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

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Future Is A Hell Of A Drug: io9 Has A New Manifesto

Annalee Newitz titled the original "Manifesto" defining the Mission of the io9 website Addicted to the Future. It is a curiously apt phrase. There is a very obvious and flatfooted way in which there is no such thing, here in the present, after all, as The Future. And as such one never arrives at The Future, but always only another present. But I have always taken pains to pressure this point further still, insisting that "futurity" is a characteristic of that always aborning present. I use the term futurity to describe the openness of the present onto the next present that arises out of the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders -- and the ineradicable diversity of their histories, hopes, ends, capacities, vantages -- sharing and making the present world. From such a perspective, "The Future" doesn't only not exist, but is a parochialism projected from within a present perspective that forecloses or seeks to foreclose that futurity, substituting for it a linear extrapolation or amplified incumbency. To be "addicted to the future" is to be addicted to the denial of the futurity in the present, it is to disavow the contingency of the present, to retreat into a presence that would abide and in so abiding deny the presence that is opening. I daresay such disavowals and retreats are sufficiently characteristic of addictions that one might declare an "addiction to the Future" a redundancy. Somewhat paradoxically, its parochialism, its reaction, its incumbency renders every futurism a retro-futurism (and not only in the sense Newitz admits, an appreciation of superannuated science fiction visions in the Gernsback Continuum).

"Good science fiction begins with the present," wrote Newitz, and she would have done well to dwell there. All great literature, and that includes the literature that is science fiction literature, is a comment on the quandaries and promises of the present and an effort to expand the diversity in presence we are capable of grasping as part of the present of which we are a part. When Newitz declares that "science fiction... [i]s the storytelling branch of prophesy" I would quibble with that "the" but I consider her larger point that poiesis is prophetic more important. But when Newitz opened up her manifesto warning that the world is "full of people who want to sell you cheap ways of seeing the future," she didn't make explicit the extent to which what tends to cheapen ways of taking up and taking on futurity is to misunderstand or, worse, deliberately misconstrue prophesy as a predictive rather than diagnostic genre -- a misunderstanding and misconstrual that has as one of its most conspicuous symptoms fetishistic references to "The Future."

The profete is in the original Greek an advocate, speaking as an intermediary from an absolutely idiosyncratic presence into the reception of the wider world, a fraught and fragile transaction every artist knows all too well. How very different the futurological pseudo-expert, circumscribing open futurity in the pretense of "trend-spotting," when
[c]ertainly there is no such thing as an historically agentic or otherwise autonomously forceful trend. Trends, let us say, are retroactive narrative constructions, and usually their retroactivity is falsely projected as if from the vantage of a non-existing superior height (as with fashion trends announced by fashion authorities) or from the future (which does not exist and is inhabited by no one at all)...
Is it any wonder that io9 has chosen as it tagline "We Come From the Future" as if "The Future" singularly and monolithically existed as a vantage from which to intimate "its" imminence in the present and bag the rest in advance for disposal?

In that original "Manifesto" Newitz promised "io9 [would be] the visionary watchdog who calls... charlatans on their shit." As attested to by their endless promotion of the work of transhumanoid, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, nano-cornucopiast, digi-utopian Robot Cultists indulging in techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies and celebratory fantasias about corporate-military elite-incumbents delivering happy gizmo-fetishizing consumers into Holodeck-Heaven or Techno-Treasure Caves or Sexy Hetbot Orgy Pits (and occasionally indulging in robocalyptic disasterbation fantasies for a bit of spice to the otherwise blandly bourgeois and infantile goldgunsgirls libertechbrotarian fare), io9 is a place where one comes to find charlatans peddling futurological shit more than getting called on it.

That io9 has found itself trapped in the gravity well of retro-futurism despite its awareness from the get-go that the futuristic is a graveyard of plutocratic patriarchal colonial cliches derives from its ambivalent embrace of the prophetic as the predictive, the speculative as financial speculation, futurity with "The Future" that is always given over to the marketing and promotional pseudo-science and outright fraud of market futures. It is easy to joke about "rapture fuckers" but The Future is a hell of a drug, and the marvelous raptures of sf fandoms are all too ready to rapture fuck you up if you fail to engage them critically.

I say all this as preface to talking about an updated "Manifesto" Newitz has posted today at io9, called -- promisingly, I would say -- Science Is Political. Such an assertion is absolutely indispensable, now as always, since the defense of science so often takes the form of demands that science "not be politicized" when in fact scientific practices of funding, publication, testing, application, education are thoroughly political, and hence what is needed is their progressive politicization not a fanciful de-politicization which amounts in practice either to a denialism about its political needs that cuts science off from necessary supporters or to an outright anti-politicization that enables elite incumbent norms and forms to stealthily define those politics clothed as neutralities immune from criticism. Or more specifically, as Newitz points out in the piece, "when science is under attack from many political and religious institutions, we can no longer afford to report on the latest research and call it a job well done. To advocate for science is to advocate for a political position, whether we like it or not." I would have to insist once again that techno-transcendental futurisms proliferate faith-based pseudo-scientific sub(cult)ures that are hard to square with "the defense of science" and that nobody who really claims to be defending the ideal of science as rational inquiry can afford to be indifferent to the forms of deception, hyperbole, scientism and pseudo-science, reductionism, triumphalism, reaction, obfuscation, oversimplification, eugenicism, fetishism, narcissism and (self-)promotion that suffuse corporate-military developmental policy discourses, tech company press releases, and pop-tech infomercial spectacles pretending to be journalism. Although I usually enjoy the multicultural literary and cultural criticism and ethnography in io9, otherwise the site endlessly exhibits the political pathologies of tech-talk rather than critically intervening in them.

It is worse than demoralizing that after insisting that science is political Newitz immediately evacuates her discourse of a political perspective, indulging in the usual "false equivalency" and "Middle Way" bullshit apologiae of hacks pretending they are not mouthpieces for the status quo: "Pro-science politics don't divide easily into conservative and liberal. Imagine, if you will, that people from all positions on the political spectrum came together to advocate for scientific research and education. Conservatives advocating for defense and agricultural innovations would rub shoulders with liberals pursuing sustainable energy and environmental reforms." A more cliched bit of genre fantasy could scarcely be imagined. It is true that, say, civic-minded progressives investing in medical treatments to relieve human suffering and militarist fascists dreaming of better bombs to obliterate their foes with will both have their reasons to keep certain laboratories well funded. To pretend that this provides a Royal Road to a science politics "beyond left and right" is the worst kind of nonsense, indeed it is a viewpoint that will almost always conduce to the reactionary politics of incumbent elites.

Newitz may think in pretending otherwise that she is taking a cue from the Donna Haraway who wrote (wisely and beautifully):
I am conscious of the odd perspective provided by my historical position — a PhD in biology for an Irish Catholic girl was made possible by Sputnik's impact on US national science-education policy. I have a body and mind as much constructed by the post-Second World War arms race and cold war as by the women's movements. There are more grounds for hope in focusing on the contradictory effects of politics designed to produce loyal American technocrats, which also produced large numbers of dissidents, than in focusing on the present defeats.
Of course, Haraway's point returns us to the open futurity of the present, but in so doing it does not pretend not to know who the dissidents are. She may be blaspheming, but the Manifesto (which Haraway has moved on from, by the way, in part because of facile blissed-out reactionary technophiliac appropriations of its formulations) remained "faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism," that is to say, retained a critical vantage informed by real commitments. I daresay Newitz would like to say the same -- her readings of sf multiculture are invigorated by these values -- but it is hard to find those values in her rationalizations for transhumanoid eugenicists, DARPA militarists, and singularitarian financiers. You can't engage in a "quest to build a better tomorrow" without making choices about what is better -- equity or not, sustainability or not, diversity or not, violence or not. And you can't make and live with those choices without making enemies of many Newitz clearly wants to make nice with. By the way, Newitz didn't speak of A quest to build a better tomorrow, but of OUR quest to build a better tomorrow. Who is we, Annalee? I have a sinking suspicion it is the same "We" who want to pretend "We Come From The Future."

"Science" is not a monolith any more than "technology" is such a monolith: that both are practiced by a diversity of stakeholders in the ongoing scrum of historical struggle in ways that reflect the diversity of the situations and aspirations of those stakeholders means that there can be no such thing as a "pro-science" or "pro-technology" politics in general -- and that the designation of an "anti-science" or "anti-technology" politics always demands a greater specificity to become actually useful, too. It is commonplace for especially right-wing politics to clothe itself in presumably a-political or non-political or non-partisan neutralities and generalities. Market libertopians who advocate among the most conspicuously plutocratic authoritarian political philosophies imaginable love to declare themselves "beyond left and right" -- and it is not an accident that the corporate-military interests that identify most conspicuously with technodevelopmental dollars are suffused with presumably a-political daydreams of anti-democratizing elite technocratic decision making and "evolutionary" rationalizations for racist and sexist prejudices. Political progress is progress toward sustainable equity-in-diversity and technodevelopmental vicissitudes are rendered progressive only to the extent that their costs, risks, and benefits are equitably distributed to the diversity of their stakeholders in social struggle that rarely if ever has anything to do with the championing of Science or Technology in the abstract.

I come from -- and I come in -- the present. And what is wanted -- it seems to me -- is not to be "addicted to The Future" but to be engaged in the present. To engage in the interminable struggle to reconcile the ineradicably different aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders who share the present is to do politics, whether technoscientific or otherwise. And when we are dedicated and we are lucky in that struggle, to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of prosthetic/cultural change are sustainably and equitably distributed to the diversity of its stakeholders is to do the political work of building a better, more progressive world in the present opening onto the next present. I would like the think Newitz agrees with that -- and she may very well -- but if she does, she hasn't said it yet and io9 isn't demonstrating it otherwise.


Dale Carrico said...

Interesting, the comments for Newitz's post are mostly quite exaggerately adulatory. But one very modest bit of pushback got a response from Newitz. One "juansmith" wrote:

I agree with this, and I would also say that science is under attack as always from bad science journalism. io9 is certainly one of the better sites in this regard - I see far more debunkery of bad reporting than actual bad reporting here. But it's something to always be on guard about. Whenever anyone's talking about a simple scientific discovery and the news reports are promising immortality or a cure for all possible cancers, there's a very fine line to tread between optimism and overstating what's justifiable from the text.

To this Newitz responded:

I wish bad science journalism were the real problem. But political movements to cut science funding and activist groups that prevent people from getting much-needed vaccinations are far more dangerous and pernicious than any "you'll be immortal and cure cancer with this unique device" article could ever be.

Notice that she dismisses the point that pop-tech informercialism is "a problem" by declaring it is not "the problem" as if there is and can only be one problem. I personally think Newitz is wrong to pretend that research into vaccines or treatments for neglected diseases or funding for their distribution is not diminished or deranged by promises of rejuvenation and enhancement and cosmetic procedures with which techno-immortalist fantasies are essentially continuous and for which they provide the reductio ad absurdum.

Futurological just-so stories are symptoms of problems with more prevailing developmental and technoscience discourses that produce effects quite as pernicious as the ones Newitz rightly derides.

By the way, Newitz is a smart cookie and a very gifted critical theorist -- she already knows all the stuff I criticize her for, but she also knows what side her bread is buttered on. Occasionally, as when she defended Morozov or when she spoke belatedly against evopsycho douchebags, Newitz writes in io9 in ways that reveal her awareness, tho' she is usually forced to retreat and apologize alarmingly rapidly for such revelations.

Overall, I daresay she has calculated that without the techbros there is no io9. Or maybe she really does want to believe some of the retro-futurist and Robot Cult nonsense she ends up promoting -- I've been quite shocked to discover otherwise bright and progressive folks can be rendered plutocratic tools by the fear of death or the desire for a job more rewarding than is available in the neoliberal academy.

I think that's a mistake that ends up subverting much of what is otherwise good and could be better about io9, but YMMV obviously.

Esebian said...

The only thing io9 was ever good for was as a platform to critically engage the disciples of the Church of Libertechbrotarianism, but it has become a lost cause since the redesign purged the commentariat entirely of dissenting voices after their input got burried under megatons of unnavigatable Web 2.0 frills and furbelows.

The system was rigged against us well before that, of course; I stopped frequenting once they took away my posting privileges (why does a self-declared community of "progressives" need such authoritarian tools of control in the first place?) and banished my replies to the "posts pending big cheese approval" wasteland.

But as they say on the Intertubes, and nothing of value was lost. Their signal-to-noise ratio plunged to intolerable levels the moment they hired Dumbsky (and that Bricken guy's childish coverage of inane superhero comics became a hit).

Gawker should cut its losses and just rebrand io9 as a pure SF/F nerd site that's about the latest sci-fi/fantasy pulp, the endless torrent of loud and dumb Marvel flicks and music videos with robots and anime in it, but that stays the hell away from dabbling in "science" journalism.

Dale Carrico said...

I wondered where your comments had wandered off to! I miss them personally.

I can see why your interventions might annoy Dvorsky but I noticed they often provoked interesting conversations in the comments, to hear of io9s passive-aggressive managerial censoring really is quite an indictment, given how many saucer-eyed boosters will gather to cheer any inanity published there. Talk about thin skins -- ah, well, cultists and fanboys are notoriously prickly and defensive.

Given the tone of Valleywag I'm a bit surprised that Gawker would resist the selective skewering of libertechbrotarians elsewhere on their archipelago. I tend to think this indicates futurological capture or at any rate sympathies on the part of io9s editorial muckety-mucks -- which is highly disappointing given, you know, the stupidity.

I agree with you that Newitz et al would do better to treat io9 as a multicultural sf-f criticism/fandoms ethnography site. To hear they want to do more scitech journalism, one doesn't need to be a futurist to predict, given the palpable science illiteracy and techfantasist inclination of their readership, that io9 will be actively contributing to science anti-education and flogging tech company products in ways that border on fraud all too soon. You know, "championing science" and "building a better tomorrow" and stuff.

Athena Andreadis said...

If anyone takes io9 seriously as a "science" site, they deserve whatever they get. It's sciency at most, if that.

Dale Carrico said...

"Let's ask this scientician!"

jimf said...

> The system was rigged against us well before that,
> of course; I stopped frequenting once they took
> away my posting privileges (why does a self-declared
> community of "progressives" need such authoritarian
> tools of control in the first place?) and banished
> my replies to the "posts pending big cheese approval"
> wasteland.

Just shut up and shop. Shut up and shop.
Follow the yellow-brick road. Shut up and shop.

Dale Carrico said...

Given the actual context of the actual film from which it is actually clipped, I find rather odd how often folks have taken to appending a Charles Foster Kane clapping gif in comments sections to declare an editorializing post "well, said!" or "enthusiastically endorsed!" -- this has become an especially commonplace gesture in the Gawker universe of sites. Of course, in the actual scene Kane seeks to create an applause-momentum and impression of support for the unambiguously shitty and poorly received performance of his wife in an opera for which she was altogether unsuited (as she well knew herself). The scene is one of painfully catastrophic failure in pretty much every way. It's the first thing you see in the Comments for Newitz's Manifesto. Just saying.

Esebian said...

It's almost like most nerds are, you know, ignorant of culture and history or something.