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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to School

One week on the couch, and we're back to the races. Tuesdays are my crazy days this term, "Technoscience and Environmental Justice" nine to noon, then across town my MA Thesis cohort four to seven. Compared to the relentlessness of teaching three intensives over the summer on both sides of the Bay, this will feel like a walk in the park (especially the part between seminars when I go to Yerba Buena Park to read for an hour or so), still I doubt I'll be blogging very much Tuesdays for the next four months or so.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Today's observation is both specially formulated and clinically proven.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

Nothing is so aggravating than calmness.

Monday, August 29, 2011

More Signs of the Singularity!

via TPM:
[F]or the first time since its first occupants arrived on October 31, 2000, [the International Space Station (ISS)] may be abandoned and left to float in orbit without a human crew, all because an unmanned Russian Soyuz rocket carrying supplies for the ISS -- one similar to another manned Soyuz craft meant to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the station in the void left by the retired Space Shuttle -- crashed and was destroyed shortly after take off last week.

"What If They're Not Bluffing?"

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the cyberspatial sprawl, I have been engaging in a debate about a post of mine from a few days ago, Ten Reasons to Take Seriously the Transhumanists, Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Nano-Cornucopiasts and Other Assorted Robot Cultists and White Guys of "The Future." I wanted to republish a snippet from one of the exchanges here, part of a debate with one "n8chz," who asks:
"What if they’re not bluffing?"
"They," by the way, are Robot Cultists of the Kurzweilian Singularitarian sect and higher profile Robot Cult funders and theorists like Peter Thiel or the folks at the eerily N.I.C.Esque Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. "n8chz" continues:
The political conduct of the current generation of ultra rich suggests that they are entirely at peace with the prospect of a future that doesn’t need most of our services, and whose economy doesn’t “work” for very large numbers of people. This suggests to me that they must know something that isn’t publicly known about the feasibility of total social exclusion; basically gated communities on steroids. Either that, or I’ve seriously been overestimating the intelligence of the Power Elite themselves -- and not just their sometimes self-appointed and sometimes hired spokescritters in the “Robot Cult”
To which I replied:

"Heck, are you kidding? Aristos are always completely convinced of their superiority and indispensability.

"Believe me, they don’t have a secret robot army or enslavement aerosol spray. They’re completely full of shit.

"Dubai isn’t immune to the environmental devastation its cocksure entrepreneurs are exacerbating and handwaving away. No gated suburban Los Angeles wall will protect its Republican gangsters and Limousine Liberals from the pandemics unleashed by ghetto-globalization.

"If people who work for a living actually both vote in their actual interests for a change as well as taking to the streets to protest elite-incumbents you better believe these consummately overconfident jackholes will go to jail and get taxed to within an inch of their lives.

"I am far from denying the conjunction of architecture and surveillance stratifying and hierarchizing space and time in the service of exploitations and precarization (I have learned and taken to heart more than I can bear on these realities from both Fanon and Harvey!), but remember, we never know enough to justify despair. These architectures and media are rife with opportunities for subversive redeployment -- look at ATTAC, Alter-EU, Democracy Real Now, Anonymous, Take the Square, GAIA, and so on.

"Just because I give actually earned credentials their due by my lights doesn’t mean I think a credential makes one an unanswerable aristocrat, and just because I push for reform where alternatives are scarce doesn’t mean I think the status quo is acceptable, you know?"

cDc's Oxblood Defines "Hactivism" and Critiques Anonymous

Radio Free Europe:
Oxblood Ruffin: Hacktivism uses technology to improve human rights. It also employs nonviolent tactics and is aligned with the original intent of the Internet, which is to keep things up and running. With regard to tactics, things like DDoS attacks, Web defacements, malware, and network breaches are off limits. These generally limit speech and are a violation of the First Amendment and contradict Articles 19 of the UNDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. We may not like what certain people or organizations have to say but their rights are protected just as ours are. Justice [Louis] Brandeis put it neatly in Whitney v. California, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."
Later in the interview Oxblood shakes the finger a bit, castigating that "People claiming to be hacktivists should A, actually understand what the term means, then B, be strategic." I think what is being referred to here are those who indulge in reactionary or reckless acts and want to call it "hactivism" (something that is never NOT happening, frankly), and is more or less pulling rank as the one who coined the term and as someone whose practices over a generation have more or less defined the domain.

Of course, nobody controls the meaning of a term definitively. Meanings change as they are taken up, and it is one of the tragicomedies of the politics of language-use that words we release into the world (like all our words and deeds) take on a life of their own, have unintended consequences, require ongoing intervention and improvisation on all our parts if we would try to steer their course in any measure. That said, I do rather sympathize with Oxblood's definition and with the concern over what happens when "hactivism" comes unmoored from an explicit ethos of facilitating global human rights culture.

I find Oxblood's emphasis here on "keep[ing] things up and running" enormously appealing. It is interesting to notice that it is actually a rather conservative emphasis in an engineering rather than partisan political way, and just as hacking is: a way of testing the robustness of systems we count on by exposing them to real-world stresses insiders have a vested interest in insulating them from in ways that put everybody at risk. So, too, "hactivism" exposes dysfunctions in the institutions and systems through which the scene of legible consent is administered, ensuring our consent is informed rather than misinformed, non-duressed by insecurity and by threats of violence, exploitation, inequity, harm. This sort of engineering "conservatism" -- rather like the commons conservationism with which it is linked both historically and etymologically -- can yield revolutionary democratic politics in an era in which the right is hell bent not on conserving but dismantling civilizational systems of information, mediation, and support and looting commons for short-term parochial gain.

Although the repudiation of DDoS tactics seems pretty absolute, this position becomes much more nuanced as the interview continues on. Oxblood writes: "If the objective [of hactivism] is winning hearts and minds, then social media is the way to go. At least within the liberal democracies. But when we're talking about dictatorships, then teaching activists to use anonymizing and privacy-enhancing technologies is the cornerstone. It's difficult to organize if you're being anticipated and arrested before you can put any plans into action." This distinction provides the larger context in which to understand the strategic exception Oxblood carves out a few sentences earlier: My understanding is that Anonymous Iran (which should be viewed as an autonomous operations group) is planning to DDoS a website collecting data on Iranian activists…. Elections [in Iran] are a sham; basic human rights are vigorously denied; the judiciary is an extension of a corrupt government. DDoSing the media -- which are essentially government propaganda organs -- is not a violation of speech when it protects human rights and saves lives. This would be an exception to established hacktivist tactics but a justifiable one."

There are really useful and substantive distinctions being elaborated here for hactivism as a democratizing practice. More troubling to me, however, is the distinction Oxblood seems to want to leverage near the end of the interview: "I've heard DDoSing referred to as the digital equivalent of a lunch counter sit-in, and quite frankly I find that offensive. It's like a cat burglar comparing himself to Rosa Parks. Implicit in the notion of civil disobedience is a willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one's day in court. There is none of that in DDoSing. By comparison to the heroes of the civil rights movement DDoSing tactics are craven." I completely agree that drawing an analogy between DDoSing and Sit-Ins is wrongheaded, but it is hard for me to square Oxblood's recognition of the indispensable link between nonviolent civil disobedience and invitation of arrest as a way of putting unjust laws themselves on trial and the role of anonymity and pseudonymity within the hactivist ethos more generally.

For another thing, I think that there are surely times when DDoS tactics and the like might be affirmed within notionally democratic societies for pretty much the same reasons Oxblood rightly affirms them in more obviously authoritarian ones like Iran. Further, I am quite troubled by what seems to me Oxblood's rather glib declaration: "Back in the 60s Timothy Leary told the hippies to turn on, tune in, and drop out. That is much easier done these days with the proper technology and none of the same side-effects. Anonymous is something everyone should be. It's the antidote to the commercial surveillance network otherwise known as the Internet." I disagree both with the declaration that such anonymity is easily possible in liberal democracies (indeed, I think such anonymity may be altogether impossible in ubiquitously marketed and mediated spectacular societies such as our own, and I worry there is a whiff of dangerous technophilia in daydreaming otherwise) as well as with the suggestion that were such anonymity possible it would have no side-effects (I suspect the substance of freedom indispensably depends in a non-negligible measure on our exposure and accountability to unwanted or at any rate unexpected scrutiny). This is not to deny that there is an indispensable role for anonymous whistleblowers in the maintenance of reliable systems of information and support, and no small measure (though far from all, I would say) of hactivism properly belongs under this heading. Still, over-generalizing from that need into a comprehensive political worldview leads to the sort of full-blown foolishness the crypto-anarchists indulged in (for my take on crypto-anarchy start here and keep on reading as long as you can stand -- the stuff is from my dissertation Pancryptics).

There really is an interesting ambivalence playing out throughout the interview (or at least it seems like that to me). I find it rather hard to square the absolutism of Oxblood's declaration "Hacking Sony doesn't do anything to improve human rights anywhere" with the more nuanced claim that precedes it: "Everything is on a case by case basis. With regard to Anonymous Iran, they've specifically targeted a government website that asks people to submit data on suspected subversives. It's no big secret that such people are arrested, tortured, and even disappeared. So in this case I have zero problem with DDoSing the site to make a point." I certainly agree with Oxblood that "[s]ocially conscious hackers… [and] [h]acktivism is a lot bigger than hacking." But civil libertarianism is also a lot bigger than libertarianism, and I wonder whether vestiges of deeply-entrenched libertopian technoculture sometimes muddles the assumptions and aspirations of socially conscious hackers even at their best.

"There Is No BARTistahn, and the Directors Do Not Get to Decide This on Their Own"

Harold Feld over at Public Knowledge:
My reaction to the news that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police shut down cellphone networks in a number of stations on August 11 had nothing to do with democracy, the First Amendment, Tahrir Square, etc. With all deference to the importance of these concerns, my reaction was WHAT DO YOU MEAN THESE IDIOTS MESSED WITH THE PHONE SYSTEM?... [W]hat could possibly go wrong when you pull the plug on a critical piece of infrastructure whenever some local police chief or city council person or whoever decides they need to do something about these “flash mobs” or “rioters” or whatever? … There is a reason we do not mess with the phone system, and why that doesn’t change when the phone system is wireless... [I]nterrupting access to a cell phone network is not about tweets and Facebook and other Title I/information services. Shut off a cell phone node and you are messing with a phone system… BART is an instrumentality of the State of California. As in Brophy, the mere allegation that someone (or some group of someones) may use their phone for illegal purposes most emphatically does not confer authority to unilaterally shut off access to the phone network -- even if that phone network is physically located within the BART. Why? Because the BART is an instrumentality of the state of California and is geographically in California. There is no BARTistahn, and the Directors do not get to decide this on their own…. We routinely hear statistics about how for many people their cell phone is their only phone -- and sometimes their only source of access to the Internet as well. Americans rely on their phone service remaining stable, dependable, and available at all times. Yes, everyone knows the frustration of dropped calls. But it is one thing to experience a dropped call or overloaded network. It is another thing for local authorities to decide to cut off service on their own initiative, without any restraint or oversight, for whatever reason they find compelling. More than seventy years ago, Congress made a choice to take that option away from local authorities. It conferred jurisdiction on the FCC and the state Public Utility Commissions to provide oversight, and gave everyone a federally protected right to access the phone network. That right applies to all phone networks, whether wireline or wireless. Somebody might want to point that out to the BART Directors…
Lucky for us, one can feel the full force of Feld's excellent point while still connecting the dots to "democracy, the First Amendment, Tahrir Square, etc."

Superlative Summary Milestone

Just realized The Superlative Summary contains 100 posts. Hey, anybody want to edit this sprawl into a publishable book for me?

Today's Random Wilde

I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

You aren't educated just because the circus came to town.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It Turns On Power: A Schematic Distinguishing the Politics of Technodevelopmental Social Struggle from Futurological Anti-Politics

The Politics of Technodevelopmental Social Struggle, Peer to Peer

A. Power Construed As Experience of Possibility

B. Political Rationality --> Yields emphasis on Open Futurity ineradicably inhering in present/presence, peer to peer --> history as ongoing, interminable social struggle

(prone to emphasize political dimensions of scientific research and technological application and to embed developmental claims in social and historical specificities)

C. Characterized by Dissensus, Dependent on Consent

(collaboration and contestation are matters of improvisation within enabling constraints)


The Anti-Politics of Futurological "Enhancement" and Post-Human Ascension

A. Power Construed As Amplification of Capacities

B. Instrumental Rationality --> Yields emphasis on "The Future" as destination/destiny --> history as causal playing out of material forces, usually superhuman ones

(prone to technological determinisms and "natural progressivisms" recasting difference from parochial norms as atavisms)

C. Characterized by Consensus, Dependent on Dissent

(prediction and control enabled by warranted scientific beliefs which attract consensus after being put to test)

This is a schema and not an essay, so I'll keep the comments brief. You'll notice that the error of the futurological vantage in my view is its misapplication to political and historical domains of technoscientific assumptions and aspirations that are perfectly valid, indeed indispensable, in their proper domain. I daresay the futurologists will dismiss this schema as a hatchet job since I am the one coming up with it, but I really am striving to be fair here, to get at key differences between my perspective and theirs to help account for the many other points of contention that play out in my critiques and lampoons. After all, I would expect many of the futurologists I endlessly decry and critique here would actually dismiss my affirmed position as "postmodern relativism" outright and decry what they see as my own misapplication to history of what I am calling a Political Rationality while they would affirm precisely the sorts of structural/material accounts I am attributing to them. No doubt they would be less cheerful about the distinction of (my) open futurity from (their) "The Future." But this would mostly be because "openness" is a buzzword signaling subcultural membership for many of them (this buzzword has an interesting history, by the way, originating in especially Hayek's refiguration of market processes as "natural," whatever their enabling legal ritual artifice, "nonviolent," whatever the misinformation, exploitation, duress that characterize them, and "open," however constrained and constraining they are in fact, a rhetorical program that has been an incredible success to the distress of the world, and ramified into endless futurological discourses of "spontaneous order" and of disastrously deranging misapplications of evolutionary processes to every imaginable historical and cultural phenomenon). However, I honestly do not agree that many of these "advocates of openness" take on board the radical contingency, uncertainty, situatedness implied by my understanding of open futurity, while they almost inevitably do identify themselves with manifest destinies sweeping and transforming the world that assume anything but openness. Although, I suppose, from a tropological if not a logical standpoint perhaps even absolute predestination can come to seem open to its advocates once it gets big and sweeping enough in the imagination, one of the ways in which the Sublime functions is as a collapse of absolute openness with absolute closure after all. Theoryheads among my readership will notice how well the discussion of political power comports with Foucauldian accounts, they will recognize the phrase "improvisation within constraints" from Judith Butler, and they may even grasp that the provocative relations of consensus/dissent//dissensus/consent posited here are indebted to Hannah Arendt.

Today's Random Wilde

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

It'll take more than "Mr. Blue Sky" in the background of your commercial to make me smile as you bastards try to steal another minute from my life.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Report to the Libertopian Disintegration Chamber!

Neo-Feudalist megalomaniacs like Peter Thiel especially crack me up when they gravely warn all their little Randroidal sociopath friends about how the socialists will fight tooth and nail to keep them from Going Galt off to their libertopian separatist enclaves on oil platforms, or in underwater bubble-cities, or on the asteroid belt or whatever bullshit scheme they're blathering on about at the moment.

I mean, are you kidding? Go Galt! Please, please, please vanish! Fight your flight? Hell, where can I sign up to donate? Please take your so-called rugged so-called risk-takin' so-called innovatin' selves off to your invisible robot valley, to your concrete boys only renegade island, to your cruise ship McMansion.

Just so long as you promise not to whine too much when you discover nobody even noticed you left, just so long as you promise not to make us looter moocher mehum socialists save your asses when you start starving, or get attacked by real pirates, or get hit by a storm, or catch some virulent bug because you can't be bothered to regulate anything or clean up after yourselves.

When I see the words "libertopian separatist enclave" I hear the words "libertopian suicide station." Be my guest, killing yourselves for your idiot ideology is so much better than killing the rest of us with it.

MundiMuster! Sign Up to Help California Consumer Watchdog Get A Proposition on the Nov 2012 Ballot to Demand Rate Rollbacks and a Public Option

Sign up to help here.

[via Calitics]:
[The] ballot measure will have to be filed by November 2011 in order to begin signature collection so it gets on the ballot for November 2012.

The main provisions of the ballot measure are as follows:

1. A 20% rate rollback in health insurance rates to reverse five years of unwarranted double-digit price gouging;
2. Require health insurance companies to seek permission from the elected insurance commissioner before raising rates, as auto insurance companies must, and application of other Prop 103 protections to health insurance companies;
3. Prohibit all insurance companies from raising your rates or refusing to renew you because of your credit score, claims or insurance history;
4. Allow consumers to join a non-profit public health plan administered by CALPERS instead of having to buy insurance from private insurance companies;
5. Correct court rulings that have misinterpreted the law to benefit the insurance industry;
6. Create a "three strikes and you're out of California" law for insurance companies that repeatedly violate the state's consumer protection laws
7. Prohibit health insurance companies from forcing you to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of enrollment.
Sign up to help here.

Krugman Patiently Exposes the Texas Drearacle

Cheap Labor, Precarity, and Bibles, oh my! Sounds like the same ol' same ol' Republican pining for feudalism to me.

Republican Hurricane

The Republican austerity budget includes severe cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tracks hurricanes like Irene, forecasting their path and intensity, to inform citizens of danger and help emergency response teams plan ahead. These cuts would delay by years the construction and launch of an extreme weather forecasting satellite.

Republican Presidential Candidate and darling of the market libertarian ideologue set, Ron Paul slammed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and said that no national response to Hurricane Irene is necessary. "We should be like 1900," he declared.

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is demanding that any federal disaster relief in response to Hurricane Irene be matched by spending cuts, dollar for dollar. His Republican Governor has declared Virginia a disaster area.

As I repeatedly remind you: Wherever government is meant to be of by and for the people, to be anti-government always means to be against the people. Whenever a right wing politician declares all government wasteful, criminal, and corrupt you should pay close attention, because he is announcing his plans. And anti-tax zealots are the ones who think that civilization is the only free lunch.

Today's Random Wilde

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Thanks to the capitalists at General Motors, OnStar now dials the socialists at 911 so you don't have to and even when you don't want to.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What Futurology Is Peddling Has Little To Do With Foresight

Foresight is a dimension of every proper form of expertise. Just as "The Future" does not exist, neither does the "foresight" claimed by the futurist as their unique expertise.

There is no "knowing The Future" that can yield useful knowledges otherwise. There is no-one "coming from The Future" to lead the way. To "know the future" is to admit to ignoring and disdaining the present and the open futurity arising out of the presence of the diversity of stakeholders to the making and meaning-making of the world, peer to peer. To "come from The Future" is to admit to a delusive inhabitation of a wish-fulfillment fantasy at the expense of the world, a derisive repudiation of one's peers for an imaginary species of angels or monsters elsewhere.

There can be no special futurological expertise that generates "foresight" as such, divorced from all the separate disciplines and knowledges out of which partial, contingent foresights emerge. The Hegelian understanding of philosophy as the project to hold the spirit of the age in thought comes closest to this kind of generality, if only in a superficial way, which may explain why so much futurology amounts to cheap pseudo-philosophizing (another point of contact explaining the family resemblance between superlative futurological sub(cult)ures like transhumanism and Singularitarianism and the very American enthusiasm for anti-intellectual pseudo-philosophical handwaving in the Randian Objectivist and L. Ron Hubbard Scientology vein).

The intuitive plausibility of futurological narratives derives in no small part from their activation of primary passions (the usual fears of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence that always freight the technoscientific imaginary of agency) but also deep discursive formations, whether the irreconcilable omni-predication of transcendent agency, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence -- or dredging up an oceanic archive that has shaped so many of our intuitive understandings (from Eve to Icarus, from the golem to the Sorcerer's apprentice, from Frankenstein to the Philosopher's Stone, from the Fountain of Youth to Brave New World). What must be grasped is the extent to which futurology is not providing insights, but selling sensations and reassurances.

Further, it is crucial to grasp that not only does the futurological lack an expertise but it relies for its force on a repudiation of expertise, that not only does the futurological provide no real knowledge but it demands a repudiation of knowledge, that not only does the futurological provide no insights but requires the substitution of cheap thrills and easy consolations for insight and understanding, that not only does the futurological deceive when it claims to know of "The Future" but it relies for the plausibility of its deception on the repudiation of the present, emphatically including the open futurity arising indispensably out of the present. Futurology feeds on the substance of the present, peddling the profound deception that marketing and promotion is one and the same as knowledge-making and meaning-making, peer to peer, futurology feeds on the substance of freedom in the present, peddling the profound deception that the amplification of given force is one and the same as the elaboration of freedom, peer to peer.

I'm Looking for a Good Sturdy Vegan Fair-Trade Walking Shoe

Anybody got recommendations or horror stories to share?

Today's Random Wilde

The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Since the switch-over to the digital television future I am most grateful for new features like off-synch audio, blackouts, and shadowy pixellation waves sweeping and distorting the images on the screen, all of which have, I must say, "enhanced" my television experience in ways I never expected but probably should have.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Depopulation, Not Personification

Tonight on my tee vee, a multinational telecom told me their network is "living" and "breathing" and a car company told me their luxury sedan has thousands of "thoughts" per second.

I just want to say that these claims are lies. I do not think these lies are innocent, and I do not think they are innocuous. Nor do I agree that these claims are really matters of artistic license nor "romantic" sales hype nor figurative language. I think that we live in a catastrophically techno-fetishistic society that invests certain historically fraught technologies (at the moment, networks and cars are among these) with qualities of life and thought.

Part of this investment involves the suffusion of the public imaginary with futurological frames and narratives and ends which regard technologies never only as useful objects, here and now, or even as cultural signifiers (few futurologists are up to such a discussion), but see them also as stepping stones on the road to a particular tomorrow, as objects curiously straddling the present and "The Future," experienced as "more" than they are because they are seen to partake already in their aspiration in the direction of "The Future" of the futurologists.

What matters about crappy software that mis-corrects your spelling choices or recommends you purchase books you would actually abhor on the basis of past purchases is not only that these features, here and now, are bugs, but that they presumably bespeak in their thoughtlessness the thoughtfulness of superintelligent descendents to be in the imaginations of their makers, caught up as they are in the full froth of futurological fantasizing... What matters about a costly ambiguously therapeutic medical intervention whose long-term and combinatorial effects are unknown is not only what it is and what it seems to be doing, here and now, but that they presumably bespeak in their ambiguous effects the "enhancement" and immortalization of post-human therapies to come in the imaginations of their cheerleaders, caught up as they are in the full froth of futurological fantasizing...

Resonating with "The Future" futurologically fetishized artifacts disdain the present -- and presence construed as the collective forces and impacts that twine these artifacts in their making and their use and their signification in the present world, peer to peer. Those who peddle prophesy do, after all, tend to be blind. And profit-taking, no less, depends on its blindness.

Let me say the obvious very quickly, that "The Future" does not exist, and that what futurologists are going on about when they talk about "The Future" is usually just a kind of funhouse mirror amplifying parochial present-day fears and desires and norms (hence, my insistence that "All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms").

(As I said, the futurological investment of "technology" with life and thought is only part of the story. The story of such fascination, speculation, investment is a larger and older story than what I describe as the futurological. Futurological discourses and subcultures in my sense of the term (in both their mainstream and superlative forms) originates around World War II, at once in the birth of information and computer sciences and in the immediate and ongoing suffusion of public life with the norms and forms of marketing discourse -- including the rise of corporate-military think-tanks and mass-mediated political spin-doctoring -- in the making of the postwar technoscientific hegemony of the neoliberal Washington Consensus. But there are clearly older logocentric, scientistic, mechanistic, techno-triumphalist discursive formations -- not to mention magickal, mythical, and theological ones -- articulating the futurological, long predating and also including key strands of Enlightenment theory and practice and so on. This is a very long story, and much of it is a familiar one, and I think it isn't necessary to recount it here, though it might be useful to have it in the back of your mind.)

But what I want to stress here, what really struck me in hearing these commercials attributing "life" to networks and "thought" to automobiles, is that the insistent futurological celebration of living networks and thinking machines has as its primary material consequence a dis-identification with what is living and understanding and meaning in present worldly humanity, the better to identify with an unworldly "post-humanity" that does not exist.

The futurists would add does not exist… "yet." But, of course, no one knows who will come to be, while one can come to know who is here among us. This self-assured "yet" to me really testifies to the terror of the futurologists at the real contingency and uncertainty in the open futurity inhering in the presence of the diversity of stakeholders in the present world, it testifies to their hostility to what is living, breathing, thinking in the world of their peers.

I believe that futurology invests artifacts that do not live, do not breathe, do not suffer injury, do not share our world, do not understand, do not judge, do not testify to hopes or to histories with a life and a thought they do not have and in ways that render us less capable of grasping what is unique in actually living and actually thinking beings, and it does so in ways that render us inattentive to that precious uniqueness, in ways that actually obliterate differences that make a difference through their neglect of the ritual artifice of sustained attention and care that sustain these differences in their existence.

I also think that life and thought are far more fragile and more precious than the futurologists understand, and I think futurological derangements of our sense and the significance of the living and the meaning threaten them with extinction. As someone who is living and breathing and has thoughts I want to point out that this is not a trivial matter.

I am alive and your phone is not. I have thoughts but your car does not. Phones and cars do not live and think, nor will they ever, for were incidentally phone-like or car-like beings to live or to think they would not be what phones or cars actually are.

You do not know who they are, tomorrow's children, your imagination cannot compass or control who will be born into this world and our collective making of it. To pretend otherwise is not to make a prediction but to engage in a police action, it is not to open up future possibilities but to depopulate the present.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Onion Hilarity Versus IEET Idiocy

I guess it isn't really all that surprising to find that the coverage today by The Onion of Bazillionaire Libertopian Robot Cultist Peter Thiel's donation of over a million bucks to help create an artificial oil-platform island market fundamentalist techno-utopian paradise on the high seas is better in every way -- whether we’re talking appropriateness of tone, focus on what is salient, provision of real insight, intelligence of analysis, or concision of expression -- than the coverage offered the same day of the same news by David Brin, yet another Very Serious Bald White Guy of "The Future" over at the stealth Robot Cult outfit IEET. To treat the unserious seriously is not serious, unless you are pointing out unseriousness can be serious as a heart attack. It is not only acceptable, but often the very best way of ensuring the stakes of an issue remain clear and relevant standards of judgment remain intact, to ridicule that which simply is ridiculous. (Some readers may recall, by the way, that I already tackled the topic of Thiel and his Ayn Raelian high seas daydreams way back in May, 2009. )

Again, I don't think it's surprising that The Onion handled the story more appropriately and intelligently than did IEET. The real surprise is that Brin's piece does give The Onion a run for its money in bringing the funny. Get the barrage of arch comments Brin makes in the opening of his article:
Inspired by Ayn Rand, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, along with Patri Friedman and others, are helping the Seasteading Institute plan a floating ‘start-up country’ off the coast of San Francisco, built on oil-rig like platforms in international waters. Here residents will be able to live by Libertarian ideals, free of regulation, laws, and the welfare state.
I mean, man, that sarcasm is truly… Oh, wait.

Never mind.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Yeah, that's right, assholes, we do all get up and pee whenever your commercial comes on, so there.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In Honor of My Birthday

Ten Reasons to Take Seriously the Transhumanists, Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Nano-Cornucopiasts and Other Assorted Robot Cultists and White Guys of "The Future"

ONE -- Just because futurologists tend to be both foolish and wrong doesn't mean it is always foolish to point out in public places that they are, indeed, wrong.

TWO -- In an era of urgent technodevelopmental quandaries it is actually crucial to understand technoscience questions and their developmental and distributional effects, and every second displaced onto hyperbolic futurological wish-fulfillment fantasizing and disasterbation is a second lost to that deliberation, every techo-transcendentalizing framing of the issues deranges that deliberation from sense into nonsense.

THREE -- Futurological rhetoric and fandoms represent the extreme amplification and reductio ad absurdum of the body-loathing, narcissistic death-denialism, crass materialism, complacent consumerism, technocratic elitism, market triumphalism, fraudulent profit-taking, hyperbolic deception and self-promotion that now utterly suffuses our public life through the prevalence of advertizing and marketing norms and forms and of neoliberal global developmentalist narratives and rationalizations. To grasp the ugliness and absurdity of these extreme forms is to gain insights into the pathology of many mainstream values and the deception of official elite-incumbent justifications. Where we have grown accustomed and complacent to these pathologies and deceptions looking at ourselves from the alienating margins of our own discourse can help us see ourselves and the urgency of the need to change all the more clearly.

FOUR -- Hyperbolic and deceptive futurological narratives will usually be far more attractive to superficial and sensationalist Establishment Media figures and outlets than the difficult, ambivalent, qualified, dynamic, complex realities of actual science and ongoing technodevelopmental struggles, and so the futurologists will often provide the larger rhetorical frames within the terms of which the stakes and significance of these developments are taken up by public and policy deliberation. It matters less that this is disastrous than that it is true and must be dealt with as such.

FIVE -- America is not only an incredibly rich and powerful nation that will probably remain for generations a key, and often the key, player in global technodevelopmental social struggle, it is also a profoundly anti-intellectual nation full of people who are, in consequence, especially vulnerable to the fraudulent sale-pitches of pseudo-intellectuals like futurologists, who tend either to be providing PR for corporate-military elite-incumbents or guru wannabes hoping to attract a flock to fleece.

SIX -- As Margaret Mead famously insisted, "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world." The example of the neoliberals of the Mont Pelerin Society reminds us that a small band of ideologues committed to discredited notions that happen to benefit and compliment the rich can sweep the world to the brink of ruin and the example of the neoconservatives reminds us that a small band of even ridiculous committed people can prevail even when they are peddling not only discredited but frankly ridiculous and ugly notions. Futurologists pretend that hypberbolic marketing projections are the same thing as serious technoscience policy deliberation, which is a gesture enormously familiar to the investor class and the technology sector's customary membership, and the futurologists inevitably cast rich entrepreneurs as the protagonists of history, which is a gesture enormously attractive to the skimmers and scammers and celebrity CEOs of the technology sector's essentially narcissistic culture. Although their various predictions are rarely more accurate than those of chimpanzees at typewriters, although their various transcendental glossy-mag editorials and tee-vee ready techno-rapture narratives are rarely more scientific in their actual substance than those of evangelical preachers, although their dog and pony show sounds almost exactly the same now as it did five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago as they still drag out the same old tired litany (super-parental robot gods! genetic fountains of youth! cheap nanobotic superabundance! better than real immersive VR treasure caves! soul-uploading into shiny robot bodies!), and all with the same fervent True Belief, the same breathless insistence that this is all New! the same static repetition that change is accelerating up! up! up! it is not really surprising to discover that the various organizations associated with superlative futurology are attracting more and more money and support and attention from the rich narcissistic CEOs of the technology sector whose language they have been speaking and whose egos they have been stroking so assiduously for years and for whom they provide such convenient rationalizations for elite-incumbent rule. You better believe that, ridiculous and crazy though they may be, the Robot Cultists with well funded organizations (like the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, Global Business Network, Long Now Foundation, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, Singularity Summit to name a few) to disseminate their pet wish-fulfillment fantasies and authoritarian rationalizations can do incredible damage in the real world.

SEVEN -- So long as people are taking futurological scenarios like "AI" let alone "Friendly Superintelligent AI" seriously we are all taking real global network security and surveillance and media misinformation issues less seriously than we should be -- And so long as people are taking futurological scenarios about "Drexlerian nanotechnology" seriously we are all taking real environmental problems and promising materials science breakthroughs at the nanoscale level less seriously than we should be -- And so long as people are taking futurological scenarios like "general assemblers," "nanofactories," and "utility fog" seriously (like so many took seriously the futurological techno-cornocopiasts before them flogging nuclear energy too cheap to meter, cheap superabudance via ubiquitous toxic plastic, universal leisure via ubiquitous robots, the high energy-input fraud of the petrochemical bio-engineered industrial-monocultural "Green Revolution," and immersive virtual reality treasure caves before them, not to mention fraudsters peddling on-the-cheap global developmental leapfrogging via boutique Green consumption or helicopter-dropped laptops, cellphones, 3-D printers right up to the present) we are all taking the crisis of global poverty, precarization, exploitation, and human trafficking less seriously than we should be -- And so long as people are taking futurological scenarios about "uploading" and "SENS" and "longevity-medicine" and "enhancement-medicine" seriously we are all taking the global maldistribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of both already-existing and actually in-development medical research and treatment less seriously than we should be, we are all taking actual medicine and the struggle to ensure its access to all less seriously than we should be -- And so long as people are taking futurological scenarios about "crypto-anarchy" "Brinian transparency" "the participatory panopticon" "online participatory democracy" seriously we are all taking the corporate-military enclosures of commons, the facilitation of global financial fraud via digital networks, the intensification of police surveillance, intrusive target marketing, punitive credit profiling via so-called "social media" together with the evacuation of the very ethos of "participation" via an internet actually defined for the majority of its users by endless posts with zero comments, drift-surfing user-generated content of deceptive dating profiles and vapid pet videos, "friending" strangers and consumer products, and scrolling insubstantial decontextualized "tweets" less seriously than we should be -- And so long as people are taking futurological scenarios about "geo-engineering" seriously we are all taking education, agitation, organization, regulation, and public investment to ameliorate anthropogenic climate change, resource descent, pollution and waste and the promotion of real-world sustainable polyculture less seriously than we should be. All of this actually matters.

EIGHT -- It is never wrong to expose a dangerous fraud as a fraud.

NINE -- It is always good to defend science against pseudo-science and promote critical thinking against True Belief.

TEN -- Even when it is not necessary, ridiculing the ridiculous is often a pleasure.

Fruit of the Moot

The comments thread here, continues to expand, and there is some real substance there. Let us smash the evil ugly schemes of the techno-immortalist hucksters!

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Four out of five dentists will not laugh at this joke, despite the stunning manufactured beauty of their smiles.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.

News of the World

I turned forty-six today. I turned in the last of my grades yesterday, my three rather exhausting summer intensives are complete. I've got a week off before Fall courses resume, which means shepherding another MA Thesis cohort through their research and writing process at SFAI and teaching an undergraduate course "Technoscience and Environmental Justice," both of which should be rewarding and neither of which should prove too taxing (especially when compared to the crazy intensity of this summer). I'm going to spend a while completely indulging myself, reading Colleen McCullough's phone-book sized potboilers set in the Roman Republic while lingering in hot baths and also watching Luchino Visconti's movies on DVD in chronological order. My blogging preoccupations -- daily news and futurological views -- are both being particularly ludicrous at the moment, so it remains to be seen if I'll blog much in the lazy days ahead.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Unfortunately, even a soundtrack of hysterical dance beats is rarely enough to make gluing pieces of a broken plate to a lamp base for ten minutes exciting to watch.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rebel Rebel: Death Denialism As Utopian Politics

Upgraded and adapted from an exchange in the Moot with an annoyed Robot Cultist:
Dale, your insistence on death as an essential and thus valuable aspect of human condition proves the worth of transhumanist cultural campaign for indefinite lifespans.
My "insistence on death"? You mean my recognition of it? You mean my recognition that there are worse things than death?

My "insistence on death... as valuable"? You mean, my recognition that human beings are capable of meaningful, beautiful, satisfying lives even though they are mortal?
Regardless of the technical details,
Yes, you would indeed have to set those pesky details aside, wouldn't you? Especially, given your description of this Robot Cult techno-immortalist project as "cultural..." with my emphasis on the cult. (By the way, I wouldn't tell too many of your Robot Cult friends that you think they are artistes and not hard-core scientists, they might not take too kindly to the implications.)
considerable philosophical and psychological advantages stem from rejecting the inevitability of the grave.
Are there comparable advantages that stem from proposals to square the circle or invent a perpetual motion machine, pray tell? Do inform us of the wholesome and revolutionary forces unleashed by comparable denials, not only that humans are mortal, but how about interdependent? uncertain? error-prone? given to misunderstanding one another? vulnerable to retroactively rationalizing bad conduct? What other expressions of human finitude does baby want to deny before it's time for his bottle?
The revolutionary spirit centers on denying supposed givens and demanding fundamental transformation in this world. Claims of immutability serve reactionary ends.
Your own declaration depends for its intelligibility and force on givens, you know -- you affirm not only the possibility but the desirability of transformation in a way that implies a susceptability of the world in some construal to the intervention of agency in some construal. Do you deny that these construals and the mechanisms you posit have entailments? Presumably, you expect at some level to be understood, yes? Why doesn't the fundamentality of transformation you claim to champion bedevil your effort to testify to your aspirations else it demand the reactionary immutability of basic intelligibility as such? It's easy to indulge in cheap oneupsmanship with good-faith interlocutors in a radicality competition -- and doing so is indeed fairly common among boastful boys who don't much care for practical results and actual contexts. Of course, real political radicals and revolutionaries do care enormously about such things.
I will never accept horrors like capitalism, war, and physical degeneration as unchangeable.
Revolution is a political category. Describing teschnoscientific invention and application as "revolutionary" I leave to the PR companies and their intellectual apologists in futurology who never tire of selling their crap products in such terms to uncritical consumers in lieu of freedom and to the ruin of the world. And until I have the sense that you are an actual reliable collaborator in actual struggles on the ground against the inequitable and violent forms that capitalism take here and now, against the actual threats and crimes that war confronts actual people with here or there, you will forgive me if I don't give two shits about your histrionic declarations that you will not "accept" sweeping abstractions like "capitalism" and "war."
As long as I live I will struggle toward the radiant dream of freedom. Only in this process will I discover how far I can go.
You have obviously confused an essentially aesthetic attitude with a political one, with the usual result. "Struggle" involves more than running your mouth in front of a mirror.

I must say, by way of conclusion, debauching your revolutionary aspirations in exchange for aestheticism is an especially hilarious mistake to make when, in addition to everything else, you are drawing your aesthetics from the Robot Cultists, of all people. I mean, I don't know if you've noticed, but the great example of "transhumanist aesthetics" is the terminally awful Natasha Vita-More, who really is a worse than third rate fraud, a kind of Ayn Rand meets tee vee infomercial model who does digi-daub soft porn that manages at its best to be completely unintentional and earnest camp (and given the rarity of laugh out loud camp in this age of cheap bubble-head cynicism I certainly appreciate it as that).

As for politics, the transhumanists and the rest of the Robot Cultists are committed, if not in word then in deed, to uncritical hyper-consumerism amidst corporate-military developmentalism, whether they are loud-and-proud right-wing reactionaries or defensive lefty sellouts. Pouting and stamping your foot at aging might not change the world, but you better believe it gets those phony skin cream jars flying off the shelves at forty bucks a pop.
Rebel Rebel, your pose is a joke,
Rebel Rebel, you're stuck in a cult,
Rebel Rebel, how come you don't know?
Hot mess, take your tired ass home.

Today's Random Wilde

I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

This quip has received "Four Stars!" from a premier quip rating agency.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shortbread Cookies With Lemon Icing

Very enjoyable. Amazing how many one can eat while grading papers.


Enjoyable to observe the discomfort of Villagers who realize that the Libyans are not only losing a bloody dictator but the United States is also losing a client state and the world still rightly calls it freedom and so should they.

The Presidency: Omnipotent or Impotent?

On such terms, the debate is sure to be almost as useless as it is heated. But by all means, do proceed.

Jon Huntsman's Climate Change Denialism

There is much ado today as yesterday about Huntsman's pointed derision of the climate change denialism of his Republican colleagues -- but it is worth pointing out that unless Huntsman proposes policies to ameliorate catastrophic climate change there is actually no substantive difference between his and their positions. As the pragmatists taught us long ago, a difference in belief that yields no difference in conduct is a difference that doesn't make a difference.


A day for grading the last of summer's final papers rather than serious blogging, I'm afraid...

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Now that Americans can't put a man on the Moon anymore it would probably be a good idea to stop listing all the other things we should be able to do if we can put a man on the Moon.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

There is no sin except stupidity.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Too Late, Jon

PoliticalWire's Quote of the Day
"The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party -- the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012." -- Jon Huntsman, in an interview with ABC News, ripping his GOP rivals on evolution and global warming.

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

Chinese tech company announces development of an even SMARTER abacus!

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

Keeping with our mortality theme a bit longer today, it is said that while sipping champagne on his deathbed Wilde said:
“Alas, I am dying beyond my means.”
Several variations on the scene and the quip have been reported, among them, “Ah, well, then I suppose I shall have to die beyond my means,” and also “And now, I am dying beyond my means.” I think the first sounds likeliest. Of course, his actual last words happened later, and also amount to a quip (involving wallpaper) whose precise wording is contested. I leave that one to another Random Wilde.

Death, Diarrhea, and Dingbats

Longtime White Guy of the "The Future," Robot Cult Muckety-Muck (he has been a director of the World Transhumanist Association and of the stealth Robot Cult outfit of Very Serious Futurologists, The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies), and High Holy Pontifex or something of the way out Order of Cosmic Engineers, and also a longtime critic of this blog, Giulio Prisco is annoyed by my reaction to Mike Treder's techno-immortalization piece yesterday. Prisco writes:
I just found this gem of our old friend Carrico. He criticises this article because "That you are going to die is part of what it has always meant to be human..."

Inspired by previous debates (see below) I have taken the liberty to re-write his apology of death, changing a couple of words:

Everybody who has ever lived has suffered from haemorrhoids and diarrhea. Everybody has haemorrhoids and diarrhea. You have haemorrhoids and diarrhea. That you have haemorrhoids and diarrhea is part of what it has always meant to be human. If you didn't have haemorrhoids and diarrhea, you wouldn't be living a legibly human life. But of course you have haemorrhoids and diarrhea so there is no reason to belabor the point, and to do so is probably just to indulge in pathetic panic-stricken distraction or denialism about it anyway….

It is interesting to note that in previous debates Carrico has, instead, considered haemorrhoids, diarrhea and similar things related to what he considers as the noblest parts of the sacred human anatomy and the holy human biology as better examples of your "essence." See for example: Cyborg Angels Live Forever and Never Ever Have to Poop The Power of Poop; or, Prisco Responds

Dale, my boy, please feel free to live a legibly human life and to pursue happiness and meaning your own way. If this means continuing to suffer from haemorrhoids, diarrhea and death, so be it. I would not wish these things upon my worse enemy, but you are the best judge of what is good for you and makes you happy.

But I hope you will forgive me for choosing to do my best to avoid haemorrhoids and diarrhea. And death. If these things must remain part of legibly human lives, then fuck legibly human lives.

To this I have responded in the Comments section of the blog in question:

Actually, some humans have lived lives without hemorrhoids or diarrhea, but every human has died.

I have never had hemorrhoids, but they do sound unpleasant and certainly should I ever get them I will apply some therapy to ameliorate them. Diarrhea is a treatable condition from which countless people die unnecessarily in overexploited regions of the world that lack access to clean water -- a condition to which I have devoted considerable energies via support of Doctors Without Borders and in my teaching.

You declare "in previous debates Carrico has, instead, considered hemorrhoids, diarrhea and similar things related to what he considers as the noblest parts of the sacred human anatomy and the holy human biology as better examples of your 'essence.'" I hope your readers will follow the links you provide and judge for themselves if what you say is a fair characterization of my viewpoint. I assume this absurd distortion turns on a highly imaginative interpretation on your part of the phrase "and similar things."

It is interesting that you regard facing facts, including unpleasant ones, concerning biology the same as declaring them "holy." Such religious turns of mind are alien to me, as they are not for you -- hence your mutation of pro-science attitudes into a hyperbolic transcendentalist Order of Cosmic Engineers and the whole rest of the Robot Cult nonsense you go in for. Different strokes for different folks, dude.

As it happens, I am a staunch defender of universal single-payer healthcare and more money devoted to medical research. You seem to think your indulgence in wish-fulfillment fantasizing is indispensable to grasping why medicine is desirable. In this you are wrong and even silly. You are going to die. Your mortality and the condition of human finitude with which your mortality is of a piece is indeed part of what human beings have to come to terms with to become healthy responsible adults. Vanishingly few of the people working on better treatments for hemorrhoids and diarrhea sign on to your techno-immortalization project, so your pretense at being their spokesman and me somehow being their enemy because I don't sign on to your absurd Robot Cult is fantastically idiotic as usual.

Saying "fuck death" does not render you immortal. It just causes you to waste your time on snake oil salesmen. At its extreme end death-denialism yields a death in life, a debauchery of critical standards and distraction with irrelevant concerns and a marginalization into a sub(cult)ure of cranks. You don't have to ask me to forgive you for your foolish choices. They're yours to make, yours to pay for.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Republican Crazytalk

So, one Republican presidential candidate has taken another Republican presidential candidate up on his offer to call him crazy. The funny thing is that the one getting called crazy is being called that because he says he accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus on the question of anthropogenic climate change. The other funny thing is that the one calling him crazy for believing a well-warranted scientific claim has a last name that sounds a like sanitarium. Another funny thing is that we are destroying the world, even though we don't have to. That one is so funny we all apparently forgot to laugh.

All Humans Are Mortal. Socrates Is Human. Therefore, Socrates Is Mortal.

Students have been learning the basics of logic through the re-iteration of this syllogism for centuries.

Everybody who has ever lived has died. Everybody dies. You're going to die. That you are going to die is part of what it has always meant to be human. If you didn't die, you wouldn't be living a legibly human life. But of course you are going to die so there is no reason to belabor the point, and to do so is probably just to indulge in pathetic panic-stricken distraction or denialism about it anyway.

And, sure, you really can go into denial about it if you don't want to face facts, you can stick your fingers in your ears screaming la!la!la!la! whenever you contemplate your curtain call, you can dwell on death so much that you manage to die in life even before you die if you really want to be pathetic about it, you can behave recklessly on cliff faces and in sports cars to show how invulnerable you are, you can pray to Baby Jeebus to give you a cozy cloud perch from which to observe the bad people burning in Hell, you can build a gold-plated poop pyramid a mile high with your name on it. Heck, you can get your brain frozen by sociopathic scam artists in the desert who promise you won't thaw for the centuries it takes for magic nanobots to "fix" you with the help of the Super Dad Robot God they are coding.

Many readers may think I am writing parodies when I speak of superlative futurological discourses and subcultures as a Robot Cult. Mike Treder, Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (long-time readers may recall that I tend to call it "stealth Robot Cult outfit, IEET" and tend to call its high level muckety mucks as "Very Serious Futurologists" or, alternatively, "White Guys of 'The Future'"), asked the question in a post yesterday, Will You Die? (The answer, for you kids keeping score at home, is: "Yes, Mike, yes, you will die, as will every single person who reads these words.") Here's Mike:
The hope for transhumanists in 2011 is that the science of biogerontology—potentially combined with rapid progress in techniques for using smart ‘nanobots’ to clean out our arteries or fix our degraded cells—will soon lead to a new era of widely available radical life extension. IEET Fellow Aubrey de Grey, a leading expert in the field, has predicted that the first person to live to be 1000 years old will be born in the next twenty years. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough for you or me, then maybe we can have our bodies (or just our heads) cryonically “preserved” and possibly reanimated at some point in the future. Another hypothesized route to immortality is the idea of having your personality “uploaded” to a computer before you die, so that the essence of you will live on for centuries or for eons. You might, theoretically, be able to have your mind implanted into an advanced robot, giving you a superior body that can be upgraded and made to last for a very long time indeed.
It doesn't seem right to make fun of people this desperate and deluded and dumb, but, well, I say, go ahead. Especially rich for regular readers will be the robotic predictability with which Aubrey de Grey has apparently chosen the inevitable "twenty years from now" as the arrival date for the goods in "the field" in which he is "a leading expert," a futurological gesture also beloved -- and for far more than twenty years, let me tell you -- of experts heralding the arrival of Artificial Intelligence, Drexlerian Nanotech, Designer Babies, Clone Armies, Immersive VR, the Paperless Office, Energy Too Cheap to Meter, Orbital Space Hotels, the Cure for [insert disease], and the history-shattering Singularity when the Robot God inaugurates Tech-Heaven or eats the world for lunch (you decide). No less enjoyable is the accompanying illustration for the piece of drawing-board nanobots on graph paper backgrounds just like real engineers use and with orange arrows indicating the immortalization action, and also, too, the reference to cyber-immortalization via "uploading" presumably involving something called your "essence." Science!

No doubt about it. Socrates is dead.

Steve Benen Draws A Chilling Distinction

I’d draw a distinction between “too dumb to govern” and “too dumb to win.”

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

A cream isn't a clinic.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Against the Seduction of the Left by Reactionary Futurology

"Talking Points Memo" is an excellent source of current events reporting and policy analysis, but its readers are also subjected regularly to facile futurological narratives (artificial intelligence around the corner! green cities around the corner!) and annoying indulgences in advertorial techno-fetishistic pseudo-reportage (got yer kindle yet? bought yer iWhatev yet?).

Regular readers of Amor Mundi know already that I have devoted years to the ongoing critique of extreme forms of futurological rhetoric and sub(cult)ure, especially of the rather curious and often humorous kind that transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nanocornucopiasts and so on argue for, futurological arguments that have captured in my view a wildly disproportionate share of online energy and Establishment media attention.

I actually think that critiques of this sort of superlative futurology have finally started to get some more traction lately. Fewer seem ready to agree yet with my larger point that this sort of futurological discourse should be viewed as an amplification of the norms and forms of prevailing neoliberal developmentalist discourse and conventional marketing and promotional practices that now suffuse public life, and that taken as such futurology reveals underlying pathologies and deceptions and anti-democratic tendencies in mainstream life. Even fewer still seem to discern my further worry that futurological tendencies might easily function as the next generation siren-song for stealth reactionary politics advocated by notionally progressive advocates, via the celebration of vacuous online networked "participatory" democracy and corporate-military geo-engineering greenwashing schemes.

A very brief recent post of mine attracted attention with the rather overdramatic title Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are the Koch Brothers of Reactionary Futurology. And although PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel's market fundamentalist anti-multiculture education-privatization politics are fairly widely known, as are his curious investments in Robot Cult pet projects to code a Robot God or to build a high-tech libertopian separatist enclave on the high seas, I don't think the connections between these disparate interests are well understood until they are contextualized in a broader discursive and sub(cult)ural critique of reactionary futurology, nor are their connections to fellow PayPal billionaire Elon Musk's various splashy notionally "lefty" enterprises visible at all in the absence of such a critique and contextualization, from his boutique-green electric sports car boondoggles to his would-be for-profit privatization of the space program (via government contracts as usual, natch), and so on. I am far from delineating all these connections myself, especially all the historical and organizational ones -- from GBN to Extropy to to IEET to Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute to the Singularity Summit -- but for the conceptual and rhetorical context in which these connections are embedded I have provided more than a sketch to accompany the suggestive associations I have charted here. I welcome the work of sympathetic journalists and scholars to elaborate these connections further still.

The hostility of ever more Republican reactionaries to evolutionary biology, scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, Keynesian macroeconomics, harm-reduction model policy-making, alternative reproductive techniques and genetic medicine and so on is powerfully contrasted with the support and celebration by ever more Democrats of good scientific practice, science education, public investment in medical research, advocacy of macroeconomically literate government stimulus at the zero bound and of lowering of ruinously spiraling healthcare costs through a single payer system, family planning programs, harm reduction drug policy, rigorous health and safety inspections of our food supply and workplaces, concerns about environmental health risks and waste and climate disruption and so on.

This contrast between anti-science Republicans and pro-science Democrats is a wholesome and delightful thing, and given my politics and my admitted history as a queergeek Vulcan wannabe few can be surprised to discover I heartily endorse this trend of an ever more forceful Democratic identification with science and geeks and Star Trek and the space program and infrastructure fandoms and all the rest.

Still, the drawing of this contrast must not take on forms that render Democrats vulnerable in their enthusiasm to the derangement of our science advocacy into scientism, that is to say into the denigration of all values and problems that are not reducible to scientific terms: This sort of thing seems to me to be playing out for example when some liberals decry Republican deceptions as a kind of "postmodern relativism" when most postmodern scholars in the liberal humanities are simply emphasizing the indispensable point that the values we take to be essential or natural -- like the support of fairness and the rejection of violence -- tend to be historically contingent and so must be defended as such; or when left atheists eschew secularism and join up with more militant factions of anti-religiosity that contribute to intolerance (and I speak as a cheerful atheist of nearly thirty years as well as a queer who has suffered directly from religious antigay bigotry); or when self-appointed "political realists" decry interest in what they call "cultural concerns" like supporting diverse gendered lifeways as always playing out at the expense of more indispensable class politics.

Nor should the drawing of this contrast encourage in us technological determinism: This sort of thing seems to me to be playing out when some democrats propose that online networks will inevitably overthrow rather than express authoritarian hierarchies, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding; or when so many liberals overestimated the role of facebook, twitter, or YouTube in the Egyptian revolution or in resistance elsewhere; or when online "activists" think it is more politically efficacious to complain in blog comments about politicians than to vote in actual reality for better ones.

Nor should the drawing of this contrast provide cover for forms of denialism that even well-meaning people are prone to when they are grow comfortable in their unearned privileges or insulated from the consequences of their wastefulness: This sort of thing seems to me to be playing out when so many mainstream greens fancy that current solar and wind technologies could replace non-renewable sources of energy without deeper changes in North Atlantic consumer lifestyles or distributions of wealth.

The Huffington Post has often featured futurologically-minded folks of the "" set on its site. Of course, they also feature New Age gurus and celebrity dog stylists there, so what do you expect? Still, this is another data-point delineating a worrisome coziness that bears watching there and elsewhere, as in TPM's occasional forays into Stewart Brand style Green Cities handwaving or into what Jaron Lanier (yes, I know that he also appears at calls the "cybernetic totalism" of the digirati when they start waxing rhapsodic about "smart" cellphones and artificial intelligence.

While I know there are also differences that make a difference that distinguish them, I do think it is crucial to grasp that there is a continuity in the techno-fetishistic and futurological advertorial hyperbole indulged in across the spectrum by the likes of Al Gore and Esther Dyson and Newt Gingrich and Donald Rumsfeld, just as there was a lethal continuity and co-dependency between the irrationally exuberant futurological fraud of the Long Boom apologists for Enron and the dot.bomb, like the Global Business Network, and the neoliberalism of that same Clinton era's Democratic Leadership Conference.

Just as we would be wrong to confuse as a utopian political discourse mainstream advertisements indulging in hyperbolic claims and investor-class self-esteem gurus barking out their fist-pumping ego-affirmations, so too we should be very careful not to confuse the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Kurzweil's techno-rapture via a software Super Dad and de Grey's longevity-snakeoil and Drexler's nano-genies-in-a-bottle with the education agitation and organization in the direction of sustainable secular consensual equity-in-diversity that drives what might seem the utopian imagination and energies of radical democrats.

The ubiquitous fraud and deception and hyperbole of the marketing and self-promotional norms and forms that suffuse our public discourse do so to the ruin of sensible deliberation about our shared interests and problems in a world all the more united still by the links of our planetary networks and the limits of our planetary biosphere.

And at the extreme edge of that fraud and deception and hyperbole we find in futurological formulations and narratives the circumscription of the open futurity inhering in the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders to our shared world by the imposition of a static vision of "The Future," a funhouse mirror reflecting our parochial fears and infantile vices back at us, a reassuring and reactionary amplification of the terms in which elite-incumbent interests rule the present promoted as "natural development" or "accelerating change," a celebration of frictionless capital flows through which is expressed a bottomless hostility to the suffering bodies of the precarious labor force caught up in these data-flows, a denigration of the terms of worldly production and reputation and economy in a bubbling percolation of insubstantial logos and service providers and "thought-leaders" and fraudulent financial instruments, a disgust for the diversity of actually-existing profoundly needful dependent aging vulnerable error-prone bodies and brains arrayed against slick dating profiles and avatars and blow-up dolls and photoshopped celebrities and panic-driven injections of who knows what who knows where in that uncanny valley where surfing the web and sleep walking through the strip mall in the livid glow of tee vee screens compels us all ineluctably into a seamless unseemly cyberspatial sprawl.

That's bad.

Rick Perlstein's Analysis of A Fear-Based American Electorate

Rick Perlstein declares that there are "two major axes upon which major national elections get fought [in the USA]. Sometimes they become battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer. Other times they are showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails. Normally, in the former sort of election, Republicans win. In the latter, Democrats do[.]" This framing feels very ugly and depressing to me, which gives it the ring of truth, I suppose.

What concerns me most is that Perlstein's formulation seems to re-enact a key feature of the discourse he is presumably analyzing. For example, it is crucial to grasp how often "battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer" -- the sorts of battles he says Republicans tend to win -- are first of all battles over what is denoted by the term "ordinary." When Republicans win these battles it is not because they are more in tune with prevailing cultural and social anxieties, but despite the fact that they are not (perhaps because embattled minorities tend to be defensive and disciplined in ways that are ripe for partisan exploitation).

What Republicans mean by "ordinary Americans" is exactly the same thing they mean by "real Americans" and meant by "the Silent Majority," "the moral majority," "Family Values," and "values voters" and on and on and on -- they always mean straight, white, Christian, working class Americans. But it is important to realize that non-white non-straight non-Christian working class Americans are actually ordinary in exactly the same ways that straight, white, Christian, working class Americans are.

This has always been true, but it is dramatically relevant in an America that is demographically barreling toward what is sometimes picturesquely mischaracterized as a "majority minority country," a country in which those who are construed as "white" or "straight" or "Christian" (designations which are the furthest thing from natural ones, but each one whose historical attribution bears witness to extreme and fraught vicissitudes) are not the majority of the population -- even if such people continue for a time to hold a majority of positions of public authority and wealth. To believe that it is "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianity" that makes such people ordinary, rather than the shared socioeconomic and geophysical interests and problems they all have, and most of which are indifferent to the presence of absence of "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness" is, as a matter of fact, to believe a lie. In that case, what matters most is not the reality and force of the anxiety but the deception through which that anxiety is channeled into concerns over "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness."

As Rachel Maddow says in a promotional spot for her show, when Republicans got elected in the catastrophic 2010 mid-term wave elections by promising to focus on jobs, but then in office they immediately pivoted to extreme Culture War issues like abortion, gay marriage, and Sharia Law, this was not the complete change in focus from mass unemployment that it might seem to be but instead a capitalization on the misery and anxiety mass unemployment brings in tow, deployed to divide working class people from one another, to blame and fear and resent one another rather than organize and vote on the basis of their shared interests.

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When Perlstein refers to the "showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails" he risks indulging in precisely the same sort of fundamental mis-characterization as before. Embedded in his formulation is the assumption that what the middle-class experiences as "free market fail[ure]" are inequitable distributions of cost, risk, and benefit in whatever happens to pass as a "free market system" at the moment. Again, it is relevant to point out that many different configurations of customs, regulations, treaties, institutions, and so on have historically designated "free markets" and so it is important not to pretend that this is a natural attribution rather than an endlessly contested designation, especially since those who benefit from particular normative and institutional configurations inevitably champion them as "natural" or "inevitable" or even as "spontaneous orders" rather than tissues of contingent, artificial agreements and infrastructural abilities they always actually are.

To many of those who benefit from a particular configuration of "free market" norms and forms the inequities that result from the system will not represent failures but precisely the signs of its success, and many who do not actually benefit from the distribution of costs, risks, and benefits a particular "free market" configuration yields may still support that configuration if they believe they benefit even when they do not, if they believe they would suffer more from a different configuration even if they would not, if they identify with those who benefit even when they have few grounds for such identification, or if they aspire to benefit even if their chances of arriving at this outcome or slim to none.

It is a fact that elite-incumbent minorities of hitherto largely apolitical Big Businessmen and hitherto largely anti-political Christian fundamentalists organized politically in the aftermath of the New Deal, often under the shared ideological assumptions and rhetorical frames (eg, feudal hierarchies recast as "spontaneous orders," demolition of the Rooseveltian Four Freedoms recast as the clearing of a space for "open societies," democracy recast as "free men in free markets," plutocratic planned economy stealthed as "defense spending," market discipline recast as virtue, secular pluralism recast as nihilism, and so on) originating in the Mont Pelerin society of right-wing market fundamentalist ideologues, and disseminated through the creation and maintenance of an alternative-reality anti-Academy of think-tanks (and sometimes within the Academy, as in the neoliberal ascendancy over freshwater economics departments) peddling their frames through Establishment media outlets to Washington Consensus policy-makers with both short-term profit-taking and long-term oligarchic ends in view.

In the United States, wealth disparity has reached levels unprecedented in the modern era, middle class earning power has stagnated or declined, labor conditions and welfare entitlements have grown steadily more informal and precarious, everyday costs and risks of productive enterprise have been externalized onto everyday people to the dramatic benefit of rich profit-taking minorities, and all this in the larger planetary context of the neoliberal/ neoconservative Washington Consensus (the neoliberal/ neoconservative circuit is a radical circumscription of the liberal and conservative political spectrum into the co-dependent terms of corporate-militarism in which postcolonial market libertarian developmentalism whatever its inequities is figured as a neutral progressivism backed, as a last though commonplace resort, by overwhelming military force in the context of a global archipelago of bases) under the prevalence of which wealth concentration in the midst of proliferating weapons and accelerating anthropogenic climate catastrophe has rendered absolutely precarious ever greater numbers of human beings across the planet while ever fewer live lives of disgruntled luxury in what amounts to a state of universal misery.

What I would point out from this rather overheated summary of the present state of things is a mirror-image of what I pointed out before. Just as it turned out that what matters most about the politics from which Republicans tend to benefit is not the reality and force of the anxiety of "ordinary Americans" over "cultural and social issues" but the deception through which that anxiety is channeled into concerns over "whiteness" or "straightness" or "Christianness." Again, what is actually key is not the anxiety but the deception. So too with what Perlstein calls the politics of "middle-class anxieties when the free market fails" from which he says Democrats tend to benefit. These turn out in my view to be less about the reality and force of "anxieties" but the actual factual reality of the ways in which given normative-institutional configurations designated as "free market" orders produce actual, factual inequities suffered in the reality of the lives of the majority of people who work for a living. What is actually key here is not an anxiety, but the actual facts of the matter.

What Perlstein constructs as a kind of meta-historical pendulum between forms of anxiety that benefit sometimes Democrats and sometimes Republicans, is actually far better described as a matter of whether our political system and culture industry manages to peddle a deception about threatened ordinary people which divides them on the basis of race, gender, or religion or whether that deception fails with the consequence that people who work for a living -- whatever communities invest their ethnicity, sexual practices, spiritual beliefs -- recognize their shared interests and problems and agitate and organize to shape the political system and culture industry to reflect and respond to those shared interests and problems.

Just as people tend not to behave very reasonably when they are afraid, neither do I think we grasp actually prevailing historical struggles very clearly when our analyses focus on fear as a force. What looks like a neutral term -- anxiety -- in Perlstein's analysis yields an equivalence (Republicans benefit when anxieties are focused on this sociocultural object, Democrats benefit when anxieties are focused on this socioeconomic object) that obscures the difference between a politics of deception and distraction as against a politics of telling truths to power and solving real problems (Republicans benefit when they manage to divide people from their shared interests, Democrats benefit when they connect to projects to address people's shared interests).

Perlstein might object that this is just a way of preferring a partisan over a disinterested and academic framing of partisan political sparring, but he proposes his own formulation specifically in the context of recommending President Obama grasp the partisan stakes in this historical moment to the benefit of Democratic priorities (and I daresay Perlstein would want to Obama to focus on the same issues and testify to the same aspirations I would myself). Whatever the discomfort to academics, I do not think it is possible to testify to these struggles in substantive ways without attesting to the organized deceptions of the right, nor do I think it is possible to facilitate progress in these struggles without admitting the good and evil we find in them when we do.

Elizabeth Warren for Senate

I'm in, are you?

Today's Fool Me Tee Vee

You really must see the crappy number one comedy across America since yesterday until tomorrow!

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Today's Random Wilde

The salesman knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Aesthetic Recommendations for Upcoming Chris Hayes Program

Finally, in conclusion, let me say just this. -- Peter Sellers

MSNBC Really Makes You Pay

I love seeing Melissa Harris Perry on my tee vee so much it almost makes up for how much I hate seeing Michael Steele on my tee vee.

Imagine Out and Proud Atheists Completely Dominating Public Discourse and Policy for a Couple of Years…

According to ThinkProgress recent polling discovers "The Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about -- lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like 'atheists'…" The poll goes on to point out that the unpopularity of The Tea Party is comparable to the unpopularity of the Christian Right. Given their overlap, this isn't exactly a surprising result. I daresay the numbers for white racists would also be, er, "comparable," and for similar reasons.

PS: I've been a cheerful nonjudgmental atheist for over a quarter century myself, and my point is certainly not that being an atheist disqualifies anybody from creating good policy (neither do I think it is a qualification on its own) but to expose just how weird it has been for such a marginal minority to shape our policy and discourse for so long.

GOP Dice Are Rolling

I'm beginning to think the GOP's 2012 gamble looks like this: The big GOP money abandons the White House as a lost cause (because their best case looks like a dead-on-arrival widely disliked mistrusted Taxachusetts Mormon and their worst case looks like a dead-on-arrival raw slab of Teavangelical Crazytown meat) and they focus their resources instead on taking the Senate and keeping the House and making an Obama second term more or less irrelevant through ongoing criminal obstruction and culture-war divisiveness, setting the scene for a real Republican run in 2016.

The danger for them is that this sets the stage for a Goldwater debacle, in which case Obama's coattails trump the GOP money, Dems regain the House and limit the damage in the Senate and manage to accomplish enough in the second term in partnership with a functional Congress (if Dems miraculously hold the Senate, they really need to revisit the filibuster) to marginalize GOP obstructionists as useless do-nothings and GOP culture warriors as ugly throw-backs.

Given the level of Democratic organization and energy required to regain the House and regain the Senate, I think such a GOP bet isn't too bad. Of course, their win would be the whole world's loss, and so maybe this time the stakes are finally stark enough that Dems will find some fight in them. Wisconsin may have been a harbinger. Dice are rolling.