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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Futurological Reification, Reduction, Reaction

There is no such thing as "technology" at the level of generality at which people tend to talk about "technology." It makes no sense to celebrate or to abhor "technology in general," it makes no sense to champion, defend, resist "technique" as such, "artifice" as such.

There are techniques and devices that are useful in some contexts and less useful in other contexts and damaging in other contexts, there are particular technoscientific developments, applications, distributions that are, for the moment, and never universally, disruptive, empowering, provocative, indifferent, unexpectedly potent when conjoined with other developments and so on. But there is no "technology in general" that is monolithically "liberating," "alienating," "progressing," "accelerating," and to speak this way is always, always to peddle mystifications and obfuscations.

There is never anything clarifying to the process of technodevelopmental social struggle -- the collective, collaborative, antagonistic struggle of the diversity of stakeholders to technoscientific changes as they opportunistically make recourse to and sense of those changes -- by speaking of that complex, dynamic, open process of technodevelopmental social struggle through the vapid abstraction "technology."

Already we are well aware of the tendency of the word "technology" to attach very selectively, never to describe all the things in our environments which are artificial, but especially those artifacts which are taken to be provocative in their novelty or unfamiliarity or salience. That is to say, we fail to think of our everyday clothes as "technology" but only our presently-fetishized wearable devices, we fail to think of our everyday language as "technique" but only our jargon. The artifactual is ubiquitous, quotidian, and yet our imagination of the "technological" is freighted with the special fears and fantasies of agency, especially at its disturbing edges, with fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence, with death-defying medicines and wish-fulfilling devices and apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction and industrial-extractive pollution and catastrophic climate change. These assignments of what is to us familiar or not, novel or not, salient or not, and just how, are in fact the furthest thing from universal or obvious. These assignments are historical, they are social, cultural, and political.

Too often, "technology" is a word through which a partisan (or simply an uncritical inhabitant) of a particular parochial and interested vantage within the ongoing dynamism of technodevelopmental social struggle renders or simply uncritically acts as if every other vantage within that struggle is inconsequential or invisible altogether. "Technology" is a word that would identify some particular constellation of devices and techniques and the assignment to them of particular saliences and ends with every conceivable or relevant instance of artifice or device or technique, every vicissitude of technoscientific change in history, every impact of that change on whatever stakeholder to it, whatever their differences.

It is interesting to note that the ongoing historical distinction in discourse of what passes for "the natural" from what passes for "the artificial" has always functioned to delineate the customary from the novel, the familiar from the unfamiliar, the taken-for-granted from the threat/promise of the disruptive, and so has functioned in the service of a depoliticizing assignment of "inevitability" to the status quo as well as in the service of a politicizing insistence that things can be otherwise if we educate, agitate, and organize to make them so. The "technological-in-general" tends to function as a kind of depoliticizing re-naturalization within the de-naturalized "artificial," a way of divesting that which is made by us and so could be made different by us of their openness, weighting them down with the parochial assumptions and ends of incumbent interests. The open futurity available in every moment of technodevelopmental social struggle, vouchsafed by the enabling and frustrating contestation of an ineradicable diversity of stakeholders to the terms of change in the moment of change, in the presence of that change -- the open futurity in the present that is freedom -- is depoliticized, re-naturalized, through the substitution of a false "technology in general" for the always-partial always-contingent always-uncertain always-opportunistic engagement in that technodevelopmental social struggle on its own terms and our own.

That is why I say that "the future" is a racket, a de-politicizing substitution of some funhouse mirror of the present for the open futurity in the present that is freedom. "The future" of the futurologists is always a retro-future, always a dream of a maintenance and amplification of the prevailing or romanticized terms of incumbency.

Consider this tendency to reactionary reification in futurological discourse in connection with its tendency as well to a reductionism that misconstrues human freedom as instrumental power, and so with its characteristic gesture of reducing human beings to machines. The endlessly-deferred futurological predictions of the arrival of artificial intelligences and robots indistinguishable from humans are in fact symptomatic expressions of their prior misconstrual of actually-existing social and organismic human intelligence as computation and actually-existing social and organismic human people as robots. Futurological discourse at its most extreme (and consistent) seeks to compensate for this inaugural mutilation of humanity and human freedom by investing in a fantasy of an ecstatic amplification of instrumental capacities amounting to demi-deification.

Of course, this pined-for "transcension" through "technology" of their humanity into a superlative post-humanity, is simply the reductio ad absurdum consummating their initial mistaken and infantile assumptions, their would-be transcension amounts to little more than an evacuation of meaning and sense and humanity, their "post-humanity" an exaggerated testament to their palpable alienation in the present. The bankruptcy of the status quo confronts the Superlative mirage of "The Future" that is uniquely its own -- its rugged possessive isolated individualism exaggerated into promises of prosthetic near-immortalization (superlongevity), its valorization of short-term greed exaggerated into promises of better-than-real immersive digital virtualities, and robotic or nanobotic wish-fulfillment devices (superabundance), its reductive consequentialist and profit-taking rationality and "neutral" cost-benefit analyses exaggerated into promises of post-biological artificial intelligences reckoning with consequences in the abstract, searching through digital "problem-space" and thereby finding in a flash "the solutions" to all our problems (superintelligence).

"The future" of the futurologists is nothing but an absurd and delusive imperializing fantasy of the amplification and eternalization of the neoliberal status quo. It is nostalgia peddling itself as innovation. It is incumbency peddling itself as novelty. It is stasis peddling itself as change. It is hype peddling itself as seriousness. It is navel-gazing peddling itself as problem-solving. It is conservative politics peddling itself as progressive politics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a reductionism that misconstrues human freedom as instrumental powerCould you gives us one simple example so we understand what you mean by that?