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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

White Men Wearing Google Glass Tumblr

As I understand it, some of these people were not white men at all until they donned Google Glass and then this happened to them.

Conservatives Hate Conservation

A study out Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them.
Act surprised.

Teaching Day

In the City this morning it's Arendt in space, CS Lewis on gold, guns, and girls, and Zizek on sooper-tech. Didn't sleep well last night, hard to know where I'll draw the magic from.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Feeling tired and depressed and a bit twitchy today. A day for swallowing a season of The Wire on DVD whole and then pretending to blame my mood on that.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Long Teaching Day

Fanon, Kobena Mercer, Judith Butler in the City this morning, then workshopping symposium presentations with my MA thesis cohort all afternoon.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

BooMan's GOP Bestiary

BooMan has posted an amusing GOP personality typology entitled Kinds of Crazy. My problem with his proposed mapping of Movement Republican Crazytown is not that it amounts to name calling (they deserve it), but that its categories really don't stand up to scrutiny if what is wanted from such an exercise is more than a good laugh. I think there is a near-total overlap (and probably co-dependency) between his assholes and his stupids, and I suspect that few to none of his crazies are actually certifiably crazy -- though many to most of them would probably benefit from therapy, also true of many to most of his assholes and stupids -- but are really just assholes putting on a Crazytown show for money or attention or stupids duped into Crazytown because they're ignorant and lazy.

Zuckerberg's Privation

It isn't easy to understand why the American response to comparably lethal mass-casualty events involving bombs and involving guns are so very different -- the one seeming to result always in more citizens under more surveillance, the other seeming to result always in more guns on the streets -- but in the aftermath of the latest illustration of this rather joyless and surreal ritual pairing of reaction we find ourselves once again contemplating calls for more good guys with good guns and less civil liberties for all lest they benefit bad guys.

Especially fragile in the face of the fears occasioned by "Terror" (which apparently is not what we are feeling when we contemplate the proliferation and penetration of guns into every public precinct), it seems, is that legal penumbra and subjective paradox we denote "the right to privacy." With every bomb blast hardboiled technorealists scatter onto our screens to extol the benefits of hidden cameras and warrantless searches and biometric data profiles, all the while suavely handwaving concerns over privacy away as altogether dispensable and old-fashioned in the age of Reality TV on every channel, cameraphones in every palm, tweets reporting our stomach contents to the world every second.

A few year's back Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg notoriously declared:
"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."
In so saying Zuckerberg is citing a long tradition of political idealists who have decried as hypocrisy the frustration of their ends by the doubly ineradicable plurality of the humans with whom they actually shared the world. I say we are (at least) "doubly" plural, simply because humans are plural both as psychic subjects with a dynamic unconscious and as citizen subjects with different situations.

What Zuckerberg formulates as a conventional futurological prediction -- "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly," and this because, as usual, of the determinative force of certain "new technologies" that happen to preoccupy his attention -- is of course completely baseless as a prediction and embarrassingly facile as a statement about the subject (humans) on which he is pretending here to be expert.

But what is more to the point is that -- again as is usual with futurological formulations that take the form of "expert predictions" -- what Zuckerberg is really expressing in this utterance is a wish, here the profoundly misguided dream of an assertion of total control over the frustrating finitude and open expressivity of never-knowable never-finalized humans.

The assumption of and aspiration to information awareness is always finally totalitarian in its ends -- whether "Total Information Awareness" expresses the paranoid nationalism that would paradoxically preserve the integrity of a homeland's borders by violating the dynamic substance of the homeland itself or whether "Total Information Awareness" expresses the sadistic/masochistic moralism that would produce and police a complacent competent continent labor force for the interminable elite-incumbent accumulation of wealth in a dead world with nothing worth spending it on.

None of this is to deny the force of the prosthetic articulation of human capacities and possibilities, but only to deny that anybody really knows or could know enough to know how this force is really playing out in the world. And it bears repeating that all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture, and that this has always been so and hence all this is in an important sense nothing new, but also that technoscientific vicissitudes have tended in their emergence to exacerbate confusion and not control and yet also that such confusion is eventually assimilated rather than abiding as a transcendentalizing disruption. The irrational rationality of instrumentality and its technofixated imaginary tend both to overestimate the personal capacity technoscientific change will bring them in its emergence as well as to underestimate the interpersonal capacity of historical struggle to assimilate the terms of technoscientific change back into familiar social forms. These misrecognitions are fundamental to instrumentalized vantages on the political and the historical, and indeed one might fairly characterize these falsifications as the essential clarifying and motivational work of this mode of rationalization, its lure and its fatality.

That we will be profiled by ubiquitous corporate-military surveillance may indeed be irresistible. Certainly that seems to be the case at times like these. That we will be defined by these profiles as people or our status as citizens determined by them absolutely can, and it seems to me also must, be resisted. Contra Zuckerberg and the revolutionists of the "digital democracy" of panoptic surveillance, targeted marketing harassment, crowdsourced precarity, and zero comments, I propose that to an important extent privacy is now becoming, if nothing else, the slippage between never-identical never-converging profiles of us reminding all of us we are always more than we are known to have been.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Sweet Sweet Songs of the Statisticians and the Bomb Builders

Is there any sweeter song in all the world than elites peddling predation and denial as "optimism"?

More Futurological Brickbats here.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Thinking in the Tank

Corporate-military think-tanks -- like the Rand Corporation and the Hoover Institution -- first affiliated and parasitically attached themselves to the academy. Later, think-tanks peddled themselves as a kind of "alternate academy," with the same standards and legitimacy, of course, but now backed by the stunning money and authoritative voices of elite incumbents. Now, before our eyes, they advocate and implement a parochially profitable "think-tankification" of the academy via corporate sponsorship and IP enclosure and digitization (online diploma mills and MOOCs turning teaching into watching syndicated tee vee) over which they have always meant to prevail utterly. There was a certain level of planning involved in all this, as some of the earliest think-tanks were created and funded in the aftermath of the New Deal as social reactionaries and big business interests sought to organize in a way that they had not done hitherto (and had never really needed to do before the Progressive Era), organizing out of which Movement Republicanism emerged and wreaked its still ongoing havoc. But to a more important extent the intuitive rhetorical force and appeal to funders and organizational co-cordination yielding this ongoing multi-generational think-tankification follows quite directly and opportunistically from the rationality that already suffuses a public domain defined by competitive individualism, growth with limit, advertorial deception, and a legislative process driven by moneyed pressure. There is no need to posit a conspiracy or star chamber to arrive at our present distress, though there are definitely real villains and heroes in this story. Although the academy has always been a profoundly flawed and perniciously stratified site in America it also resisted utter determination by Americans drives for profitability, efficiency, and complacency and hence it was earmarked for destruction by definition of the forces of corporate-militarism. We are witnessing the consummation of this project right now. It isn't going well for those who cherish criticality or creativity, let alone those who care about equity, diversity, democracy, or sustainability.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Intellectual? Or Impresario?

Spent time with colleagues planning this year's MA thesis symposium at SFAI. Discussions of provocative thematic methodological argumentative groupings for panels were made mostly by others. Meanwhile, my suggestions kept taking the form of -- "They're much too nervous to wait till the third panel day two. Put that one in the first panel or they'll have a nervous breakdown!" "Are you crazy? Put the panel with all the campy film clips and discussions of feces LAST on day one, go out with a bang to a full house or else nobody will come on day two at all!" "We can't have a panel with both of THEM on it -- neither of them can be counted on absolutely to show up at all, put them on separate panels and cross your fingers, people!" Should I have been a wedding planner instead of teaching critical theory in a San Francisco art school possibly?


A gray day, good for grading papers.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Oh, Brother

That we will be profiled by ubiquitous corporate-military surveillance may be irresistible. That we will be defined by these profiles as people or our status as citizens determined by them absolutely can and must be resisted.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Heterosexual Masculinity is a Robot Programmed for Destruction

The day after the apprehension of the second Boston bomber suspect more has evaporated than apprehension across twitter, social media, and cable news. It is as if everyone has deflated, the sudden dissipation of all that energetic noise and heat (no, not light) leaves us standing in place, and with the stunned realization that we were running in place all along. To those who cherished the dream that the bombers would be Muslims as well as to those who cherished the dream that the bombers would be quintessential Caucasians, both dreams are fulfilled at once in a combination that renders the wish perfectly unfulfilling it seems. Those who would cling to a nativity threatened by foreignness are confronted with a family of American immigrants in the neoliberal era, arriving, breaking apart and leaving again, one naturalized as a citizen, another failing. Those who would cling to Americanness prevailing over evil confront an unmistakably American teenaged male's twitter feed, copping contradictory attitudes, making lame jokes, declaring a commitment to parties and money-making, affecting affectlessness in the face of pressures too great to bear. But I cannot help but notice today repeated testimonies to the father's "toughness," indications of the failed efforts of the alienated elder son to reproduce the father's brutal boxing career in America, the report of his abused girlfriend, tales of loud battles of the soon to divorce parents that drew police repeatedly to the home, the retreat of a younger, sensitive child into an anesthetic high orbit party lifestyle… And all of this woven into an American historical moment of ubiquitous failures, absolute inequities, lowered expectations, foreclosed futures, still echoing with misplaced admonitions of a masculinity driven to toughness and action and hyper-individualized responsibility -- a masculinity available to latch on to any strong current, fantasies of re-invention, dreams of an assumption of agency in a world of impersonal historical forces, impulses to remain "cool" and relaxed in the face of impossible stresses. While the preferred narratives of terrorism of both left and right seem to fail in the face of the heartbreaking realities of the day, it seems to me that we confront as we did in Columbine the stark terror of the mutilating norms of heterosexual masculinity in a world absolutely uninterested in and unable to see its violence for what it is and what it still portends.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dove Gets the Shove

Sexist inculcation of negative body image is a problem, but body image as the primary site for the formation of self-image is also a problem of sexism, and Dove is not helping, liberal loft space bathed in soft sunlight to the accompaniment of warm strings and tinkly bells to the contrary notwithstanding.

New WFS Post Is Up

I decided to edit and republish last night's Camera Reassura post over at the World Future Society. Perhaps it will attract more scrutiny there.

More Signs of the Singularity

I was seeking to describe some numbskull viewpoint as beyond parody. I wrote "unparodiable" and the computer "suggested" instead unpardonable. Heh, good one, perhaps "you" are right, stoopid computer, I thought for a moment. Next step, as a fine fictional President once said, is deification.

Facing Facts When Facts Have Faces

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:
[A]s a general matter I think one is better off facing facts than denying them. This includes facing the ineradicable contingency of our individual fortunes, our permanent susceptibility to error, miscommunication, unkindness, the unintended consequences and frustration of our efforts in a world of diverse stakeholders, and the unpleasant facts of aging, vulnerability, and mortality. I have recognized especially in those who have not come to terms with the fact of their mortality -- whether they turn to the salvational schemes of the customary religions or lose themselves in techno-transcendentalizing eternalization snake-oil involving red sports cars, herbal supplements, or cryonics day dreams -- a kind of over-compensatory denialism that skews priorities, feeds foolishness, or produces an obsession with death that yields a paradoxical deathliness in life itself.

For me personally, I would far rather face than efface my finitude, even in the undeniably more fraught circumstance of facing the more palpable mortality of, say, the diagnosis of a dreadful mortal illness. However, I don't see much point in pressing this last point, especially when it comes to strangers. When facts have faces, facing facts sometimes confronts us with the distinction of principles and scruples (another face of the fact of our finitude, as it happens). We all have our little frailties and psychic crutches after all. To refuse a conspicuously suffering person with little hope their enabling delusion seems pointlessly cruel, especially if the person is not one you know well, who shares your life in a deep sort of way.

Now, when it comes to people claiming that faith-based beliefs (whether in angelic intervention, crystal healing, or techno-magicks) are as warranted as claims backed by consensus science, there I draw a pretty forceful line as you know -- even when that hurts people's feelings -- and when it comes to private concerns diverting money from the credulous or constituencies diverting public funds from scientific into pseudo-scientific ventures (very much including futurological moonshine operations), then I draw that line even more forcefully still. I personally think cryonics outfits should be outlawed, unless they agree to market themselves as, and only as, a highly kooky means of corpse disposal, like compressing cremated remains into costume jewelry or shooting people's ashes into orbit, that sort of thing. I don't mean to be unkind, but neither do I mean to condone or abet fraud.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Farhad Manjoo's Camera Reassura

Farhad Manjoo makes what he calls The Case For Surveillance in Slate today. "We Need More Cameras," rings out his thesis in a title that evokes the tonalities (and all the nuances) of a street chant, "And We Need Them Now!" I presume he means to conjure something like an image of this street mobilization of a concerned public when he glibly speaks in his title of the "we" who need more cameras in the first place.
Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and -- as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing -- they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.
Since no city is not threatened by terrorism in principle, and since no square inch of any urban environment is not describable as a "vulnerable installation" once we begin talking in this way, this apparently modest formulation amounts, in the end, as an end, to a call for absolutely ubiquitous, absolutely intensive, absolutely totalizing even if only strictly aspirational, surveillance without end, a logical endpoint notoriously captured in the too revealing paranoid authoritarian dreamtime in the aftermath of the New York terror attacks September 11, 2001 as "Total Information Awareness." It does not matter once we start talking in this vein that there is actually no such thing as a realizable totality of information at which one can aim, since there is no end to the vantages in which information is potentially situated nor to the ends at which information potentially aims. This doesn't matter because one can always distract attention away from the impossibility of arrival at one's technological ends with the brute force expedient of an eternal mobilization of expedience, a mobilization of accumulation and amplification without end. What do we want! More cameras! When do we want them! Without end!

While Manjoo is very eager to insist on the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of ever more cameras in our hair, just as we would expect a good Benthamite panoptician to do, it seems to me just as significant that his demonstration of a reasonable anticipation of objections takes the form of the suggestion that all these cameras may make our squishy emotions squish. Hey, Farhad Manjoo doesn't like to be watched either. We're only human after all! Even when Manjoo offers up his brief genuflection to the quibbles of "hardcore" civil libertarians (average civil libertarians are presumably only, you know, "meh" on the whole reasonable expectation of privacy, no unwarranted searches and seizures thing, as compared to their "hardcore" colleagues) notice that these concerns are framed once again as feelings rather than arguments: "The idea of submitting to constant monitoring feels wrong, nearly un-American, to most of us." So many feelings we're feeling and stuff.

"These aren’t trivial fears," Manjoo assures us, but fears they remain, and not real objections. The problems of amplified surveillance, he insists, "are not intractable problems." He actually offers no reasons why such problems might be deemed intractable. For example, if a multiplication of cameras doesn't converge on transparent, authoritative "facts" so long as more cameras are accompanied by more readings of the images generated by such cameras, then what will matter are the stratifications that shape the circulation of images and then shape the authoritative interpretations of these available readings. (I made some of these points at greater length in a reading of David Brin's The Transparent Society a decade ago in my dissertation, available online, starting here.)

"[A]buses and slippery-slope fears" -- notice, again, these are all "fears" -- "could be contained by regulations that circumscribe how the government can use footage obtained from security cameras." When one notices that Manjoo spends absolutely no time at all specifying such regulations, one wonders just how trivial he really truly thinks these fears are compared to his hopes for technologized security. One might feel more reassured about the legal constraint of civil rights abuses "in principle" if not in, you know, any kind of actual detail, had Manjoo said a little more about all the ways in which actually-existing rights, laws, norms, regulations have NOT managed to constrain very real, very recent, very ongoing civil rights abuses in the name of the very same security in the face of terror threats Manjoo is re-enacting before our eyes.

But it is right here, right in this moment when what is demanded is some specificity about how we can ensure the pursuit of security will not render us merely differently precarious, that Manjoo signals a shift into greater generality (act surprised): "In general," he declares, "we need to be thinking about ways to make cameras work for us, not reasons to abolish them. When you weigh cameras against other security measures, they emerge as the least costly and most effective choice." Whatever our concerns about abuses, whatever anybody proposes to respond to these concerns, Manjoo draws a line in the sand: any such thinking can only be offered up in the service of facilitating the technological regime of surveillance, never at abolishing it, never at proposing alternatives to it. "When you weigh cameras against other security measures" -- all others? really? how do you know you know what all the others are? could be? -- cameras "emerge as the least costly and most effective choice." You'll have to take Manjoo's word for that, since he hasn't actually weighed any alternatives in his piece after all. What may be worse, he hasn't shown that his is an analysis that recognizes just how many different costs appear from the different vantages of different stakeholders to questions of security, he hasn't pressured or elaborated just what he means by "effective." To be obvious about it, is a longer life spent without freedom of assembly or expression a more "effective" outcome? To whom? By what standards? You know who made the trains run time...

Look, I don't so much begrudge Manjoo the opportunity of holding and airing different views on these questions of "cost" or "effectiveness" than I might. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to find we agree on many of the basic questions at hand. I simply think "a case for surveillance" taking up objections and concerns in a less trivializing way would force Manjoo to foreground political stakes here that are actually at the heart of this discussion but which are vanishing from his discussion of it. It's simply not enough to declare them non-trivial, and then bulldoze them away in a paragraph.

So, let us return, for a moment, to that imaginary "we" clamoring in his title for more and more cameras. As I said, it seems that this is a political "we" figured as a "we" under threat. And while nobody will deny that crime and terror are indeed ways a political "we" might be threatened, few will deny either that these are not the only ways a political "we" might be threatened or that sometimes it is our very address of one sort of threat that yields another threat.

When Aristotle described humans as "political animals" he meant to describe animals rendered different in their essential natures by their exposure to the diversity of their fellow citizens, their fellow city-dwellers (a definition not so different after all from his other definitional effort, humans as "rational animals," reasoning in public). Aristotle's insight is that there is something indispensable to the constitution of the human "we" in our exposure to the scrutiny of the diversity of others, promising, threatening, unpredictable as this exposure is. Indeed, part of what is so curious about Manjoo's rather trivializing insistence that Americans don't "like" to be surveilled and monitored in their everyday lives is that this is an observation flying in the face of a generational explosion of eager disclosures and exposures, self-published images and advertorial profiles, submissions to the targeting of strangers, insurers, advertisers, political campaigns, stalkers and fans.

As Manjoo puts the point himself: "when anything big goes down, we all willingly cede our right to privacy -- we all take it for granted that photos provide valuable insight into news events, and we flood the Web with pictures and clips of the scene of big news." But it seems to me that the "publicity" generated by our flooding of the public square with pictures and clips of the scene is not necessarily so different from our flooding of the public square with testaments to our emotional reactions and contextualizations of such events, in which case this may be a publicity that depends on rather than cedes our privacy. The political publicity of shared concern materializes the shared world not only as a piecing together of evidenciary fragments into an "informational whole" but as the sustenance of an ongoing opening and re-opening of actively contested spaces.

One suspects there may be differences that make a difference between the "we" who live together in cities, the "we" who are documented citizens, the "we" who exist as profiles in government or marketing databases, the "we" who are heat signatures in a drone's gun sights. It is not a putatively neutral, insistently de-politicizing discourse of utility, of effectivity, of security that enables us to explore and elaborate distinctions like these in a critical, enabling way. What cameras are capable of doing in the world is not circumscribed by their technical specifications, what the politicizing force of cameras will be is not measured entirely or even primarily by the number of cameras on the street, whether more or less.

An argument like Manjoo's that seeks to ramify abstract cameras to fight crime needs to take up concrete questions of who holds the cameras, who the cameras are aimed at, where the cameras are located. But it also needs in my view to address questions of the political substance presumably violated by crime and the ways cameras might materially contribute to the support and contestation of that substance. These are the assumptions and stakes always in the background of arguments like Manjoo's, and it is crucial to grasp that such arguments over privacy, security, and surveillance rarely manage to clarify much that matters most until these assumptions and stakes are foregrounded and subjected to scrutiny themselves. This is the last thing that happens when arguments simply stage conflicts between presumably already-adjudicated costs and benefits acted upon by presumably already-characterized technical capacities and proceed as though fraught political deliberation can be circumvented by simple matters of additions and subtractions.

Transparency's Opacities

More cameras don't only converge onto "the facts" when more cameras also have more readers.

More Futurological Brickbats here.


Republican Governor Paul LePage:
“Now, to add insult to injury, The University of Maine, Presque Isle – anybody here been up there to see that damn windmill in the back yard? Guess what, if it’s not blowing wind outside and they have somebody visiting the campus, they have a little electric motor that turns the blades. I’m serious. They have an electric motor so that they can show people wind power works. Unbelievable."
“If there’s no wind, the turbine won’t spin,” helpfully explained University of Maine at Presque Isle’s director of community and media relations Rachel Rice in response to LePage's idiotic lies. No word yet if LePage considers reality-based rebuttal a matter of adding insult to injury.

Reflection Can Be Hard On Genuflection

Commenters over at Boing Boing point out that the actual chart published under the headline "Internet penetration is never correlated with increasing power to dictators, and is often correlated with increased freedom" is directly contradicted by the chart itself. So far the commenters are roughly divided between expressions of perplexity about the obvious inconvenient truths suggested by the chart while others simply declare the premise of the headline obviously true and the chart obviously vindicating of their faith in a full froth of ideological interneticism. The adjudicating comment arrives in the form of the declaration by one reader: "Cory, I do desperately want this to be true, but unfortunately, it's not!" One awaits the correction or, at any rate, the inventive excuses. -- h/t David Golumbia

Bad Teacher

Never in my life have I received so much sincere gratitude and praise as resulted from my recommendation last week, with one week remaining before the deadline for signatures on the final draft of their theses, that my MA thesis cohort really should go watch the entire first season of The Face as soon as possible.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guns Are Bombs

I am hearing that the horrible bombing of the Boston Marathon diverted attention from Senate efforts to pass expanded background checks for gun purchases and is one of the reasons the measure didn't pass, despite the overwhelming support of Americans for even more stringent measures. I must say I don't understand why concerns raised by the bombing did not considerably amplify the legibility and force of the arguments for gun safety legislation. After all, the arguments for security measures against mass-casualty terror and crime are all also arguments for common sense gun safety measures. For me, bombs are enough like guns that the GOP's hatred and fear of bombs is hard to square with their love and enabling of guns. The Second Amendment protects a right to bear arms -- and aren't bombs and guns both Arms in the relevant sense? Either you think liberty demands unrestricted access of all to all, or you think liberty is compatible with limiting access of some to some. "Derp, the only way to stop a bad terrorist with a bad bomb, derp, is a good terrorist with a good bomb, derp." Surely everyone can see how stoopid it would be for anybody to say this, surely this isn't an argument that would gain traction or shape legislation even in the GOP?

All Patriarchy Is Eugenic

Upgraded and adapted from an exchange in the Moot to this post. This comment:
Through centuries of education human beings have naturally gotten smarter, without genetic engineering or tampering of any kind. Einstein came out of a vagina not a test tube and that will likely remain the case for centuries to come. Furthermore, human beings have become incredibly intelligent over the centuries, yet are hardly any wiser for it. Maybe we should engineer wisdom, we are in dire need of it.
Provoked me to respond with a comment of my own:
Patriarchy itself can be usefully viewed as the inculcation of a set of arbitrary norms driving a selective eugenic breeding program many centuries old, and so the "natural" default status into which eugenics-champions fancy themselves to be tampering is just as well viewed as a position taken in a long clash of stupid eugenic parochialisms. To the extent that "coming out of a test tube" can be and has been a phrase used by folks to describe IVF, I daresay an Einstein could emerge from one before emerging from a vagina easily enough. I think it is important to distinguish ARTs (alternative/artificial reproductive technologies) from eugenic-inspired proposals, even as we grant that there is some historical overlap between the two, as there is also a certain bioreductionist strain (that deserves the strongest critique as well) that sometimes frames both for their champions and critics.
Credit where credit is due, this is an idea that was first suggested to me years ago by Annalee Newitz at a feminist conference I organized on bioethics discourse at Berkeley.

Anyway, at this point an all-too-familiar long-time periodic sniper in the Moot, John Howard (who is not, I'm pretty sure the former Australian PM) replied to that last comment in his usual vein, and the ensuing exchange seemed worthy of its own post:
So the "natural" default status of men and women choosing each other to marry and having children together is eugenics? So what is not eugenics? Don't tell me: Peer to peer consensual fully informed blah blah voluntary genetic modification and same-sex/transgender reproduction is not eugenics and OK, right?
I reply:

Needless to say, what John Howard echoes as the "natural" or "default" state of men and women marrying and having children is neither natural nor a default for countless people -- and ever more so the more he may want to freight "married with children" with other modifications, for example, life-long, monogamous, nuclear, etc.

This is not an invitation for you to elaborate your point, John Howard, I'm not getting drawn into yet another of these homopanic exercises you post to my blog a couple of times a year since I know that treating you as a good faith interlocutor does no good a couple of exchanges down the road from this initial one. You have a history and a reputation and you have to live with it. Further communications from you will probably just be deleted unless you are very good and very concise.

For newcomers and lurkers, I will add that it is obviously not a negative judgment of those for whom desiring or sexual or affiliative lifeways really are legible and satisfying on comparatively now-customary terms to point out as well that the wider range of also perfectly legible human desires and sexual practices have been constrained and violated and punished by heteronormative and reprosexual assumptions, norms, ends.

And to the extent that heteronormative and reprosexual norms have functioned to police and abject and deform equity-in-diversity there is some urgency about refusing to allow such forms to be described as "natural" in the way John Howard wants to do.

Howard claims (no need to trust me on this, scour the archives) that heterosexuality is under attack, and is especially paranoid about futurological discourses in which imaginary technologies enable queer folks to have armies of clone babies who will steal his heterosexuality away from him (after a few argumentative bouts with him it is hard to shake the suspicion that he is just afraid of the loss of an unearned privilege and also possibly that he can't exactly deal with a bit of hankering of his own for a little dick on the side).

To elaborate a bit more for the peanut gallery: "Patriarchy" names social formations in which the transmission of property and authority from fathers to sons requires that women be subordinated/owned as property as well so that men can control their reproductive capacity and hence facilitate that transmission of property and authority from fathers to sons. "Patriarchy" also describes social formations in which that which is constructed and marked as female/feminine is subordinated in comparison to that which is constructed and marked as male/masculine in order to facilitate the transmission of property and authority from fathers to sons, or as vestiges of a history of such transmission (vestiges that can linger and unexpectedly ramify and transform long after patriarchy in its initial legal and ethnographic sense has been overcome).

To the extent that in many historical and geographical sites men have chosen for countless generations to marry and have children with women who facilitate patriarchal norms it is perfectly obvious that patriarchal sex-gender constructions have articulated (which is of course not to say determined) both the men and the women as well as the cultures co-constructed by those practices and lifeways.

Needless to say, by the way, if queer folks marry and have kids (facilitated by ARTs or through elaborate surrogacy arrangements) but choose their partners and shape their offspring in the service of visions of optimality that remain paradoxically patriarchal (believe me, it happens), or racist, or according to various instrumentalizing competitiveness criteria, then of course these too can be framed as eugenic. It should go without saying, but I disapprove of the stupidity and anti-democracy of eugenic formulations as much from gay folks as from anybody else.

It is to be hoped that few of my readers will find the very idea of actually informed, nonduressed consensual democratic multiculture quite so contemptible as John Howard, defender of straight pricks, seems to do.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Abject, Adjunct

Although I make light of the radical insecurity of my own teaching position, festively declaring myself to be an itinerate lecturer-troubadour, and so on, the fact that whatever the excellence of my teaching reviews, whatever the fervent assurance of those who hire me every year and have done for nearly twenty years, whatever the extravagance of my voluntary uncompensated professional and departmental and committee work, I am a Berkeley PhD. trained by some of the most eminent living thinkers, steadily teaching coursework of my own design for excellent students at premier institutions in one of the greatest cities in America, at Berkeley and in San Francisco, still an earnest and still (I hope) an excellent teacher, but making considerably less than my partner, insured only because of the benefits available through his job outside the academy, pushing nearly fifty these days, much less vigorous and resilient than I was even ten years ago, still grunting under the weight of what remains a patently ridiculous home mortgage sized student loan debt, with no sense at all that I will even be lucky enough to still be doing this ten years from now as my affiliated institutions, venerable though they are, are reeling under cuts and the bright ideas of bright business boys for whom teachers are worn out robots, let alone can I truly hope I will be able to sustain this path for the seventeen (or will it be twenty-two?) years from now when presumably a public retirement system will offer me whatever remains of its looted, privatized, tattered cloak in the storm. Sarah Kendzior sums up the issues in Academia's Indentured Servants:
76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors -- an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits. Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse... So why do some of America's brightest PhDs -- many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice -- accept such terrible conditions? ... [J]ob candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal... With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs -- and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive... The adjunct plight is indicative of a two-fold crisis in education and in the American economy. On one hand, we have the degradation of education in general and higher education in particular. It is no surprise that when 76 percent of professors are viewed as so disposable and indistinguishable that they are listed in course catalogues as "Professor Staff", administrators view computers which grade essays as a viable replacement... Self-degradation sustains the adjunct economy, and we see echoes of it in journalism, policy and other fields in which unpaid or underpaid labour is increasingly the norm... Last week, a corporation proudly announced that it had created a digital textbook that monitors whether students had done the reading. This followed the announcement of the software that grades essays, which followed months of hype over MOOCs -- massive online open courses -- replacing classroom interaction. Professors who can gauge student engagement through class discussion are unneeded. Professors who can offer thoughtful feedback on student writing are unneeded. Professors who interact with students, who care about students, are unneeded. We should not be surprised that it has come to this when 76 percent of faculty are treated as dispensable automatons. The contempt for adjuncts reflects a general contempt for learning. The promotion of information has replaced the pursuit of knowledge. But it is not enough to have information -- we need insight and understanding, and above all, we need people who can communicate it to others. People who have the ability to do this are not dispensable.
This is an absolutely unsustainable state of affairs, both a personal and pervasive civilizational catastrophe. This isn't something I talk about a lot, perhaps in part because it cuts so close to the bone, but my occasional aphoristic exhibitions of frustration and of hope are archived under Faulty Ivory Towers.

Teaching Day

Fanon, "Concerning Violence," Arendt, "On Violence" in the City nine to noon.

Monday, April 15, 2013


VACUING, n., The practice of analogizing every practice with computer hacking in the expectation that this will provide insight, but with the consequence of evacuating all substance and interest.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Useful Reminder

Puzzling through the technoblatherer freakout I found it useful to revisit an earlier post on futurological fetishism. Try it, you'll like it.

The Feeble Tribalism of the Technoblatherers

Of course there are plenty of things one can legitimately talk about, elaborate, complicate, criticize in the substance and emphases and so on in Morozov's book, like any other. But, a whole lot of the response to Morozov is feeling to me much more like some sort of collective freakout than any kind of actual engagement with the actual words he has actually written. All this instant intense wagon-circling defensiveness surely feels worryingly familiar even to some of the folks who are moved to indulge in it?

I am frankly flabbergasted to see Cory Doctorow describe Tim Wu's review of Morozov as "admirably economical and restrained" even if he has arguable reasons to support Wu's views over Morozov's. In my review of Wu's review I showed that his piece was mostly a diatribe against name-calling in which his own name-calling was rather prevalent. I've got to say it is actually pretty astonishing to me the way Doctorow (whose every book is sitting on a shelf in my house after my reading of it) actually reprises these criticisms of Morozov the name-caller while at once reproducing long passages in Wu's piece in which Wu is literally engaging in the same name-calling before our eyes, with the difference that Wu's piece actually consists of little but a painstaking essay-long elaboration of an act of name calling -- if not name-calling Morozov as a "name caller" and hoping this gambit won't make heads explode, name-calling him and all who appreciate Morozov's argument as "luddites" in perhaps the tiredest techno-utopian dance move known to man. Apart from the transparent hypocrisy of this sort of thing, which we can skip because there are obviously a whole lot of frayed nerves and bruised egos around here, the deeper problem is that it suggests people like Wu and Doctorow who very appealingly like to declare themselves open to criticism and championing of criticism aren't exactly open to actually threatening forms of criticism in the mode of ideologiekritik in which one implicates actual figures and actual arguments in logical, topical, tropological, citational, historical, organizational, symptomatic relations and contextualizations of which they may not be fully aware themselves or publicly approve. Since Morozov's style is acerbic (he's like me this way, and so you would be right to say that in defending him on this I am also being a bit defensive myself) it can become difficult to untangle these sorts of critical assertions from ad hominem attacks, I guess (I really don't know that I truly agree it is that hard to tell the difference in most cases) -- and which in turn, I fear, also makes it all too easy to dismiss uncomfortable questions and problematizations as ad hominem attacks rather than the critical assertions they are.

I have to say that what I feel I am actually seeing from Doctorow here -- as well as from my friend Michel Bauwens, from the smart but disappointing Annalee Newitz and many others who are usually more or less congenial to me -- is folks taking sides in what is shaping up as an essentially tribal conflict pretending to be a battle over ideas. (As someone who has engaged in grassroots queer politics, labor union politics, academic departmental politics I can't say that this is exactly unfamiliar to me.) In such a conflict, social ties and subcultural signals often end up standing in for the work of actual thinking. I am the last one to deny the importance of the information conveyed by such social ties and sociocultural signals as it happens, but it matters that we not pretend that they are what they are not, or that they can do work that they cannot.

I have long noticed that while people like to pretend that they are moved to conviction by the persuasive force of arguments, they actually more often seem in practice to be moved to conviction by their attraction to those who make arguments than to the arguments themselves. I say I have long noticed this, but of course Aristotle noticed it long before I did when he referred to ethos as one of three rhetorical registers (logos, the propositional content and orderliness of an argument, pathos, an argument's address of its audience's affective life and useful mobilization of specific emotions of admiration, fear, greed, and so on, and ethos, the projection of character -- or more usually a useful character -- and engaging in subcultural signaling of parochial belonging or welcome to the audience one addresses). Of course, students are still astonished to discover that this least discussed dimension of argument -- ethos, as against logos and pathos which everybody talks about when they talk about rhetoric -- was for Aristotle the most powerful of them all.

I am truly flummoxed -- and I don't mean that as a slur but as an honest confession of personal perplexity -- when I read Doctorow declaring:
[Morozov] is fundamentally pandering to censors, surveillors, and repressors. All of the former are cheerful about their attempts to lock down and spy upon the net, because, they assert, nothing of much importance happens there... Morozov's biggest boosters are the copyright thugs, the spyware vendors, and the data retention snoops who argue that ripping up the Internet's fabric does no particular harm because the Internet isn't even a thing.
Now, it is not empirically the case that Morozov's "biggest boosters are... copyright thugs [and] spyware vendors," that is simply and obviously not factually true. It is not true even if the fact that Morozov writes in a way you feel insulted by makes you assume that he must belong to the tribe that praises those you revile. What Doctorow surely substantially means is something more like that he thinks copyright thugs and spyware vendors are the ones who should, in his view, regard Morozov's views as congenial, and perhaps he is actually predicting that Morozov's formulations may lend comfort or eventually may be enlisted to support these reactionary anti-democratizing constituencies. One would expect such a belief would encourage him to read Morozov more closely for usefully exploitable tensions and fissures in his account rather than to celebrate dismissive superficial readings like Wu's honestly is, even if one sees Wu as a more natural ally. If Doctorow wants to make this kind of engaged case in greater depth I personally welcome it. Since Morozov seems to me to be proposing critique precisely in the service of anti-incumbent democratization in the face of a complete propertization and panopticization of networked formations while tech-enthusiasts mostly just endlessly applaud the latest vacuous bleeding edge app, to make the kind of case Doctorow seems to imply he believes I have to warn him that he would probably have to engage in precisely the kind of ideologiekritik that gets Morozov castigated by his friends as nothing but a name caller.

You see, I think it is absolutely false and facile to charge that Morozov is "pandering to censors, surveillors, and repressors" but since I side with those who fight censors, surveillors, and repressors myself I would be the most eager person in town to hear how Morozov's formulations enable these bad actors exactly, as I have to say I think Morozov would too. But whining that proposing these entailments and consequences amounts to being mean and indulging in name calling is hardly something I could care less about since I actually care about the issues involved incomparably more than that sort of thing -- and I modestly propose that this is how it should be, people. Frankly, I simply expect debates about important issues to look and feel contentious.

Be that as it may, if Doctorow is actually simply arguing that the metaphor of a monolithic internet -- whether the figure is fabricized or spatialized or formulized or computerized or what have you -- must prevail in order for us to resist the work of censors, surveillors, or repressors I have to say I for one would find that argument... in need of considerable further development. There are a whole lot of figures stuffed in our archive you know, and it's not like we aren't still making new ones as we go along. Codes are dynamic systems of signification, infrastructural affordances are used abused maintained destroyed, networks have both norms and forms, are both situated and moving -- I daresay we might profitably look into the work done by the rich metaphors of sedimentation, branching, weaving, clearing through which we paradoxically (to put it generously) figure and refigure our experiences and stakes in "the" ever-changing network of networks.

Does saying this sort of thing now imbue me with the tribal coloration of panderer to censors, surveillors, and repressors, I wonder? Does that really make sense to anybody? I am used to idiotic Robot Cultists declaring me "anti-science" for refusing to embrace their pseudo-scientific techno-transcendental faith-based initiatives, or describing me as a "luddite" who is "afraid of the future" because I insist that progressive technodevelopmental struggle requires first of all the equitable distribution of actual costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the actual diversity of stakeholders to that change. Perhaps now a confession of sympathy for discourse analysis, ideologiekritik, and Latourian interventions will cast me out of suave secular democratic geekdom as well. And yet I am a queergeek, a space and science enthusiast, an advocate for consensus science based harm-reduction models of public policy, a passionate partisan for the democratizing work of equity-in-diversity and for the sustainable work of permaculture, a teacher of science and technology studies, environmental justice, media criticism, and critical thinking and rhetoric at the university level. Choose the TED-squawkers and technoblatherers and the "third culture" hypenotized white brite techno-promoters and self-promoters over the posthumanist/humanist literary/liberal humanities critics if you like. I must ruefully confess as a wide reader that I already know how this story ends.

My Review of Tim Wu's Review of Evgeny Morozov Is Also Available Now at the World Future Society

Slightly edited, paragraphs broken up, that sort of thing, and offering itself up for your re-reading (dis)pleasure here.

LGBTQ Next Up, Getting Real With ENDA

Imara Jones:
As the Supreme Court weighed arguments on same-sex marriage, Chief Justice John Roberts wondered aloud from the bench whether action on the issue by the court was necessary, because “politicians are falling all over themselves” to bring the legal rights of gay and lesbian Americans in line with those of everyone else. If only this were true. In up to 34 states it’s still legal for employers to deny jobs to citizens simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender... President Obama can take unilateral action right now to help more LGBT Americans secure jobs, improve living standards and live out their dreams. As Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said to me recently, "Hopefully 2013 will be the year that President Obama fulfills his written 2008 campaign promise and signs an employment non-discrimination executive order." The case for doing so is persuasive and the numbers are staggering. Contrary to the aspirational images wealthy white men in popular media, such as the gay-millionaire couple on NBC’s hit-comedy "The New Normal" or the upwardly mobile denizens of "Will & Grace," LGBT Americans are more likely to be poor and less educated than their peers, and come from communities that have been historically, economically marginalized. More than half of LGBT people in the U.S. are women, and black Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos make up a greater proportion of those identifying as LGBT than do whites. According to a Gallup Survey last year, LGBT Americans are 30 percent more likely to have low-income jobs than the general population. Correspondingly, LGBT Americans are less likely to have high paying jobs than workers as a whole, and have a greater sense of dissatisfaction with their living standards as a result.
I can't say that I am thrilled by the foregrounding of Obama in this account. I say this since reliably sustainable labor organizing seems to me a poor fit for hopes of Presidential deus ex machina interventions or, more likely of course, diversions of energy into wrongly personalizing recriminations over Presidential disappointment. All this is not to mention one simply doesn't know whether the Obama administration will incline more to his frustratingly but eventually successful patient multilateral DADT-repeal model or his more willing to be unilateral DOMA-repeal model when it comes to ENDA.

However, nothing could be more important than Jones' documentation of the actual realities of LGBTQ precarity here -- these are points that Urvashi Vaid's LGBTF used to foreground in ways that were eclipsed in my view by the rise and eventual prevalence of the more conservative HRC as exemplary LGBTQ activism.

While I have always been ambivalent about the assimilationist project of militarization/marriagability of gays since I don't particularly approve of the killing of brown people in my name for plutocratic profit and I consider marriage a vestige of human trafficking (and my partner of eleven years agrees with me), I have also known that exclusions from these institutions has obviously facilitated the abjection and precarization of queers, and I hope that inclusions of queers within them may render them comparatively more capacious and less injurious for all, and I do believe that resistance to these sites is stronger when one rejects advantages one is welcome to rather than already excluded from.

Still, all that said, I think this last move of still-legibly assimilationist gay politics, the work to end employment and workplace discrimination, edges in the direction of making unmistakable threats to the white-racist patriarchal corporate-military status quo. I fear that the comparatively privileged white gay males who have fought and funded ferociously against DADT and DOMA may not be quite as reliable against ENDA (I hope I am wrong), and that this goal may end up being harder fought than folks think, fresh from a string of successes that happen to have also been profitable to incumbent interests in ways ENDA would not be. By way of conclusion, I'll just mention that the falsifying obscenity of the title of the show "The New Normal" is almost apt, given the actual show.

Don't Let Endgame Obsessions Take You Out of the Game

You can find the comment in the Moot to which this postlet is responding easily enough I suppose, but although it was a comment premised in real political concerns they seemed to me less a provocation to useful action than an occasion to indulge in fantasies the details of which I didn't much want to highlight in the blog proper. Both the underlying concerns and the phenomenon I think I was observing in the commenter (I could be wrong) deserve attention, though, so I'm upgrading and adapting my response to post here too:
Yes, I'm well aware of and do take seriously energy and resource descent arguments. I also know that the so-called Green Revolution in agriculture was to an important and terribly under-reported extent really a matter of imposing non-resilient monoculture, costly petro-dependent automation, mostly terrain-indifferent in ways that catastrophically exacerbate topsoil erosion, vast irrigation systems depleting aquifers, and ever amplifying high-energy input intensive petrochemical fertilizers-insecticides yielding ever-lower outputs on what were family farms: in short, yet another mostly false and facile futurological "miracle," this time creating the unspeakable crime of factory slaughter farms and unsustainable Big Ag -- but of course who cares because it's momentarily profitable to incumbent elites.

You probably don't know this if you are coming upon me randomly and unawares online, but I have been teaching classes in varieties of environmentalist discourse, politics, and subcultures to undergraduates in the Bay Area, both at SFAI and at UC Berkeley, for nearly a decade. I alternate the organization of my annual undergraduate STS critical theory course between environmental formations one year and p2p-media formations the next. These are all issues that matter to me enormously as well.

All that said, I do discern in some men (yes, so far always men) who are drawn to this area of concern a distressing almost disasterbatory thrill at contemplating collapse and post-collapse narratives in which they figure as the manly (at last!) protagonist licensed to shoot his gun in the midst of an apocalyptic technicolor carnage.

The crises of industrially farmed topsoil depletion, depleting and salinating aquifers, of course carbon pollution more generally, and overpopulation demand relocalization and organicization of much of our agricultural production and delivery system, invite the expansion of permacultural companion planting, integrated plant management, tree planting, but also demonstrate the need to fund a shift from urban food deserts to urban organic local farmers markets. All this, but also we must educate, agitate, organize to enable huge public investments not only in solar rooftops and wind-turbine/tidal turbine fields and subsidies/incentives for energy-efficient residential refurbishment via porches, attic fans, geothermal pumps, but to facilitate the shift from budgetary/zoning priorities for car culture (no, "driverless cars" will not save you, futurological noises to the contrary notwithstanding) to pedestrian malls, bike lanes, urban and continental rail -- no more idiotic, pharaohnic airports! And -- last here but certainly not least -- also require the planetary empowerment of women and girls and the provision of universal access to healthcare including family planning. Of course, these are all very good and important efforts to get involved in -- and the work will invigorate and sustain you, connecting you to human needs right now while also building a world that works better now to what comes next. I simply don't think the blood-soaked end-game preoccupation is much help to anybody, least of all you yourself. And I do mean that kindly.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Does Tim Wu Side With the Technoblatherers?

Also published at the World Future Society.

In works like Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World, Tim Wu has written clear and incisive critiques of a whole generation's conjoining of facile to flabbergasting market libertarian/crypto-anarchist/neoliberal assumptions and aspirations and conceits to an irrationally exuberant, digi-utopian, techno-triumphalist hype endlessly promising an end to borders, nation-states, identities, limits-to-growth. Of course, by 2006 the writing was really on the wall as far as the crypto-anarchistic Extropian no death! no taxes! Cyberspace home of mind crowd went -- and, gee, just sayin', some of us were already pointing out how imbecilic this sort of vision was in 1996, if not well before then -- but, the point is, Tim Wu was a critic of a prevailing techno-utopian ideology that symptomatically played out in variations and in levels of intensity across layers of discourse from the pages of WIRED to B-movie plots to ad copy to editorials to DARPA reports.

Even if Tim Wu didn't enjoy as much as I did the acerbic stylings of Evgeny Morozov's recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, which is, after all, a matter of taste, I would have expected him to grasp the underlying assumptions about the rich symtomatic expressiveness of ideology as well as to sympathize, at least in a general sort of way, with the democratizing aspirations driving Morozov's latest work. It would appear that I was wrong.

In the first sentence of Tim Wu's review of Morozov's book, published yesterday in The Washington Post and attracting quite a lot of energetic praise from folks in and around my twitter feed today, he writes: "Silicon Valley desperately needs good critics, for the tech industry represents an enormous concentration of private power and rivals government in its influence over our lives." If Wu had continued the sentence adding, simply, "only, you know, nicer than Evgeny Morozov," he could have saved a whole lot of printer's ink.

It is hard to believe that serious (perhaps I should say Very Serious) writers are still offering up variations on the theme of Civility! Whatever the Facts May Be! in response to critiques of self-appointed incumbent elites being wrong about things, but I fear that here we are once again, and offered up, once again, in the same assured cadences, the same aggrieved tone, the same line in bull:
Although I share his concerns about private power, Morozov oversells his points with a vehemence that takes a good cause and gives it a bad name.
It is indeed a terrible thing when one hurts the tender feelings or upward fail prospects of opportunists peddling corporate-military PR hype as expertise for quick bucks and attention from the "Creative Class" Makers-not-Takers in the TED circuit forever feeding their venture capital hunger pangs and for technoscientific illiterates avidly swallowing pop-tech informercials forever feeding their desire for quick thrills about miracle cures, sexy sexbots, and technicolor robocalypse. (Perhaps sometimes bullies should be bullied for bullying, you know.)

Although Wu is incapable of denying the force of Morozov's critique when it applies to the literal promise "that all of humanity’s problems can be solved by 2035" by sooper-technologies in a book like Peter Diamandis' Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (which I took my own whack at here), it would appear that he is made uncomfortable by the suggestion that we hold to any account those who make arguments that offer qualified variations on the same premise or which depend for their legibility and force on unstated -- or even disavowed -- variations of it.

Morozov tweeted his own reaction to Wu's very public spectacle of pearl-clutching and calling for the smelling salts at Morozov's critical incivility by observing that "Wu exhibits no desire to even entertain the possibility of Ideologiekritik." This is true, and also more generally true. Wu's argumentative strategy in his review seems rather like the one Annalee Newitz offered up in her own recent defense of Tim O'Reilly against Morozov's critique of O'Reilly's rhetorical practice as a symptom of the ideology he exposes and ridicules.

In it, Newitz reframes Morozov's expose of O'Reilly as an "allegory" rather than merely an attack for her readers. Her io9 futurological fandom didn't buy it, of course, and Newitz gave in to them almost instantly, at any rate in public, stroking O'Reilly's ego in a highly undignified fashion soon thereafter (I respond to Newitz here). All this circumlocution reproduces the contours of Wu's "civility" discourse as far as I can see, in which an expressed desire for substance over personalities functions mostly to evacuate critique of any contact with actual practices, actual consequences, actual substance. Clearly, what is playing out beneath the surface of an apparent preference for ideas over personalities in Wu's spectacle of wounded sensibilities, too, is a worrying retreat from intellectual standards. When Wu declares "Kevin Kelly['s]... What Technology Wants" to be "an ambitious work of tech philosophy" he is making recourse to an argumentative shorthand via personalities no less than Morozov did in condemning Tim O'Reilly as a "meme hustler." But what really matters most here is that in calling "Kevin Kelly['s]... What Technology Wants, an ambitious work of tech philosophy," Wu is saying something literally laugh out loud funny to anybody who has any intellectual standards at all when it comes to what might count as a "work of tech philosophy" let alone an "ambitious" one.

And then look what happens: Wu lets us know in no uncertain terms that "Kelly [is] an optimistic and religious man," and then complains that "I kid you not, [Morozov] accuses Kelly of holding the same views as the Nazis... If that weren’t enough, he also accuses Kelly of Ayn Randism, and for an intellectual it is hard to say which is more disrespectful."

Of course, everybody knows one needs to get really careful and attentive when Nazi analogies start getting glibly thrown about. But it actually is true that there was a strain of techno-triumphalism in Nazi ideology and practice (I talked about this briefly in this post and recommend Jeffrey Herf's 1984 book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, which I discovered in a conversation provoked by that very post). Of course, calling attention to the argumentative and promotional confluences between contemporary neoliberal and digital-utopian discourse and such strains in fascist discourse is pretty easy to read as a generous appeal to an expectation that enthusiasts for Kelly's work and possibly even Kelly himself (whether or not he is also an "optimistic and religious man") might rethink their facile assumptions and aspirations were they more alert to this historical context. Maybe that is what Morozov is up to rather than merely shooting off a playground taunt because he is a Meany McMeanerson who lives to be Mean to all the Very Serious oh so Well-Meaning Tech-Talkers? And, yes, this can still be perfectly true even if Morozov happens to write in a style that is more biting and satirical than warm and conciliatory (thank god).

So too pointing out that Ayn Rand's views function as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of prevailing market conservative and neoliberal pieties is obviously (I should think) as much an appeal to the common sense of intellectual partisans of the latter (of whom there are many) as it might also be just a dismissive insult implying some neoliberals are closeted members of the Ayn Rand Superior Human Fan Club (however well deserved that might be for some of them, and they know who they are). That Kevin Kelly, like Tim O'Reilly, is another member of the broadly White Brite Third Culture Wired digirati panoptic zero comment democracy social web Ted squawk club isn't exactly irrelevant here ("at least I'm in good company," cheers Tim Wu -- but I suspect not everyone would agree quite so speedily about that on further scrutiny), nor, by the way, is this observation without substance if one allows that citational relations, subcultural affinities, organizational ties actually do have substance in the world. And they do.

Wu proposes that "[t]he real utility of his theory is to imply that nearly everyone who writes about the Internet is an idiot, setting up virulent attacks, Morozov’s true passion." Let us set aside the fact that this effort to pathologize Morozov's project is just a facile circumvention of Morozov's arguments rather than an engagement with them, not to mention that in making this move Wu is actually performing the kind of character assassination he claims to deplore and nothing more (one never goes far expecting the champions of Civility First! to practice what they preach when it comes to their opponents after all). What is crucial here is that this amounts to the disqualifying admission on Wu's part that either he does not grasp or he does not care to attend to the distinction between ad hominem attacks and critiques of ideology in which the actual words and practices and effects of key public figures are taken to express or symptomize this ideology (and, heaven forbid, folks even taken to task for this).

I say that one should never expect advocates of civility over substance to be particularly civil themselves. Enjoy:
To Save Everything, Click Here is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.
Do you really suspect Morozov aspires to be Bill O'Reilly any more than he does Tim O'Reilly, Tim Wu? Of course not -- but trolling trolls for trolling is such a seduction, is it not? This facile name calling is never more acute in this editorial against facile name calling than when Wu smugly assures us that "the main audience for Morozov’s work won’t be Silicon Valley readers, but tech-hating intellectuals warmed by his attacks because they already despise Google, Twitter and maybe just the West Coast in general." This is hard to distinguish from the usual vitriolic charge of "Luddism!" from transhumanists and techno-utopians who declare that anybody who counsels skepticism in the face of hyperbolic projections of sooper-progress and sooper-powers from modest research results and situated technical innovations is a hypocrite because they do not live naked in a cave like the tech-haters and future-cowards they are.

Let me say that I for one am a real fan of Evgeny Morozov's work (which is obviously not to say that I endorse his every word or notion) and (yet?!?!) that I am also a strong advocate of the application of consensus science to public policy, a strong advocate of public investment in science education and medical research and renewable infrastructure. I also know that technoscientific changes are never inevitably or "naturally" progressive, that they must be made to be progressive by people being made to be attentive and responsive to the actual diversity of stakeholders to the costs, risks, and benefits of these changes and that this, in turn, requires the ever-ongoing political work of education, agitation, organization, legislation, regulation, redistribution. The almost ubiquitous futurological trend-spotting, techno-triumphalism, scientistic and deterministic reductionism, and deceptive deranging norms and forms of marketing hyperbole that suffuse our public discourse all profoundly disable progressive democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle in my view. Morozov's work exposes some of these errors, deceptions, tendencies and so contributes indispensably in my view to the work of progressive democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle. And, yes, I do think the work of many of those he singles out for disapproval and ridicule are specifically undermining that progressive, democratizing work -- even if they are also perfectly nice and earnest people to hang out with who vote for Democrats as they rake in the cash and the accolades from their corporate-military paymasters and the technofixated consumer fandoms they attract.

I agree with Wu that there are ways in which Nicholas Carr, whose work The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains I also mostly enjoyed, might be regarded as more an ally than a foe of the sort of critique Morozov is proposing -- but I do not agree that Morozov's criticism of Carr is really only conceivable as the "savaging... of an "unforgivable sin[ner]" for "medium-centrism" rather than the proposal to precisely such an ally that their otherwise congenial critique might be rendered more forceful were it more attentive to the problem of a "medium centrism" into which so much "tech-talk" seems to drift, whether critical or not. I also agree with Wu that there are ways in which Morozov's critique of monolithic characterizations of "the internet" exhibits an argumentative continuity with some of Lawrence Lessig's earlier arguments, as in his wonderful book Code. Perhaps that continuity helps account for my own tendency to assign works by both Lessig and Morozov in my science and technology courses on this topic, and why I regard both Lessig and Morozov as pretty indispensable (and still rather rare) thinkers on these issues. I must say Wu's insinuation that this continuity amounts to an unattributed appropriation of Lessig by Morozov is fairly hilarious -- since surely even Lessig would point out that lonely though he was he was not the only one making arguments of this kind, and just as surely many who use Lessig's writings could point to generations of scholarship and theory with which Lessig's work has important affinities (with no insinuations of unattributed appropriation the least bit implied).

Wu's chief theoretical point is that "Morozov's idea that the Internet is just a concept goes only so far." That such a critique of the idea also goes only so far is the equally obviously true rejoinder which explains why even in making this comparatively more substantial point Wu must eventually fluff it up with silliness about "thought crime." Wu continues: "Even if it is dangerous to overgeneralize, we necessarily use concepts all the time, such as 'the United States' or the 'NFL.'" Again, all this is fair enough as far as it goes, but notice what happens when one grasps that not only the NFL and the internet are concepts but that "concept" is a concept as well. Once we assume a vantage subjecting abstractions to scrutiny, what will end up mattering to us is not whether or not such scrutiny is possible as such, but what particular realities tend to vanish or not when just this or that abstraction is the one getting deployed (by whom, under what circumstances). "It sometimes makes sense to discuss the future of the United States, or the Internet, as one entity, even if we know it may change," Wu patiently explains. But surely it is in the specifications of just which times "sometimes" this is so, that all the real action is? When one speaks of "the future of the United States" it is inevitably true that not all of the citizens of the United States will be the beneficiaries of the benefits ascribed to that future, not all citizens will take on the same risks or bear the same costs of that future. The different stories told by the winners and the losers in these distributions, the different stories told by the ones holding the guns as opposed to being aimed at by the guns will "sometimes" matter most of all, at least to some people. It seems to me that Morozov is trying to clear a space in which such attention is more possible, in the face of an incredible confluence of voices which out of ignorance, fear, greed, cynicism, and even inertia make it hard to pay such attention for anybody for long, especially in ways that make a difference when possibly they should.

Needless to say, it is always true that any concept as such can be made subject to this kind of scrutiny but at the same time it is always true that engaging in scrutiny as such requires that few concepts be made subject to it at any one time. I believe and I think Morozov also believes that given the force of technoscientific changes in our historical moment, especially given the levels of ignorance, opportunism, and irrational passion that attend so very many of them, now is a very good time to make concepts like "technology," "progress," "innovation," "the internet," "the future" the subjects of our critical scrutiny. Wu declares the theory, to the contrary, that "For Morozov, however, any such discussions amount to 'Internet-centrism,' which for him seems to be a kind of thought crime." You will forgive me (actually, many of you probably won't) if I say that this assessment seems to me not only wrong, but frankly embarrassing.

"Does Morozov have an alternative vision of technology’s future?"

I am tempted to respond to Wu's demand with my own: Does anybody think glib expressions like "technology's future" will themselves have any future except as slogans encouraging the usual facile, a-historical, de-contextualized oversimplfications Morozov is warning against? Wu seems to want us to believe that he too worries about the ways such discursive forms might stealth away pesky social and political complexities, but then why is he using them himself while abusing one who conspicuously does (also?) worry about them? Does Wu grasp the ways in which these slogans invite the familiar irrational passions of agency occasioned by "tech-talk" -- of omnipotent daydreams of supercapacitations and impotent nightmares of apocalypse -- deranging actually urgent questions about technoscientific change and technodevelopmental policy? Does he not think these now customary frames and powerpoint pseudo-aphorisms provide cover for advertorial hucksters peddling consumer-complacent cons and scare-mongers peddling apolitical paralysis?

At the risk of inviting Wu's rolling eye, notice that the expression "technology's future" is assuming there is a "technology in general" about which we can make general claims in defiance of the differences in the vast constellation of real and emerging techniques and artifacts in the made world, and the differences they make to the actual ineradicable diversity of their stakeholders, and the ongoing changes over time in all these differences and stakes. And this is not to mention the way the phrase apparently invests this monolithicized "technology" rather curiously with a "perspective" and a "vantage" that "it" very clearly does not and cannot have but which no doubt all too many technoblatherers will be more than happy to claim to uniquely represent the voice of -- even if, I am hoping, Wu himself would not fall for such a thing.

Again, I am of the considered view (would Wu declare it instead merely "inconsiderate"?) that rhetorical futurisms tend to amount to retro-futurisms, and that they facilitate the projection of parochial fears and fantasies to foreclose the real openness in the present (what I would call its "futurity") inhering in the diversity of its actual stakeholders the better to preserve the power and privilege of incumbent interests. I do not believe that everybody participating in this work understands that this is what they are doing or agrees that this is what they are doing or admits that this is what they are doing, but none of that matters to me more -- even if it does matter sometimes -- than that this is what they are doing. (For more on why I say this is so see my contrarian anti-futurological pieces published by the World Future Society or the pieces archived under the headings Futurology Against Ecology, a Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, and the Superlative Summary.)

It is in this spirit that I notice Wu's concluding derision of Morozov's embrace of the "old intellectual fantasy that constant deliberation about every decision would somehow make the world a better place." I daresay, by way of concluding myself, that the idea of aristocrats or plutocratically-picked "meritocrats" making technodevelopmental decisions for the rest of us instead is also a pretty old intellectual fantasy, and also a pretty not pretty one at that. In so saying, by the way, it matters less to me that Tim Wu may be a nice enough and smart enough person not to explicitly or fully or always endorse such a view himself rather than, say, simply enabling it implicitly, unconsciously, accidentally, only in some degree, only sometimes, or whatever. As far as I'm concerned the best way for Tim Wu -- who is somebody I neither know at all nor expect to be lucky enough to know any more than I do or will Evgeny Morozov -- to actually demonstrate how nice and smart and serious he is about these matters would be for him to treat these proposals of mine as an exposure in good faith (in which I am possibly less right than I think I am, after all, and which I am always open to being shown as such) of vulnerabilities in his rhetoric to reductive, reactionary, inequitable, anti-democratizing entailments, deployments, appropriations he too disapproves of and so makes efforts to overcome in his work to come. I think a more judicious reading of Evgeny Morozov should also be welcome to Wu on those very terms, even if he doesn't appreciate its judgmental tone or contrarian wit. They tell me not everybody likes Swift, Wilde, Twain, or Parker, either, and even if I find this personally hard to credit, hey, let a bazillion flowers bloom.

Future Schlock

Exxon Will Not Cease and Desist Hating Your Children

A coalition of three social justice and environmentalist organizations created a rather innocuously satirical ad and informational website, ExxonHatesYourChildren. The coalition has managed to air the ad some places (like MSNBC, natch) but Exxon keeps bullying them off the air in others. Exxon's rebuttal of the content of the ad and its Cease-and-Desist order is quite hilarious, an even more pitch-perfect parody of greenwashing than the ad itself in its own way (I actually laughed out loud reading it, which is more than I can say about the ad itself), full of declarations about how it loves flinging pennies in the general direction of kids dying of asthma in greenhouse storms and how it builds one whole wind-turbine in a field of sunflowers for every hundred bazillion dollars it makes from the hazardous ravaging polluting extraction of burnable nonrenewable gunk. Here is the ad everybody is seeing because Exxon doesn't want anybody seeing it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Long Teaching Day

Freud and Burroughs on paranoia this morning in the City. Basics of public presentation with my MA Thesis cohort in the afternoon.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Take on the Politics of the Moment

I agree Chained CPI is bad policy and even bad politics in terms of 2014 optics. But I don't know that I agree Chained CPI is worse policy than the ongoing disintegration of governance via sequestration or worse politics than complete stasis in terms of 2014 optics. The actual alternatives matter you know, not just the ideal alternatives to actual proposals even where we agree on what the ideal or even more sensible alternatives would be.

I think Obama really does want a deal on guns, on immigration, and on ending sequestration in a way that raises revenues. That's where he's staked political capital in the aftermath of the second inaugural address, and that's how he's behaving too as far as I can see. I don't think he's only posturing about wanting these deals or that he's crazy to think less-than-perfect better-than-nothing deals are indeed doable on guns, on immigration, and on ending sequestration in a way that raises revenues.

I think he's calculating that getting these deals is a better set-up for 2014 than absolute stasis forced by GOP obstructionism would be, and I think he's right about this since recent history after 2010 bears this out (not to mention he's right that the best possible positioning for Dems in 2014 if stasis rules the day come what may is one in which he is trying to compromise in the face of irrational GOP intransigence while Dems themselves howl about the effects of compromise on seniors, students, working people, and so on). The point isn't that seniors, students, working people are dispensable pawns here, but that one weighs the impact of Chained CPI against the impact of ongoing sequestration on the same or just as real stakeholders and also as the environment in which actually worse GOP proposals are floated and so on.

The President (the GOP's Big Bad after all) has to take a real hit to get any Republicans to the table and any such real hit will also of necessity be a hit on citizen majorities given the President's mostly progressive priorities whatever his pragmatism. Else, what would the GOP leverage for 2014 against the optics of their own capitulation? This has to be Presidential capitulation up against Congressional GOP capitulation, tit for tat, otherwise why come to the table at all? The President's budget called the Republican's bluff and the proof is right there in the ongoing disarray and division in the Republican's response to that budget. But once we grant the reality and significance of the Presidential hit here, we have to go to the small print where protections against the most vulnerable are carved out and where the structural enablements for retroactive fixes and progressive elaborations are always in place to determine just who the winners and losers really are. This isn't an eleventy-dimensional chess fantasy anymore, but repeatedly demonstrated history when it comes to Obama dealmaking, in both its strength and its weakness when we're talking about the ACA or financial reform, say. To the extent that the GOP is playing out their public politics in a largely symbolic theater at this point, it's not even that they don't understand this last point so much as they don't care as much as you would expect them to if you are a policy-minded lefty. Don't forget that compromises at the level of detail coupled with broad brushstrokes combativeness keeps the dumb-dumb GOP base comparatively quiescent, while making dumb-dumb independents purr over "stuff getting done" whatever the facts are, while signaling to corporate and partisan funders/players that GOPers can still play ball despite the nutter noisemakers.

Don't be so sure everything the Senate accomplishes will die in the teahadi House, when the path to passage via helpful Democratic majorities is now well-established and gun measures are supported by 95% of the people while everybody knows immigration reform has to pass for the GOP to survive as a national party. With each passage under such a regime the next one becomes easier as well. Overcoming sequestration via an ugly deal that will be called a Grand Bargain in any case will have its chance after popular gun safety reform and necessary immigration reform have had their chances first.

The scrum over optics for 2014 will take place in the aftermath of outcomes on these questions. The odds for Dems retaking the House in 2014 are historically unprecedentedly high but must be considered doable given the equally unprecedentedly GOP fever swamp and nothing changes that big picture, but I do think Obama is right that making a real effort to get these three deals is better than not doing so both for 2014 and for, actually, the country. This is far from saying that the results are optimal or even good, only that they are better than the actually existing and actually possible alternatives. You know, politics.

Those who propose that Obama doesn't really want the deals he says he wants and is struggling to get because he seeecretly wants to screw the poor or is signalling through pretend deal-making that he reeeeally wants to screw the poor and all that looks to me exactly as nutty as right-wing white-racist blathering about kenyislamofascisocialism. Hell, I AM a socialist, I want single-payer, lifelong free education, and basic income guarantees funded by steeply progressive income and property taxes in the midst of nationalized and sustainably equitably administered public and common goods. We're on the road, not at the destination, building it as we go, and there are differences that make more of a difference along the road than the fact that none of them happen to be the destination. Again, Chained CPI is a bad policy, but Obama seems to think it's the least bad way to get past the worse bad of ongoing sequestration or of all GOP whackadoodle all the time. I'm not entirely sure that's right, but it's far from a stupid or evil thing to think. We should push him, but not give comfort to our enemies or mistake him for one. He's just the occupant of the executive branch, one more tool in the toolkit. And he's doing pretty well, all things considered.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fantasy Ignores the Question

"Surrealism sought to challenge the very basis of enlightenment thinking — denying that 'reality' was even real — while fantasy just ignores the whole question and makes up its own reality." -- Aaron Bady, from a review of Mia Couto’s Tuner of Silences.

Powerball, Okayyyyyrr?

California has provided its citizens a new voluntary stupidity tax. And I will pay it -- inasmuch as winning some lottery at some point is more or less my retirement plan.


According to the BBC Official UK Singles Chart for April 10, 2013:
#10 Motion Picture Cast Recording, "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" -- new

Monday, April 08, 2013


Transhumanism is an effort to pretend confusing humans for robots and mistreating humans as robots is a science of humans becoming robots.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Silicon Today, Siligone Tomorrow

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Some Questions for Caleb Garling…

…as he ponders whether or not Evgeny Morozov is "important."

Is the child who says the emperor is naked "important"? Is it "important" for ANYBODY not to be giving endless blowjobs to self-congratulatory technoblatherers? Is it not "to foster thought" that somebody points out techno-PR flacks claiming to foster thought aren't? Is it possible that what seems trollish to a fraud in the spotlight looks like the useful spotlighting of fraud to others? Is it more "important" to protect the fee fees and continued upward failing of tech apologists for corporate-militarism than telling inconvenient truths about them?

Writes Garling, "[I]f Morozov is going to be remembered as a real critic -- and not just an obnoxious cynic -- he’ll need to change the way he approaches his writings." It's hard to see what is cynical, particularly, about Morozov's writing -- his expectation that criticism couched in sophisticated observations, in words not all of which are to be found in People magazine, seems to me if anything a sign of earnest hopefulness about Americans. I suspect one finds more cynicism hobnobbing for five minutes among the grubby opportunists and seekers of venture capital at your average TED squawk than the five minutes it might take a twitter-addled brain to get through a paragraph penned by Morozov. What Garling really means with his pious little jab for more civility when Very Serious White Guys of The Future are being discussed is that if Morozov is to be remembered as more than obnoxious to his targets and those who prop them up, he will of course have to change the way he approaches his writing. Needless to say, Morozov is known to be a real critic by many of us only because of the way he approaches his writing -- you know, critically and stuff. Possibly few who feel this way will be deemed "important" by Caleb Garling, though it is an open question whether anybody on earth thinks that is particularly important.

Next Up