amor mundi

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Such a dilemma!

The Republican dilemma on immigration is that their dream is genocide but their prospect is suicide.

Against Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Fondest Thanksgiving Memory

On long road trips to Mamaw's for Thanksgiving dinner when I was a kid, whenever we passed a stalled or wrecked car on the side of the highway my Dad would involuntarily and unironically cry out, "Another holiday ruined!"

A Thanksgiving Prayer



This is by now an Amor Mundi tradition of many years' standing: Gus Van Sant's video of William Burroughs performing his Thanksgiving Prayer. The reference to "laboratory AIDS" was going out on one limb too far (something of an occupational hazard for Burroughs who remains the great poet of US-style conspiracy spinning), but apart from that bough breaking the piece remains as righteous and riotous as ever.
Thanks for the wild turkey and
the passenger pigeons, destined
to be shat out through wholesome
American guts.

Thanks for a continent to despoil
and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide a
modicum of challenge and
danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to
kill and skin leaving the
carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves
and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK.

For n****r-killin' lawmen,
feelin' their notches.

For decent church-goin' women,
with their mean, pinched, bitter,
evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for
Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the
war against drugs.

Thanks for a country where
nobody's allowed to mind the
own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the
memories-- all right let's see
your arms!

You always were a headache and
you always were a bore.

Thanks for the last and greatest
betrayal of the last and greatest
of human dreams.

Annual Thanksgiving Tweet

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Third Way Ain't No Way

To declare yourself "nonpolitical" or "antipolitical" as so many Americans do is to endorse the politics of the unsustainable racist patriarchal plutocratic status quo. Obviously, you cannot effectively criticize or resist that which is not politicized, that is to say grasped as open to and worthy of organized contestation. But to declare yourself "beyond left or right" -- which is also a favorite American pretense, more or less continuous with the first -- usually amounts to the deceptive or self-deceptive denial that you are politically on the right despite the fact that you know or know you should know better, or it amounts to the admission that you don't really understand the difference between left and right in which case you will inevitably fall for right-wing formulations that have the inertial heft of familiarity and incumbency on their side.

Accompanying and enabling these deceptions, so many Americans indulge the infantile fantasy that they're at once fiscally conservative but socially liberal (strictly speaking, I think they often mean "culturally" by "socially," but we'll set that aside). Such a position is absolutely incoherent: US-style "fiscal conservatism" always resists investment in the legal and social affordances without which social liberalism cannot be maintained let alone thrive. Only by supporting equity -- which is what so-called fiscal conservatives bemoan as "tax and spend" -- can diversity find its way to secure and sustained expression. That the budget hawks of fiscal conservatism are always actually hypocritically eager to champion, on their own preferred plutocratic terms, everything they presumably abhor -- a planned economy stealthed as the Defense budget, endless welfare entitlements for the already rich to create a "good business environment" or "climate for investment" (hey, who says plutocrats don't believe in climate change or care for the environment!) -- is simply evidence that American inertial apoliticism and pampered infantilism is wonderfully facilitative of what should be instantly grasped and rejected as utter right-wing nonsense. And this is a situation made all the worse by the fact that much of the American left seems too lazy or too misguided to do the necessary basic educational work concisely formulating and endlessly reminding people of basic tenets of progressive governance -- like this, for example -- that could provide a protective commonsense against such right-wing nonsense.

To all this add the fact that more and more Americans seem to be declaring themselves "independents" these days. Many of these "independents" are simply Republicans who are too ashamed to admit they are Republicans in the present horror-show of peak Republican white-racist forced-pregnancy anti-science ugliness but who, very much to the contrary of the conduct one would expect of the truly independent-minded in such a moment, will go ahead and vote for Republicans most of the time anyway. Many other "independents" are simply ignoramuses who vote in ways shaped mysteriously by loose signals intuited from months of irresponsible media gossip and scandal mongering and then by the egregious lies of campaign advertisements in their final days. Needless to say, most independents also pride themselves in being -- to return to the beginning of this post -- non-political, beyond left or right, and fiscally conservative but socially liberal and so there really is no telling what kind of dumb damage they are finally capable of. Worse than the fact that the "moderate middle" -- so beloved by American elites in the corporate commentariat of think-tanks and cable news -- does not exist apart from this inertial and incoherent idiocy of independents who are not independent in any actually relevant sense is that the viewpoint is incoherent in any case and so CANNOT exist.

It is hard to believe that we who are living in the ruins of a world shaped by the market fundamentalist pieties that suffused both the neoliberal Democratic Party and the movement conservative Republican Party could actually still fall for "third way" formulations -- whether offered by the libertopian con of the "Political Compass" quiz or the literal Third Way of austerian corporatists. That these conceptually nonsensical and historically discredited formulations still seem intuitively plausible, even to so many who think themselves people of the left, testifies to the abject failure of the American left to support the rhetorical infrastructure in which progressives campaigns, policy proposals, and governance can be sustained. For those looking for comparatively pithy aphoristic supports for basic progressive priorities as well as critiques of especially American right-wing notions, may I recommend my Dispatches from Libertopia? I may be failing, but I am trying. To say the least, "third way" proposal -- whether the non-political way, the anti-political way, the beyond political way, or the between political way -- ends up being the same old way: plutocracy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Trend-Spotters!

"Trends" are not actually existing phenomena exerting influence in the world or uniquely observable by futurological experts, trends are instead a narrative genre to which futurologists are devoted, simplifying to the point of denying history and hence providing reactionary rationalizations for and reassurances to incumbent elites.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

The Future Is Then!

Driverless cars, 3D-printers, bitcoin will sweep the world! -- Futurists
Hula-Hoops, Frisbees, Slip'N Slides will sweep the world! -- Wham-O

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Replaced

When neoliberal futurologists replace public intellectuals and corporate-military think-tanks replace universities, you can be sure that marketing elite-incumbency in the name of "The Future" will replace the emancipatory work of understanding our present.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Injustice Is Disorder

Disorder isn't analytically separable from the miscarriages of justice that sometimes seem to occasion it. The injustice itself is the disorder, and unrest that may seem only sometimes to follow upon it is instead of a piece with the disorder that is the injustice itself, another facet of it, another expression of it. I am not making a point about what forms of resistance are likely most effective in notionally democratic polities or what responses to events should be judged lawful when laws themselves may be deemed unlawful. Setting such considerations aside for the moment, it is crucial to recognize that peaceful acquiescence to injustice is no less disordered than public resistance to it, whatever forms that might take, and even insurrectionary chaos is only properly understood as continuous with and not autonomous from the disorderly-ordering of generational inequities, normalized humiliations, unjust policing of law-and-order: the gaudy spectacle of systemic subordination is still visible in peacetime for those with eyes to see it, the keening and howling of its sufferers is still audible for those with ears to hear it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Techno-Triumphalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Big Data As Idol

Michael Sacasas makes some interesting connections and proposals in a recent post, Data-Driven Regimes of Truth:
Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced... [This] is characteristic of secular modernity writ large. The eclipse of traditional religious belief leads to a search for new sources of unity and moral authority.

For a variety of reasons, the project to ground American political culture in publicly accessible science did not succeed... It failed, in part, because it became apparent that science itself was not exactly value free, at least not as it was practice by actual human beings. Additionally, it seems to me, the success of the project assumed that all political problems, that is all problems that arise when human beings try to live together, were subject to scientific analysis and resolution. This strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.

In any case, it would seem that proponents of a certain strand Big Data ideology now want to offer Big Data as the framework that unifies society and resolves political and ethical issues related to public policy... “Science says” replaced “God says”; and now “Science says” is being replaced by “Big Data says.”

To put it another way, Big Data offers to fill the cultural role that was vacated by religious belief. It was a role that, in their turn, Reason, Art, and Science have all tried to fill. In short, certain advocates of Big Data need to read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Big Data may just be another God-term, an idol that needs to be sounded with a hammer and found hollow.
To these provocative ruminations I responded in his comments section with the following impersonation of a Rorty/Arendt chimera:

Of course, there is no such thing as transparency. Every disclosure, like every assertion, always depends for its force and intelligibility on suppressions. And so, “transparency” is just a current metaphor to figure just those opacities that seem/are deemed (no conspiracies necessary) most useful to elite-incumbency.

There is a real question whether publically accessible science is really equitably accessible when recourse to that science to demand accountability is inequitable. If not, the problem in view is anti-democratizing wealth-concentration not the failure of democratizing publicity.

Similarly, the Foucauldian proposal that disciplinary societies sought to produce/organize “capable bodies” rationalized by reference to a scientifically-legitmated common good may indeed be in eclipse. Big Data seems (instead?) to be producing/organizing targets -- mostly for incessant sales-pitches and for possible eventual prosecution (or even as biometric sigs for drone targeting software). I am of mixed minds whether this mode of subjection is captured by biopolitical vocabularies (Arendt, Fanon, Foucault) or really does takes us elsewhere, to post-humanist/post-biopolitical places.

In either case, again, we do need to foreground the rhetoric (assumptions, conceits, frames, ends) that attends and narrativizes aggregated data rather than fetishize the problematic data-point. Is Big Data truly data-driven, or just profit-driven and police-driven, finally?

I must say I worry that privacy violation figured as unwanted exposure of personal information rather than as the imposition of authoritative interpretations of personal traces/testimonies sets us off on the wrong foot to think what we are doing with Big Data. Exposure is indispensable to public freedom, it is privacy as an isolating privation from exposure (or as reduction to laborer/consumer of privatized commodities) that contains the kernel of totalitarianism. Facticity -- which is not the same thing as information which is not the same thing as data -- is collective and contingent in ways that resist totalization and totalitarian fever dreams.

Digging a bit deeper still, returning to your initial framing of the problem of Big Data, you write: "Deliberative democracy works best when citizens share a moral framework from which their arguments and counter-arguments derive their meaning. Absent such a broadly shared moral framework, competing claims can never really be meaningfully argued for or against, they can only be asserted or denounced." In my view democracy is just the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them -- very much including decisions about what constitutes the public or a decision or a say, as it happens. The need for a shared moral framework for such democracy to work seems overstated. Since I believe we are all of us members of multiple moral communities but always only partially members in each, it isn't clear to me people share broad moral commitments even with themselves let alone with their peers. To think otherwise risks identifying the political with moralizing. I agree that such moralizations of politics are a problem -- in US politics in the age of Fox News, for example -- but I do not think one addresses the problemby accepting its premise.

Possibly it is just this moralistic characterization of democracy that is the Idol we need to tap with Nietzsche's jewelers hammer to find the gem, or with Nietzsche's tuning fork to find the tune -- as you know, Nietzsche never meant "philosophizing with a hammer" to be a matter of Hulk Smash!

The point of departure for the political is the recognition of the diversity of stakeholders sharing the present and hence the need for an interminable reconciliation of ends. The startling realization that this ongoing reconciliation yields a "public happiness" unavailable otherwise sets the stage for Arendt's erotic of politics (part of the reason why I insisted on the indispensability of exposure earlier), but just because it is also an end in itself does not obscure that it is substantively an ongoing testimony to and reconciliation of diversity.

I think it is too easy for philosophers (and I am trained as one, so I try to be especially vigilant about these things) to fancy shared frameworks found working practices when we simply tend temperamentally to find them in making sense of working practices. As a pluralist in matters of reasonable belief -- who thinks both the criteria of reasonable warrant and the domain of reasonable relevance shifts depending on whether beliefs are technoscientific, aesthetic, moral, ethical, political, legal, variously professional and so on -- I don't think people really need to or always do have that hard a time reconciling political differences even when they do not share moral, aesthetic, professional beliefs or what have you.

It may be that a false equivalence of politics with moralizing has provoked the felt need for a shared faithful-cultural, informational-scientific, or data-driven unification of lived diversity, but that false and facile presumption seems to me less interesting than the differing political underpinnings and aspirations distinguishing the rhetoric of data from information.

If "public information" is embedded in norms and forms of informed consent and accountable authority, it is democratizing (which is not to deny it is plenty problematic too) in a way that Big Data seems very much not to be: data is embedded instead in the norms and forms of computability, and hence of calculation from existing premises, of extrapolation from present circumstances, of amplification of given capacities, of enhancement of parochial values, of accumulation of fetishized wealth. Again, this makes me think that marketing and policing are the prior problems here, shaping the aggregation and resulting profiling, framing, targeting associated with Big Data.

Disappointment

To be disappointed is usually first to be disappointing.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wearying

Anything wearable is technology, so much of the work of “wearable technology” discourse is to deny most wearable technology is technology.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Pass A Bill. That Is What Is Required. Who Cares How "Predictable" It Is?

Yes, of course it is predictable that Republicans will lie, obstruct, deny science, behave irresponsibly. Pundits keep acting as though Democrats should somehow circumvent predictable Republican misbehavior rather than calling the misbehavior misbehavior. The commentariat's emphasis on predictability excuses and enables this misbehavior. Even if it is nearly certain that the Republican House won't pass the Senate immigration bill, for example, it actually still matters more that they should and CAN still pass it.

Right and Left, Liberty and Freedom, Empty and Full, Fear and Love

The liberty of the libertarian right is an empty deception: its figure is empty space, its impossible project a control to compensate bottomless fear. The freedom of the democratic left is a public work: its figure is assembly, its interminable project enabling equity-in-diversity as an expression of love.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why People Who Are Introduced To Me Online Are Often Surprised When They Meet Me In Person

When I encounter an argument I try find something wrong with it. When I encounter a person I try to find something to like about them.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The President's Historic Immigration Speech In Case You Missed It

Waiting for iGun

Is the iGun a thing yet? Libertechbrotarians surely need the phone that is a gun. It could shoot video and bullets. It could be open source and open carry at once. Excellent for piratical state-smashing, entrepreneurial ass-kickery, keeping pregnant ladies and uppity negroes in line and other manly activities.

Perhaps I Should Deliver All My Lectures in Verse

Since all techs are texts,
less their specs than contexts
reveal their sense and substance.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sue Lowden Was Obviously A Cultural Visionary

Everybody Knows That Already

When everybody already knows about a problem or injustice but nobody actually acts to solve it then nobody really knows it at all.

What, That Surprises You?

Actually, when I expose some outrageous or despicable act it's not because I think you will be "surprised" but because I hope you will act.

Digitopia Realized

The digital utopians crowed we were witnessing a transition from atoms to bits. What we are witnessing instead is a transition from owners to renters, from peers to debtors, from citizens to targets.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Masquerade

Foresight arises from critical, empathetic, and scientific engagements in and with the present, while "predicting the future" is usually just a short-term sales pitch, a rationalization of abuses, or the reassurance of elites masquerading as foresight.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Mirror, Mirror

Predicting the future mirrors glorifying the past. Both conduce more to reaction than progress.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The "Idea Guys"

People love calling libertarians "Idea Guys." It pays to remember that every single libertarian "Idea" is an ad campaign to peddle plutocracy to majorities it harms.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Reagan Ended the Conversation

Over at Salon, Thomas Frank interviews Rick Perlstein on the occasion of the publication of his book The Invisible Bridge, the third of his generally fine examinations of postwar Movement Conservatism (so far, he has focused on Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan). Frank and Perlstein are longtime friends and I had a feeling that they got more out of their conversation than I could: there were too many underelaborated claims that stalled out or swerved away before making complete sense for me -- especially lots of split-second readings of pop culture references I remember a little differently from my own seventies upbringing, and some sweeping even swooping analogies from the Carter years to the Obama years that demanded much more detail. All this was probably due to the fact that they were taking up conversational threads from other times and places we weren't eavesdropping on that made them make sense for Frank and Perlstein themselves. Be all that as it may, I did stick around through to the end of the dialogue and I'm glad I did, because in the very last exchange of the (published) interview Perlstein said very clearly something I must have thought loosely, morosely a million times, and which I agree has been a terribly tragic thing for America:
Thomas Frank: Is anyone nostalgic for the ’70s?

Rick Perlstein: I am. And for the following reason: If you read my preface, I explain that Americans at the level of popular culture, at the level of grassroots politics, were thinking very hard about what it would mean to have a country they didn’t believe was God’s chosen nation. What would it mean to not be the world’s policeman? What would it mean to conserve our resources? What would it mean to not treat our presidents as if they were kings? That was happening! And the tragedy of Ronald Reagan most profoundly wasn’t policy -- although that was tragic enough -- but it was robbing America of that conversation. Every time a politician stands before a microphone and utters this useless, pathetic cliche that America is the greatest country ever to exist, he’s basically wiping away the possibility that we can really think critically about our problems and our prospects. And to me, that’s tragic.

Vicious Circle

Of course I grasp the many truths of our time that make people cynical. But I also grasp the truth that cynicism is always a prop of the status quo.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Techbros Are Not Geeks

I find it utterly bewildering that the public face of geekdom more and more seems to be becoming venture capitalist skim-scam operations, evopsycho douchebaggery, GamerGate bigots, the anti-intellectual MOOCification of the Academy, and googlediculous soopergenius "thought-leaders" peddling futurological flim-flam. It's bad enough that most "thought leaders" aren't leading anything, but it's pretty plain they aren't even thinking.

I mean, is the unwatchably stale Cheez Whiz of "The Big Bang Theory" really supposed to have its finger on the pulse of some vital cultural phenomenon? Arts and crafts fairs rebranded as Maker Faires, learning annex courses and funding pitches rebranded as TEDtalkfotainments, superfluous duplications of existing goods and services given websites and then branded as a New Economy Tech Explosion, and always everywhere the corporate logos all watching over with loving grace... didn't we already do this dreary disaster in the irrationally exuberant dot.bomb 90s?

Since when has geekdom been so crass, so dumb, so monotonal? Where did all the camp, all the weirdos, all the elven/vulcan-eared librarians, all the dirty fucking hippies go?

I hate to be the one to break it to anybody, but the Federation is a multicultural socialist democracy -- Star Fleet is where they send the stale pale males who can't quite get with the laid back abundance program of their better adjusted fellow citizens.

You know, when I was in High School the only people I could talk about Star Trek and Dune with were theater geeks, and Model UN nerds, and downlow feminists on the pom pom squad in my honors English classes who played dumb for boyfriends they liked to make fun of when they weren't making out with them. Later, my geeks were in Queer Nation, loved John Waters as much as Star Wars, and pored over dusty archives for years dissertating on medieval French poets.

Speaking only for myself, of course, but these days when I am really geeking out to my heart's content it probably means I am reading Nnedi Okorafor, listening to Janelle Monae, or watching a roundtable of social scientists and cultural critics and activists on Melissa Harris-Perry's show. Geekery has never looked or felt or wanted to me to be anything remotely like the white-racist patriarchal corporate-militarist yuppie scumbaggery that is now getting marketed as "geekery."

Of course, every cultural formation is diverse in ways that exceed any parochial vantage on it and is stratified by the legacies and agonies of historical placement. While they often, all too often, exhibited such frailties, for me, geeks have never been about greed or exclusion or reactionary politics or consumer conformity. For me, geeks have been about resisting the forces and forms with which they seem increasingly to be identified in public discourse. The New Geekdom is the old bleak-dumb.

I say, Kol-Ut-Shan! and die techbro scum! (A paradox, you say? Mine is a geekery that thrives on paradoxes.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Twitter Essay on Education As Maintaining A Progressive Rhetorical Infrastructure



Here is what the essaylet looks like as a conventional paragraph:
Part of what progressive respect for education should entail is taking more seriously the maintenance of our rhetorical infrastructure. Progressive governance and social struggle are premised on a host of insights that may be more counterintuitive than we take them to be. It is true that national economies are not analogous to household economies, but is that obviously true? It is true that no individual succeeds in the absence of public investment and collective effort, but is that obviously true? It is true that the same risk-pooling that makes insurance profitable can make general welfare achievable, but is that obviously true? It is true that weather is not climate, but is that obviously true? It is true that saying humans and apes share a common ancestor is not the same as saying humans are descended from apes, but is that obviously true? It is true that outcomes rightly called racist or sexist result from inertial norms and unconscious biases in the absence of conspicuous animus, but is this obviously true? Reactionaries endlessly exploit the counterintuitive character of crucial progressive truths to organize popular resistance to progress. Progressives rarely exhibit an equal interest and investment in clarifying, reiterating, and rendering intuitive these crucial truths. Public discourse often takes up reactionary frames and narratives because progressives fail to maintain ongoing discursive support for ours. My point is not to revive the fruitless "framing wars" -- there are no "magic words" that win elections every time -- but to insist on the value ongoing civic and science education. Too many progressives seem to become bored or discouraged by the prospect of an interminable education of majorities to support the work of progress. Education always requires an unglamourously enormous amount of repetition, returning to basics, re-explaining of what seems obvious. On top of that, it is genuinely difficult to find ways to overturn intuitive commonplaces with even powerful counterintuitive insights. Many progressives are quick to deride reactionaries who ignore or deny counterintuitive economic and ecologic truths but are not quite so quick to clarify these truths themselves. As someone who exhibits these weaknesses myself I understand their lure, but I am ever more convinced of the necessity to overcome them.
I occasionally play around with the longer-form chains and conversations that yield what get called "twitter essays." My Twitter Privacy Treatise is an example of such an experiment. Of course, @HeerJeet is at once the best-known as well as the most consummate practitioner of the twitter essay. This includes great twitter essays about twitter essays, in one of which she made the great point that real-time responses and reactions can impact the way in which such essays make their case -- the way they develop, illustrate, prioritize, and qualify their claims -- and that this may make the twitter essay a better exemplar of the "experimental effort" indicated by the French term from which the word essay derives. The character limit constraining individual tweets reduces the pieces out of which twitter essays are made into forms more reductively assertive or provocatively aphoristic than the complexity of many topics may seem to demand. This challenge can be unexpectedly productive, as it happens, whatever the obvious risks of miscommunication. Given the emphasis of my twitter essay today on making the effort of clearly and concisely formulating indispensable but counterintuitive progressive insights, making that point within the constraints of the twitter-essay demands a performance of the point as part of the process of making it, for example.

Dispatches From Libertopia

Regressive initial distributions of wealth are no less the product of government intervention than are subsequent progressive redistributions of wealth.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Costly Belief

Every belief, even true ones, costs us something. Indeed, what we take to be false, above all, is a belief we take to cost us too much.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.