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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Brief

The Future's so trite I have to give shade.

Born Every Minute

Amazing how many headlines featuring the name Elon Musk would be clarified by switching the name to P.T. Barnum.

Fandom As Movement?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Silly Season

My twitter feed definitely has a follow for the anti-techbro-critique unfollow for the anti-berniebro-critique thing going on.

Imagined Interlocutors and the Critical Temper

Do The Hustle

Writing checks your ass can't cash is a hustle, not a revolution.

Friday, January 29, 2016

But Is He So Sure She Didn't Mean Michelle?

The President has indicated he doesn't much want the Supreme Court appointment Hillary hinted could be offered Obama in a coming Clinton administration a few days back.


After years of being told this or that consumer product was "revolutionary" we are now being sold that voting for somebody to be President is, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Minsky Thensky

Teaching Day

In my grad Biopunk seminar today in the City we are taking up C.S. Lewis' "Abolition of Man" and the "Prologue" to Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, then talking through Greg Bear's short story "Blood Music." Baby steps to start with, should be fun.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Obama's "Almost" Endorsement

My Amazing Support of the Hillary Monster

A bravely "Anonymous" interlocutor in the Moot is amazed:
It's amazing how you will only support Hillary and wear blinders to her current and past corruption. And yes, I am a Demo but not a Marxist collectivist such as yourself.
Since I have repeatedly expressed my admiration for Sanders as a Senator and since I have repeatedly said I will both support and vote for Sanders if he is the eventual nominee -- though with great trepidation about his electability in an election the stakes of which are raised enormously both by the fragility of Obama's accomplishments and the present surreal debasement of the GOP field -- your statement that I only support Clinton is plainly wrong.

I do prefer Clinton as nominee. In this I am like millions of other Democrats who are impressed by Clinton's knowledge, experience, dedication to causes many Democrats hold dear, and who want a woman in the White House fighting in public ways to protect women's access to healthcare, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, an exposure and end of rape culture, and an emphasis on the indispensability of supporting women and girls in the development of a flourishing planetary society.

Like Sanders I identify as someone on the social democratic to democratic socialist spectrum, and most construals of "Marxist collectivist" don't accurately convey my positions. I teach Marx in critical theory classes at the University level and I actually know what he said, after all. I can't know exactly what you mean by that designation -- it is true that I advocate for universal healthcare, education, and income payed for by steeply progressive taxation and that I believe many key common and public goods should be administered by and for the public rather than for parochial profit-taking. I also know that there is much more to actually accomplishing these ideal ends or even arriving nearer to them or even enabling the terrain in which they might eventually be achieved through struggle than simply knowing and saying that is what one ideally wants to achieve.

Clinton is a competent and connected progressive pragmatist with a voting record not much less liberal than Sanders' own, and like the politics of the Democratic Party in general Clinton's public positions have shifted leftward and I hope will continue to do so under pressure from organized movements from her left in which I, and perhaps you too, will participate. I do not know or think knowable or, hence, much care what is supposed to be in her "heart" any more than I do any other celebrity's, including Obama or Sanders or Beyonce. I am to Clinton's left as I am to the left of the country and to any electable president in my country, and I supported Obama over Clinton in 2008 as I would support a third Obama term over a first Clinton one now if that were an option. It is not; or more to the point, a Clinton administration looks to me like the best defense of the legacy of the Obama administration available to us.

I can't say that I have been thrilled with everything Clinton has done in her career, and I was not a great fan of her husband's administration. I take election and partisan politics seriously -- though I believe extra-partisan grass-roots movement education, agitation, organization are just as necessary to achieve necessary reform in the direction of sustainable equity-in-diversity from partisan legislation -- and whatever our disagreements you will find it hard to sustain your insinuation that my preferences are ignorant, uninformed, or reflect conspicuous blinders. Disagreement with you isn't the same thing as blindness, I daresay you will forced to concede even in the fullest froth of berniebuzz. Quite a lot of what is being called Clinton's "corruption" in the current silly season is (if you'll forgive me) patently idiotic hyperbolic nonsense from pampered narcissists whose purity politics play out in a symbolic field rather insulated from the real consequences in real lives of election defeats to white-supremacist patriarchal plutocrats in the GOP. If you are not one of these yourself -- and certainly not all Sanders supporters are, even if it sometimes seems all the loud ones are -- you know what I mean and are probably as annoyed by the phenomenon as I am.

You are of course free to differ with my calculation as to the electability of the superannuated, grumpy, disheveled avowed socialist (all of which I am too) Sanders vis-a-vis Clinton in the America we actually live in, or the feasibility of his implementation of single payer healthcare and breakup of the big banks as head of a party he has never hitherto been a member of and almost all the super-delegates of which are not supporting him, with little prospect of majorities let alone super-majorities in congress, and a host of enormously powerful rich stakeholders he won't even talk to arrayed against him. Be all that as it may, I wish your candidate the best of luck, and disagree though we may, I daresay you need no longer at any rate be "amazed" that an intelligent committed person of the left disagrees with you on the matter of a partisan presidential election.

Sorry To Upset You All

But, yes, I do support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders as the inevitably disappointing sociopath I hope to be to the left of for the next four to eight years in the White House.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Transhumanism Now Shapes the Conventional Unwisdom of "Thought Leaders" at Davos

Last week I recommended Richard Jones' excellent short free e-book Against Transhumanism: The Delusion of Human Transcendence.

Today I want to recommend a follow-up post from Jones' blog ridiculing what I have called "accelerationalism" in current tech-discourses in which metaphors of speed re-frame and rationalize disastrous policy proposals and the dreary history that results from them. And so, for example, very longstanding and completely familiar right-wing efforts to loot, privatize, and deregulate public goods are now described as "disruption," as though it is the fierce innovative energies unleashed by entrepreneurial techbro brains are subliming away pesky barriers to progress through the sheer force of their momentum. And as I put the point in The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change, "the 'accelerating change' crowed about for the last two decades by futurologists in pop religious cadences and by more mainstream and academic New Media commentators in pop sociology cadences has never had any substantial reference apart from the increasing precarity produced by neoliberal looting and destabilization of domestic welfare and global economies -- often facilitated, it is true, by the exploitation of digital trading, marketing, and surveillance networks -- a precarity usually seen and experienced from the vantage of privileged people who either benefit from neoliberal destabilization or who (rightly or wrongly) identify with the beneficiaries of that destabilization."

There is nothing more commonplace than marketing firms that re-package failed and stale products and features as "exciting" and "new" via ad-copy in order to invest them with phony excitement and seductiveness. What consumer has not learned to be leery at the sticker slapped on some tired commodity declaring it "New And Improved"? It is in this spirit that I think we should apprehend the paradoxical emergence of a narrative of "accelerating change" and even "acceleration of acceleration" at a time when the furniture of everyday life and the quality of life more generally has been more static than not. As Eduardo Porter put the point in a recent review in the New York Times:
Take a look back at some of the most popular TV programs of the mid-1960s -- “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” even “The Beverly Hillbillies” -- and what do you see? Like today, middle-class Americans typically had washing machines and air-conditioning, telephones and cars. The Internet and video games were not yet invented. But life, over all, did not look that different. There were TVs and radios in most homes. Millions of people worked in downtown offices and lived in suburbs, connected by multilane highways. Americans’ average life expectancy at birth was 70, only eight years less than it is today [and the lived experience of life expectancy at retirement age was even less different, inasmuch as these statistics reflect most dramatically changes in survival in infancy and from childhood diseases -- I must remind, d].

But flash back 50 years earlier. Then, less than half the population lived in cities. Though Ford Model T’s were starting to roll off the assembly line, Americans typically moved around on horse-drawn buggies on dirt or cobblestone roads. Refrigerators or TVs? Most homes weren’t even wired for electricity. And average life expectancy was only 53... Has technological progress slowed for good? The idea that America’s best days are behind us sits in sharp tension with the high-tech optimism radiating from the offices of the technology start-ups and venture capital firms of Silicon Valley...
In a post published today at Soft Machines, Richard Jones derides Davos discourse promoting a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution" and the "Exponential" technology-driven change presumably "disrupting" the linear history preceding it. Jones writes:
The World Economic Forum at Davos provides a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom amongst the globalised elite, so it’s interesting this year that, amidst all the sage thoughts on refugee crises, collapsing commodity prices and world stock market gyrations, there’s concern about the economic potential and possible dislocations from the fourth industrial revolution we are currently, it seems widely agreed, at the cusp of. This is believed to arise from the coupling of the digital and material worlds, through robotics, the “Internet of Things”, 3-d printing, and so on, together with the development of artificial intelligence to the point where it can replace the skill and judgement of highly educated and trained workers... all that this illustrates is the bleeding of transhumanist rhetoric into the mainstream that I criticise in my ebook Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence. It’s a wish that some people have, that technologies will allow them to transcend the limitations of their human nature (and most notably, the limitation of mortality).
Jones concludes that he is "optimistic about the potential of technology" and distinguishes his view from that of pessimistic writers like Tyler Cowen "that slow technological progress is inevitable because we’ve already taken the 'low hanging fruit.'" I must say that I am ambivalent about these prospects myself. This will surprise critics who are quick to deride my critiques as "negative" "pessimistic" "anti-imagination" "deathist" and "luddism" and the rest -- but needless to say I reject the premise that there is anything the least bit positive, optimistic, productive, life-affirming, or techscientifically realistic about wish-fulfillment fantasizing, con-artistry, or pseudo-science. I will say this: Innovation arises from ongoing public investments in education, infrastructural affordances, specific programs of research, attention to bottlenecks that offer up no immediately profitable applications. Progress -- and since progress is a moral and political concept I must actually specify, as few who extol progress ever do, that, for example, as a advocate of democracy and ecology I personally define progress as progress in the direction of ever more sustainable, consensual, flourishing equity-in-diversity -- arises from the ongoing struggle to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes are equitably distributed to all the stakeholders of that change by their lights. This matters, because it reminds us that both innovation and progress are social and political in their substance, far from determined by the technical specifications of a particular scientific discovery or instrumental application. Being "optimistic about the potential of [this or that] technology" is neither here nor there -- flourishing requires democracy quite as much as it does discovery, emancipation is a matter of equitable distribution quite as much as it does technical delivery.

Given the current state of plutocratic wealth concentration, the resulting disintegration of democratic participation and accountability, and the disastrous and destabilizing neoliberal precarization of the lives of the overabundant majority of people on the planet I am not sure that it is responsible to be too optimistic about our potential to invest in innovation and ensure progressive equity-in-diversity whatever the genius of our collective problem-solving genius. Optimism too readily invites acquiescence, especially in an epoch in which techoscience is invested with the reactionary imperial cadences of manifest destiny. To ensure innovation and progress the last thing we need to be doing is celebrating celebrity tech CEOs who are little more than skim-and-scam artists or indulging in uncritical consumer lifestyles and commodity fandoms expecting to purchase our way to Tech Heaven as wage slaves without rights or hope assemble our gizmos as our aquifers dry, our soil shatters into sand, our shorelines and skylines are smashed by angry waves, our atmosphere shrieks and swells with greenhouse storms and landfills rise like mountains of toxic smoking sludge leaching poisons into the dying land.

On the other hand, the ruins of neoliberal feudalism are evident everywhere, and organized resistances to the self-serving free market and austerian pieties of incumbent elites keep emerging in country after country, election after election, uprising after uprising. As the shocks of climate catastrophe imperil urban enclaves, devastate private insurance, destabilize nation-states it may be that the circumstances may be ripe for a turning of the anti-democratizing tide, our polities may rediscover the indispensability of commonwealth and our intelligence may be provoked from complacency into ardor just as public investment in that intelligence rises to meet us where we are. I certainly do not agree any more than Jones does with those who posit there is some structural phenomenon that made discovery long seem too easy and now too hard. Although there is some justice in the suggestion that superiority of so-called Western modernity was little more than a vast bubble blown up by non-renewable energy extraction and waste within which economic history was a sequence of convulsive bubble-chapters and recovery-chapters within that bubble culminating in the bubble-bursting chaos of anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the truth is that the building of sustainable energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure could readily be the incubator of new innovation, new employment, new flourishing, new progress. A host of dis-eases and dis-abilities likewise seem susceptible of therapeutic remedy given sufficient investment in research and the political will to ensure universal access. What will pass as "low hanging fruit" for technological progress is determined less by physics than by social and political preparation. I daresay Tyler Cowen may suggest otherwise not least because he is an apologist for and therefore needs an alibi for the neoliberal economic policies which seem to me the likelier culprit for our current technoscientific malaise.

As Jones puts the point in his own conclusion,
Technological progress continues, in some areas it moves fast, in other areas it moves much more slowly, despite our society’s most pressing needs. Which technologies move fast, and which we neglect and allow to stagnate, are the results of the political and social choices we make, often tacitly. We might make better choices if our discussions of technology weren’t conducted entirely in terms of tired clichés.
I am not sure we can avoid all the cliches when we seek to narrativize the quandaries of our historical moment as we must -- after all, all the talk of accelerating acceleration of acceleration notwithstanding, there is really nothing new under the sun where questions of the human condition are concerned, including the contingency of history and the shock of the unexpected that mock our expectations and our plans and keep things so very interesting while we are alive together in the living world --  but I would rephrase Jones' point in a way that retains its spirit by simply proposing instead that we take care our discussions of technology (or more to the point the politics that enable and shape its vicissitudes) aren't conducted in terms of inapt frames: chief among these I would note are narratives of autonomous artifacts, historical determination, scientistic reduction, manifest destiny, and the pining after certainty, absolute control, overcoming finitude or, in Jones' own phrase, delusions of transcendence.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


On twitter "a shill" is a supporter of anything you criticize.
On twitter "the shrill" is criticism of anything you support.


A celebrated billionaire
Put lots of stolen money down
To watch into the empty air
His rocket going up and down.

Sarah's Cookies

Sarah sits like a cookie jar,
Purring, plump, our household star,
But the cookies she dispenses are smelly,
All having ripened in her belly.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Bernie Twitter Rant

Some exchanges occasioned by this twitter rant:

Revolution of the White Feels

After Bernie is through with his New Hampshire ad, Coke can always re-use it to sell soda pop.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Truly Horrible Thingularity

Although kittens and other infant woodland creatures are adorable, I have always found human babies utterly repellent. Leave it to the roboticists to come up with something actually worse:

Found this via a link in a boingboing tweet declaring, "Gazing at this cute little skinless animatronic baby is delightful." Cute?!?! Delightful?!?!


The Future Is A Fraud

I am presently expanding my Futurological Discourse and Posthuman Terrains essay into a short book-length piece. By short, I mean just a little over a hundred pages for now, more than doubling it, but not by too much. All of the sections are getting plumped up a bit, and I think the third section on the flaws and fashions of futurological methodologies requires the most original thinking and writing work I face from the project.

One of the pleasures I am finding is offering up lots of amplification and backup on various points from the tradition of critical theory I have been teaching for years (Marx, Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, Debord, Lyotard, Haraway) and from texts from the history and best contemporary technology criticism (Ellul, Mumford, Winner, Noble, Morozov, Pasquale, Golumbia), which I think enriches the intellectual heft of the piece. But if you are worried all this citational supplementation will render what was a fairly concise formulation (at least for me) into a ponderous cloudbank of academese, I am happy to report that there are a surprising number of deliciously polemical zingers getting sprinkled in via this material.

The other real difference is that I am adding in a large historical survey of transhumanoid precursors, fellow-travelers, and organized sects (Extropians, Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Nano-Cornucopiasts, Digi-Utopians, Geo-Engineers, etc) and charting -- the often stealthy -- ties connecting their memberships, funding, canons, and so on. These are things only hinted at in the essay but quite important in my critique -- connections I scarcely hinted at in the shorter piece.

The title of the essay (which remains the published writing of which I am most proud) would become the subtitle of the book. The title I am inclining to is: The Future Is A Fraud. Before you accuse me of sensationalism, the title actually refers to a central contention of the essay and of my critique, but one which has gotten little attention. From the original essay:

Successful mainstream futurology amplifies irrational consumption through marketing hyperbole and makes profitable short term predictions for the benefit of investors, the only finally reliable source for which is insider information. Successful superlative futurism amplifies irrational terror of finitude and mortality through the conjuration of a techno-transcendent vision of "The Future" peddled as long-term predictions the faithful in which provide unearned attention and money for the benefit of gurus and pseudo-experts, the source for which is science fiction mistaken for science practice and science policy. Something suspiciously akin to fraud would appear to be the common denominator of futurology in both its mainstream and superlative modes.  

Unicorns Are White

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Bernie Sanders was asked whether he was in favor of “reparations for slavery.” Sanders' response...:
No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.
The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform. The chances of a President Sanders coaxing a Republican Congress to pass a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill are also nil. Considering Sanders’s proposal for single-payer health care, Paul Krugman asks, “Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon—say, in the next eight years? No.”
Coates doesn't so much endorse Clinton here (after all, she is not advocating reparations either, and I think it unlikely she would -- though I wish she would) as express despair that "if not even an avowed socialist can be bothered to grapple with reparations, if the question really is that far beyond the pale, if Bernie Sanders truly believes that victims of the Tulsa pogrom deserved nothing, that the victims of contract lending deserve nothing, that the victims of debt peonage deserve nothing, that that political plunder of black communities entitle them to nothing, if this is the candidate of the radical left -- then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children." But Sanders' knee-jerk dismissal of just this one radical proposal for justice as "divisive" of all things as well as his ongoing preference for class analysis over a recognition of the centrality of white-supremacy in particular in understanding the specificity and intransigence of untold violence, hopeless poverty, political dysfunction in this country symptomize ways in which he may simply be out of step with the most important and ever more important constituencies in the Democratic coalition. Clinton has her problems, but that is not one of them.

Another Teaching Day

Finally got some sleep last night and for once it does not look like rain. Yesterday's class went well enough and today's should be no muss no fuss, especially since I won't be stumbling in the streets in an exhausted insomniac haze. Today's class is an introduction of my undergraduate course on patriarchy in classical Greece and Rome. It's a highly simplified version of a course I've taught at Berkeley half a dozen times and I could teach the thing competently blindfolded in a dunk tank -- fortunately so much of the material is so beautiful and provocative to me I won't be able to help giving them a passionate rather than perfunctory course in any case. I hope this group is a lively one -- the English comedy of manners course I taught last term never really fired my students up and their indifference was a real drag on a weekly basis.