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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Techno-Triumphalism

Here is another twitter essay, this one written last night. This time, I re-render it first in paragraph form -- smoothing out the grammar and then elaborating points constrained by the character limit and serial form of the tweet -- and then follow with the reproduction of the essay as it originally appeared. I am still intrigued by the comparisons and considerations of the limits and possibilities of these forms quite apart from the topic of the essaylet itself.
Many things are strange about techno-triumphalist declarations.

It is strange the way they tend to treat "technology" as monolithic despite the many differences in the characteristics, situations, and stakes that distinguish techniques and artifacts from one another.

It is strange that these monolithic over-generalizations happen so often in the context of the defense of some particular fetishized gizmo -- a handheld device, a gaming system, a 3D-printer, a solar panel, a car, a gun, a lab result, a medical therapy. Somehow, this fetishized gizmo becomes synecdochic for technology-in-general and is then invested with an irresistible narrative energy propelling this technology-in-general in the direction of the superlative: the handheld (and the "digital brain" mainframe for an earlier futurological generation) becomes the computationality that aspires in the direction of omniscience, the gaming system (and the "superhighway traffic-flow" for an earlier futurological generation) becomes the digitality that aspires to the utter virtualization of reality-become-plenitude, the 3D-printer -- the poor man's nanotechnology -- (and "plastic" for an earlier futurological generation) becomes the magic manufacturer translating wishes into results at low to no cost, that aspires to the super-abundance and hence omni-benevolence that returns us to edenic infancy and delivers us unto paradise beyond the history of stakeholder struggle, the solar panel (and apocalypse-redeeming "nuclear power" too cheap to meter for an earlier futurological generation) becomes the technofix that saves the world from the technofixation that threatens to destroy it. What was made exemplar is then made portent. It is strange how often such declarations are accompanied by what seems a highly personal identification with the gizmo in question, even if the car or the gun as the cyborg shell or comic book cape that would re-figure vulnerable error-prone finite human males into ruggedly-individual masculine avatars is familiar enough.

Is this gizmo-identification the usual subcultural signalling enabled by the logo-ized commodity, or is it more the joyful or manic enthusiasm of the fandom? Is it the faith of the "saved"? If so, from what sin is the techno-transcendentalist saved? From what damnation is the techno-triumphalist spared?

It is strange how threatening skepticism and criticism of these declarations seems to be, especially given the supposed inevitability asserted for the outcome. It is strange how often such skepticism and criticism is figured as resistance to some sort of historical movement or destiny. This is strange not least because such "resistance to technology" is not itself grasped as techniques of resistance, employing technologies.

It is strange that recommendations of caution or the proposals of qualification on the part of critics tend to be framed by techno-triumphalists as irrational, emotional, or unpractical in such exchanges -- when these are gestures of reasonableness in most intellectual contexts, especially in contexts that bill themselves as respectful of science and critical thinking as techno-triumphalists tend to do. It is strange how questioning superlative technodevelopmental destiny gets derided by techno-triumphalists as reactionary, when the refusal to question destiny is more usually revealed as reactionary, especially among those who bill themselves as progressive as techno-triumphalists tend to do.

I define "the technological" as the prosthetic elaboration of collective agency. And I regard all culture as prosthetic as well as all prostheses as culture. This connection to agency may help explain why we naturalize so much technique and artifice and yet tend to denote by the term "technology" just those techniques and artifacts that seem (whether rightly or wrongly) to resonate with our present fears and fantasies of agency, the threat of impotence as well as dreams of omnipotence, whether informercial get rich quick schemes, anti-aging kremes, or robocultic diavowals of finitude.

Though technodevelopmental innovations do often arise as bids to subdue the fraught contingencies of history through the achievement of momentary commercial or military competitive advantage, what seems more sure is that technoscientific novelties (and unexpected appropriations of these techniques and artifacts as the street finds its own uses for things) always only destabilize the terrain, expressing, exacerbating, and amplifying that very contingency. Techno-triumphalism not only proposes an accounting of technoscientific change that requires a facile disavowal of the ongoing social struggles through which technodevelopment actually always plays out in the world, but, worse, along its way to deny and disavow the force of historical contingency techno-triumphalism misses the extent to which its definitive focus -- "the technological" -- happens to define perhaps the most fraught site of historical contingency there is.

Considering its utter prevalence in public technoscientific discourses despite its failures, deceptions, omissions, and incoherence, I have to assume the appeal of techno-triumphalism is finally that it provides false but welcome reassurance to the radically insecure agents and agencies who find themselves in the storm-churn of palpably inequitable, unsustainable, desolating corporate-military empires on the eve of destruction.

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