, the organizing underlying the liberalization are real.

In the Moot, "Mike" -- who warns me that he "may be too transhumanist/technophilic for your liking" -- offers the following comment:
I suspect in the next 10 to 20 years we will see a lot of progress in this area. New neurotechnologies like deep TMS and ultrasonic neuromodulation may allow non-invasive targeting of reward related regions of the brain. This could conceivably lead to cures for many addictions. So drugs may merely become superfluous and unnecessary.

By the way, "Mike" also says some nice complimentary things about Amor Mundi, whatever our disagreements which, it goes without saying, is appreciated, but I am skipping over to the actual substance of his comment which, as he feared, is not at all to my liking. And, again as he suspected would be the case, it is his "transhumanism" and "technophilia" that is the problem.

Let me put it this way.

A meteor could hit the earth and "end" the problem of addiction for everybody on earth for good, too.

It really could.

But, to my mind, surely, it contributes less than little to the serious work of policy-making or activism that would facilitate more sensible and just outcomes where consensual (or not) private (or not) use and regulation of variously unhealthy (or not) variously addictive (or not) substances are concerned, however, to waste too much time pondering the whole meteor strike scenario.

Or, at any rate, it is almost always wrongheaded to file the time one spends thinking that way (which might, after all, be quite as edifying as the time one spends reading a good book or praying or masturbating, all of which have their places in the lives of those whose private perfections make recourse to them) under the heading of "serious thinking about actual problems that need thinking about" here and now.

With respect, here is what I hear "Mike" saying to me at the key point in his comment:

Blah blah futurology "may allow" more blah blah futurology hence "could conceivably lead to" still more blah blah futurology and "so" dramatically still more blah blah futurology.

As an exercise, imagine it is 10 to 20 years ago and Mike's counterpart (there were many, there always are) offered up some comparable futurological thought experiment that was also logically possible, I suppose, in the abstract, certainly enough to sell a story, this or that promising technique in a lab somewhere or idea of a technique he might have read about in OMNI magazine could, with a little luck and linearity appear on the scene and scramble the terrain and circumvent all the problems that presently define it. But either that idealized outcome didn't come to fruition at all, as these things almost never really do, after all, or let's say, something like a qualified variation of the idealized outcome did indeed "arrive" after a fashion, through the developmental glass darkly, through the inevitable complex socio- cultural- regulatory- promotional- engineering- economic- political- emotional- cluster-fuck of a trajectory that nobody could really sketch out back then, the ineradicable interminable stakeholder struggle that came to actually distribute the costs, risks, and benefits of its stepwise fraught fruition, in ways that articulated the substance of the outcome in ways that have little connection to the idealized outcome..

The futurological enthusiast talking then like "Mike" is talking now contributed less than little to the clarity or possibility or justice available in the vicissitudes of that struggle. Or, if he did contribute some such measure here or there, it was almost entirely accidentally so, accidentally in the same way that any poet or politician or well-placed prostitute could have done.

And worse than that -- in my view -- that futurological counterpart likely did a lot of abiding definitive damage instead, amidst the sparks of incidental insight, confusing idealized outcomes with real developmental struggles and sensible deliberation about actually-existing costs, risks, and benefits before us.

The fact is that the worst variations of futurological discourse (which I do not attribute to "Mike" explicitly, nor to most "transhumanist-identified" and "singularitarian" dupes of Robot Cultism, but they really should be made to better understand the company they are keeping) were media hype-notists and disasterbators whomping up irrationality to attract attention to themselves or salesmen whomping up exuberance to get at the money of their marks. We are reaping the whirlwind of corporate capitalism's smarmy smart guys and stooges right here right now.

Futurology is the hyperbolic quintessence of neoliberal discourse: Hyperbolizing derangements of sense in the service of elite or incumbent advantage, peddled as neutral cost-benefit analysis.

Foresight is all very well, indeed, it is indispensable, but when would-be developmental deliberation and planning assumes the tonalities of prophesy or salesmanship or substitutes abstract projection for proximate substance you can be sure that it is an explicit racket, more often than not, or, more innocently but quite as terrible, it is a confused and disavowed engagement with contemporary social and cultural problems displaced onto a symbolic terrain denominated as "the future."

Friday, March 20, 2009

BSG Brilliance

The last season redeemed the last couple in my view and the finale was equal to the art promised in the best moments of the series.

It is a commonplace to say that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica has changed science fiction forever. Of course this is not at all true, any more than entertainment in any other genre has been changed forever by the various "best shows on television" that happened to be playing out through the creative citation of their idioms at various moments in the past. As if there could never be another "Two and a Half Men" after "Seinfeld." No, it'll still be all "Two and a Half Men" all the way down.

The fact is that BSG was a better show than most of its fans deserved, which is a wonderful thing, but for the most part fans will still get the shows that we do deserve instead, which is exactly to be expected.

As evidence in a nutshell of the reasons why BSG won't change science fiction forever note all the would-be tough guys and cynics whining tonight that the last half hour of the show has "destroyed the whole series" for them and spouting comparable idiocies about all the loose-end tying and emotional resolutions that drove the final narrative beats of the show. Moore and Eick disdained the scorched earth payoff (well, except in the literal sense) that their fandom probably felt they wanted and opted to connect up the narrative instead to themes and forms that have informed the entire series and thereby made a pitch for BSG as a work that solicits judgment as a whole and for future generations. Who can say if they swung it or not, but the aesthetics were the right ones, the ambitious ones.

The final tableau (setting aside the tease of a two-hour ep., "The Plan," coming in the fall, which, one hopes, will be as good as the Cylon-vantaged "Downloaded" managed to be way back when) of Moore and Eick who say "Hey Man" and "Peace" and then get run over by a BSG fanboy in a pickup who sputters, "Frakin' Hippies," makes it quite clear that they know the score, if you ask me.

Arendt Question

A former student taking a seminar on Arendt e-mailed me with a question that provoked a torrential but terse mapping of connections that I have been thinking about quite a lot lately but not yet writing down.

There are two large-scale writing/lecturing projects I have had in mind for quite some time: One of them would be an effort at using the basic categories of Arendt's political philosophy as a way of illuminating the political ethos of emerging and proliferating peer-to-peer formations in a general account (note the connection -- beginning but not ending with etymology -- between the term "peer" and the term "appear," recalling the abiding centrality of "appearance" in Arendt's idiosyncratic characterization of the political). The second one is an account of 20C biopolitics giving equal weight to Arendt and Foucault (which isn't exactly unprecedented but remains terribly underelaborated even so in my view) but also to Fanon (which only Gilroy does any real justice to at all in my view). What is really exciting is that I suspect these two projects ultimately are really one project, since I believe that p2p-democratization is opening onto a choice between an anti-democratizing duressed securitized networked surveillance/eugenicism in service to elites-incumbent ends or p2p-democratization is going to take a rather unexpected next form as a politics of consensual prosthetic self-determination involving therapies more than wikis. And part of the point is to insist that an understanding of postwar/postcolonial biopolitics is indispensable to an understanding of either eventuality, or to understanding the complex process as it actually plays out.

All this is very inside baseball, I realize, there's lots of telescoping of sprawling multi-positioned debates and histories and so on, so if you aren't already invested in Arendt, Foucault, Fanon, biopower (in the Foucauldian sense, not the glib journalistic usage one sometimes hears about these days) and so on I'm not trying to make it intelligible to a general audience, so not getting much out of this may just mean you aren't yet part of the audience I have in mind at this stage as the one whose feedback might be of use to me, and you shouldn't take that amiss. One's writing process is one's writing process. Once these ideas are clearer in my mind more elegant formulations offered up to the hearing of a more general audience should be forthcoming. Even so, enough of this will be of interest to a number of my usual correspondents that it makes sense to throw out this denser bit in the hopes of sparking some felicitous connections or book recommendations.

First, here's the student question that launched me onto this mapping exercise (adapted and expurgated somewhat to protect the innocent):
I have an Arendt question and I don't know what would be more sensible than running it past you in case you find yourself with the time and desire to share some of your perspective of her thought. I'm only just getting to know her work, after taking part in a meticulous reading of The Human Condition for class.

One of the most provocative ideas in the book, for me, is that, "Perhaps the most momentous of the spiritual consequences of the discoveries of the modern age ... the reversal of the heirachical order between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa..." (Section 41).

In truth, I feel like it's the book's central claim, or at least one of them.

I feel like I understand what she's talking about, but I don't have a clear sense of what she means to communicate with the term "spiritual." Is there a place in her canon where she speaks to that term outright?

Remember that Arendt is a native German speaker, and coming out of a German culture of philosophy to boot. By "spiritual" she likely means the spirit of zeitgeist, "spirit of the age," rather than the spirit to which people refer with terms like "spirituality." Spirit is a word that indicates something like "character," or to be more properly rhetorical about it, ethos, here, I think.

I agree that this is a key claim of the book -- especially the more you know about the other projects that preoccupied her attention while writing it. I can think of no better place for you to turn your attention than to the book The Promise of Politics, two sets of lectures Arendt long intended to elaborate into proper books, produced roughly contemporaneous with the writing and recollection of The Human Condition (actually entitled Vita Activa in Arendt's heart).

Crucial to this reversal in the status within intellectual life of thought understood as connected to facilitation as against thought understood as offering up consolation is Arendt's location of herself within a Marxian frame of critical theory. Ironic, of course, given her criticisms both of Marx and of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, right? But that frame is announced most forcefully in the famous last Thesis on Feuerbach -- "Hitherto, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Arendt is very much post-marxist in both the sense of one whose criticisms move her beyond Marx, but also in the sense of one for whom the encounter with Marx was decisive and remains indispensable.

Interesting to pay special attention to Arendt's use of the phrase "modern" here: Arendt is forever taking up positions within various episodes of the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, an intellectual dispute that begins in aesthetics between partisans of classicism and, for want of a better term, experimentalism (eventually Romanticism), a quarrel that always had a weird affinity for political insinuations, associating itself with temperamental quarrels of revolutionists against incumbents, and so on. Joan DeJean connects these quarrels with various "culture wars" of recent years (the secularists and multiculturalists won those wars by the way, progressives would do well to remember that). In the 20C debates of, say, Lukacs with Bloch and Benjamin and Brecht -- some of whom were very close friends or sympathetic allies of Arendt's -- we find this playing out in Marxist intellectuals struggling to reconcile aesthetic and political avant-gardisms, often with ridiculous results.

Anyway, beyond the general aesthetic quarrel of "the ancients" (traditionalists) as against "the moderns" (experimentalists), with all its shifting political colorations, there was an explicitly political variation on the quarrel of the ancients and moderns, one that Arendt testifies to in especially On Revolution, with the "rise of the social question," and which takes the form of a quarrel between those who view the political as an agonistic space for the facilitation of excellence in the few as against those who view the political as a social space for the amelioration of hardship for the many. Writers as different as Luc Ferry (his Rights volume), Albert Hirschmann (his canonical The Passions and the Interests), and Reinhart Koselleck (his neglected Critique and Crisis), all contribute to our sense of this story of modernities posed against pasts posited as atavisms and spaces posited as primitivisms, as do many of the usual suspects, Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, especially. Complicating matters still further, Arendt also uses the word modern to describe yet another historical moment (there are, after all, endlessly many modernities if there were/are any at all, that's the price of the modernity ticket), the post-atomic age, the post-apocalyptic age -- a sense she takes up from Jaspers and connects up in ambivalent ways with/against Heidegger's critiques of the reductionism of technique.

All this is indeed central to the project of The Human Condition, although, strangely enough, I ultimately think her little piece On Violence deals with these connections most pithily of all, not to mention providing a kind of hub connecting her work most forcefully to the other two (in my view) indispensable theorists of the 20C, Foucault (whose views she complements enormously clarifyingly) and Fanon (with whom she is in conversation in the piece, and without whose supplement neither Arendt nor Foucault do justice to their -- or our -- epoch, nor to the biopolitics these two are credited with and with which we are still contending for now).

Is Change Finally Coming to Industrial Ag?

[Gwen Schantz, via AlterNet]
For decades… animal welfare advocates, labor and environmentalists have joined together in an effort to educate their peers and affect policy change with the broad goal of improving the way our food is grown, processed, distributed and eaten. They've snuck into animal factories with hidden cameras, staged protests in Washington and boycotted fast food establishments. They've shopped at farmers markets and planted seeds in community gardens. They've formed a massive and remarkably powerful food and farm movement, and in general, they've kept quite busy reaching for a goal that until recently seemed completely futile and utterly out of reach….

[However], it was just announced that the Obama's are putting in their very own vegetable garden on the White House lawn. This is something that the food movement has been dreaming of since day one, and not one but two separate organizations -- Eat the View and the White House Organic Farm Project -- have been tirelessly promoting for years….

In other exciting news, on March 14th something kind of crazy happened: the USDA banned the slaughter of downer cows. For years, the downer cow has been a compelling symbol of the extreme cruelty and unbridled mechanization that characterizes modern animal farms and slaughterhouses. The web is strewn with videos of nearly-dead, non-ambulatory cattle being dragged, forklifted and shoved through the gates of muddy abattoirs to be slaughtered, butchered and injected into the food supply.

The heart-wrenching and stomach-turning images of downer cows have been an effective tool in converting ignorantly blissful burger addicts into soldiers for PETA, Sierra Club and Slow

Food, and eliminating these sad creatures from our food system is a fairly small but truly meaningful step forward.

So the USDA up and banned them. (Wait, they can do that? If the USDA could do that all along, why didn't this pass decades ago?)

Environmentalists, who for years have fought tooth and nail against an EPA and USDA whose powers were seemingly limited to pandering to corporate evil-doers, are now pleasantly surprised and perhaps even a little shocked to see that these institutions can actually fulfill their mandates of promoting public health and environmental sustainability. [Emphasis added.]

Eco-leaders like NRDC President Francis Beinecke are publishing lists of all the advances that the new administration has already made with regards to environmental policy, and noting how good it feels to have people in Washington who are actually on their side.

I await the inevitable comments that these palpably good things many of which fired the hopes of a generation of good people are actually so superficial in their emerging realization in the face of our actual problems that they are really more or less the same thing as the nothing at all that preceding them blah blah betrayal blah blah paralysis blah blah narcissism.

Although Schantz provided no link to the Beinecke list she mentioned, I'm pretty sure she meant this one, which found its way onto HuffPo two weeks ago. This shifts the focus from Industrial Ag to environmentalism more generally, but really one cannot stress enough the necessity of drawing attention to accomplishments like these that easily get lost in the midst of the crowing catastrophists whose only hope is to demoralize those who work to clean up after their messes and protect the world from their dumb and dirty tricks:
January 26, 2009: President Obama directs the EPA to reconsider the agency's decision to deny California's strong limits on global warming pollution from cars, and he calls on the Department of Transportation to raise national fuel efficiency standards.

February 4, 2009: More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness win protection from oil and gas drilling after the Department of Interior announced that it will cancel 77 leases issued under the Bush administration.

February 5, 2009: President Obama signs a presidential memorandum requesting that the Department of Energy set new efficiency standards for common household appliances. This will save in 30 years the amount of energy produced by all the coal-fired power plants in America over a two-year period.

February 6, 2009: The EPA announces it will reconsider its decision to deny California permission to set standards controlling greenhouse gases from motor vehicles.

February 6, 2009: On instruction from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the Solicitor General asks the Supreme Court to drop the Bush administration's desperate appeal to resurrect EPA's illegal and harmful power plant mercury rule.

February 10, 2009: Department of Interior Secretary Salazar announces that he is going to make a thorough review of the five-year Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing program that was announced in the final days of the Bush administration.

February 10, 2009: Administrator Jackson grants a petition by NRDC to reconsider and "stay" for three months a harmful midnight air pollution rule adopted by the Bush administration in mid-January 2009 that would allow dirty industries to release more pollution.

February 13, 2009: Congress came to an agreement on an economic stimulus package that includes bold investments for renewable power and energy efficiency, including weatherization programs that will save consumers billions while creating up to 90,000 jobs. Repairing our nation's outdated and corroded water and waste systems will also create more than 200,000 jobs and improve the safety of our beaches, streams, and drinking water.

February 17, 2009: EPA Administrator Jackson grants a petition by NRDC, Sierra Club and EDF to reconsider a disputed memo signed by Administrator Johnson in December 2008 that refused to regulate carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants. She announced that EPA would convene a public process to review this memo, in what was widely seen as the first step to reversing the Bush policy.

February 20, 2009: The Obama administration puts its support behind an international, legally binding treaty to reduce global mercury pollution. This position--a dramatic change for the stonewalling of the Bush years--influences policy reversals from other nations including China and India. Now more than 140 countries commit to regulating this dangerous neurotoxin.

February 24, 2009: In his first State of the Union address, Obama calls on Congress to pass legislation to cap global warming pollution and drive expansion of renewable energy. He also pledges $15 billion a year to invest in solar, wind, biofuels, and more efficient vehicles, and to put American to work making our homes and buildings more energy efficient.

February 25, 2009: Thousands of acres in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado will be protected from harmful oil shale research and development after Department of Interior Secretary Salazar announces that he will reverse course on the Bush administration's leasing program.

February 26, 2009: The Obama administration releases a federal budget that is the first in history to make critical investments in our clean energy future and tackle global warming head on. It includes revenue from a cap and invest program to limit global warming pollution, which is forecast to generate $150 billion over 10 years starting in 2012.

This is an impressive list, but it is only the beginning. President Obama initial decisions show that he meant what he said on the campaign trail. He has a bold, ambitious vision to move American to a new clean energy future, and he has a powerful sense that the safeguards protecting our health and environment must be strengthened. But most important, he has the conviction to put those beliefs into action.