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

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Facile Futurology at Talking Points Memo -- And What Is So Dangerous About It

I have occasionally scolded the online liberal news and commentary site Talking Points Memo for its credulous embrace of facile futurological tropes (most elaborately here). In recent months, TPM has gratuitously flogged its usual kindles and Apples in the usual shameless manner, for one thing, but it has also pretended in a few articles that some dumb but snazzy software portends AI and also that a slick monitor set-up portends telepathy, it has gotten in a lather about extraterrestrial earths that aren’t earths and that we couldn't reach even if they were, it has recently treated readers to a gallery of mostly ridiculous if groovy renderings of mega-structures substantially indistinguishable from comic book art under the heading of “an eye on the future” (a "future" which I never tire of pointing out doesn’t exist for futurists or anybody else to actually "keep an eye on"). Not to put too fine a point on it, in my opinion these sorts of narratives and figures and conceits conduce in very direct and very dangerous ways to reactionary corporate-militarist politics. Needless to say, I think this should matter both to the readers and to the writers of TPM, and to progressive people more generally.

I do not mean to cast aspersions denying the liberal progressive ethos of TPM, nor do I mean to denigrate the relevance and usefulness and timeliness of much of their current events commentary. However, I do think that TPM regularly indulges in the ugly commonplace practice of uncritical gizmo promotion and gadget fandom as though it were a matter of journalistic rather than advertising practice, forever flogging the latest landfill-destined totemic Apple handheld in between the congressional vote-counts. Even worse, TPM seems to me forever to be falling for hyperbolic press releases pretending dumb aggregating and collating software is “intelligent” -- when it is not -- or the harbinger of an exciting near-term arrival of “artificial intelligence” -- which it is not (and “exciting” might not be the right word for what it would be if it were) -- and flogging the discovery of extra-solar planets with splashy space-art accompaniments suggesting habitability -- which they are not -- or settings for real-life Star Wars adventuring -- which they are not -- whomping up enthusiasm for medical breakthroughs and renewable energy breakthroughs suggested as remote possibilities by selective scans of lab results all the while ignoring that standing between the actual results and these ecstatic outcomes would inevitably need to be a string of enabling discoveries, most of them worthy of Nobel Prizes in their own right, and almost unfathomable complexities of funding, regulation, implementation, distribution none of which are remotely underway, and so on.

Now, I happen to think it is a terrible thing to pretend advertising copy is journalism. I also happen to think that one of the things that happens when you describe palpably non-intelligent things as intelligent is that you lose sight of the unique standing and righteous demands of actually intelligent beings. This, too, I think is a terrible thing. I also think that triumphalist accounts of near-term everything-changing technological breakthroughs in renewable energy or medical science are worse than how inevitably wrong they are, because they tend to render us too inattentive and too complacent about actually existing problems that demand urgent, fraught, organized address -- from catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, ramifying resource descent, exploding peri-urban refugee camps and slum settlements without human support or legal services or infrastructure, crises of needless malnutrition, obesity, starvation, lack of access to water and basic hygiene, neglected treatable diseases in the overexploited regions and among overexploited populations in the world, and so on. And just in case the connection I am making is not clear enough, I do not mean that last sentence as the usual laundry list of the public service message “usual suspects.” I am proposing that technological breakthrough stories tend to track very closely precisely these very ills, and function as disavowals of them.

That is to say: It is because we are more aware of a planet of slums that fantasies of “green cities” proliferate. (It is because we have caught a glimpse of the reality of urban squalor in the present that TPM offers the gallery of “futuristic” skyscrapers I mentioned above and assures us it is a “glimpse of our urban future.” That this latter claim is almost certainly a fantastic error matters less than that it functions more substantially to distract us from and deceive us about and disavow the present truth with which we are presented.) It is because we are more aware of starvation, unclean water, neglected diseases that fantasies of “longevity medicine” and “designer babies” proliferate. It is because we are more aware of climate change and Peak Oil that fantasies of “geo-engineering” and “clean coal” and “fusion power” proliferate -- not to mention, fantasies of “escape” to other planets.

Now, the Republican Right has arrived at a moment in its history in which it has come to denigrate science (as certainly it has not always done, even in recent memory) and in breathtakingly unanimous and sweeping ways -- whether from the vantage of its socio-culturally reactionary portion, railing against Darwin and scientific cosmology in defense of biblical literalism, railing against sex education, family planning, drug legalization, anti-bullying statutes in defense of puritanical sex panics and prohibitionism -- or from the vantage of its socio-economically reactionary portion, railing against climate science, single-payer healthcare, Keynesian macroeconomics in defense of short-term elite-incumbent profit-taking. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and the military-industrial complex and the rise of post-Carson Second Wave environmentalism and New Left critiques of “The Technological Society” the Democratic Left had developed a substantial resistance to technoscientific triumphalism which sometimes assumed the tonalities of a naïve technophobia and even an anti-science bias of its own (not always! a right-left equivalence account would be as wrong here as usual). Partly as a compensatory response to the Republican Right’s growing hostility to science and fact-based policy-making more generally, especially in the context of the rise of online p2p-formations, and the resulting influx of experts, geeks, activist-wonks into the public square, the Democratic Left has lately come again to represent literate, numerate, fact-based, pro-science politics to an unprecedented extent.

I also happen to think that science fiction and fantasy have become the prevalent cultural forms through which Americans are grappling with the giddy excitements and anxieties of a secularizing, diversifying, planetizing national reality -- as fraught figurations of the actual present, not as plausible predictions of the prophetic future -- and that this has also had a real hand in this shift, and that we are observing a generational shift from novelistic sf with a right-wing ethos to visual sf with a left-wing ethos (needless to say, especially in making this point, I am overgeneralizing in ways that do not do justice to vital and fabulous exceptions on which I personally depended for the survival of my sanity as a pinko commie hippy queergeek during the long night of Reaganomic politics and Randroidal sf). Be that as it may, it is only from this historical vantage that the truism “Reality has a well-known liberal bias” has garnered, and only for a time, the force of truth.

But I think it is crucial to note that popular progressive pro-science attitudes are now indispensably indebted to pop-science and pop-tech journalism and literature which tend (sometimes even at their best) to smudge both factual and developmental complexities, downsides, qualifications, aporiae, and stakeholder differences in favor of narrative drama and tonalities of wonderment. All of this tends to make people idealistic in broad-brushstrokes ways that render them all too vulnerable to snap cynical reactions about the inevitable vicissitudes of technoscientific change, and, worse, often makes people far too credulous in the face of hyperbole and promotional deception. All of this, in turn, lends itself first to denialisms and then to defeatisms which bypass substantial for symbolic politics in the face of especially intractable problems. Like Donna Haraway I, too, would rather be a cyborg than a goddess (and I think one should read both my own but also her affirmation of this slogan through the lens of my own insistence that all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture), and so I am happy that the still-emerging, still-consolidating American Democratic left is one that embraces fact-based policy making and both the organized social and techno-scientific address of our shared planetary problems, not to mention the rich iconography of multicultural sf as an indispensable facet of its problematic imaginary. However, I worry that too much of Democratic Left’s pro-science commitments remain superficial and not substantial, too much of our ethos is altogether undercritical and insufficiently literate.

“The Future” is not an object, after all, it is not an outcome, it is not a destination -- its only substantial existence is in the present. It is, if anything, the unfinishedness, the openness inhering in the present because of the insistent and situated diversity of the stakeholders who are always contesting and sharing in the making of the present. Real foresight is always embedded in real knowledges. Real understanding is a matter of grasping the complexities and possibilities arising out of the past unexpectedly into the present, and not a matter of predicting the future or daydreaming about the future at the expense of understanding and coping with that present. Futurological fear-mongering and futurological hand-waving are disavowals of real knowledge, just as prophetic futurological utterances and scenarios and schemes are disavowals of real understanding and real foresight.

It is all too easy for the Democratic Left’s still-superficial pro-science politics and temperamentally progressive ethos to be diverted into gadget-fetishization and techno-determinism and pop-science marketing all of which conduce very directly into reactionary corporate-militarist elite-incumbent politics whatever the best intentions of its exponents. Futurological tropes, conceits, and frames especially should be regarded as gateway discourses re-directing incipient fact-based pro-science political attitudes to reactionary ends. I do not mean to pick on TPM, but I do think they provide rather a clear illustration of the danger I am talking about.

For more of my critique of futurology, I recommend my Futurology Against Ecology, my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, and my Futurological Brickbats.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

There's plenty of anti science woo on Huffington Post too. The left has it share of anti science wackos in the grassroots but fortunately they don't influence policy.