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

Monday, May 18, 2009

Designs On Us: First Contentions

We have proceeded first of all under the simple assumption that design practices are always also political practices as well. This isn't a particularly controversial notion, since it is easy to show that design decisions are often driven by assumptions, values, problems that are conventionally understood as political, just as it is easy to show that design decisions inevitably have political impacts, directing resources, policing conduct, circumscribing our palpable sense of the possible and the important, and so on. Our next assumption was also straightforward, but somewhat more controversial: While it is easy to see that design both arises out of political assumptions and has manifold political impacts, we asserted as well that design typically does its political work in a mode of disavowal. The quintessential gesture of design, we said, is that of a circumvention of the political altogether, and the foregrounding of what it poses as technical questions instead.

Technical questions, questions directing themselves to instrumental prediction and control, differ from properly political ones -- among other reasons -- in that technical questions are those for which a consensus as to best means and ends either already exists or is always imagined to be achievable (provoking the aspiration for that achievement), whereas political questions are those which always attest and respond to an ineradicable diversity of stakeholders -- and thereby arise out of a diversity of judgments, desires, problems, capacities, situations -- a diversity that is interminably reconciled, always only imperfectly and contingently, all the while collaborating, contesting, and testifying in concert to that diversity. One way to get at the difference in play here is to recall that science (the quintessential technical or instrumental discourse, since it strives to substitute publicly-testable efficacy for priestly authority) aims at a valid consensus and indeed manages, if only provisionally to achieve it, whereas democratic politics (the quintessential political discourse, since it strives to substitute publicly-legible consent for elite rule) aims at a flourishing dissensus.

The word design comes from the Latin designare, which is to mark out or devise, that is to say, de- "out" conjoined to signare "to mark," derived in turn from signum, "mark" or "sign." Palpable here is the kinship of the word design with the word designate, to name or specify. Also palpable is the connection of design to the primordial cultural technology of writing, as a "marking out." Thinking both naming (designation) and making (design) through the figurative conjuration of a scene of "marking out" is richly evocative: For one thing, a clarifying (and prejudicial) association is made here between the unilateral experience of the staking out on the ground of a layout and the eventual building that arises out of this foundational marking, and a still more foundational transaction (no less unilateral) through which an abstract ideal or plan or eidos arising first in imagination is thereupon implemented in material reality. To be sure, there are other associations in play here as well in this figurative working through of a design akin to designation: To name a thing is by some reckonings to "master" it, as in the primal Adamic scene recapitulated in so much magickal as well as scientific discourse, but by others it is to circumscribe its connotations both to its cost and our own, whatever the benefits that also eventuate from it. Naming certainly has its politics, too, as we shall see especially when the politics of designating just which lives are really lives at all becomes the focus of design.

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Jef said...

Dale, I appreciate and enjoy much of your writing, and often find agreement in (what I perceive to be) your deeper message despite a disagreeable delivery.

But your post today strikes me as a glaring example of the consensus politics for which Berkeley is famous, with a denial of the vital elements of evolutionary growth shared by politics, science, and even aesthetics and ethics.

Is it mainly a matter of your preferred context that you would so sharply delineate politics and science in terms of consensus versus dissensus?

It seems that, rather than being in opposition, or even in "creative conflict" with each other, the values expressed as preferences within politics, and the principles expressed as instrumental methods within science, are like orthogonal axes, both essential to growth within the moral space of possibilities seen as promoting an increasing context of hierarchical, fine-grained values over increasing scope of interactions.

Given any particular context of values, the spread of those values via
*increasing instrumental effectiveness, or
*increasing political adoption
is always only seen as good within that context.

And as the system evolves, consensus emerges, hierarchical and fine-grained, both political and instrumental, feeding on diversity like a tree with leaves exploring the possible, supported by increasingly thick branches of the probable (and preferable), rooted in the fog of our evolutionarily contingent "reality."

Apologies in advance for the strong use of metaphor, seemingly necessary to fit a rather large idea into a small space.

Dale Carrico said...

For some reason my reply got swallowed, but I pasted some of the more substantive bits from it into a post already, so all is not lost. All I will repeat here from that original response, then, is that when you speak of my "glaring example of the consensus politics for which Berkeley is famous" I am afraid you are attributing to Berkeley a politics that it scarcely deserves any more than other public universities. I can assure you that the big-business greedheads and bomb-builders thrive and throng here as they do elsewhere in ever more corporatized public universities -- whatever the folklore that attaches to them from the 60s and 70s, deserved or not. So I daresay your rather fanciful notion of my "preferred context" has not triggered or determined my formulation on this question and you'll just have to judge it on its merits, such as they are. Thanks for the interesting comments.

Jef said...

Thanks Dale for your reply, though somehow it seems more like sparring than dancing--s'pose we don't know each other that well...

I was surprised by the title of your upgraded and adapted post, which seemed to cast aspersions of reductionism on my position, which, with my characteristic framing in terms of systems and evolutionary theory, growth and the metaphor of the tree, I would have expected to be recognized as a holistic thinking. Perhaps it was the technological implication; it seems to cut both ways, tending to alienate friends who view my position through the lens of righteous reductionism, and those who suspect mechanical tendencies betrayed by the precision of my prose.

As for Berkeley, I've visited often, and I must insist that I find quite a consensus in the expression of its "diversity", with the tie-dye, body art, anti-meat, anti-establishment, and militant liberalism pretty much all run together.

I've enjoyed more truly diverse social environments with artists and engineers, gay, straight, poly and transsexual, socialists and libertarians interacting and reveling and growing in their differences, but that's another story.

Thanks for clarifying where I was most unclear. I use the term "evolutionary" not as metaphor but in its broader sense, of which Darwinian processes of biological evolution are a special case. I referred to "systems evolving" and wrongly assumed it would be clear that I meant the abstract process of a system's structure updating through "meaningful" interaction with its environment. I assumed that you would appreciate the synthesis and offer your comments or criticism from your particular point of view. Possibly ask clarification questions if you found any of it interesting.

So I'm a bit surprised, and a bit disappointed that what I thought was the substance of my post was dismissed as bad doggerel.

But hey, thanks for your attention. I've got plenty to learn.

Dale Carrico said...

which seemed to cast aspersions of reductionism on my positionI do think there is a real vulnerability to reductionism in your position, and surely you can't be insensitive to the very widespread criticism that "evolutionary explanations" of social phenomena are reductive, even if you disagree with it? If you agree with me that reductive approaches to political freedom are worrisome then surely you would sympathize with the warning, if you don't then you are exhibiting the very reductionism you claim amounts to name-calling on my part, right? So why introduce the specter of aspersions into this in the first place? I'm not feeling the least bit snippy toward you, so please don't feel the need for pre-emptive defensiveness.

Your description of the Berkeley you've visited seems to me a bit ludicrous, although I certainly wish there were truth in it. Of course there is diversity and progressivism visible -- there always is when young educated people are out and about. I daresay this will be true on most any campus in the USA, I don't agree that Berkeley is demonstrably different from IU Bloomington in this regard. Why do you think I've devoted myself to the ridicule and precarity of lecturing, other than the fact that I get to be around earnest intelligent creative people all the time? Still, walk the hallways where business, law, science are taught on campus and I can assure you that you will no longer be tempted to imagine the Wayback Machine has deposited you back in Woodstock! And if you could be a fly on the wall of some of the faculty meetings I've struggled through...

As for your more substantial point -- I think it is rather disastrous to say that Darwinian evolution is just a "special case" of a more "abstract process of a[ny] system's structure updating through 'meaningful' interaction with its environment." Darwinian evolution as an explanatory framework benefits little if at all by being treated as just a special instance of "feedback" or, worse, "causality." Look at all the substance that has fallen out of your more general principle -- "updating"? How? According to what mechanisms? In the service of what ends? Under what conditions? What on earth do you mean by "meaningful"? You are so unsure of the term you scare quote the thing! It seems to me you may have become entrapped in the siren-songs of information-theory, which so often promises material synthesis at the cost of well-nigh complete material evacuation. A huge number of futurologically-inclined folks have succumbed to informational vacuities (this is not to say that it is all or only vacuous). Read Lanier on Cybernetic Totalism, read Katherine Hayles on post-humanism, read the intro and final chapter of my dissertation.

Jef said...

Huh. What a strange experience having this dialog with you. It feels almost like the it did when the only black boy in my 6th grade class spit on me "just because" I was white and expressed an interest in knowing him. Did he really see me as a threat?

I see evolutionary processes as the very antithesis of reductionism. They are the ONLY generator of persistent novelty known, whether that's the commonplace example of a novel biological adaptation, or immune system response to a novel pathogen, or the process of superabundance and selection at the heart of creativity in the individual or even at the group level.

I can certainly see evolutionary explanations exploited to justify eugenics, and racial bias, oh, and bias on the basis of sexual orientation, oh, and against females, and on and on. And such arguments are entirely without merit, (although not entirely without consequence) which is probably why they didn't figure in my consideration.

So, thanks for raising my sensitivity. If I were to have a do-over, I suppose I would know now to first put considerable effort into signaling such sensitivity and my personal position on such matters.

My reference to the "consensus politics" of Berkeley was an attempted rhetorical shortcut intended to highlight the obvious anti-diversifying tendency of association organized around ANY item of identification. One that I thought would be appreciated for its intended point rather framed as a "ludicrous" over-generalization. Again, thanks for educating me also to this sensitivity.

As to the "disastrous" nature of information-theoretic or systems-theoretic approaches to the collaborative discovery of increasingly positive-sum solutions promoting an increasing context of increasingly coherent, hierarchical, fine-grained, present but evolving values via methods increasingly effective (in principle) over increasing scope of interaction:

[sarcasm]Right, an obvious non-starter, and we should all unplug from the Internet because such technology is leading us in exactly that dehumanizing, anti-democratizing, anti-diversifying direction.[/sarcasm]

Thanks Dale. Truly, it has been enlightening. The burden is on me to better speak your language with increased sensitivity and appreciation of your concerns.

Dale Carrico said...

What a strange experience having this dialog with you. It feels almost like the it did when the only black boy in my 6th grade class spit on me "just because" I was white and expressed an interest in knowing

Dale Carrico said...

If I were to have a do-over, I suppose I would know now to first put considerable effort into signaling such sensitivity

If you want to understand where I'm coming from have a look at the Lanier and Hayles pieces I mentioned to begin with (short pieces are available for free online -- Half A Manifesto and Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled for starters).

Please understand, I'm not accusing you of political incorrectness -- whatever that's supposed to mean -- if that's what you imagine is happening here.

I simply have no truck with reductive social Darwinisms nor with expansively-dematerialized informational Darwinisms either -- both moves seem to me to miss the force of Darwin altogether.

That these two moves have often conjoined to politics I disapprove of as a democratically minded person is interesting but I don't think there was any logical necessity about that result.

By way of conclusion, it's not like people have to buy the facile hype of cybernetic totalists to make practical recourse to digital networked information and communication technologies. That's just arrant silliness, sarcasm or no sarcasm.

And, yes, it really is palpably disastrous in my view to lose track or even risk losing track of the material substance of freedom out of undercritical enthusiasm for a few currently fashionable gizmos and the line of hype that sold you on them. I'm not recommending technophobia or nostalgia, but just a grasp of political freedom as something otherwise than brute instrumental capacity, political legitimacy as something otherwise than organizational efficacy. To recommend more reading (a sequence any student of mine will instantly recognize) -- Arendt, Fanon, Foucault; Butler, Gilroy, Haraway.

Jef said...

In contrast with your "disastrous" take, I see Darwinian biological evolution as as a special case of the broader evolutionary tendency toward increasingly synergetic structures supporting increasing diversity with increasing probability.

I'm not interested in wielding evolutionary theory to justify my positions or causes.

I am interested in sharing a particular line of thought which I think helps anyone think more clearly about their own values and their own instrumentality, and then promote those evolving values via increasingly synergistic (cooperative, positive-sum) interactions over increasing scope of agency.

I see that the double-edged sword of technology is not be reified (or deified), but neither is it to be disdained or ignored.

I see that our relationship with changing technology changes us, and this is neither good nor bad, but we risk losing ourselves if we do not become as aware of ourselves as of our tools.

I see the is/ought distinction as entirely valid, and entirely context dependent. Simply put, our nature determines our values and the preferences they express. With increasing context we increasingly see the consequences of our actions as expressions of our evolving nature.

I see the ongoing project of politics as an example of increasingly intentional agency, evolving so as to promote an increasing context of (hierarchical, fine-grained) values over increasing scope. Conflict is essential to the process, with increasing cooperation its eventual and ongoing result (to the extent the branch survives.)

I see all instances of agency (yours, mine, the "superlative transhumanists" who so often serve as your foil) as expressing the truth of their nature, but within disparate, partial, and only partially overlapping contexts. The challenge, and the opportunity, is not to demolish, but to encompass the context of the other.

I see you holding a well-organized yet incomplete picture of your world, as do I, and I thank you for the surprisingly rewarding (rewardingly surprising?) experience, like looking into a mirror where things look so familiar but come back reversed.

Dale Carrico said...

If Darwin's Origin of Species had consisted of the lyrics to "The Age of Aquarius" I daresay it would scarcely have raised quite the useful ruckus it actually did.

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, I suppose I'll be taken to task if I don't point out that I like the song "The Age of Aquarius" and the musical "Hair" and I cheerfully identify with much that the hippies stood for, and the beats before them, and the punks after them (what radical democratic pervert aesthete wouldn't, after all?) -- my point is just (as usual) that science and aesthetics are different modalities of warrantable belief-ascription and that the difference makes a difference, and I think your "informationalization" of "evolution" so evacuates it of content that I don't think you should really even be using the word to describe the rather loose notions you are espousing in its name. Lanier, Hayles, please.