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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Response to the Counterpunch Expose of Singularitarianism

Part One

Many people have asked for my comments about David Correia's recent expose in Counterpunch of the organized Singularitarian transhumanist sect of the Robot Cult archipelago.

The easy answer is, "what's not to like?"

My longer answer will elaborate some quibbles, but I will say at the outset that I think these mostly arise from the fact that Correia is writing an accessible journalistic piece rather than a formal theoretical critique.

I'll get to some of my theory-head quibbles in a moment, but let me linger for a moment longer in a more "what's not to like?" frame of mind. I must say that I was pleased to read the piece, and I am pleased that lots of folks seem to be reading it. That can only be a good thing. I consider Correia's expose to be the latest among a small number of comparable contrarian offerings over the last couple of decades of utterly prevalent mass-mediated corporate-militarist techno-utopian enthusiasm that I regularly direct to the attention of my students (as I now will also recommend the Correia piece), among them:
The California Ideology, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, (1995)
God of the Digirati, Jedediah Purdy (1998)
One Half A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier (2000)

In the piece, Correia quoted other scholars whose writings I also consider relevant in the struggle against reactionary futurological discourses, both mainstream and superlative, like Katherine Hayles, Leo Marx, Lewis Mumford, Langdon Winner. He might easily have added work by Paulina Borsook and David Noble, among others, which provides similar insights in an accessible way.

Needless to say, I would include some of my own (admittedly, usually less accessible) contributions to this burgeoning discourse, especially the works corralled under the Condensed Critique of Transhumanism and Futurology Against Ecology and also, in this context, Sanewashing Singularity (For A More Gentle Seduction).

My own theoretical and political orientation on questions of technodevelopmental social struggle is most legible in the context of the theory, research and activism of Science and Technology Studies (STS), work by folks like Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Andrew Pickering, Anna Tsing, and the Environmental Justice Movement (EJ), work by folks like Robert Bullard, Vandana Shiva, Rachel Stein, and works in so-called "New Media" Studies that manage to resist the impulse to promotional celebration, like Jodi Dean and Geert Lovink. For me, the political thinking of Hannah Arendt and Roland Barthes' work on the mythology of technoscientific progress is also especially indispensable. While few of these figures take on superlative futurology explicitly (although some of them have nibbled at the edges of such critique), what is more important to me is that when one engages technodevelopmental social struggles from a vantage informed by such analysis and activism I find one is on the whole less susceptible to the facile and reactionary seductions of the futurological in the first place.

Part Two

Now, let me quote from Correia's forceful concluding paragraphs both to provide a clear sense of why this intervention seems to me so valuable as well as to pressure some of the terms he uses in ways that I think enable us usefully to extend his critique.
The silly Techno-capitalist-transcendent language of the singularity movement finds broad social acceptance because of a remarkably underdeveloped politics of technology on the political left.

Part of the reason the left might lack a more "developed politics of technology" in Correia's phrase might be that to name such an aspiration in just those terms seems to me to commit us already to a profoundly reactionary politics. As I never tire of saying, there is no such thing as "technology in general" that pre-exists for a "politics" subsequently to take up. There is, crucially, politics in the selective imagination, invention, maintanence, taking up of some artifacts and techniques and then designating just them and not others as "technological."

It is crucial to grasp that there is a politics in the discursive practices that yield our sense of what is technological or not in the first place. It is crucial to grasp that what this politics produces tends to be a field of artifacts, techniques, and capacities that is treated as prior to politics, merely technical, factual, apolitical. It is crucial to grasp that what we stabilize and nominalize as "technology" might just as easily be contemplated as collective, collaborative, contestatory processes of invention, testing, publication, elaboration, funding, regulation, application, marketing, appropriation every one of which is palpably political through and through. It is crucial to grasp that every single heterogeneous instance sloppily subsumed within the constellation of artifacts, techniques, and capacities presumably captured by the concept of "technology" is imagined and understood, is taken up and taken on by, is impacting a diversity of stakeholders whose different situations, histories, hopes determine whether technoscientific changes are progressive or emancipatory or violent or exploitative in their different lives. It is crucial to grasp that questions of progressive or reactionary technodevelopment in a general political sense must always be a matter of finding our way to a most sustainable, equitable, consensual possible distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes to the diversity of stakeholders to those changes.

When we speak of a left politics of "technology" as if we already know in advance what technology is or is not, as if the politics here is a matter of applying left democratic as against right authoritarian intuitions to "technology in general" I fear that we have already swept off the table the whole field of democratizing and anti-democratizing collective struggles through which we arrive at "the technological" as an emancipatory imaginary in the first place.

The technological is not just a political production but it offers itself up as an alternative to the political -- it is forever confusing technical capacitation with political freedom, and, indeed, not just confusing these, but offering the one in place of the other, as a seduction to dispense with the one for the other.

And this is especially unfortunate since the "technological," precisely like the political, is freighted with the daydreams and nightmares of agency. "The technological imaginary" does not just disavow its politics and then proffer itself as a substitute for politics in this way, it is also suffused very particularly with the pathologies at the limit-instances of the political, that is to say, where the politics of disruption, violation, failure, revolution, insurrection, emergency, emancipation bedevil the fraught boundaries of the political and the provisionally non-political: persuasion/violence, opinion/fact. Notice that when we speak of "technology" we tend to have in mind not the quotidian furniture and techniques of the familiar everyday world, even though we might just as well, but instead very particularly those techniques and artifacts that seem to promise or threaten disruption, denaturalization, alienation, transcendence, windfall profits, miracle cures, apocalyptic wars, pandemics, environmental catastrophes.

Part of what I am getting at here is to provide a sketch of what Correia bemoans the lack of -- namely, the "remarkably underdeveloped politics of technology on the political left" -- and, let me emphasize, this is a sketch familiar from and to the many theorists and activists I named above, I don't have any illusions about my own contribution to addressing this lack.

The devastating prevalence of the promotional-futurological mindset in the neoliberal rationalizations and neoconservative bombs and bullets of corporate-militarist incumbent-elites happens to find its way to a certain clarifying extremity in the superlative futurology of the singularitarians and transhumanists. But it is not true that the left lacks altogether a critique and archive of activism one might hope would be equal to this authoritarian anti-democratizing anti-consensualizing unsustainable precarizing reductionist monocultural triumphalist corporate-military-industrial-broadcast reactionary retro-futurism.

I daresay interventions like Correia's are indispensable efforts in that larger struggle. But, more pointedly, I propose that his intervention might be more powerful still if he would stop using the word "technology" in the way he repeatedly does. I find that substituting gawky, awkward phrases like "technodevelopmental social struggle" or "more equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes to the diversity of their stakeholders" for the word "technology" goes a long way toward short-circuiting the reactionary "naturalization" or de-politicization of "the technological imaginary" and helps keep a wider range of options on the table, open to collective contestation and subversive appropriation, where they should be. The discomfort and opacity of such formulations might bespeak the breaking of a reassuring spell, a comfortable delusion.
To the easily fooled, The Singularity looks like a) a good idea, b) a baffling idea beyond the ability of radical politics to critique, or c) a silly science-fictiony idea not worth addressing. But it’s none of the above. Instead it represents the highest aspirations of reactionary politics to foreclose the possibility of radical social change.

This is both true and important. The extreme formulations of the Robot Cultists are often so ridiculous that they deserve nothing but ridicule on their own terms. However it is important to grasp that even the ridiculous, when contemplated as a symptom of broader historical or discursive or structural forces and formations, can be discussed quite seriously indeed. Needless to say, such serious discussions will not seem "serious" to the adherents of sub(cult)ural futurological formations themselves, since, as for most True Believers, the precondition for the recognition of any engagement as "serious" will demand the prior acceptance of key tenets beyond which disagreements are scarcely threatening to the faith but only endlessly re-confirm its relevance on its own terms.

But it is also important to realize that the level of sophistication and abstraction demanded for the mastery of the relevant controversies associated with the mathematical, cosmological, physical, medical, biological and biochemical, and engineering disciplines at which futurological discourses tend to genuflect truly are baffling even to well informed and educated citizens whose responsibility is, nonetheless, to deliberate about sustainable, equitable, and consensual developmental policies arising out of these controversies. Where true technoscientific understanding is impossible to all but specialists but passionate anxieties and hungers provoked by technodevelopmental dislocations are visceral one has found one's way, to be sure, to a fertile ground for cranks, scam artists, and would-be gurus, especially in a sensationalist broadcast-media environment and celebrity-culture such as our own.

The futurological hyperbole and self-promotion and fraud that suffuses the marketing discourses that prevail as the "public realm" under neoliberal-neoconservative corporate-militarist global-developmentalism is especially clear and pronounced in the superlative sub(cult)ural futurology of the Robot Cult archipelago to which Correia directs our attention, in which advertising hyperbole and fraud is exacerbated into outright religiosity and self-promotion and profit is amplified into wish-fulfillment fantasies of outright transcendence of human finitude.

The scam becomes quite familiar when analogized to conventional evangelism, in which suave would-be priests and gurus preying on fears (death, contingency, as usual) and greed (girls, guns, as usual) tell their just-so stories to entertain, anesthetize, flatter, and cajole (providing the grace of faith, the consolation of philosophy, the dis-alienation of critique, or the ideological fetish mistaken for mastery in the face of neoliberal precarity and developmental dislocation) always with an eye to the passage through the pews of the collection plate.
So, what would such a critical politics of technology look like? And how can a radical politics of technology overcome the widely held belief that technology is always and everywhere a progressive force?

I refer you back to my response above, of course, but I hope the force of what I said then is at least a little clearer in part because in reading Correia's framing of this urgent demand in terms of "technology in general" you are already a little worried that he has foreclosed too much of what such a critical politics must foreground if it is to do what he and we want from such politics. Needless to say, for ecologically-minded, democratically-minded people, any technodevelopmental vicissitude will be progressive precisely to the extent that its actual costs, risks, and benefits are equitably and accountably distributed among the diversity of actual stakeholders to its changes as they would legitimately represent them to be.
First, we need to take “things” seriously. As Langdon Winner has argued, the artifacts of technology, once unleashed, advance a politics the reveal the inner logic of their design. The ridiculously low bridges Robert Moses constructed on the Long Island Parkway were designed to exclude the poor and people of color. The low bridges excluded all but single passenger cars and reserved the beaches for middle and upper class New Yorkers. Moses’s bridges were technological tools of racist city planning.

This is all very good, reading the historical and political assumptions and aspirations that guide the design, development, implementation, materialization, use, understanding of the furniture of the world, so that politics is not imagined as an impoverished deployment of things to political ends but grasped as the struggle out of which things emerge and play out in the world in the first place. I would caution, though, that this important intervention needs to bear in mind that both because humans have an unconscious and because the street finds it own uses for things that more is revealed in the storm-churn of technodevelopment than just the "inner-logic" of designs as their designers understand them from moment to moment.
Many of the technologies that singularity movement scientists celebrate are funded by corporate behemoths and the U.S. military.

I hate to be a stickler about the obvious, but I happen to think it matters that most of the "technologies" singularitarians, transhumanists, techno-immortalists, and nano-cornucopiasts "celebrate" (well, no doubt, most of them are fond of pencils and penicillin like the rest of us are, but I assume Correia means to emphasize the preoccupations unique to Robot Cultists) are not "technologies" at all.

I say this not just for the reasons I mentioned above pressuring the very notion of "technology," but in this case for the glaring reason that none of these celebrated artifacts or techniques actually exist. I think it is a terrible thing to pretend that the non-existing non-sense that preoccupies the celebrants of superlative futurology should be treated even incidentally as real by their critics, when so much of the problem with futurology is precisely that it requires we confuse hype with substance, empty promises with products, arrows rocketing up graphs with political promising, debt with development, ponzi schemes with investments, and science fiction with science.

This is even worse when we are talking about the paraphernalia of the Robot Cult imaginary: when, for example, "post-biological super-intelligence" is under discussion. Not only does "post-biological super-intelligence" not exist, but "it" cannot coherently exist inasmuch as all intelligence hitherto has been incarnated in biological brains and expressed in human lifeways. While anyone who is disinclined to propose that intelligence is supernatural must be open to the possibility that there might be alternate materializations than squishy brains and historical struggles for intelligence, one also has to accept actually-existing materialization as non-negligible to the intelligence so incarnated. This seems to me to have the implication that "artificial" intelligences might be sufficiently different from human ones to require a different term to denote them, with different historical associations (rights bearing? property-inhering? reasonable? responsible?). And if this-worldly intelligence is indeed non-negligibly materialized then certainly all the glib fancies of personally omnipotizing and immortalizing "migrations" of intelligence from one material substrate to another material substrate -- say, from squishy brains into the cyberspatial sprawl or shiny robot bodies under the sooper-parental gaze of a "Friendly" Robot God -- so beloved of Robot Cultists, might not make a whole hell of a lot of sense however loudly the techno-enthusiasts clap to the contrary.
If the costs of the benefits of technology are paid with our own techno-dependence, then the technologies of the singularity movement promise to intensify corporate control and military authority in society.

I maintain that the prosthetic is more or less co-extensive with the cultural, which means -- apart from the fact that here we are talking yet again about epic-scaled generalizations when we should probably be focused instead on historical specificities -- that our collective elaboration of agency is always indispensably prosthetic, which means in turn that what counts as our dependencies and inter-dependencies and comparative independence in the first place are all determined in our ongoing technodevelopmental social struggles. Part of the reason I disapprove glib references to "technology in general" is not just that it makes us vulnerable to mistaking the familiar with the inevitable, and the parochially attractive with the universally beneficial, but it tempts us to fancy that the space of a radical resistance to reactionary technodevelopment is to be found in some equally fanciful "outside" of "technology-in-general."

But it seems to me that no such outside exists or would be desirable: It is, after all, because we are inter-dependent that we can be co-responsible, just as it is because we are always constituted in language and history (both prosthetic through and through) that we are always open to connection and persuasion and change for the better.

If we are to speak of technodevelopmental costs and benefits as Correia rightly demands we should, it seems crucial to me that we not retreat into narratives about generalized protagonists like "technology" and "humanity" imposing or paying the price of a generalized "dependence" against which an imaginary "outside" beyond "technology" and "dependence" is delusively proffered, but instead turn our attention to the actual situation and testimony of the actual diversity of stakeholders to the technoscientific and technodevelopmental vicissitudes particularly under consideration. What that will tend to look like, in my opinion, are the ethnographies and documentaries typical of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the policy papers written from the vantage of the Environmental Justice Movement (EJ), so possibly what Correia needs to be doing is directing more people's attention to this sort of work so that it will capture more of the imagination, education, agitation, and organization of the left, such as it is.
Second, SM draws its intellectual force from a long history of technoscience claims to human perfectibility, such as the eugenics movement. Just as the language of science and the “inevitability” of technological progress blinded millions to the darker side of eugenics, the arrogant, uncritical celebration of technotranscendence disguises the reactionary logic of The Singularity. The transcendence implies an eclipse of biological limits and therefore of social relations thus foreclosing the possibility of social and political struggle.

Certainly I agree with the spirit of this critique. I have written extensively (among other places, here) that the glib transhumanist discussion of "enhancement" as such pretends that consensus exists where certainly it does not about just what would seem an "enhancement" to whom, in the service of what ends among others, to the frustration of what possibilities, at what costs to whom, and so on, and that this de-politicized discourse is inherently eugenic. And this is so even when its adherents honestly abhor the violence of historical eugenic practices like white racist medical experiments and sterilizations in the United States or Nazi rationalizations for genocide.

It is true that the "post-biological super-intelligence" Singularitarians pine for aspires after an "eclipse of the biological" in Correia's term, but we should pressure that aspiration not only on their own rather facile terms but on our own more critical ones as well.

The same hostility to biological materiality crops up in sect after sect of the futurological -- the Cyberpunks famously disdained "the meat body" (merely amplifying in superlative cadences the mainstream Boomer futurology of botox and boner pills proliferating on the teevee) the crypto-anarchist Cypherpunks disdained the material body of the nation state no less viscerally (merely amplifying in superlative cadences the mainstream neoliberal futurology that celebrated "frictionless flows of global digital capital"), techno-immortalists would "transcend" the flesh through fanciful "uploading" into a faux-spiritualized cyberspace or invulnerable cyborg-shell (the Extropian sect of transhumanism made famous by Wired magazine at the height of the irrational exuberance of the dot.bomb epoch declared themselves a movement dedicated to the end of both Death and Taxes, merely amplifying in superlative cadences the mainstream neoliberal futurology of corporate anti-governmentality, smarmy self-actualization seminars, and Randian-New Age narcissisms, and the demand for endless growth in defiance of ecosystemic limits, the usual braying confidence of the privileged that limits are finally unreal just because there have always been and so will always be other lesser beings around to clean up all their messes for them), the nano-cornucopiasts expect nanoscale robots to assemble superabundance on the cheap and bypass the intractable impasse of reconciling the limitless diversity of aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders to a shared and limited world in the muscular materiality of social struggle in history (merely amplifying in superlative cadences the fragile, hysterical petrochemical bubble on which North Atlantic civilization, such as it is, has always precariously depended, and in this the nano-cornucopiasts are merely the latest delusive aspirants after a techno-utopian end of history: following the worshipers of a plastic plenitude turned to toxic landfill -- a nuclear energy too cheap to meter to ward off the permanent specter of apocalypse at our disposal -- the ponzi scheme of input-intensive petrochemical industrial agriculture, "The Green Revolution" of soil and aquifer depletion and genetically engineered brand loyalty -- the paperless office of computation that now brings our bosses into the private precincts of our pants pockets and "leisure" hours -- the productivity and efficiency gains of automation and mediation that were to liberate the masses but have exacerbated wealth concentration and created a planetary precariat -- and on and on and on).

It is intriguing to note that this techno-transcendental eclipse of the biological has been the occasion for a ferocious compensatory biologization of the public forces of criticism and politics that would educate, agitate, and organize against the restless reactionary work of "post-biological" futurology, as our ideas are denigrated by futurology into "memes" and our arguments denigrated into "viral contagion" and our social and cultural distinctiveness denigrated into reductive evolutionary psychologisms and greed and exploitation and parochialism are celebrated in the dreary return of Social Darwinism.

But the final pressure we might put on this notion of a techno-transcendental "eclipse of the biological" is to recall that "the biological" as it plays out in ramifying dynamisms and lifeways in the world is finally no more monolithic than is "the technological," especially for those of us who would come to terms politically with biological vulnerabilities, possibilities, and limits. While for the infantile wish-fulfillment fantasists of futurology "the biological" is the register of finitude, of hated contingency, feared vulnerability, of the pleasure principle confronted with the reality principle in a tantrum of tool-making, the abject rejected in a blessed rage for order, it is also true that those who are born in the world will make of it what we know not, and that in every word and deed we re-enact that birth and release forces of disruption and novelty into the shared world, and that we truly cannot know what our ingenuity is capable of, and that in bodily lives whose bounds have been bedeviled by sonograms and defibrillators we cannot know even what our lives have in store for us in brute biological terms. I have always found it intriguing that the superlative futurologists are always so quick to read in this present confusion of the limiting terms of the human biological condition the end of all limits, rather than the arrival of the new, humbling limit that we can no longer know with anything like the certainty our ancestors had just what our limits and their saliences will be.
The sparkling promise of technoscience blinds even the most obvious critics to this frightening premise.

I wouldn't mind some examples of such critics, since it seems to me a commonplace in the few critics of techno-utopian discourses to emphasize this sort of parochialism and reductionism.
The Singularity does not anticipate human liberation but instead announces the zenith of bourgeois values like efficiency, productivity and standardization germlined into the human genome.

This is certainly true, but I might add that well before futurologically-rationalized practices would "germline" these bourgeois values (I happen to think "industrial" -- with its implications of elite capital intensivity, and hence centralization, and hence professional-credentialization, and hence massified audiences/consumers, and hence its monologism, monoculturism, and homogenization -- is a better word than "bourgeois" for these pernicious values at this historical juncture) into the genome, they are first and primarily engaged in the struggle to re-write the human condition in the present into such reductive terms so that any eventual "germlining" would not be experienced so much as a circumscription of human possibility at all, but a kind of confirmation of what we already have come to "know" about human possibility through what we have come to ignore about human possibility.
But is all off this even possible? Isn’t this all just technological pie in the sky? Probably, The Singularity moment is after all not science, but rather ideology.

This is the crucial point, and another one I insist on again and again -- as, for example, here. The force of mainstream and superlative futurology is not so much that it might facilitate or frustrate outcomes in "The Future" but that through the fervency of its advocacy and the beliefs of the faithful it organizes our grasp of what it possible and important in the present in ways that preferentially benefit incumbent interests. There is no such thing as "The Future," after all, its whole substance is what it forecloses in the presence of the open futurity, peer to peer, of political freedom.
But that’s just the thing the left refuses to say.

I suppose I understand what Correia is saying here, but I think it actually matters that while only too few people are engaging in a serious critique of mainstream and superlative futurological ideology in the midst of our distress in the catastrophic consummation of neoliberal-neoconservative corporate-militarism, it is also true that pretty much the only people who actually are saying the sorts of things that need saying are indeed on the left. That last sentence of his, that pious moment of preferential disdain for the left from the left when only the left provides any actually available measure of hope or sense, is probably the single sentence in the whole piece which I find most disagreeable. I daresay it is also the reason I won't ever perform the kind of radicalism, whatever my substantial radicalism, that gets one published in Counterpunch.


Summerspeaker said...

I met with David Correia about this piece the other day. We talked about you briefly. He sounded like a fan. He expressed surprise that folks consider him more civil than you. I certainly felt that way, but chatting in person and arguing on the internet are two very different things. Anyways, perhaps y'all should consider a collaboration against the Singularity movement. I know it's difficult for academics to get together in the humanities, but we're talking about politics here.

As always, best wishes.

jimf said...

> Anyways, perhaps y'all should consider a collaboration
> against the Singularity movement.

Or not.

After all, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have never
felt the need to "collaborate against the Religion movement"
even though they both write books and give lectures critical
of organized religion. (I doubt if their politics align
precisely -- I suspect Dawkins may not be as gung-ho about
the US invasion of Iraq as Hitchens seems to be. But Dawkins
has said of Hitchens -- it's somewhere on YouTube -- "He
has a thrilling voice, like Richard Burton. And I'd hate
to be on the other side of him in a debate." I love the
fact that Hitchens **will not be** talked over by an interviewer
or talk-show host -- he just raises his voice and keeps on
talking without missing a beat. That's a fantastic talent.
I heard Vanessa Redgrave do that once in an American
radio interview.)

And speaking of "civility" -- it's interesting that neither
Dawkins nor Hitchens is beyond using the f-word in public.
There's even a clip on YouTube showing Hitchens giving the finger
to a TV studio audience. Hitchens, in particular, pulls no punches
when describing figures like Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham.
He's come up with some memorable one-liners -- in regard to
Falwell, "If he'd had an enema before he died, he could have
been buried in a matchbox"; and in regard to the Catholic
clergy, "They have a 'no child's behind left' policy."

Dale Carrico said...

Every critic and commentator exposing the deception, hyperbole and self-promotional narcissism of mainstream corporate-militarist futurology -- whether the fraud saturation of mass-mediated advertising, the rationalizations for evil that pay the bills of the neoliberal and neoconservative think-tank archipelago, or the death-pep up with assholes self-help self-actualization industry -- or the madness and outright batshit crankery of the superlative futurologists peddling techno-immortality, revenge of the nerds comic-book super-cyborg shells, money for nothing nano-abundance, Robot God father-figures, and other variations of priestly techno-transcendence of the bodies, societies, situations, stakeholder struggles, error-proneness, vulnerabilities, and humiliations of the human condition, whatever else they might devote their attentions to, in those moments of exposure and critique and ridicule of futurological discourses they are already my collaborators as far as I'm concerned.