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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

White Riot

They managed to do it live and in a single take, which is pretty impressive.

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Memetics Re-Invents the Wheel of Rhetoric, and Then Breaks It

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot to yesterday's post, "Esebian" asks: Wouldn't you say today's state of the concept "meme" is like that of the "gene" in the 1890s; there's hints that there is a mechanism of information transfer, we just can't figure out any specifics?

Well, no, if I'm understanding your question correctly, I wouldn't say that. Memetics isn't some promising fledgling discipline to be fleshed out into a predictively powerful account of cultural dynamism after a century of diligent researchers scan and stimulate enough brains or whatever. The "meme" is a futurological neologism, a buzzword, a superficial repackaging scheme -- and with the usual wannabe guru huckster PR in play, I'm afraid -- through which ignoramuses have been pretending to re-invent the wheel of rhetoric for a generation. The connection of the meme to the gene you mention is of course deliberate, and it represents a fundamental mis-analogy: historical vicissitudes and social struggle are so radically under-determined by evolutionary processes as to be irrelevant to them, they provide a few general constraints and pressures but don't take you where any of the real action is. The problems here are comparable to evo-devo and evo-psycho foolishness I sometimes deride here as well, and it isn't accidental that the adherents of the one are often also cheerleaders for the other. (I'm setting aside here the more recent and more specific characterization of the meme as a kind of hieroglyph in which a static or briefly moving image -- often already mass-mediated and familiar -- is fixed to a caption, often an ironic one, and then circulates rapidly and widely in media briefly to capture the fancy or express the momentary mood of a large cohort of individuals. I have no quibble with the choice of the word "meme" to describe such a media phenomenon, precisely because it lacks the pretension of the prior elaboration of the notion.) Rhetoric has always been the facilitation and analysis of discourse, and much contemporary critical and cultural theory is best understood as its ongoing elaboration. You will forgive me if I do not summarize that content here -- it takes me four whole undergraduate courses to survey the basics of the field for my students in the Rhetoric department at Berkeley. I do not include any "memetic" nonsense of the last two decades or so in that body of criticism, since memetics brings nothing actually new or useful to the table (believe me, I've looked). It is a far clumsier analytic vocabulary for historically situating discourse or specifying its stakeholders or dynamisms than philology provided theorists well over a century ago, for heaven's sake. Indeed, apart from the pseudo-provocative pep of the initial neologism itself memetics adds the idiocy of a reductive mis-analogization of signification to a biology itself already idiotically reductively mis-analogized to computer programming via the pieties of cybernetics/information science. There are, of course, plenty of ugly ideological reasons that digi-utopians pining to have their info-souls uploaded into Holodeck Heaven and market fundamentalists with crap to sell the rubes would consider all this a feature and not a bug of the meme qua cult(ure)-bug -- after all, most of them disdain and fear the insights arising from proper rhetoric in any case.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hells Bells

Every time a person uses the word "meme" a human mind loses her wings.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Don't Spy On Me!

Saw this on boingboing, but have a feeling I'm going to be seeing it everywhere soon.

The Mirage and the Material of Technoscientific Progress

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light. -- Raymond Kurzweil, "The Law of Accelerating Returns"
Needless to say, not every analysis of history is quite so sensible or so reliable as every other. While there have indeed been magnificent discoveries that have improved healthcare outcomes as well as great political struggles in the service of democratic equity-in-diversity, the conventional European civilizational progress narrative seems to me mostly a cover for centuries of criminal theft, accumulation, and exploitation, rationalized with racist pseudo-science and hypocritical punitive plutocratic moralizing. The genocidal "manifest destiny" thesis of the American nineteenth century emerged out of this tradition, but I think it is important to grasp that the American exceptionalism of the World Wars and especially the postwar Washington Consensus involved a key technocultural inflection of this narrative, an erroneous mis-identification of civilization as such with the inflation of a fraught and fragile petrochemical bubble (much that otherwise seems quite befuddling about the conduct of the Axis powers becomes immediately clear once we grasp World War II as a skirmish of competing fledgling petrochemical industrial superpowers over oil and gas resources -- as has too much of history since then as well), within which a host of consequent "technological" bubbles were inflated in turn -- redemptive nuclear abundance, suburban car culture, ubiquitous plastics, the illusory "Green Revolution" of high-energy input-intensive petrochemically fertilized and pesticized industrial monoculture, "immaterial" information-computation-digitation powered by fossil fuels and accessed on petrochemical devices, and so on.

The deceptive rationalization for predation that narratives of progress have long amounted to in substance, but also the more specifically technocultural deceptions of the last century provide what seem to me to be the indispensable context out of which influential futurological pronouncements like Raymond Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating Returns" have emerged and from which it derives most of its rhetorical force and intuitive plausibility.

According to that "Law" -- which is just an empty stipulation rationalizing abuses and enabling wish-fulfillment fantasies -- a whole host of "evolutionary systems" actually eventually "tend" to change exponentially. Of course, this apparently rather straightforward conceptual object, "technological change," would have to content with and corral together an incomparably dynamic ramifying explosion of historical vicissitudes in all the many disparate and yet often variously inter-related efforts of competitive and collaborative scientific, engineering, problem-solving imagination, research, discovery, funding, publication, testing, application, marketing, distribution, appropriation, reaction, education, regulation of and into artifacts and techniques resulting from the interminable struggles of the diversity of stakeholders to each. That Kurzweil wants to describe this historical scrum as an "evolutionary system" reminds us of the extent to which popular science and technology discourse has come to misconstrue evolution in its zeal to provide simple explanations as well as to find "naturalizing" justifications for otherwise unjustifiable parochialisms and prejudices -- as witness the facile and ugly racism and misogyny rationalized by "evopsycho" and "evodevo" pseudoscience as well. Not to put to fine a point on it, historical, economic, cultural phenomena simply are not "evolving" in the proper biological sense and the loose mis-analogization of the two fields -- prevalent and consoling though it may have become to so many -- falsifies not only the historical, economic, and cultural accounts to which it is applied but of evolutionary dynamics as well. And in much the same way, Kurzweil's attribution of intelligence to non-intelligent machines in the formulation has no substance apart from the denial of the real dignity and the real demands unique to the incarnated intelligence of living beings actually existing in the world.

When I declare that Kurzweil's thesis is utterly nonsensical but derives a false plausibility from its citation of an archive of familiar self-congratulatary justifications for privilege, it is amusing to note that my claim will not only seem wrong but also paradoxical to Kurzweil's deluded fandom -- this is because central to Kurzweil's own formulation of it, the accelerationalization thesis will presumably seem counter-intuitive to most people because their puny human brains evolved to cope with local and linear relations rather than kick-ass exponential entrepreneurial innovation, and one needs to be a techno-utopian sooper-genius like him or be a member of a singularitarian transhumanoid Robot Cult to overcome such limitations, or, gosh, at least be a blissed out gizmo-fetishizing hyper-consumer standing in line for the next glossy toxic landfill-destined gew-gaw while your world burns.

To these observations, I will add just two more, each a more specific application of the general case above: First, as a factual matter, a more proximate inspiration for Kurzweil's so-called Law is Gordon Moore's famous observation (pause on that word, if you will) in 1965 that over the relatively short history of computer hardware development so far, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Moore's Law as an expectation that Moore's parochial observation will continue to hold true, or will accelerate interminably, amounts to an article of faith among many who are deeply invested, come what may, in more messianic understandings of the role of software programmers in human history -- indeed the Kurzweilian Law is best understood as a generalization to all technodevelopmental fields of endeavor of something like Gordon Moore's observation, perhaps justified by the premise that the application of these very computational improvements to other fields will yield comparable improvements. Needless to say, I regard Moore's "Law" itself as a skewed perspectival effect and that it fails even on its own terms, since, to quote Jeron Lanier, "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."

Second, as a normative matter, I continue to insist that "accelerating change" is little more than what increasing precarity in increaasing numbers of lives resulting from neoliberal corporatism and neoconservative militarism looks like from the rarefied perspective of its beneficiaries (or those dupes who wrongly fancy themselves its potential beneficiaries). Techno-triumphalist progress narratives remain, as ever, plausible mostly to the few who benefit from predation and exploitation and useful mostly to the few who desire rationalizations for predation and exploitation.

True technoscientific progress is the furthest thing from natural, inevitable, or even predictable, since it is primarily a matter of public investment in the solution of ever more shared problems in which the distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are made to be ever more equitably distributed among the diversity of stakeholders to those changes through a process of social struggle as interminable as is the process of discovery and invention itself.

Reactionary Tech Press Puts the Shine on Poison Apple

John Herrman at Buzzfeed and also Gawker's Valleywag Sam Biddle have pointed out a host of headlines in the reactionary pop-tech press every one of which trumpets "news" of a cheap iPhone for gizmo-fetishists to salivate over. Quite apart from the vulgar spectacle of saucer eyed techno fashion victims consuming landfill-destined crap while the world burns and congratulating themselves on the innovative individualism signaled through their slavish brand loyalty to a multinational corporation, the headlines on display are especially appalling since they focus on an incidental reference to a possible device in what was in fact an investigative report on behalf of China Labor Watch (read the report itself here) revealing nearly a hundred flabbergasting labor abuses in plants assembling these crappy gizmos for so many suave liberals who fancy themselves progressives signaling their progressivism when they brandish these commodities brought forth in unspeakable exploitation, violence, and suffering. The report documented underage labor, sexual and ethnic discrimination and abuse, horrendous living conditions, excessive working hours, routine contract violations, unsafe working environments and pollution, and so much more. Apple has responded to the report saying all this is news to them, but since it isn't news to anyone we know that this is a lie. Do by all means continue to enjoy your poisonous Apple products, though, "technoprogressives."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Should We Proceed from Proceduralism? Freddie Deboer on Jeron Lanier

I find it hard not to celebrate any contrarian essay that contains any paragraph so eminently sensible as this one:
The growing edifice of tech journalism is dominated by a certain kind of thinking: optimistic to the point of triumphalist, obsessed with gadgetry, endlessly impressed by technological legerdemain, stuffed with faith in capitalism, delighted by empty buzzwords and facile grand narratives, always enraptured by the next hot gizmo but endlessly impatient for the next big thing. There is never a shortage of complaints -- why has someone not innovated those grubby delivery men out of pizza delivery yet? But salvation is always only a few drops of innovation away. What kind of problems do you have? Tech is coming. Poverty, disease, war, rape? Hey, man. Just wait for 3-D printers.
This is a passage from Freddie Deboer's review of Jeron Lanier's latest book in The New Inquiry. What troubles me about the review is that it is framed by what seem to me more problematic claims of its own. The piece begins with a statement not unlike the one Obama has been foregrounding in the latest of his "pivots" back to the economy as he anticipates an election campaign (this time the mid-terms which will determine whether he can accomplish anything or not, depending on whether Democrats keep the Senate and regain the House or gain enough in the House that the abortion banning Obamacare repealing climate change denying macroeconomic illiterates of the GOP can be circumvented and legislative compromises reached to solve shared problems). Deboer observes the fraying of what has long passed as the conventional formulation of the American Dream: "If you work, you will survive. Not only will you survive but you will prosper. All our propaganda begins here. Young Americans are promised that work will translate to an ever-improving lot in life, within and across generations." The usual formulation is that if you follow the rules and work hard you will succeed in this country, you will be able to provide for yourself and your family and your retirement, and that you will be building a world in which the next generation can provide for themselves even more generously.

Deboer's basic point here is forceful: "A country that has made its self-definition utterly dependent on the ubiquity of paying work now has an insufficient number of jobs... It is hard to overstate: This country, in its current condition, has no other option but something close to full employment." Needless to say, however, this isn't true if most remunerative work is directed into enterprises that contribute to the destruction of the planetary environment on which we all depend for our survival and flourishing. And needless to say, this also isn't true until hard work is guaranteed an actual living wage in the context of a constellation of welfare benefits that assure education, healthcare, unemployment insurance, retraining opportunities. I worry about the fact that Deboer declares full employment necessary because, "[o]ur pathetic social safety net, even absent the contracting effect of austerity measures, can’t fill in the gaps caused by the demise of ubiquitous employment."

Of course, I agree that our social safety net is pathetically inadequate, but I can't approve the assumptions apparently lurking in his formulation -- that an adequate social safety net is not possible and so full employment is necessary to compensate for that impossibility (every feature of an adequate social safety net has been successfully implemented in recent history, some of those features in our own country's recent history, and so I will not concede the impossibility of an adequate social safety net in principle, indeed, I will not concede that it is not practically achievable even by means of reforms of and within our current system of governance, debased as it is -- things are awfully bad, of course, but there are signs aplenty of demographic and discursive tipping points on the horizon that could be opportunistically taken up by sensible educational, agitational, organizational, legislative forces for progressive reform that could change quite a lot quite quickly when all is said and done), but neither will I concede Deboer's apparent belief that even full employment CAN compensate the lack of adequate social welfare, since part of what social welfare enables is precisely the conditions under which a living wage and the terms of informed nonduressed consent to the terms of employment are secured in the first place. These are not separable questions -- full employment without adequate welfare is simply nonconsensual, exploitative labor. If you want to talk about the fraying of the American Dream, you shouldn't begin by mis-identifying it with a nightmare.

If all that seemed a bratty and ungenerous reading of someone with views that are likely sympathetic to my own, just wait for what comes next. "For argument’s sake," writes Deboer, "let’s consider America’s employment crisis not as a failure of conservatism, market fundamentalism, neoliberalism, nor austerity." Well, no, I won't consider that because it simply isn't useful to pretend obviously true things are not obviously true. Plutocrats who were never happy about the New Deal and the Great Society formed an archipelago of market fundamentalist think-tanks and activist organizations to counter Keynesian academic knowledge the better to spread plutocratically advantageous macroeconomically illiterate free market pieties and to provide lobbying for the more reactionary precincts to be found in plenty of successful American capitalists -- the Southern Strategy and rise of the Religious Right created coalitions mobilizing white-racist populist resentments in the service of plutocratic ends, radically displacing organized labor through outsourcing (first to the American South and then out of the country onto overexploited regions of the world) and enabling lowering wages, dismantlement of social welfare, and intense wealth concentration through automation and other technical means (standardization and networking of manufacturing, storage, transportation, and communications systems, for example). In other words, America's employment crisis is indeed a result of policies supported by conservative, austerian, market fundamentalist, neoliberal ideology in the service of elite-incumbent interests. That Deboer says we should set those aside only "for argument's sake" suggests he probably ultimately agrees that this is what is afoot, at least roughly-speaking, but I simply don't agree that clarity arises from his proposal that we set aside what we know to be true here. He proposes a coinage, "proceduralism," to describe an alternate understanding of what has yielded our present distress:
A proceduralist views society not in terms of a necessary goal (say, happiness and opportunity for all its members) but instead as a set of rules that it must follow -- because they are natural, because they stem from the Western tradition, because they comport with human behavior, because they follow God’s law, depending on whoever is justifying the current procedure. If these rules are followed, no injustice needs to be redressed. Rules can be discarded or changed if their intent is found to be problematic, but outcomes can be good or bad without issue. Problems arise only if the rules are broken.
Of course, we all know the sort of rationalizing he is talking about here, but to treat it as the source rather than symptom of the problem seems to me to let the tail wag the dog. I suppose that more or less any large-scale longstanding administrative implementation of ideological assumptions will attract its share of what Deboer calls proceduralists. And while their undercriticality and inflexibility is apt to be annoying and even mischievous, I kept getting the feeling that whenever Deboer calls out the proceduralist species he is really calling out the specific proceduralists he disapproves of because he really disapproves their assumptions and ends. And this is why "proceduralism" doesn't really add as much to his otherwise useful discussion as he seems to think it is: either proceduralism is pluralist in ways that demand a critique that focuses elsewhere, or proceduralism needs to be elaborated and amplified into something more like Barthes's critique of an inherently reactionary naturalizing "mythology."

Definitely I am back in the saddle with Deboer when he derides in tech-talk its "yen for 'disruption,' an empty term for empty minds in empty people, makes traditional obstacles like social contracts suspect or downright pernicious. This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world." But what he is describing is the displacement of one administrative logic, say, a broadly congenially Galbraithian one (which had its own proceduralists you can be sure) by another set of assumptions and ends, say, a broadly disastrously Friedmanian (and you can pick the Friedman you wish we were freed from, Milton, David, Thomas) one. What I think matters here, though, is more in the erroneous and inequitable assumptions and ends in play, not that the effort to implement ends often attract proceduralists who foolishly naturalize their assumptions, procedures, and ends in their zeal.

And, if you can forgive me for insisting so, neoliberal technocrats and plutocratic pricks and the vapid futurological rationalizers of the status quo who fluff them do not in fact "rule the world" in any absolute sense. I am not naively denying actually existing concentrations of authority, capacity, wealth, and muscular might by any means, but it is equally naive as a factual matter to discount the force in notionally representative democracies and even more authoritarian regimes of education, agitation, organization, legislation for progressive reform in resisting or at any rate complicating, sometimes in democratizing ways, the play of these forces. It is good to know who one's enemies are, but one should not concede their rule -- on the very practical grounds that to do so is to stop seeing clearly, and in ways that always only benefit precisely the ones whose rule you are presumably critiquing. Deboer kinda sorta concedes this point when he reminds the "proceduralists" that "[t]he really essential function of the social contract is to prevent the people from burning everything down. There are too many of us to be held down by force." By the way, I happen to think a social contract facilitating sustainable equity-in-diversity isn't primarily but only incidentally about staving off social instability, but much more about releasing and ramifying the creative, expressive, problem-solving genius of the greatest number of people in a way from which the greatest number of people can benefit. As Hannah Arendt would put it, the field of the political is fatally misconstrued through the biological lens of mortality (that we are vulnerable and constrained by the dangerous company we are forced to keep) rather than the biological lens of natality (that we are always introducing novelty into the made world we share in the making and maintenance of).

Anyway, I fear it is from a vantage defined by these many problematic assumptions (a rather resigned attitude toward our perpetual "rulers," our permanently inadequate social welfare system, the pessimistic mortal rather than natal characterization of plurality as the condition of political possibility, an emphasis on procedures risking distraction from the assumptions and ends that actually invigorate them) that Deboer reads Jaron Lanier's latest book Who Owns the Future? (About which I have recently written myself here.)

Deboer very agreeably writes about Lanier's agreeableness:
In attacking digital optimism, Lanier makes for a compelling apostate. Against those who mistake technology for an agent of change, rather than a tool through which human beings create change, Lanier can be unsparing. The clarity of his thinking helps demonstrate the wooly illogic of various utopian assumptions, the folly of thinking that the Internet means we can have something for nothing -- that we can freely download anything and everything without incurring a social cost.
I agree with all this, and I suppose I may as well add that I have been enjoying Lanier's writing for years, even before he penned his notorious turn of the century Half Manifesto (a text which I have been assigning undergraduates more or less every year since its publication). I think I also agree with Deboer in disagreeing with the places Lanier takes his own congenial observation, namely: "the endless copying and sharing of worthwhile digital media has deeply threatened creative industries and may threaten the essential structure of civil society by undermining the economics behind middle-class jobs." Both Deboer and I seem to disapprove Lanier's conclusions here.

For myself, I simply can't agree that the historical accident of a highly capital investment intensive infrastructure for pre-digital cultural production (printing presses, broadcast studios, distribution of units of material) which enabled plutocratic control of culture rationalized by the aura of professional credentials is actually properly identified with "the essential structure of civil society" in any sense of the phrase. While I disdain a strain of techno-determinism and techno-utopianism in his writings (especially any suggestion that digital access could be a magic bullet to overcome the poverty and pollution in overexploited regions of the world -- access to clean water comes far closer, and even it isn't) I do agree broadly with Yochai Benkler's anti-industrializing model of p2p-production which proposes that digital networking potentially decouples the conditions under which work in the (rather reductively construed) "creative industries" are produced and accessed online in ways that might be radically democratizing (which is not the same thing as the claim that this possible and desirable outcome is likely or what seems to be actually happening) -- read the Conclusion of The Wealth of Networks, beginning on page 460 here for a taste of a much more richly elaborated case.

Deboer's disagreement with Lanier is different from my own. He concedes up to a point the value of Lanier's critique of "Siren Servers" which capture and concentrate into a very few hands value that was once more broadly and equitably distributed throughout society -- as when a handful of entrepreneurs and tech-support staff at Instagram replace the enormous numbers of people who were employed by Kodak and all the ancillary industries associated with the distribution and development of Kodak's material products. And Deboer is as impatient as Lanier is with any claim that such developments have "gutted" the various instituted culture industries. He rather characteristically quips: "Despite the anti-elite posturing that has long attended pro-piracy arguments, the elites in the music business are doing fine. Jay-Z can continue to make his millions selling cell phones and T-shirts... People may have thought that they were merely robbing from the rich when they used file sharing services, but last time I checked, the guys in Metallica were still millionaires." But now here is the sentence I clipped from the middle of that observation: "It’s the musical middle class, people who clawed their way to sustainable employment in the arts in jobs as session musicians or A&R guys or similar, who have lost the most." This is certainly true, but I agree with Lanier that this needn't have been the case, and I also agree with Deboer who disagrees with Lanier's proposal of an alternative, but I think I also disagree with Deboer's reasons for disagreeing with Lanier.

Deboer sympathetically summarizes Lanier (I believe) when he writes
it’s easy to get songs for 89 cents, albums for $5, 48-hour movie rentals for $2, endless apps for a couple bucks, access to Netflix’s vast streaming database for less than $10 a month…. Yet unauthorized and unpaid downloads continue to number in the hundreds of millions. Can it really be that less than $10 a month is still too much for access to so much content? How low, exactly, must the price point be before there is no longer a legitimate excuse for not paying it? What if that price can’t sustain the people who create the content?
To me, it matters enormously that "unauthorized and unpaid downloads" are unauthorized only because that is what the law presently says about them, but that there are easily quite as many good reasons to describe these downloads as the sort of sharing practices of which cultural life has always consisted as it is to describe them as a kind of stealing, in which case it is an open question whether they actually should be "unauthorized," especially if they are happening hundreds of millions of times. I happen to think it is deeply injurious to the law rather than a measure of respect for it to treat as unlawful conduct numbering in the hundreds of millions undertaken by otherwise everyday law-abiding people. And given how much creative work is now and has always historically been unpaid you will forgive me if I do not consider the appearance of the word "unpaid" in this connection as inherently damning. I cannot say I approve in the least Lanier's apparent suggestion here, and possibly also Deboer's, that there is no legitimate excuse for not paying ten bucks for music and movies. What if paying for creative work is a necessary mystification of the conditions under which creativity is collectively enabled, what if the commodification of its products is necessarily distortive and disabling of creative expressivity? I cannot say that I think creative culture would be much injured if NOBODY got to be Jay-Z or Metallica.

If the rise of digital networked formations has ruinously displaced certain middle-class employment, I must say that the problem and the solution to the problem lies not in digitization (or a different desirable digitization) as such so much as in the existence or not of organized labor and actually responsive government ensuring highly progressive income taxes that resist inherently anti-democratizing wealth concentration while also funding unemployment insurance and retraining programs and permanent access to adequate healthcare, nutritious food, reliable shelter, and educational opportunity. I do tend to think that in almost any sociocultural formation at least some "creative people" will always attract conspicuous fame and fortune through their efforts -- whether their work happens to accord with my own taste or not -- but I do not agree that the story of creative culture and creative expressivity as such is necessarily a story understood particularly well by focusing on such people (or on particular failures of "deserving" people to be such people themselves). I am quite content to contemplate a world in which creativity is supported mostly by the enthusiasm amateur creative people feel for the work of creation itself, or the enthusiasm of the fandoms a certain few enormously lucky creative people manage to attract to themselves.

The problem of wealth concentration via technological transformation (in the US at least) seems to me largely to be a problem of the decline of organized labor and a problem of neoliberal dismantlement of social welfare programs domestically coupled with neoliberal over-exploitation elsewhere rendered invisible by distance and false triumphalist narratives of investment, developmental, and progress. When Lanier talks about the various creative industries he is actually focusing on a particular example of a larger phenomenon. Lanier's own solution is a classic futurological fanboy non-starter: The actually existing internet does not live up to Ted Nelson's prophetically futurological envisioning of it because network links are not as reciprocal as Nelson thought they might be. As Deboer puts the point, "Lanier laments... that linkbacks, trackbacks, pingbacks, and similar are not embedded in the basic technological architecture of the internet." Presumably by pressuring the online economy into something like the classic futurological vision Lanier still prefers to its existing reality, we might render that economy more democratic. Lanier proposes that a retro-futural return to Ted Nelson's vision of the internet might render it an engine that, to return again to Obama's recent parlance, "builds the economy from the middle out."

Deboer quotes Lanier:
Twitter doesn’t yet know how to make much money... but is defended this way: "Look at all the value it is creating off the books by connecting people better!" Yes, let’s look at that value. It is real, and if we want to have a growing information-based economy, the real value ought to be part of our economy. Why is it suddenly a service to capitalism to keep more and more value off the books?
A large part of my problem with Lanier's formulation here is that he seems to be proposing that only things on the books have real value, but that has never been true in the least. I happen to think (following Polanyi's formulation in The Great Transformation, among others) that [1] the sustainability of ecosystems, [2] individual life and hence labor, and [3] money as markers enabling systems of exchange are all enormously valuable things not one of which is properly valued as a commodity. That is to say, I believe that only when these phenomena remain "off the books" is it possible to grasp their value for what it actually is. Further, I suspect that creative expressivity indispensably relies both on individual labor and on an archive enough like a local ecosystem that it, too, is commodified only at the cost of a profound distortion of its actual value and conditions of existence. Certainly I agree with Lanier that capitalist formations often accomplish parochial profitability through the externalization or socialization or disavowal of costs and risks and dependencies, but when it comes to elite capture of the value of creative expressivity it seems to me the deeper problem is the effort to monetize creative value in the first place, not that this monetized value is inequitably distributed. Deboer may or may not finally agree with me on this point. He agrees -- as do I -- that there is indeed real value arising out of microblogging practices like twitter even if so far it "isn't making much money." But while I don't think it makes much sense to expect to grasp the way twitter is valuable through the question of whether it is making money or not, Deboer proposes a different focus: "My question is whether it [twitter or Instagram or what have you] can replace manufacturing, the auto industry, and all the other industries that no longer employ people in the numbers or at the relative wages they once did. The math is everything."

First things first. The math is NEVER everything. "The math" itself never provides the terms on which any math is made to be applicable to anything nor the terms on which to value the values it optimizes for. I'm sorry, but these things matter.

But let me turn to the thrust of Deboer's own objection to Lanier. I disagree with Lanier's vision of a better internet because it seems to me to want to expand the false monetization of creative value into ever more and more fields of human expressivity, in the hopes that ever wider and ever more intensive misapprehension of that value will somehow eventuate in more equity and more democracy -- when it is far more likely to enable, as it has always done hitherto, ever wider and ever more intensive forms of circumscription of creativity in the service of elite-incumbent wealth capture. Deboer disapproves Lanier's visions as well but for rather different reasons. Earlier on in his piece he writes:
Arts and media are not typically seen as being a part of the mainstream, middle American economy. [Given the long postwar prevalence of Hollywood, American broadcast television, and the recording industry, and the coupling of marketing and public discourse I happen to think this claim is at least debatable --d] But a vast number of industries are going to be subject to the disruption that has become the norm in media. In 50 years, there will be no such thing as a cabbie. The steady job that offered stable wages to thousands of new immigrants in urban locales will be gone. Bank tellers and nurses and elementary school teachers and journalists aren’t safe, either. For years, medicine has been trumpeted as a safe haven from unemployment. But the high-price of health care may drive the development of technological substitutes. Are doctors and nurse’s aides going to be replaced by robots in the next 50 years? I don’t know, but to not worry about it—to continue to push more and more young graduates into the medical field out of a conviction that it represents a safe harbor? That just seems foolish and potentially cruel.
Now, I am the last person to deny the recklessly destructive enthusiasm for MOOCs in today's corporatized and on a respirator Academy. But the simple fact is that while it is easy to understand why a businessman administrator thinks it would be awesome to turn teaching into a television program that can be profitably re-run forever without cost, it remains true that education doesn't actually work that way and hence the Academy can never be profitable in the way businessmen like things to be profitable and pretending otherwise just means that letting businessmen run the Academy will only destroy the Academy (which is still necessary to a working civilization which means, in turn, that it will be saved from destruction right in the nick of time or it will have to be re-built after it is destroyed by people who actually understand what is going on).

As somebody who has spent the last two decades deriding the serially failed predictions of facile futurologists let me point out to Mr. Deboer -- who shows all the signs of being a relative newcomer to this discursive field and hence to take it more seriously on its own terms than it deserves, even if he also shows signs of very healthy skepticism and outrage about many of its assumptions -- that although it is true that wide-eyed venture capitalists and would-be celebrity CEOs and pampered pseudo-intellectuals in positions of government may indeed wreak no small amount of havoc on the basis of thinking otherwise, actually there is absolutely no reason in the world to assume that cabbies, nurses, or teachers are about to be replaced by driverless cars or intelligent robots or syndicated infotainment television shows. This matters.

It is the furthest thing from foolish and cruel to be training teachers and nurses right about now. The passage of the Affordable Care Act (the actually real result of high health care costs, as against the futurological fantasy of Cylons in sexy nurse outfits) -- and, one hopes, the eventual and continual passage of Medicare expansions, pre-retirement Medicare buy-in, single-payer state systems, more community health clinics, the rollback of right-wing forced-pregnancy overreach and compensatory expansion of family planning clinics, and so on in the coming years, the more and the sooner the better (and there are people working on this, and you should number yourself among them wherever you are situated to do the most good) -- actually suggests that we should be training far more nurses and healthcare providers than we are at present, and expanding their role and compensation to reflect their very real competence in contemporary medical practice. A world that seeks to replace nurses and teachers with robots is a world that simply won't work and if that is the world that is coming there is no end of foolishness and cruelty in view, planning for a sustainable alternative is far from the most foolish or cruel thing we could be doing right now. This is not to say that we should not be worried about the impact of techno-triumphalism on public policy -- but it is to say we shouldn't be worried because the techno-triumphalists are right and the robocalypse is nigh but because they are wrong and we should be focusing on policies to provide real education and healthcare in a equitable way for the good of all, which means a whole lot more public investment and public employment paid for with a whole lot of progressive taxation. (For much more on the arrant nonsense of driverless cars, robots, artificial intelligence and the like I recommend one scroll down to those topics as organized in my Superlative Summary critiquing varieties of futurological foolishness.)

It is crucial to remember the extent to which the inevitable claims of the techno-utopian immaterialists are based not in actual transformations of material reality into some kind of digitized roboticized informationalized immaterialized "spirit stuff" but on a radical imposture or disavowal of material realities -- cyberspace is fueled by coal smoke and accessed on toxic devices pieced together by wage slaves by hand -- the "information economy," the "service economy," the "creative class" are all supported by an over-exploited precarious informalized domestic workforce and on starving suffering multitudes making consumable crap for next to nothing invisible to all but the corporate surveillance cameras and the heat-signatures appearing on drone targeting software -- the new goods of the new economy were bundled high-risk investments peddled as secure or split-second pseudo-purchases skimming micro-profits aggregated into billions in acts of obvious con-artistry and fraud. Although Deboer is skeptical of the facile triumphalism of so much "technological" discourse, I wonder to what extent he has nonetheless bought into some of its most deeply enabling terms as he seeks descriptive narratives to account for the amplifying injustices of the postwar epoch.

As an academic trained in rhetoric I appreciate the long passages Deboer devotes to the exposure of Lanier's muddled, overwrought, and overburdened metaphors. I haven't talked about those lengthy passages in Deboer's piece because I don't have much either to add to them or to disagree with in them. I have already pointed out that the "proceduralism" he emphasizes seems to me to lack the critical force he invests it with, since it is a phenomenon that can attaches in some measure to most implementations of governing assumptions and ends and hence it will really be the assumptions and ends themselves that matter most to critique -- and it won't surprise you that for those reasons neither have I belabored the point by zeroing in on many places throughout his piece in which Deboer seems to me rather arbitrarily to declare this or that facile formulation especially redolent of "proceduralism" when it doesn't honestly seem there is really much in the way of stakes attaching to the assignment when the real problems involved seem to be matters of false assumptions or skewed priorities. In the end, Deboer complains that Lanier is ultimately proposing a whole lot of radical shifts in the ways our material and normative information infrastructure plays out in the world, but does so in the service of what remains a fairly conventional view of liberal bourgeois capitalism. The real radicalism of the proposals makes them less likely to be accomplished, and the real conservatism of the vision makes them less worthy of accomplishment in the first place. I think that is a fair criticism, but I hesitate to say so for fear that Deboer would probably say the same of the vision from the vantage of which I propose my own criticisms of Lanier (and Deboer). If Lanier's pet proposal of a retro-futural revamping of the internet to accord with geek icon Ted Nelson's original design seems implausible to the point of foolishness, I honestly can't say that I find more reasonable the strident cadences with which Deboer concludes his piece:
Lanier’s plan won’t be put into place, and the masters of our universe will continue to believe that, somehow, the economy will correct itself -- with innovation, or disruption, or dynamism, or some other soggy term that explains nothing and conceals everything. Meanwhile, more people will have their stable jobs disrupted from under their chairs, just a bad day at the markets away. What should disturb us most is not merely that the last financial crisis caused companies to shed so many workers but that so many seemed to do it with no real impediment to their daily operations. How many of the young white-collar middle-class workers stuffed into offices spend half their time on Facebook and YouTube? In a proceduralist country obsessed with efficiency, who is efficient enough to feel safe at work? And how long before that feeling of precarity compels them to tear the whole edifice down?
We'll set aside at the outset my obvious criticism that it isn't only digi-utopian meme hustlers (to use Morozov's piquant phrase) who fetishize what passes as "efficiency" by their lights -- not to mention that efficiency isn't exactly the worst thing to shoot for in its proper precinct after all -- so I don't see any more point in the "proceduralist" jibe here at the end than anywhere else, except to the extent that like most neologisms it is functioning as part of a self-promotional machinery of attention-capture for a worthy well-meaning intellectual in a rather anti-intellectual culture that needs him more than it realizes. Now, I agree that all sorts of lovely people will continue to have their stable jobs disrupted -- not only through the misapplication of techno-utopian neoliberal digitizing downsizing and outsourcing and crowdsourcing scams, but through all sorts of reactionary policies, not to mention through ongoing ever-exacerbating catastrophic climate change, but also I have to say through personal misfortunes, criminal outrages, bad choices and so on. As I keep saying, I think that we all benefit from a society which provides support in the face of these disruptions not only to ameliorate suffering which immiserates us all but to facilitate the re-emergence of sufferers into the field of collaborators in the solution of our shared problems and the enrichment of available experience. For me that means education, agitation, organization, legislation in the service of sustainable equity-in-diversity out of the actually available materials at hand. I actually don't much care if some people want to call the resulting society "capitalism" instead of, say, the "democratic socialism" or "social democracy" I would probably call it myself. Am I merely another bland rule follower by Deboer's lights, then? I must say I personally refuse to confine my hopes to the dumb daydream of the precariat "tear[ing] the whole edifice down" instead! Of what does this "whole edifice" consist exactly? Does anything deserve salvaging? In what measure? According to whom? On the basis of what? Honestly, total revolution? That's still the register of radicalism we are left with here? Revolution in the service of what ends? Revolution accomplished by what means at what costs? Revolution undertaken by which real actors, from what real motives, with what real opponents? You will forgive me if I propose by way of conclusion that revolutionary intellectualism sometimes has its own worrisome proceduralism to contend with.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Smart Homes Are Stoopid

Kashmir Hill at Forbes:
The home automation market was worth $1.5 billion in 2012 according to Reuters; there’s been an explosion in products that promise to make our homes “smarter.” The best known is Nest, a thermostat that monitors inhabitants’ activity, learns their schedules and temperature preferences and heats or cools the house as it deems appropriate. Many of these products have smartphone
["smart" phone --d]
apps and Web portals that let users operate devices, cameras, and locks from afar. Getting to live the Jetsons’ lifestyle has downsides though;
[a futuristic lifestyle which, it should be noted, people in "smart" homes are not actually living even when their mostly useless truly crappy remote control light-switch gizmos ARE working --d]
as we bring the things in our homes onto the Internet, we run into the same kind of security concerns we have for any connected device... Googling a very simple phrase led me to a list of “smart homes” that had... an automation system from Insteon that allows remote control of their lights, hot tubs, fans, televisions, water pumps, garage doors, cameras, and other devices, so that their owners can turn these things on and off with a smartphone app or via the Web... Their systems [were] crawl-able by search engines –- meaning they show up in search results -- and due to Insteon not requiring user names and passwords by default in a now-discontinued product, I was able to click on the links, giving me the ability to turn these people’s homes into haunted houses, energy-consumption nightmares, or even robbery targets. Opening a garage door could make a house ripe for actual physical intrusion... Sensitive information was revealed -- not just what appliances and devices people had, but their time zone (along with the closest major city to their home), IP addresses and even the name of a child;
[The Footure needs children! --d]
apparently, the parents wanted the ability to pull the plug on his television from afar. In at least three cases, there was enough information to link the homes on the Internet to their locations in the real world. The names for most of the systems were generic, but in one of those cases, it included a street address that I was able to track down to a house in Connecticut. I could have wreaked serious havoc with this home... The Insteon vulnerability was one of many found in smarthome devices by David Bryan and Daniel Crowley, security researchers at Trustwave. Bryan got one of Insteon’s HUB devices in December, installed the app on his phone, and began monitoring how it worked. “What I saw concerned me,” he said. “There was no authentication between the handheld and any of the control commands... “You could put someone’s electric bill through the roof by turning on a hot tub heater” ... Insteon chief information officer Mike Nunes... blamed user error
[of course he did! So, you will recall, did the HAL 9000 --d]
for the appearance in search results, saying the older product was not originally intended for remote access, and to set this up required some savvy on the users’ part. The devices had come with an instruction manual telling users how to put the devices online which strongly advised them to add a username and password to the system. (But, really, who reads instruction manuals closely?
[Indeed, like user agreements, most of the manuals are written in the expectation that they will not and possibly cannot be read -- but still provide plausible deniability and shifts of responsibility for costs and failures on those who suffer rather than enable them --d]
Insteon says the problem has been fixed in its current product but affected users were never informed that this vulnerability existed
[gosh, why should they be informed how their technofetishism has made them more vulnerable to home intrusion, kidnapping of their children, skyrocketing utilities bills, and gizmos that not only don't do what you pay for them to do but also make other gizmos that used to work not work anymore, you know, because the sooper-geniuses at some tech company have made your house "smart" with stoopid software? --d]
“I’m excited these technologies exist but am heart-broken that these security flaws exist,” says Trustwave’s Crowley.
[After all who ISN'T excited to discover that entrepreneurial capitalism is still producing useless crap that turns out not only to be useless but actively menacing? --d]
He and his colleague found security flaws that would allow a digital intruder to take control of a number of sensitive devices beyond the Insteon systems, from the Belkin WeMo Switch to the Satis Smart Toilet. Yes, they found that a toilet was hackable. You only have to have the Android app for the $5,000 toilet on your phone and be close enough to the toilet to communicate with it... Another problem with some of the devices, such as the Mi Casa Verde MIOS VeraLite, is that once they’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, they assume that anyone using that network is an authorized user. So if you can manage to get on someone’s Wi-Fi network -- which is easy if they have no password on it -- you could take control of their home. “These companies are considering the home network as a fortress,” says Crowley. “In most cases, it’s anything but.”
Needless to say, the tech companies peddling this crap will insist that all these problems (and the endlessly many other problems like them that will never stop appearing) are isolated and fixable instances within a broader, irresistible tide of techno-emancipation. What is conspicuous throughout this piece is the extent to which a discussion of real problems caused by real networked devices is infused with fantasy. There is no such thing as "artificial intelligence." Given what we actually know about actual intelligence and given what we can actually do with actual technique, there is no more reasonable expectation that humans will craft an artificial intelligence any time soon than that we will be contacted by an extra-terrestrial intelligence any time soon. Even when they manage to work more or less as they are expected to do "smart" phones, "smart" cards, "smart" homes, "smart" cars, "smart" appliances aren't the least bit smart. They do not exhibit intelligence -- indeed, their design is usually rendered incomparably less intelligent precisely by the ideological investment of their designers in fantasies that gizmos will indeed one day BE intelligent as they are in the science fiction worlds they prefer to our own, that their designs should pretend to be intelligent now so that they and their users can likewise pretend to be living the science fictional worlds they prefer to our own. Despite its skepticism and focus on problems the piece is nonetheless full of utterly fantastic and metaphorical conjurations that invest it in a futurological hyperbole that facilitates credulity and distraction from problems: recall the conjuration of a "Jetson's lifestyle" nobody is living even when these techno-gewgaws work, recall the "excitement" of a hacker at the thought that "these technologies exist" even as he exposes the glaring flaws and false promise of these very technologies, recall the mirage of building a mighty material "fortress" of immaterial code through the paradoxical opening up of the doors and wires and walls of the home to the remote access of countless millions of networked strangers. I am hard pressed to think of a single outstanding way in which any of these new networked applications justify their expense even when they are working properly -- especially given the brittleness of these complex novelties as compared with the perfectly serviceable locks and switches and handles that have worked so well for so long before futurological flim flam artists peddled their useless wares to the bored bourgeois brats of the digital generation as "convenience" and "smartness." Like most "technological" discourse, the "smart" home is activating fantasies to distract attention from realities in the service of short-term parochial profit-taking by suave con artists many of whom are high on their own supply. The truth smarts.

No Bears in Russia! "You Will Be Cuffed"

The North Hole

Via Hullabaloo, on the left is what you think the North Pole looks like because that is what the North Pole very definitely should look like, and on the right is the North Pole right now because humanity is committing suicide and genocide for "the economy." Too bad "the economy" needs a planet to happen on and stuff. It's almost like humans haven't thought this thing through. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Outdated Information" and Larry Summers

According to Ezra Klein, President Obama really wants Larry Summers to be the next Fed Chair, but the Administration is calculating whether this "polarizing" choice would make them take a hit at a time when their approval is already low and any hope for a mid-term election result that enables any of Obama's agenda to get done in his second term requires a more than usually energized base on his side.

Klein writes:
On the merits, they think the preference many on the left have for Janet Yellen is a bit puzzling. Yellen and Summers are both strongly committed to reducing unemployment. They’re both committed to implementing Dodd-Frank -- as much as the left mistrusts Summers on financial regulation for his actions in the 1990s, the White House believes that he, like many others, is strongly committed to regulating Wall Street now. They see a lot of the opposition to Summers is based on bad or outdated information.
If this is an accurate reflection of White House thinking on this question I really must say the cluelessness and disdain is really flabbergasting. Jezebel's Katie J.M. Baker puts most of my objections more pithily than I could hope to do when she writes:
Lawrence "Larry" Summers is the front-runner to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve when he steps down in January, even though Janet Yellen is more qualified -- and doesn't think women are bad at math because they have puny ladybrains and selfishly choose to stay home and raise children. Why? Because Janet doesn't have a dick... [S]cores of experts think Yellen is the right person for the job... And yet! There's something about her that's just not "Federal Reserve-y" enough. What could it be? What differentiates her from every other person who has held the esteemed position? Oh, right: she's not a dude, as noted by Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher, who suggested on CNBC that if Yellen is chosen, the pick will have been “driven by gender” even though she is "extremely capable." ... Larry Summers isn't just the lesser candidate based on economic knowhow -- he's a hopeless sexist who, while president of Harvard, notoriously argued that "innate" differences in sex may explain why there are fewer female higher-ups in science and math careers. (No mention of tests and grading systems that have been shown to be biased. No history of other activities people once claimed women couldn't handle because they weren't given the opportunity to do so, such as drive cars or vote.) During the same academic conference, he said women often choose to focus on their families rather than put their all into their careers. What about all the men who are able to focus so well because they have wives at home sacrificing their own careers to hold down the fort? Nope, no mention whatsoever... Do we really want the person in charge of making sure our country's economy isn't totally fucked beyond repair — already quite the challenge -- to be someone who believes half the population is kinda dumb? (It's not your fault, ladies. It's science.) Do we want that person to blow off the systemic underrepresentation of women, not just in the boy's club of monetary economics/Wall Street but in all relevant sectors of the economy? No. Even my feeble cavewoman brain is sure of that.
Lest you think the idiot tide of Larry Summers' evodevo evopsycho rationalizations for bigotry are confined to misogyny, do recall his 1991 internal World Bank memorandum, arguing for the transfer of waste and dirty industries from industrialized to developing countries: "Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (lesser developed countries)?" wrote Summers, who went on to serve as Treasury Secretary for the Clinton administration, then president of Harvard University (well, president of Harvard's males at any rate), and then head of President Obama’s National Economic Council. "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that... I’ve always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." (This serially upwardly failing evil elitist asshole declared the memo "ironic" -- click the link and judge for yourself the masterly Swiftian satire.)

Note that "lesser developed countries" is a euphemism for over-exploited countries, and also note that in Summers' view here "impeccable economic logic" always demands that risks and costs be suffered by those who are too precarious to resist them and that benefits accrue to those who take none of those risks and pay few of those costs themselves. Note that people of color in over-exploited regions of the world apparently are not included in the "we" with which Larry Summers identifies, and that the amplified danger and suffering he think they should all be forced to face as a result of our own criminally irresponsible wastefulness and pollution is somehow not what "fac[ing] up to" the reality at hand means.

You will forgive me if I note that it is obviously Larry Summers who is peddling "outdated information" -- outdated by centuries. Still puzzled at our disapproval of your pet plutocratic bigot idiot asshole soopergenius, Mr President?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

MundiMuster! Congress Should Expand Social Security Not Cut It

Progressive Change Campaign Committee:
We're working directly with Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) to move forward their Social Security expansion plan.

PETITION TO CONGRESS: With corporations cutting worker pensions, Americans rely on Social Security more than ever. Congress should expand Social Security -- not cut it.

Sign the petition and pass it on.

We're doing events across the nation highlighting the grassroots support for this petition -- and the senators will use these signatures to persuade their colleagues.

And, they'll be on MSNB's Ed Show this Saturday at 5pm to talk about their bills.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"They are different from you and me."

Rich investors say that it takes at least $5 million to feel wealthy, according to a new investor sentiment report from UBS. Meanwhile, two-thirds of millionaires don’t consider themselves to be wealthy. They also define being wealthy not as having a certain amount of money, but having “no financial constraints on what they do.” ... [L]ess than 20 percent [of the rich] have a pessimistic view of the long-term economic outlook. That differs sharply from the general population, as half of Americans say the economy is getting worse... The country’s CEOs now make 273 times what their workers do, while incomes for the wealthiest 20 percent are eight times greater than those in the bottom 20 percent. And while wages in top-paying jobs have been holding pretty steady, those for the lowest paying jobs are falling further and further behind. While the rich worry about whether they can make enough to do whatever they want, most Americans are worrying about whether they can make their next rent payment. Three-quarters of the general population is currently living paycheck-to-paycheck with little stored away in emergency savings. Meanwhile, the American Dream has become even more mythical as the social class someone is born into heavily determines how much they’ll make later in life. A third of those who grow up in the top 1 percent will make $100,000 by age 30, while just one out of every 25 people in the bottom half of the income distribution will do so.
Even notionally meritocratic assignments in a functional distribution of labor are impossible in the face of these stultifying stratifications, not to mention many of the common structures of feeling on which solidarity and equity depend; this segregation into scarcely commensurate worlds amounts to a cognitive speciation and collective madness.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Yeah, I realize I'm not blogging so much right now. When I'm not teaching I'm tired. Bear with me.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Everybody Dies; Or, Robot Cult, O Robot Cult

More sensible funny anti-futurological geek pop from Robert Gross. Reminds me a bit of my beloved They Might Be Giants.

American Libertarianism Is Racist Through and Through

One of the (many) frustrating things about arguing with supposedly "good faith" market libertopians and the supposedly "reasonable conservatives" who sympathize with them is that they will earnestly argue for "less government" or for "smaller government" and yet will rarely indicate at what point government would arrive at less enough government or small enough government to be good enough, and hence they are really merely circumventing the hard questions concerning what government uniquely, indispensably, properly does and how one manages to ensure instituted governments are doing that as well as can be done.

Of course, one suspects that lurking beneath the avowed libertopian shrinkage program is the usual facile anarchist fantasy that Grover Norquist famously gave vent to when he declared small enough government to be "small enough to drown in a bath tub."

Anarcho-libertopians like to crow about their adherence to the principle of "the non-iniation of force" while advocating a social formation consisting of nothing but explicit contractual obligations, and yet they demonstrate little to no awareness of the extent to which contractual arrangements made and maintained in societies stratified by irrational prejudices and inequitable distributions of reliable knowledge, indispensable resources, infrastructural affordances are always inevitably contracts made under duress, and attest to the very force the libertopians presumably disavow. It is precisely the work of democratic governance -- and for citizens and activists working to further democratize the governments to which they are beholden -- to provide nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes (including disputes over what constitutes violence) by providing access to law, by securing rights, by providing welfare entitlements that maintain a legible scene of informed, nonduressed consent, and by administering public and common goods for all in perpetuity.

The problem here is not unique to the right-wing market libertopians and neoliberals: left libertarians and the older socialist traditions of anarchism exhibit the same sort of problem, at once aspiring to "smash the state" as well as to promote "voluntary associations," indifferent to the imbrication of the very accomplishment of "voluntary" practices only through the workings of sufficiently equitable, accountable, democratic governance. While the various anarchisms like to tout themselves as alternate political visions, they always seem to me more or less pre-political visions, often legitimate expressions of distaste for ugly and unfair present states of political affairs, but too often indifferent to the substantial histories out of which irrationalities and injustices actually emerge and almost inevitably indifferent the substantial heartbreaking processes of education, agitation, organization, participation, legislation through which reforms of these irrationalities and injustices actually emerge.

Anarchist visions across the political spectrum from left to right exhibit this same stubborn insubstantiality (and I tend to think this has the entailment that even left anarchism enables right wing reaction in substance far more often than good faith left anarchists should be comfortable with), and I think anarchist and so-called minarchist positions are treated far more generously than they deserve to be as a general matter. Even though libertarian views have never had any real life in American politics except to the extent that they have provided rationales for various white-racist patriarchal plutocratic Republican initiatives, right-wing pundits need only wrinkle their noses in distaste at GOP racism, sexism, and profiteering and declare themselves "more libertarian" in their own personal politics and far too often they get a free pass in conversations or televised roundtables among otherwise comparatively decent, sensible, politically serious people.

In a piece in The Economist Will Wilkinson has highlighted the extent to which, in America at least, genial libertarian generalizations have long been deeply implicated in the terrible substance of white-racist politics in particular. This is a point I often insist on with my own students, and it is enormously important to expose these connections more generally. Wilkinson writes:
[R]ight-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements. Ron Paul's racist newsletters were not incidental to his later success, and it comes as little surprise that a man styling himself a "Southern Avenger" numbers among Rand Paul's top aides. This is what actually-existing right-wing libertarian populism looks like, and that's what it needs to look like if it is to remain popular, or right-wing... There's a reason we see Republicans resort again and again to a fusion of racially-tinged American-nationalist Christian identity politics, empty libertarian rhetoric (an integral part of traditional white American identity), and the policy interests of high-tax-bracket voters. That's what works! Well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives must find this awfully frustrating. I find it frustrating. Yet it seems to me a plain fact that there is no significant electoral faction in American politics that demands the joint reduction of government and corporate power. A subset of libertarian ideas has functioned historically with some effectiveness as a stalking horse for white identity politics, which has brought a few authentic and salutary libertarian ideas to public attention, but the integrated principled substance of the libertarian philosophy has never been very popular. Moreover, if it is ever to becomes truly popular -- and I very much doubt it will -- it won't be on the right.
Of course, everybody knows that the selective advocacy of "states rights" functions comparably as code for white racism defended as an abstract opposition to "big government," everybody knows that "welfare queens" "culture of dependency" "food stamp President" and "socialized medicine" function as code for white-racist hostility to programs that value the lives and potential of "unworthy" people of color (even when these programs disproportionately help most people who identify as white) and are all defended as abstract championing of individualism, entrepreneurship, and liberty.

Notice that despite all this, Wilkinson still feels the need to foreground the supposed "frustration" of "well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives" in exposing these incessant, ineradicable links of "empty libertarian rhetoric" (that recognition of their true emptyness is a possibly accidental revelation that the ones he is excusing actually have no excuse) with "white identity politics"! How frustrating it must be for the poor libertarians to realize that their vacuous ideology has no substance except as a facilitation of white-racist patriarchal corporate-militarism! Won't somebody please think of the privileged white people?

Of course, Wilkinson also genuflects at the end of his piece to the possibility of a more viable left than right populist libertopianism -- but he doesn't even make the least effort to substantiate that absurdity. Of course, there is no substance in left anarchisms either, it is only those self-declared left-libertarians and left-anarchists who are really fighting not to smash but to democratize states that have any future at all, and indispensable to that future is an insistence on education in democracy, non-violent protest, and efficacious reform that Wilkinson seems too nice, I guess, to insist on here. I can certainly attest to the fact that many left anarchists of my personal acquaintance are fine artists, liven up a street protest, know how to throw a good party, and are a good lay. Unlike the right anarchists most of them have no truck with racism, thank heavens (although there are strains of primitivism and fetishism in anarcho-left precincts that can be quite uncomfortably masculinist and orientalist in my estimation). In any case, it is only when left anarchists are attached to labor organizing, civil rights struggles, sustainability education, police accountability politics, and that sort of thing that they do much good, and anarchist theory has nothing of substance to contribute to any of that real democratizing work. Making government more democratic, equitable, diverse, accountable, consensual, sustainable is making government better not smashing government.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The President's Comments Today

Enormously important, thoughtful, questioning, extemporaneous, moving comments from the President today, testifying to the heartbreak of so many African-Americans as well as so many others who care about equity and justice in this country, in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. It's available all over the place, of course, but I'm putting the clip and transcript up here, too, because I do think it's an historically significant moment. I do recommend that people have a look at the flabbergasting vitriol in the immediate reactions of high-profile right-wing and Republican figures to the most modest, decent, commonsense comments from President Obama, Media Matters for America effortlessly anthologized an avalanche of this stuff within minutes of the President's comments -- and that, too, attests to their historical importance and specificity. I agree with the President that young people seem to be generally better than my generation was on questions of race, sexuality, diversity and so much more, and I think the howl from the white right finally matters less as some testament to deep division than as a kind of curious crappy vestigial tail. Edifyingly inverted racist evolutionary jokes aside, those who are commenting on a comparative "lack of ambition" in this speech as compared to the Philadelphia speech on race years ago (years in between which the President has been called a liar in the midst of a State of the Union Address, demanded that he show his birth certificate, ridiculed for using a Teleprompter as if he isn't one of the most eloquent and brilliant Presidents in America's history, faced literally historically unprecedented levels of blanket absolute obstructionism, had a governor stick her finger in his face, and on and on and on and on), the depth, intensity, immediacy of this wrong right reaction provides some necessary context for that.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that's obviously gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that once again I send my thought and prayers, as well as Michelle's, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they're going through and it's remarkable how they've handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal -- the legal issues in the case. I'll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.

The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries (sic) were properly instructed that in a -- in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant. And they rendered a verdict. And once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works.

But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a -- and a history that -- that doesn't go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are probably very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.

That happens often. And, you know, I -- I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact. Although, black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that, some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country. And that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. And so, the fact that sometimes that's unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuses given, "Well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent," using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably, statistically, more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So -- so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there's no context for it, or -- and that context is being denied. And -- and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different. Now, the question, for me, at least, and -- and I think for a lot of folks is, "Where do we take this? How -- how do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?"

You know, I think it's understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests and some of that is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is: Are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it's important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government. The criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn't mean, though, that as a nation, we can't do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I'm still bouncing around with my staff, you know, so we're not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists. You know, when I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped, but the other things was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias, and ways to further professionalize what they were doing. And, initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that, it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them, and in turn be more helpful in -- in applying the law. And, obviously, law enforcement's got a very tough job. So that's one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear, if state and local governments are receptive, and I think a lot of them would be. And let's figure out, are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and -- and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations. I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms, even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see? And for those who -- who resist that idea, that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three -- and this is a long-term project -- we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them, and values them, and is willing to invest in them?

You know, I'm not naive about the prospects of some grand new federal program. I'm not sure that that's what we're talking about here. But I -- I do recognize that, as president, I've got some convening power. And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out, how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that -- and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed? You know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was, obviously, a tragic situation. And we're going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there's been talk about, should we convene a conversation on race? I haven't seen that be particularly productive when, you know, politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's a possibility that people are a little bit more honest and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with -- with the final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don't want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn't mean we're in a post-racial society. It doesn't mean that racism is eliminated.

But, you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they're better than we are. They're better than we were on these issues. And that's true in every community that I've visited all across the country. And so, you know, we have to be vigilant. And we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our -- nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.

But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we're becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

All right? Thank you, guys.

Fair Elections

Republicans are fighting for elections that are fairer... of skin.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

MundiMuster! Tell Congress to Support the Medicare Drug Savings Act

Via Alliance for Retired Americans:
Did you know that Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs? Did you know that since the creation of Medicare Part D, American taxpayers no longer pay the lowest government-negotiated prices for the drugs needed by low-income seniors and people with disabilities?

There is a common sense solution to reduce these high drug costs and eliminate the excessive profits of big drug companies. Join me in telling Congress to support it by clicking here.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Medicare Drug Savings Act (S. 740 and H.R. 1588), legislation that would prevent the big drug companies from charging the federal government higher drug prices for low-income Medicare beneficiaries than they charge for Medicaid. The Medicare Drug Savings Act would save the federal government more than $141.2 billion over 10 years, money that helps all Medicare beneficiaries.

Please join me in telling Congress to support it by clicking here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why I Endorse the Vile Liz Cheney's Bid to Represent Deep Red Wyoming in the Senate

Teaching in Weeds Not Tweeds

The second week of my critical theory survey course at Berkeley ends today -- it feels like we've scarcely begun and yet we're nearly a third of the way through already -- two thirds through the whole summer, since the first six-week intensive on Greek/Roman rhetoric ended before this latest survey began. Teaching these intensives one really burns through weeks of time like a flash fire, and it isn't just time that burns away let me tell you. In the classroom setting, the subject matter always energizes me, I can't help that, but the moment I'm no longer teaching and crawl onto the bus for home a wave of exhaustion hits me, and seems to get a bit more obliterative with each week, the longer summer teaching continues. As with everything you get a lot out of, I suppose, it takes a lot out of you. Normal blogging to resume pretty soon.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Big Yud!

Bitter Living Through Pseudo-Science

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, an exchange with rather old school transhumanoid "Mark Plus" (scroll to his name in the Superlative Summary for more engagements with Mister, er, Plus):

"Cryonics," he writes, "doesn't have any necessary connection with transhumanism, though it has had that association for contingent reasons. Instead it falls within the realm of applied cryobiology, applied neuroscience and experimental medicine, a point of view now supported by some mainstream neuroscientists who has set up the Brain Preservation Foundation, and with the implied support of the skeptic of pseusoscience Michael Shermer who serves as one of this foundation's advisers. I've followed the transhumanist subculture since the 1970's, watching one geek fad after another come and go. You just can't establish cryonics on that weak of a foundation, unless quite a few of these transhumanist ideas turn into real hardware."

I reply:

Cryonics as a techno-immortalist strategy has no actually-existing application and so it feels rather odd to bandy it about as part of "applied cryobiology" -- a field so many other applications of which have the benefit of happening to actually exist. As you rightly say, the Robot Cultists can talk to me about techno-immortalizing applications if some hardware comes online (I won't be holding my breath).

Cryonics as a techno-immortalist faith unquestionably is a form of what I call superlative futurology, of which eugenic transhumanism is also one. As often happens, members of one Robot Cult sect are usually members of others as well, and one will regularly discern citational, organizational, cultural, argumentative connections between these formations -- singularitarians, digi-utopians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and so on. You may be right that this connection of cryonics and transhumanism is not "necessary" in, say, all logically possible worlds -- but the connection is indispensably real in the actually real world, always has been, and will very likely continue to be as long as this moonshine keeps getting peddled.

I must disagree with your contention that techno-immortalist faith based initiatives are even remotely "mainstream" on any legible construal of that term. Compare the number of people with cryonics arrangements with the number of instructors, researchers, and lab techs actually associated with the relevant biological and medical fields that yield and apply actually legitimate cryobiology (to facilitate organ transplantation, for example, or for the preservation of biological materials in experimental settings), and the eensy weensy teeny tiny micro-minoritarian proportion of people involved in both is immediately and hilariously evident.

Mainstream! Nice try, dood. But nobody wants to join your Robot Cult, in part because they know what I also know -- you are going to die. Like everybody else, you are going to die. You are not going to bathe in a longevizing genetic fountain of youth, you are not going to have your brain scooped into a shiny robot body, a nanobotic utility fog is not going to swarm your superannuated flesh and rewrite you in the image of a comic book superhero, your biologically-incarnated self is not going to be "uploaded" into Holodeck Heaven via an information-snapshot that is no more you than any other snapshot of you is you. Death denialist techno-immortalists would do well to get over it and actually live their lives rather than dying before they die in a fear of death that is lived as a fear of living when there is so much loving you could fill life with instead.