Friday, June 30, 2006

Science Reporting: Another Well-Aimed Rant

This Wired commentary by Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig is so good that I have to quote heavily from it:

At theaters across the US this summer, Americans will learn the truth about global warming from the man who almost became their president. An Inconvenient Truth is the film adaptation of a slide show that Al Gore has presented thousands of times to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. You -- and your 10,000 best friends -- should see this movie. . .

About halfway through, Gore cites two studies to explain why so many people remain so skeptical about global warming. The first looked at a random sample of almost 1,000 abstracts on climate change in peer-reviewed scientific journals from 1993 to 2003 and found that exactly zero doubted “that we’re causing global warming.” The second surveyed a random sample of more than 600 articles about global warming in popular media between 1988 and 2002 and discovered that 53 percent questioned “that we’re causing global warming.”

Good journalism likes two sides to every story. Lazy journalism fails to distinguish between objective sources and interested parties – and this issue has interested parties aplenty, from ­industry-funded think tanks to hired PR firms, feeding the press the disinformation it needs to make the story sound balanced. This is the media’s own inconvenient truth – that the institution charged with reporting the facts is so easily manipulated. . .

Gore wants to change how we act by changing how we think about global warming. Yet An Inconvenient Truth can inspire progress only if the audience is responsive. Of course, the audience best prepared to fix global warming – the government – has already been corrupted by the same money that plays the puppet press so well. Likewise with the media’s inconvenient truth: If any of the networks were so impertinent as to report what scientists know about global warming, could it withstand the inevitably well-orchestrated charge of bias? These truths may be inconvenient, but the forces resisting their acceptance are extraordinarily powerful.

The issue for technoprogressives should be obvious: unless people (especially those who make and influence crucial decisions) are able to receive accurate information about important matters, they can't make good choices.

One of the problems with a free press is that it is susceptible to being bought. Of course, freedom of the press certainly is preferable to having a controlled press, even if the controlling party is supposedly benign, but maintaining the value of a free press requires constant vigilance.

During the last 20 years or so, America's independent media has been largely gobbled up by corporate monoliths. If not for the rise of the netroots and the blogosphere, there might be no voice left to oppose the megacorp-neocon "truth" machine.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Hellish Reality of War

War is the single most uncivilized, immoral, inhuman activity in which humans participate. It is the measure of our immaturity as a species and our unfitness as designers of societies.

Sometimes, sadly, nations and peoples are compelled to take up arms and defend themselves. We can hope (and we must believe) that a time will come when we are able to renounce war and fight no more forever. But that time is not yet.

Still, the recognition that war at times may be necessary must not dull our realization that war is quite clearly the worst condition that man can create on earth.

When wars are fought, men go insane. They do the unthinkable. In wartime, atrocities occur. They always do, they always have, and they always will. War is hell.

Knowing this, we should not be surprised to discover that last year in the town of Haditha, U.S. Marines deliberately killed 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including seven women and three children. We should not be surprised if more such horrors are discovered. We should not have been surprised when atrocities were committed in My Lai, and other places, during the Vietnam War. Even during "good wars" like WWII, horrible things took place -- acts of treachery, violence, and barbarism that otherwise normal humans never would have committed under peaceful circumstances. (Although these terrible behaviors are to be expected in wartime, their individual occurrences can never be excused, of course.)

So, what is the lesson here? It is that war must always be the very last resort. It must be entertained only when all other means of resolving a dispute have been exhausted, and when the only remaining choice is to fight or to perish. It must be avoided at nearly all costs.

Because once the choice is made and war is waged, all hell will break loose. Killing, maiming, plundering, raping, torturing: this, tragically, is the stuff of war.

When the leaders of a nation ask their citizens to support them in going to war, the people should demand the highest possible burden of proof as to its unavoidable and absolute necessity. Hell is a stiff price to pay for any less.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Playing Gods

Minette Marrin has an interesting commentary at the Times Online this week about the new embryo screening technique that's been recently approved in the UK. It applauds the use of the technique, pre-implantation genetic haplotyping, which will allow the detection of "nearly 6000 diseases and conditions."

The technology itself aside, there are some pretty serious problems with this particular article.

Marrin starts out by saying that "Nature is astonishingly cruel. Science, by contrast, has the power of mercy."

Embracing new technologies with very little critical examination is as bad as rejecting them out of hand. I worry that Marrin commits the former sin, and here's why: in arguing for an all-out embrace of this genetic screening, she says-

This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn’t seem to be doing it. Besides, whatever we may think about playing God and defying nature, we are doing it already and even though we don’t necessarily recognise it, we approve of it.

For instance, there are many people who in the course of nature would die before they were old enough to have children. They might suffer from inherited heart defects or blood disorders that would kill them if they did not get transplants or dialysis. They might have disabilities that would kill them as newborn babies, without intervention. If properly treated these people may well live to be able to have children and some of those children will be at risk of inheriting the same problems and, in their turn, may pass them down the generations.

Eugenicists might think, and used to say publicly, that this is bad for the gene pool. Yet hardly anybody, I imagine, believes that such people should be denied treatment.

Of course no one would argue that such people should be denied treatment. But comparing routine medical treatment with potential eugenics arguments seems... bizarre to me, at best. This new screening technology certainly opens up a place for the eugenics discussion once again, but it hardly seems that bringing adults receiving now-routine medical treatment into the argument, even for the sake of analogy, is a good idea. She's implying that since we are keeping more people alive with what she considers disabilities, we are already in the playing-god business. So, the logic appears to go, shouldn't we play god with those people's children, as well, since they bring a potentially larger risk into the gene pool? I really don't think the author intended to bring eugenics into the discussion by making eugenics arguments.

But the author's arguments get even more ill-advised:

Simone Aspis of the British Council of Disabled People said last week that she was opposed in principle to such screening on the grounds that it sent the signal that being born disabled was a bad thing. The mind reels. Over the years I have got used to the disability lobby talking in this spirit, so it no longer seems as absurd as once it did, but surely it must be obvious that it would be far better for a person not to have a disability than to have one.


To say that a disability is undesirable in itself is not to say that a person with that disability is undesirable in herself, or her life worth less than someone else’s. The disability is not the person. It is to say that her life would be better without that disability.

This is where I start to take (further) issue. "It must be obvious that it would be far better for a person not to have a disability than to have one." Not only do I not find it obvious, but I immediately want to know what qualifies as a disability. I realize there are some very obvious illnesses in which a child has a short, painful life full of suffering. The 6000 conditions that this test screens for are surely not all of that type. Who decides that X is a disability and Y isn't? As Anita Silvers has pointed out, things considered disabilities can be advantages in some situations (if someone in a wheelchair decides to race me on the street tomorrow, I'm going to lose!) I think we should add to that the fact that evolution itself works via random mutation, and we have no idea what will be beneficial in the future. I happen to agree (contra this author) that it is wrong to send the signal that being born disabled is a bad thing. It assumes that every difference is an automatic downgrade. I'm reminded of the child born in China recently with a fully functional third arm - which was removed purely because it was abnormal, and not because it was painful, or harmful, or promised a life of suffering to the child. (In fact, I would argue a third arm would provide a pretty serious advantage, speaking especially as a violin player!)

The author says that the life of someone with a disability would be better without the disability, and that such a claim passes no judgment on the individual whatsoever. Without being accused of being PC (which is absolutely not what this is about) I heartily disagree - the author is absolutely claiming that the individual is worth less because of the disability. If the life is not as good as it could be, our lives, the lives of "normal individuals," are better - we are better off. We lead better lives by this argument. How can the author claim that this is not passing a judgment on the individual?

What's even more interesting to me are the comments that follow the article. Many of them raise worthwhile points, too lengthy to examine here. But Jabir, from Singapore asks: "Also, if a couple cannot produce an embryo that passes the screening test without any diseases, should they be deprived of having children?" Of all of the problems this technology creates, this comment is the best illustration of two: the problem of individual choice and the lack of public understanding surrounding new technologies. While both of these are blog entries unto themselves, these things are all bound up together inescapably. No one is (or should be) demanding that every couple use this technology. Perhaps that would be truly playing god, and that's one more god I could do without.

Cross posted to hyper-textual ontology

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Gobal Family Picnic

Everybody eats, nobody hits and there is no third rule.
-- Rev. Billy Hults
When I first read this aphorism, I thought it was supposed to be an angry parent coming down on the unruly kids at a family picnic. (Maybe that reflects my own experience of growing up.)

Then I realized that it also works nicely as a summation of my ideal political worldview.

"Everybody eats..."

We know there is plenty of food -- and clothing, and shelter, and medicine -- to go around for everyone. It's not that we have more people on the planet than we can support (although, if population growth rates were not declining, we could be headed for trouble), it's that we lack the humanist consensus and political will to make sure everyone has enough.

"Nobody hits..."

Disagreements will occur, we know that, but they must be settled through means other than force. This should include a prohibition on other forms of coercion too, except those necessary to implement the first directive.

"There is no third rule."

The point of this is that everyone is free to do and believe as they choose, assuming the first two rules are followed. It's in the spirit of the Libertarian approach -- the part I like -- which is that individuals and groups should have the liberty to do as they please, as long as they do not harm others or trample on their rights.

So, this nice little one-sentence dictum incorporates global liberalism (ensuring that everyone's basic needs are met), conservative strength (using might to protect freedom), and hippie individualism ("whatever turns you on, man" or "different strokes for different folks").

Got it? Everyone agree? Good, then let's enjoy the fried chicken.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Robbie vs. Predator

Asimov's Robot Stories famously center on his self-admittedly flawed 3 Laws of Robotics

1. Don't hurt humans.
2. Obey humans but don't violate (1).
3. Keep yourself safe but don't violate (1 & 2). )

and how various subtle loopholes in the laws can lead to all kinds of trouble--sort of like happens with insufficiently robust code all the time nowadays.

Anyway, I've been noticing a trend that violates his laws in a blatantly unsubtle way: the current enthusiasm at the Pentagon and in the pop-sci press for robot warriors. Bombing or machine gunning civilians is a pretty horrendously awful violation of Law 1--unless you're so right-wing that you don't think that terrorists (or innocent Muslim civilians) count as humans for purposes of the law. Much of the press adulation centers on pilotless Predator drone aircraft, which strike me as not robots in the precisely autonomous implications of that word, since they're remote-controlled from U.S. Central Command in South Florida. An actually autonomous robot doing such things--besides the fact that the current Wars on Scary Nouns (drugs, "terrah") are giant war crimes anyway--would have as an additional horror the possibility of autonomous robots deciding that they weren't particularly interested in not following the advice of Futurama's cigar-smoking robot Bender to "Kill all Humans!" While this is a goofy science-fiction cliché, I'm still not eager to see the Pentagon make it the goofily clichéd yet entirely actual death of Humanity.

While I share with most Earthlings an abhorrence for the War on Terra--with or without killer robots--I'm not such a pacifist as to believe in the impossibility of a (more or less) just war (St. Augustine, WWII and all that) as such, so assuming a non-rogue state (i.e. we're obviously talking about, say, Canada or Sweden here, not the American Empire) was involved in, say, a humanitarian intervention to stem the genocide in the Sudan, a legitimate argument could be made for using what animé calls mecha to keep what animé calls orga out of harm's way. I'd be okay with this, provided the mecha remain remote-controlled by us orga, rather than autonomous. That said, though, I think that most of the proximately probably wars (i.e. the ones involving nation-building) do better with boots on the ground that can learn to become trusted neighborhood cops, not with a bunch of criminal Shock n' Awe--or whatever stupid macho metal band name they come up with next--carpet bombings by bots in the sky remote-controlled by some well-meaning 19-yr.-old kid in South Florida unintentially replicating the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in Apocalypse Now via satellite uplink.

I can think of one GREAT use for autonomous robots in war zones, though. Robots programmed with something like Asimov's First Law ("Thou Shalt Not Kill," might be couched in a vocabulary W. has heard before) would be good at searching villages for enemy soldiers without the possibility for "human errors" like My Lai and Haditha.

(Frivolous terminological note: Since we're on the topic of 1950's sci-fi tropes here, I've often thought it would be a good throw-away premise if future historians in a sci-fi tale referred to our American Empire as the Western British Empire, analagous to referring to the Byzantines as the Eastern Roman Empire. While the differences between the current hegemon and that presided over by Disraeli's Empress of India are myriad, they might seem like subtle esoterica best left to microspecialists compared to the market-fundamentalist Anglospheric commonalities that will loom so large in the eyes of people a millenium hence.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Other Drug Legalization

The other day I needed to refill a prescription on which I had no refills left. Since I'm uninsured, this involved going to a local medical clinic franchise and paying $100 to obtain a piece of paper from a doctor authorizing me to take something I knew very well I needed with no $100 consultation from him, thank you very much. As it was, I felt ridiculous, an adult grovelling for magic paper like a high schooler trying to beg, borrow, or steal a precious hall pass.

It got me thinking about what I might call the Other Drug Legalization, the absence of which I had previously taken for granted. Why, exactly, do we have prescriptions at all? The best answers I can come up with are that it:
--prevents antibiotic overuse
--buttresses the idiotic War on Drugs by limiting the potential for homebrewing
--makes sure people don't kill themselves with drug interactions
--makes easy money for doctors

Two of these (preventing antibiotic overuse and fatal drug interactions) are great. And my gripe about the cost aspect of my visit to the clinic could be cured by the simple, common-sense expedient of universal health insurance. But I'd want to see more drugs available over the counter, even if we all got health insurance tomorrow and antibiotics remain safely rationed behind the counter to prevent overuse.

Why? Because people ought to be able to decide for themselves what they want to put into their bodies. (I might say they have a "right" to do so, but that's another discussion!) Making more drugs available over the counter helps eliminate the medical community's ability to enforce the pernicious distinction between therapy and enhancement. If, for instance, people want to take an anti-depressant to feel better than well rather than just baseline, they shouldn't need to lie to an anti-enhancement doctor to get a prescription for it.

There is at least one problem I can foresee, however, (I assume commenters will foresee others!) if such liberalization is introduced while the U.S. is still in thrall to its heartless and wasteful for-profit health insurance system: people who can't afford a doctor are going to self-prescribe even if they need someone's help to sort out drug interactions, and they're going to end up dead--for reasons that have nothing to do with liberty, and everything to do with poverty.

Ah, well. I guess it'll have to wait until universal healthcare....

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Guaranteeing Universal Human Rights

Faith and reason...rights and governance...religion and science...

The contributors to this blog are tackling all sorts of incendiary issues, some that may be considered beyond the bounds of typical or acceptable discourse. So be it.

More importantly, even the nascent stages of this blog (see "The Science of Right and Wrong" and "A Left without Rights?" and the appended comments) have illuminated the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated subjects like faith and technology, and this is all to the good.

In 1968, the Russian physicist, atheist, and moralist Andrei Sakharov wrote:
International affairs must be completely permeated with scientific methodology and a democratic spirit, with a fearless weighing of all facts, views, and theories, with maximum publicity of ultimate and intermediate goals, and with a consistency of principles.

Two and a half decades later, in a commentary on Sakharov's work, Ernest Partridge said:
"Scientific morality" is widely regarded as an oxymoron, since it is commonly believed that science is "value neutral." This belief embraces a pernicious half-truth. The logic of science stipulates that the data, laws, hypotheses and theories of science exclude evaluative terms and concepts, and that the vocabulary of science be exclusively empirical and formal. There are no "oughts," no "goods and bads," no "rights and wrongs." (The fact that social sciences deal with values descriptively, is only an apparent violation of this rule). Capitalist and communist missiles are subject to the same laws of trajectory. The same laws of physiology apply to the physician who heals, and the murderer who poisons. The "value-free" status of scientific vocabulary and assertion is the "truthful half" of the belief that science is "value free."

But as an activity, science is steeped in evaluation, for the "value-free" methodology that yields these "value-free" statements, requires a discipline and a commitment that appears to merit the name of "morality." Thus the advancement of science is characterized by behavior that can only be described as "virtuous," and the corruption of science as moral weakness. In other words, the activity of science (that is to say, of science as a human institution) is highly involved with values. . .

Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding the discipline and morality of science.

I will extend Partridge's position to say that "value-free" science not only must be conducted under the constraints of virtuous morality, but that scientific methodology -- that is, study, reason, observation, hypothesis, testing, etc. -- can be used to determine a functional prescriptive societal macroethics. (In this context, I encourage the reading of Brad Allenby's fine three-part series of columns on "Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth".)

Here's a very simple formulation to start with:
  1. Let's declare that all groups, communities, and societies are free to think and believe what they want, but not to behave as they like. Belief is free, behavior has consequences.

  2. Let's accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as a global standard.

  3. Let's agree that if we find any group in any society taking stated rights away from weaker groups or individuals within that society, then the world must act to stop the abuse and to prevent its recurrence.
I propose that if the preceding formulation was followed, more humans would enjoy broader rights, and society as a whole would be measurably improved.

Take that as an hypothesis and evaluate it. What can we learn about the potential efficacy of this approach in achieving greater diffusion and enjoyment of the stated rights?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Left without Rights?

Thinking aloud here: I may not even agree with this when I reread it tomorrow.

Much of our modern talk about why the world needs to be changed is grounded in the language of rights--Human Rights, Great Ape Rights, Animal Rights, and so forth. The language of rights, in turn, has historically been grounded in conceptions about either Nature or Nature's God. This presents a problem for technoprogressive discourse: Technoprogressive types tend to believe passionately in acting for the amelioration of suffering and the improvement of the state of the world, but also tend to argue that conceptions rooted in valorizations of "the natural" are best discarded for more postnaturalistic ways of thinking. Thus, technoprogressives are among those talking and thinking about problems that most of the world talks and thinks about in terms of "rights," a concept whose naturalism makes it uncongenial at best.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best text (likely the most frequently employed, at any rate) with which to illustrate some of the derivations of modern rights talk. The introduction speaks of the American people assuming

"the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."

This phrase is far less famous than the preamble's:

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In both cases, the rights asserted are grounded in appeals to nature and divinity. The former appeal characterizes attempts to reduce ethics to science, the latter, to reduce it to religion. The Declaration typifies the Deist era--containing glimmers of both medieval theology's twilight and modern scientism's dawn. The text reflects its author: Jefferson famously collated his own New Testament with all the supernaturalism (literally) cut out, and dabbled in the pseudoscientific and scientistic vogue for attempting to reduce the passions to equations like Love + Hate = Jealousy. But it was Franklin, revolutionary, scientist, and one-time muser about something akin to cryonics (involving pickling in port), who pushed Jefferson to replace "sacred" with "self-evident".

The moment when Jefferson's quill scratched out "sacred" for "self-evident" nicely marks the emergence of modern rights talk. Beforehand, Westerners were mostly talking about a Natural Law grounded in Scholastic exegeses of Aristotle and the Bible. The Scholastic tradition that rights descend from Nature's God was an inheritance from the Stoics that the Latin West had picked up from Cicero.

The problems for technoprogressivism of rights grounded in anybody's Flying Spaghetti Monster probably seem pretty "self-evident" to most who'd read this, and I'm not going to belabor them here (anymore than I already have...). But grounding rights in nature just reproduces these problems in a stealthed form--which stealthing is of course awfully characteristic of the last few centuries in a Foucauldian sorta way.

One problem with appeals to nature: The self-evident ain't.

Self-evidence was another Stoic shibboleth, the epistemological gladius with which they fended off the probabilistic Carneadean skeptics of the New Academy and fought their way to an empiricism that they found adequate to ground their ethical assertions. When Franklin replaced sacredness with self-evidence, he was grounding the Declaration in the same sort of presumed common sense. But consensus beliefs that the sun rises in the morning (or that the Earth revolves around it) have to remain, however commonsensical, only provisional if the scientific method is to be true to itself. And in the domain of ethics, scientific study of nature can't even supply such strong probabilities. People don't agree about ethics the way they do about the sun. So appeals to nature tend to just reproduce appeals to God in more secularly respectable language, from the Stoic dictum to "Live according to nature," to the modern homophobe's contention that gay marriage "just ain't natural."

But if technoprogressives can't ground rights in these appeals, can we, should we, still argue from them? Rights can simply be asserted, without attempting to ground the assertion in anything. Or rights can be grounded merely in the fact that lots of people already believe in them. Or rights can be grounded in a sense that we wouldn't want to live in a world without them.

But none of these is immune to even half-serious argumentative attack. So I'm led to ask if the technoprogressive left can find a way to argue without rights, or a different way to talk about rights. Policies can be argued for on utilitarian grounds--regardless of whether people are entitled to X, it would be swell if they had it. Or, rights can be conceptualized as a shared and currently indispensable cultural norm around which political talk coalesces at the interpersonal, local, national, and global levels, but which can be endlessly reshaped by discussion about what the good life and the good society ought to be. In this case, rights, like selves, might be conceived as a kind of narratively necessary fiction, a motif with which to tell each other politically powerful stories about justice.

This is the sort of understanding of technoprogressive rights talk that I'm inching toward. The problem with it is, something like "a woman's right to choose" loses much of its rhetorical strength with a denatured rights talk. So what to do?

The Escape Hatch

Stephen Hawking recently gave a speech in which he advocated the near-future colonization of space to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of looming disasters such as global warming, nuclear war, and genetically engineered disease. His comments have drawn scathing criticism across the blogosphere, most notably among the contributors on ScienceBlogs. These critics deride Hawking's suggestion primarily on three counts: we are nowhere near the level of technology sufficient to survive off Earth indefinitely; only a small elite could possibly escape one of these disasters, should one arise; and we should clean up our mess on Earth before we think of spreading it elsewhere.

Hawking's specific urging of space colonization in the next few decades is quite possibly technologically impossible. The question is: what role, if any, should space exploration and settlement play in a technoprogressive society?

It seems clear that the basic premise from which Hawking starts is correct. We could easily exterminate ourselves in a variety of ways, or nature could handily do the job for us. If there is a reasonable prospect for success, certainly having some humans alive is better than none, and the only way to ensure this survival is to get some humans off Earth. The more, the farther away, the better. Unfortunately, until we can create self-sustaining artificial biospheres, any off-Earth settlement is doomed.

But that doesn't mean that we should ignore these prospects. Earth's ecosystem is being damaged by human activity on Earth, particularly through global warming. If we haven't reached it yet, we are soon approaching the point at which merely halting our activities is no longer enough. We will have to actively manage at least some of our environment if we are to recover what we are losing. We will find ourselves re-terraforming Terra itself. Where will we learn? Our track record thus far is fairly abysmal.

I submit that space settlement -- both in self-contained orbital habitats and on the surface of Mars and other bodies -- and the restoration of Earth's ecosystem are projects best achieved symbiotically with one another. Lessons learned as we examine the damage we have wreaked here will find applications as we strive to build better environments elsewhere. And as we learn about building environments from the ground up, we will learn what can be done to return from damage that might otherwise be irreversible. As both projects proceed, we will eventually reach a point at which we have recovered from our terrestrial foibles and spread pockets of survival away from the dangers that threaten us.

There is another, more indirectly progressive reason to encourage the settlement of space: diversity. Until such time as the world has been rid of totalitarianism, there will always be forces of homogeneity and oppression. Societies independent of Earth entirely, separated from Earthly concerns by millions of miles, will be free to establish myriad experiments in liberal and social democracy. Some will be anarchies, some will be communes, others will be republics, and so on. Cultures will diverge, new art and music and food will be created. The human experience will be richer for the diaspora.

But this is something that cannot flourish until centuries hence. Progressivism is pragmatic, interested in finding solutions to problems that achieve the best outcomes for the most people. I suggest that a technoprogressive space exploration program would be focused in the near-term on planetology, learning about the similarities and differences between Earth and its neighbors with continuing space-based Earth observation and environmental research.

However, human spaceflight is a capacity that we cannot afford to ignore, despite the risks. But rather than a flags-and-footprints program of nationalistic pride -- another Apollo, or President Bush's current Moon-Mars masturbation -- human spaceflight should be about something. It should be about science and exploration and survival, furthering the goals outlined above as they become feasible. It is not a choice between a crumbling Earth and the fantasy of space. We should not shy away from grand dreams, but harness them for the good of all.

The Science of Right and Wrong

How do we find answers to important questions? In the beginning, humans looked to wise elders, sages, and shamans. Over time, authority to speak on matters of consequence became vested in secular rulers, religious leaders -- or, frequently, a hybrid of the two.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that an objective approach to finding true answers was outlined by Bacon and Descartes (and later refined by Charles Sanders Peirce). We call it the scientific method. Through this means, we learned that our planet orbits the sun, that disease is transmitted by microbes, and that old women do not fly on broomsticks.

Can we now use the same method for discovering answers to significant ethical questions? Could right and wrong be determined through study and reason?

Those who wrote the books that some call scripture were, perforce, not well-informed about the way the world works. They did their best to make sense of what they saw, but their understanding was severely limited both by a lack of information and by a means of acquiring reliable data. This may help explain why adultery, homosexuality, and even cursing were considered punishable by death.

If we wouldn't want to rely on ancient sages to give us good directions for crossing the ocean, for preventing infections, or for treating mental illness, then why do we assume that their definitions of right and wrong (and appropriate consequences for violating societal norms) cannot be improved upon?

This is more than just an interesting epistemological issue. Many of us still seem oddly reluctant to surrender our reliance on mystical (some might say ignorant) authorities for instruction on moral issues. But emerging technologies -- especially molecular manufacturing -- could enable fanatical believers in ancient superstitions to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Do we want someone who relies upon the “truth” of books written by “prophets” to execute their visions of justice upon millions of our fellow humans?

Before we reach a point of total democratization of violence -- a day that is rapidly approaching -- we should take a serious look at how we determine right and wrong. It may be time to seek global consensus on the necessity of relying upon reason instead of faith to answer life’s most critical questions. Our survival may depend upon it.

Originally posted at Science Blog, May 21, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2006

What or Who is All?

On this Technoprogressive blog, our motto is “Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All.”

Nice words, and I support the concepts wholeheartedly. But I want to examine the meaning of the last word: ‘All’. What or who is all?

I propose that the word all should be understood in this context to mean two different things: first, a lower-case all, referring to a set that contains every individual member of a group; and second, an upper-case All, meaning the group as a collective entity. A proper understanding of human society includes the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Obvious? Perhaps, to most of us. But not to everyone.

In a private online forum that I moderate, a member recently asserted that “involuntary wealth transfers, unless done to enforce reparation to the recipient for real damages done to them by the payer, are unethical and harmful/destructive to the payer.”

Fortunately, this libertarian dogma regarding taxation is far from universally accepted, even in the conservative United States, but especially in Europe and the rest of the world.

Taxation, in my view, is not a ‘necessary evil’ and should not be regarded as an accommodation we grudgingly make. On the contrary, taxation is a positive. When applied wisely, wealth redistribution results in positive-sum gains. This works at every level, from family to municipality to region to nation (and, someday, the whole world). It is a means of establishing and building community; indeed, it is the basis of any healthy, interdependent, civilized society.

The argument from the Right is that individuals form the basis of society and that the individual person is the proper building block from which to begin creating any model of human organization. But this position assumes that individuals came first and community later. It’s a flawed concept, one that is derived, apparently, from primitive Judeo-Christian writings. More than just errant, it’s a dangerous idea, because it works to oppose community and to retard social progress.

The truth is that human social organization is a natural occurrence, an intrinsic quality. It is not something that ever was imposed on us from outside. To take the individual human as a starting point for building a world-view or a political ideology is a mistake. Any healthy society starts with community. Families, small groups, and neighborhoods: these are the real building blocks. Our focus should be on how these communities can work together most successfully.

Democratic Phlebotomy

There's a great article by Art Caplan over at, originally on MSNBC about the current shortage of blood in US bloodbanks.

I'm one of those people who feels obligated (and more than happy) to donate blood every eight weeks. There's simply no good reason not to do it. It saves lives, you aren't losing anything (hey, you get some cookies out of the deal), and it only takes about thirty minutes of your time. I've been in 4 times this month and unable to donate because my iron level has been too low (barely - 12.3 when it needs to be a minimum of 12.5). But I keep going back, and I keep trying. The bloodbank called me 5 times last week (honestly - they called 3 times in one day). They're fairly desperate for blood donations right now. I'll go back in this week and try again. I've even started taking pre-natal vitamins purely for the higher iron content so I can donate blood. But I'm only one person, and nothing I can do will ever be enough. It will always be something, but never enough.

In this article, Art Caplan makes the argument that the restrictions on blood donation are too strict. Specifically, he argues that it's time to start letting gay men donate blood.

I could not agree more. It hadn't even dawned on me how offensive and outdated that restriction was until I mentioned to my best friend that I was going to donate one day, and he replied, "They don't want my blood, so screw them." And then I thought about it. There is nothing, in this decade, that puts gay men at higher risk than most others. I could sleep with half of Oregon and still donate, but a gay man in a monogamous relationship is still considered high risk.

Art Caplan says:

The policy of forever excluding people who had male-to-male sex at some point during the past 30 years should have been changed a long time ago. The accuracy of the latest technology for screening blood means that there is no reason to exclude anyone as a donor in any risk group for more than a month. The question now is whether the FDA and Congress will act or simply let old prejudices, biases and fears stand in the way of supplying the nation with more badly needed blood.

The AIDS epidemic has been with us for 25 years. The policy currently governing blood donation in the United States has been with us for 22 years. Given our ability to guarantee an exceedingly safe blood supply, it is time to revisit the policy and accept blood from all Americans willing to donate. Fear and prejudice should not be allowed to kill people.

He couldn't be more right. It's a terrible policy, and the worst part of it is that I cannot imagine a great way to enact a change in the policy. I would go so far as to say that the tattoo and piercing policies are just as ridiculous. A person knows if they've been tattooed or pierced at a sterile facility. I don't imagine the type who are getting tattooed in a back alley are also lining up to donate blood. (Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but there has to be a better test or restriction than a blanket 1 year suspension on donation). I plan on getting one of the tattoos I got done in my younger days altered very soon, and my bloodbank will lose a year's worth of blood because they won't accept that those needles come right out of a clean package - never having touched another individual. I suspect when blood levels get truly low enough for serious concern, someone will take notice of the outdated policy. But it isn't as though I can stop donating out of protest (specifically for the policy on gay men) - that seems like it would do even more harm than good. But, perhaps, if each of us that donate mention to the employees at the bloodbank that this policy needs changing, perhaps, just maybe, enough voices saying the same thing will become loud enough to reach the right ears.

Originally posted to hyper-textual ontology June 18, 2006

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Let’s Demand Cheap Desalination

Sarah Karaybill over at the Gristmill has posted a link to a Technology Review article by Aditi Risbud about the recent development of carbon nanotube-based membranes with an extraordinary range of exciting applications.

According to the Technology Review piece:
The new membranes, developed by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), could reduce the cost of desalination by 75 percent, compared to reverse osmosis methods used today[.] The membranes, which sort molecules by size and with electrostatic forces, could also separate various gases, perhaps leading to economical ways to capture carbon dioxide emitted from power plants, to prevent it from entering the atmosphere....

[LLNL chemical engineer Jason] Holt estimates that these membranes could be brought to market within the next five to ten years... Eventually, the membranes could be adapted for a variety of applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to the food industry, where they could be used to separate sugars, for example, says co-author Olgica Bakajin, a physicist at LLNL. "Practically, the next step is figuring out how to take a general concept and modify it to a specific application," Bakajin says.

The application that has Karaybill particularly excited is water desalination. And no wonder! As she points out: “The technology could potentially provide a solution to water shortages both in the United States, where populations are expected to soar in areas with few freshwater sources, and worldwide, where a lack of clean water is a major cause of disease.”

Preventable deaths from treatable water-borne diseases, as well as from the drinking of contaminated water supplies are an ongoing global catastrophe. Meanwhile, appalling aquifer depletion, desertification, the proliferation of slums without remotely adequate infrasctructure or social support, and the ongoing relentless mismanagement of our precious water commons via privatization all actually define contemporary corporate-military models of urban development in the present day. For some more details, check out two fine books with the same title (but different subtitles), Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst by Diane Raines Ward and Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit by Vandana Shiva, and also Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers.

These are issues that all progressives need to make a priority here and now. And this is especially true for technoprogressives who are post-naturalist environmentalists and who advocate dense smart green urbanization as a key struggle for both global social justice and sustainability, and who are looking for ways to repudiate suburban sprawl that don’t involve romantic pastoral fantasies of some kind of relinquishment of technoscientific civilization (the consequences of which would likely be genocidal whether deep ecologists and luddite greens are willing to deal seriously with this entailment or not).

Now, I can’t help it, I just think it’s cool for one thing that Karaybill, like a growing number of contemporary green-minded folks these days, thinks things like nanotubes are cool. It wasn’t too long ago when I felt I had to keep a pretty strict demarcation between friends I could talk about my sustainability preoccupations with, as opposed to friends I could talk about my emerging technologies preoccupations with for fear of getting dismissed as naïve or worse from either side, even if, for me, it seemed like there was a deep and profound confluence between these preoccupations. So, I thought this post was really heartening.

But I do want to conclude this post by turning in perhaps a slightly more contrarian way (or maybe not so much, actually) to her own conclusion for a moment. Speaking of the new membranes and all the sunny projections made for them in the Technology Review article Karaybill writes: “Cleans up water, works against climate change. An amazing technology indeed. And will it come into widespread use anytime soon? My Magic 8 Ball (which always tilts toward skepticism) is skeptical.”

Of course, I understand exactly where she is coming from here. Every green-minded person knows all too well the way in which logically possible but somehow it seems never, ever concretely available technofixes have been proposed again and again as “rebuttals” to reasonable assessments of technodevelopmental risks and costs driven by profit-driven nationist-driven corporate-military models of global technoscientific research, development, and diffusion. Also, everybody knows that you need to take technoscience press releases with a grain of salt, whether they are published in the hopes of whomping up investment dollars in private industry or grant money in academia. So, sure, I’m skeptical, about these marvelous membranes, too. You'd have to be an utterly hype-notized technophiliac not to be critical of claims like these.

But skepticism cannot be the end-point for technoprogressives. It has to be the point of departure.

So, I say, let’s demand funding for more research and development along these lines. I say, let’s demand desalination.

Readers of Amor Mundi already know I’m a big fan of the Apollo Alliance, a technoprogressive campaign to develop renewable energy alternatives to oil and gas as quickly as possible, providing new jobs, cheap clean energy, and an incomparably more stable geopolitical scene.

It seems to me that technoprogressives should organize a comparably ambitious project to employ nanotechnologies for desalination for the billions who are migrating to seaside mega-cities and for the on-site purification of water for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Like the Apollo Alliance this would be a direct progressive political movement to take up technoscientific research and development and turn it to the solution of urgent human problems rather than to short term profit-making for established elites. And like the Apollo Alliance it would be a profound assault on the disastrous anti-democratic model of enterprise that drove primitive extractive industrialization throughout the bloodsoaked twentieth century.

If the Apollo Alliance and comparable campaigns represent democracy’s fledgling leave-taking from the feudal petrochemical aristocracy, desalination would represent the equally necessary repudiation of the privatizing water wars through which that very aristocracy is already hoping to maintain its power and privileges past Peak Oil.

Originally posted to Amor Mundi on June 17, 2006.

Ballot Initiatives for the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

It is widely known that movement conservatives have long used targeted ballot initiatives to divide and demoralize American majorities with wedge issues while energizing their most extreme base voters in election after election to the cost of us all. Anti-gay hate initiatives represent only the most recent examples of such tactics. According to the Center for American Progress, progressives are finally discovering their own version of the politics of the ballot initiative.

Of course, it has long been understood that conservative politics in general benefit from depressed voter turnout, while progressive politics depend on wider participation. And so, progressive ballot initiatives will tend to be about uniting and energizing voters rather than debasing public discourse and hence discouraging all but rightwing zealots from participation in the very democratic processes they despise, will tend to be about protecting and celebrating the diversity of our citizens rather than whomping up fear and hatred against difference, will tend to focus on hope rather than resentment and terror.

The Center for American Progress notes four key ballot initiatives that are likely to benefit democrats and progressives in upcoming elections:

MINIMUM WAGE INCREASES... 83 percent of Americans favor increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour (where it's been stuck since 1997) to $7.15 an hour. Forty-nine percent of Americans say they "strongly support" such an increase; the issue "receives widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats, wealthy and poor." The right wing knows this, and in states like Arkansas and Michigan, it has been able to avoid ballot showdowns by passing increases through the standard legislative process. But in states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Ohio, voters will have the opportunity to join 18 states (along with the District of Columbia) who have raised their minimum wage above the federal level[.]

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY DEVELOPMENT: In November, Californians will... vote for the Clean Alternative Energy Initiative, a ballot measure that would "impose a wellhead tax on oil companies operating in California and divert the money" to finance programs to reduce California's oil dependence by 25 percent over 10 years... Californian will have the opportunity to become the first state to commit to beating the oil addiction. The initiative will be fighting against the deep pockets of the highly profitable Big Oil companies. Three oil companies in particular have "led the way" in funding opposition to the initiative... Chevron... Occidental Petroleum, and Aera Energy LLP, "a partnership jointly owned by oil giants Exxon Mobil and Shell"... Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been trying to "tout his environmental credentials"... has opposed the measure[.]

STEM CELL RESEARCH: In Missouri, a ballot initiative will allow voters to decide whether to allow stem cell research and stem cell therapies permitted by federal law. The initiative would also create oversight mechanisms to ensure the research proceeds ethically and outlaws human cloning. If stem cell research yields effective treatments, millions of Missourians would stand to benefit from stem cell therapies, including those with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), and diabetes. According to a recent survey conducted by a conservative pollster, 56 percent of Missourians approve of stem cell research, while only 24 percent disapprove, and 71 percent approve of therapeutic cloning...

OVERTURNING ABORTION BANS: Voters in South Dakota will be given the opportunity to overturn the "strictest abortion ban in the nation." In March, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed legislation to ban the procedure, even in cases of rape or incest. The law, which was slated to take effect on July 1, targets doctors in South Dakota by making it a felony for them to perform any abortion, except to save the life of a pregnant woman. South Dakota Campaign for healthy families filed a petition on May 30 to put the decision to the voters with more than 37,000 signatures when they only needed 16,728. Once the signatures are validates, the abortion ban will be suspended pending the outcome of the November election. After the law was signed, a survey by state polling firm Robinson & Muenster reported 57 percent were opposed to the law, while 35 percent supported it.

I think it bears mentioning that not only will all four of these ballot initiatives produce progressive outcomes, mobilize progressive voters, all the while uniting citizens of all parties to progressive endeavors, but three out of four of these mainstream progressive measures are also technoprogressive: Two of them champion regulated scientific research and development in the service of shared human goals and a third would secure access to the consensual use of available technologies to end unwanted pregnancies, to maintain health as citizens themselves see fit, and hence to shape their own bodily fortunes.

This is still more evidence of the conspicuous confluence of people powered democratic politics in America and the emerging technoprogressive mainstream.

Originally published in Amor Mundi on June 15, 2006.

People Powered Politics and the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

Over the last thirty years an alliance of established religious and socially conservative powers as well as moneyed elites in the United States confronted the likely proximate eclipse of their power in the face of a few inter-related developments: the postwar rise of largely middle-class popular democracy, technoscientific destabilization on many fronts (waves of media reinvention from print to broadcast to p2p, the pill and assistive reproductive technolgies [ARTs], global transportation networks, generations of both proscribed and mandated neuroceuticals, WMDS, and so on), and broad secularization with its attendant compensatory fundamentalisms. The elite leaders of the movement conservatives built an institutional universe of alternative "ideas"/PR, "thinktanks," media and communications infrastructure, fundraising tools, and a strategy of selective targeted manipulation of certain institutional weaknesses in the constituted form of American democracy (like the electoral college, an exclusive two-party system, a vulnerability to expansive executive wartime powers, money-as-speech, the fall of the Fairness Doctrine, etc.) to maintain and consolidate their powers, privileges, and prejudices in the face of these vast ongoing contrary social, cultural, and technoscientific tides.

We are living, of course, in the moment of the great contradiction and culmination of this movement, the moment when this machinery achieves its greatest hegemony as well as its abject failure (since the machine reflects only the desire to hold power, not to legitimately govern or otherwise respond to the world, this failure at the moment of its greatest success is scarcely suprising).

The lesson of the "successes" of this conservative movement for the likes of technoprogressive folks like us are the same as the lessons of the progressive era, the early years of the labor movement, and of many comparable movements as well: Organization, education, and direct action can shape institutions and popular opinion in relatively democratic societies in time to address perceived needs with a scope and in timescales that may seem impossible to the players themselves in the midst of history's storm-churn itself.

One reason I think Americans can change quickly and radically enough to redirect worrisome technoscientific developments (insanely destructive devices, panoptic surveillance, industry-induced climate change and species extinctions, intrusive homogenizing "therapeutic" medical regimes, and so on) to democratic and emancipatory ends instead is because I believe many of the problems that demand the strongest redress to accomplish this emancipatory rearticulation of technoscientific development are at root problems of basic accountability and transparency for public authorities (government, corporate, academic), problems of corruption, problems of media consolidation, problems of the corporate-military co-optation of civic life, problems of threatened democratic and deliberative processes, problems of defending and funding universal entitlements, problems of securing universal education to satisfy the demands of democracy for a literate, numerate, critical, and civic-minded citizenry, problems of deeply conservative intellectual property regimes, and so on.

What technophiles sometimes seem to mistake as the problem of a certain basic cultural hostility or skepticism to "technology" in general is, I think, actually often more accurately described as a sensible skepticism and resistence to technodevelopment as it is currently defined by selective deregulation in the interests of corporate-military elites and selective regulation to reflect the prejudices of religious and socially conservative minorities.

The politics are prior to the technological toypile on offer. I am personally almost endlessly frustrated by what appears to be an abiding indifference and naivete about political matters evidence by many "technophiles." This is an indifference that at its most extreme effloresces as the actively anti-political hostility at the core of technocratic attitudes and, especially, in the libertarian viewpoints espoused by so many technophiles who do take politics seriously enough to think about them in any kind of sustained way. But apart from the fact that this is an insight that inspires frustrations in me (and of course I write in ways that reflect this frustration here at Amor Mundi all the time), it is also true that the priority of the politics over the toypile to the actual shape of techscientific development in history is cause for real hope (and I think it is fair to complain that I don't write often enough here at Amor Mundi in ways that reflect this hope).

The rise of people-powered politics associated with the internet, the blogosphere, emerging peer-to-peer models of organization, criticism, content provision, security in depth, small donor aggregation, all of this is creating a vast, passionate, incomparably transformative democratic movement in response to the catastrophic conservative movement I have been talking about here so far.

Much of what technoprogressives demand from technodevelopment will be accomplished through the achievement of democratic reform: election reforms, energy reforms, healthcare reforms, welfare reforms, green reforms, anti-corporatist reforms, anti-corruption reform, civil liberties reforms, progressive tax reforms, intellectual property reforms, media reforms, education reforms and the like. And what matters about this is that energetic movements to demand and direct these reforms are already underway. They constitute what is unquestionably the most exciting political movement abroad in the land today.

As I have often pointed out before, I am not surprised in the least to discover that this people-powered reality-based movement of anti-corporatism and democratization understands its debt to technological developments like digital networked media and also embraces technoprogressive positions on peer-to-peer, renewable energy technology r & d, copyfight and creative commons, consensus science oversight and education, assistive reproductive technologies, stem-cell research, and medical research more generally. The new democratic majority is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is one of the reasons why I consider it absurd in the extreme to accept neologistic labels with weird histories and confusing entailments like "dynamist," "upwinger," "transhumanist," and the like to describe my work and my hopes. I have strong reasons to believe that the people who want to use technology to deepen democracy and democracy to ensure technology benefits us all are shaping up to be the people we call, in America, well, simply Democrats.

Finally, it bears mentioning that the chief historical consequence of movement conservatism is likely in the end to be that in their efforts to preserve elite privileges and prejudices at any cost the movement conservatives will have managed to devastate much of the American material, civic, and financial infrastructure domestically and military resources abroad. American exceptionalism and popular complacency has been rendered workable largely by the bubble of ignorance and apparent invulnerability to consequence long secured by its hideous military might and the corporatist culture of dumb distraction.

But costs are real, consequences are real, the world is real, and the bubbles are bursting. Americans will embrace the changes they must in part because greedy, short-sighted, panic-stricken conservatives have debauched the means Americans too long had on hand to evade their real responsibilities to the world.

The problems of technoscientific development are conspicuously global problems: WMD and arms trading, emerging pandemics, climate change, biodiversity issues, human rights abuses, neglected diseases, viciously unfair trade and labor practices, human trafficking, carrying capacity and longevity dividends and such. It is, in my view, frankly all to the good that the monopolar superpower that is a chief obstacle to the emergence of the protocols and intitutions of global democratic governance necessary to cope with these global problems step aside before it is too late, however gracefully or disgracefully it manages to do so.

Originally posted to Amor Mundi on June 9, 2006.

Technoprogressive Mainstream

Hale Stewart blogs at BOPnews and as bonddad at DailyKos, both regular reads of mine and hundreds of thousands of other participants in the vital left blogosphere.

Here is the conclusion of a fairly typical post of his comparing the assumptions that distinguish Clinton's economic policy from Bush's and the lessons we can draw from the results:
The answer to the current situation of weak jobs and wage growth and runaway spending is straightforward.

1.) Balance the budget. This will require repealing some of the rich's tax breaks. My heart bleeds.

2.) Target economic areas that will create jobs. I would personally target alternative energy, nano technology and stem cell research, although there are many others.

3.) Give the middle class -- and only the middle class -- a tax break.

All we have to do is follow the directions.

I'm certainly no rampaging Clinton fan (though it's hard not to be fond of him, despite all the neolib DLC-enabling awfulness, just for provoking such reliably and deliciously symptomatic freakouts among religious and market fundamentalists), and needless to say these recommendations are far from adequate to a social democrat like me who demands as well universal single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income guarantee.

But what I want to draw your attention to is Recommendation Number Two. Take a good, long look... Alternative energy, nanotechnology r & d, and stem cell research.

The days when progressive democrats had to put up with kooky libertopian robot cultists if they wanted to have any kind of serious conversation about nanotechnology, digital networks, modification medicine, or other possibly proximate disruptive technological developments are finally over, people.

If you want to follow "Net Neutrality" (terrible term), the attacks on consensus science and scientific literacy, emerging renewable energy technologies, existential risk management you need to be paying attention to Daily Kos (everybody should read DarkSyde, among other consistently good diarists there), the Center for American Progress, the Apollo Alliance, AlterNet.

The next American mainstream democratic left is shaping up before our very eyes, and it is a left arising out the Netroots rather than inside the Beltway, a left that does its democracy peer-to-peer rather than in corporate boardrooms. And it has a considerable head of technoprogressive steam.

I keep telling you wonderful, beautiful technoprogressive types out there, it's long past time to toss aside that Stockholm Syndrome you shouldered through the long dread night of the irrationally exuberant extropian digirati.

There is simply no reason in the world for technoprogressives to continue to play nicey-nice to murderous sociopathic free-marketeers any more. There is no reason to read their Tech Central Stoopid or their Postrelian paeans to "dynamism." There is no reason to quietly cringe and politely flutter at their genuflections toward the racist Bell Curve. There is no reason to pretend you think there is anything to admire in the facile philosophizing of romance pulp-novelist Ayn Rand. There is no reason to give a single inch to the climate-change deniers, "Intelligent-Design" scam artists, desperate clingers-on to the myth of "safe cigarettes" and other profitable and hence "benign" toxicities. There is no reason to pretend you haven't noticed how often the guys who crow and stamp about "political correctness" are just assholes wanting to be assholes. There is no reason to treat libertarians as anti-war peers when libertopian ideology fueled so much of the rhetoric that exacerbated the worst devastations of that ongoing catastrophe. There is no reason to expect anybody who says government is evil in its essence to have any abiding contribution to make to the work of making government better.

You should be happy about this.

Originally posted to Amor Mundi on May 25, 2006.

Technoprogressive ARTs

"ART" is an acronym that stands for assisted reproductive technology, a designation that refers to various artificial methods that are sometimes used to achieve wanted pregnancies. ARTs can include medications that induce ovulation, intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, eventually, very probably, reproductive cloning, among a proliferating number of other techniques.

In more everyday parlance I have sometimes heard that "A" in ARTs fleshed out into the phrase artificial or alternative reproductive technologies instead, and I do think it is interesting to contemplate the force of such terminological substitutions on the ARTificial imaginary.

I personally prefer to think of ARTs as alternate reproductive technologies, because the term alternative better bespeaks for me the connection of ARTs to the progressive politics of choice as well as to what seems to me most radical and appealling in the politics of choice: its palpable emancipatory queerness.

I have written elsewhere about how the politics of choice should be construed in a broad way that encompasses more than the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies taking place in their own bodies, but to facilitate wanted pregnancies, to make informed medical decisions more generally -- from consensual drug use to end-of-life issues -- to embrace the diversity of loving "families we choose," and onward toward a technoprogressive politics of morphological freedom.

Bioconservative efforts to convince the general public to repudiate or lawmakers to ban ARTs have so far altogether failed to gain traction in the American political imagination.

I would argue in fact that these bioconservative efforts have represented a spectacular failure. As far as I can tell, they have had as their most conspicuous effect their contribution to a compensatory contemporary reconnection of the politics of the mainstream American left to a vigorous renewed championing of technological development regulated in the service of the common good.

As a technoprogressive this development is welcome to me indeed after many long decades of frustration with a left largely paralyzed in technophobic despair over the dehumanizing and environmentally catastrophic prevailing corporate-militarist models of development together with a cynically apolitical pastoral luddite romanticism in an anti-science left-wing New Age.

Today, instead, I see promising connections emerging in the widespread mainstream support across the left for stem-cell research, medical research more generally, support for the development of renewable energy (as with the technoprogressive Apollo Alliance), a reconnection to the venerable left ideal of a "reality-based" rather than "faith-based" address of shared problems, a renewed respect and hunger for higher education, and a defense of the fragile protocols on which consensus science depends for its good works (the excellent technoprogressive Chris Mooney has come to represent for the moment the most visible iceberg tip of this dimension of a more technoprogressive mainstream left political culture).

Bioconservative panic over ARTs and shrill bioconservative paeans to the special "dignity" and "meaning" to be found in avoidable illness and suffering seem surreally out of step with a society devoted to the collaborative redress of human suffering and the personal pursuit of human happiness in its incomparable diversity of forms.

Bioconservative and more conventional social conservative resistance to ARTs are conspicuously driven by the fear that these ARTs will be more than assistive and open up instead disruptive, emancipatory possibilities for alternative forms of social and personal reproduction that threaten the assumptions and customs with which these conservatives parochially identify and on which they imagine they depend to maintain their hold on power. Nowhere is this more clear than in the recent effort of some Republican lawmakers who have drafted new legislation that would make marriage a requirement for any kind of motherhood in the state of Indiana. This legislation included specific criminal penalties for unmarried women who do become pregnant by means other than "sexual intercourse."

Part of what is most interesting about this mean, obscene, and breathtakingly repressive conservative effort is that it functions not only to criminalize the prostheticization of reproduction for single mothers, lesbians, and other "inappropriate mothers" and "inappropriable others," but it simultaneously functions to re-naturalize and re-normalize the prostheticization of reproduction whenever reprotechs allign within certain valorized normative heterosexual frames. What is assisted in "assisted" as opposed to "alternative" reproductive technologies is precisely always only normal and naturalized heterosexual reproduction yoked inextricably to the delusively "normative" nuclear family.

Notice that "sexual intercourse" in the proposed Indiana legislation is actually rearticulated through prostheticization but still framed by normative assumptions. If ARTs are deployed always only to facilitate legible heterosexual reproduction and the social reproduction of the nuclear familial norm, then it is a buttress to "natural" reproduction even when this "natural" reproduction is in fact radically and ineradicably prosthetic.

This underlines what seems to me the crucial but usually overlooked insight that "technology" is never essentially and rarely even interestingly a matter of whichever toys happen to preoccupy the attention of technophiles and technophobes from moment to moment. It is significantly, rather, a matter of the technocentric discourses and practices through which various subjects, objects, and abjects are rendered more or less "familiar" or "unfamiliar," more or less "natural" or "contestable" through the lens of technologization. The more superficial question of whichever real or anticipated tools enrapture the attention of the technophiles and technophobes in their glossy mags and airbrushed tv-spots and breathless conference talks will typically be little more than symptoms of the working of these deeper discursive machineries.

Originally posted to Amor Mundi, October 5, 2005.