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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Against Innovation

Richard Jones has written a thoughtful and provocative essay entitled, Responsible Innovation and Irresponsible Stagnation to which I have responded with the following. I strongly recommend reading his piece first, since I don't recapitulate the terms of his argument and yet closely track it in my response. Also, I suppose I should apologize in advance for titling this response in a more polemical way than the qualifications of my argument may finally justify.
I have read your essay a few times by now, and I still find it enormously provocative but also frustrating. The crux of my frustration -- and, I have come to realize, the provocation as well -- is your use of the term “innovation” to get at several densely interrelated phenomena, all of which matter to me as they do to you. Reading your piece offers the welcome consolation of finding an intelligent engagement with my own concerns but coupled with the strangely alienating sense that you are talking about these concerns all wrong!

Of course, that is my limitation not yours, but to give you a sense of where I am coming from, “innovation” is simply not a term I use at all or am likely to do: I have always been concerned that “innovation” is a notion of change-making that insistently fails to recognize that what matters more than making change is whether change is positive or negative. That recognition, it seems to me, is logically prior to the even more complicated and also crucial recognition that such assessments will differ depending on the position of the various stakeholders to change. At the heart of innovation as a discourse is a failure to account for these, but worse, I think this is not just a failure but a refusal and I think much of what is valued in the discourse is precisely what is argumentatively facilitated (reductionist clarity) and politically enabled (stealthy conservatism) by this refusal. This matters especially because this very term which disavows the normative dimension of change is at once typically deployed in a normative way. That is to say, we are expected to value innovation, we even treat the innovative, so-called, as synonymous with good -- however obviously true it is that what passes for the innovative won’t ever be good for everybody or even necessarily good for more than not in more ways than not. As someone who has lived and taught technoscience criticism for his entire adult life in the Bay Area in the shadow of the Silly Con Valley, my worst fears about the discursive limitations of innovation-speak are daily confirmed in the endless hyperbole and stale repackaging and triumphalism of upward-failing venture-capitalist skim-and-scam operators hooting about their entrepreneurial dynamism and innovation and -- angels and ministers of grace defend us! -- “thought-leadership” as though they are living incarnations of the heroes in an Ayn Rand bodice-ripper.

Of course these may be anecdotal concerns, but I strongly suspect they are representative. I do not think it is accidental that innovation is strongly associated with ideological individualism – we tend to think of and celebrate innovation as the achievement of heroic individuals, often individuals who achieved innovation in spite of the resistance and ridicule and intransigence of ignorant, unimaginative, lazy, corrupt collectivities. It seems to me that this ideology amounts to a profoundly systematic deception disguising the essentially collective character of all discovery and application, the dependence of the innovator on the collective ritual and material artifice that supports an innovator’s life, education, efforts as well as the collective inheritance of the archive of prior discovery and creation to which innovation inevitably makes recourse.

Needless to say, much of the point of your argument here is to grapple with these very limitations. The notion of “responsible innovation” is meant to compensate the disavowal of ethical/political deliberation inhering in innovation as an end-in-itself. But I wonder if prefixing innovation with responsibility can invest innovative change-making with the normativity it has generically disavowed or simply manages to assimilate responsibility to a techno-determinist evacuation of history that will tend to endorse as good whatever conduces uncritically to familiar values and incumbent interests. To what exactly is responsibility responsive if not to the diversity of stakeholders who experience the costs, risks, possibilities, problems, and benefits of historical, ongoing, and contemplated technoscientific changes so differently in their differences? Does the celebration of innovation that has prevailed over increasing wealth concentration, increasing precarization of majorities, and ever more catastrophic climate change really seem beholden to a democratizing formulation of responsibility?

In this, I think innovation is of a piece with a host of related concepts that share its insensitivity. For example, I have come to think of “design” as a discursive site in which politics are at once done and disavowed. Think of the ways in which design endlessly promises to circumvent what are otherwise intractable political dilemmas through what it imagines to be efficient architecture: the failure of political systems to respond to climate catastrophe is to be circumvented through sustainable commodities and infrastructure, the failure of representative governance to reflect majority interests and desires is to be circumvented through software facilitating participation and accountability, the failure to societies to provide for healthy or happy citizens is to be circumvented through eugenic genetic and prosthetic enhancement making better humans, and so on.

These designer circumventions of the political are of course serially failed, and on political grounds -- the necessity to deal with their unintended consequences on political terms, the exposure of their disavowed parochial political assumptions and aspirations. That fact, coupled with the inherent anti-democratic politics of a so called a-political facilitation of progress involving a small minority of trained designers substituting their elite decisions for public decision-making in matters impacting majorities, leads me to connect the discourses of design and innovation conceptually -- as of course they are obviously and endlessly connected in PR-practices today.

My mention of “progress” there reminds me that this ambivalence around normativity is indeed deep and dense: how often we speak of “progress” as an end-in-itself without specifying the ends in the direction of which progress is presumably attaining, without subjecting those ends to critical scrutiny, without contemplating the alternative ends frustrated or precluded by this progressive trajectory as against others, without rendering explicit the constituencies that benefit most and least, which take on what costs and risks, in the work of one progress against another.

It occurs to me that the imaginary destination denominated “The Future” becomes quite indispensable to all these discourses -- progress progresses toward “The Future,” innovation innovates for “The Future,” design designs “The Future.” I will circle back to this point in a moment -- don’t I always?
My first response to reading your piece was to wonder if I could circumvent some of these dangers and yet retain the force of your insights by jettisoning “innovation” from it altogether, and translating it into different terms. It seems to me that quite a lot of the substance of your argument can be framed as a return to questions of relations between private, public, and common goods that are pretty foundational but deserve to remain contentious in the political economy of administered markets and social democracies.

How do we account ethically and efficiently for the solution of shared problems through public investment and public policy when the stakes (costs, risks, benefits) of both these problems and their solution will be different to the diversity of their stakeholders? Since I do not ascribe to the myths of natural markets or spontaneous orders, I regard “markets” and “private goods” as artifacts produced and maintained through public policy and public investment themselves and finally properly justified (or not) on the same terms as public and common goods. Hence, these do not seem to me to provide alternatives to but instances subsumed under the general question preceding. On such matters, I think it is not Hayek’s friend Michael Polanyi we should be reading, but Hayek’s enemy and Michael’s older brother, Karl Polanyi.

A good part of your argument reminds me of debates around the idea of “The Precautionary Principle” -- and in particular, a mostly neglected episode in those debates in which extropian transhumanist futurologist Max More sought to reframe the debate by introducing his own “Proactionary Principle.”

His formulation is as follows: “People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.”

You will have noticed of course that innovation is central to More’s idea here. You will have also noticed that “innovation” is treated as highly valuable even when some innovation certainly will not be, and treated as critical to humanity even when some innovation certainly will imperil humanity. References to opportunites do not specify beneficiaries, references to progress do not specify ends, risks and costs are connected to restrictions of innovation and never to results of innovation. Innovation here has been assimilated to freedom construed in terms of negative liberty -- as one would expect of a market libertarian ideologue like Max More -- and as such denigrates those freedoms that depend on the collective investment and maintenance of norms, practices, institutions, and other public affordances, and is indifferent to the differences between those who are neglected or rendered more precarious by such formulations rather than profit from them (and for who knows how long). It is not incidental that though More’s principle begins with a high-minded invocation of “People” he comes soon enough to denigrate the “popular” as the site of prejudice, superstition, and parochialism.

Max More is committed -- as kindred futurologists like Kurzweil and Thiel and Diamandis also are -- to a techno-triumphalist account of discoveries and innovation accumulating a pile of treasures and enhancements higher and higher unto an instrmentalist materialist techno-transcendence incarnating omni-predicated post-human godhood in tech-heaven. From such an ideological perspective it may make sense to think of the historical Luddites, say, as barriers to that innovation and progress of which we are all beneficiaries, along the road to an emancipatory techno-transcendence anti-technology Luddism still seeks to deny us even now.

But of course the historical Luddites were no more monolithically “anti-technology” than those who are derided as Luddites today. Language, clothing, posture are all techniques, all artifacts -- to pretend any humans are anti-technology is almost always to selectively naturalize some artifice in the service of stealthy conservative and reactionary political ends. All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture -- and all humanity, in becoming and in being human is prostheticized through and through. The historical Luddites were in fact defending their independent way of life and defending the techiniques and artifacts on which that lifeway depended, against a plutocratic constituency that sought to disrupt that lifeway and render it docile through the introduction of different techniques and artifacts to transform the marketplace and better control its participants. Their conflict was not one of pro-technologists against anti-technologists but a struggle over appropriate technologies and the abuse of precarious lives by those with privilege.

Before one ridicules the concerns of the historical Luddites by pointing out that they were wrong to describe the new machines as the end of the world, it is important to realize that their world really did end even though we live in the different world enabled in part by the ending of their world. It is wrong to pretend that our interests coincide with theirs or that ours should obviously or inevitably have prevailed over theirs. But more important still, it remains an open question whether we might have arrived at something like the technoscientifically accomplished world we presumably value now even if the world of the Luddites had not ended for them. If the plutocratic profits arising from new forms of automation had been distributed to benefit the Luddites and if substantial social support and retraining had been made available to the Luddites their world might not have ended at all or their struggle played out in the first place. On such terms, perhaps we would be more technoscientificaally advanced still and more democratically organized. As happens so often, a fixation on de-contextualized questions of “technology” may be distracting us fatally from a recognition of historical stakes that are moral and political in character.

The chief rhetorical effect of More’s principle seems to me to cast precaution itself as always only a barrier to problem-solving and a violation of freedom. It seems pretty clear that the freedom it champions is that of elite profit-taking whatever the injuries or fears majorities might want to complain about. But what if precautionary regulations are a spur to innovation of a different kind rather than merely an invitation to stagnation? Life is change, after all: people change all the time, the world changes all the time. Is stagnation just one way of saying what change looks like when the changes afoot don’t suit your inclinations? And what if precautionary regulation saves the world without which no innovation is possible in the first place, or enables majorities to flourish more of whom can be elicited to participate in innovative problem-solving even if minorities are discouraged from that innovation by lowered expectations of personal profitability or celebrity, say? Presumably, innovation is a response to problems -- but so too are warnings and regulations. Is it not as likely that precautionary regulation is a partner to innovation as much or more than it is a curtailment of innovation?

To More's proposal we might oppose the famous Wingspan formulation of the Precautionary Principle, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” If the standard for justification of regulation is “fully established scientifically” then those who would resist regulation out of a desire for parochial short-term profitability whatever the general or longer-term costs or risks can pretend that only a level of certainly science rarely provides warrants regulation, even if the consensus of actual scientists actually regards regulation as warranted. What critics like More seem to deride as an anti-science bias in precaution is just as likely a defense of public policy accountable to actual consensus science. To the extent that scientists are themselves citizens like any other, there are also questions whether their interests in science as a constituency among others really should take precedence other others -- is a scientist’s interest in discovery always more valuable than those who worry more about the costs or risks of some discoveries? is a scientist’s superior knowledge of the truths in a field likewise a measure of a superior capacity to gauge the significance or value of the truths in that field?

Over a decade ago I grappled with these issues and proposed what I called a “Proportionate Precautionary Principle” (the formulation first appeared in contrarian critiques I published in two now-defunct transhumanist spaces, Betterhumans and Cyborg Democracy, so I think it not implausible that Max More might have encountered them, as well as the centrality of the term “proportionate” in them he shares -- a vestige of that earlier piece appears in Part IV of a post from a couple years later at Amor Mundi from 2005). In my formulation facts and norms, caution and innovation, science and democracy are partners rather than antagonists, “[1] We should always be cautious in the face of possible harm; [2] As assessments of risk and harm grow more severe according to the consensus of relevant science, the burden of their justification rightly falls ever more conspicuously onto those who propose either to impose them or to refrain from ameliorating them; and [3] The processes through which these justifications and their assessments properly take place must be open, evidence-based, and involve all the actual stakeholders to the question at issue.” My point in returning to this old formulation is less to advocate my view over More’s, but to reveal the extent to which putatively politically neutral “pro-science,” “pro-technology,” “pro-innovation” formulations may depend on stealthy reactionary political values and ends by comparing them with a formulation that is conspicuously progressive but not easily dismissable as anti-science, anti-technology, or anti-innovation in the least.
You have framed these complex considerations as a navigation between a pair of alternatives: responsible as against irresponsible innovation, and innovation as against stagnation. In response, I have sounded some warnings: First, that the discourse of innovation may be definitively, even constitutively irresponsible, such that an effort to perform responsibility through it may be more likely to assimilate responsibility to plutocratic profit-taking than to invest innovation with democratizing responsibility. Second, that “stagnation” is more likely to be attributed by the incumbent-elites who prefer innovation-discourse to a state of democratically accountable, politically progressive innovation and change than it is to describe a real dearth of innovation and change that probably cannot prevail in any case so long as humans remain alive and historical struggle continues.

To the extent that “stagnation” is meant to name instead the worry that public investment and public policy (and the private enterprise that is among the accomplishments of public investment and public policy) are no longer equal to the shared problems of climate change, pandemic circulation, weapons proliferation, and human lives violated, neglected, wasted by systematic exploitation and marginalization, then it seems to me that what is wanted is a vocabulary of technoscientific change that foregrounds as much as possible the diversity of political stakes at hand. It is pretty clear to me that even if “innovation” is a term that might be enlisted in the service of such a foregrounding in principle, it probably matters that innovation has not been a conspicuous register of such concerns historically while it might be said to have actively disavowed them instead, meanwhile there are other available vocabularies that have done just that: among them, those of social justice, class struggle, climate progress, democratic movement.

Now, just when you think I have wound my meandering way to a conclusion, let me remind you that all this resulted from my first response to reading your essay. After I tried to hold on to the valuable observations and connections of your analysis all the while translating its focus on “innovation” into other more explicitly politicized terms, it turned out I was as dissatisfied as satisfied with the results. I couldn’t help but feel that I was losing more than I was keeping by indulging this translation exercise -- and losing much that seemed valuable and personally provocative in your approach. So, I started again, as I often do, by taking a dive into my trusty OED to find my way into innovation etymologically. What I found there, as so often happens, was quite stunning. Innovate derives from the Latin innovare, to renew or alter, a making in- (into) -novus (new). The sense of introducing novelty did not originally seem to divert from the sense of altering the already-available into novelty, a re-newal rather than an ad initio creation. And hence the archive of innovation seems to contain a critique of what the discourse of innovation has largely become, the disavowal of the collectivity and citationality of creativity.

We might say that just as those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, those who forget their disappointment with crappy commodities of the past are doomed to be disappointed again when the same crap is marketed into novelty via neologism. Data storage on remote servers, with all its limitations, existed long before they called it “the cloud” and pretended it was the revolution. People were texting on BBSs and in chatrooms before texting was the revolution. Museums the world over collect ancient vases that feature the EZ-pour spout long before Whisk liquid detergent’s EZ-pour spout was the revolution. These references to technological “revolution” are fortuitous, because it would seem that the early history of the English usage of the term innovation was tightly conjoined to revolution, often indeed treated as synonymous with it. The circular figure performed in the enunciation of the revolutionary term has always been tensely at odds with the radicality of the new beginning the revolutionary term is meant to designate, fixing conservative restoration at the very place of progressive novelty, insisting on the ending in beginning and beginning in ending.

I am always surprised how useful it turns out to be to remind my students in critical technoscience and technoculture courses of the elementary distinction of is from ought. No matter how much we know or think we know about what IS in the world, this tells us next to nothing about what we OUGHT to do about what IS, or even whether we OUGHT to have devoted so much effort to discovering what we have about what IS rather than quite different aspects and portions of what IS we ignored or were even precluded from by coming to know just what we do instead. We can never arrive at OUGHT from IS, although many have tried the feat, and although the constitution of our sense of what IS can circumscribe what we are capable of grasping as what also IS in a way that functions a bit like an OUGHT we may not know we have committed to. All that said, it is no less true that we can never arrive at IS from OUGHT either, as any wish-fulfillment fantasist who hasn’t gone hopelessly mad can tell you.

In a time when we seem all too ready to outsource our collective responsibility to deliberate over what we should be doing to experts who claim to know more about what it is that we are doing, there are good reasons to emphasize the incapacity to get from IS to OUGHT, but that doesn’t diminish the logical force of the inverse. So, too, in a time when we indulge in a discourse of innovation that disavows the collectivity and historicity of problem-solving there are good reasons to emphasize the political rather than instrumental character of progress, but that doesn’t justify the pretense that we have a handle on just how old the new is, just how much change is assimilated via familiarization and naturalization or resisted via repudiation or re-appropriation before it gets called “progress” or not and by whom and just when and for how long.

The ambivalences inhering in terms like revolution and, yes, innovation, are registers of these perplexities even if they can sometimes be mobilized in the service of false and facile reassurance as well. Righteous critique of what is reactionary in reductively individualizing and de-politicizing innovation discourse is surely satisfying, but there is something to be said for taking up the challenge of innovation’s ambivalent archive as a discursive site playing out less immediately satisfying unresolved, possibly unresolvable, paradoxes in our conception of progressive change itself.
In your essay you assert, “We can discuss what irresponsible innovation looks like, but not to innovate is irresponsible too.” I hope I have given you pause about making such claims, just as you have given me pause. That said, I would still be inclined to respond to the proposal that we can discuss what irresponsible innovation looks like, that it probably looks like desirable short-term profitability to most of the people who spend a lot of time talking about “innovation,” whereas talking about responsible innovation will probably end up talking about other things than “innovation” before it gets around to saying anything really useful. And I would still be inclined to respond to the warning that not to innovate is irresponsible too, that living people are very probably never not innovating at all and so this isn’t really a problem, but that if you really mean to get at more specific urgent shared problems we seem not to be solving (like resource descent or carbon pollution) that addressing these specificities can proceed without and probably proceed better without ever using the world innovation at all.

You write that Neal Stephenson bemoans a system that can’t “get big stuff done” and you ask the question is it possible to get big things done in a responsible way? The reason that there seems an intuitive mismatch between these two equally indispensable goals seems to me the same reason that has Stephenson so demoralized: you are framing responsibility in terms of innovation just as Stephenson is framing progress in those terms, diagnosing our present impasse as “Innovation Starvation.” Stephenson thinks getting “big stuff done” demands long-term over short-term thinking, demands systemic over parochial considerations. I suspect that what is really afoot is that the elite-incumbent minorities who profit from short-term and parochial thinking also devote a lot of time and resources to keeping things as they are.

However, I think it is just as important to recognize that there is a constituency of self-declared “disruptors” who are very much devoted to this language of innovation who would probably cheer Stephenson’s diagnosis but who are drawn from the ranks of these same incumbent elites. While it would seem that they are quite ready to overturn the status quo it is crucial to recognize that their readiness testifies in fact to their certainty that the costs and risks of their disruptions will be borne by majorities even as their successes will be enjoyed by minorities of which they are a part. Disruptors believe that there will always be mobs of infra-human under-humans around to clean up their messes for them as well as parents and network connections to whisk them up and away from their failures to higher perches still. That is to say, their disruption depends on the non-disruption of their privilege. That is to say, further then, that whatever side you take in the dilemma of entrepreneurial innovation and stagnation on such terms you will always turn out to be on the side of the plutocrats. Not to put too fine a point on it, I happen to think we will not get big stuff like sustainability and prosperity done until we get other big stuff like social justice and democratic accountability done.

Peter Thiel may moan that we want our flying cars, but in point of fact he can afford a flying car or a jet-pack right now if he wants one, as could anybody as rich as he is from the moment the first futurist promised a flying car jet-pack future right up to today. Flying cars and jet-packs have long existed after all -- it's just that they never swept the world, they never Changed Everything to become The Future. The question with Thiel very quickly becomes instead, just who do you mean by “we”? Reading his diatribes against multiculturalism I get the sense that his “we” excludes a whole lot of “they” who look like “we” to me. The futurological future has never been -- nor could it ever be -- evenly distributed. Equitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of techno-scientific change to the diversity of stakeholders to that change was never the point of the futurological future: very much to the contrary. This takes me to my final point, and to the necessity of taking more seriously the way futurological themes and thinkers (as it were) figure so centrally in your essay throughout.

In the first paragraph of this section I responded to a question of yours in a way that reflected my initial, satisfying but inadequate, critique. Elsewhere you ask another question, “Can we be responsible in the way we think about the future?” Again, I am going to answer this question differently than you do. I say that we cannot think about the future, but I do so neither because I am a determinist (as so many techno-triumphalists I critique turn out in substance to be) nor because I am a Hayekian who believes free, competitive markets test hypotheses and aggregate results (information) optimally in the face of the future’s radical unknowability. No, I believe that we cannot think responsibly about “The Future” because “The Future” doesn’t exist for us to think about, responsibly or otherwise.

To say “The Future” does not exist is not to make the same point as to say the future is radically unknowable. You need only talk to a few singularitarians to grasp that while they may genuflect to the radical unknowability of the future they seem pretty comfortable presuming they’ll flourish there and pretty cocksure about a whole lot of the furniture they will find in it nonetheless. A lot of futurological arguments from unknowability turn out to be bad faith stealthing the very technological determinism you diagnose elsewhere -- but I daresay the same can be said for a lot of free marketeer arguments from radical uncertainty that also turn out to be bad faith stealthing of certainty about the superiority of incumbent elites on fairly awful racist or sexist or classist grounds. It isn’t exactly an accident that you mention just these argumentative co-ordinates either: the overlap of singularitarians with libertopians with determinists with anti-democrats is, after all, quite considerable.

Such affinities demand explicit charting: for “The Market” doesn’t exist any more than “The Future” does. The “naturalness” and “spontaneity” of market orders denies their substance in contingent and collective laws, norms, practices, institutions, infrastructural affordances. The “freedom” and “liberty” of market orders denies their misconstrual as non-violent acts of exchange and consent that are in fact typically both misinformed and under duress given the comparative vulnerability and access to knowledge of the parties to these transactions. Likewise, the “competitiveness” of market orders denies their stratification by raced, sexed, aged, classed, abled, and innumerable other irrationally prejudicial sociocultural positions that distribute resources, knowledge, capacities, access, legibility, institutional recourse, and costs of failure radically inequitably to the actual diversity of so-called competitors.

While I question the Hayekian proposal that market competition exclusively or optimally tests proposals and provides results in the face of unintended consequences and failed promises, I don’t deny that some markets can be valuable or even indispensable in their proper place. That is why we should selectively invest in their normative and infrastructural affordance, and then pay for them by means of a progressive taxation of their unequal beneficiaries. But it is crucial to grasp that there are other sites -- democratically accountable governance and universities devoted to thought and criticism as ends in themselves, for example -- where hypotheses may be formed and tested and results accessed and analyzed. Like markets these sites have been exposed as vulnerable to inequity, corruption, exploitation -- and efforts to account for and redress these vulnerabilities is ongoing and fraught: separation of powers, franchisement, subsidiarity, rights culture for the one, tenure, affirmative action, fair use for the other. Markets are far from our only progressive recourse -- and a good thing given that what passes market outcomes tends to be far more regressive than progressive.

What I would emphasize here, however, is that to the extent that futurology originated in the work to render speculation over market futures more reliably profitable for incumbent elites -- and to the extent that futurology functions now to rationalize multinational corporate investment in the overexploited regions of the world as well as to rationalize military investment that conceals a planned economy that benefits a plutocracy officially critical of planning as a communist attack on the free market -- the non-existence of “The Market” and the non-existence of “The Future” are not incidental resemblances but deeply inter-implicated discourses. “The Future” and “The Market” co-construct one another, and very much to the benefit of elite-incumbency.

As I mentioned before, I think it is crucial to grasp that responsibility is a matter of responsiveness, of responding to the hopes and histories testified to by the diversity of stakeholders with whom we share the present world, in our differences, in their presence, in the present. The spaces we call markets seem to me less inclusive actually and aspirationally than the spaces we call democratic governance -- an observation that does not require a denial of the patent and pervasive exclusions and non-responsiveness of our notional dysfunctional democracies.

In any case, for me like responsibility futurity, too, is a quality that inheres very much in the present: it names the openness arising from our sharing the world with peers who have different situations, capacitations, and aspirations than we do. In my view “The Future” is almost always an extrapolation, a projection, an amplification of a present parochialism into prevalence over that present diversity and the openness of its futurity. It should be clearer now than ever that the parochialism seems to me usually a matter of incumbent elite constituencies and that the foreclosure of futurity by “The Future” seems to me usually a matter of reactionary plutocracy against democratic accountability and collective problem-solving.

Your focus, of course, is nanotechnology -- and it seems to me your subject suffers enormously from the derangements and distractions of futurological discourse. Because “nanotechnology” originates in futurological precincts it circulates as an utterly deranging and distracting imaginary artifact, a Drexlerian robust, reliable, controlled, programmable, self-replicating, room-temperature, desktop anything-assembler, and on the cheap! As you say, it is “a new technology” people have energetically debated as such in many public fora -- but curiously it is one that never has existed or will exist as such, and so more a “naught-technology” than a new one, really. I use “naught” advisedly because it is not only a not that is the sort of nothing a True Believer can freight with anything or everything -- but a naught that naughtily negates something of urgent and abiding substance. The reality of molecular biotechnology and chemosynthetic materials science depending on interventions and processes at the nanoscale may solve a number of urgent shared problems while creating a host of new shared problems. But it is very unclear to me that either these possibilities or these problems are ever discussed or even discussable when they are framed futurologically.

Futurologists endlessly debate these naught-technologies -- everyware and fabbing and uploads and utility fog and friendly AI and geo-engineering -- as if they were somethings, as if they had real properties you must master on futurological terms to speak of them expertly, as if they pose dangers and threats and problems demanding serious ethical consideration. All the futurologists were fixated on digital paper for a while, and now futurologists can't get enough of 3D-printers. The faddish preoccupations of futurologists exert the same deranging pull as the enthusiasms of Apple product fandoms or fashionable handbag fandoms and with just as little connection to historical substance -- even less so, usually, since naught-technologies lack even the flimsy substance of the latest fetishized iMe or purse. Even when techno-fixation fastens upon something real enough, like a drone or googleglass, futurologists tend to render it the protagonist of historical metanarratives drenched in destiny rather than read it as mediating ongoing technodevelopmental struggles among rival stakeholders and constituencies. Such discussions rarely provide anybody with much in the way of useful insight -- although they are usually symptomatic of disavowed hopes and fears and conflicts that close reading can expose against the grain of their avowed arguments. It is too much to expect responsible developmental deliberation to find purchase on such vertiginous cliff-faces, but you better believe that stuff makes for dramatic narratives tech-journalists can titillate illiterates with and for seductive ad-copy to rob rubes with.

It should go without saying that every legibly constituted academic and scientific discipline will have a foresight dimension. Foresight is a matter of imagining and planning for consequences in ways that are clarified by knowledge of actually-existing phenomena. It is very unclear to me what it is that futurologists are supposed to have useful knowledge of. “The Future” doesn’t exist to know, and futurological scenarios would scarcely pass muster as what they otherwise somewhat resemble among actual historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political economists, rhetoricians, cultural critics, industrial designers, healthcare experts -- let alone the real science fiction writers from whom they so ineptly steal most of their choicest bits.

It may have become a habit of climate scientists in the present prevalence of futurological framings of deliberation to declare their climate models “predictive.” But what strikes me about climate models far more than their apparent prophetic qualities is their ever greater, ever deeper insights into the nature of that incomparable dynamic phenomenon that is climate. We understand ever more the complex interactions of atmosphere and geosphere, the way the composition of planetary gasses transforms under different pressures and inputs, the way atmospheric and oceanic currents are driven by these relations, the way the sustenance of mammalian life, let alone reliably afforded modern civilization, depends on temperatures and compositions within bounds stressed beyond recuperation by present forms of extraction and pollution. In ordinary times it might not be so dangerous to figure deliberative foresight in prophetic terms, to figure analysis as a matter of predictions. But these are not ordinary times. The deceptive, hyperbolic, acquiescent norms and forms of marketing and promotional discourse have utterly suffused our public dialogue and futural imagination. The world is perishing in the present from the profitable promotion of the plutocratic corporate-militarist imagination of “The Future.”

Understanding isn’t about making predictions, thinking isn’t about making bets. Every commercial on television is making a prediction: buy and you will be satisfied, buy and you will be youthful, buy and you will have sex-appeal, buy and your anxiety will be assuaged, buy and the vacuity will be filled. Not one of those prediction will come true, or at any rate for long, but you can be sure that if you buy there is profit to be had for someone who is rarely you.


Richard Jones said...

(Part 1)
Thanks very much for responding in such detail to my piece, provocative was exactly what I hoped it would be. Here are some thoughts in response, with first a few disclaimers. Long though the piece is, because it is more or less the record of a lecture, it was constrained by what I could say in an hour, and there is much I could expand on (and perhaps will at some point). Secondly, I don’t actually have a fully consistent position of my own on these issues - this is a work in progress, and writing this lecture was actually helpful in crystallising where I’ve got to so far in thinking this stuff through, rather than being a polished exposition of a very coherent point of view. Thirdly, I was rather consciously using other people’s language. The lecture was to an audience that mixed academic STS and science/innovation policy people, so in using words like “innovation” I wanted to connect some discourses about technology that currently don’t seem to me to get connected but which have lots to say to each other. But I agree that there needs to be much questioning of the implicit baggage such words carry, and even if I don’t start by doing that questioning I hope by the end I have. My use of the phrase “responsible innovation” was something essentially dictated by the fact that I’d been invited to give a lecture on “responsible innovation” to mark the launch of an academic centre established to research that very phrase, in its sense as a term of art in European science policy.

I did wonder whether I should say more about the precautionary principle, and in the end didn’t, partly as I didn’t have time, partly as I don’t have a lot original to say about it. I appreciate your discussion of it. Your take on it has a lot in common with that of
Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good
- which attempted to grapple with the very questions of what a public ethics of innovation might look like.

Richard Jones said...

(Part 2)
I’m glad you mentioned the Luddites. This is not a term I’d ever use for abuse, because I think the history of those times is fascinating and complex and illuminating for our own predicament. One of the many reasons I feel lucky to live where I do is because the landscape that surrounds me is full of reminders of the industrial revolution (if that’s what it should be called, which I’m not sure about) - the mills of Arkwright and his imitators still dominate the towns and villages around me, and you can read the struggles of that time in the architecture around me, whether that’s the distinctive 18th century domestic architecture of cottages with rows of big windows on the upper stories to provide light for home textile working, or the defensive architecture of the mills, with few ground floor windows and first floor gun slits. The Luddites round here were predominantly stocking frame knitters - that is to say, skilled artisans who were using modern technology - whose objections weren’t really directed at new technology itself as much as against economic stagnation and deskilling, and who formed part of the larger revolutionary mood of those times.

Richard Jones said...

(Part 3)
Without being too geographically deterministic, I wonder whether some of the differences in the way we each perceive innovation might arise from the different places we live and work. Sheffield is one of the least prospering English cities, profoundly divided and unequal and with an economy that is hollowed out - the west of the city is occupied by prosperous professionals, in the rest of the city there are plenty of insecure and badly paid jobs, but the skilled and secure non-professional jobs that used to be provided by Sheffield’s traditional industry - steel and the things you make from it - have gone. This was partly through deliberate political choices in the 80’s. But it was partly because those industries here remained inward-looking, undercapitalised, conservative, while their rivals in Japan and Korea did, indeed, innovate. I have a grad student who’s gone back to work for Nippon Steel, and visiting him in Japan made me reflect that there’s no intrinsic reason why Tokyo Bay can sustain a huge steel R&D facility and an even huger production facility where Sheffield can’t - they don’t have cheaper labour or lower costs of living, they certainly don’t have cheaper energy, but they did manage to innovate - working out how to make steel more cheaply, to make it stronger and easier to press, so their big customers in Toyota and Honda and Suzuki could make cars cheaper, lighter and more gasoline efficient, for example. In San Francisco, you’re in the epicentre of a very particular way of talking about “innovation”, about “disruption" and about “technology”. I find that discourse as problematic as you do, though not always for the same reasons. When I think of the adulation we’re supposed to give the lone super-inventor who creates paypal or twitter, when I get annoyed at the redefinition of the “tech sector” to mean companies who can come up with a neat database application, I think of the gigantic material base that underlies that part of the economy. The digital economy doesn’t look very weightless when you see the sheer scale of a semiconductor fab or a LCD factory. The genius innovator doesn’t get anywhere without this giant collaborative social construction that is the global IT industry. That giant social construction is certainly not a Hayekian self-made order, it involves a great deal of coercion and injustice, its environmental effects are far from benign, but my point is that the large scale technological innovation it unquestionably has delivered (and I note that your etymology of “innovation” correctly contains no normative direction - there’s no assumption that new is necessarily better) needed a large scale collective effort. And that the things we need to do - to develop a sustainable energy economy and deal with the climate change we’re already committed to - will need a collective effort on at least the same scale.

So when you say ‘“stagnation” is more likely to be attributed by the incumbent-elites who prefer innovation-discourse to a state of democratically accountable, politically progressive innovation and change than it is to describe a real dearth of innovation’ I sympathise, but perhaps see things in a different way to you, though your next paragraph gets closer to what I mean. I agree that people always have and always innovate, what I am concerned about is the absence of innovation that requires large scale collective action.

I will come back to your very interesting thoughts on “The Future” when I finally get round to finishing my piece about your Existenz article.

Richard Jones said...

(part 4)
I’m going to finish with some more disclaimers, or possibly declarations of conflicts of interest, to remind you where I’m coming from in all this. My professional training and practise is as an experimental scientist, so when you ask "is a scientist’s interest in discovery always more valuable than those who worry more about the costs or risks of some discoveries”, I have to confess that 35 years of conditioning makes me understand very deeply where that fascination with the “technically sweet” comes from, and how powerfully self-affirming and self-contained the world of elite science practise is. If I could work out, say, how to make a self-replicating nanoscale device - an artificial cell - tomorrow I would have a powerful urge to do it, and I would appreciate the respect that I would get from my community - people I like and respect - for the achievement, whatever the ultimate risks and costs. My day job at the moment is as a manager of a research university; I’m very much in sympathy with the value of "universities devoted to thought and criticism as ends in themselves”; my colleagues and I struggle to hold on to these, to keep an environment in which everyone, students and grad students, postdocs, junior faculty, assistant staff, can be secure and valued members of a community thus devoted, but in an environment of increasing marketisation and managerialism, we have the knowledge that our ideals are fine but we have to balance the books and meet the payroll. And thirdly I do hold an appointment from our government as a board member of our funding agency, answerable for the wise use of a bit more than a billion dollars a year of taxpayers money, taking seriously my charge (expressed in terms that make sense only in my country’s bizarre non-constitution) to uphold the funding body's Royal Charter "to advance knowledge and technology ... thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of Our United Kingdom and the quality of life”. So I couldn’t argue if you accused me of being a well rewarded servant of the incumbent elite.

My final disagreement with you is when you say "Not to put too fine a point on it, I happen to think we will not get big stuff like sustainability and prosperity done until we get other big stuff like social justice and democratic accountability done.” Social justice and democratic accountability are important, and need to be fought for, but we can’t afford to wait to finish that battle before we start on big stuff like sustainability. One thing that I don’t believe in is progress - at least in the sense of the inevitability of things getting better. My fear is that if we don’t get started with a seriousness of purpose that we haven’t yet seen on the big things we need to do to move towards more sustainability and prosperity, the worsening of our material conditions will make politics uglier and power even more oppressive.

Dale Carrico said...

Thank you so much for these generous comments, Richard. I cannot say I am surprised to find from reading them that our views tally more than they might have seemed to have done.

Your final disagreement is perhaps our only one -- and I doubt it is much of one. What I was getting at is that part of the reason sustainability is big stuff is that it has social justice (which is also big stuff) built in.

Another way to put it would be to say inequity is a barrier to sustainabilty (one could even say a barrier to innovation if one really had to): because inequity makes it easy to externalize waste/pollution costs onto the marginalized and precarious and then makes it easy to ignore the results, and hence rationalize environmental abuses, because the marginalized and precarious are the ones testifying to them.

Certainly I did not mean to suggest we should achieve equity before sustainability. I don't think that is possible, let alone desirable. Inequity distributes the costs and risks of unsustainability and so the struggle for sustainability is always ameliorating the effects of inequity, just as the struggle for equity-in-diversity creates opportunities to address unsustainability.

As you see, if I were in Britain I would very probably be a Green -- here in the US the reality of our duopoly and non-parliamentary form forces me to be A Democrat pushing Democrats from the left.

As for the rest, I fully understand your need to use the term you were invited to talk about, and the way the constraints of a lecture caused a few of the qualifications and digressions that would have pleased me to fall away. We have all been there!

I also do know you "agree that there needs to be much questioning of the implicit baggage such words carry," and I appreciate your sensitivity to my rhetorical hobbyhorses, all the more because your attitude seems to me dangerously rare.

Finally, I also concede the force of our different positionings setting the stage for the way we talk about these things. As I said, here in the belly of the venture capitalist beast it is hard not to revolt at the use and abuse of the term "innovation." Also, as a precarious adjunct teaching artists and radicals in the Bay Area it is easy to maintain my righteous radicalism, you know. I have, more or less by design not to mention inclination, ensured I have little to lose by it.