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

Monday, June 06, 2011

From "The Great Stagnation" to a Great Awakening

Tyler Cowen made quite a splash for a few months with his "Great Stagnation" thesis, proposing in a book (but here's a succinct op-ed precis) that technical innovation and improvement of quality of life are now slowing down, contra the cheerleaders of silicon capitalism about accelerating progress forever right around the corner.

Part of Cowen's argument is that the dizzying transformations we have come to associate with "modernization" represent what he calls "low-hanging fruit," and that technical breakthroughs of comparable transformative scope may simply be harder to come by from here on out. I question that phrase a little since it is hard to square with the fact that it took millennia for humanity to stumble onto these apparently low-hanging fruits, for one thing. But also I disapprove of the metaphor because I think there are differences that make a real difference among these "low-hanging fruits."

Hitting upon a petrochemical reorganization of production (a reorganization that definitely transformed more than you might initially think of, not only our energy and transportation infrastructure but also our disastrous petro-fertilized industrially-irrigated globally-dispersed agricultural system and our plasticized material environment, for example) represented a kind of hyper-bubble, an organizational cul-de-sac, toxic to the touch and catastrophic to the atmosphere, in finite and dwindling supply, neither desirable or even possible to emulate as a developmental pathway in nations that have not already taken it up, leaving those that did stranded in a poisonous junk-heap.

Strictly speaking, I am not sure it is right to describe the recognition that we have been misdiagnosing as "progress" an actually unsustainable and poisonous petrochemical bubble and that we must now change course as "stagnation" rather than as a hard lesson that will either destroy us or provide the knowledge and wisdom from which real and sustainable progress may arise.

Certainly, I would want to distinguish the siren-song of the dead-end short-cut of petrochemical modernization as "low-hanging fruit" from that of the elementary hygienic and therapeutic discoveries that provided a leap forward in life-expectancy over the last century and a half (especially to the extent that this results from the address of infant mortality, malnutrition, and cardiovascular disease), elementary techniques that could and should be available sustainably and equitably to all. While futurologists may get starry eyed about imaginary nanobots scouting out and zapping cancer cells, Mike Davis (in Planet of Slums) brings us back to earth when he declares the ultimate "miracle drug" to be, quite simply, the availability to all of clean water.

When Cowen goes on to deride those who pin their hopes for continued or even accelerating progress on innovations in the computer sector, saying they represent a "different kind of innovation," I certainly agree with his conclusion, but possibly would differ from him in my analysis of it. Digitization and networked organization has simplified certain tasks and lowered certain costs, but while the stories we have been telling ourselves about these changes have tended to make recourse to metaphors and narratives of "de-materialization" and the "abolition of distance" and the widening of "participation," the lived realities of digital networked mediation and organization have been acutely material and geopolitical, involving the facilitation of financial fraud, the displacement of exploited labor onto invisible distances, and the implementation of more intensive and intrusive modes of marketing and surveillance.

Rather than a different kind of innovation, computers have actually amounted to conventional innovation, ambivalent and contingent in its impacts, but experienced culturally through the distortive lens of relentless, nearly ubiquitous, hyperbolic promotion and futurological framing. Futurological day dreams of nanotechnological cornucopias, renewable energy too cheap to meter, declarations of "geo-engineering" war on climate change, immersive virtual reality cyber-heavens, post-human or even post-mortal genetic enhancement, and so on (some of which Cowen genuflects in the direction of himself more than he should) should be grasped by way of that example of computer innovation: just as Moore's law is not a magic carpet ride into a rapturous singularitarian end-of-history even if computers and digital networks do indeed make many tasks incomparably easier and cheaper, so too nanoscale biochemistry and genetic science will continue to provide useful innovations in medicine and materials without ending scarcity or mortality, so too a renewable energy infrastructure and agroforestry/permaculture techniques might make our energy and food systems sustainable as they are not now, but only if these techniques are embedded in sociocultural changes in our pathologically wasteful, inequitable, frivolous consumer lifeways.

It is well known that the security, quality of life, and buying power of the middle class has been declining for generations even as costs of production have decreased and profits increased, that the so-called epoch of "accelerating change" and "the Long Boom" and "innovation unto infinity" about which futurologists have been handwaving so ecstatically for years has actually been an epoch of unprecedented disparity between a fraction of the richest of the rich and the intensifying precarization of ever wider majorities.

Setting aside the obvious distortions introduced into this discussion by the pervasive deceptions and hyperbole of marketing discourse, and the metaphors and narratives of the futurological imaginary at its extremity, it seems to me crucial to recognize that what Cowen characterizes as contemporary "stagnation" is better regarded as a crisis of and for politics, rather than something demanding "technical" or "scientific" address in some facile de-politicized understanding of the technoscientific.

This anti-democratizing anti-civilizing concentration of wealth, that is to say this profoundly inequitable distribution of the costs and benefits of innovation and production, has not happened because of generically diminishing technodevelopment (the very idea of which should, but doesn't, strike one as incoherent on its face) but through the particular forms of technodevelopmental social struggle that have articulated innovation and production.

The market-ideological deregulation of enterprise has lead inevitably to abuses, the market-ideological dismantlement and prevention of general welfare programs has lead inevitably to insecurity, the market-ideological attack on organized labor has lead inevitably to the immiseration of the middle-class, the market-ideological cutting and regressivity of tax-revenues has lead inevitably to inequity and injustice, the market-ideological organization of corporate lobbying and campaign spending has lead inevitably to the corruption and paralysis of the political system, the market-ideological proposal that money is speech and that corporations have human rights has lead inevitably to plutocracy and serfdom. (You can be sure, Cowen himself would disagree emphatically with much of the substance and emphasis of what I am saying here.)

To raise the general standard of living, champion human equity-in-diversity, render civilization sustainable, and incubate innovation and expression requires better informed and democratically passionate technodevelopmental social struggle, progressive political campaigns, good old fashioned education, agitation, organization pushing from the left wing of the possible. Treating scientists as a priesthood or corporate CEOs as gurus or Commentariat hacks for incumbent-elites as "thought leaders" is an utterly misguided misapprehension of what our present "stagnation" materially consists and of what brought us to this imbecilic and perfectly avoidable pass.

In my view, the provision of a universal non-means-tested basic guaranteed income (or the approach to such an income via vastly expanded general welfare programs), paid for through steeply progressive income (including capital gains) and property taxes, would be the best way to subsidize real democratic participation, including -- as Erik Olin Wright has pointed out -- the subsidization of democratic labor organizing by providing a permanent strike fund, and frustrate the current regime of unpaid domestic labor, outsourcing of domestic production onto overexploited regions of the world, and the crowdsourcing of the culture industry via digital networks, and would subsidize research and innovation through grants to freely available knowledge and frustrate the current regime of circumscription and capture and piracy via regressive intellectual property rights.

Bill McKibben has written about social research suggesting that the lives of people in extreme poverty are reported almost universally to be materially improved by an increase in income right up to a certain point. Adjusted for inflation and cost-of-living disparities the amount is roughly ten thousand dollars a year. But, contrary to our probable expectations, beyond that point reports of satisfaction and well-being are no longer universal at all but become profoundly ambivalent and confused, beyond a certain point people are often stressed and oppressed by increasing incomes quite as much as they are satisfied by what those increasing incomes afford them. Even if McKibben is oversimplifying his case or overstating the force of his point, it is obvious that this insight provides yet another set of possible reasons to approve the radically democratizing politics of a basic guaranteed income. But it also provides another angle of view on Cowen's "Great Stagnation" thesis.

I have already suggested that it might not make much sense in the final analysis to describe by the word "stagnation" what amounts to our learning (or not) the hard lesson that the wasteful, toxic cul-de-sac of petrochemical production constitutes an epochal civilizational bubble phenomenon rather than a narrative of triumphal progressive modernity. So, too, it may be that beyond a certain point the productivist/consumerist standards on the basis of which we have sought to measure human well-being and satisfaction have been profoundly misleading, such that it might not make much sense in the final analysis to describe as "stagnation," either, our discovery that we are no longer be able to interminably fulfill let alone amplify their actually pathological terms.

I do not mean by all this to deny the conspicuous and demoralizing failure of our long cherished and celebrated public institutions and system to continue to provide solutions to shared problems, or to provide security and satisfaction in most of our lives, or even manage not to destroy the very planet on which we depend for our survival and flourishing. Nor do I mean to deny that increasing knowledge and technique has an indispensable role, as always, in solving those shared problems, in facilitating that security, in providing that satisfaction, in finding our way to a sustainable and equitable civilization.

But I do think that it is wrong to describe as a general "stagnation in technoscientific innovation" what is in fact a complex of crises most of which arise from political failures and will demand political struggles (including technodevelopmental struggles that should not be mischaracterized as apolitical technical problems) and many of which amount to belated recognitions that we have mistaken panic for progress, hysteria for happiness, waste for worth, recognitions that are the furthest things from "stagnation" but look instead like the possible beginnings of wisdom.


Martin said...

I don't know about $10,000, but remember when Daniel Kahneman made headlines last year:

"Below 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat."

"Clearly... money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery... But the real trick is to spend time with people you like."

A utilitarian should support steep taxes above $60,000 and welfare programs for those below, since that would maximize happiness.

Dale Carrico said...

I wonder if 10g involves some complex calculation involving cost-of-living disparities distinguishing, say, SF, NYC Paris, Tokyo, from Saharan Africa? I always wondered how McKibben took all that into consideration. Definitely it plays into the different forms BIG activism takes when advocacy is national versus international. Anyway, thanks for the comment and the link, it helped. And that last line of yours makes a world of good sense to me, as a clarifying bottom line, at any rate to a US citizen like me advocating BIG or BIG-ish welfare programs as domestic policy funded by steeply progressive tax reform.


HOW DO YOU DO . . . stagnation

Who said we are constantly evolving may not be aware of our innate sense to flounder, to shun destiny finding sustenance in the now. If our next development age is a big step, the human race is more likely to sit on said step having a fag waiting for the stanna stair lift to come...