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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Final Thoughts From My Class This Term: For Futurity


There is no such thing as technology in general. There are a plurality of artifacts, techniques, performances, research programs, events both real and imagined, things used and reused and misused, efforts supported and criticized, knowledges discovered, funded, regulated, made, maintained, marketed, appropriated, everything changing. Technological impacts are always specific and so, they should be specified. As CS Lewis insisted, when we say technology gives people power over nature what this really always means is technology gives some people some power over some other people.


There is no such thing as progress-in-general, either. Progress is always progress toward ends, and ends are as plural as the people who have them. The facilitation of one end will typically frustrate others, "optimization" always constrains as much as it enables. What technologies are capable of is not determined so much by their engineering specs but by the ways they are taken up by the diversity of their stakeholders. The costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change will all differ according to the positions of its stakeholders. And so, whenever anyone makes a claim in the name of "technology-in-general" or "progress for all" or "human enhancement as such" (as if we all agree already what life is about and what count as enhancements) you should always start translating that into a claim about a moment or conjuncture in an ongoing social struggle over the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the diversity of its stakeholders.


Not all artifacts and techniques are recognized as technology at all, indeed most are not, and many are treated instead as "nature." When the political work of the natural is to treat that which is open to contestation as if it were instead inevitable or necessary or assumed to be optimal, it tends to defend the status quo and anti-democracy. But when technology discourse treats extreme and even transcendent outcomes as technologically determined, autonomous, or the result of sheer momentum, then that which is least natural of all, that which is the result of the most fraught fragile painstaking effort of all -- political progress itself -- can be "naturalized" into reactionary (Manifest) Destiny, the space of Barthes's alienated Jet Man. Even techno-transcendental declarations which seem to repudiate natural finitude and insist there are "No Limits!" ultimately translate to the customary conviction of the privileged that there will always be other folks on hand to clean up their messes for them. Again, after all, what would seem more natural to the powerful than the smooth ongoing function of power?


In this course we have often called on an Arendtian distinction between political power understood as the experience of possibility or potential (power from the L potens) as opposed to instrumental power understood as an amplification of given strengths and capacities. One understanding of power invokes a political or rhetorical rationality which takes plurality and therefore the possibility of resistance for granted, another understanding of power invokes an instrumental rationality translating causes into effects, means into ends. One sees history as a radically contingent, interminable, interpersonal struggle, the other sees history as playing out causal material forces, often superhuman ones. One is prone to social constructions and intersectional analyses grounded in plural histories, the other is prone to technological determinisms and natural progressivisms that recast differences as atavisms. Both understandings or inhabitations of power yield insights and uses on their own terms, but for Arendt it was crucial we grasp the essentially political character of concepts like freedom and progress, and understand the risk of re-casting these values in merely instrumental terms. What Arendt failed to elaborate was the extent to which the theoretical understanding of the political she championed itself depends on deeper instrumentalizations still, most crucially the infra-humanizing work of white supremacy.


For our purposes together, we have understood "The Future" as a site of imaginative investment, framed metaphorically as a Destiny/Destination, but one at which no one ever arrives.The Futurisms we have observed clashing are discourses, movements, subcultures that have formed around particular narratives and visions of "The Future." Futurology is one such discourse -- with its own archive, figures, frames, canon, and conceits -- and it is becoming one of the prevalent vocabularies through which global elites rationalize the costs and risks of their policies today (even as we raised substantial questions about its logical and empirical standards and historical assumptions: every extrapolation eventually fails, trends are more retroactive than predictive, making bets isn't the same thing as making arguments, etc.). In the last weeks of this course I have emphasized the role of futurology in corporate-military think tanks and commercial imagery and sfnal narratives in contemporary technology discourse that has been marketing deregulatory disruption, privatization of common goods and public services as if these are democratizing and emancipatory developments. Finally, I have used the term "Futurity" to describe the quality of openness inhering in and arising out of the diversity of stakeholders to the present. It is to recognize, preserve, and enlarge this critical and creative space of pleasure, problem-solving, and resistance that I have dedicate this class. The subtitle of our course may have been "A Clash of Futurisms," but the title is: "For Futurity." Remember this: The work of building sustainable, equitable, consensual, convivial futures happens in the present world, in the contests and collaborations of people figuring out ways of living together and reconciling their ends, here and now, not through retreats into transcendent futures, essentialist parochialisms, separatist enclaves, or segregated spaces.

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