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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Worse Than Bad But Better Than Expected

I'm glad US bombardment of Syria has been postponed. Not bombing is always better than bombing. I still expect bombing will take place, but every day is a day in which unexpected developments may change those expectations. Even if Obama denies he is setting a precedent here, his action constitutes one nevertheless, and for the first time in a long time the Executive is at any rate notionally ceding back to the Congress some of its proper Constitutional role authorizing war that has been anti-democratically commandeered by the Commander-in-Chief role into the ever more Unitary Executive in serial administrations. That Congress is being forced to take up public positions and make public votes over what comes next will probably spotlight its fecklessness and dysfunction, but it will also curb the all criticism all the time free-for-all from the peanut (emphasis on the nut) gallery as well as strengthen the Democratic position in upcoming budget talks (since it's harder to defend the sequester and government shutdown shenanigans when you are playing at being serious in wartime), and even lock many Republicans into explicit support of a President they have sought so far to delegitimize any and every outrageous way they could. Whether from the vantage of my loftiest ethical concerns over civilians being murdered in my name to my crassest partisan calculations in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections, Obama's statement has made things better and not worse today than yesterday, and that is much more than I expected when I went to bed last night. Obviously everything is still likely to be worse than bad when it comes to it, but these days worse than bad is better than expected.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Reading Between the Red Lines

Of course, I think the whole notion that bombing people is a way to "send a message" is unspeakably obscene. If you want to "send a message,' you might try, you know, saying something. Sure, war-mongering assholes like to say that saying something means you are all talk and no results and no credibility, but war-mongering assholes say some version of that no matter what you do so it doesn't matter what you do or what they say (that becomes their problem and not yours the moment you stop taking them seriously), and anyway the history of the last few generations is a serial demonstration that no good results or real credibility actually follows when we do let the war-mongering assholes have their way anyway, just catastrophe and criminality and killer clownery. But setting aside all those initial disqualifications of the premises that drive this whole appalling discussion, I can't say that I even understand why taking the so-called "Red Line" seriously can only mean bombing Syria is what makes sense right now (apart from all the obvious ways war-mongering assholery doesn't make sense already, I mean). The problem isn't only that chemical weapons have been used, surely, but that before they can be used they have to exist to be used. Set aside the surreal weirdness of declaring Syria more a rogue regime because it has massacred its own citizens using chemical weapons despite the fact that it has also been massacring even more of its own citizens using other kinds of weapons. That aside, is it really more important even to those who do care about chemical weapons in particular that we punish a regime that dares to use them than that punishing them with bombs may mean that factions of rebels (many of them designated as terrorist by folks who usually care obsessively about such designations) can get their hands on these chemical weapons stores themselves? The idea that world censure is going to topple the Assad regime is looking like wish-fulfillment fantasizing, but no more so than the notion that any regime that supplants the Assad regime is going be better from the standpoint of America's legitimate security interests (even on the ugly imperializing terms of mainstream policymakers I personally disapprove) in the absence of the kinds of nation-building investments we simply can no longer afford in the US. I don't accept the premise of those who want to say that they are more aghast at human rights abuses than I am because they are willing to slaughter more civilians by remote control in the name of protesting those abuses than I am. I don't accept the premise that one takes the threat of chemical weapons more seriously by bombing and hence destabilizing even more a region where chemical weapons are stored that happens to be overrun by warring factions, many of them explicitly dedicated to the destruction of this country.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

No Can Do

In Britain and even among American congresscritters the bomb squad is halting in the face of resistance. I can't know what will come of this, but the dire dream feeling of sleepwalking into a meat grinder, however majorities protested, however questions proliferated, has momentarily shaken into a wary wakefulness. Against expectations of generations of catastrophic unquestionable war-making, are we going to turn that drum beat for war into a drum machine for nation-building at home?

"Message" Received

Broken bloody bodies are the receipt of these messages America likes to send with its bombs.


If a student submitted to me a paper made of bombs they would certainly fail the assignment, and among my comments would probably be the recommendation that next time they might try to make their argument out of words.

Louder Than Words

Words are actions, and the actions that speak louder than words are often also dumb.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.


Actually, you can't send clear messages with bombs.

Teaching Day

Blogging, we shall see.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


For "entitlements" you need look no further than individuals who depend for their wealth on commonwealth but think paying taxes is slavery.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Futurist Distractions Twitterrant

Monday, August 26, 2013

Discover An Atrocity? Commit An Atrocity!

Because, you know, compassion.

Surgical Rhetoric

Whenever you hear the phrase "surgical strike" you should instantly think of children undergoing surgery to have bullets and legs removed.


Hard to believe inasmuch as it feels like I'm still recovering from twelve weeks of summer intensives at Berkeley (for which I completed the final grading days ago), but fall term begins in the City tomorrow. Time to finalize my syllabi and start answering e-mails, I suppose.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Let Kornacki Be Kornacki

I was really pleased to hear that Steve Kornacki was taking up "Up" after Chris Hayes moved on to MSNBC's weekday primetime lineup. I like them both as pundit types and think they have a common affable intellectualism about them that made the idea of the transition between them make obvious abstract sense.

Now, I think Hayes' "All In" is an even better show than his "Up" was, indeed I think it is now one of the most thoughtful shows on the Harringtonian left wing of the possible on air today, surpassing Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman at his best, and I think that has been a marvelous surprise. I think the limitation to one hour from his weekend show's two hour format has imposed a discipline on Hayes that makes him less likely to suffer reactionary foolishness in his guests for long and it also has made his progressive activist impulse a more propulsive force in his show.

On the other hand, I have been rather disappointed in the post-Hayes "Up with Steve Kornacki." His straight to camera editorial pitches have been pretty good, and they have also been different in ways I expected them to be, drawing on historical anecdotes and a sometimes slightly obsessively bonkers level of partisan inside baseball stuff. But as a discussion moderator Kornacki seems to be too much in his head. He seems to plot out his shows in advance segment by segment and then to be more interested in making sure the show plays out according to spec than he is interested in the insights and serendipities that arrive in the play of conversation as it happens. Kornacki is forever shutting down guests whose arguments organically lead the discussion into places Kornacki has not charted in advance, often saying that this or that topic will be taken up in a later segment, or he will end a segment not by reacting to the substance of a comment but by declaring it an excellent "tease" or "tee up" for the next segment. This doesn't happen occasionally, mind you, this happens repeatedly, in every show, often many times a time.

People watch these shows to hear interesting, knowledgeable, provocative, funny commentary on and contextualization of current events (don't they?), but I feel sure that almost nobody but Steve Kornacki is watching to enjoy the smooth machineries through which the material form of discussion maps onto some Platonic ideal of the discussion Steve Kornacki has in his head. Remember when I said I was pleased to hear that Kornacki was helming this weekend show? That was because I think he is very smart and likeable, and all of that is still true. There is no reason to give up on "Up." I have noticed that when Krystal Ball -- who was one of his co-hosts on MSNBC's rather hit-or-miss Afterschool Special of a commentary show, "The Cycle" -- as one of his weekend roundtable guests a more comfortable and effective dynamic emerges in which she seems to facilitate the discussion that actually seems to be happening while allowing Kornacki to go off on his sometimes unexpected but usually quite useful weedy tangents into history or statistics. When Ana Marie Cox is on the show I have noticed a similar dynamic often occurs to the benefit of the show. I leave the gender politics in play in such a phenomenon to the readers to chew on in the Moot.

Perhaps Kornacki era "Up" really should have a co-host who can more responsively and responsibly articulate the real-time flow of the conversation but also "Let Kornacki Be Kornacki." There is a place for his brand of doofy punditocratic pedantry, and he really is an incomparably more congenial on-screen figure than Ezra Klein who for me is off-puttingly stumbly and petulant and who I suspect would be next in line for an "Up"-rating. I also happen to think the show is weighted down by the vestigial echoes of its Hayesian incarnation in ways that make it harder to judge the "Up" that's up on its own merits -- I mean, the jokes about the pastry plate, the sometimes joyless ritual of the what do we know now what should we know closing segments may need to be replaced by new ceremonials more attuned to Kornacki's unique temperament, not because they are bad things for the show that was but because they may be standing in the way of good things for the show that is.

Lucidity About Luddicity

The thing you need to remember about the Luddites is that smashing machines is itself a machine. As they well knew.

More Futurological Brickbats here.


There is somebody who posts comments on io9 who seems congenially caustically technoskeptical and even links to me occasionally -- if this person is you do say hello, it feels as if I should, you know, know you.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Russia Now Straightwashing Tchaikovsky from Queer History

John Avarosis:
As part of Russia’s ongoing cultural and physical pogrom against gay people, the country is now trying to “in” one of its greatest gay cultural icons: Pyotr Tchaikovsky... The latest step by official Russia-dom in annihilating gay people is to take away our history. That’s why the Russians are now censoring books, and attempting to remove famous gays, like Tchaikovsky, from Russian history all together. Fat chance... The NYT reports that a prominent Russian screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, is making a movie about Tchaikovsky, with state funding, and he’s announced that he won’t be mentioning that Tchaikovsky was gay because, get this, “it is far from a fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual.” Interestingly, the Soviets used to play the same trick Putin’s Russia is now playing, trying to deny that Tchaikovsky was gay. Sadly, the NYT reporter leaves the lie just sitting there, unrebutted. Well, it’s time for some butt... The Soviets were so good at lying, it’s almost pathetic what a bad job Putin is doing with this entire affair. If I were a Russian, I’d be looking for another leader, because the current one is making that country a laughing-stock. After all, I wouldn’t have even known that Tchaikovsky was gay (I honestly didn’t know), had the Russians not made such a big deal of it.
There is actually a very good case to be made that we should take care about the ways in which we assimilate the rich historical and planetary diversity of queer lifeways into readily digestable conventional gay icons celebrating gayness as a realized or aspirational form of monogamously marriageable consumers shopping for landfill-destined crap when they aren't shooting the nation's official enemies on the battlefield. But it must be noted that this critique hardly provides a rationale for the even more outrageously falsifying assimilation of queer lifeways into outright straight propaganda. This reminds me of the ways in which reactionary patriarchal politics sometimes seeks to pretend that performative accounts of the materializations of sex-gender invalidate feminist claims and ends rather than providing, as they do, more historically situated substantiation for feminist claims and hence an incomparably better sense on the ground of the opportunities available to achieve feminist ends. It is important to queer Wilde and Woolf and Tchaikovsky both from straight and from gay-assimilationist narratives, and for many of the same reasons.

Older -- An Amor Mundi Birthday Ritual

This time it's forty eight. Given the March on Washington anniversary, here's an uncharacteristically upbeat addendum:

Another World Is Palpable

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Esebian" asks:
What do you think would it take to resurrect the Luddite movement as a political action group fighting against the oppressive, precarizing abuse of available technolgies by plutocratic elites and for a use benefiting the concerned public parties?

It is important to grasp that the Luddites are a crucial part of the history of organized labor, and that the "technology" focused narrativization of the substance of their situation, critique and activism is a falsification and distraction in the service of those plutocratic elites you mention -- as discussions of "technology in general," which doesn't actually exist, almost inevitably are.

To see what I mean by this point I am endlessly hammering, every time you use the word "technology" in a sentence that seems to make sense, try substituting for that word "technology" the phrase "social struggle over technoscientific changes among the diversity of stakeholders to those changes" instead and you will notice that you not only have a much more gawky and awkward sentence but also a sentence that forces you to engage with a host of urgent, incredibly fraught quandaries every one of which was invisible before.

All that said, I am happy to report that there is no need to re-invent the wheel here. The world doesn't need some clever educated white boys in the "developed" -- that is to say, over-exploiting -- world who think they know it all (I castigate in that phrase any tendencies to such self-congratulation in myself first of all) to pen some neo-Luddite online manifesto and unleash a neo-Luddite movement to sweep the world and save it in the nick of time.

Environmental justice critique and the environmental justice movement kinda sorta already ARE that neo-Luddite discourse and assemblage you are looking for in my view. Follow the links and many readily available others, and read up on their vast and indispensable scholarship, activism, and policy advocacy.

To save the world (by which I mean simply to make the world ever more sustainable, knowledgeable, democratic, and equitable-in-diversity), embed environmental justice analysis of and organizing over developmental questions (sensitive to the raced, sexed, classed stakeholder-stratified field in which costs, risks, benefits, and sustainability of technoscientific changes must always be assessed) within the larger social democratic struggle to provide universal healthcare, including housing and nutritional security, lifelong free education and training, unemployment insurance, parental leave, and retirement/ disability security (hence providing for a scene of legible informed nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday intercourse, including providing the functional equivalent of a publicly funded permanent strike fund), paid for by steeply progressive income and property taxes (which has the added benefit of resisting anti-democratic anti-meritocratic wealth concentration), and also providing for the accountable social administration of common and public goods (governance, law, police, obviously, and, again, education, healthcare, welfare, and also urban ecosystem support, including sustainable polyculture to provide for public nutrition programs and foreign aid, public transportation, renewable energy infrastructure, non-proprietary medical and science research and development).

There are enormous literatures and movements devoted to all these struggles already -- indeed, mainstream political parties like the Democratic Party in the United States already contain constituencies striving to mobilize the vast energies of existing formations to these outcomes, even if these constituencies do not always grasp the connections and ends in quite the way a democratic queergeek atheist vegetarian feminist ecosocialist intellectual like me does and one has to struggle toward these ends through an unfathomably frustrating, heartbreaking, compromised, convulsive process of ongoing education, agitation, organization, legislation, and reform.

The tools to dismantle the Master's house are ready to hand. They were made and hidden in the shadow of the Master's house. Some of them were appropriated from there and became ours.

Another world is palpable.

Friday, August 23, 2013

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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Just Finished Grading My Second UCB Summer Intensive -- A Look Inside My Mind Right Now

Still A Dream (With Charts)

Zachary Goldfarb in the Washington Post:
When he speaks later this month on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Obama will be at the confluence of efforts to reduce racial and economic divisions. As the president addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, current and former advisers say, he will want to impress upon listeners how progress toward racial equality will require progress toward economic equality. Obama, who keeps a framed program from the “March on Washington” in the Oval Office, has said he has often reminded people that the march was as much about what he called economic justice as a demonstration for civil rights... Many of the most overt forms of racial discrimination and bias have faded, but yawning economic gaps have persisted since 1963, and there has been essentially no narrowing of the unemployment gap between blacks and whites. The financial crisis and recession scarred minorities more than any one else.
Brad Plummer in the Post's Wonkblog illustrates some of the stark realities of this racial inequity in a string of charts, among which are these:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Face of Greenwashing Is White

We need to come to terms with the extent to which greenhouse denialism is enabled by racist fantasies that only brown people will suffer.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Grading Finals

...and with a looming hard deadline. Summer teaching is not kind to substantial blogging. Laid back fall teaching resumes soon enough. The usual one-liners, images, posts upgraded from Moot exchanges will have to suffice till then.

Treating Gun Safety Like Car Safety

Speed limits and restrictions of driving to roads also suggest useful analogies.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Christian Futurologists Building A Spaceship to Heaven in the Nevada Desert

Elon Musk should get these guys to do the next cartoon for his Hyperloop scam. Maybe the Hyperloop could have a spur line connecting LA with the Vegas Strip and The Great Cross. You know, Alcor should, like, totally establish a beachhead for their hamburgerized Christianists alongside the boxed and cremated ones in the Great Cross of Death.

Last Day of Summer Teaching

The last week has been Arendt, Haraway, Latour, technoscience stuff for which teaching is akin to breathing, but I'm so tired after twelve weeks of relentless intensives (six of Greek and Roman rhetoric, and then six surveying critical theory) that I feel I could sleep for a week. No rest for the wicked, tho, since I've got grading to do instead and fall semester in the City begins a week from Tuesday!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Science Fiction Is Literature

There is no more fundamental misrecognition of the force of science fiction than to think it concerns what if more than what is.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Science Wars!

The social and cultural study of technoscientific changes does not threaten discovery but only marketing. Those who decry the menacing relativism of situated technoscience scholarship rarely have something to tell us but invariably have something to sell us.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Futurological Deliverables!

The street finds its own uses for nonthings.

Galt Qua Kitty

Libertarianism might have a chance at real world success if only libertarians were fuzzy and cute. As witness the utopia of total greed that is my cat's life.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Allan Sekula, RIP

Poet of the precarious material bodies and borders that give the lie to the neoliberal narrative of frictionless flows of information and capital.

Nerdland Guide for Things On Which Oprah Could Spend Forty Grand the Next Time She Faces Purse Purchasing Discrimination in a Zurich Boutique

The best response to this week's #onepercenterproblems Oprahpursegate was on this morning's MHP show. It all seemed so cut and dried -- obviously feed all those folks or save a family from predatory bank foreclosure, obviously, right, obviously? -- until the Tron light cycle option made its appearance...

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Here's a bonus clip of Nina Turner from earlier in the show because... Nina Turner is everything.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Don't forget to add Russia, of course, not to mention some of our own neo-Confederate hate states (like those in which lovely Baton Rouge judges are still punishing folks using sodomy laws declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court)! While this figure is exposing the reality of terrible human suffering that must be faced and changed, it is also important not to use this all too familiar mapping of the civilizing imaginary to indulge in a false and facile self-congratulation that mistakes shallow, recent, incomplete progress somewhere with the actual and sustainable accomplishment of equity-in-diversity anywhere. And speaking of the fear of a queer planet versus the neoliberal mapping of "the anti-gay world," let me just add that there are queerer things in heaven and earth, Gay-ratio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Taste the Painbrow

Friday, August 09, 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Spirit of Target: Women Lives On

If you don't get the "Target: Women" reference spend the next hour here.

MundiMuster (for Fellow Oaklanders): Suspend Oakland California's "Sister-City" Relationship With Anti-Gay Russian City

Click here to add your name to this MoveOn Petition:
Petition to be delivered to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Council: Suspend our "sister-city" relationship with anti-gay Russian city.

Please immediately pass a resolution suspending the "sister-city" relationship between Oakland and Nakhodka, Russia. We can and should send a message: we value and cherish our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents and will not tolerate discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters by a sister city.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

MundiMuster! Californians Must Begin to Reverse the Catastrophically Failing Racist War on Drugs

California ACLU:
The War on Drugs has been a costly failure –- in terms of both lives and dollars wasted. Right now, nearly 4,000 people are locked up in California's overcrowded prisons because of drug possession for personal use.

Take action today: tell your legislator to support a bill (SB 649) that just says no to the ineffective tactics of the failed War on Drugs.

The California Assembly will soon vote on SB 649, which would allow possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use to be charged as a misdemeanor rather than an automatic felony.

Needlessly locking people up for possession of small amounts of drugs wastes taxpayers dollars that could be used to pay for drug treatment for thousands of people.

Passing SB 649 and revising the drug possession penalty would:
Save up to $160 million a year that could be used for rehabilitation, drug treatment and solving serious crimes.
Help alleviate over-crowding in our prisons and jails.
Reduce the racial inequality in our criminal justice system. African Americans and Latinos are arrested and sentenced disproportionately for low level drug offenses.
Support reentry and safety. A felony is a barrier to the kinds of things -- jobs, housing and education -- that help people successfully re-enter the community and that keep communities safe.
Take action today to move California away from failed drug war tactics and toward a smarter approach to addressing crime and addiction.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

GOP Attacks: Don't Run, We Are Your Friends, We Care About Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

…but then in office they're all Blam! Abortion! Abortion! Abortion!

Resisting Futurological Assimilation

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, in response to this comment by longtime friend of blog "jollyspaniard":
[T]he UN isn't running the models in and of itself. Their reports are the result of a political process which has been repeatedly criticised by climate scientists. Humankind has been making climate forecasts since stonehenge. The druids weren't futurists they were guiding people in the here and now. Agriculture requires some foreknowledge to plan effectively. As to climate science some scientists would still be doing some of this research even if AGW wasn't a factor, albeit with a lot less resources, interest, urgency or controversy.
Your first sentences make points that are very well taken -- the provenance of UN reports wasn't my focus, but obviously I agree with you, and I even think the force of your right observations lends weight to what has been my focus, namely the complexity of technodevelopmental social struggle and the indispensability of proper political analysis (of a kind which futurology rarely is and often actively disdains) to any understanding of these struggles or facilitation of progressive outcomes of them.

As to your latter points, I caution great care. It is important to preserve the distinction between pseudo-science and science in the defense of science especially when pseudo-scientists who claim to be champions of science manage to rewrite science in the image of their pet pieties, just as it is important to distinguish criteria of warranted belief proper to the separate domains of belief especially when reductionist fundamentalists who claim to be champions of reason declare such pragmatic pluralism to be relativism.

Precisely because futurological discourses have commandeered so much of the terminological and conceptual terrain of the "scenario," "forecast," "foresight," "vision," and so on we need to be more careful than hitherto in making glib references to forecasting and foreknowledges in legitimate knowledge production. Again, as I have now repeatedly said over the course of these exchanges -- and that isn't impatience you are hearing, but gravity -- every legibly constituted discipline produces suggestive models and every legibly constituted discipline has a foresight dimension precisely because an understanding of phenomena changes expectations, conduct, priorities, plans.

But the just-so stories of techno-transcendental futurology in the Robot Cult that preoccupy so much of my attention should be regarded as the revealingly pathological extremities of what are in fact utterly mainstream techno-fixated techno-fetishistic techno-triumphalist neoliberal and neoconservative developmental discourses, from marketing, to policy-making, to corporate-military rationalizations for exploitation and stratification. It is crucial to understand the underlying assumptions, energizing aspirations, enabling conceits of these discourses (an understanding facilitated by grasping their essential character as derivative literary and extreme marketing genres in my view) and it is also crucial to resist accommodating or assimilating to them in their prevalence in an easy bid for legibility at the cost of supporting reductionism, determinism, eugenicism, death denialism, productivism and a host of other pernicious false idols of our epoch.

That's why I stress these apparently abstruse points so much.

Up With Pessimism!

Futurological Appropriations of Environmentalism

Upgraded and adapted from a couple comments in the Moot in which I respond to "Jay":

All the talk here the last couple of days about graphs plotting global rising temperatures occurred in the context of an ongoing discussion of futurology. I have disagreed that an analogy from such graphs aptly applies to futurological trend-spotting. This is a point that seems to me especially important given the connection of futurological tropes and conceits in too much neoliberal (micro) boutique-green consumerism and (macro) "geo-engineering" greenwashing policy discourse, but also given a tendency among many Very Serious Futurologists making a bid to sanewash their faith-based initiatives and think-tank con artistry to press just this sort of connection between climate science and robocalypse/goo runaway existential risk crapola. You appear to be a bit fixated on the question of the usefulness of models in climate science about which I am pretty sure everybody in the conversation is in agreement that they are very useful and very compelling. As I said, all real disciplines produce suggestive models and all real disciplines have a foresight dimension, simply because actual knowledge about actual phenomena changes our expectations and our conduct. In my exchange with "Alex" I am emphasizing what is problematic in "trends" and "trend spotting" as terms of art in futurological discourses purporting to explain (meta-)historical dynamisms and provide purchase on something they think of as "technological development" (about which I have the most fundamental doubts).

Again, as I mentioned before, I am the furthest thing from a climate skeptic, I accept the consensus of climate science that catastrophic climate change is underway and is non-negligibly anthropogenic. The models and the plots on the graph are working for me exactly as you say they do, as are other graphs showing aquifer and topsoil and polar ice depletion and shifting insect vectors and so on. Hell, in my teaching and in my writing I endlessly reiterate the point that failure to address environmental problems is a kind of unspeakable genocidal madness. I think we may mostly agree about how much the rhetoric of such graphs is indeed narrative in form, but what matters to me here, again, is that futurological "trends" and "scenarios" are definitely narrative, indeed so much so that they are best understood in my view as outright literary and marketing genres. What you and my other interlocutors in this conversation are calling "trends" (for better or for worse) in the context of climate science lend little credibility and provide little insight into futurological just-so stories about imminent AI singularities, internet participation rates suggesting a virtualization of the real, inevitable progressive control over matter unto the nano and the femtoscale, lifespan increases chugging momentously toward longevity horizons conferring immortality and so on. These futurological narratives are selling faith while pretending to describe and account for phenomena.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Phony Futurological Foresight

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot in response to this comment:
What I think you're saying is that you don't put stock in predictions that have no underlying causal model. That might be a self-consistent viewpoint, though with social processes -- global warming depends on the social process of carbon emission -- I'm not sure how much we really know. I would agree that we're farther from predicting technological change than predicting global warming. But unfortunately, technology has been essential to most changes in the human condition. So I think your view reduces to saying we can't know anything, except this little part that, maybe, we can actually model. Or as the story goes, looking under a lamp post for a wallet you dropped on the other side of the street because the light is there. I wonder then how much it makes sense to care about the long-term future, under this view.
Far from saying we can't know anything, I am insisting that there are real standards on the basis of which to distinguish the contributions real disciplines make from those of pseudo-science as well as faith-based initiatives and subcultural enthusiasms from real policy-making. Part of what it means to be reasonable is to accept as the best on offer those candidates for belief which satisfy criteria of warrant -- but another part of what it means to be reasonable to judge which domain of belief applies to the effort at hand and to know what the relevant criteria of warrant actually are. That's why I keep harping on the fact that futurological scenario spinning is a literary genre or marketing phenomenon or fandom rather than a social science -- so that your expectations and judgments of futurology are based on the proper criteria. My pluralism is neither nihilist nor relativist (though I get that complaint a lot from the priestlier precincts of science-qua-scientism triumphalists), but rather pragmatic and situated.

So, to your broader points, let me begin with something I say all the time: All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture and so there is not even a monolithic thing called "technology" to develop or not in the first place in my view, to characterize in single way, to treat as the protagonist of a single narrative: there are disparate processes of research, funding, publication, regulation, distribution, marketing, application concerning different artifacts and techniques, proceeding at different paces, in respect to different stakeholders. In the most general sense, what is produced as "natural" or as "artifactual" is a contingent and rather more normative discursive phenomenon than appears in utterly mystified futurological and tech-talk -- de-naturalizing technologization is a function of familiarity and unfamiliarity, attention and inattention, fears and fantasies of agency, the mobilization of a host of mythical tropes and so on. So I probably don't accept the terms on which you are constituting objects as inside of and outside of historical struggle and sociocultural positioning at a pretty fundamental level when it comes to it.

Now, politics is the reconciliation of ineradicably diverse ends and the most equitable solution of shared problems in the shared world. Politics and plurality are indissolubly connected and I prefer to think of "futurity" as the openness in the present arising from this ineradicable diversity while "the future" tends on my view to be a disavowal of that openness in the service of a particular stakeholder vantage on the present foreclosing possible presents/presences. "Predicting technological change" is a phrase that is nearly equal parts meaningless and evil in my view. "Technological change" is better described in this view as "technodevelopmental social struggle" in which one seeks to engage to facilitate better outcomes from specified positions but hardly to "predict" in some alienated way above the fray. "It" IS Us. Technoreductive ideology tends to reframe freedom as the amplification of incumbent powers as futurology tends to reframe history as extrapolated parochial currencies -- this is worse than wrong.

Politically, freedom is the ongoing openness and essential unpredictability of futurity present(ed) peer-to-peer, there is no progress, merely the circumscription or ramification of ends arising out of the openness. It is ethical definitions of the political field that make it possible to tell progressive and aspirations stories. I would define freedom ethically myself as the struggle for ever more sustainable democratic equity-in-diversity, for example, but part of what I know about the political futurity in which my ethical vantage is embedded is that there are other tales to tell with which I must contend.

To conclude, I would say that the best way to care about the long-term future is to care about sustainable equity-in-diversity in the present, because I think in caring about those with whom we share the world, young and old, and in developing the techniques and knowledges for solving our shared problems we make a present to the collective character and common archive and legacy of reason to which generations to come will gratefully make recourse in their own presents. Phony futurological foresight is an exercise in disavowal and distraction and denial that no one will thank us for -- even as our delusive and frankly disgusting futurologists endlessly congratulate themselves about how they are truly fighting battles and solving problems centuries ahead of time.

The Scenario Spinners

Upgraded and adapted from Moot in response to this comment:
Saying global warming might lead to disaster is using trends to create a scenario or at least prediction. We measure the temperatures over many years and the UN makes its models.
I actually disagree with this. I mean, obviously I agree with the consensus of climate scientists that carbon pollution is catastrophic and non-negligibly anthropogenic and that to the extent that our politics is not shaped by the end of creating a sustainable civilization and renewable infrastructure we are indulging in a form of genocidal, suicidal madness -- but I disagree with this analogy as a justification for the "trend" as a legitimate analytic object or useful methodological recourse. As I said before, there actually is no such thing as an historically agentic or otherwise forceful "trend." "Trends" are retroactive narrative constructions at their best, but usually their retroactivity is falsely projected as if from the vantage of a non-existing superior height (fashion trends announced from fashion authorities) or from the future (which is inhabited by no one at all) in which case they are always prescriptions masquerading as descriptions.

But I believe the climate model is a false analogy on which contemporary futurology especially depends to pretend it is a legitimate quasi-scientific methodology rather than a rather derivative clumsy kind of science fiction literature conjoined to hyperbolic marketing forms even more than usually prone to deception and self-deception. I should add that futurologically-inflected environmentalisms of the geo-engineering, "Bright" Green, technofixated elite Design sorts (despite some earnest adherents) mostly amount to reactionary greenwashing for apocalypse profiteers.

Anyway, given the complexity of ecosystems -- and their complex interactions from idiosyncratic local to planetary scales -- climate science provides a good fudge factor for futurologists to exploit in this way. It isn't accidental that climate change denialists are able to undermine scientific consensus in the field by displacing the debate onto a culture war terrain. Nor is it accidental that the scale of interventions futurologists pretend feasibly to propose in their geo-engineering yackety-yack would be less predictable in their actual effects -- apart from the obvious profits that would accrue to the polluting plutocrats for whom these proposals are actually made -- than the state of the weather already is.

Every legibly constituted discipline produces models of phenomena, every legibly constituted discipline has a foresight dimension. This is because knowing better how phenomena behave under various conditions facilitates more practically useful interactions with them, and leads us to form expectations and make plans accordingly. But "trends" are narratives more than models, strictly speaking, and it is not scientists but English lit majors and PR muckety-mucks who can explain how they operate: they solicit identification the better to peddle forms of consumption.

Futurological scenarios inevitably circumvent historically situated social, cultural, and political dynamisms while purporting to model these dynamisms in relation to physical phenomena. Scenario spinning superficially skims the objects of a host of disciplines without the least mastery or often even grasp of the specificities of those disciplines -- it is an anti-disciplinarian pretense of inter-disciplinarity (a very slippery but indispensable academic aim futurology isn't remotely fit for). I don't disagree that anything can be "trendified" and that you can "pick your trend" and then spit out talk that is legible for others who indulge this nonsense at Davos and TED and in Brockman's reductive bestseller salons, but that is far from saying that it makes the least sense to make this methodological move if one wants to actually understand the world or facilitate sustainable equitable outcomes rather than ride a lucrative gravy train as a guru wannabe.

And, no, scenario spinning doesn't become better or more useful (except of course as a sales pitch) if you entertain and invest in four fantastically impoverished alternative "futures" rather than one. This is the conjuration of a phony complexity, the circumscription of political possibility into a handful of choices on a menu provided by already established actors. Some of these difficulties beset all forms of social science, especially to the extent that they try to shoehorn their own scientificity into an image of engineering. But in futurology they constitute a kind of crisis, and a crisis akin to the crisis of neoliberal for which futurology is, after all, the quintessential discourse.

There are usually better ways of interesting people in a topic that actually affects them than scenario spinning, but I do agree with you that extended metaphors, little thought experiments, and anecdotal sketches have their place in mobilizing affect and concretizing abstractions. I teach rhetoric, after all. But I know better than to pretend rhetoric is a way to grasp the substance and stakes of research or policy outcomes -- rather than more effectively to communicate those stakes and change conduct to facilitate ends once they have been determined by other, better means.

Planetary Thinking and Environmental Justice

A course I'll be teaching this Fall at the San Francisco Art Institute:
In 1972 an image of the whole earth as seen from space circulated across the whole earth. Has a planetary perspective different from the parochialisms, imperialisms, and globalizations that still beset our politics emerged as a possibility as that whole earth has become one of the mostly widely distributed images in history? Just how are the politics of catastrophic climate change and resource descent exacerbated by planetary networks, planetary migrations, planetary exploitation, and planetary governance? What are the differences within the planetary frame between environmentalisms as sites of identification, as subcultures, as movements, as political programs, as research programs, and as rhetorical perspectives? How has Green education, agitation, organization, and consciousness changed over time and in what ways does Greenness abide for earthlings like us? We will read a number of canonical and representative environmentalist discourses and vantages -- from transcendentalism and deep ecology to eco-feminism, eco-socialism, and environmental justice critique, from permaculture and mindful eating to futurological geo-engineering and corporate-military greenwashing -- seeking to understand better how to read and write and make the planet Greenly. Tracking through these texts each of us will struggle to weave together and testify to our own sense of the planetary as an interpretive register, as a critical perspective, as a writerly skill-set, as a site of imaginative investment, and as a provocation to collective action and personal transformation.
Before you think all this a tribute to Stewart Brand I suggest you read Hole Earth or my Stewart Brand Twitterrant.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


"tl;dr" is the appropriately illiterate abbreviation for the self confession: "Too stupid, won't read."

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Trend Spotting

An incidental point easily overlooked in the context of that possibly overlong last post deserves attention on its own terms:
There is no such thing as an historically agentic or otherwise forceful "trend." "Trends" are retroactive narrative constructions at their best, but usually their retroactivity is falsely projected as if from the vantage of a non-existing superior height (fashion trends announced from fashion authorities) or from the future (which is inhabited by no one at all) in which case they are always prescriptions masquerading as descriptions.

Very Serious Futurology With Robin Hanson

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot in answer to a question posed by one "Alex":
Hi Dale. I'm curious what you think of this. I'd say Robin Hanson gives a valid argument for expecting a singularity in the next few centuries based on trends in world GDP. He puts the likelihood of this happening at 50% to 75%, which I'd about agree with, along with his reasoning method.
At a glance, Hanson's arguments seem to me ridiculous six ways to Sunday. This conclusion is not based on close reading -- I'm grading mid-terms right now. In the irrational exuberance of the roaring nineties plenty of transhumanoids were high-fiving each other over the inevitable Long Boom and Dow 100,000 with the rest of the high-tech assholes, but one would like to think the rest us have learned some lessons from that idiot tide -- Hanson's GDP to techno-transcension seems flabbergasting in its denialism of history, not to mention little pesky issues around, you know, anthropogenic climate change and weapons proliferation and planetary precarity, but, hey, they say things look pretty swell from plutocratic perches even so.

Of course, for an argument to be valid its conclusions need only follow logically from its premises. Stipulate whatever the hell you want but follow the bouncing ball! Whether the argument is sound or relevant is another question. "Likelihood estimates" from futurists over the Robot God Odds always seem to me akin to perspiring monks contending passionately over angels on pinheads. Even a cursory examination of the piece that has impressed you reveals the usual futurological pathologies aplenty. Not to put too fine a point on it, declarations of a fifty to seventy five percent likelihood of robocalypse or techno-transcension seems to me more or less like cutting the cheese, even when they are published in IEEE Spectrum.

You say you agree with Hanson that it is more likely than not (not exactly a prediction one can hang a hat on) that there is going to be a Singularity -- but what do you even mean by the term "The Singularity" about which you have formed such confident expectations? The emergence of nonbiological entitative superintelligence eventuating in a history-ending Robot God? Greater-than-human prosthetic-assisted collective intelligence that is different in some way from those forms already expressed in organizations, divisions of labor, and so on for some reason? Competing superintelligences, non-biological, biological, assemblages, collectivities? And just what is it about the serially failed state of good old fashioned artificial intelligence research programs and the current state of the art that makes you think such paradigm shattering developments are on the horizon? Happy to agree your "Smart Card" is truly "smart" after all? Pinning Big Hopes on Big Data are we?

Even worse than the usual futurological AI tomfoolery, Hanson's argument presumes brain emulations ARE people -- does it likewise presume photographs of people are people? How rich does the scan of you have to get, how many people does your angel avatar have to fool into accepting it as you for you to concede it's you as well? Not that any of this is actually happening outside of science fiction, but are people who talk this way even talking in a way that still deserves to be called literal and not figurative? Hanson presumes "robots" that own wealth and compete and make wars on humans as key players in his speculations. But all such characters are pure fantasy! I put their "likelihood" at 14.2 percent in seventy six years and four months -- not really, but surely you are impressed by the precision of my formulation. Come on, let's debate it now like real scientists! Hey, not that anything we say connects to actual reality! The usual confusion of science fiction with science fact and science policy. Any one can play (but with consequences, about which more later).

It is conventional futurological flim-flam to demand one's wish fulfillment fantasies be treated as serious policy discourse while at once shunting off all the evidentiary and analytic basis for rigor onto a horizon displaced by twenty years into the future. Hanson is savvy enough to consign his Very Serious projections into centuries distant from our own and to refer to actual social science research that he then applies to loosely conceived projections scarcely related to the terms of the research he is citing itself. But there are still no actual substantive reasons to accept his assumptions or treat his projections as relevant to any real-world considerations. Again, even by its own lights it is bedeviled by questionable premises and definitional fudges. "Singularity," "Robots," "Uploads," even "Superintelligence" are playing out here as loose fancies pretending to be facts or terms of art when they simply are not -- at most these are subcultural signals in the marginal fandom for that most derivative and impoverished genre of science fiction, the futurological scenario, which might indeed be of real academic interest: for a pop culture ethnography.

Conventional automation hasn't displaced much labor yet, says Hanson? And yet productivity gains associated with automation, organization, transportation, communication developments in the context of the dismantling of organized labor in the US and the outsourcing of labor to overexploited regions where there are low to no labor protections has facilitated an extraordinary concentration of wealth and amplified precarity across the globe and eviscerated social mobility and buying power for all but the rich. Labor has indeed been displaced or replaced by placeholder jobs policing docility in majorities from whom the occasional photogenic or gifted exception can be plucked up for the gratification of plutocrats.

This state of affairs will continue either until the world perishes from the use of weapons of mass destruction in conflicts exacerbated by ongoing climate catastrophe, I suppose, or until revolts reverse these terms. Who knows whether such revolts will be convulsive and easily appropriated popular uprisings enabling the rise of authoritarian formations little different from the plutocracy they displace or will result from social democratizing reforms that are more sustainable? In any case, only the latter response can possibly be equal to present climate catastrophe and resource descent and there is less reason to think that response will happen in time with every passing month. Resource wars and climate catastrophe yielding a breakdown of planetary society and ending technodevelopmental advances in most fields seems to me the more likely result on the assumptions favored by futurologists. Whatever their disagreement about its definition, or my disagreements about its sense, I notice that none of these outcomes look much like anything they tend to describe as "the singularity" in their glossy brochures.

I believe that substantial technodevelopment already stalled a generation ago -- and to the extent that progressive technodevelopment involves not only technical advances but a more equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes among their actual stakeholders, I can't say this development ever really got off the ground if we assume the relevant planetary vantage on the phenomenon. Digital enthusiasm and medical breakthroughs are gratuitously over-hyped by a public discourse now mostly reduced to marketing deception without end or exception. How much of what gets passed off as GDP even refers to anything real in the first place? Financial industry fictions and crap stuffed in a landfill in a generation-long global neoliberal circle jerk has been celebrated as ballooning GDP. Now Hanson wants to assume that this is going to accelerate us into Holodeck Heaven or NanoHogwarts? Science! Futurology and the batshit extremities of futurology represented by transhumanism singularitarianism techno-immortalism greenwashing geoengineers and so on are simply the froth on the cauldron of such marketing denialism and fraud.

I am actually hopeful that social democracy and environmental politics might indeed marginalize the neoliberal/ libertopian/ Republican madness in the US in time to build a sustainable, equitable, and diverse social democracy and incubate renewable industries in collaboration with Europe, India, and South America in time to save the world from likely destruction. It's worth trying at any rate.

In saying this you may notice that I do not pretend to be making a scientific prediction or diagnosing futurological "trends." There is no such thing as an historically agentic or otherwise forceful "trend." "Trends" are retroactive narrative constructions at their best, but usually their retroactivity is falsely projected as if from the vantage of a non-existing superior height (fashion trends announced from on high) or from the future (which is inhabited by no one at all) in which case they are always prescriptions masquerading as descriptions.

By the way, I do not think any true believing Robot Cultist or even Very Serious academic/think-tank Futurologists is a reliable ally in any of the work to accomplish a world worth living in or capable of sustaining an equitable-in-its-diversity secular technoscientific civilization. Almost all futurology functions as apologiae for distraction from organized resistance together with encouragements for increased consumption and celebrations of corporate-military plutocrats and their norms and institutional forms. There is no definition of "singularity" I am aware of that looks much like any planetary outcome that seems to me remotely relevant to our actual circumstances.

The conversation continues on in the comments -- definitely read on and make a contribution.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

"Graffiti removal guy comes back to discover image of himself sprayed in the same spot."

Each Wild Idea is where I saw this, but it is all over the place.

Adam Smith Also Advocated for the Visible Hand

There's a nice dKos diary collecting quotations from Adam Smith advocating for progressive taxation and luxury taxes. There are quite a few blooms in the basket, but they get no plainer than this one:
The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.
Of course, many self-declared fans of Adam Smith like to decry "taxation as theft," quite contrary to the spirit of their icon, but also forgetting their pet piety that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." After all, taxes are the price paid for a civilization that has a workable concept of theft as a criminal offense for these libertopians to misconstrue so glibly in the first place.

Those who stamp their feet and demand to know "just who do you expect to pay?" for welfare support for those people momentarily marginalized by misfortune from contributing their potential measure to commonwealth -- these people are always forgetting that those who succeed sufficiently to tax, and those who are thriving for now, all depend, indispensably if not entirely, for good their fortune on the efforts of the diversity of their contemporaries and on a vast ritual and material infrastructure arising from a shared past and ongoing collaborative maintenance.

From those to whom much is given in this shared enterprise, much is rightly expected in its support. For those who grasp the ineradicable fact of their interdependence on their fellows there should be no resentment at the expectation of their contribution to the maintenance of a world that works and has worked so well for them.

Steeply progressive taxes are a countervailing power to the otherwise inertial concentration of wealth that always undermines the equitable distribution of information indispensable to a meritocratic assignment of effort in the service of the solution of shared problems and which also always undermines the equitable access to governance and law indispensable to democratic participation and accountability. Further, steeply progressive taxes are necessary to administer public and common goods in the public interest and circumvent their private violation and abuse, as well as to fund the constellation of general welfare provisions of health, education, income security which ensure that the scene of consent to the terms of everyday commerce is reliably informed and non-duressed without which "free enterprise" is always a rationalization for abuses and vestigial enslavement.

In other words, far from representing the violence of "theft" taxes provide for the legal adjudication of disputes, for the maintenance of the scene of informed, non-duressed consent and for the equitable administration of public and common goods of which non-violence chiefly actually substantially consists.

Adam Smith did not grasp all of these connections as clearly as we have come to do ourselves after centuries of plutocratic industrial and financial and military abuses -- not to mention centuries of convulsive efforts to ameliorate avoidable human suffering and facilitate prosperity through social democracy -- but he certainly grasped the issues at hand incomparably more clearly than the Republicans and Randroids who love smugly to misquote without reading him.


Grading mid-term papers for my second summer intensive at Berkeley. As often happens at such times, I'm pondering things like whether Hegemony Cricket or Pam Opticon is the better drag name.

Friday, August 02, 2013

I Predict

Making their new predictions is the way futurologists distract you from the failure of their old predictions.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Turning the Terror Tide

Democratic Representative for central New Jersey Rush Holt discusses the Surveillance State Repeal Act he introduced last week:
This isn’t reform. This is repeal. I voted against both of those [the Patriot Act and the FAA] before. And actually against Patriot before multiple times. Those bills were misguided in their specifics, and now seeing what various agencies have done to stretch the language of those bills to cover things that were never intended to be covered makes clear that they’ve got to go. Even Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) [the author of the Patriot Act] has said it was never intended to be used that way... I sat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and chaired the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, which was created at the recommendation of the 9/11 panel, and should be continuing except that Speaker [John] Boehner abolished it when he took office. So having dealt with the leaders of the intelligence committee, not much surprises me. They’re in the business of secrecy and deception. And unfortunately it carries over to their interaction with Congress...

I actually believe that violating the Fourth Amendment keeps us less safe. When the FISA court allows government functionaries, however well-meaning, to make decisions that should be made by an independent judge about who is worthy of suspicion, who should be collected on, then you end up with a situation where those who surveil and detain are operating on their own hunches. They can easily end up with unchecked wild goose chases or witch hunts. The idea of the Fourth Amendment is not to get in the way of law enforcement and intelligence, but rather to see that they do a good job by having to prove at each step of the way that they know what they’re doing, that they’re not off running down hunches and going off on wild goose chases and witch hunts. So I’m not sure what the NSA folks and folks like Clapper have been saying behind closed doors about how effective this stuff is, but I watched it for years, and it is not effective at keeping Americans safer on balance...

What led up to the Patriot Act, in 2001, was a very dramatic change in American surveillance law and practice. The practice changed before the law changed. The FISA Amendments Act was brought forward under the law [to provide a legal basis for] activities that were already under way. To say repealing them is a dramatic change in U.S. intelligence law, I would say, well no, it is undoing the dramatic change that occurred in our moment of fear...

[T]he legislation provides whistleblower protection for people who work in the intelligence agencies. Right now, they have no whistleblower protection comparable to what exists in other agencies. Especially in the [intelligence] agencies we need that. In agencies that are dominated by secrecy and deception, Congress simply won’t know and surely the public won’t know either what is being done in their name. If there had been whistleblower protection, I’m quite sure that Snowden would not have done what he did. Yet we could have, as the president has said, a national debate about what needs to be done in spying on Americans and others. My bill essentially extends to employees of the intelligence community the kinds of protections that exist in other agencies. They would be able to go to Congress or to designated officials like inspectors general without having to fear workplace retribution. Think of the case of Thomas Drake. He uncovered what I think would have to be called waste and perhaps fraud [at the NSA], and he took that up the chain, and he was severely disciplined for it. It hurt him professionally, and as we know, the way the story played out, the court chastised the NSA for the treatment. It just shows that you can’t take this up the chain in the agency as a whistleblower and expect fair treatment.
Representative Holt's proposal is the clearest of a host of expressions of dismay and the need for action in the face of recent (for some) revelations of NSA, FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security overreach, a turning of the Terror Tide the significance of which is not exhausted by its likely failure in the present (although the surprise House vote a week ago to defund formally-legalized but patently-Unconstitutional NSA spying already came stunningly close to success) but in its rhetorical framing of the issues, in its establishment and amplification of a momentum for change, and in its laying of the legal groundwork for eventual repudiations and reforms, the sooner the better.