amor mundi

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Technofixated Escapists

Why pine for escape to extra-terrestrial hellscapes when we can work to keep earth from becoming an alter-terrestrial hellscape instead?

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Robot Cultists Looking for "Conscientious and Discreet" Helpmate for Guru

My friend "JimF" has directed my attention to a rather interesting proposal floated by the Centre for Effective Altruism, which is an arm of the Less Wrong sub-sect of the MIRI sub-sect of the Singularitarian sect of the Transhumanist "movement." Here it is:
If funding were available, the Centre for Effective Altruism would consider hiring someone to work closely with Prof Nick Bostrom to provide anything and everything he needs to be more productive. Bostrom is obviously the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and author of Superintelligence, the best guide yet to the possible risks posed by artificial intelligence.
Nobody has yet confirmed they will fund this role, but we are nevertheless interested in getting expressions of interest from suitable candidates.
The list of required characteristics is hefty, and the position would be a challenging one:
  • Willing to commit to the role for at least a year, and preferably several
  • Able to live and work in Oxford during this time
  • Conscientious and discreet
  • Trustworthy
  • Able to keep flexible hours (some days a lot of work, others not much)
  • Highly competent at almost everything in life (for example, organising travel, media appearances, choosing good products, and so on)
  • Will not screw up and look bad when dealing with external parties (e.g. media, event organisers, the university)
  • Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom
  • Willing to do some tasks that are not high-status
  • Willing to help Bostrom with both his professional and personal life (to free up his attention)
  • Can speak English well
  • Knowledge of rationality, philosophy and artificial intelligence would also be helpful, and would allow you to also do more work as a research assistant.
The research Bostrom can do is unique; to my knowledge we don't have anyone who has made such significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity as a whole. As a result, helping increase Bostrom's output by say, 20%, would be a major contribution. This person's work would also help the rest of the Future of Humanity Institute run smoothly.
Pondering the "tasks that are not high status" required of this paid helpmate, Jim commented, "Maybe he needs somebody (as Kurzweil is said to employ someone) to count out his daily doses of life-extending vitamin pills... Or give him nootropic foot massages. God only knows."

As an academic I am quite familiar with the phenomenon of graduate students with research positions for professorial muckety-mucks who sift through their e-fanmail, walk their dogs, proofread their scrawls, get their coffee orders just so and so on, and as somebody who lives in a California metropolitan area I am no less familiar with PAs following celebrity-CEOs around like serfs on speed-dial, permanently at-the-ready for ego (to say the least) fluffing, so I guess I don't find that part of the proposal utterly illegible -- although the phenomenon rather grosses me out as a general matter.

Of course, there is a rich vein of humor to be mined in the baldly repetitious pleas for cash here, the corn-ball con-job of declaring Bostrom's "significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity" by which is meant Bostrom's distraction of attention from real problems of anthropogenic climate change, human trafficking and precarization, neglected treatable diseases and basic infrastructure and social support failures in overexploited regions and populations, weapons proliferation, and so on to focus instead of futurological fancies like robot armies, nanobotic plagues, and devilish superintelligent post-biological Robot Gods (Bostrom's, er, "specialty" these days).

I've been reading and engaging with Robot Cultists for over a quarter of a century at this point and I still gasp at the flabbergasting self-congratulatory assignment of terms like "rationality" to describe such recklessly unwarranted wish-fulfillment fantasizing, of terms like "philosophy" to describe fanboy flamewars over stipulated properties of imaginary objects unmoored from reality (except as symptoms for their psychotherapists to puzzle over), and of phrases like "effective altruism" to describe the fleecing of technoscientific illiterates by guru-wannabes who never actually make anything but pitches for more dough.

But above all I guess what I find most puzzling about this proposal is that Bostrom is supposed to be one of the Robot Cult's most legitimate, high-profile academics. He is widely published and comparatively widely-read. He is affiliated with Oxford University, and so on. Doesn't he already have research assistants getting his dry-cleaning and organizing his mail? Bostrom hob-nobs with big wigs in the corporate-military think-tank archipelago these days. Surely he's got billionaires like those Koch Brothers of reactionary futurology Peter Thiel and Elon Musk on his rolodex. Kurzweil's cooling his heels over at Google. Doesn't Bostrom have sugar daddies who can get somebody to put sugar in his coffee already? Heck, Martine Rothblatt is another one of the fellow-faithful, although her money bags are more at the disposal of a different sect of the Robot Cult, the cyberangel avatar in Holodeck Heaven sub-sect of the techno-immortalist sub-sect of the transhumanist "movement."

Is this plea to get Bostrom a gofer just an embarrassing crass scam for cash on the part of the Centre for Effective [sic] Altruism and the Less Wrong throng? Is the robocultic mad scientist masters of the universe schtick these futurological eminences like to play out actually as marginal an enterprise as it deserves to be, leaving Bostrom's Believers to work on a shoestring despite all those corporate logos and well-heeled institutional contacts they flog? Are Eliezer Yudkowsky's man minions worried that they are falling out of the futurological fraud loop and looking to get a sect-friendly libertechbrotarian inside man into Bostrom's lofty perch? As I said, Kurzweil is peddling his vaporware for Google now, the Singularity has terminologically transferred from Eliezer's fanboy circle-jerk to the venture-capitalists of Singularity University, and Bostrom's record of distancing himself from the futurological faithful by founding first the conspicuously cultic World Transhumanist Association and then next the stealth transhumanist cultic Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and now the thoroughly mainstreamed and fumigated Oxford Future of Humanity Institute (never changing his assumptions, aspirations, methods, or canon very much along the way) can't be inspiring confidence. Perhaps this is just a clumsy dash for an open seat before the music stops: perhaps the Singularity isn't the black hole some Robot Cultists are contemplating at the moment.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Snap Out of It! They Don't Care When We Debunk Them

Eekbola is Politifact's Lie of the Year: Democrats do another round of our vindication dance, Republicans prepare another round of dancing on our graves. Republicans don't give a shit about being debunked. Debunking isn't dismantling. Movement Republicanism mobilizes fears and greed to peddle policies that benefit a minority to a majority harmed by them. Deception is built into the worldview. "Noble lie" rationalizations and cynical "buyer beware" injunctions suffuse the plutocratic and promotional Republican political culture through and through (and no small amount of the corporate-militarist wing of the DNC). It isn't enough for us to be "correct" or them "corrected." To be correct but politically disorganized is just another way of being incorrect. Anybody taking the least measure of satisfaction from some belated vindication that they were right about something they already knew they were right about but which was defeated by well-organized lies is not celebrating truth but celebrating their defeat by lies so long as they have not learned the lesson of the defeat that being correct isn't enough make progress.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


"Future Shock" is what happens when advertizing hyping stasis as novelty, progress, and disruption makes you yawn so hard your head splits in half.

More Futurological Brickbats here.


Money talks, but it has little to say.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rain is the New Eekbola

I wonder who benefits from the translation of a shitty infrastructure story into a shitty storm story...?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

End of Cerebration Celebration

Final grades submitted, recommendation letters are done. What is equal to this moment? Always only one thing... Xanadu! Xanadu! Xanadu!

Grading Is Done...

...recommendation letters still loom, half-done, forget the sun.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Grading for One Course Done

Grading for another course ongoing. Recommendation letters ongoing. My exciting life.

Tech Company Taxonomy

There are basically two kinds of tech company: the ones that should be prosecuted for fraud and the ones that should be nationalized as public utilities.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

New Design Problem

Ever notice how everything looks like a design problem to self-designated designers?

Politics of Design

Design is what politics looks like when elite minorities make decisions for majorities and pretend it's okay because design isn't politics.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

An Occupy of Their Own: The Neo-Confederate Movement Republican Threat Is Alter-Federal Not Anti-Federal

In the last quarter century the Republicans have won the popular vote for the Presidency only once, and the racist sexist Christianist voices in the GOP heard loud and clear by a rapidly diversifying secularizing population make national viability seem ever more remote while consolidating the Republicans as a permanent marginal reactionary neo-confederate rump. But in states with substantial Democratic-leaning populations that happen to be under the control of Republicans at present proposals are being seriously floated to apportion electoral college votes for the Presidency proportionally, with the proviso that in solidly Republican states the assignment of votes to the Electoral College would remain winner-take-all. This would make it possible for Republicans to acquire a lock on the White House whatever the unpopularity of their positions, just as gerrymandering, disenfranchisement schemes, and the structural asymmetry of rural over urban voters give the Republicans a lock on the House of Representatives even as Democrats vote in far greater numbers.

The exposure today of a cabal of Republican-controlled State attorneys-general in a once-secret alliance with energy companies to derail environmental regulations and oversight is obviously continuous with the recent phenomenon of Republican state legislatures becoming rubber stamps passing corporate privatizing and deregulatory schemes and enabling private-arsenals for vigilante-fantasists authored by the reactionary American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But I think it is just as important to understand the connection between today's revelations and the revelations from earlier this week about proposals to rig the Electoral College. Everybody knows that arguments for "States Rights" have functioned since the civil rights era as scarcely stealthed reactionary resistance to federal statutes seeking to dismantle institutionalized white-supremacy in the United States. Republicans enacting agendas for corporate profiteering at the expense of public health and equal rights are also scarcely stealthed reactionary resistance to federal statutes seeking to dismantle unsustainable extractive-industrial practices in the United States. (Leave to the side, if you can, your knowledge that these statutes were and remain radically unequal to the structural promotion of both white-supremacy and unsustainable industry in the United States -- my focus here is on the reactionary resistance to even inadequate legislative efforts.)

We make a great mistake if we view these reactionary movements as anti-federalist rather than alter-federalist programs. Although Republicans prefer to frame their program as a matter of resistance to Big Government meddling -- and this elicits their preferred political imaginary as a retreat into more modestly-scaled homogenous rural/suburban communities, heteronormative nuclear families, and ruggedized maker/consumer individuals -- the result they seek to facilitate is the plutocratic hegemony of Big Corporations (many of them profitably contracting for Big Militarism). The state politics of Movement Republicanism has never been a matter of retreats into the several states but efforts to create multi-state leagues that would function as intimations of a shadow Federal Government resisting the proper Federal Government represented by the New Deal and Great Society programs to install equity-in-diversity.

Although left intellectuals like to laugh at the transparent authoritarian buffoonery of Texas Republicans howling for secession or Tea Party "patriots" advocating anti-constitutionalist nullification strategies supposedly in the name of the Constitution they would shred, it is crucial to grasp that these gestures are embedded in both a national cultural movement (highly organized precisely because it is so defensive) and national institutions funded by corporations that stand to profit enormously from comparatively small investments in this organizing.

The secessionist gesture isn't a separatism from national politics but an embrace of national politics otherwise. Because its base is located in the Solid South and given the reactionary racism that fuels so much of the culture of Movement Republicanism it is easy to mis-identify the neo-confederate threat of red-state organizing as a continuation of the Civil War, another rise of the feudal Southern Confederacy -- but it is no less crucial to grasp the linkage of these politics with the anarchic ideology of the failed pre-constitutional order of America's Articles of Confederation. The cultural politics of white-racism and patriarchal sex panic would re-direct the anxiety, grievance, and rage of plutocratic precarization into a motor driving the organization of plutocratic prevalence itself.

The Movement Republican proposal to rig the electoral college is a recipe for the permanent occupation of a diverse American majority by the plutocratic minority -- the Movement Republican example of legislators captured by ALEC and attorney's general captured by energy companies is not just anti-federal plutocratic resistance but the practice of the alter-federal plutocratic occupation.

It is not clear to me that the Democratic left -- still profoundly undermined by the living (at any rate zombie) legacy of Clinton-epoch corporatist-capture represented by the DLC and Blue Dogs -- is equal to the anti-democratizing threat of corporate-military organizational resources riding on a cultural wave of class-resentment orchestrated as a force for reaction rather than progress by the masterly manipulation of racist and sexist fears. There are parallels between Occupy and the Tea Party movement, but glib identifications of the two miss the crucial substantive difference of diverse spontaneous grassroots agitation that failed to connect in a direct or sustainable way to electoral and legislative campaigns as against the mass mobilization of racist subcultures organized and funded by plutocratic elites functioning more or less as a consumer fandom (consuming hate-talk ideology, Fox celebrities, and de-contextualized patriotic fetishes) in the service of stealthy plutocratic ends.

Countervailing democratizing cultural movements from Wisconsin to Occupy to the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter have yet to connect to either electoral or legislative results. Since there is far more to political progress than electioneering and legislation this failure to connect does not render these movement for democratic equity-in-diversity failures by any means -- far from it -- however until they do connect to electoral coalition-building and sustainable legislative accomplishments they will remain unequal to the ultimate vision and task that drives them. A resurgence of union organizing for fast-food and retail workers and adjunct instructors is a resource for hope -- especially to the extent that this labor organizing connects to the democratizing movements in the streets while at once fighting to jettison residual corporatism in the Democratic Party (fights against charter school scams, betrayals of public pensioners, and selling off public assets and contracting out public services to profiteers).

The Republican Right likes to daydream about "Starving the Beast," depriving federal government construed as a democratic force implementing equity-in-diversity of the resources to do its work by dividing the majority of people who work for a living from their shared economic interests and all people who live on earth from their shared ecologic dependencies in the service of the profits of a plutocratic minority. Of course, the Republican Revolution is an inverted echo of real revolution, Movement Republicanism is a reaction against the New Deal and Great Society as imperfect democratizing movements against Economic Royalists (FDR's term for the plutocrats against democracy he betrayed) and white-supremacy (which a white-racist LBJ understood well enough to be ambivalent about it to say the least).

Democrats who understand who they are and stand up for what they stand for should understand well enough that we are the ones who want to Starve the Beast. The real Beast is anti-democratic white-racist patriarchal extractive-industrial corporate-militarism. Democrats want to Starve the Beast with progressive taxes and the regulation of profits that derive either from skim/scam operations or cost/risk externalization. To Starve the Beast as a Movement Democrat would mean to divert resources from plutocratic Movement Republican organizing through taxes and regultions that at once funded and implemented programs to facilitate sustainable equity-in-diversity that also build solidarity and so undermine Movement Republican dependence on the divisive politics of racist and sexist grievance. Democrats will never succeed in this work until we name the Beast for what it is, and name the democratizing work of progressive taxation and regulation for the public good as what it is as well. We need to think what we are doing, then say what we are doing, and then repeat it until everybody understands the battle at hand and nobody forgets the interminable work to be done and nobody is allowed to get away with betraying the work in its name.

I daresay immigrants and people of color and long-term unemployed people and youth all of whom know too well where the guns are pointed as well as women denied healthcare by forced-pregnancy zealots will be less likely to get demoralized and apathetic as their fight for democratic equity-in-diversity is a fight for their lives, an important shift from the privileged white male voices that have long dominated democratic politics. Too many Democratic voices have seemed willing to expose reactionary hypocrisy, fraud, corruption, bigotry, or ignorance and then either shake their heads at how unsurprising all this is or enjoy rueful belly-laughs at how ridiculous all this is. The acquiescence and cynicism of this mode of critique ultimately testifies to a real or imagined insulation from the worst consequences of plutocratic politics that white guys are best positioned to believe -- though no one will escape for long the catastrophic reality of greenhouse storms and pandemics and unrest. Not that anybody ever listened to me anyway, but come what may this all too privileged (my queerness and precarious adjunctcy notwithstanding) white male for environmental justice and democratic socialist-feminism would be more than thrilled for the trade-off of getting more progress for getting less attention.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Proselytizing Patriarchs

For me, the worst thing in the worst religions is their patriarchy. How disappointing to find the worst thing in the worst atheisms is their patriarchy, too.

Friday, December 05, 2014

A New WFS Post Is Up

An edited and slightly expanded version of a post here from a couple days back, Eric Garner and the Cop Cam Sham is now up at the World Future Society.

Billmon Has Storified His Righteous TNR Critique Tweets

The New Democrats at The New Republic Enter the New Economy: They don't like it any better than U.S. steelworkers did.

End of Term

Grading, grading, missing papers, grading, grading, family emergency, grading, grading, no name on the notebook, grading, grading, author's name spelled wrong every time, grading, grading, thin column, huge margins, grading, grading, this must be a rough draft, grading, grading, thanks in advance for your understanding, grading, grading, I tried to say too much so I didn't say anything, grading, grading, too late for an incomplete, grading, grading, can I bring it to your house, here's my number, grading, grading, can you write me a letter, the deadline's tomorrow, grading, grading, my god, oh the horror, grading, grading, get me out of here!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Cop-Cam Sham: Political Problems Demand Political Solutions

Once again we are confronted with another miscarriage of justice as another police officer kills another unarmed black citizen the police are supposed to serve and protect. And once again calls are ringing out on all sides to install more cameras, cameras on police cars, cameras on the street, cameras on the bodies of cops on the beat.

Cop-cam techno-fixers really need to pause and take note: Eric Garner's death by a clearly illegal choke hold was on video and was seen by millions.

Solutions from scholars and activists and experts have been reiterated and mostly ignored for over a generation by now: setting up independent special prosecutors to address charges of police misconduct rather than grand juries composed of colleagues inthe criminal justice system with inherent conflicts of interest; extensive training for police in violence de-escalation strategies and to provide sensitivity to racial and other empirically well-established forms of bias, unconscious and conscious; hiring and promotion policies to reflect the composition of the communities they are meant to serve and protect; community policing, oversight and accountability; ending the harsh sentencing rules installed by the failed racist war on (some) drugs; commonsense gun safety regulations -- all of these and more are indispensable to address ongoing terrorization of vulnerable communities by police in all our names. If I point out that procedures are techniques and regulations are legal artifacts can technofixated futurists get behind these or similar proposals, even if they are not polished chrome and shaped like dildoes?

Of course, more body cameras for police on the street can and probably should be part of the story of better policing practices in our communities. I have nothing against that proposal except the pretense that cameras are "the solution."

It is crucial to grasp that the interpretation of camera footage is stratified and shaped by the same racism that shapes and stratifies the racist policing so many are talking about here, the footage is taken up in the context of the very institutional practices and procedures that are otherwise failing so conspicuously before our eyes. The same collegial incentives to protect police from accountability now would pressure those who presumably guard the footage. Think of "lost" e-mails, selective leaks of secret testimony, orchestrated press releases shaping public perceptions: more video surveillance footage is more mountain to mold. 

It is a strange thing, to say the least, to propose more surveillance as the ready-made solution to the unjust policing of people of color who have lived for generations under a regime of relentless onerous arbitrary surveillance as the substance of much of that unjust policing. Stop and frisk is a surveillance technique, you know. That policing has not been reformed even in the face of generations of obvious, ongoing failures should sound a warning that justice does not flow automatically from the visibility of injustice alone.

State sanctioned violence against black people from slavery, to Jim Crow, to inequitable incarceration and policing, is centuries old: it is not incidental to but an abiding historical constituent element of the justice system. Political problems demand political solutions. In this context, technofixated dreams of circumventions of the political with handy gizmos amount to affirmations of the politics of the reactionary racist status quo. My point in saying so is not to call the techno-fixated racist, but to appeal to their anti-racism to impel them to dig deeper than their usual techno-fixation to take on this long ongoing crisis on the educational, agitational, organizational terms it actually demands.

Crying Wolf

The GOP cried wolf over death panels, Benghazi, ebola, so much crap at this point. How can they still get so freaked out? Republicans must think most wolves are black.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Last Class

Delivering my last lecture of the term in the City today. Cold rain is pouring down, and the slog to the train will not dampen my celebratory mood. That gathering mountain of final papers and recommendation letters might, tho'.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Michael Jackson Was Not A Transhumanist

RU Sirius asks the question Was Michael Jackson A Transhumanist? in h+ magazine.

Now, it seems to me that you should actually identify as a transhumanist to be called one, perhaps belong to one of the many membership organizations in the robocultic archipelago,  participate collegially in their discursive spaces (or, say, edit one of their rags). One of the ways transhumanists try to court mainstream respectability is to appropriate concerns and associations with science or science fiction or the futuristic none of which they originated or to which they have particularly contributed anything of substance as somehow their own and then to declare people with actual accomplishments or high profiles as early or even closeted transhumanists through such associations. And if an interest in cosmetic surgery and cheesy science fiction is all it takes to be a transhumanist, then Los Angeles has a million of 'em -- but there are possibly far better words than "transhumanist" to describe these infantile commonalities, shall we say?

While I regard it as rather a silly stretch to attribute transhumanism to Michael Jackson, I do think afro-futural elements in his work are quite interesting and remain under-appreciated. Far from representing an aspiration to techno-transcendence it has always seemed to me that the famous choreography from the variations of the robot the Jackson 5 mastered to his signature moonwalk were stunning comments on and aestheticizations of the precarization of African-American youth in post-industrial landscapes like Jackson's Gary, Indiana. These highly stylized and ironic re-directions of infra-humanizing structural racism clearly seem of a piece with the popping and locking isolations in break-dancing styles and cultures emerging at roughly the same time. Michael Jackson's dance artistry is Brownian Motion: elaborating iconic moves of his idol James Brown, a subversive citation of a Motown archive Jackson was already an important part of himself. (These gestures are reframed again, you know, in the insistently afro-futural vocabularies of the stunning Janelle Monae, palpable especially in the videos from "Many Moons" to "Tightrope" to "Dance Apocalyptic," mulching her citations of musical archives -- including her repeated covers of and homages to the Jacksons, naturally, or I should say unnaturally -- and sf-tropes in her raced/gendered/classed archandroid critique.)

Jackson's beat-boxing and the very studied introduction of his signature bleeps and hees in which his voice mimics synthesized sounds or takes on an ironically performed coloration of auto-tuned smoothness (again, very intriguingly against the grain of the humanity and humanism in Brown's Fanonian outcries) seem to me of a piece with the afro-futural program of his choreography, a register of the impingement of marginalizing automation onto the body and the promise of an African-American youth, very much in conversation with some of the most interesting cultural critique in music of his time out of which hip-hop was then being articulated.

I mention this not only because it seems to me interesting on its own terms, but because I think it is necessary to complicate RU Sirius's rather facile characterization in that particular piece of Jackson's music as "reactionary" -- based on a pet progressive narrative trajectory in which, "It was a step backwards from the musical innovations popularized by The Beatles and others (including others like George Clinton and Sly Stone, in the funk genre)." Even if I happen to agree with the tastes being signaled here -- I love "Wanna Be Startin Somethin" as a groove but prefer the volcanic "I Want to Take You Higher," too -- I still think it is rather hilarious to pretend music takes such steps at all.

Where on earth are these steps presumably leading us to? Jackson's contemporary Prince actually does take up tropes and forms from the Beatles -- think of the conversational relation of Around the World in a Day and Rubber Soul, or the White Album with the Black, for example -- but it is strange to propose Prince stands in a more sophisticated citational relation to the canon; again, notice how indispensable both are to Monae's freedom songs today! Music, to say the obvious, resonates with the culture of which it is vitally a part, sometimes living on in our memories of its moment, sometime, rarely, taking on a new significance in being taken up in new places and times.

But even when music takes us there -- it is not taking us to "The Future." Not even Sun Ra or New Wave did that: they assembled and mobilized the future anterior in the present audience. Bowie's Space Oddity looked back not forward: else the pun wouldn't work, you know. In their PR stunt "Scream," it matters less that the siblings are in a spaceship than that the futuristic scene is in retro-futural black and white, they play blobjective "pong," that their cultural archive is confined to mid-century modern (Warhol, Eames, Pollock) and that they are "in orbit" above a present of which they are still a part, one that still pressures them to, you know, Scream. There is no "progress" in music, only accumulating densities and citations in presence.

Another underappreciated quality of Michael Jackson's ethos -- and, again, the theme is playing out today in Monae's afro-futurism as well -- is his playing up of the figure of the weirdo, the oddball, the nerd. From "Off the Wall" to his goosing of tabloids with catalogues of personal oddities, Jackson was always playing around with the isolated individual imaginatively invested in marginal enthusiasms -- a discordant, melancholy, but highly humanizing note in America's fever-dream of rugged indivudalism, and a precursor to the fragmenting ramifications of our present geek mass-culture. RU Sirius seems in his discussion of Jackson to take quite a lot of the tabloid attributions literally, rather than reading them Jackson's intriguing incorporation of these fictions and hyperboles into his paradoxical narrative gravity well.

As I said, I think it is inappropriate to call someone a "transhumanist" who doesn't declare themselves to be one, at least by their explicit participation in actually real transhumanist sub(cult)ure -- membership organizations, discursive spaces, ritual scenes, and so on. Transhumanism isn't original enough or long-lasting enough to claim a conceptual membership -- scientistic reductionism, techno-utopianism, consumer fetishism, eugenicism, immortalism all have deeper pedigrees than does the contemporary Robot Cult that happens to partake in them all.

That aside, though, there is definitely something interesting in RU Sirius's thought experiment. I have to say that if I were personally to pick a Jackson who seemed to speak to the transhumanoidal it would have to be Janet more than Michael Jackson, with her contrivance of a superannuated youthfulness and eerily smooth artifactual "naturalness." Michael's plastic spacesuits and shoulder pads are sites of camp humor and cultural trouble, compared with the body loathing and anaesthetized anti-intellectualism of Janet's permanent shy/wild suburban teen.

Monday, December 01, 2014


To say the personal is political is to notice that in becoming the personal some politics is de-politicized, with political consequences.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Futurology Defined

The futurological in my sense of the term is an ideological formation; it is essentially a marketing discourse amplifying the profits and authority of incumbent elites by mobilizing seductive and reassuring techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies in the form of unaccountable, apparently predictive, promissory, or even prophetic utterances in which the deceptive, hyperbolic norms and forms of promotion and advertising already suffusing our public life take on the coloration and intensity of outright organized religiosity: for example, in the guiding narratives of mainstream corporate-military think-tanks, in popular consumer fandoms for Apple products or celebrity CEOs, or in marginal futurist subcultures like transhumanism.

Those Who Forget History...

Those who forget the crappy commodities of the past are doomed to buy the same crap marketed as something new over and over again.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

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.
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?
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.
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.
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

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.