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

Saturday, February 28, 2015



"Tech" is a magic word that makes liberals fall for/turn into neoliberals. Over and over and over.

Nimoy Cat Blogging

Because it's the internet.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"I Grieve With Thee" -- T'pau ("Amok Time")

Found out about the death of Leonard Nimoy after a long and exhausting teaching day. Rather felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. Spock was an early fierce crush, and I've been a Vulcan Wannabe all my life, of course. Weirdly, I found the President's comments especially moving:
Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

I loved Spock.

In 2007, I had the chance to meet Leonard in person. It was only logical to greet him with the Vulcan salute, the universal sign for “Live long and prosper.” And after 83 years on this planet – and on his visits to many others – it’s clear Leonard Nimoy did just that. Michelle and I join his family, friends, and countless fans who miss him so dearly today. 

Long Teaching Day

This morning nine to noon in my undergraduate Digital Democracy, Digital Anti-Democracy course we'll be talking about Lessig's "Second Generation," the rise of the social web, Big Data and algorithmic mediation. Frank Pasquale's new book is a backdrop and Sterling's story Maneki Neko provides the coda. From one to four in the afternoon it's my graduate lecture on critical theory, in which we have arrived at Benjamin and Adorno. Aura and the culture industry as post-marxist variations on the fetishized commodity. Always a fun topic. I'm rather looking forward to teaching today. As usual on Fridays, I expect  blogging will be low to no after all this. Happy Friday!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Artificial Intelligence As Alien Intelligence

Also posted at the World Future Society.
Science fiction is a genre of literature in which artifacts and techniques humans devise as exemplary expressions of our intelligence result in problems that perplex our intelligence or even bring it into existential crisis. It is scarcely surprising that a genre so preoccupied with the status and scope of intelligence would provide endless variations on the conceits of either the construction of artificial intelligences or contact with alien intelligences.

Of course, both the making of artificial intelligence and making contact with alien intelligence are organized efforts to which many humans are actually devoted, and not simply imaginative sites in which writers spin their allegories and exhibit their symptoms. It is interesting that after generations of failure the practical efforts to construct artificial intelligence or contact alien intelligence have often shunted their adherents to the margins of scientific consensus and invested these efforts with the coloration of scientific subcultures: While computer science and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence both remain legitimate fields of research, both AI and aliens also attract subcultural enthusiasms and resonate with cultic theology, each attracts its consumer fandoms and public Cons, each has its True Believers and even its UFO cults and Robot cults at the extremities.

Champions of artificial intelligence in particular have coped in many ways with the serial failure of their project to achieve its desired end (which is not to deny that the project has borne fruit) whatever the confidence with which generation after generation of these champions have insisted that desired end is near: Some have turned to more modest computational ambitions, making useful software or mischievous algorithms in which sad vestiges of the older dreams can still be seen to cling. Some are simply stubborn dead-enders for Good Old Fashioned AI's expected eventual and even imminent vindication, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. And still others have doubled-down, distracting attention from the failures and problems bedeviling AI discourse simply by raising its pitch and stakes, no longer promising that artificial intelligence is around the corner but warning that artificial super-intelligence is coming soon to end human history.

Another strategy for coping with the failure of artificial intelligence on its conventional terms has assumed a higher profile among its champions lately, drawing support for the real plausibility of one science-fictional conceit -- construction of artificial intelligence -- by appealing to another science-fictional conceit, contact with alien intelligence. This rhetorical gambit has often been conjoined to the compensation of failed AI with its hyperbolic amplification into super-AI which I have already mentioned, and it is in that context that I have written about it before myself. But in a piece published a few days ago in The New York Times, Outing A.I.: Beyond the Turing Test, Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at U.C. San Diego and Director of a design think-tank, has elaborated a comparatively sophisticated case for treating artificial intelligence as alien intelligence with which we can productively grapple. Near the conclusion of his piece Bratton declares that "Musk, Gates and Hawking made headlines by speaking to the dangers that A.I. may pose. Their points are important, but I fear were largely misunderstood by many readers." Of course these figures made their headlines by making the arguments about super-intelligence I have already disdained, and mentioning them seems to indicate Bratton's sympathy with their gambit and even suggests that his argument aims to help us to understand them better on their own terms. Nevertheless, I take Bratton's argument seriously not because of but in spite of this connection. Ultimately, Bratton makes a case for understanding AI as alien that does not depend on the deranging hyperbole and marketing of robocalypse or robo-rapture for its force.

In the piece, Bratton claims "Our popular conception of artificial intelligence is distorted by an anthropocentric fallacy." The point is, of course, well taken, and the litany he rehearses to illustrate it is enormously familiar by now as he proceeds to survey popular images from Kubrick's HAL to Jonze's Her and to document public deliberation about the significance of computation articulated through such imagery as the "rise of the machines" in the Terminator franchise or the need for Asimov's famous fictional "Three Laws." It is easy -- and may nonetheless be quite important -- to agree with Bratton's observation that our computational/media devices lack cruel intentions and are not susceptible to Asimovian consciences, and hence thinking about the threats and promises and meanings of these devices through such frames and figures is not particularly helpful to us even though we habitually recur to them by now. As I say, it would be easy and important to agree with such a claim, but Bratton's proposal is in fact somewhat a different one:
[A] mature A.I. is not necessarily a humanlike intelligence, or one that is at our disposal. If we look for A.I. in the wrong ways, it may emerge in forms that are needlessly difficult to recognize, amplifying its risks and retarding its benefits. This is not just a concern for the future. A.I. is already out of the lab and deep into the fabric of things. “Soft A.I.,” such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon recommendation engines, along with infrastructural A.I., such as high-speed algorithmic trading, smart vehicles and industrial robotics, are increasingly a part of everyday life.
Here the serial failure of the program of artificial intelligence is redeemed simply by declaring victory. Bratton demonstrates that crying uncle does not preclude one from still crying wolf. It's not that Siri is some sickly premonition of the AI-daydream still endlessly deferred, but represents the real rise of what robot cultist Hans Moravec once promised would be our "mind children" but here and now as elfen aliens with an intelligence unto themselves. It's not that calling a dumb car a "smart" car is simply a hilarious bit of obvious marketing hyperbole, but represents the recognition of a new order of intelligent machines among us. Rather than criticize the way we may be "amplifying its risks and retarding its benefits" by reading computation through the inapt lens of intelligence at all, he proposes that we should resist holding machine intelligence to the standards that have hitherto defined it for fear of making its recognition "too difficult."

The kernel of legitimacy in Bratton's inquiry is its recognition that "intelligence is notoriously difficult to define and human intelligence simply can't exhaust the possibilities." To deny these modest reminders is to indulge in what he calls "the pretentious folklore" of anthropocentrism. I agree that anthropocentrism in our attributions of intelligence has facilitated great violence and exploitation in the world, denying the dignity and standing of Cetaceans and Great Apes, but has also facilitated racist, sexist, xenophobic travesties by denigrating humans as beastly and unintelligent objects at the disposal of "intelligent" masters. "Some philosophers write about the possible ethical 'rights' of A.I. as sentient entities, but," Bratton is quick to insist, "that’s not my point here." Given his insistence that the "advent of robust inhuman A.I." will force a "reality-based" "disenchantment" to "abolish the false centrality and absolute specialness of human thought and species-being" which he blames in his concluding paragraph with providing "theological and legislative comfort to chattel slavery" it is not entirely clear to me that emancipating artificial aliens is not finally among the stakes that move his argument whatever his protestations to the contrary. But one can forgive him for not dwelling on such concerns: the denial of an intelligence and sensitivity provoking responsiveness and demanding responsibilities in us all to women, people of color, foreigners, children, the different, the suffering, nonhuman animals compels defensive and evasive circumlocutions that are simply not needed to deny intelligence and standing to an abacus or a desk lamp. It is one thing to warn of the anthropocentric fallacy but another to indulge in the pathetic fallacy.

Bratton insists to the contrary that his primary concern is that anthropocentrism skews our assessment of real risks and benefits. "Unfortunately, the popular conception of A.I., at least as depicted in countless movies, games and books, still seems to assume that humanlike characteristics (anger, jealousy, confusion, avarice, pride, desire, not to mention cold alienation) are the most important ones to be on the lookout for." And of course he is right. The champions of AI have been more than complicit in this popular conception, eager to attract attention and funds for their project among technoscientific illiterates drawn to such dramatic narratives. But we are distracted from the real risks of computation so long as we expect risks to arise from a machinic malevolence that has never been on offer nor even in the offing. Writes Bratton: "Perhaps what we really fear, even more than a Big Machine that wants to kill us, is one that sees us as irrelevant. Worse than being seen as an enemy is not being seen at all."

But surely the inevitable question posed by Bratton's disenchanting expose at this point should be: Why, once we have set aside the pretentious folklore of machines with diabolical malevolence, do we not set aside as no less pretentiously folkloric the attribution of diabolical indifference to machines? Why, once we have set aside the delusive confusion of machine behavior with (actual or eventual) human intelligence, do we not set aside as no less delusive the confusion of machine behavior with intelligence altogether? There is no question were a gigantic bulldozer with an incapacitated driver to swerve from a construction site onto a crowded city thoroughfare this would represent a considerable threat, but however tempting it might be in the fraught moment or reflective aftermath poetically to invest that bulldozer with either agency or intellect it is clear that nothing would be gained in the practical comprehension of the threat it poses by so doing. It is no more helpful now in an epoch of Greenhouse storms than it was for pre-scientific storytellers to invest thunder and whirlwinds with intelligence. Although Bratton makes great play over the need to overcome folkloric anthropocentrism in our figuration of and deliberation over computation, mystifying agencies and mythical personages linger on in his accounting however he insists on the alienness of "their" intelligence.

Bratton warns us about the "infrastructural A.I." of high-speed financial trading algorithms, Google and Amazon search algorithms, "smart" vehicles (and no doubt weaponized drones and autonomous weapons systems would count among these), and corporate-military profiling programs that oppress us with surveillance and harass us with targeted ads. I share all of these concerns, of course, but personally insist that our critical engagement with infrastructural coding is profoundly undermined when it is invested with insinuations of autonomous intelligence. In Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin pointed out that when philosophers talk about the historical force of art they do so with the prejudices of philosophers: they tend to write about those narrative and visual forms of art that might seem argumentative in allegorical and iconic forms that appear analogous to the concentrated modes of thought demanded by philosophy itself. Benjamin proposed that perhaps the more diffuse and distracted ways we are shaped in our assumptions and aspirations by the durable affordances and constraints of the made world of architecture and agriculture might turn out to drive history as much or even more than the pet artforms of philosophers do. Lawrence Lessig made much the same point when he declared at the turn of the millennium that Code Is Law.

It is well known that special interests with rich patrons shape the legislative process and sometimes even explicitly craft legislation word for word in ways that benefit them to the cost and risk of majorities. It is hard to see how our assessment of this ongoing crime and danger would be helped and not hindered by pretending legislation is an autonomous force exhibiting an alien intelligence, rather than a constellation of practices, norms, laws, institutions, ritual and material artifice, the legacy of the historical play of intelligent actors and the site for the ongoing contention of intelligent actors here and now. To figure legislation as a beast or alien with a will of its own would amount to a fetishistic displacement of intelligence away from the actual actors actually responsible for the forms that legislation actually takes. It is easy to see why such a displacement is attractive: it profitably abets the abuses of majorities by minorities while it absolves majorities from conscious complicity in the terms of their own exploitation by laws made, after all, in our names. But while these consoling fantasies have an obvious allure this hardly justifies our endorsement of them.

I have already written in the past about those who want to propose, as Bratton seems inclined to do in the present, that the collapse of global finance in 2008 represented the working of inscrutable artificial intelligences facilitating rapid transactions and supporting novel financial instruments of what was called by Long Boom digirati the "new economy." I wrote: "It is not computers and programs and autonomous techno-agents who are the protagonists of the still unfolding crime of predatory plutocratic wealth-concentration and anti-democratizing austerity. The villains of this bloodsoaked epic are the bankers and auditors and captured-regulators and neoliberal ministers who employed these programs and instruments for parochial gain and who then exonerated and rationalized and still enable their crimes. Our financial markets are not so complex we no longer understand them. In fact everybody knows exactly what is going on. Everybody understands everything. Fraudsters [are] engaged in very conventional, very recognizable, very straightforward but unprecedentedly massive acts of fraud and theft under the cover of lies."

I have already written in the past about those who want to propose, as Bratton seems inclined to do in the present, that our discomfiture in the setting of ubiquitous algorithmic mediation results from an autonomous force over which humans intentions are secondary considerations. I wrote: "[W]hat imaginary scene is being conjured up in this exculpatory rhetoric in which inadvertent cruelty is 'coming from code' as opposed to coming from actual persons? Aren't coders actual persons, for example? ... [O]f course I know what [is] mean[t by the insistence...] that none of this was 'a deliberate assault.' But it occurs to me that it requires the least imaginable measure of thought on the part of those actually responsible for this code to recognize that the cruelty of [one user's] confrontation with their algorithm was the inevitable at least occasional result for no small number of the human beings who use Facebook and who live lives that attest to suffering, defeat, humiliation, and loss as well as to parties and promotions and vacations... What if the conspicuousness of [this] experience of algorithmic cruelty indicates less an exceptional circumstance than the clarifying exposure of a more general failure, a more ubiquitous cruelty? ... We all joke about the ridiculous substitutions performed by autocorrect functions, or the laughable recommendations that follow from the odd purchase of a book from Amazon or an outing from Groupon. We should joke, but don't, when people treat a word cloud as an analysis of a speech or an essay. We don't joke so much when a credit score substitutes for the judgment whether a citizen deserves the chance to become a homeowner or start a small business, or when a Big Data profile substitutes for the judgment whether a citizen should become a heat signature for a drone committing extrajudicial murder in all of our names. [An] experience of algorithmic cruelty [may be] extraordinary, but that does not mean it cannot also be a window onto an experience of algorithmic cruelty that is ordinary. The question whether we might still 'opt out' from the ordinary cruelty of algorithmic mediation is not a design question at all, but an urgent political one."

I have already written in the past about those who want to propose, as Bratton seems inclined to do in the present, that so-called Killer Robots are a threat that must be engaged by resisting or banning "them" in their alterity rather than by assigning moral and criminal responsibility on those who code, manufacture, fund, and deploy them. I wrote: "Well-meaning opponents of war atrocities and engines of war would do well to think how tech companies stand to benefit from military contracts for 'smarter' software and bleeding-edge gizmos when terrorized and technoscientifically illiterate majorities and public officials take SillyCon Valley's warnings seriously about our 'complacency' in the face of truly autonomous weapons and artificial super-intelligence that do not exist. It is crucial that necessary regulation and even banning of dangerous 'autonomous weapons' proceeds in a way that does not abet the mis-attribution of agency, and hence accountability, to devices. Every 'autonomous' weapons system expresses and mediates decisions by responsible humans usually all too eager to disavow the blood on their hands. Every legitimate fear of 'killer robots' is best addressed by making their coders, designers, manufacturers, officials, and operators accountable for criminal and unethical tools and uses of tools... There simply is no such thing as a smart bomb. Every bomb is stupid. There is no such thing as an autonomous weapon. Every weapon is deployed. The only killer robots that actually exist are human beings waging and profiting from war."

"Arguably," argues Bratton, "the Anthropocene itself is due less to technology run amok than to the humanist legacy that understands the world as having been given for our needs and created in our image. We hear this in the words of thought leaders who evangelize the superiority of a world where machines are subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity... This is the sentiment -- this philosophy of technology exactly -- that is the basic algorithm of the Anthropocenic predicament, and consenting to it would also foreclose adequate encounters with A.I." The Anthropocene in this formulation names the emergence of environmental or planetary consciousness, an emergence sometimes coupled to the global circulation of the image of the fragility and interdependence of the whole earth as seen by humans from outer space. It is the recognition that the world in which we evolved to flourish might be impacted by our collective actions in ways that threaten us all. Notice, by the way, that multiculture and historical struggle are figured as just another "algorithm" here.

I do not agree that planetary catastrophe inevitably followed from the conception of the earth as a gift besetting us to sustain us, indeed this premise understood in terms of stewardship or commonwealth would go far in correcting and preventing such careless destruction in my opinion. It is the false and facile (indeed infantile) conception of a finite world somehow equal to infinite human desires that has landed us and keeps us delusive ignoramuses lodged in this genocidal and suicidal predicament. Certainly I agree with Bratton that it would be wrong to attribute the waste and pollution and depletion of our common resources by extractive-industrial-consumer societies indifferent to ecosystemic limits to "technology run amok." The problem of so saying is not that to do so disrespects "technology" -- as presumably in his view no longer treating machines as properly "subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity" would more wholesomely respect "technology," whatever that is supposed to mean -- since of course technology does not exist in this general or abstract way to be respected or disrespected.

The reality at hand is that humans are running amok in ways that are facilitated and mediated by certain technologies. What is demanded in this moment by our predicament is the clear-eyed assessment of the long-term costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific interventions into finite ecosystems to the actual diversity of their stakeholders and the distribution of these costs, risks, and benefits in an equitable way. Quite a lot of unsustainable extractive and industrial production as well as mass consumption and waste would be rendered unprofitable and unappealing were its costs and risks widely recognized and equitably distributed. Such an understanding suggests that what is wanted is to insist on the culpability and situation of actually intelligent human actors, mediated and facilitated as they are in enormously complicated and demanding ways by technique and artifice. The last thing we need to do is invest technology-in-general or environmental-forces with alien intelligence or agency apart from ourselves.

I am beginning to wonder whether the unavoidable and in many ways humbling recognition (unavoidable not least because of environmental catastrophe and global neoliberal precarization) that human agency emerges out of enormously complex and dynamic ensembles of interdependent/prostheticized actors gives rise to compensatory investments of some artifacts -- especially digital networks, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic diseases, environmental forces -- with the sovereign aspect of agency we no longer believe in for ourselves? It is strangely consoling to pretend our technologies in some fancied monolithic construal represent the rise of "alien intelligences," even threatening ones, other than and apart from ourselves, not least because our own intelligence is an alienated one and prostheticized through and through. Consider the indispensability of pedagogical techniques of rote memorization, the metaphorization and narrativization of rhetoric in songs and stories and craft, the technique of the memory palace, the technologies of writing and reading, the articulation of metabolism and duration by timepieces, the shaping of both the body and its bearing by habit and by athletic training, the lifelong interplay of infrastructure and consciousness: all human intellect is already technique. All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture.

Bratton wants to narrate as a kind of progressive enlightenment the mystification he recommends that would invest computation with alien intelligence and agency while at once divesting intelligent human actors, coders, funders, users of computation of responsibility for the violations and abuses of other humans enabled and mediated by that computation. This investment with intelligence and divestment of responsibility he likens to the Copernican Revolution in which humans sustained the momentary humiliation of realizing that they were not the center of the universe but received in exchange the eventual compensation of incredible powers of prediction and control. One might wonder whether the exchange of the faith that humanity was the apple of God's eye for a new technoscientific faith in which we aspired toward godlike powers ourselves was really so much a humiliation as the exchange of one megalomania for another. But what I want to recall by way of conclusion instead is that the trope of a Copernican humiliation of the intelligent human subject is already quite a familiar one:

In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud notoriously proposed that
In the course of centuries the naive self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the center of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus... The second blow fell when biological research de­stroyed man’s supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This revaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin... though not without the most violent contemporary opposition. But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on un­consciously in the mind.
However we may feel about psychoanalysis as a pseudo-scientific enterprise that did more therapeutic harm than good, Freud's works considered instead as contributions to moral philosophy and cultural theory have few modern equals. The idea that human consciousness is split from the beginning as the very condition of its constitution, the creative if self-destructive result of an impulse of rational self-preservation beset by the overabundant irrationality of humanity and history, imposed a modesty incomparably more demanding than Bratton's wan proposal in the same name. Indeed, to the extent that the irrational drives of the dynamic unconscious are often figured as a brute machinic automatism, one is tempted to suggest that Bratton's modest proposal of alien artifactual intelligence is a fetishistic disavowal of the greater modesty demanded by the alienating recognition of the stratification of human intelligence by unconscious forces (and his moniker a symptomatic citation). What is striking about the language of psychoanalysis is the way it has been taken up to provide resources for imaginative empathy across the gulf of differences: whether in the extraordinary work of recent generations of feminist, queer, and postcolonial scholars re-orienting the project of the conspicuously sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, racist, imperialist, bourgeois thinker who was Freud to emancipatory ends, or in the stunning leaps in which Freud identified with neurotic others through psychoanalytic reading, going so far as to find in the paranoid system-building of the psychotic Dr. Schreber an exemplar of human science and civilization and a mirror in which he could see reflected both himself and psychoanalysis itself. Freud's Copernican humiliation opened up new possibilities of responsiveness in difference out of which could be built urgently necessary responsibilities otherwise. I worry that Bratton's Copernican modesty opens up new occasions for techno-fetishistic fables of history and disavowals of responsibility for its actual human protagonists.

Monday, February 23, 2015


DIY is great until it becomes an excuse for Denial of Interdependence Yammering.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Homo Economicus: Staging the Contradictions of Modern Political Economy in the English Comedy of Manners

Looks like I'll be teaching a new course at the San Francisco Art Institute next Fall. This is material I have loved most of my life and which I did a lot of research on in grad school, and it is rather thrilling to return to it. Here is an early version of the course description:
Capitalism is so funny we forgot to laugh. In this course we will be reading plays drawn from over three hundred years of mannered comedy, at once the most coarse, witty, perverse, lively, and stylish works in English literature. From Early Modern Restoration comedies modeling the libertine rebel Rochester like The Man of Mode, The Rover, The Way of the World, and the Beggar's Opera, to High Modern high camp fascinated by the figure of Oscar Wilde from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience to The Importance of Being Earnest to Noel Coward, up to Late Modern work from Joe Orton and Jennifer Saunders resonating with the space oddities of David Bowie: we will not only be reading these hilarious and hellraising plays, but staging their key scenes in class for one another in an effort to inhabit them more viscerally. The premise of the course is that these plays stage efforts to satirize and cope with definitive contradictions of modern capitalism but also with paradoxes of corporate-militarist societies and cultures more generally, especially what I will call the plutocratic paradox (a meritocratic rationalization and enactment of aristocracy), the patriarchal paradox (a sexist, heterosexist, cissexist homosocial order that must disavow its inevitable homosexual possibilities), and the planetary paradox (a nationalist project impossibly comprehending ramifying multicultures in "the cultural" while embedded in a global nation-state system in which it impossibly competes via the racist war-machine of "the social"). Readings from political economy and cultural theory from Hobbes, Marx, and Mill to Raymond Williams, Gayle Rubin, Eve Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak and Paul Gilroy will help us grapple with the plays and the spectacle they make of themselves. Consider the course a contribution to Urbane Studies.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Futurological Methodology

So much "futurological methodology" simply amounts to conventional con-man discipline: pick your buzzwords, keep a straight face, stay upbeat, stick to your story...

More Futurological Brickbats here.

McMansion on Fire. I Know, I Know, It's Serious

It is hard to think of a McMansion flooded, on fire, shuddering in a gale. How to wreck what was always only a wreck?

So Many People Not to Thank

I do not watch the Oscars. I endure the Oscars as they seep into every nook and pore until, soon enough, they evaporate.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Whiny White Guys

If you expect to get credit for not doing the wrong thing you haven't quite gotten what doing the right thing is about.

Self-Regulating Capitalism!

Every time a company peddles a feature they were forced to provide by government regulations they fought reality withdraws another inch.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Yer Just Envious!

Condemnation of the successful thief is "envy" only for those who think what matters is success and not thievery.


When accelerating futurological marketing finally fools us into investing dull artifacts with the zing of intelligence and agency we will arrive at the zingularity.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Long Teaching Day

This morning in the City in my Digital Democracy, Digital Anti-Democracy course we are up to our ears in ideology as usual, Paulina Borsook's "Cyberselfish" and Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's "Californian Ideology" and David Golumbia's "Digital Deletion of the Left" followed by the still deeper dive of Katerine Hayles' piece on possessive individualism and the birth of cybernetics. We'll be reading a couple of cypherpunk manifestos and Barlow's "I come from cyberspace, home of Mind" to drive the point home. That's nine to noon, then from one to four in my graduate survey of Critical Theory we take up Freud, emphasizing the fetish, paranoia, homosociality, and noting Nietzschean and Marxian resonances and tensions. Should be exhausting, and blogging will be low to no today.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Memo to Crapitalist Sooper-Geniuses

If somebody just sold electric versions of the VW bug, the van, and the kharmann ghia I'm pretty sure EVERYBODY on earth would buy them.

The Libertechbrotarianization of Basic Income Discourse

It has always been true that basic income advocates across the political right -- Milton Friedman, famously -- have coupled the payment of basic incomes with the "simplification" and "streamlining" and "targeted elimination" of welfare programs. It can't be that surprising to find those who pine for the dismantlement of social support to unleash the austere, obliterative liberties of spontaneous orders (in which plutocratic orders are obeyed spontaneously) would propose basic income in the service of that same aim as they do everything else.

But I must say I am intrigued to find how often recent pieces on basic income are framing it first and most of all as the solution to the problem of "structural unemployment" caused by automation. Such discussions seem to regard unemployment as a logical effect of technological development rather than resulting from plutocratic attacks on and circumventions of organized labor which would ensure a more equitable distribution of productivity gains from automation. And so we have basic income proposed as a pretext for welfare dismantlement and as a panacea for unemployment as unions are busted? I am starting to think that there is a neoliberalization of basic income advocacy taking place that qualifies my initial thrill discovering this pet topic's recent and unexpected new prominence.

From Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Erik Olin Wright, basic income has been proposed as a direct solution to the scourge of poverty. There is no question that a basic income guarantee together with single payer healthcare, nutritional assistance, free public education, public housing programs, equal recourse to law and franchise and office-holding, freedom of expression and public assembly, and accountable administration of commons for the public good would provide the abiding substance and occasion for radical democratization.

But it would seem that basic income can be proposed either in the service of emancipatory equity-in-diversity or as a plutocratic ploy. If so, it is obviously important to pay attention to the assumptions and aspirations driving its various advocates. To hear that someone supports basic income is not yet enough to know they support what you mean by basic income or to accept them as an ally.

It is too easy for glib celebrations of basic income in the abstract to function as distractions from urgent, ongoing, and ever-more-successful struggles organizing workers in fast food, health care, education, and service sectors and in raising the minimum wage to approach a living wage. Just as some mouthpieces for Republican politics would evade association with the ugly racism of the contemporary GOP by declaring themselves civil libertarians (a masquerade enabled by those who know better and yet do not call states rights "minarchists" on the history of racist dog whistling in such positions) I wonder if basic income advocacy on the right will likewise work to conceal a host of plutocratic commitments.

Ask right-wing advocates of basic income whether a person who has already spent their basic income but who suddenly confronts the prohibitive costs of a medical emergency or the need for legal representation has a right to that healthcare or that lawyer even if they cannot afford the expense? If the answer is yes, then we're back to the mainstream legible social democratic discourse in which basic income supplements rather than replaces general welfare; and if the answer is no, we're inevitably back to the war of all against all in which the unworthy poor pay for their misfortunes with their lives or their freedom. Free To Lose, er, Choose, amirite?

Right-wing forms of "basic" income advocacy reduce all too readily to visions of bare life without the rights, standards, and supports to ensure an actually legible scene of consent to the terms of everyday relations for the majority of the people. Game the minimum "sufficient" basic income into a state of near-precarity without recourse to any other pillars of equity-in-diversity and you've peddled feudalism as a universally emancipatory scheme -- in the drearily predictable right-wing manner.

It is necessary to emphasize how obvious are the fingerprints of the right in such basic income state-dismantlement assumptions, aspirations, rhetorics, schemes. Because it is also becoming more and more conspicuous how many recent converts to basic income advocacy seem to want to advocate it as a technocratic technofix "beyond the politics of left and right." It is important to grasp first of all that no technique is politically neutral, that every artifact mediates social relations, that the funding, testing, publication, regulation, application of technique is ineradicably political and that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are as diverse as the diversity of their stakeholders. This means that it is always only in the political distribution of these costs, risks, and benefits that we determine the progressive or emancipatory force of technoscientific change, not by reading technical specifications or, worse, advertorial corporate-military press releases and pop-tech gossip column journalism. The denial or pretended overcoming of these political realities does not eliminate them but merely renders them opaque to scrutiny and criticism. This is a gesture that inevitably conduces to the benefit of elite incumbents already empowered by and in the status quo. That is to say, the stance of a-politicism or anti-politicism is profoundly political in fact, and the politics it supports are right-wing politics most of all.

It is no wonder, then, that right-wing politics from mid-century fascism to late-century market fundamentalism often actively promoted itself with slogans promising to be "beyond left and right" or "a new beginning overcoming left/right categories" or "a third way." Every single person who declares themselves to be "beyond left and right" is either a secret shill for the right or a perfect dupe for the right. It is no surprise that the tech-talkers of predatory venture capitalism and tech-hype marketeers of stale crap as worldshattering novelties accept so many of the assumptions and aspirations of market fundamentalist corporate-militarism including the slogan of offering "design solutions" and "technofixes" beyond politics -- and that these reactionaries throng the chat rooms and conferences of recent basic income advocacy.

This post originally referred to a "neoliberalization" of basic income discourse, but that term is at best verging on vacuity from over use and at worst coming to be associated with fauxvolutionary preening about the choice of purity cabaret over pragmatic progressivism, which is worse than vacuous but manages to be actually reactionary in consequence.

See also p2p Is EITHER Pay-to-Peer or Peers-to-Precarity.

Saint Ray Gun Says

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from a corporation and I'm here for profit."

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Our Salvific, Edenic, Satanic Others

I am beginning to wonder whether the unavoidable and in many ways humbling recognition (unavoidable not least because of environmental catastrophe and global neoliberal precarization) that human agency emerges out of ensembles of interdependent/prostheticized actors gives rise to compensatory investments of some artifacts -- especially computers, weapons, diseases -- with the sovereign aspect of agency we no longer believe in for ourselves?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Basic Income Is Not Beyond Left and Right Twitterscrum

Interesting exchange today, mostly with Scott Santens, who is the moderator of /r/BasicIncome on Reddit.
"the fact," obviously.

Baguette Punk

I have always thought Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix was the best cyberpunk movie of the 80s. The capture of the Diva's voice on an illegal recording, the circulation and confusion of the taped confession of a sex-trafficker with the Diva's voice, the voice directing the ghost Citroen through the streets of Paris, the fairy tale voice over the phone keeping a wounded boy conscious as both killers and a guardian angel converge upon his bleeding body... all seem to me to anticipate sfnal conceits of precarious meat, of info-spirits and virtualities, of the hustlers and couriers of the cyberpunk genre. The vast ruined warehouse shimmering with broken shards of glass is a scene that could be taken directly from Blade Runner (a film released one year after Diva) or Ghost in the Shell. Almodovar's films Matador and Law of Desire a few years later offer up much the same dreaminess infused with pop ephemera and video games but it is not until a film like The City of Lost Children that such dreaminess collides so conspicuously with cyberpunk (and in that instance also steampunk) themes and visuals. Perhaps the proximate vitality of the Moebius and Jodorowsky collaboration is part of this story, too. It does not semm like an accident that both Blade Runner and Diva as well as The Incal are all cited together in The Fifth Element in the millennial aftermath of New Wave.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Let us strangle the last tech CEO with the guts of the last techbro. -- Twenis Twitterot

Worse Than Wrong

It is worse than wrong to attribute intelligence or agency to an artifact, for not only is it neither but you too will have less of either.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

How To Stop Killer Robots

If you would "stop killer robots" you need only ensure those humans who make them to kill or use them to kill pay much more for so doing than they can ever profit.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Yesterday's Post Is Now Today's

I've vastly revised and expanded yesterday's post on Arendt's "Turn" on Judgment. Nietzsche has had his say. If you read the post yesterday and found it edifying, provocative, or enjoyably hate-readable I am hoping it will be still more so now. I am not done with Arendt by any means, but still boiling over with her right now. I will have more to say about natality and the "gap" between past and future and breaks and ruptures more generally in Arendt, and how they should lend little comfort for "thought leaders" with disruptions and singularities on their mind. I also find I have something I need to say about the vicious immoderation of much of what passes for moderation. Promises, promises, I know, but expect more in the coming days.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Returning to the Arendtian "Turn" on Judgment

We do, therefore I am; I think, therefore we've done.
In the essay Ronald Beiner appended to his edited volume of Arendt's Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, he proposes that "[h]er writings on… judgment fall into two… phases: early and late… Arendt offers two distinct conceptions of judgment… the first relating to the world of praxis, the second to that of contemplation." When he connects the first conception to the vita activa, the subject and even an alternate title of her Human Condition and then locates the second in a concern with "the life of the mind" (the title of her final, if unfinished, published work) one cannot help but wonder whether the distinction may amount to little more than the fact that Arendt did not repeat herself in writing her two most philosophically substantial works, separated by two decades of original, provocative, critical writings. Although Beiner is careful to resist the implication that these two conceptions represent an absolute break, I think it is actually important to emphasize the contrary point, that a concern with judgment spans Arendt's writing and, further, that it would be wrong to assume the differences in her formulations indicate a turn away from the earlier for the latter one, rather than revealing two dimensions of a phenomenon that she emphasized in different accounts but which may be indispensably connected in Arendt's full understanding of the task of "thinking what we are doing."

I do not accept the implication of Beier's narrative, then, when he writes: "The more she reflected on the faculty of judgment, the more inclined she was to regard it as the prerogative of the solitary (though public-spirited) contemplator as opposed to the actor (whose activity is necessarily non-solitary). One acts with others; one judges by oneself (even though one does so by making present in one's imagination those who are absent)." I do not deny that Arendt's formulations changed with time, but these explorations need not indicate that she jettisoned preceding formulations rather than supplementing them, and I suspect the parenthetic qualifications Beier appends to his thesis already reflect awareness of the trouble in trying to force the turn he is considering too intently. For me the force of both of the different accounts of judgment in The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind finally depend on their relation to one another.

And so, for example, when Beier rightly points out that "[i]n judging, as understood by Arendt, one weighs the possible judgments of an imagined Other, not the actual judgments of real interlocutors," I do not accept at all his implication that this is more relevant to the vita contemplativa than to the vita activa. There is in my view a crucial continuity in the accounts of power offered up by Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault -- and I would add, Frantz Fanon -- not only in their separate insistence on power as productive rather than repressive (probably most conspicuous in Arendt's "On Violence," which, given that piece's discussion of Fanon introduces a host of provocative questions into the account I make of a shared Arendtian-Fanonian-Foucauldian bio-political critical theory, some of which I begin to respond to here), but also in the proposal of an essentially rhetorical characterization of the politics which is power's domain.

Power in Foucault arises when one assumes a calculative disposition toward the other from whom one would solicit agreement or collaboration in one's ends, all the while understanding the risk of reversibility arising in any situation with another who knows and wants differently from oneself. It is ultimately from this situation that arises the famous Foucauldian slogans "no power without resistance," "wherever power emerges, resistance arises" and so on. Although Arendt would not likely be thrilled with Foucault's choice of the word "calculation" to capture it, I would say that it is also ultimately from this situation that arises the famous Arendtian proposition that every act re-enacts natality, the beginning in birth into the world of a new generation with who knows what problems and promises, the release in action into the world of forces that will inevitably have unintended consequences and unexpected impacts.

What is crucial to the point I am making here, however, is to insist that every act both offers up a judgment to the hearing of the world that will have its way with it and render its own judgments unto it, but also that each act begins in a translation of subjective experience and aspiration into terms that one imagines will be most legible and conducive to the audience in the occasion into whose hearing it is offered, an act of imagination that is also a matter of judgment. That one is sometimes forced (or able) to adapt one's imagined anticipation of the other on the fly in face to face political encounters while the pace of the give-and-take in the publication of considered judgments is a more slow-moving affair, even in the age of public intellectuals on social media, the experience of these differences is not to be denied but neither does it seem to align with a philosophical distinction of worldly deliberation from the free play of reflection that need not ever find its way to voice to enrich the life of the thinker devoted to its pleasures and provocations. Every testament abides only in the collaborative writing of its readership, every deed endures only in being appropriated by the wider world: I think, therefore we've done. One might wish Arendt's mastery of the colloquialism "when the chips are down" were matched by that of "thinking on your feet."

When Beier raises the possibility that the actor exhibits judgment as much as the thinker later in his essay, this has become a problem mostly because he is committed to the thesis that the account of the thinker's judgment in The Life of the Mind has replaced the more fledgling account of the actor's judgment in The Human Condition. Like Beier's puzzled reaction to Arendt's neglect of Aristotle's treatment of political judgment as phronesis/ prudentia in the later works on judgment, this seem to me little more than a matter of shifted emphasis. Far from neglecting Aristotle in her full accounting of judgment, it seems to me she split the difference with a more Aristotelian account in The Human Condition and a more Kantian one to come in Life of the Mind. 

Thus, while it is true that Arendt conjoins judgment to understanding in her later work, it is no less true that the same judgment is conjoined to the action which preoccupies her earlier work. Recall that in The Human Condition Arendt proposed that the self is unavailable to reflection but is disclosed in and through public appearance, an absence made present in the legible responsiveness to the self's proffered acts/ judgments toward others in the politics of the vita activa. We depend for our existence not only on the sociality of practical collaboration but of inter-personal recognition: We do, therefore I am. This seems to me a complement to the making-present of absent others on which understandings/ judgments depend in the solitude of the vita contemplativa which Beier mentions to such effect. But to me, again, this gives us reasons instead to think the "early" and "late" characterizations of judgment actually make a coherent case together the force of which is completely undermined by treating them as the supplanting of one by another.
Judgment substantiates the effort to understand the world and materializes the performance of the act in the world. This is not to deny the differences in the indispensable work of judgment in the registers of thought and action, but to insist that their relation matters more than their distinction. While the distinction suggests itself to analysis, the relation impresses upon us as it is lived. There is no doubt that there was a difference between the Arendtian judgment of totalitarian criminality that impelled her early on into responsible activism and the isolating firestorm of judgment occasioned by her effort to understand an exemplary totalitarian criminal Eichmann later on, but it was the lived continuity of judgment's indispensability to the reconciliations of plural stakeholders in the world she shared as well as her reconciliation to the world so made that matters in Arendt's full accounting of the political and her place in it.

In section thirty-three of The Human Condition, "Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive," Arendt provides a rather stunning and never-repeated map of the conceptual terrain of the political, in which she proposes that the products of worldly work redeem the impasse of meaningless metabolic cyclicality in labor, and then the interminable, unpredictable release of actions into the made world redeem the impasse of meaningless instrumental/ causal cyclicality in work, and then that miraculous acts of forgiveness may redeem the impasse of meaningless revengeful cyclicality arising from the risks and costs of action's unpredictability. The apparent shift in emphasis accorded judgment in Arendt's later thinking included an elaboration of the idea that in the extreme impasse of totalitarian tyranny the reflection of the solitary thinker of the vita contemplativa might come to assume in its non-conformism the character of an action of resistance in the vita activa, that a present public might be re-opened to futurity in the making-present of retrospective reflection itself.

Beier does remark on Arendt's later thesis that the thinker may redeem the actor undone by the deeds of tyranny, but his writing in these passages are strangely ambivalent. He suggests that Arendt never quite "faces up" to the radical contingency implied in her account of redemptions that Hans Jonas exposed in a public exchange Beier recounts, and much the same point recurs when he brings up Habermas' criticism a few pages later that Arendt defends opinion to the cost of reason. For me, all this is simply confirmation that the rhetorical account of judgment in the early Arendt is not jettisoned for the later formulations of contemplative judgment in the first place. Although Arendt's writing is full of portentious pronouncements about the rupture of tradition, the dying of the light of the past to illuminate the present, the breaking of Ariadne's thread, and so on, it honestly seems to me that Arendt assumes an almost Rortyan insouciance at the End of Philosophy, altogether untroubled (or at any rate refusing all ressentiment) by the resumption of rhetoric in the eclipse of philosophical pretensions, happy to take up instead a Nietzschean Gay Science as its successor. It is well known that Arendt insistently refused the label "philosopher" and preferred to be known as a political theorist or political thinker instead, after all.

My reference to Nietzsche here is far from idle. Although I am not sure that Beier (or for that matter Arendt herself) read Nietzsche quite the same way I do, I agree that the work of Nietzsche resonates in Arendt's eventual accounting of the political quite as much or even more than Aristotle or Kant do. What Beier seems to me to treat as the almost incidental politically redemptive work of thinking-judgment in emergencies, I would describe instead as synecdochic of the work of judgment in the abiding emergency of history.

In his early, conspicuously sophistical On Truth and the Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche distinguishes the rational one of prudential affairs and the intuitive one of speculative artistry, and declares that the rational one who disdains the intuitive risks inelegance to the point of stupidity while the intuitive one who disdains the rational risks insanity. Both are deceived. He recommends a re-enchantment of the world, a polytheistic investment of the literal furniture of the world with their ineradicable susceptibility to re-figuration as the terrain on which the co-construction and re-negotiations of the rational and the intuitive are facilitated. And of course such a polytheism demands the death of the monotheistic judeochrislamic God of the Book -- the God that Jonas and the Book that Habermas would trouble Arendt with -- indeed the putrefying corpse of such a dead god could be the most fertile field in which polytheistic poiesis might flourish.

The general contours of this Nietzschean proposal recur throughout his work right up to Ecce Homo, culminating in the formulation of the eternal return as the abiding sublimity of the slippage of world and word demanding a truth-telling as tragic affirmation and in stylish self-creation. The ineradicable ontology of refiguration imposes the inescapable responsibility of resignification for human beings. Arendt's latter formulations on judgment complete (or, even in their incomplete form, enormously enrich) the account of the vita activa elaborated in The Human Condition and re-affirm even in a work entitled The Life of the Mind a life-long emphasis on the active life of worldly affairs and judgments over the philosophical contemptus mundi. If we recall that original title of the early Vita Activa and recall the proper translation of the later Vita Contemplativa, then we might think the true work for the title The Human Condition subsumes both these early and later volumes. The redemptions of labor in work, work in action, action in forgiveness (itself an action), like the redemptions of thought in agency, will in judgment, judgment in historical struggle all materialize dimensions of freedom as pleasures necessary to the life proper to humanity. These pleasures vouchsafe Arendt's own Nietzschean project of post-philosophical truth-telling as affirmations of meaning in the tragic face of finitude. For Arendt, all judgment is beset by emergency.

But Arendt's amor mundi is not quite Nietzsche's amor fati, hers is not his perverse declaration of love for the condition of contingency itself but for the world in which we would make a home in the scrum of history. Politics is the domain of both freedom and responsibility, and the redemptive pleasures of freedom delineated in Arendt's early accounts of doing and later of accounts of thinking are incomplete until we recall the injunction with which the Prologue to The Human Condition ends (which remains apt even when we treat this as the title encompassing the projects of both the early and later volumes): that we also "think what we are doing." The pleasurably emancipatory responsivenesses to our peers and to the world we are making and have made in doing and thinking open onto the responsibilities to our peers and to the world we are making and have made in thinking what we are doing.

To understand the uniquely isolating, de-politicizing, world-destroying character of totalitarian tyranny was the point of departure and abiding touchstone for the thinking of both Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, as the organized criminality of colonial occupation and administration understood on much the same terms was the point of departure and abiding touchstone for the thinking of Frantz Fanon. The original published title of The Origins of Totalitarianism was The Burden of Our Time, and that "our" included her in a way that it no longer can for us. Our burdens are different ones, the emergence of the planet from the ruins of the postwar globe is neither the "earth" as Arendt understood it, exactly, nor the world from which she distinguished it, but a different world. What Arendt understood as "The Crisis in Culture" seems to us instead the occasion for a necessary critique of patriarchal and plutocratic violence as we assume the new worldly responsiveness and responsibilities of polyculture. Indeed, the putrefying corpse of such a dead culture could be the most fertile field in which the sustainable democratizing worldmaking of planetary polyculture might flourish.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Looks like Dan Lyons is leaving ValleyWag already. Even if he did jump the robo-shark, and seemed too star-struck by celebrity tech CEOs to maintain the adversarial stance which is the reason the site exists, I do sympathize with anybody felled by back pain, one old coot to another. If Biddle were to resume his place the place might resume its meddle, but the comments over there seem to suggest that people don't like him very much. Since I think he is one of the few consistently sharp and funny writers about the Valley of the Silly Con I suppose I shouldn't find it surprising he makes techbros whine from peen shrivel.

Review of the Red Letter Media Review of Jupiter Ascending...

...can now be found in the Moot to an earlier post in my lonely ongoing one-man fandom.

Asshole Rainbow

Patriarchal religiosity and patriarchal anti-religiosity are exactly equally dangerous and wrong.

Putting the Shallow in Salo

Fifty Shades of Meh

Friday, February 13, 2015

Long Teaching Day

This morning in Digital Democracy Digital Anti-Democracy from nine to noon we're thinking about journalism, reading two rather utopian pieces from different political vantages by Dan Gillmour and Digby, Clay Shirky on mass amateurization, Aaron Bady on wikileaks and then Geert Lovink and Jodi Dean on blogging. Some links to participatory, social, relational art and curatorial practice should come up in the version of this class I teach at an art school, surely. The discussion sets the stage for varations on the theme of digital publicity to come. Then, from one to four in the lecture hall my graduate Introduction to Critical Theory continues to zing along. Last week, Nietzsche in a nutshell, this week Marx. History as class struggle, materialism, alienation, revolution, camera obscura, there is no royal road to science,  the fetishism of commodities, and zombies. There's a union meeting after that, so an unusually long day in the City for me, so blogging will be, as usual on Friday, low to no.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Be Careful What You Wish For

“Texas has been criticized for having a large number of uninsured but that’s what Texans wanted.” Rick Perry (R)

Natality, Tech "Disruption," and Killer Robots

Over at The Frailest Thing, the always thoughtful and rewarding Michael Sacasas writes about the threat of autonomous weapons systems (so-called):
Lethal Autonomous Weapons threaten to become a symbol of our age; not in their clinical lethality, but in their evacuation of human responsibility from one of the most profound and terrible of actions, the taking of a human life. They will be an apt symbol for an age in which we will grow increasingly accustomed to holding algorithms responsible for all manner of failures, mistakes, and accidents, both trivial and tragic. Except, of course, that algorithms cannot be held accountable and they cannot be forgiven.

We cannot know, neither exhaustively nor with any degree of certainty, what the introduction of Lethal Autonomous Weapons will mean for human society, at least not by the standards of techno-scientific thinking. In the absence of such certainty, because we do not seem to know how to think or judge otherwise, they will likely be adopted and eventually deployed as a matter of seemingly banal necessity.
Crucial to his reflections on this phenomenon is a rich reading of Hannah Arendt's worry about the adequacy of thought to judge novel technoscientific developments. (A concise formulation of that argument appears in her The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man.) Of course, the combination of the "killer robot" topic with its taking up of an Arendtian framework makes Sacasas' piece simply irresistible to me. For my own sense of the indispensability of Arendt to the thinking of technodevelopmental historical struggle I recommend the fourth and also the final sections of my essay Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains.

All that said, I do want to point out that Arendt sometimes took the futurological assertions she otherwise critiqued so forcefully at face value in a way that skewed her judgments of them in my view. She seemed to accept the futurological prediction that automation would soon emancipate majorities from labor to leisure, that genetic medicine would soon deliver humans youthful lifespans beyond a century, that intelligent robots would soon replace soldiers on the battlefield. (Her credulity on the first two claims is to be found in the famous Prologue to The Human Condition, the third appears in both versions of "On Violence," about which I say more in a moment.) Of course, Arendt had enormously insightful things to say about the costs and risks of such outcomes where their prophets mostly insisted on their benefits, but Arendt's critiques accepted the plausibility of the prophesies themselves as novelties appearing in the world for us to judge as such. Arendt's political theory re-orients worldly thinking from its historical concern with biological mortality (with death and threat and economy) with her own concern with biological natality (with birth and beginnings and novelties), and however illuminating and transformative this re-orientation may be as a general matter I do think this emphasis made her more susceptible than need be to marketing hyperbole among Very Serious public intellectuals talking about technology in ways that reiterated the customary norms and forms of American promotional discourses, repackaging the static and the stale as acceleration and novelty (indeed, it is this suffusion of public discourse with marketing rhetoric that was the novelty demanding and still demanding our judgment in my view). Be that as it may, we do Arendt an ill turn if we hear in her talk of the rupture of tradition at the end of philosophy anything like the glib opportunism of our "tech disruptors" today, or worse those superlative futurologists who would hyperbolize this all-too-familiar disruption into "The Singularity."

I replied to Sacasas at his blog, and hope he finds my comments congenial, but I am posting them here as well (you really should read his post first, which is enormously more elaborated than I have sketched, by following the link at the beginning):
Of course the use of these weapons systems is a problem, but I think it is enormously important that we not abet it by accepting the framing of its boosters. That algorithms cannot be held accountable for crimes is not the novelty introduced by these weapons, and is no more interesting than the fact that neither can bullets be held so accountable. What matters is that human coders CAN be held accountable, human funders of the code, human owners of the machines running the code, human officials in institutions implementing the policies (many in the name of US humans) releasing these war machines into the world. The displacement of agency from the human action these machines mediate to the machines themselves is commonplace in both the advocates and critics of these developments.

You are right to turn to Arendt in this context, and I would recommend "On Violence" as the key text, in which Arendt begins with the observation that violence needs tools and comes to propose that in violence we think of others as tools and so become tools ourselves (her deeper point is that this transaction is mistaken in the tradition of political/antipolitical philosophizing as the essence of power when it is quite the opposite). Anyway, the reason the piece is especially relevant to your point is that in its longer published version, "On Violence" connects these theses to a critique of the then-fledgling archipelago of corporate-military think tanks and makes the point that their problem is not that they "think the unthinkable" (the title of a fine and influential critique of the time) but that they are not thinking at all. By this she does mean "thoughtlessness" in the sense that interests you, and she says fairly specific things about its character as extrapolative and not imaginative, arguments that connect with her prescient discussion of computation in Human Condition and claims about judgment that preoccupy the last years of her life. I think it is probably wrong to assimilate those critiques to the proposal of "thinking without bannisters" she elaborated for thought at the end of philosophy.

For me, so-called "autonomous weapons systems" (it matters that they are not actually autonomous) connect to older problems of the facilitation of human violence through the technological alienation of its perpetrator from its victims (remote operators, animated displays, bureaucratic casualty statistics) and to the deceptive rhetoric investing lethal weapons that kill innocent civilians with "smartness" and "precision" (an old story re-enacted by the present killer robot discourse) or divesting the dead of the reality of their lives with "collateral damage" and the promiscuous assignment of the label "terrorist." Again, these are not new strategies and critics make a mistake when they accept the hype of boosters that these new systems are without precedent. You are the first to recognize the wish-fulfillment fantasies mobilized by techno-transcendental discourses. The way to respond to the daydreams of the techno-priests is not to re-frame them as nightmares but to expose the irreality of the dream, to bring tech-talk back to earth, and insist on worldly judgments of worldly actions on worldly terms.

Where's Walter?

Brian Williams' enjoyably scandalous departure confirms he is no Walter Cronkite, while Jon Stewart's stunningly scandalous departure reveals he is our Walter Cronkite.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


The Disruptors!

Neoliberal disruption is looting the public with corporate forces.
Neoconservative disruption is looting the public with military forces.

Interstellar Versus Jupiter Ascending

Interstellar is neoliberal pseudoscientific dreck for techbros, Jupiter Ascending is gorgeous space-operatic schlock for queergeeks. Make your choice, and so be known.

Why So Personal?

The panicked, incensed, and weirdly boastful way otherwise sensible people will defend their guns, their cars, their meat, and their religious idiosyncrasies never fails to perplex this gunless, carless, vegetarian atheist.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I've Been Locked Out of Twitter for "Automated Behavior"


A New Documentary About the Valley of the Silly Con

Marije Meerman's "Cybertopia: Dreams of Silicon Valley" is an excellent documentary portrait of the faith-based libertopian ideology of the exceptionally wealthy and influential and at once dangerously delusive and destructive venture-capitalist "tech" culture. The piece is not doing ideologiekritik, but it exposes the conjoined stupidity and sociopathy of libertechbrotarianism simply by allowing a set of connections to announce themselves on the lips of the Valley's "Thought Leaders" themselves. So many of the Usual Suspects are here -- Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Tim Draper, Stewart Brand... just click on my Superlative Summary (an archive of over a decade of anti-futurological writings) and scroll down to the names of figure after figure featured in the piece to discover the interconnections of these folks to robocalypse daydreams, techno-immortalist wish-fulfilment fantasizing, techno-fix climate denialism, cyberangel uploading to Holodeck Heaven, the whole Robot Cult nine yards. The piece doesn't excoriate these tendencies as I do so incessantly myself, but by revealing how inextricably linked certain guiding "tech" notions, attitudes, and efforts turn out to be that might otherwise seem completely separate or only incidentally or accidentally connected, the documentary well prepares the ground for those of us who would move from observation to critique of these plutocratic actors, reactionary ideological formations, and explicitly organized programs. At the very least the documentary is proof of the abiding force of Richard Barbrook's and Andy Cameron's canonical critique The Californian Ideology. The fraudulent foolishness of bitcoin, separatist seasteading, sooper-AI, six Californias, burning man as world-scalable utopia, tragic gizmofashionistas blissed out in mom-jeans on the dancefloor are not merely dismissed as ridiculous (tho' of course ridiculous they are), but understood in the piece as symptoms of underlying assumptions and aspirations. I was especially intrigued to witness throughout the documentary the way free associational expression functioned to render the discourse anti-critical, the way its insistence of competitiveness plays out in denials and disavowals of historical complexity, the way the privilege of advocates enables an obliviousness or even hostility to democratic processes and commitments. I couldn't help but notice the way the incessant conjuration of "imagination" depended here on the denial of human precarity, how the aspiration toward "utopia" was premised on denials of human finitude, how visions of "heroism" demanded the denial of historical struggles and specificities. Once again, we witness in this devastating short film a group of self-styled "Smartest Guys in the Room" (white techbros on parade, natch) who build their genius out of ignorance, insensitivity, and brutality. Watch the film and by all means do say what you think about it in the Moot:

Future As Fart Joke

After a quarter century of futurological criticism I can say with some confidence that The Singularity is an asshole.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

What "Tech" Coverage Covers Up: A Twitter Response

["understood," obviously]
["contend," drat!]

["indicative," sigh!]

For those who are interested, I elaborate these points more in a more thorough way and then take them to their various destinations in Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains.

Here, by the way, is the response as a conventional paragraph:
"Stating the obvious," writes Joseph Cox, "but US mainstream media tech coverage is so bad. A real problem as tech becomes an even bigger part of our lives." While I strongly agree with thrust of his point, I cannot help but notice that in a way his objection itself may reflect some of that terrible coverage:  I don't agree that technology is more a part of our lives than it ever has been -- all culture is prosthetic, after all. I would say instead that what has become more prevalent is a "tech" discourse with an attendant politics which "tech coverage" promulgates, a set of plutocratic strategies naturalizing corporate-militarism, enabling digital fraud and wealth concentration, neoliberal precarization, complacent unsustainable consumerism, triumphalist denial, and undermining labor organizing. "Tech" is the placeholder for many of these strategies, the imaginary object they assume and at which they aspire. What "tech coverage" fails to do and what critical resistance to its reactionary politics must insist on is to pluralize what passes for "tech"; to historicize its processes; and to politicize its stakeholders and their stakes. An abstract monolithicization of tech, a disregard of processes of familiarization and investments with pathologies of agency facilitates its a-historization, drain it of its situated stakes/stakeholders, and re-narrativizes it as reactionary destiny. What gets covered as "tech" is better understand as the contingent vicissitudes of technoscientific change and, crucially, technodevelopmental social struggle among stakeholders who content over fraught costs, risks, benefits, meanings, openings. "Tech" coverage always covers over these diverse contentious histories and struggles and thus enables their most reactionary political forms. Cox's initial gesture at the "obviousness" of his point is actually enormously indicative for it turns out nothing is obvious, but also that it is the production of the obviousness of "tech" that is the chief reactionary work of "tech coverage" and constitutes a crucial barrier to thinking and engaging critically in real technodevelopmental social struggle as such.