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

Monday, August 31, 2009

Whose Side Are You On? (Updated)

Not bad.

Updated: "Who's" corrected, but it's a better penance to leave tracks to the me flunk English, that's unpossible moment.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Many Americans are offended that Dick Cheney tortured people in their name. Dick Cheney is offended that anybody would be offended, especially anybody offended enough to demand an investigation into the war-crimes that acts of torture demonstrably are -- in addition to being supremely offensive.


I will simply note along with many others this morning that it really is distressing and even a bit surreal to hear supposedly respectable people on supposedly respectable television programs chatting gaily away about whether or not torture "works." People in suits in gleaming sets interspersed with commercials for the titanic social institutions of the day, and it's all torture blah blah this slavery blah blah that murder blah blah oh you, so very serious, so very droll... I mean, I know after eight years of observing these people giggling and gossiping their way through a Killer Clown Administration that assumed the reins of government in an actually illegal coup-d'etat (oh, never mind that) and then looted billions and handed them over to the already rich via palpably irresponsible tax cuts then started an illegal immoral war and occupation based on flagrant lies in order to steal even more for the rich, and dismantled Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties while decrying critics as unpatriotic, I guess I really should be beyond shock at the Sunday shows at this point. Somehow, I'm not.

And Another Thing

I hope that those folks who endlessly castigate my "negativity" here (mostly because a lot of Robot Cultists read my blog and think it is "negative" not to drink their moonshine and to ridicule the palpably ridiculous things they say) will notice that the prior post "accentuates the positive" so much as to sound positively like Mouseketeer Roll Call in places.

But, more to the point, I would like to think some will notice that I have taken pains in that longer post to connect my politics as a Democrat to the left of most Democrats but invested absolutely in the real politics of Democrats against corporatists in the Party and Movement Republicans outside it, to my politics as somebody who writes quite a lot about silly futurologists.

Sometimes I critique superlative futurology as an extreme symptom and expression of the pathologies of more mainstream, more prevailing neoliberal corporatist global developmental discourses -- as well as inter-implicated neoconservative militarist discourses that are just as prevailing -- exposing and clarifying their shared anti-humanistic reductionisms, their technocratic and market-naturalist anti-democratizing elitisms, their scarcely stealthed eugenicist norms. (And since "eugenicist" is a Fighting Word, let me quickly add that I mean by it here, for simplicity's sake, mostly norms deployed always in the service of "competitive advantages" in a dehumanizing competition falsely posited as beyond question, and always beholden to racist refigurations of the realities of overexploitation as self-congratulatory narratives of "underdevelopment" enunciated by those who imagine themselves "more-developed").

But in the prior post I think the connection of my anti-futurological critiques and my pro-democracy politics is legible from a different direction than the usual one I just mentioned: I focus there instead on the more common or garden variety modes of hyperbole that bedevil democratizing struggles for real health care reform or for strengthened collective bargaining rights or for more sustainable transportation, buildings, and agricultural standards and policies -- hyperbole playing out in, for example, corporate advertising hype or in concern-trolling editorials on policy questions.

One discerns only the precursory trace in this everyday hyperbole and irrationality of the incandescent pathologies of superlative futurological discourses to which I have directed so much of my own critical energies here and elsewhere. But perhaps that trace sheds a helpfully different kind of light than usual on my preoccupations with futurological discourses and what I take to be their anti-democratizing and otherwise deranging impacts on sensible public discourse in the midst of ongoing disruptive technoscientific change.

Civic-Mindedness on the Brink of Catastrophe

Glenn W. Smith has written an enormously wise and useful editorial over at Firedoglake this morning, and I think everybody should read it. I rarely find so much to agree with in any piece of writing. The piece is titled Danger Is Not Doom: The Madness of the Eleventh Hour

The Eleventh Hour is Smith's metaphor at once for our current moment in the struggle for real health care reform -- the repeatedly frustrated ever-urgent dream of civic-minded Democrats and other progressives for generations -- and also for the quandary of citizenship in a democratic civic order more generally.

At the most proximate level, Smith's piece is a plea that activists at this crucial stage in the struggle for health care reform not squander their necessary energies in hysterical responses to doomsayers, but rather direct their energies to the struggle itself at a time when, for the first time in a long time, such practical struggle looks capable of bearing real fruits. The title of his piece derives from the moment in his piece in which he offers up this advice most clearly: "Danger is not doom, and confronting menace with eyes wide open doesn’t necessarily require a 24/7 adrenaline high."

That is to say, grasping the real danger of this moment, grasping the scale of the players in motion, grasping the stakes in play in this health care fight truly is so shattering that it is all too easy to mistake the enormity of the danger of the moment for a moment of doom. And, indeed, all too often those who do grasp these questions of scale and of their stakes to the identities of the Parties that are locked in this struggle, to the larger narrative of the American story, to the lives of hundreds of millions of citizens, to countless industries, institutions, professions, practices that make up the furniture of everyday life in our society seem all too readily to assume rather Biblical cadences, taking up the undercritical tonalities of prophesy, apocalypse, transcendence.

"A politically overheated imagination," writes Smith, "can easily warp its struggles… into… frightening visions [against which the] courage [of democratic struggle] seems quaint. Something more manic is called for." Hence, the "24/7 adrenal high" he mentions elsewhere. He continues: "The struggle for the light turns dark, when it’s the engagement itself that should create the light."

Smith goes on to point out, very practically, that "democracy’s enemies try to create the fatigue and demoralization such physical abuse produces." Indeed, he proposes in a rather off-hand way that makes a lot of sense to me, that "no soldier can fight at the front for the full duration of a war. Battle fatigue is probably why the army of activists who helped elect President Obama appears less engaged in the monumental fight over health care." I think this is probably true.

I also think it is true that it was easier to translate a struggle between Obama and McCain for the Presidency into iconographic terms that mobilized the passions of personal identity into energies and actions that made a palpable difference in people's lives in the spur of the moment itself, if only at the level of their feelings, than the complexities of these health care debates. It is easy enough to notice that these health care debates seem to be generating the most energy and attention at precisely the moments in which they disconnect themselves from practical policy considerations and re-inhabit that emotional and iconographic terrain of identity in which so much of the Presidential contest played out, where ugly unreasoning fears of death and of threatening alien others reside.

It is easy to invest an intelligent, charismatic figure with a compelling American story with Hope, it is less easy to find ways to invest the figure of "The Public Option" with such Hope. For a self-marginizing minority of vulnerable undercritical Americans clinging to a fantasy of white-racist patriarchal corporate-militarist Christianist Americanism, and for the vanishingly small coterie of rich privileged authoritarians who cynically deploy the fears and fantasies of those vulnerable Americans to their purposes, it is just as easy to invest the figure of Obama with the Fear they feel, and that is what they continue to do to this day, brandishing birth certificates in plastic baggies and decrying his "Death Panels" in public events that are supposed to be devoted to the public discussion of actual facts and not such fancies.

But Smith's point remains the crucial one. Grasping the real stakes of the struggle for health care reform, and the real dangers in the contrary purposes of the stakeholders to that struggle, demands conscientiousness of a kind that is not assisted by doomsaying or despair. "Tough as today’s fight for universal health care is," Smith reminds us "we are in the fight. In fact, we are a handful of votes away from winning the fight. That was unthinkable not so long ago." Later in the piece he returns to this point, reiterating that "[w]e’re gaining ground, too, despite the efforts of the Right, with its millions of dollars from the insurance industry."

I think it is all too easy to lose sight of this perspective, not just in the present struggle for real health care reform, but in the midst of the ongoing distress of democratizing struggles more generally. On the question of the present moment of the healthcare struggle, I think it pays to read Smith's editorial in light of Robert Reich's warning just the day before yesterday that health care activists must not take at face value the proliferating and demoralizing declarations from anonymous but so-called "authoritative sources" that the Public Option "is dead."

Hyperbole distracts our energies from the actual material terms of the struggles at hand. Hyperbole makes us less thoughtful and hence less effective and more easily manipulated. As Smith puts the point:
The frenetic pace of our lives makes it seem like every moment is a tipping point. Failure to recognize that the time is nigh could mean lost opportunity or certain defeat. Isn’t this the message strategy of the car salesman, trained to keep the customer on the lot until a sale is closed? Haven’t we all felt, deeply, the anxiety of being pushed to act before we’ve had time to think?

Although Smith does not elaborate this point, this formulation reminds us that hyperbolic discourses appeal not only to unreasoning fears but to unreasonable greed, that the making of hyperbolic threats is all too often correlated to the making of hyperbolic promises. At the very same moment when irrational fears of "Death Panels" are being stoked by the rich beneficiaries of the catastrophically failing status quo (fears of fictional "Death Panels" that function precisely as the smoke screen behind which vanishes the lived reality of the "death panels" of brutal for-profit insurance company exclusions and rationings of health care), so too irrational fantasies of eternal youth and seamless happiness are stoked by advertising images wreathed in pastel hues and in the iconography of soft pornography and science fictional futurology for pills of questionable efficacy and by pop-tech articles handwaving about accelerating technoscience.

Hyperbole demoralizes us by deranging our sense of scale, befuddling our awareness of the ways in which individual agency, when it is organized, is more than equal to the forces of incumbency, ignorance, and reaction at hand. Hyperbole encourages us to leap in a single bound from the passive indifference of the ignorant consumer to the passive resignation of the knowing doomsayer. Hyperbole enlists us to assume the vantage of an essentially aesthetic perfectionism that falsely promises to immunize us from the inevitable disappointments of stakeholder contestation, by draining all the actual stakes of the contest at hand of significance as measured against idealized outcomes disconnected from struggle as it plays out in history.

Like all good critics, Smith realizes all too well not only the error of that which he criticizes but also its allure.
I confess that it is hard sometimes for a writer like myself to resist the allure of alarmist rhetoric. Evolution made us alert to danger, and cries of danger command attention, and attention to our ideas is a fond hope of every writer. Early warnings of mortal danger can enhance the appearance of wisdom, too, though most cries of apocalypse prove the very opposite.

And he is quick to point out that the repudiation of hyperbole must not be an excuse for complacency, an evasion of the actual stakes of the struggle, a relaxation of vigilance, lest it become a rationale for incumbency and reaction after all. "[Even] if democracy is always in danger, when then is it okay to take a break from its defense?" he asks, and then answers, rightly: "Well, never. That is the bind we find ourselves in." His point is to focus our intelligence and organize our energy to the actual terms of the task at hand, neither squandering our energies in hyperbole nor anaesthetizing our sense in complacency.

"Life at the eleventh hour is hard," writes Smith. And it is clear he means by this not only our present distress in the struggle for real health care reform, in all its danger and promise, but also the ongoing and abiding struggle of civic democracy. That is why when he points out that "life at the eleventh hour is hard," he does not go on to re-iterate his point about the health care struggle but to make the more general point that this difficulty is "another reason the totalitarian temptation survives." It becomes clear here that Smith is not only making a necessary contribution to the sanity, and hence likely efficacy, of the health care debate, but taking the health care debate as an occasion to make a deeper and vitally important point about the democratic civilization our devotion to which inspires our separate devotions to struggles for universal health care, freedom of expression and access to knowledge, a decent living and equality before the law, a celebration of the dignity and contribution of diverse lifeways in a shared world, and so on in the first place.

"[U]rgent calls to action can often be translated, 'No time to think. Just act.,'" Smith writes of hyperbolic health care catastrophists and doomsayers. But "Democracy requires thinking." He amplifies the point immediately thereafter: "Democracy can’t bear it. Democracy needs thought." It is very interesting to note that when Smith warns about "the totalitarian temptation," he makes what seems a very different sort of point: "Humans want stability and calm. Wouldn’t it be easier to just do what we’re told, especially if the only real demands are to shut up and watch television?"

To be lost in a daydream of effortless abundance, and to pay cheerfully the price of an acceptance or uncritical obedience to authorities for an infantile fantasy of ease is to relinquish actually thoughtful (in every sense of the term), actually responsible, actually civic, actually critical, actually intelligent, actually collaborative struggle as a citizen and even as an adult in the world and in history, on the actually-existing terms in which these are presented to us (incumbent on us) and present-ed among us (the open futurity in our plural present). To be lost in the contrary nightmare of delirious doomsaying, proliferating tipping points, conjurations of accelerating acceleration, of technodevelopmental singularities, apocalypses and ends-of-history, and to pay resignedly the price of an acceptance that democracy has or must fail the test of the moment, that true elites must have their way with us or that false elites will have their way with us come what may, is to relinquish that same actually-thoughtful citizenship and adulthood in the world and in history.

"Democracy" -- itself and as such -- "is an eleventh-hour phenomenon," writes Smith. "It is an action, not a thing, and it occurs always at the edge of civic catastrophe." I strongly agree with him. That is why I always insist that democracy is just the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that effect them, that it is not an eidos aspiring after a singular instantiation, like a blueprint, but better grasped and sunstantiated and incarnated as a democratizing struggle, the struggle through which ever more people gain ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them, a dynamic struggle of contesting energies but also a struggle yielding up a bounty of stubborn accomplishments, institutions, rights, laws, norms.

Some might hope "to finally win some distance from the precipice, though I see no possibility of that," writes Smith. "The abyss, I think, will always remain in the geography of democracy." And again I agree with him. Every social formation is riven with contradictions, irrational distributions of resources, authority, luck, and every social formation confronts crises (pandemic, environmental disruption, corruption, invasion, insurrection) that exacerbate these contradictions or transform their terms. Democratic forms of governance -- in their connection of legitimacy to consent and of taxation to representation, that is to say, in their definitive investment in the thoughtfulness of all, or ever more of, the people -- add to these structural susceptibilities to crisis inhering in all social formations the special susceptibilities of the people to thoughtlessness, the proneness to irrational passions of fear, greed, complacency, and rage, and the retroactive rationalizing exceptionalisms of the fearful, the greedy, the complacent, the enraged.

The situation of the democrat is even more dire, Smith writes, since "[t]o be worthy of the name, democracy is inclusive.
That means even those who detest it -- calculating authoritarians and economic opportunists -- can always claim a part in the action. Worse, they have the advantage. The rules don’t apply to them. To the despot, a lie that seeks to get or keep authority is not a lie. In fact, it can appear to the villain as a moral imperative.

Of course, this "advantage" of authoritarians, opportunists, cynics, and hypocrites is always provisional. Like the benefits that attract some people to the thoughtlessness of authoritarianism, opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy in the first place, their advantages are parochial, short-term, and short-sighted, and enormously vulnerable to exposure, rejection, refutation, and ridicule in their parochialism and short-sightedness.

To be a democrat is not to indulge some naïve fantasy or muzzy hopefulness, but to believe as a matter of fact and with good reason that people in general are capable, intelligent, and open to criticism, after all, whatever their susceptibilities to thoughtlessness and irrationality, and that open, consensual orders and collaborative, contestatory organizations of collective effort are, in consequence, more intelligent, efficacious, and resilient than incumbent, authoritarian organizations of that effort. One might disagree with this belief, or the reasons democrats might adduce in support of that belief (among them the many stunning accomplishments of the long struggle for more knowledge, more equity, and more diversity in the world), but it is interesting to note how rarely even the would-be authoritarians, opportunists, cynics, and hypocrites explicitly defend the contrary proposal that they in fact palpably embody a superiority in ability or substance that justifies their privileges or rule over everybody else. Far from a naïve or muzzy idealism, democracy has so prevailed, has become so commonsensical, that even those who denigrate and undermine it must do so stealthfully or through proxy discourses, like racist fear-mongering or handwaving sales-scams.

This is why Smith writes that "in America, egalitarian democrats are always at risk," but not that we are at some kind of permanent disadvantage, despite the ever-present reality of that risk. (I also want to be quick to add that I cannot be sure that Smith would mean by "egalitarian" the same thing I would mean -- for me it is just the championing of equity in diversity -- and so I cannot be sure I would endorse every single political position he would in its name, even though I strongly sympathize with everything he says here, and so suspect our sympathies are pretty strong generally.) He writes that "[t]he U.S. Constitution was meant to empower us. But we must be ever-vigilant defenders of democracy and sometimes a stubborn Resistance."

Of course, even accepting his qualification in the second sentence, with which I certainly agree, it would be better to say that the Constitution embodied the very democratizing conflict in which we remain engaged to this day, that it struggled to implement a representational compromise between democracy and oligarchy with the imperfect consequences of which we are still dealing, that it provided scant practical detail though which to implement the Hamiltonian developmentalism through which the Preamble indispensably connected the "promot[ion of] general welfare" with the "secure[ing of] the blessings of liberty," a connection that required the Roosevelt of the Progressive epoch and the Roosevelt of the New Deal to flesh it out in any kind of detail, all of which is not to mention the grosser inequity of that original Constitution's scandalous denial of women's suffrage and flabbergasting canonization of human slavery.

Still, setting all that aside (and I have no doubt at all that Smith would agree with me in most or even all this, and didn't mention it mostly because he thought such agreement could be taken for granted -- which I simply think we never should do, even if it makes our writing long and unwieldy like mine is and his is not), his larger point about the Constitution as an institutionalization of democratizing social struggle among citizens that stands as an abiding, wonderfully resilient, and indispensable support for our work even in the worst of times, is of course absolutely in point.

Smith reminds us that "[w]e should remain proud and hopeful because, so far, we’ve saved America from a permanent authoritarianism." And though he is, of course, right, I think we should be proud and hopeful not only or not even mostly because we can point to a history of comparable achievements in times as dark and even darker than our own, but because we are right to believe that, whatever its fragility, thoughtfulness is a force more powerful than thoughtlessness, that the attractions of thoughtfulness can be compelling even to those who are caught up for the moment in the irrationality of fear, greed, or despair, that the works of thoughtfulness abide in history, in memory, in culture not only as inspirations in the midst of the present distress but as resources that facilitate our present work.

That Smith wrote his editorial at this moment of hyperbole and hopelessness in the distress of activists struggling for real, robust health care reform in the belly of the beast of stakeholder contestation, that he provided more than just an urgently necessary reminder that we have every reason to work rather than despair in this moment so close to realizing for once some of our most cherished ambitions for some measure of social justice, but saw in this moment an occasion to make a larger point, to find in this moment a teachable moment reconnecting our activism to the larger work of thought and thoughtfulness against the weight of incumbency and thoughtlessness, all this provides proof enough, indeed self-evidence, of thought's capaciousness, resilience, and force in our shared world, our ongoing struggle, and the history opening onto the futurity that is our freedom.

Friday, August 28, 2009

DVD Denied

Can somebody explain to me how the truly smart funny erratic sf series Max Headroom from 1987 (the subtitle was "twenty minutes into the future," which, given that we haven't arrived there in twenty years, to the extent that we were not already there before the episodes aired, demonstrates that the show's critical self-consciousness fully extended to the futurological tropes it subversively cited along with everything else) has not found its way onto DVD? I mean, they made me wait for what seemed like ever for my beloved Night of the Comet on DVD, but it makes no sense at all that Max Headroom hasn't been given the deluxe treatment yet. I mean, our Showgirls DVD came with pasties and shot glasses, our original series BSG box is a life-sized shiny Cylon head, and our Planet of the Apes set is encased in Chimp Che Chic with hair you can actually comb, where's the love for M-m-m-m-max?

How to Feel Safe About Robot Gods Without Really Trying

A piece by science fiction author David Brin (some of whose fiction I have enjoyed, and much of whose non-fiction I have found usefully provocative without finding much to agree with) proposes a real way to feel safe with artificial intelligence. The piece has attracted quite a lot of attention among the usual Robot Cultists, the so-called Singularitarians and Transhumanists and so on, because it says a number of silly things (er, I mean, Very Serious things) about how post-biological superintelligence should be dealt with through the "engineering into them" of Enlightenment values and so on. Some of us who recall how key figures in the Enlightenment actually felt about transcendentalizing discourses (of which nerd-rapture Singularity discourse conspicuously is one) and those varieties of religiosity that posit fancies as facts (as handwavers about AI, "mind" uploading, nanotech genies-in-a-bottle and the like all conspicuously do) might be given pause by Brin's taking up of hyperbolic transcendentalizing futurological pseudo-science in the name of Enlightenment values, but of course this sort of thing is rather par for the course (see this and this and this, for example), however wrongheaded it is. It is also worth mentioning, I suppose, if we must, that people are interpellated and habituated into reasonable, generous, civic-minded values through their ongoing participation in societies -- values are not engineered and neither are people, properly so-called -- and to say or imply otherwise is really just to denigrate actually-existing people and actually-existing values in the plural present while pretending instead to be talking about hypothetical post-persons in "the future" (that is to say, to indulge in the usual futurological denigration of freedom in the name of a childish, brutalizing instrumental amplification). But quite apart from all that, it occurs to me that the peace of mind of these futurologists might also benefit from my own preferred method of feeling safer about superintelligent Robot Gods in our midst, which is, very simply, to notice that they don't exist.

Movement Republicanism As Death Cult

The clip speaks for itself, of course. But it pays to remember that these very same death-obsessed death-dealing ideologues who decry as the creation of "death panels" the efforts of Democrats to protect citizens from insurance industry "death panels" that already ruinously ration and refuse life-saving care in the name of their parochial profit-taking... are also often exactly the same people who describe as "pro-life" a politics that defends the "right to life" of a pre-born fetus over the life and health of the actually-existing pregnant women who carries it, and who then cheerfully refuses to support the health, education, and welfare of actually-born children the moment they enter the world. And that is not even to mention the already endlessly ludicrous spectacle of calling "pro-life" so many dot-eyed maniacs who are also pro-gun pro-war pro-capital punishment pro-pollution as well. Movement Republicanism really is little more than a death cult at this point, a dread army of death abroad in the land.

Republicans Deal So Republicans Can Steal

Republicans hate welfare -- unless, of course, it's welfare for the rich stealthed as Defense Spending, useless Cold War gargoyles and boondoggles, and an archipelago of bases girdling the globe to no purpose, an endless sinkhole of money larded out to subcontractors (not to mention an endless undertow of secrecy, hierarchy, and mercilessness tugging at our fragile democratic institutions and culture).

Republicans hate welfare programs that actually help the struggling poor to get back on their feet and contribute their measure to the shared work of progress -- they strongly prefer to warehouse their precarious peers in prisons or onto the Streets at incomparably greater expense and to little discernible benefit, especially when prisons can be privatized for profit and their brutalities shrouded in secrecy.

Republicans hate the very idea of healthcare programs that actually lower costs to ensure universal coverage or encourage early detection to prevent problems before they become insurmountable -- they strongly prefer to shuffle the catastrophically ill and dying into already overburdened Emergency Rooms at incomparably greater expense and with the worst imaginable outcomes, especially when this ensures that the bulk of American healthcare dollars (a greater expenditure than anywhere else on the planet) are siphoned off to for-profit insurance companies that profit most when they deny or delay the provision of care altogether.

A pattern emerges -- not just the usual soulless profits over people that lead Republican President Calvin Coolidge to assert that the business of America is business" back in the 1920s -- but an especial eagerness to disable our solving of shared problems precisely to enable the profit-taking of a few, to deal dirty in Washington so their cronies can steal ugly across the world.

Culture and Anarchy

Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives. -- John Stuart Mill

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. -- Oscar Wilde

In America, Republicans simply are the worst people you know.

This is not to deny that plenty of Democrats as people are plenty lousy, corrupt, and stupid themselves, nor to deny that there are universes of logical possibility in which legibly conservative ideas might lead an intelligent civic-minded person to some sort of idealized or historical Republican identification.

But Republicans here are the worst people around, because what Republicanism has devolved into at this point really is an appeal to the worst person you could be -- that is to say, to the worst that is in us all in some measure.

Republican politics drives and is driven by the part of you that is scared of change even when things must change to make things better, by the part of you that wants to break rules when you can get away with it even when you defend the rules because you depend on them yourself to keep what you got by bending or breaking them on the sly, by the part of you that sees the public world as a stage in which profits are made rather than people encountered, by the part of you that wants to win on any terms more because you don't want to lose on those terms than because there is actually something you want for its own sake, by the part of you that conforms without question or without joy for fear of taking responsibility for taking a stand that might be unpopular, by the part of you that wants your pleasures now in the expectation that the costs later can always be borne by those suckers who behave within their means and with an eye to the longer-term, by the part of you that can rationalize any selfishness, any meanness, any indifference, any thoughtlessness, any short-sightedness because the squalling endlessly needy infant inside, the bullying territorializing monkey inside dictates what you do rather than your critical and ethical intelligence.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Health Care Common Sense Versus the Obfuscations and Fearmongering of the Illness-Profiteers

Notice that it takes less than five minutes to say these things, to make this clear commonsensical case for public healthcare.

President Obama and the good members of the Progressive Caucus should be delivering variations on this presentation every single hour of every single day in as many attention-grabbing settings as possible tap tap tapping away at the catastrophic status quo until it finally gives way.

We must stop wasting our time boggling like fish out of water at corporatist lies and rising to the bait of endlessly "cleverly" debunking them, thereby reiterating the anti-governmental frames on which they depend for their intelligibility and force.

We should reject their falsehoods and their frames outright, dismiss the bad faith of the illness-profiteers's deceptive and deranging discourse, and respond with as many variations on our actual positive case as we can muster.

Putting the indefensible on the defensive is palpably a winning rhetorical strategy we really should try more often, it seems to me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Civics Lesson

I know that raising the specter of Big Government shuts down American brains more or less automagically at this point (as presumably the specter of Soulless Sociopathic Corporations does not?) and that conjuring up the image of government bureaucracy makes all American mouths curl up instantly and inevitably into a cynical dismissive smirk (as presumably images of corporate suits, meddling managers, and telemarketers in veal-fattening pens do not?).

But those who are fighting for real health care reform are always at the same time fighting against the feudal corporate-militarist mindset of tinpot tyrants barking can-do platitudes, celebrating as inevitable the merciless brutality of unaccountable monied masters, isolating and exploiting the vulnerable, hyping useless crap and distraction to the ruin of the world all the while denigrating and punishing expressions of fellow-feeling, critical awareness, nonconformity of any kind, or demands that authority always be prepared to make an accounting of itself.

To fight for healthcare is always already to fight for democracy and accountable, consensual governance, in our diversity, peer-to-peer, it is always already to fight against the anti-democracy of incumbency and the authoritarian order of corporate-militarism (the global neoliberal/neoconservative circuit).

It may seem like biting off more than we can chew to take all this on when taking up the fight for real commonsense healthcare reform, but the fact is that this is already the actual fight in which we are engaged, and we might as well grasp it in the terms that actually prevail. To win this fight is to facilitate the next step in the struggle toward more, better democratic governance -- likely to be collective bargaining rights, with campaign finance reform next, then global access to knowledge, then planetary governance over environmental criminality, but who is to say exactly how these struggles will play out? To lose the healthcare fight will be to make the next struggle that much harder, to confront us with the same arrayed forces of incumbency, the same hegemonic barrier of corporate-militarist platitudes we face now, again and again and again.

Why not fight them here and now, clear-eyed, with the strength of numbers and the wind at our backs? I'm not advocating muddying the issue of urgent healthcare reform with theory-head meditations on good-governance, but I am insisting that we grasp the way in which ignorance of or an entrenched habitual hostility to the very notion of good-governance forms an insuperable barrier through which commonsense discussions of issues rarely penetrate remotely intact. Be aware of the ways in which our metaphors and formulations and assumptions mobilize merciless, uncivil, cynical assumptions about our shared problems and the peers with whom we share them, how these anti-democratizing circumscriptions of possibility serve best that vanishingly small minority of authoritarian incumbents who stand between us all, whatever our differences otherwise, and the solution of our shared problems, peer to peer.

It doesn't matter how you put the points, what language you use, how you draw on your own experiences and metaphors to remind us all of the political assumptions without which none of our struggles make sense -- it doesn't even matter if you prefer the more philosophical sorts of language my own analytic temperament and academic training suits me to... However you put them, there are several basic ideas that we need to reiterate over and over to combat the inertial ignorance, short-term thinking, and deranging whomping up of greed and mistrust by those who thrive best wherever arbitrary men and not legitimate laws rule:

One: Democratically accountable governance indispensably provides ill-commodifiable goods and services that solve shared problems for the general welfare (the things so urgent that we don't comparison shop for them and hence are not subject to competitive forces that check abuses, or services the efficient provision of which creates institutions too big or complex to fail in ways that would subject them to such competition either) and it is the promotion of this general welfare as much as anything that secures the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Two: Taxes are the price we pay for such civilizational goods, taxes ensure that governance is representational quite as much as regular and regulated elections do by yoking authority to the consent of the governed who also fund it, and it is, of course, only sensible that the people who benefit most from their inhabitation of a civilizational order to which others who benefit less are nonetheless indispensable contributors pay their fair share for its proper maintenance as well.

Three: The separation of powers, federalist subsidiarity (the principle that problems should always be addressed at the most local layer of governance actually adequate to their resolution), the defense and strengthening of the scene of actually informed actually non-duressed consent, the celebration of consensual multiculture, peer-to-peer, and the institution of elections to public offices at regular intervals provide the necessary checks on abuses in the provision of these unique public goods that is provided by competition for commodities available for exchange in well-regulated markets.

Suicide Watch

It's easy to see why the vampiric CEOs of private insurance companies would be giddy at the prospect of healthcare "reform" mandating universal purchase of their crappy products without any public option to provide a modicum of competition to keep them the least bit honest. But it's hard to see why anybody else in their right mind would share such enthusiasm.

You can be sure that if this flabbergasting outcome is what "reform" ends up looking like under Democratic Congressional majorities and signed by a popular Democratic President elected after a promise to get dysfunctional for-profit healthcare under control by means of strict regulation and a public option, then the Democratic Party will lose everything it has gained since 2006, will squander its generational demographic ascendancy before that even gets underway in earnest, and will certainly deserve to lose it all.

All this is so obvious I don't know whether to assume such a worst-case scenario is indeed as impossible as it looks like it surely must be… or if all this makes it, you know, inevitable.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still Reagan After All These Years

Think Progress:

When a weeping constituent at a Health Care Town Hall Meeting explained to Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that her husband’s insurer is refusing to cover his treatment for a traumatic brain injury, he replied in classic Reaganauseating fashion that, “the idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement.”

At what point will it occur to people to ask why these Republicans who hate government so much are drawn to participate all their lives long in so useless, so wicked an enterprise after all? Apparently, Republicans imagine that public services and infrastructure, health and safety regulation, public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid should be left to profit-motivated corporatists and kind-hearted neighbors organizing bake-sales.

At what point will it occur to people that proposing the dis-invention of civilization isn't actually a civic-minded "proposal," doesn't actually pass muster as a "governing philosophy"?

It was Reagan who insisted decades ago that, contrary to our best efforts and hopes, government couldn't facilitate the public solution of otherwise intractable shared problems, but that "government is the problem." Ever since, they have made it overabundantly clear over and over and over and over again that when cheat-and-steal Republicans seize government it is indeed a problem for us all.

Senator Kennedy Has Died

Let us hope, let us demand, let us ensure that this year is also the one in which we pass real health care reform -- reform which must, at minimum, include a robust public option -- of the kind to the accomplishment of which he devoted so much of his public life. Here's the NYT obit.

Draconian Moderation Practices

Hard to believe that some people are still whining about my public disapproval of anonymity and pseudonymity in the Moot and my newfound quickness to moderate comments there.

Look, I actually wrote a dissertation about privacy and well understand the necessity for a thriving public sphere in general for secrecy (secret ballots, for example), anonymity (whistleblower protections, for example), pseudonymity (in spaces devoted as this one is not, primarily, to devil's advocacy, emotional venting for persons other than the proprietor, and so on).

But I really must remind you all that I blog for my own purposes -- to clarify my thinking in real time on issues that concern me, to ridicule ridiculous things that annoy me, to solicit conversation that will enrich my thinking on my terms. And I happen to have found that anonymity/pseudonymity lowers signal/noise in a blog with low readership such as this, that a tent big enough to include the loons and the stoopid (whether of the futurological or the wingnut varieties) quickly becomes a tent in which one finds little but the loons and the stoopid. Meanwhile, it is enormously difficult for me actually to track positions in a coherent conversational way when people adopt more than one handle or each other's handles willy nilly and so on.

My purposes are simply not served by any of that, and that's all I need to say to justify the practice.

My blog, my purposes, my rules. That really is the end of it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Middle (Age) March

Monday -- er, that is, today, although I'm actually off to bed now -- is my forty-fourth birthday.

I begin teaching the fall term later in the week, on Thursday, and so my vacation comes to an end all too soon, after teaching too many too much too intensely for too long this last half-year.

This has been a real vacation, though -- for a week now I haven't blogged particularly, you may have noticed, and I haven't paid any attention to the news for the first time in what seems like years, since well before the 2000 election debacle certainly, and I haven't surveyed any of the latest vulgar sales-pitches brute-brained futurologists think of as "thinking."

My companion instead has been an old friend, George Eliot's Middlemarch, and an intelligence that enriches, elicits, and elevates rather than debases, disgusts, depresses...

What a joy and relief and demand Middlemarch is! Have you read it? Have you re-read it?

I doubt the soopergeniuses of the Robot Cult would have much time for such a thing, nor the lying armies of the complacent middle or the tumescent right.

Middlemarch is a drama consisting essentially of the delineation of humane consciousness, as a richly historical, lushly overdetermined concern (check out the etymology of that word, concern, if you want a story worth thinking on). Setting aside the dramatic twists and turns and vivid characters and so on, the stuff you can skim off the back cover of a paperback or drink in through a sun-dappled BBC dramatization, Middlemarch is really the drama of intellectual, ethical, poetical consciousness, all at once, inter-implicated, from the beginning to the end, and I mean from the very first words to the very last ones, an illustration of and, even more crucially, a provocation to real adult liberality of mind.

Maybe you already know those famous last words of the book, probably the best most beautiful words to close any novel in my estimation: "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Even if you haven't read the book the words are moving, but reading them at the end of the reading of the book, even if you already knew them by heart, is nothing you can be prepared for, like a conversion experience that is the throwing off of infantile conversions for good, indeed, for the growing good of the world.

It seems to me, as it happens, that both futurological bulldozers and the ongoing heartbreak of politics are woven into the web of life Eliot discerns (there's a story in that word, too, by the way). And I'll be returning to both subjects soon enough, sure enough. For a couple more days, though, I'm staying away from here, if it's all the same to you. Thanks for all the birthday messages in my inbox and elsewhere!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Futurological Brickbats

It is always magical thinking to declare an outcome need only be profitable for it to be possible.

Scarlet Traces

Today is the first day my break from teaching has actually felt real. And I spent it doing what I do pretty much anytime when I'm not teaching -- joyfully reading comics (I know I don't blog about this much, but I read graphic novels quite voraciously, and especially adore graphic documentary-ethnography-history stuff, but also queer/punk stuff and of course some sf, too). I read Edginton and D'Israeli's wonderful steampunk trilogy, Scarlet Traces, today, beginning with their adaptation of War of the Worlds (which they actually made last, I believe) and then the two sequels. Vivid beyond belief, brutal, viscerally superquick, far truer to the spirit of the original matter and hence mordant and much funnier than any filmic adaptations have been, I loved all three.

No blogging today about healthcare politics (summary judgment: the tide may be turning) nor about futurological fanboys (summary judgment: they're still stupid), apart from some of the usual give-and-take playing out in the Moot, I've been relaxing for once!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Achievement of Superlative Futurology

Singularitarian Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov responds yet again to my critique of superlative futurology:
Dale Carrico, one of the more prominent critics of transhumanism, frequently refers to “superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance” as transhumanist goals, of course in a disparaging way. Yet, I openly embrace these goals. Superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance are a perfect summary of what we want and need. How can we achieve them?

Strictly speaking, I don't think superlative aspirations are "achievable" at all. I am not saying that because, as the Robot Cultists would have it, I lack their own "can do" attitude, or their boundless imaginations, or their sooper-science skill-sets, but because I do not think superlative aspirations are really the sorts of things that are meant to be "achieved" in the first place. I don't think Anissimov is right, really, even to call them "goals."

Let's live for thousands of years through "medical advancement" or through "transferring our selves" into invulnerable Robot Bodies isn't exactly the sort of "goal" that has any specifiable impact on conduct in the real world, beyond signaling membership in certain sub(cult)ures of futurological faith. I would maintain in fact that such sub(cult)ural signaling is indeed the actual substance of these assertions of superlative belief, such as it is, and that the work of these assertions is not to mobilize instrumental rationality at all but to mobilize moral rationality. That is to say, I think these faithful utterances aren't really about achieving goals so much as enabling the pleasures of subcultural identification, belonging, support for folks who happen to have found their way to a curious marginal futurological sub(cult)ure.

Let's have everything we want at no cost, let's arrive at always being right about everything, let's create something that solves all our problems for us… These utterances may have the superficial form of goals, of projects, of efforts but they don't so much orient pragmatic conduct in the world as protest against the pragmatic conditions under which we orient and conduct ourselves in the world in fact. As such, they are far more like the utterances of the more conventionally faithful: let's redeem our sinful natures or pasts, let's pray for guidance, let's be worthy of Paradise

Anissimov writes sometimes as though the super-predicated aspirations of superlative futurology (Robot Cultism) are just slightly more "ambitious" or "optimistic" versions of already ongoing technoscientific practice. The "goal" of superlongevity is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday healthcare practices, the "goal" of superintelligence is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday software coding practices, the "goal" of superabundance is just kinda sorta a more ambitious optimistic kind of everyday manufacturing practices.

This rhetoric might seem initially to lend a cozy coloration of plausibility to what upon closer scrutiny reveals itself to be batshit crazy articles of faith in a version of "The Future" in which immortal post-humans have somehow "uploaded" their "minds" into cyberspace or robot bodies to "live" in virtual or nano-slavebotic Treasure Caves under the watchful gaze of a history-shattering Robot God. But quite apart from the odd articles of faith it would countenance (which aren't after all really any odder than the articles of faith that fuel most essentially religious outlooks), Anissimov's claims are bedeviled by profound conceptual double-binds.

Either his viewpoint amounts to an affirmation of the idea of healthcare provision, software improvement, and advances in production at such a level of generality that one would be hard pressed to find anybody anywhere who disapproves in the first place (thus eliminating the need for affirming them at all, let alone affirming them in the form of joining a conspicuously self-marginalizing Robot Cult) or his viewpoint amounts to a commandeering of the idea of healthcare provision, software improvement, and advances in production in the service of some project at odds with these already-affirmed practices as they are already playing out in the world (thus eliminating the pretense that these assertions have anything to do with actual science at all, but nicely explaining why they would be affirmed especially by folks who have joined a conspicuously self-marginalizing Robot Cult).

No technoscientifically-literate person has any doubt that properly funded, regulated, accountable technoscience research and development directed to the solution of shared human problems can be enormously useful, nor that ongoing and proximately upcoming genetic, cognitive, and prosthetic medical research is yielding unprecedented impacts and enormously interesting results, nor that problems of software usability and network security are enormously thorny and increasingly important in globally mediated and surveilled societies, nor that advances in automation, distributed production, and materials science enabled by discoveries at the nanoscale and otherwise are enormously exciting and provocative. There are millions of people around the world who are involved in the ramifying inter-implications of these truisms, identifying problems and forming actual goals in respect to these problems everywhere all the time. But not one of these problems, not one of these goals is the least bit clarified by reading it through the lens of superlative aspiration.

No one working to solve a particular healthcare problem is helped in their valiant efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day medicine will deliver "superlongevity" (although you can be sure that loose talk about "playing god" has done more than its fair share to ensure that medical research that might solve actual problems and save actual lives didn't get proper funding). No one working to make software more user friendly or address a particular network security problem is helped in their painstaking efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day we will code a superintelligent Robot God who will solve all our problems for us (although you can be sure that loose talk about "artificial intelligence" has, as Jeron Lanier has endlessly documented, inspired no end of bad software that frustrates its users by simulating "thinking" for them and "making decisions" for them in ways they strongly disapprove). No one working to make particular materials or products safer, cheaper, less toxic, more useful, or more sustainable is helped in their diligent efforts by the insistence of some Robot Cultist that one day immersive virtualities, or ubiquitous robots, or cheap as chips programmable multi-purpose room temperature desktop nanofactories will one day deliver a superabundance that will circumvent the impasse of stakeholder politics in a finite world that is home to infinite and incompatible aspirations (although you can be sure that loose talk about Drexlerian "nanotechnology" has made it next to impossible to talk sense about regulating or funding or forming reasonable expectations about the problems and possibilities of nanoscale technoscience in actual reality).

Anissimov writes:
Achieving superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance will be incredibly challenging, but seemingly inevitable as long as civilization continues to progress and we don’t blow ourselves up or have a global fundamentalist dictatorship on our hands. There is no guarantee that we will achieve these goals in our lifetime — but why not try? Achieving any of these milestones would radically improve quality of life for everyone on Earth. The first step to making technological advancements available to everyone is to make them available for someone.

As I said, Anissimov sometimes talks as though superlative futurological aspirations are "challenges" and "goals" that can be "achieved" if we simply "try" hard enough. Of course, the first step to making technological advancements available is actually to engage in actual technoscientific practices of research, funding, regulation, publication, education, application in the real world. While Anissimov rallies the faithful with a Mouseketeer Cheer of "Let's Try!" it is notable that the immediate consequence of taking up superlative discourse is to disengage from the actual technoscientific practices in which one actually tries, works, participates in the efforts through which actual technoscience connects to the actual world, achieves actual results, solves actual problems.

It is especially intriguing that Anissimov raises the specter of "fundamentalism" as one that would be warded off by the can-do declarations of the futurologically faithful, because it is of course fundamentalist formations, with their authoritarian circuits of True Believers and would-be guru-priests, that the Robot Cults themselves most conspicuously resemble, and never so much as when they declare their most marginal beliefs as the ones that are freightest most with "certainty" and "inevitability" -- as Anissimov has freighted his futurological faith with "inevitability" at the beginning of the very sentence that concludes by disavowing fundamentalism.

It is no surprise that Anissimov turns the spotlight onto the archipelago of marginal Robot Cult organizations like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the SENS Foundation when he wants to make plain who he considers to be the "leaders" in the "fields" devoted to the "work" of superlative futurology. For nobody who isn't already a Robot Cultist would it ever occur to describe Aubrey de Grey, or Eric Drexler, or Eliezer Yudkowsky as "leaders" in any kind of actually-existing technoscientific field. These are not serious organizations. These are not people cited in serious peer reviewed publications. These are not projects with serious grant money at their disposal.

I mean no offense, really, since compared especially to the brainless nutcases who accumulate in orbit around them Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler, and, say, Nick Bostrom (neither Kurzweil nor Yudkowsky even passes muster as peers of oddball outliers like Drexler or de Grey, Bostrom is the closest you really get to a non-utter-nutjob Singularitarian) are all fairly genial intellectuals who have interesting things to say as often as not. In England there is a fairly robust and attractive tradition that encourages oddball intellectuals and even expects intellectuals to be oddballs. Nick Bostrom certainly isn't as off-the-wall as Wittgenstein was (nor as much a genius either, probably, but who's to say, really, when all is said and done?), and Aubrey de Grey actually even looks quite a bit like Lytton Strachey. All of this is quite par for the course in England.

And I have no doubt that just as ancient historians will regularly profess a fond bemused attachment to sword and sandal epics like "Quo Vadis" and "Ben Hur" as part of the initial inspiration that draws no small number of students into their fields, but would never mistake these gorgeous cinematic gargoyles as anything passing muster as the actual practice of the field of history itself, I have no doubt at all that plenty of biochemists and gerontologists will admit a fond debt to the popular handwaving issuing from Drexler and de Grey.

But anybody who thinks these figures are leaders in their fields, or even, frankly, manage to inhabit anything close to the consensus in which all the real work in these fields is getting done is demonstrating though such assertions their own complete ignorance of the actual science at hand.

As I often have occasion to say, superlative futurology is not itself science, but a constellation of faith-based initiatives that opportunistically frame themselves as scientific precisely to yield for their wish-fulfillment fantasies the reality-effect that attaches especially to scientific pronouncements in our own historical moment. The assertions of futurological faith do not function to mobilize instrumental rationality to implement goals in reality, but to substantiate the "reality" of articles of faith in idealized imaginations of "The Future" that do not exist in the present except through the mobilization of moral rationality that solicits shared identification, shared aspiration, the "real substance" of subcultural solidarity (especially the defensive solidarities of marginal sub(cult)ure).

It is at this point that I think many are apt to misunderstand the force of my critique. Although I am an atheist myself, I do not disparage people of faith for the same reasons I do not disparage people whose aesthetic practices of judgment and self-creation differ from my own: It is in my view the substance of freedom to assert moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political judgments to the hearing of the diversity of one's peers without any expectation that one's judgments will be shared or will prevail but only that they should be affirmed as legible as judgments. In offering up our judgments to our peers, and owning up to them (whether they are admired or ridiculed) in the hearing of our peers, we own ourselves, we arise as our own selves, we constitute ourselves as selves in the world. That is the work of freedom in my view, the work of meaning-making among our living peers in an otherwise mineral meaningless existence. To the extent that Robot Cultists are just indulging in a kooky poetical enterprise I have no complaints about their enterprise in the least.

Superlative futurology, as I have often taken pains to point out, shares no small amount of common ground with sf fandoms, and as a queergeek myself I have had plenty of occasion to wallow in speculative space operatic sensawunda. Who needs Yudkowsky when you can be reading A Fire Upon the Deep? Who needs Kurzweil when you can be reading the Dune cycle? I am the last person on earth to chuckle derisively at geeks who gawk at anime, or artist renderings of space elevators, or city-scaled space-freighters in cinematic flight. Let a bazillion flowers bloom, let your freak flag fly, make meaning where and as you would. I'm a silly nerd myself, for heaven's sake.

I personally disapprove of religiosity only when it pretends to scientificity, and I personally disapprove of morality only when it seeks to prevail over politics. It is not the religiosity of fundamentalist formations that makes them pernicious in my eyes so much as their authoritarian policing of facts and moralizing policing of political diversity.

It is precisely in its insistence that it is a kind of scientific practice (indeed, often that it amounts to an urgent championing of True Science against the "anti-science" of "relativists" and "pessimists" who do not share its idiosyncratic taste in "The Future"), and precisely in the curious tendency of its investment in scientificity to yield a politics couched as a "neutral" pre-politics or even an outright anti-politics (always in the service of incumbent interests figured as "natural" interests) that superlative futurology exhibits a chilling kinship with such fundamentalist formations. That the organizational archipelago of Robot Cultism is suffused with would-be gurus and True Believers is a symptom of the underlying rationality of futurology itself, it is not -- as the Robot Cultists themselves rationalize in the face of this sort of observation -- simply a matter of an unfair generalization from "extreme" but "unrepresentative" (of course!) sub(cult)ural figures and texts that keep unaccountably cropping up so conspicuously among their number.

But more than this, I think there is an endemic double danger in futurological discourse, not only (first) that it subverts scientificity by stealthing its faith-based initiatives as scientific practice and subverts sensible policy-making by declaring its sub(cult)ural solidarities as developmental deliberation, but also (second) that it subverts freedom itself, the understanding and practice of freedom that is the heart of the political.

If I disparage the notion of "The Future" it is emphatically because I champion what I describe instead as "futurity," by which I mean to evoke the open futurity inhering in the plurality of peers in the present, collaborating and contesting in their diversity the shared world in the present always in the form of presents-opening-onto-presents-to-come.

I believe that notions of "The Future," in whatever forms they take in the mouths of those who imagine themselves to see "It" more clearly than everybody else, and to speak like would-be Priests in "Its" name, are always ideological constructions, always bespeaking a parochial perspective in the present projecting onto the openness of futurity in an effort to domesticate and control that openness, to police and curtail that diversity.

The substance of the gesture of attributing "future-likeness" to ideas in the present or even to the style of artifacts in the present (this is something Daniel Harris has written about in his famous essay on "The Futuristic") is always just the repudiation of the present, often perversely so. The work of this gesture is ultimately political -- even though it typically cloaks itself in the langauge of pre-political or a-political instrumentality. It is a refusal or disavowal of the demanding substance of politics, plurality and freedom, and an infantile fantasy to substitute for these The One True Way That Ends History and an instrumental amplification of capacities through which the Elect Become Godlike by Eluding Human Finitude.

Robot Cultists cling to the insistence that the superlative outcomes they presumably are "fighting for" (a "work" that ultimately amounts to re-iterating in the presence of fellow Robot Cultists that they do indeed "believe" in "the future" and all its works) are possible in principle, even if they are not practically realizable in the present. That no actually-serious scientists or policy makers share their own preoccupations with non-existing non-proximate medicinal techniques to deliver thousand year lifespans, or upload minds into computers, or create superintelligent Robot Gods, or create cheap-as-dirt desktop Anything Machines never enters into their reckoning of their superior scientificity. They imagine themselves to be indulging in a scientific enterprise despite the fact no scientific consensus ever forms around their actual assumptions or models or goals, and so they confuse the equivalent of medieval monks debating the number of angels who can dance on pin-heads as some kind of hard-nosed sooper-scientific practice.

But quite apart from all that, the deeper pathology in play in Robot Cultism is its very specific repudiation of the political, a repudiation signaled by its preoccupation with "The Future" over futurity in the first place. Whatever they want to say about their "fearlessness" for "daring" to dream Big Dreams it seems to me that their discourse is one saturated by fear -- with "big dreams" that usually look to me more like infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies, testaments to sociopathic alienation from their peers in all their confusing and threatening diversity, damaged denials of their vulnerable error-prone bodily selves, authoritarian pretensions to certainty or the complementary desire to evade the responsibilities of uncertain existence through True Belief in charismatic gurus claiming to hold the Keys to History in the midst of the distress of disruptive change. Politics is a matter of reconciling the indefinitely many logically possible but also logically incompatible aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders in a shared world, peer to peer, and that makes politics prior to technoscience, especially to a "technoscience" evacuated of all practical substance and left with anemic assurances of "logically possible" outcomes.

And all of this is still just circling around the drain of the futurological imaginary, for the substance of the present politics of the superlative futurology of the Robot Cultists is not a matter of working (without ever really working) to bring about "The Future" in which they have invested their fervent faith, but the politics of indulging the delusion that "The Future" is already here, already now, in the eyes of the fellow-faithful, in the ritual re-iterations of Its possibility, Its palpability, Its inevitability. This is the faithful repudiation of fact by means of pseudo-scientific derangements of facticity as such, this is the moralizing identification with "The Future" by means of the anti-political dis-identification with the plurality of their peers in the open futurity of the present opening onto presents-to-come peer-to-peer.

This is the real achievement of superlative futurology.


Limiting the authoritarian ambitions and imperial pretensions of the Presidency in a time of trumped-up hysteria is "Foolhardy," says John Yoo as he prepares to teach "Civil Law" to an upcoming generation of would-be practitioners of the Law at my University. Lovely.

[A]ctivists protested Monday at the University of California, Berkeley to call for the firing of a law professor…. Campus police arrested at least four people….

The demonstrators said John Yoo should be dismissed, disbarred and prosecuted for war crimes for his work as a Bush administration attorney from 2001 to 2003, when he helped craft legal theories for waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques….

Yoo, 42, has defended the controversial interrogation techniques, saying they were needed to protect the country from terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"To limit the president's constitutional power to protect the nation from foreign threats is simply foolhardy," Yoo wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last month.

Another Robot Cultist Compares Self to Wright Brothers

I know this isn't a substantive post or anything, I just can't help myself. I can scarcely count the number of times over the years in which one after another Robot Cultist sniffs disdainfully at my critique of superlative futurology and then declares some variation on the theme of: Well, they laughed at the Wright Brothers too! I mean, it happens over and over and over again. I don't think these people are citing one another's rejoinders, I suspect it is a spontaneous and symptomatic upwelling out of the pathology of superlativity itself. From the Moot, one "Extropia" (get it? it's like Extropian, you know, from the Extropian transhumanist sect founded by Ayn Raelian Robot Cultist Max More) assures me:
Your ridiculing does not bother me in the slightest, just like the pioneers of aviation were not put off by the fact that many people thought airplanes were absurd flights of fancy

Dude, neither you nor any of your little white sf fanboy friends are the Wright Brothers. You are not Leonardo or Einstein or Tesla. You are somebody's crazy uncle, you know the one, who stays in the shed out back most afternoons, railing about his genius theories, smelling of his own pee, working on his perpetual motion machine.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thanks, Michel

Special thanks to Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives for directing attention to some recent writings of mine.

Techno-Immortalism in a Nutshell

Either humans are like leprechauns or we're like red wagons. Since leprechauns aren't real but red wagons and humans are, we must be more like red wagons than leprechauns then. Since we can build red wagons that last thousands of years, then medicine can make people live thousands of years, too.

But we haven't actually ever made any red wagons that last thousands of years, which seems like more than a problem of mere detail for this "viewpoint." And the fact remains that even red wagons that might last for thousands of years aren't exactly living for thousands of years, which makes one wonder if saying humans are more "like" red wagons than leprechauns is really quite so useful as all that when everything is said and done, even if it is quite true.

PS: Of course, the even pithier version of techno-immortalism is just the question, breathlessly intoned, Don't you want to live forever? And the even pithier substance of that question is the infantile existential shriek: I don't wanna Di-ay-ay!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

More Like This Please

As usual, Rachel Maddow talking sense is like hearing a voice in the wilderness.

The "Imagination" of a Robot Cultist

Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the stealth transhumanist Robot Cult outfit (with which I, an insistent critic of transhumanism and futurology more generally was briefly, unfortunately, affiliated myself), Martine Rothblatt asks the question that Robot Cultists ask endlessly over and over again: Can Consciousness Be Created in Software? As with the rest of the Robot Cultists, this question is for her merely a rhetorical one. It is of course precisely because they have already decided that code can indeed be conscious and that consciousness can be immortalized "through" disembodiment and coding that most Robot Cultists became Robot Cultists in the first place.

In the first paragraph of Rothblatt's piece, she writes:
There are thousands of software engineers across the globe working day and night to create cyberconsciousness. This is real intelligent design. There are great financial awards available to the people who can make game avatars respond as curiously as people. Even vaster wealth awaits the programming teams that create personal digital assistants with the conscientiousness, and hence consciousness, of a perfect slave.

While it is quite right to point out that there are thousands of clever coders working on the improvement of gaming systems at the moment, it is quite extraordinary to say that this amounts to work to "create cyberconsciousness." I daresay that vanishingly small numbers of coders actually working to produce less wooden NPCs (non player characters) and less fakey avatars in gaming environments would ever mistake their work as contributions to the "creation of cyberconsciousness," except perhaps for a handful of California coder boys who may already have joined the ranks of one of the Robot Cults here. Nobody who knows anything about consciousness would ever mistake an online avatar as possessing it, even incipiently.

That Rothblatt describes coders who do mistake software as a kind of aborning consciousness as engaging in "intelligent design" seems to me a revealing slip. To invest the technoscientific state of the art with a significance beyond the actual problems it solves and causes in the present, to invest it instead with the imaginary significance of constituting a stepping stone along a fatal road that is sure to eventuate in the arrival of super-predicated outcomes -- from software to superintelligence, as from medicine also to superlongevity, as from automation and biochemistry also to superabundance -- is to indulge in a faith-based initiative, an essentially religious enterprise, to confuse romance with science to the cost of both.

Although I have quoted Rothblatt's first paragraph in its entirety, I have not yet mentioned that it was preceded by a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and wonder why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not?” Robert F. Kennedy. Later, Rothblatt evokes John Lennon's "Imagine" to similar effect.

There are a few things to say about these cynical appropriations of heroes of mine and other progressives. First, Kennedy and Lennon were urging us to break the crust of convention to work toward visions of justice more capacious than the status quo afforded us, they were not urging us to pretend that two plus two equals five or, say, that the magic of the Harry Potter universe is real (although, come to think of it, the real magic in the Potter universe ends up deriving from the fact that diverse people working in concert can overcome the brutality of egomaniacs, which is not only really true but a lesson that Robot Cultists would do well to attend to). To engage in social struggle in the name of democracy, non-violence, and social justice as Kennedy and Lennon inspire us to do is a very different matter from the injunction of a Robot Cultist to confuse freedom for a mirage of endlessly amplified instrumental power, to confuse a diversity of peers acting in concert in the world with wish-fulfillment fantasies of "transcending" the world through technoscientific magicks.

Of course, you will have noticed that Rothblatt hasn't only announced one faith in her opening sentences but two, and both are enormously familiar from generations of technophiliacs who seem to have only a few songs to sing when all is said and done. Not only does she declare the faith that biologically incarnated consciousness can be coded (all empirical appearances to the contrary notwithstanding) but she declares this outcome a fatality, because there is so much money to be made in it: "[G]reat financial awards [are] available to the people who can make game avatars respond as curiously as people. Even vaster wealth awaits the programming teams that create personal digital assistants with the conscientiousness, and hence consciousness, of a perfect slave."

Of course, if one managed to code a conscious slave it seems to me it would be an "imperfect" one indeed, because it would need to freed immediately from bondage upon arriving at consciousness if you ask me. I won't discuss this, however, because this is precisely the sort of non-reality that Robot Cultists love best to indulge in, pretending that talking about made-up bullshit constitutes serious thinking about policy or science when it only functions to distract our attention from serious problems like actually existing trafficking of precarized human beings as sex-workers or miners or agricultural laborers in the neoliberal New World Order.

And don't even get me started about the rather horrifying identification Rothblatt seems to make between "conscientiousness, and hence consciousness" [emphasis added--d] -- I'll just assume that was an unfortunate slip of the keystroke she hasn't given much thought to the implications of. No, I will simply confine my observations to pointing out that it isn't enough for an outcome to be "profitable in principle" for it to be "possible in principle," no matter how many gung-ho "getting to yes" self-esteem seminars you attend, no matter how many ponzi-scheme financial gurus you read, no matter how fervently you pray to the predator Gods of Ayn Rand and the Friedmans, pere et fils.

Gee, I wonder, by the way, how Robert Kennedy and John Lennon would feel about the assimilation of their provocations to imagining a more just world to the "greed is good" mantras of market fundamentalism? No doubt, very very pleased indeed. Why, probably they would be as pleased as Thomas Jefferson would have been to hear the last idiotic generation of right-wing futurological sell-outs to describe their hippy 2.0 dot.bomb irrational exuberance as Jeffersonian democracy via the California Ideology.

From here Rothblatt goes on to ask a familiar philosophical question: "[H]ow is it that brains give rise to thoughts… but other parts of bodies do not?" From here she continues: "If these hard and easy questions can be answered for brain waves running on molecules, then it remains only to ask whether the answers are different for software code running on integrated circuits." That is to say, presumably, if we can get a handle on why things like brains can think, we might find ways of making things less like brains in key respects think also. This is reasonable enough as far as it goes, but there is absolutely no reason beyond Robot Cult ideology to assume in advance that the things less like brains that might still be capable of thought-likeness would necessarily have anything in the least to do with "software code running on integrated circuits" of all things and, worse still, only for Robot Cultists hopelessly lost in the full froth of True Belief would one ever say of the prospect of the discovery of the reasons why things like brains can think that "it [would] remain only to ask" upon such a discovery how then can we get software conscious? I daresay there would no end of interesting things to think about and do should we ever discover such a thing. But, then, I teach poetry and philosophy, who am I to know what would "remain only to ask" upon such an eventually, after all, compared to a scientist like Rothblatt (about which more later)?
At least since the time of Isaac Newton and Leibniz, it was felt that some things appreciated by the mind could be measured whereas others could not. The measurable thoughts, such as the size of a building, or the name of a friend, were imagined to take place in the brain via some exquisite micro-mechanical processes. Today we would draw analogies to a computer’s memory chips, processors and peripherals.

Are "we" to assume that these "analogies" are measurable in the way the size of a building is (but as presumably its meaning as an historical landmark or its value as an architectural masterpiece is not)? And just who is included in this "we"? I certainly don't find myself inclined particularly to think of "memory chips, processors and peripherals" when I contemplate what we know about the "exquisite micro-mechanical" and electro-chemical processes that take place in biological brains and which seem to us to correlate indicatively to conscious thought processes. But, hey, again, that's just me, and who, after all, am I? Just a menacingly relativistic fashionably-nonsensical humanities person, no avatar of sooper-science like Martine Rothblatt and her posse of transhumanist and cybernetic totalist Robot Cultists, to be sure.

Rothblatt continues on in that paragraph: "[W]e still need an actual explanation of exactly how one or more neurons save, cut, paste and recall any word, number, scent or image. In other words, how do neuromolecules catch and process bits of information?"

What I would draw your attention to here is that the real argumentative work taking place in these formulations is happening at the level of figurative and not literal language. Just as Rothblatt admits that her faith in coding-become-consciousness is driven by analogies earlier on, in the space of a sentence or two these analogical machineries have been cranking on and on, but as if they were merely descriptive, predictive, indicative: We are now told we need an "explanation" for how neurons "save, cut, paste, and recall" words, numbers, images, and so on when what is most needful is a better understanding of why the metaphors to which Rothblatt is making recourse in thinking thought here involve "cutting and pasting" as if thought were a word-processing program.

Should we not think much more about what "explanations" are likely to arise in the first place from a research program framed in such prejudicial terms? When we ask the question, as Rothblatt does, "how do neuromolecules catch and process bits of information?" in what ways has the metaphorization of thoughts as things that can be "caught" or "processed [as] bits of information," in what ways has the question itself delimited the field of answers available to our attention and common sense?

This matters enormously because as often happens in the superlative futurological discourses of the Robot Cultists and their more mainstream technophiliac fellow-travelers as well, Rothblatt devotes a considerable amount of space to apparently technical discussions of neurons, outputs, qualia, and the like in her piece.

There is nothing Robot Cultists like better than to seduce skeptics into endless debates about such "technical" matters. The reason for this is because at its heart Robot Cultism is a faith-based system of beliefs organized through sub(cult)ural identification with fellow-believers (and dis-identification with the diversity of human peers with which they share the actual present, including the presents to come they disdain for investment in an idealized version of "The Future"). Because the superlative technodevelopmental outcomes in which they believe do not exist, because "The Future" does not exist, because the post-human beings with whom they identify don't exist, the substance of their faith is vouchsafed in the shared assertions of faith among their fellows (who represent a small, embattled, and defensive minority) as well as in the assertions of the terms of their discourse with those who do not share their faith but who can be made to pay attention to them or take them seriously on their terms.

I personally see no reason to indulge them in this desire of theirs. I take the frames and formulations of the Robot Cultists seriously as a symptom and as a reductio of underlying pathologies in prevailing technoscientific reductionist discourses on the one hand and mainstream anti-democratizing corporate-militarist "global developmental" discourses on the other hand.

Since it is clear that the heavy-lifting in even the Robot Cultists' most "technical" discussions is happening at the level of figurative language, it seems to me it should be judged on those terms. And so I judge it in the main to be very bad and usually completely derivative poetry.

Since most of the would-be scientific claims made by Robot Cultist's seem to veer enormously far from scientific consensus in the actual disciplines in which they pretend to be making their heroic contributions, I judge them to be crackpots.

While it is true that the progress of technoscience has often been fueled and driven by contributions at its outskirts, it is also true that the overabundant majority of claims made by folks at its outskirts were exactly as wrong and crackpotty as they appeared to be. And for those of us who are not in fact qualified credentialed experts in the fields in question (various medical fields, life sciences, neurology) the reasonable course is to accept the relevant scientific consensus as the most warranted belief. Robot Cultists exhibit extreme confidence in views that veer from scientific consensus in field after field after field -- in formulations suffused with familiar religious hopes for transcendence from human mortality, misery, finitude, uncertainty (rather than worldly work to solve problems in concert with the diversity of our peers) -- and all as evidence of their superior scientificity of all things. There are good reasons to be doubtful of some of their conclusions on this score.

According to her personal entry in Wikipedia (grain of salt taken, I presume) Martine Rothblatt "is an American lawyer, author, and entrepreneur[, who] graduated from UCLA with a combined law and MBA degree in 1981, then began work in Washington, D.C., first in the field of communication satellite law, and eventually in life sciences projects like the Human Genome Project." We are also alerted that "in 2007 [she] was the second-most highly compensated executive in the District of Columbia." I am, to be sure, pleased for her good fortune. But I am not much inclined to mistake her for a biologist or for an expert on consciousness, even so.

And I hope she will forgive me if I for one continue to turn to Robert Kennedy and John Lennon for inspiration in the struggle against incumbent interests (among whom she seems to me very likely to be one) in the service of peace and social justice, rather than for rationalizations for indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasies that substitute selfishness for solidarity, magick for freedom, and faith in imaginary technologies for worldly technoscience.

Agree or Disagree?

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot: In response to my post a couple of days ago in which I declared myself, of all things, to be feeling rather optimistic, the pseudonymous "Radical Cool Dude," was quick to pee in my punchbowl (or, I should say, outsource somebody else to pee in my punchbowl):
So do you disagree with the arguments made by Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his Huffington Post article Why the Right is Winning Its War Against Obama? If so, why?

"Radical Cool Dude" let me begin by saying the form of your question annoys me.

Rather than actually asserting some point that you substantiate on your own terms with the expectation that we are having a conversation together, you simply peremptorily bark a link at me and demand that I agree or disagree with it.

Does Earl Ofari Hutchinson speak for you in every particular? Or have you assigned me the task of processing his piece for you? And, honestly, why that piece in particular? There are dozens of pieces making comparable cases to his every hour on the hour across the blogosphere (as there are making comparable cases to the one I posted, you might add with justice).

Now that I have read his piece I daresay I inhabit it rather as most anybody with a measure of critical intelligence would -- that is to say, there are things with which I agree in greater and lesser degrees, and things which I weight differently than he does. To cover briefly the highlights from his post (every one of which I must assume you ventriloquize like a dummy given your eagerness to have him speak for you):

(One) Hutchinson says Obama seems "rattled" by the healthcare debate -- I couldn't disagree more. Indeed, I think that is a surreal misapprehension of Obama's performance in every way.

(Two) Hutchinson says Obama was wrong to deride Rush Limbaugh. I couldn't disagree more. Limbaugh has been denominated the de facto leader of the Republican Party, a non-elected and in fact unelectable figure whomping up the most self-marginalizing forces in Movement Conservatism. It shows what disarray Republicans are in that they continue to fall for this rather brilliant gambit of Obama's in my view.

(Three) I'm not happy at all about the Afghanistan quagmire either, in fact our deepening involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan without what seem to me achievable goals or an exit strategy terrifies me -- and so perhaps Hutchinson and I agree here more than we have before. Although it remains to be seen how Obama's policy will play out here, there are signs that he is trying to redefine the mission in a more realist fashion against the inertial mass of a vast ongoing deployment, and I'm not sure I am qualified to judge what it would look like to an outsider if things really were starting to move in a positive direction by my lights.

(Four) I expect accountability around civil liberties is coming, including very possibly some accountability for figures higher up the chain of command than I would have dreamed possible this time last year. Obama is allowing legal processes that are slower-moving than is the circulation of outrage to unspool in their deliberate, frustrated and frustrating ways, while at once seeking to maintain control of inter-sectarian conflicts within agencies that he needs to be functioning all the while. I am very happy that the left is keeping the pressure on Obama here -- card carrying member of the ACLU here -- but I think some of us are sometimes rather quick to declare superficial twists and turns we discern in a complex slow-moving process as signs of betrayal or game-ending gambits. So, I guess Hutchinson and I would disagree about the fatality of unaccountability for the criminal wrongdoers in the Killer Clown Administration now just a couple hundred days behind us, while no doubt we equally forcefully abhor the same acts of criminality and equally forcefully demand a real measure of accountability for them.

(Five) I think it is frankly idiotic to announce a "verdict" on Obama's stimulus and economic policies this early in the game. Clearly, Obama has taken the advice of "the best and the brightest" here (I hope my irony is palpable) and we must all of us hope that grown-ups and professionals -- even the ones who have spent all their grown-up professional lives in the tank with corporatist crooks or teaching corporatists to be crooks in elite Business Schools -- can go a long way toward cleaning up the mess of a generation of Movement Republicans and corporatist-militarists of both parties deregulating the financial sector and stealthing welfare for the rich as Defense. The process of stimulus, the incentivization of shifts into green production and provision, strengthening unions as a countervailing player to chambers of commerce, and re-regulation of banking and finance is piecemeal, it isn't done, it's ongoing. I'm not thrilled with the way it has been done -- but I can admit I'm not a professional economist and that I actually do respect real professionals when they warrant it and I do think the economy is showing some signs of life I worried it would not. Maybe the professionals really do know a bit more than I do about how to generate enough of an economic turnaround to yield a space in which regulatory processes can proceed. Stranger things have happened. Call me a skeptic, but less so than Hutchinson, apparently.

(Six) When Hutchinson imputes to Obama a wish-fulfillment fantasy of misreading 2008 as the arrival of a post-racial America I am almost embarrassed for him that he thinks anybody thinks Obama thinks such a thing. Perfectly absurd. His analysis here is like some sort of cartoon.

(Seven) I personally do hope Obama continues to make his "bipartisanship" noises, contrary to Hutchinson. I think it is funny that people hear the same thing when Obama talks about "bipartisanship" (and then gets everything he wants while painting the opposition as childish obstructionists of the will of the people) as when Harry Reid talks about "bipartisanship" (and gives away the store). That sort of tone-deafness makes me laugh. I happen to think Obama is trying to re-invent the Republican Party from the outside as a sensible opposition by creating a space in which some clever less-evil Republicans can gain a real measure of power by playing ball with him while their alternative seems to be willful self-marginalization by identifying with viscerally ugly stupid hatefulness in their present base that seems at least a century outdated. If you point out that he also uses "bipartisanship" as a dodge to kill some left-of-center initiatives with which he does not agree as a center-left figure but which I do as a figure to his left, I think I probably agree with that, but I also expected it given that I actually pay attention to what people say and do before I elect them.

That's a lot of issues, rather breezily surveyed from the Hutchinson piece. I certainly would have preferred that you actually raised a question or two of your own rather than demanding I "agree" or "disagree" with a piece that provided many occasions for both agreement and disagreement. By way of conclusion, I suppose I can also provide that the shorter answer for me to Hutchinson's question "why the Right is winning" is to say that I will declare the "Right" to be winning when Obama no longer gets all his measures through more or less intact as he has done, when the Right starts winning elections again which they show little sign of doing, or when the poll numbers suggest they are likely to do as they do not at present. None of that seems much in the offing.

Obama was elected as a center-left candidate rather than a progressive as left-of-center as myself, so I daresay those who foolishly imagined him otherwise than he is or ever said he was might imagine the "Right" is winning even as they are losing because they thought Obama's election would mark the unilateral imposition of something like the Swedish government on the US in the first 100 days. I think it would take about sixteen years holding the White House and Congress to turn the US into our own very superior multicultural continent-scaled version of Sweden, and that Obama's first 200 days have been a better start than I could have dreamed to that end.