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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BooMan on the "Futuristic Roll Out"

I read BooMan's blog more or less every day and have done for years for a pragmatic take on current political maneuverings in which one can still glimpse deep democratic commitments as the prize on which he keeps his eyes. My own Harringtonian left wing of the possible perspective matches up nicely to his positions (not always, but, you know, regularly) and definitely I agree with his judgment that the killer clown consummation of today's GOP represents the single most dangerous organized force in the world today -- if only because they are positioned as half of a party duopology in one of the world's most powerful, resourceful nations at a time when such an actor might make all the difference in solving planetary problems like climate change and human trafficking and weapons proliferation except for the fact that they happen to have gone completely crazy at a time like this instead.

Anyway, like a lot of lefty bloggers I read, BooMan has revealed a distressing susceptibility lately to futurological framings of technoscientific change. Specifically, last week he seemed to fall hook line and sinker for Elon Musk's sf cover art Hyperloop nonsense, and just yesterday he had a minor freakout about how 3D-printers are going To. Change. Everything. I feel I must hasten to add right here and now that I am the last to deny the significance of technoscientific changes -- I have devoted much of my life to understanding and charting these significances -- and that I am a great champion of science education and of investment in medical, materials, renewable research and investment.

I have written often about the gizmo-fetishism and accelerationalizations and vapid digital democracy (the "participation" of panoptic marketing and zero comments) and artificial imbecillence tropes that get peddled by Josh Marshall's TPM and in, say, occasional Paul Krugman columns. I should add that many MSNBC hosts like Toure and Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes will deploy futurological frames to shoehorn complicated technodevelopmental quandaries into their bite-sized segments. It is a common vulnerability, I have found, and all the more troubling because I think futurological discourse conduces in many ways to anti-democratic and reactionary politics and these are often writers who are otherwise highly critical and attentive to the ways in which public discourses can stealthily support elite incumbent ends.

Just to reiterate a point I have made many times before, consider how actually mystifying it is simply to speak in an apparently clarifying way about "technological progress." There is no abstract monolithic "technology" to which the first word properly refers, there is no such thing as "technology in general," but always instead a dynamic constellation of techniques and artifacts with few commonalities but with endless relations -- and meanwhile "progress" is properly a political not some neutral engineering concept, one that can connect to such techniques and artifacts only through historical struggles over the distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of changes to all its stakeholders and not just to the accumulation of capacities in a rising toypile. The clarity of sentences with the words "technological progress" in them tends to be purchased at the cost of distraction from and disavowal of the real processes of discovery, research, funding, publication, regulation, education, marketing, application and the real struggles and stakes that provide the substance of the "technological" and "progressive" potential at hand.

But beyond this obvious initial evacuation of essential substance through taking up "the technological" as politically "progressive" (or, worse, "revolutionary") in some loose, monolithic, decontextualized, ahistorical way, tech talk also tends more specifically to depend on and foster what are otherwise deeply reactionary assumptions and ends, and just to mention a few of the more obvious ones there is: one, an investment in unsustainable hyper-consumption and gizmo-fandoms; two, a complacent faith in techno-fixes amounting to trust in incumbent-elites and acceptance of all sorts of legal, institutional, moral norms and forms of the status quo from which incumbent elites benefit at the expense of majorities; three, an offering up of fantasies of political ends like democracy or sustainability accomplished by elites doing profitable software and urban design; four, all sorts of reductionist refusals of ethical and aesthetic values (usually reactionary parochialisms stealthed as utilitarian, consequentialist, evolutionary, profitability calculations) as ways of making sense of our changing lives; five, outright celebrations of anti-democratic corporatism, militarism, technocracy. And on and on and on.

And what else should one expect when public talk of tech is now utterly caught up in futurological frames that are functionally indistinguishable from marketing discourse except that they sometimes verge in their hyperbole on outright techno-transcendental religiosity? From energy too cheap to meter and plastic superabundance to robo-slaves and nano-magickal superabundance, from boner pills and anti-aging skin kremes to angel uploads in Holodeck Heaven, the narratives are so ubiquitous as to assume the force of intuitive common sense despite their serial failure to make any kind of actual sense.

I am not surprised to hear the usually eminently sensible BooMan call for so-called Iron Man bazillionaire Elon Musk to "build it!" as if the fantastically optimistic promises attributed to his futuristic cartoon supersonic hyperloop coffin train wouldn't stumble into the inevitable lowered expectations, engineering pickles, crony capitalists, corrupt lobbyists and earnest activists turning every funding, regulatory, zoning site into a urgent scrum the moment the cartoon became a spec let alone disturbed a speck of earth. Celebrity tech-CEOs like Bill Gates (who, let us remember, profitably propertized freeware coded by geek enthusiasts other than himself), like Steve Jobs (who, face it, was much more PT Barnum than Albert Einstein, an innovator, perhaps, in marketing but never once in technology) like Peter Thiel (the sexist asshole gazillionaire who wants to live tax-free on a lawless libertopian Pirate Island off the coast of socialist paradise San Francisco while he waits to get his info-self uploaded to a cyperspatial Galt's Gulch) are no more for-real Randroidal sooper-men than were the clever impresarios like Edison and the Wright Brothers to whom we like just as falsely but retroactively attribute the solitary inventions of electric light and air flight in our reassuringly ruggedly individualistic narrative of capitalist emancipation as a brute amplification of muscular capacities accumulating like barnacles on our cyborg armor.

(Similarly, all of BooMan's life people have had the capacity to make zip guns from ubiquitous materials at a fraction of the cost of a 3D-printer churning out brittle illegal comparable one-offs, and the moment one skips from such real-world assessments of real-world technical capacities to handwaving about "long-term consequences" presumably announced by the appearance of 3D-printers like a burning bush announcing the Rapture we are now indulging in story-telling rather than policy discourse and it really is helpful to keep the distinction in mind.)

As I say, the popular punditocratic left seems quite susceptible to these ultimately reactionary rhetorical figures and frames. I think this is especially so, given that so much of American progressive popular culture has embraced an appealing Star Trek and NASA geekery, while taking up the educational and organizational possibilities of digital networked formations. As a Star Trek and NASA nerd myself, I sympathize, of course, but this doesn't mean I mistake cellphones for tricorders or 3D-printers for replicators or daydreams about traversal wormholes for warp drives, and it doesn't mean I am the least bit likely to fall for the flim-flammery of libertopian space programs or radically anti-environmentalist anti-solution of an offworld escape hatch migration to nowhere. I do think the popular left's policy geekery is also a part of the story here, its acceptance of the consensus of relevant climate scientists in making environmental policy proposals, likewise its acceptance of, you know, basic Keynes-Hicks macroeconomic literacy, evolutionary biology, harm-reduction policy models on gun safety, drug policy, family planning as part of a reality-based refusal of GOP anti-civilizationism.

But an admirable enthusiasm for the equitably distributed benefits of consensus technoscience -- especially among folks in, let's face it, an under-critical, narcissistic, wasteful, consumer society with at best elementary science knowledge and even less concern with social dynamics of technodevelopmental changes -- all too readily takes the force of facile credulity and reactionary (often straight up libertopian/neoliberal) futurological frames that are ready to hand. Even the basic complaint that the GOP is "politicizing" science in the service of parochial plutocratic and theocratic prejudices tends to produce the dangerously false and facile impression that progressive consensus technoscience is some kind of a-political or pre-political accomplishment, hence denying the extent to which progressive consensus technoscience depends on a host of political processes none of which proceed automatically and all of which require painstaking effort, investment, maintenance, understanding. It pays to remember that the market and Christianist fundamentalists of the GOP are also "reality based" (speak to real experiences, draw from real emotional lives, involve real calculations) -- it's just that the scared scarred sociopathic Reality Base on which they draw are palpably world destroying.

BooMan wrote last night: "I felt a little let down when the millennium came and we still didn't have our jet packs and hovercrafts. I think the futuristic stuff is starting to roll out now." It is crucial to grasp the extent to which it was never actual scientific results that inspired these dashed hopes, that these sorts of aspirations are psychic investments embedded in cultural narratives and frames that need to be grasped in a critical, situated way, especially to the extent that so many of these narratives are so palpably mythological and ideological. Look at BooMan's innocuous little statement there again. Why would the millennium be the special occasion for his disappointment in particular? In 2001 we really did find ourselves coping with a dumb blank monolith -- unfortunately it was a President. Seriously, why is our technical state of the art so demoralizing after all? We can have universal health care and sustainable infrastructure and access to reliable knowledge on a planetary frame, right here, right now. The frustration of these outcomes testifies to political failures more than anything else (a subject about which BooMan has actually useful things to say, none of which he is saying when he has been reduced to a dummy ventriloquizing futurological fraudsters). To speak of coming techno-revolutionary techno-transcendental superintelligence, superabundance, supercapacities, superlongevity, singularities and the rest is to indulge in a loose theology of gurus and gizmos, not to offer up historical, political, cultural analyses of technoscientific change.

The jet packs and hovercrafts were never much more than metaphors for bourgeois fears and fantasies anyway, as contemporary handwaving about clone armies and multicentury lifespans and geo-engineering greenwashing are also symptoms of such fears and fantasies. The "futuristic stuff" will never roll out on the factory floor or into middle-class suburban homes. Futuristic stuff is such stuff as dreams are made of -- it just keeps rolling across the public imaginary as a distraction from organizing and disavowal of shared problems made up of fears of impotence (techno-apocalypse via autonomous computers, robots, WMD, bioengineered plagues, etc) and fantasies of omnipotence (energy too cheap to meter, nano-Santa treasure caves, supergenius media prostheses, pill-popping fountains of youth and shiny robo-immortality, etc).

Look, it is possible and obviously useful to assess to significance of contemporary scientific results and it is possible to propose middle and longer-term policy in light of changes in our capacities connected to scientific research and its applications -- but the people engaging in pop-tech and infomercial journalism and self-congratulatory corporate-military white papers and TED talks are not in the business of doing this sort of assessment, they lack the necessary and hard-won disciplinary knowledges to do so, and they are interested in very different, essentially promotional and self-promotional ends. This matters.

"My son's world is going to be nothing like mine," wrote BooMan. But of course BooMan's son's world IS BooMan's world. BooMan shares the world with his son, his decisions (and mine, and sooner than you think, his son's too) and efforts are shaping our shared world. Of course, children often do live on into worlds that differ from their parent's worlds -- but our children (I'm queer, but I see futures shining in my students' eyes, year after year) will not be different from our own in a deeper way than ours differs from that of our parents. Very real possibilities of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change or nuclear war notwithstanding -- after all, these are of a piece with the postwar planetarity of the second half of the 20C -- the open futurity arising from the present diversity of stakeholders to the world and the unknowable consequences of our words and deeds is not new. It is the novelty inhering in present plurality that has always provided the condition and context for the political which is, after all, the actual topic at hand.


Unknown said...

First up, I agree with 90% of this post. Thumbs up.

OTOH, your belief in political progress would be adorable in a 12 year old girl.

In the 40 years I've been around, we've gained gay rights and lost organized labor. We've gained communications technology and lost much of the middle class job market. We've lost some enforced conformity at the cost of the unity that came with it. We've won some, we've lost some, but I don't see any trend that I'd call progress.


Dale Carrico said...

I don't "believe" in progress. I said that progress is a matter of political struggle not a matter of scientific stenography and gizmo consumption. I do believe that humans have the means at our disposal to sustainably feed, clothe, house, educate, care for, and solve shared problems with everyone on the planet, but that is far from saying I believe our irrationally stratified societies will do so -- only that it is worth reminding people of and striving for. In the nearly 50 years I've been around I have learned not to underestimate 12 year old girls. It is nice to be accused of naive optimism rather than cranky contrarian negativity as is more usual, I thank you for that.