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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year's Last Tweet

As usual:

ABBA New Year To You All!

It's yet another cherished Amor Mundi holiday tradition...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top Posts for 2014

14. "Summoning the Demon": Robot Cultist Elon Musk Reads from Robo-Revelations at MIT October 27
13. Gizmuddle: Or, Why the Futuristic Is Always Perverse January 25
12. The Future Is A Hell of a Drug April 7
11. Car Culture Is A Futurological Catastrophe January 14
10. Very Serious Robocalyptics October 5
9. Em Butterfly: Robot Cultists George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson Go Overboard For Robo-Overlords February 24
8. Robot Cultist Martine Rothblatt Is In the News September 9
7. Geek Rule Is Weak Gruel: Why It Matters That Luddites Are Geeks September 19
6. R.U. Sirius on Transhumanism October 19
5. Rachel Haywire: Look At Me! Look At Me! Even If There's Nothing To See! August 18
4. It's Now Or Never: An Adjunct Responds to SFAI's Latest Talking Points May 5
3.Techbro Mythopoetics December 22
2. San Francisco Art Institute Touts Diego Rivera Fresco Celebrating Labor Politics While Engaging in Union Busting May Day
...and number 1. Forum on the Existenz Journal Issue, "The Future of Humanity and the Question of Post-Humanity" March 9

To round the list out to a nice full fifteen, I append not a hit but a miss, a post fewer people got a kick out of the first time around than I expected, given what most people come here to read: Tragic Techbrofashionistas of The Future Put. A. Phone. On. It! from January 6.

Apart from that last addition, these are essentially the most widely read of this year's posts, excluding a few popular but comparatively insubstantial one-liners. I'll share a few observations about these in the annual State of the Blog post to be written hungover from my bunker come the new year. You can compare these to the listicles from the last couple of years if you like: Top Posts for 2012 and Top Posts for 2013.

Monday, December 29, 2014

We Pay Anyway

For those who wonder who would pay to support a more fair and free society, the answer is exactly the same people who are now paying to maintain an unfair, underfree society: all of us.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


It's surprising how many fear death who are already dead.

Space Is the Place

War Is Over If You Spin It

After 13 years of war, Nato formally ended its combat operations in Afghanistan on Sunday, leaving the Afghan army and police in charge of security... “Our Afghan partners can and will take the fight from here,” said General John F Campbell, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at a ceremony in the capital... Between 17,000 and 18,000 international troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, of which 12,000... will form part of the new Nato mission, named Resolute Support. An additional 5,500 US soldiers will perform different roles, including counterterrorism and logistical assistance.
Did I say War camps? I meant Resolute Support camps.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Trend Spotting!

To make sense of any sentence containing the word "trend," simply substitute the phrase "asshole wants you to BUY!" and you will understand.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Once Again Republicans Blast Obama for Behaving Like A King

The Inevitable Cruelty of Algorithmic Mediation

Also posted at the World Future Society.

On Christmas Eve, Eric Meyer posted a devastating personal account reminding us of the extraordinary cruelty of the lived experience of ever more prevailing algorithmic mediation.

Meyer's Facebook feed had confronted him that day with a chirpy headline that trilled, "Your Year in Review. Eric, here's what your year looked like!" Beneath it, there was the image that an algorithm had number-crunched to the retrospective forefront, surrounded by clip-art cartoons of dancing figures with silly flailing arms amidst balloons and swirls of confetti in festive pastels. The image was the face of Eric Meyer's six year old daughter. It was the image that had graced the memorial announcement he had posted upon her death earlier in the year. Describing the moment when his eye alighted on that adored unexpected gaze, now giving voice to that brutally banal headline, Meyer writes: "Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully."

Meyer's efforts to come to terms with the impact of this algorithmic unkindness are incomparably more kind than they easily and justifiably might have been. "I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases." To emphasize the force of this point, "Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty" is also the title of Meyer's meditation. "To show me Rebecca’s face and say 'Here’s what your year looked like!' is jarring," writes Meyer. "It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate." But just what imaginary scene is being conjured up in this exculpatory rhetoric in which inadvertent cruelty is "coming from code" as opposed to coming from actual persons? Aren't coders actual persons, for example?

Needless to say, Meyers has every right to grieve and to forgive and to make sense of these events in the way that works best for him. And of course I know what he means when he seizes on the idea that none of this was "a deliberate assault." But it occurs to me that it requires the least imaginable measure of thought on the part of those actually responsible for this code to recognize that the cruelty of Meyer's confrontation with their algorithm was the inevitable at least occasional result for no small number of the human beings who use Facebook and who live lives that attest to suffering, defeat, humiliation, and loss as well as to parties and promotions and vacations. I am not so sure the word "inadvertent" quite captures the culpability of those humans who wanted and coded and implemented and promoted this algorithmic cruelty.

And I must say I question the premise of the further declaration that this code "works in the overwhelming majority of cases." While the result may have been less unpleasant for other people, what does it mean to send someone an image of a grimly-grinning, mildly intoxicated prom-date or a child squinting at a llama in a petting zoo surrounded by cartoon characters insisting on our enjoyment and declaring "here's what your year looked like"? Is that what any year looks like or lives like? Why are these results not also "jarring"? Why are these results not also "unfortunate"? Is any of this really a matter of code "working" for most everybody?

What if the conspicuousness of Meyer's experience of algorithmic cruelty indicates less an exceptional circumstance than the clarifying exposure of a more general failure, a more ubiquitous cruelty? Meyer ultimately concludes that his experience is the result of design flaws which demand design fixes. Basically, he proposes that users be provided the ability to opt out of algorithmic applications that may harm them. Given the extent to which social software forms ever more of the indispensable architecture of the world we navigate, this proposal places an extraordinary burden on those who are harmed by carelessly implemented environments they come to take for granted while absolving those who build, maintain, own, and profit from these environments from the harms resulting from their carelessness. And in its emphasis on designing for egregious experienced harms, this proposal disregards costs, risks, harms that are accepted as inevitable when they are merely habitual, or vanish in their diffusion, over the long-term, as lost opportunities hidden behind given actualities.

But what worries me most of all about this sort of "opt out" design-fix is that with each passing day algorithmic mediation is more extensive, more intensive, more constitutive of the world. We all joke about the ridiculous substitutions performed by autocorrect functions, or the laughable recommendations that follow from the odd purchase of a book from Amazon or an outing from Groupon. We should joke, but don't, when people treat a word cloud as an analysis of a speech or an essay. We don't joke so much when a credit score substitutes for the judgment whether a citizen deserves the chance to become a homeowner or start a small business, or when a Big Data profile substitutes for the judgment whether a citizen should become a heat signature for a drone commiting extrajudicial murder in all of our names. Meyer's experience of algorithmic cruelty is extraordinary, but that does not mean it cannot also be a window onto an experience of algorithmic cruelty that is ordinary. The question whether we might still "opt out" from the ordinary cruelty of algorithmic mediation is not a design question at all, but an urgent political one.   

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Contextualizing My Anti-Futurological Critique for Theoryheads

This rather densely allusive sketch contextualizing my anti-futurological critique won't be everybody's cup of tea, but I've upgraded and adapted it from my response to a comment in the Moot for those readers who find this sort of thing useful but who would likely miss it otherwise. I still think probably the best, most concise and yet complete(-ish) formulation of my critique is the contrbution I published in the recent Existenz volume on posthumanism.
You accuse me of indulging in futurism while critiquing it. All the big boys make such moves, I don't think less of you for trying it. I have heard what you have to say so far, and I must say it seems to me you are baldly wrong to say this, and that believing it sends you off-track...

What I mean by futurism has its origins in specific institutional histories and discursive practices: namely, the emergence of fraudulent methodologies/ rationales of speculation in market futures and the extrapolative genre of the scenario in military think-tanks -- all taking place in the wider context of the suffusion of public deliberation and culture with the hyperbolic and deceptive techno-progressive norms and forms of consumer advertizing...
To give you a sense of where I am coming from and to give you a sense of what I am hearing when you say "modernity" and how I might try to take us elsewhere with futurity-against-futurology, I provide this handy sketch:

To the extent that post-modernity (late modernity, a-modernity, neoliberalism, whatever) is the post-WW1/2 inflation of the petrochemical bubble in which other postwar financial bubbles are blown, my anti-futurology is of a piece with Lyotard's (whatever my differences with him, of which I have many, he makes some of the same warnings).
To the extent that futurism markets elite-incumbency as progress, my anti-futurology is also of a piece with some of Debord's critique of the Spectacle, so-called (the parts about "enhanced survival" in particular), specifically to the extent that Debord's tale of "being degraded into having degraded into appearing" derives from Adorno's culture industri(alization) as formula-filling-mistaken-for-judgment and Benjamin's War Machine as the displacment of a revolutionary equity-in-diversity from the epilogue of Art in the Age.
Your emphasis seems more attuned to aesthetic modernities, so the larger context for me is the proposal that between the bookends of Thirty-Years' Wars from Westphalia to Bretton Woods European modernity indulged in a host of quarrels des anciens et des modernes, culture wars presiding over and rationalizing the ongoing organization of social militarization/ administration of nation-states and their competitive internationalism.

"The Future" of futurisms in my sense arises out of those discourses. Design discourses are especially provocative for my critical position, for example, since they are patently futurological -- at once doing and disavowing politics; peddling plutocracy qua meritocracy via the Merely Adequate Yet Advancement through their exemplary anti-democratzing Most Acceptable Yet Advanced MAYA principle -- but still quite modern in what I think is your sense of the term. This matters because futurological global/digital rationality is for me an importantly different phenomenon than the modern that constitutes itself in the repudiation of the ancient: the futurist for me is in between, at once a vestige of modern internationalism and a harbinger of post-nationalist planetarity.

Planetarity is a term I am taking from Spivak, and my sense of where we are headed -- if anywhere -- is informed by queer/critical race/post-colonial/environmental justice theories like hers. In my various theory courses I usually advocate in my final lecture (the one with the final warnings and visions in it) for a polycultural planetarity -- where the "polyculture" term resonates with Paul Gilroy's post-Fanonian convivial multiculturalism as well as with the repudiation of industrial monoculture for companion planting practices in the service of sustainability (but also synecdochic for sustainable political ecology), and then the "planetarity" term marks the failure/ eclipse of nation-state internationalism (say, UN-IMF-World Bank globalization) in digital financialization, fraud, marketing harassment, and surveillance and ecological catastrophe. Polycultural planetarity would build ethics and mobilize democratizations via contingent universalization (that's from my training with Judith Butler no doubt) in the future anterior (a Spivakian understanding of culture as interpretation practices toward practical conviviality). For me, that future anterior is the futurity inhering in the present in the diversity of stakeholders/peers to presence, very much opposed to the closures, reductions, extrapolations, instrumentalizations of "The Future."
Lots of name-dropping there, I know, but almost every phrase here can easily turn into a three-hour lecture, I'm afraid, in one of my contemporary critical theory survey courses. I suspect you might be tempted to assimilate all that feminist/queer/posthuman-criticalrace theoretical complex to the categories you already know -- forgive me if I have jumped to conclusions in so saying -- but I think that would be an error, more an effort to dismiss and hence not have to read the work than think what we are doing as Hannah Arendt enjoined, the call I hear every day that keeps me going.

Let's Hope It's A Good One

As every year,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hark, the Herald Fugelsang

WFS Re-Post

I've re-posted a very slightly edited version of the Techbro Mythopoetics essay over at the World Future Society.

Christmas Effects by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season -- isn’t it? -- is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question -- Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of "the" family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all -- religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy -- line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? -- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 5-6
This memorable passage for me turns out to have been memorable for lots of folks I've talked with about Sedgwick, too. This seems a good day to provide the occasion for it to be memorable to others as well. And this is the second year in a row I've posted the piece, in a gesture that risks reproducing the tendency it also troubles, my own holiday muddying mood mode. Better to let it stand as something of a memorial to a scholar who mattered to me when mattering like she did mattered a lot.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nicholas Carr on the Robot God Odds

It is easy to agree with Nicholas Carr when he says:
The odds of computers becoming thoughtful enough to decide they want to take over the world, hatch a nefarious plan to do so, and then execute said plan remain exquisitely small. Yes, it’s in the realm of the possible. No, it’s not in the realm of the probable. If you want to worry about existential threats, I would suggest that the old-school Biblical ones -- flood, famine, pestilence, plague, war -- are still the best place to set your sights.
Carr is lampooning the nightmares and wet dreams of comparatively high-profile Singularitarian Robot Cultists like Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk, and Nick Bostrom who think the danger of coding an unfriendly superintelligent AI before coding a friendly superintelligent AI is a matter of fierce concern. I say it is easy to agree with Carr on this, and I largely do: here and also here is my take on the relevant Kurzweil, here on Elon Musk and here on Nick Bostrom.

I do worry that there is something counterproductive in the way Carr is framing his very correct and commonsensical objection here, however. Just what is Carr conceding in his generous admission of logical possibility rather than policy-relevant probability to the published concerns of the Singularitarians? I cheerfully grant the logical possibility that phenomena we would describe as intelligence and consciousness could be materially instantiated otherwise than in the biological brains and living nervous systems. I cheerfully grant that not only humans but dolphins and great apes and who knows who else could be taken for people and for rights-bearers. I cheerfully grant that we enter into legible political and discursive relations with nonhuman as well as human animals and certain machines (especially instruments that complicate our customary senses). These are all important and provocative arguments to have. But are these actually the arguments the Singularitarians are having?

Are Singularitarians making the rather large point that consciousness might be non-biologically materialized? Or are they mobilizing hoary sf cliches as relevant terms of policy art -- "friendliness"? "cyberangels"? really? Or are they making claims about the eventual triumph of serially failed program based on reductive, sociopathic, body-loathing, stealthily spiritual, conspicuously faith-based AI-models?

The half-century old techno-utopian dream of Good Old Fashioned AI (GOFAI) seems to me to model intelligence in ways that attest as much to the social alienation and the quest for facile clarities and certainties as to our actual understanding (such as it is) of the actually existing material systems exhibiting actual intelligence and consciousness in the actual world. So seen, it is hardly surprising to find that research programs modeled on these assumptions keep failing. And it is hard to see why this failure would be circumvented by actually amplifying GOFAI from a failed quest to build intelligent AI on wrongheaded assumptions into a quest to build instead a superintelligent AI on wrongheaded assumptions. As marketing gambits go, it is true you can sell more of the same crappy unwholesome cola by adding a Big Gulp to the range of options, but it is hard to see how that makes your cola less crappy or more wholesome if that's what you were worried about.

Like most techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasists, Singularitarians want to be taken seriously on their own terms. They may not enjoy disagreement particularly but they can appreciate even some forms of ridicule if these direct more attention their way or skew the co-ordinates of legitimate debate in their direction. There are few things Robot Cultists better enjoy than debating the Robot God Odds with skeptics on terms that they regard as "technical." This matters not least because even though the Singularitarians, Techno-Immortalists, Transhuman eugenicists, "geo-engineers" like to declare themselves champions of enlightenment and science, they are drawn away from scientific consensus to the fringe in tenet after tenet after tenet and then assert their convictions in the unenlightened undercritical tonalities of True Belief. I don't doubt that monks were annoyed with their opponents debating the number of angels who could dance on a pin-head, but so long as that was the debate there were asses in the pews and that, after all, was the victory that mattered most.

I think this is the force of Charles Rubin's objection to Carr at the bioconservtive Futurisms blog, namely: "there are also people attempting to develop machine consciousness, and while they may not get the resources or support they think they deserve, the tech culture at least seems largely on their side... [I]sn’t that something to worry about?" The Robot God may not exist and may not ever exist, but Robot Cultists do, and they are definitely, you know, doing stuff.

Like Carr, I think the partisans of superintelligence (or at any rate the partisans of taking superintelligence seriously on their terms) are selling moonshine. Their views are so symptomatic they might deserve to be taken seriously by the therapists of the partisans. And their views are so flawed they probably deserved to be taken more seriously by whomever it was who graded their science papers, assuming they actually ever took a real science class. But it is still hard to see why their concerns should be taken seriously on their terms by policy-makers. The Singularitaarians are practically on the road to nowhere and it really does matter that we understand that reality as it actually is before we go on to worry instead about the more real danger that so many do take Singularitarians seriously on their own terms even though the Singularitarians are not serious on those terms.

As I have said many times, the example of the Hayekian Mont Pelerin Society reminds us that a small band of ideologues committed to discredited notions that happen to benefit and compliment the rich can sweep the world to the brink of ruin just as the example of the neoconservatives reminds us that a small band of even ridiculous committed people can prevail to the cost of us all even when they are peddling not only discredited but outrageous notions that appeal to irrational passions. Even though the futurologists are peddling nonsense, there are many elite-incumbent interests, not to mention complacent consumerist technoscientific illiterates, that find both titillation as well as useful and consoling rationalizations in their robocultic formulations. And there is plenty of damage that can be done when technodevelopmental discourse and policy are suffused with their deranging assumptions, aspirations, figures, and frames.

Although Carr does not fully elaborate the point himself, I think it is important to notice that he began his piece denigrating the silliness of superintelligent-AI discourse by observing that "[n]ow... we’ve branded every consumer good with a computer chip “smart[.]” Like Carr, I do not think there is any reason to take the least bit seriously the robocultic prediction that a superintelligent Robot God is on the horizon and that nothing much matters (not greenhouse gasses, not neoliberal precarization, not racist biases in policing, not arms proliferation, not human trafficking, not neglected treatable diseases in overexploited populations) apart from making sure that this superintelligent Robot God is not naughty but nice.

But I do think there is every reason to take enormously seriously the ever greater public prevalence -- in corporate entities like Google, in military entities like DARPA, in academic entities like Stanford and Oxford -- of the ideology underpinning these predictions about superintelligent AI:

There are reasons to think that AI-faithful make crappy software like autocorrect not because autocorrect is good at what it does but because they see autocorrect as a sort of fledgling robogodlet to which they owe their allegiance.

There are reasons to think that when we call cards and cars "smart" that are not smart at all we begin to lose sight of the demands of legibility, dignity, and flourishing of people who actually are smart.

There are reasons to think we have more than enough "unfriendly" AI in the world already -- even if it looks nothing like what the Singularitarians are warning us about and distracting us with -- when algorithmic credit scoring stands in for judgments about whether humans deserve to be treated as homeowners and when Big Data profiles stand in for judgments about whether humans deserve to be targeted for extrajudicial murder.

When it comes to superintelligent AI, the odds aren't good and the goods are very odd. It matters that we take care to determine just what it is that matters in these matters.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Like Kurzweil, Techno-Immortalist Peter Thiel Is Revealed To Be More Sad-Quack Than Sooper-Genius

Tech-Celebrity-CEO (hence skim and scam artist), Peter Thiel has attracted attention lately for telling a Bloomberg interviewer that he is taking human growth hormone to increase his lifespan. Thiel is a well-known well-heeled Robot Cultist who believes that sooper-geniuses are in a race to code a friendly sooper-intelligent Robot God before somebody else codes a satanic sooper-intelligent Robot God instead -- that "somebody else" probably being somebody in the Big Bad Government he hates as a libertopian ideologue who owes everything he has to the good fortune of being born in a reasonably well-ordered society with the institutional and infrastructural affordances that are the furthest thing from libertopian.

Yes, all this is exactly as at best stupid and at worst insane as it seems to be.

Thiel is not just a True Believer in the Singularitarian sect/doctrine of the Robot Cult, which is the word for the nonsense I just mentioned, but also indulges in the faith-based initatives of the Techno-Immortalist sect/doctrine, which means he believes we are on the verge of reparative or rejuvenation therapies involving robot replacement parts or therapeutic/enhancing nanobotic swarms or some combination of these, or that, failing to arrive in time (as they won't, if they ever do, and it is, again, at best stupid and at worst insane to pretend otherwise) he can have his brain hamburgerized in a deep freeze to await nanobotic resurrection or the eventual uploading of his info-soul into Holodeck Heaven (on the obviously idiotic premise that a scan of you is you -- which is no more true than that a picture of you is you -- and that cyberspace is eternal, rather than made of buggy fragile perishable tech which is the furthest thing from eternal in any sense).

From the parentheses you will gather that Peter Thiel, like most of the futurological faithful, believes in a whole slew of obvious idiotic nonsense, probably because he is scared to die or is scared of the contingency of human existence more generally or because he wants to get revenge on all the politically correct liberals who point out that he is an ugly bigot for all the sexist racist views he used to crow about, or because he wants to really believe he is special enough to deserve all the money he lucked into. Who knows why Peter Thiel believes all the crazy stupid shit he does?

The greater question, however, is that given how obviously crazy and stupid his beliefs have always been, why are so many people willing to go along with the self-promotional hype that declares Peter Thiel a sooper-genius entrepreurial-innovatorial risk-taking thought-leader blah blah blah, when he is so obviously a sad sociopathic crank in a Robot Cult hyping and then taking personal credit for comparatively modest and in any case collective technological accomplishments?

Some people, it seems, are taking note of the fact that with this growth hormone business Thiel is advocating a dubious health supplement regimen with little likelihood of benefit and with conspicuous cancer risks which he dismisses because he declares cancer will be cured in ten years anyway -- which techno-utopians have been saying pretty much every year by the year for about half a century. As if this is the first sign that Thiel might not be quite the Big Brain he is taken for? As if this is the first time it occurs to people that techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasizing might not be Thought Leadership (whatever the hell that is supposed to be anyway)? As if up to now people were ready to declare Thiel the Randian Fountainhead and protagonist of techno-utopian history Robot Cultists fluff him for as they pass the collection plate?

Like Ray Kurzweil with his mountain of pills and alkaline water advocacy, Peter Thiel turns out to be another modestly accomplished inventor/investor turned singularitarian techno-immortalist robocultic guru-wannabe who looks for all the world like a superannuated boomer tragically pining for eternal adolescence via herbal penis enhancement and anti-aging skin kreme offered up in religious cadences in the livid radioactive glow of a late-nite informercial on the big screen tee vee in a lonely living room under a snuggie.

Techbro Mythopoetics

In an enjoyable rant over at io9 today, Charlie Jane Anders declares herself Tired of "The Smartest Man in the Room" science fiction trope. Her delineation of the stereotype is immediately legible:
The "smartest man in the room" is a kind of wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people, because he's not just clever but incredibly glib. As popularized by people like Doctor Who/Sherlock writer Steven Moffat and the creators of American shows like House and Scorpion, the "smartest guy in the room" thinks quicker than everybody else but also talks rings around them, too. He's kind of an unholy blend of super-genius and con artist. Thanks to the popularity of Sherlock, House and a slew of other "poorly socialized, supergenius nerd" shows, the "smartest man in the room" has become part of the wallpaper. His contempt for less intelligent people, mixed with adorable social awkwardness, and his magic ability to have the right answer at every turn, have become rote.
Later, she offers up a preliminary hypothesis that the intelligibility and force of the archetype derives from the widespread experience of consumers who feel themselves to be at the mercy of incomprehensible devices and therefore of the helpful nerds in their lives who better understand these things. I actually don't think the world is particularly more technologically incomprehensible now than it has always somewhat been in network-mediated extractive-industrial societies, but tech-talkers like to say otherwise because it consoles them that progress is happening rather than the immiserating unsustainable stasis that actually prevails, but that is a separate discussion. I do think Anders strikes very much the right note when she declares The Smartest Guy in the Room archetype a "wish-fulfillment fantasy," but I am not sure that I agree with her proposal about how the fantasy is operating here.

What is perplexing about the Smartest Guy in the Room archetype, as well as for the more ubiquitous savvy but awkward nerd archetype, is the combination in it of superior knowledge and social ineptitude. Anders proposes that this fantasy space is doubly reassuring -- securing our faith that helpful people will always be around to navigate the incomprehensible technical demands of the world, but that we need not feel inferior in our dependency because these helpful people gained their superior knowledge at the cost of a lack of basic social skills nobody in their right mind would actually choose to pay. The gawky awkward nerd is as obviously inferior as superior, we get to keep our toys with our egos intact, and everybody wins (even the losers).

All this sounds just idiotically American enough to be plausible, but seems to assume that few of her readers -- or anybody, for that matter -- actually identifies with the nerds. Anders seems to have forgotten that she begins her piece with the assertion that The Smartest Guy in the Room is "wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people," that is to say, the self-image of her entire readership. And of course the truth is that nearly every one of her readers do identify with the archetype, indeed the archetype is a space of aspirational identification in culture more generally, an identification which fuels much of the lucrative popularity and currency of spectacular science fiction and fantasy and geekdom more generally in this moment. That is the real problem that makes the phenomenon Anders has observed worthy of criticism in the first place.

Anders describes the Smartest Guy in the Room as someone who has "contempt for less intelligent people, mixed with adorable social awkwardness, and [a] magic ability to have the right answer at every turn." It is crucial to grasp that what appears as a kind of laundry list here is in fact a set of structurally inter-dependent co-ordinates of the moral universe of The Smartest Guy in the Room. He doesn't happen to be right all the time and socially awkward and contemptuous of almost everybody else, his sociopathic contempt is the essence of his social awkwardness, rationalized by his belief that he is superior to them because he is always right about everything, at least as he sees it.

Before I am chastised for amplifying harmless social awkwardness into sociopathy, let me point out that the adorable nerds of Anders' initial formulations are later conjoined to a discussion of Tony Stark, the cyborgically-ruggedized hyper-individualist bazillionaire tech-CEO hero of the Iron Man blockbusters. Although Anders describes this archetype in terms of its popular currency in pop sf narrative and fandom today, I think it is immediately illuminating to grasp the extent to which Randroidal archetypes Howard Roark, Francisco d'Anconia, Henry Rearden, and John Galt provide the archive from which these sooper-sociopath entrepreneurial mad-scientist cyborg-soldiers are drawn (if you want more connective tissue, recall that Randroidal archetypes are the slightest hop, skip, and jump away from Heinleinian archetypes and now we're off to the races).

The truth is that there is no such thing as the guy who knows all the answers, or who solves all the problems. Problem-solving is a collective process. There is more going on that matters than anybody knows, even the people who know the most. Even the best experts and the luminous prodigies stand on the shoulders of giants, depend on the support of lovers and friends and collaborators and reliable norms and laws and infrastructural affordances, benefit from the perspectives of critics and creative appropriations. Nobody deserves to own it all or run it all, least of all the white guys who happen to own and run most of it at the moment, and this is just as true when elite-incumbency hides its rationalizations for privilege behind a smokescreen of technobabble. 

The sociopathy of the techno-fixated Smartest Guy in the Room is, in a word, ideological. Anders hits upon an enormously resonant phrasing when she declares him "an unholy blend of super-genius and con artist." In fact, his declared super-genius is an effect of con-artistry -- the fraudulent cost- and risk-externalization of digital networked financialization, the venture-capitalist con of upward-failing risk-fakers uselessly duplicating already available services and stale commodities as novelties, the privatization of the "disruptors" and precarization of "crowdsource"-sharecropping -- the "unholy" faith on the part of libertechbrotarian white dudes that they deserve their elite incumbent privileges

Perhaps this is a good time to notice that when Anders says the Smartest Guy in the Room provides "wish-fulfillment for reasonably smart people" her examples go on to demonstrate that by people she happens always to mean only guys and even only white guys. She does notice that the Smartest Guy does seem to be, you know, a guy and provides the beginnings of a gendered accounting of the archetype: "the 'smartest guy' thing confirms all our silliest gender stereotypes, in a way that's like a snuggly dryer-fresh blanket to people who feel threatened by shifting gender roles. In the world of these stories, the smartest person is always a man, and if he meets a smart woman she will wind up acknowledging his superiority."

That seems to me a rather genial take on the threatened bearings of patriarchal masculinity compensated by cyborg fantasizing, but at least it's there. The fact that the Smartest Guy keeps on turning out to be white receives no attention at all. This omission matters not only because it is so glaring, but because the sociopathic denial of the collectivity of intelligence, creativity, progress, and flourishing at the heart of the Smartest Guy in the Room techno-archetype, is quite at home in the racist narrative of modern technological civilization embodied in inherently superior European whiteness against which are arrayed not different but primitive and atavistic cultures and societies that must pay in bloody exploitation and expropriation the price of their inherent inferiority. That is to say, the Smartest Guy in the Room is also the Smartest Guy in History, naturally enough, with a filthy treasure pile to stand on and shout his superiority from.

From the White Man's Burden to Yuppie Scum to Techbro Rulz, the Smartest Guy in the Room is one of the oldest stories in the book. And, yeah, plenty of us are getting "kind of tired" of it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Americans Can No Longer Distinguish Optimism from Advertizing

Ever notice how often "positive people" who call you too negative are just trying to sell your something?

Why Our Militant Atheists Are Not Secular Thinkers

Secularity -- from the Latin saecularis, worldly, timely, contingent -- properly so called, is very much a pluralist and not an eliminationist impulse. In naming the distinction of worldly affairs from spiritual devotions, it differentiated the good life of the vita contemplativa of philosophy from that of the vita activa of the statesman or aesthete, but later went on to carve out the distinctions of clerical from government, legal, professional authorities. The Separation of Church and State as pillar of secular thinking and practice is the furthest imaginable thing from sectarian or ethnic strife amplified by the eliminationist imagination into genocidal violence -- and yet the identification of today's militant atheists with a "secular worldview" risks precisely such a collapse.

Secularism has never demanded an anti-religiosity but recognized the legitimacy of non-religiosities. Indeed, in diverse multicultures such as our own secularism becomes indispensable to the continuing life of religious minorities against majority or authoritarian formations of belief, and hence is not only not anti-religious but explicitly facilitative of variously religious lifeways as it is of variously non-religious lifeways.

I have been an atheist since 1983 -- over thirty years by now! after a Roman Catholic upbringing. I am quite happy to live a life a-thiest -- "without god(s)" -- myself, but the primary value of secularism to me has always been its entailment of and insistence on a pluralist practice of reason, in which we recognize that there are many domains of belief distinguished in their concerns, in their cares, and in the manner of their convictions. Our scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, professional, political beliefs, and so on, occupy different conceptual and practical domains, incarnate different registers of our lives, are warranted by different criteria. For the pluralist, reason is not properly construed as the monomaniacal reduction of all belief to a single mode, but a matter of recognizing what manner of concern, care, and conviction belief is rightly occasioned for and then applying the right criteria of warrant appropriate to that mode.

Pluralism is not a relativism or nihilism, as threatened bearings of fundamentalist belief would have it, but a rigorous reasonableness equal to the complexity, dynamism, and multifaceted character of existence and of the personalities beset by its demands and possibilities. For one thing, pluralism allows us to grasp and reconcile the aspirational force of the contingent universalism of ethics without which we could not conceive let alone work toward progress or the Beloved Community of the we in which all are reconciled, while at once doing justice to the fierce demands and rewards in dignity and belonging deriving from our (inevitably plural, usually partial) inhabitation of moral communities that build the "we" from exclusions of various construals of the "they." Pluralism allows us to reconcile as well our pursuit of the private perfections of morality and sublimity (my appreciation of the aesthetical forms of which requires my admission of the validity for others, whatever my atheism, of its faithly forms) with the public works of scientific, political, legal, professional progress.

It is crucial to grasp that the refusal of pluralism is reductionism, and that reductionism is an irrationalism. It is a form of insensitivity, a form of unintelligence -- and usually a testimony to and inept compensation for insecurity. In Nietzsche's critique of the fetish (Marx's commodity fetishism and Freud's sexual fetishes are surface scratches in comparison) this reductionism is the ressentimental attutude of the life of fear over the lives of love, the philosophical imposture of deception and self-deception peddled as truth-telling. To impose the criteria of warrant proper to scientific belief to moral belief, say, or to aesthetic judgement, or to legal adjudication is to be irrational not rational. Also, crucially, it is to violate and not celebrate science.

To call the celebrated (or at any rate noisy) militant atheistic boy warriors of today "secular thinkers" is a profound error. To misconstrue as the sins of religious faith as such the moralizing misapplication of faithly norms to political practices is to misunderstand the problem at hand -- and usually in a way that multiplies errors: Hence, our militant atheists become bigots tarring innocent majorities with the crimes of violent minorities, they lose the capacity to recognize differences that make a difference in cultures, societies, individuals all the while crowing about their superior discernment.

Those who commit crimes and administer tyrannies in the name of faith irrationally and catastrophically misapply the substantiation of aesthetic sublimities and parochial mores connected to some among indefinitely many forms of religiosity to domains of ethical aspiration and political progress to which they are utterly unsuited. Fascism and moralizing are already-available terms for these too familiar irrational misapplications. Meanwhile those who attribute these crimes and tyrannies to the aesthetic and the moral as such, as practiced in variously faithful forms, are inevitably indulging in reductionism. This reductionism in its everyday stupidity is usually a form of ethnocentric subcultural parochialism, but the militant atheists prefer their stupidity in the form of scientism, usually assuming the imaginary vantage of a superior scientificity the terms of which presumably adjudicate the unethical in moralizing and the tyrannical in progressivity because it subsumes ethical and political domains within its own scientific terms. In this, scientism first distorts science into a morality which it then, flabbergastingly, distorts into a moralism itself, thus mirroring the very fundamentalism it seeks to critique.

Secularism is a theoretical and practical responsiveness to the plurality of a world in which there is always more going on that matters in the present than any of us can know and in which the diversity of stakeholders to the shared present interminably reopens history to struggle. It is bad enough that today's militant atheists get so much of the substance and value of science, taste, and faith wrong in their disordering rage for order, but in calling their reductionist irrationality "secular thinking" we risk losing the sense and significance of the secular altogether, that accomplishment of reason without which we can never be equal to the demands and promises of reality and history in the plurality of their actual presence.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Consolidated A Quarter Century Later

I was listening to this with righteous fury back in Atlanta as a Queer National, vegan hard-ass (these days I'm cheerfully vegetarian and prefer my queerness post-nationalist), and budding socialist feminist green, writing an MA thesis connecting queer theory and technocultural theory (a trace of which survives here). I had not the slightest suggestion of a hope back then that I would be in San Francisco working with my hero Judith Butler in just two years' time. That was wonderful, even a little miraculous. But I did have great hope and conviction then that those songs would no longer be so thoroughly relevant to the America of 2014, a generation away, an America of ongoing unemployment and lowered expectations and still-profiteering banksters, of SillyCon fraudsters, of racist police, of rising Greenhouse storms. That has not been so wonderful, not so miraculous.

Friday, December 19, 2014

So, Now I'm Bingewatching Fringe

Not sure if all this post-teaching marathonization is psychic cleansing or cluttering, but I am still enjoying myself. I need a shave and haircut after all this bunkering, that's for sure. Also, reading up a storm right now: Naguib Mahfouz, Nalo Hopkinson, Margaret Atwood.

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.