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

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.


jimf said...

> 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. . .

Or even more irritatingly, promoted as "rationality".

Taking Ayn Rand seriously is only "rational", dontcha

What are you, some kind of IQ denalist?

Sam said...

Hi Dr. Carrico,

This is an excellent post, as usual. I think one of the greatest dangers of reactionary futurology is that it's a belief system that focuses on waiting to solve problems at some undefined period in the future. In reality, there are already plenty of low-tech and high-tech medical interventions that could reduce human suffering. Examples of cheap and simple therapies include deworming medications. More advanced medical therapies include marrow transplants to cure AIDS and stem cells to heal paralysis, both of which are currently in clinical trials.

If countries like the USA and China didn't spend so much money on wars and military posturing, they could reduce human suffering on a massive scale. I wish I knew how to convince government and business leaders of the importance of investing in health instead of militarism.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, Sam. As Mike Davis declares in Planet of Slums, given the number of lives it would save reliable free access to clean water should be considered the world's ultimate miracle drug.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, Jim. I have long suspected that what many think of as the exhibition of intelligence is non-negligibly a matter of ritual class-signaling.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for critiquing TPM on technology! I read them every day during the U.S. attorneys period, but the hagiography for iphones was not only annoying, it seems to me like a hole in their reporting. I would frequently write in and say "instead of just citing something that was said on Twitter, would you please cover Twitter the corporation? How can you call yourselves muckrakers with this gigantic hole in what you want to scrutinize, when it's something that obviously has a large degree of concentrated power?" Eventually I quit going.