Sunday, July 30, 2006

The "Natural" versus "Enhancement"

There's an old debate in futurist communities about what our bodies will look like in the future. Will we have free license to alter them at will? Are there going to be people with tails, people with scales, people with metal appendages walking around the streets in the future?

Certain bioconservatives have claimed that "Regarding the use of performance-enhancing techniques, especially in competitive activities, concerns can be raised about unfair advantage and inauthentic performance." In fact, there was an entire report of the US President's Council on Bioethics called Beyond Therapy:Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, from which this quote is taken.

The President's Council goes on:

Superior performance is pursued in a myriad of human activities. The athlete strives to run faster, the student to know more, the soldier to shoot more accurately, the vocalist to sing more musically, the chess-player to play with greater mastery. Our motives for seeking superior performance are varied and complex, as human desire and human aspiration always are. We seek to win in competition, to advance in rank and status, to increase our earnings, to please others and ourselves, to gain honor and fame, or simply to flourish and fulfill ourselves by being excellent in doing what we love. In pursuing superior performance, human beings have long sought advantages obtainable from better tools and equipment, better training and practice, and better nutrition and exercise. Today, and increasingly tomorrow, we may also find help in new technological capacities for directly improving our bodies and minds—both their native powers and their activities—capacities provided by drugs, genetic modifications, and surgical procedures (including the implantation of mechanical devices). What should we think about obtaining superior performance through the use of such biotechnologies?

Given their conservative bent, you can likely guess their answer. The report continues:

And, attending to the special issues raised by the use of bio-engineered enhancements, we would need to address these central questions: As we discover new and better ways to “improve” our given bodies, minds, and performance, are we changing or compromising the dignity of human activity? Are we becoming too reliant on “expert chemists” for our achievements? Do such potential enhancements alter the identity of the doer? Whose performance is it, and is it really better? Is the enhanced person still fully me, and are my achievements still fully mine? Have I been enhanced in ways that are in fact genuinely better and humanly better? And, beyond these questions regarding individuals, we would need to consider the implications for society should such uses of biotechnology become widespread—in school, at work, or in athletics, warfare, or other competitive activities.

First, note the use of the word "given" in relation to bodies. To have our bodies be "given" requires a giver, making our bodies a "gift" (wording used repeatedly throughout this report). There is, clearly, a religious understanding of givenness here, though implicit, that cannot be denied. The implication is that we are what God has made us, and to attempt to alter that is to somehow "compromise the dignity of human activity". While the President's Council seems to know what this dignity of human activity is (presumably something both natural and related to our own human nature) I certainly do not.

The Council goes on:

In athletics, as in so many other areas of human life, practice and training are the most important means for improving performance, and superior performance is most generally attained through better training: the direct improvement of the specific powers and abilities of the human agent at-work-in-the-world, by means of his self-conscious or self-directed effort, exercise, and activity. To train is to be at work: striving, seeking, pushing, laboring, and developing. It requires self-knowledge or external guidance about the ends worth seeking, and it requires the desire and discipline to pursue those ends through one’s own effort. And, most importantly for our purposes, training means acquiring by practice and effort improvements in the very powers and abilities that training uses. One gets to run faster by running; one builds up endurance by enduring; one increases one’s strength by using it on ever-increasing burdens. The capacity to be improved is improved by using it; the deed to be perfected is perfected by doing it.

This insight has some important implications. First, it calls our attention to the very real differences in our natural endowments. If improving through training proceeds as described, certain native abilities are often a prerequisite. In many cases, no amount of training can overcome the unchangeable shortcomings of natural gifts. Second, and more important for present purposes, the source of our different endowments may be mysterious, but our active cultivation of those endowments, whether great or small, is intelligible: we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result.

This leads to an important difference between improvements made through training and improvements gained through bioengineering. When and if we use our mastery of biology and biotechnology to alter our native endowments—whether to make the best even better or the below- average more equal—we paradoxically make improvements to our performance less intelligible, in the sense of being less connected to our own self-conscious activity and exertion. The improvements we might once have made through training alone, we now make only with the assistance of artfully inserted IGF-1 genes or anabolic steroids. Though we might be using rational and scientific means to remedy the mysterious inequality or unchosen limits of our native gifts, we would in fact make the individual’s agency less humanly or experientially intelligible to himself.

So while they do, in fact, note that there are "very real differences in our natural endowments," their argument against enhancement (a word I'm loathe to use, but will do so for the sake of coherence with their own wording) is that it makes the "individual's agency less humanly... intelligible to himself." Again, I have no idea what it means for my agency to be intelligible to myself, or how biotechnological enhancement somehow compromises this more than training or natural luck would.

I bring this up first because I was subjected to hours upon hours of watching this year's Tour de France (I can respect that my friends cycle, but I cannot understand why anyone would actually watch cycling!) As many of you may already know, this year's winner has been accused of using performance enhancers. (And please excuse me if the link changes at some point - CNN has a nasty habit of inserting completely new stories into previous URLs). Although it's too early to say whether this is just another case of people refusing to accept an American winning the Tour (Lance Armstrong was accused of doping by the same lab that has reported a positive test for this year's winner, Floyd Landis, and eventually cleared of all charges), what interests me about this entire thing is Landis' defense. The positive test showed high levels of testosterone in Landis' blood, and Landis insists that it is a natural occurence - his body simply produces more testosterone than other people. He claims:

This is not a doping case, but a natural occurrence," the 30-year-old American cyclist told reporters at the news conference. "I declare convincingly and categorically that my winning the Tour de France has been exclusively due to many years of training and my complete devotion to cycling."

I'm beyond intrigued here. So he has amazingly high levels of testosterone naturally in his blood (testosterone which allegedly aids in speedy muscle recovery, making his impossible comeback in stage 17 and his ability to ride at all the next day possible). Yet, in spite of this "natural endowment," he attributes his win to training and the love of the sport, not the fact that other people lack his amazing recovery ability.

This became even more questionable when it was reported that an Olympic medal-winning runner also tested positive for high levels of testosterone recently. I'm much less familiar with this case, but I actually watched Floyd Landis make a miracle comeback in the Tour and joked at the time that "he must've gone home and doped after he dropped back so far in the race," a claim I could make jokingly and without guilt after so many racers were thrown out just days before the start of the race for doping.

So what does it mean for the debate on biotechnological enhancement if, as these men claim, they have naturally high levels of testosterone and have not cheated at all? I can certainly believe it - but it should bring into sharp highlight the fact that all this talk of natural human dignity and hard work is not necessarily the relevant factor in what builds a champion. We like to tell an inspiring story about our lives, and especially in America we hold athletes up as the protagonists of these stories. Yet all the narrative eloquence in the world cannot rewrite the fact that these individuals are quite possibly born with an advantage that can only be rivaled by biotechnological means in other individuals.

The question that is always asked is then, how can we reward them for their accomplishments if all we've done is given them EPO or pumped them full of steroids? But my question is, and always has been, how can we reward any athlete that happens to be born with all of the advantages for athleticism? All the hard work in the world is not going to win me the Tour de France, ever (not that women can even compete...) So, is the question of reward even relevant in the debate about human enhancement? As the President's Council put it, "concerns can be raised about unfair advantage and inauthentic performance" - but I would say these concerns are raised before biotechnology ever enters into the picture.

Cross-posted to Hyper-textual Ontology

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Review: A Short History of the Future

A Short History of the Future, by W. Warren Wagar

In his fictional account of the next 200 years, historian W. Warren Wagar outlines a plausible technoprogressive future. Perhaps more overtly leftist than many mainstream progressives would prefer, his future nonetheless encapsulates the criticisms of capitalist globalization they share.

Briefly, Wagar postulates the continued dominance of multinational corporations, culminating in the formation of a "super-WTO" called the Global Trade Consortium wielding enough economic influence to coerce even superpowers such as the Soviet Union (the book was initially written in 1989) to acquiesce to its wishes. Eventually, the GTC's capitalist boom results in a capitalist bust during the 2030s, followed by international rivalry and posturing, and ultimately the Catastrophe of 2044, global nuclear war. In the aftermath of World War III, as the global South takes on the role of the core and the North the periphery, a new order emerges, a democratic socialist regime called the Commonwealth. With time, technology allows the dissolution in 2159 of even this egalitarian government, and the House of Earth is the result -- utopian anarchy in which communities organize as they wish, independent and dependent upon each other only to the extent that they desire.

The book really presents one dystopia (the current system) and two utopias, and while chronologically the anarchist vision follows the democratic socialist, the socialist utopia is not portrayed as inferior or the anarchist as preferable. The interesting thing about both of these utopias is that they represent two great technoprogressive strands that are in some way opposed, but in others can work in parallel: large-scale public works and technoliberating decentralization.

The socialist Commonwealth is capable of achieving projects that would be generally impossible without some sort of centralization. They create a Planetary Restoration Authority to oversee the reversal of the significant damage caused by global warming, among other things reclaiming a flooded Florida and Bangladesh. They bring incomes to within a 2:1 ratio of rich to poor, and mandate gender and racial equity worldwide. A space solar power system is put into place, generating free energy for the world. Finally, they launch a Genetic Initiative for "enhancement" biotechnology; after a brief period of random lottery, the treatments are made available to all prospective parents.

The anarchist utopia founded by the Small party movement, in contrast, maximizes liberty for individuals and groups, but requires a much greater technological base. House-sized antimatter generators allow communities energy independence; the SPS system is discontinued as centralized and vulnerable. Advanced bio- and nanotechnology gives communities and households the ability to be entirely self-sufficient if they wish. Cultures can be as open or closed as desired; while this has the downside of allowing repressive societies to exist, there are no shortage of novel experiments in democracy and polyarchy and anarchy. Finally, since voluntary collaboration is certainly still possible, confederations manage to launch interstellar missions and terraform Mars.

Whether or not one agrees with the specific choices Wagar makes in his exploration of a possible future, the sheer depth of that exploration makes A Short History of the Future a valuable source of inspiration -- outrage at our present condition, amazement at the possibilities -- for any progressive.

A discussion of the more political aspects of Wagar's book can be found in the Journal of World-Systems Research, here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"[Bush] Thinks Murder Is Wrong." (But Has a Funny Way of Showing It)

[via the Center for American Progress] Today, a reporter asked Press Secretary Tony Snow why Bush opposed the bill [to expand funding for stem-cell research -- a Bill that passed 63-37 (not enough to override the Veto that America's Worst President in History promises will be, surreally, the very first of his catastophic and criminal Administration)]. Snow responded, “The simple answer is he thinks murder is wrong.”

As ThinkProgress points out: "An embryo is not a baby or even a fetus; it’s a cluster of about 150 cells, also known as a blastocyst, which forms a few days after the joining of a sperm and egg, and is no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Stem cells are derived from the center of this cluster, and are like biological blank slates. They have the potential to become any of the 200 kinds of cells that make up the human body. [And i]n any event, the embryos at issue are currently being discarded."

It's always interesting (in an utterly desolating kinda sorta way) to see what a "murder is wrong" commitment looks like when it froths from the mouth of a pro-war, pro-gun, pro-capital punishment, pro-mercury in drinking water, pro-staffing FEMA with incompetents, pro-depleted Uranium weapons proliferatin', pro-climate change denyin' neocon/theocon brainless bloodthirsty bullying bigot like George W. Bush.

Crossposted from Amor Mundi

Sunday, July 16, 2006

When Meat Culture Meets Cultured-Meat

An article that appeared last week in AlterNet, written by Traci Hukill, sounded a strong warning about the prospect of laboratory-produced “cultured meat” substitutes to animal corpses as food, and the piece has attracted widespread attention. As a longtime ethical vegetarian who has written on this topic before, Hukill’s piece certainly attracted my own attention.

The title of Hukill’s piece takes the form a question: “Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?” Although one quickly gets the impression that this question is a rhetorical one for Hukill, and that the article pretty much assumes that the prospect of “Lab-Grown” meat will inspire almost universal revulsion in its largely progressive AlterNet readership, what we discover from a survey of the reader-comments inspired by the piece that actually appear alongside it is that few people share Hukill’s bioconservative assumptions at all. I’ll discuss some of these comments, and their implications for my emerging technoprogressive mainstream thesis, in a moment. But first, I want to take a closer look at Hukill’s piece itself.

“As I type these words,” the article begins, “men and women of science are growing meat in a laboratory.” Although this opening snapshot is probably intended to highlight from the get-go the urgency of what Hukill takes to be an emerging atrocity, it crucially highlights the fact that this is not a fantastic or science-fictional but a proximate real-world development. Hukill goes on to point out that this “growing meat” is not “hatched or born. It doesn't graze, walk or breathe. But it is alive. It sits growing in a room where somebody has called it into existence with a pipette and syringe.” Presumably, this conjuration of alienness inspires shudders of repugnance in Hukill. But for me it raises questions and inspires hopes.

While I feel the force of Hukill’s “But it is alive” here quite as surely as I am meant to do, the fact is that there is a difference between what I mean when I say that a cow is alive and when I say that broccoli is alive, and this is a difference that makes a difference to me as an ethical vegetarian making choices about my own eating practices. Everything Hukill is saying here, apart from using the term “meat” in the first place to describe this food product, locates “grown-meat” closer to the ethical location where I place broccoli now than the one where I place cows. And nothing about a “pipette and syringe” changes that assignment, since I know well enough that all agriculture, including the long history of cultivation practices that have brought us what we now regard as “broccoli,” is technoscientific through and through. Indeed, even in my most stridently vegan organic revolutionary moods (yes, I have them occasionally) I turn to technoscientifically literate intervention to provide the superorganic foodstuffs for an agricultural practice that could feed actual real-world populations in a healthy and sustainable way (rather than the romanticized post-genocidal die-off fantasies of diminished population that “naturalists” would need to impose their nostalgic feudalist fantasies of technophobic sustainability).

"Cultured meat," writes Hukill, “is supposed to save us from the execrable pollution and guilt of factory farms while still allowing all 6.5 billion of us to stuff our gullets with ham sandwiches whenever we want to.” I share Hukill’s view that factory farms are an environmental, health, and moral atrocity. And I also strongly share Hukill’s skepticism about techno-hype in general, and especially the endlessly reiterated promises of painless techno-fixes as disastrously doomed to failure without education, organization, regulation to drive technodevelopment in the right directions.

But it seems to me that the conclusion one should draw from these shared views is that we should educate and organize to ensure the regulation of lab-grown cultured meat-making will in fact ameliorate the environmental, health, and moral atrocity of factory farming. For Hukill it seems that the better course is for vegetarians to make fun of meat eaters for liking to eat sandwiches with meat in them. I will admit that I cannot see any reason to agree with Hukill that this is a strategy likely to achieve the outcomes we both would claim to desire.

As of now, cultured meat involves “[t]ak[ing] some stem cells, or myoblasts, which are the precursors to muscle cells. [One s]et[s] them on [a] ‘scaffolding’ that they can attach to, like a flat sheet of plastic that the cells can later be slid off of[, and then p]ut[s] them in a ‘growth medium’ -- some kind of fluid supplying the nutrients that blood would ordinarily provide. [Then one] ‘Exercise[s]’ them regularly by administering electric currents or stretching the sheets of cells mechanically.” And then? “Wait. Harvest. Eat.”

Of this process, Hukill then says: “The concept is as simple as it is horrifying.” I have to admit, this is an utterly confounding moment in the article for me. Why exactly is the process described here “horrifying”? Is Hukill comparably horrified by the process through which one makes seitan, blue cheese, or beer? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, is Hukill not incomparably more horrified by the “process” through which animal bodies are turned into sausages and steaks?

Cultured meat-making “seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future,” writes Hukill, “the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism.” The proposal that cultured meat-making nudges us onto a slippery slope that will lead us ineluctably to the enslavement and slaughter of living human beings is apparently commonplace, despite its conspicuous curiosity. Consider that the cultured meat-making process doesn’t require the death or enslavement even of the nonhuman animals for whose flesh the cultured-meat would provide an alternative for corpse-eaters. Through what argumentative contortions, exactly, would one find oneself turning from the delighted contemplation of one’s cultured-meat sandwich to entertaining as a good idea that one might scoop up some fellow human beings to put them on a bun? Just how is that argument supposed to happen, again?

“[R]evulsion seems to be a common… response to the idea of meat grown in a petri dish,” writes Hukill. But is that really so? Certainly few of the people actually interviewed for the article seem to share Hukill’s knee jerk shudders of Kassoid repugnance to the very idea of cultured meat-making. And, as we shall see, neither do those who responded to the article seem to share it.

For me, as for many others, a more congenial point of view is offered up by Jason Matheny, “a doctoral student in agricultural policy at the University of Maryland who sits on the board of New Harvest, a research organization for in vitro meat.” He says of cultured meat-making, quite simply, that "[i]t's cleaner, healthier, less polluting and more humane[.]"

There’s more. “Meat grown in the sterile environment of a laboratory wouldn't harbor zoonotic diseases like avian flu or contribute to antibiotic resistance… As for human health, artery-clogging beef fat could be swapped out in vitro for salmon fat, for example, with its salubrious omega-3 fatty acids. And the squalid misery of factory farms could be bypassed altogether. No river would be fouled with manure and no chicken's beak would be clipped in the making of dinner.”

Writes “Bruce Friedrich, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” cultured meat is "the best thing since sliced bread." As Hukill pithily summarizes Friedrich’s position, for somebody “who energetically denounces the eating of ‘animal corpses’ every chance he gets... "anything that takes the cruelty out of meat-eating is good."

This certainly sounds pretty good to me (with caveats). Again, I would insist that some of the rosy scenarios being painted here are more speculative than others. And no doubt it is only within the context of proper regulation, testing, safeguards -- not to mention trade policies to ensure that economic dislocations arising out of these developments are more properly addressed than is usually the case -- that we can speak of this (or any other) technoscientific outcome as a progressive one.

Hukill is right, then, to follow the hopeful technoscientific best-case scenario with the more cautionary note that “[t]here are a couple of serious problems with cultured meat[.]” Astonishingly, though, for me is that these “problems” for Hukill return us to the supposed “fact that people seem to find the idea repellent.”

But surely it is clear by now that only some people react this way. Can Hukill offer readers a reason to identify with the prejudices of the hostile over those of the hopeful here? Observe the very instructive exchange that immediately follows in the article: “Presented with the argument that cultured meat just ain't natural, Matheny gamely counters that wine and cheese are engineered products, too. ‘And I would say cultured meat is not inherently more unnatural than producing chicken meat from tens of thousands of animals raised intensively in their own feces and fed antibiotics,’ he says.”

Even Hukill concedes that this “is a very good point.” Hukill counters that as a vegetarian Metheny “probably” (I suspect this means that Hukill didn’t actually ask) won’t eat cultured meat, just as PETA’s vegetarian Friedrich doesn’t plan to do so. Neither do I plan to eat cultured meat, as it happens, since I have lost the taste for it in over a decade and a half of vegetarianism (I might very well indulge in cultured bacon or pepperoni, though, since these occasionally still exercise an allure for me even after all these years), but this distaste doesn’t come close to the kind of ethical aversion that might make me itch to get prohibitive laws passed.

For this ethical vegetarian, any unpleasantness that freights cultured meat, is no more ethically significant than the unpleasantness of tempeh of gorgonzola – neither of which I approve of but both of which I strongly champion as ethical alternatives to animal corpses treated as food.

But for Hukill, cultured meat-making is just “a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish.” Especially traumatizing, apparently is “the ‘exercising’ of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks.” Perhaps it would be kinder to leave these matters to Hukill’s therapist.

Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special "wisdom of repugnance" (whether Hukill's aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leonard Kass's aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville's aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist's aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one's fellow citizens to education, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

“Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture” introduces some reasonable skepticism, finally, and registers the hope -– which I say must be a demand rather than a “hope” –- that “there will be plenty of testing.” He goes on, "I'm not saying some of these new ideas can't be done and they won't work at some level, but every time we mess around with our ecological heritage there are always unintended side effects that come from it... We have a long history of unintended consequences.”

I could not agree with him more.

And it seems to me that reasonable concerns and reasonable regulatory environments are far more likely to arise in the context of a discussion defined neither by those given to uncritical starry-eyed techno-hype or those given in to the full-froth of technophobic panic.

Hukill proposes as an alternative to cultured meat the inculcation of greater awareness and self-discipline. It is easy to dismiss this as a more sanctimonious than serious recommendation if what is wanted is to truly ameliorate the institutionally entrenched and culturally ubiquitous slaughter and exploitation of human and nonhuman animals facilitated by the contemporary meat industry (I talk about some of the theory and politics of this ongoing catastrophe elsewhere), but the truth is that I agree with Hukill that we should work to increase awareness and organize movements with these desirable outcomes in mind. Again, though, I agree with Matheny, who Hukill quotes as “think[ing that] cultured meat can be ‘a stopgap measure’ aiding that process [of mainstreaming vegetarian practice, like] methadone for meat eaters to ease the transition out of the era of 72-ounce steaks and into the days of dollops of hummus.”

Hukill snarks in response: “Maybe he's right. Maybe in vitro meat can serve that purpose. Or maybe it will work in a different way -- by so thoroughly grossing people out that they'll gladly reduce their meat consumption just so they lessen the risk of accidentally eating a meatri burger.” Since I doubt that few people share (or will long continue to share even if they think they do so now) Hukill’s spastic “gross-out” at the very thought of cultured meat, I think Metheny is more likely to be right on his own terms. If corpse-eaters discover that their taste for flesh can be satisfied without demanding the suffering and slaughter of the sentient nonhuman humans with whom we share the planet, I suspect this realization will go a long way indeed in hastening the day when murderous meat is history and obscene factory farms are universally condemned.

Now, I must admit that I was intrigued and mostly quite pleased to discover that the comments generated in response to Hukill’s article accorded much more than I expected them to do with my own. The article has generated nearly two hundred responses so far, and so, I thought I would briefly survey just the first ten, whether I agreed with them or not, as a roughly representative sample and see whether any interesting trends suggested themselves.

Under the heading “Good idea,” the first response to the piece, by one “nbrown,” enthused: “I like it! This comes with less baggage than the existing system. If you don't believe me, go work in a slaughterhouse for a minute.”

Next up, “prod” suggests “We already have lab grown kids. Why not meat? I bet it will never be as good as the veal my girlfriend makes though. It is the best!” Since it isn’t actually true that we “already have lab grown kids,” unless “prod” refers to IVF and other assistive reproductive technologies, it is difficult to see why the ontological status of human beings would actually find its way into the discussion so quickly. But, as we shall see, the issue of “human status” is one that recurs again and again here. For me, it would be more to the point to say, “We already eat hybrid and otherwise cultivated foodstuffs. Why not meat?” The conclusion about veal -- which requires what is already widely viewed as brutal treatment of animals -- suggests to me that “prod” is being ironic here.

“JamesRollins” tells us that, “[w]hen I was eleven years old I read a book by the name of ‘Revolt in 2100’ by Robert Heinlein. In the second story of that book (named Coventry) the main protagonist talks about this same thing. And in the future, people (most of them anyway) eat lab-grown meat. As I grew up, I became a struggling vegetarian, mainly out of moral issues, and I used to think back to this book and truly wish that it was a reality. How I could truly enjoy a guilt free hamburger, only if an animal didn't die to make such a burger. I say amen! Finally, and when it becomes less costly, my family and I will fully enjoy lab-grown meat.”

Notice a pattern emerging here yet?

“BlueStateBitch” offers the slogan: “No kill; therefore no ‘yuck’” And then she elaborates: “It will be wonderful to eat "meat" without an animal having to die a painful death. Protein is protein. As long as it's healthy and tastes good, who cares if it's been grown in a lab?”

“davidhobby” wonders in his subject line whether or not Hukill has offered us a “Biased article?” He has a point. His comment: “This wasn't reportage, so much as a long screed about how awful , yucky, revolting, vile, ... lab grown meat was. That's news to me, though. I'm surprised that it seems most people have this attitude. To me, meat is meat. But then I've been a vegetarian for many years. Since I do it partially for ethical reasons, I guess that I'd eat cultured meat. It seems every culture gladly eats the ‘familiar’ meats, which may be bugs, blood or whatever, but that unfamiliar meats are considered gross. It's interesting that people don't have a big problem with unfamiliar vegetables...

There is more, but the comments are quickly becoming to elaborate to discuss in all their implications. I’m excerpted from the next, even longer, post as well. (For the full discussion, absolutely one should follow the link to the article itself and read the many interesting comments there.)

“Maybe it's just me,” writes “Lizmv,” “[b]ut human insanity seems to be a growing threat. People are getting weirder every day. Yeah, growing a little bit of ‘meat' in a laboratory may be nice and clean, but what will it look like when it is produced in huge factories? Most likely as dirty and detrimental as factory farming is now. Why is it we keep looking for expensive solutions to problems caused by the insanity of economic growth that will only continue the insanity? The real solution is already known: Learn to live sustainably. This is just another scheme by the mega-corportations to further control our food supply.”

While I think some of this skepticism is quite useful, it seems curious that “Lizmv” would rather consign this emerging development to the dustbin of history in advance dismissing it as a corporate conspiracy destined to maintain the status quo or make things worse. But why not treat this potentially destabilizing and potentially promising (not perfect, not utopian, not inevitable, just promising) development as an occasion for technoprogressives commited to democracy, sustainability, and social justice to opportunistically seize the historical forces that confront us and work to turn them to more democratizing and emancipatory ends?

There is nothing in such a vision that stands in the way of “Lizmv’s” recommendation that we “[l]earn to live sustainably.” How can she be so sure that organizing to regulate, fund, and distribute the costs and benefits of cultured meat is not one of the key demands “learn[ing] to live sustainably” makes of us in our own historical moment?

Next up, “gilliani” shares a few more interesting and reasonable concerns. The article “makes me nervous. There is a great deal we don't know about long term consequences of engineered food, veggies included. I feel it's safest to eat locally produced, organic food as much as possible.” I agree with this myself.

“gilliani” continues, “I am a vegetarian, but I also worry about the fate of all the animals we have now on farms if everyone gave up meat. We (the big we, that is) have created this method of raising animals. Those animals have lots of babies, and they're good at it. If everyone stopped eating meat, what would happen to all those animals? Will the farmers continue to feed and care for them until they die natural, peaceful deaths of old age? Maybe, but I doubt it.” It seems to me that even cultured meat will not end the meat industry overnight. I think that there would be global shifts in demand that would discourage the frantic facilitation of breeding for foodstock. A little family planning would go a long way to diminishing subsequent generations of “supply” as “demand” likewise diminished. The specter of sudden slaughter seems to me to misconstrue just how relentlessly the meat industry must actively facilitate the ongoing generation of the nonhuman animals it goes on to slaughter as food.

”gilliani” concludes: “My point is that it would take a huge cultural shift on many levels to get the carnivorous guts of North Americans off meat, and I'd rather see us make that cultural shift gradually while considering the condition of existing livestock.” I suspect myself that even with the most optimistic arrival of cultured meat-making that catastrophic violence of the meat industry will vanish from the scene of civilization far more slowly rather than too suddenly for our taste as ethical vegetarians!

“rsaxto” posts the perplexing comment that “[m]aybe we will end up eating ourselves (steaks grown from our own cells). Would it taste good or not -- only cannibals know for sure.” Again, I can see no logical or practical connection between these issues. I suspect this sort of argument arises so regularly either because it is a cynical effort of a negligible minority to make a congenial practice seem more revolting than it otherwise does to majorities, or it symptomizes the deeper irrational fears that nudge people into that negligible minority in the first place.

“I would love it,” “Samantha Vimes” posts next in conspicuous contrast. “I'm a vegetarian,” she writes, “and there's no fake salami that tastes like the real thing. These cultured meats would be meat, but they would not be part of an animal. I'd eat it. I don't even understand the ick factor. Laboratory meat doesn't have feces ground up in it, and never got a parasite infection. It seems far less icky than carcasses.”

And then, in conclusion, “deo508” ominously demands “When will we get our gr[e]en crackers?” in his subject line. “See the movie S[O]YLENT GREEN. Oh no! there feeding us people! What hell, WalMart sells baby oil made from virgin (first press) Chinese babies why not eat labratory meat?” Quite apart from the claims about WalMart (where I refuse to shop even though I am a bit skeptical about the baby oil accusation made here), it really does matter enormously to me that cultured meat-making demands the sacrifice of not one animal, as opposed to the scenario in Soylent Green in which bulldozers cheerfully scoop up crowds of living humans from urban streets, murder them, and then feed them to the remaining population. Failing to grasp this as a difference that makes a difference is, to say the least, puzzling.

Now, I think it is quite clear where I stand on the specific questions raised by Hukill’s argument, but what I find especially heartening is that the mainstream progressive audience of AlterNet seems to be responding much the same way. The conspicuous irrationality and hysteria of the exemplars of the bioconservative left in evidence among the respondents is heartening in its way, too, in its extremity and marginality.

I have been repeatedly making an argument here lately that there is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the American and in the global left. The emerging technoprogressive mainstream is a technoscientifically literate left that is coming to understand the affinities between the use and defense of digital networks and peer-to-peer democracy, the defense of consensus science, the need for well-regulated and radically increased medical research and development, and the demand for an immediate shift from primitive extractive petrochemical and military industries to renewable technologies.

This is a new left, a genuinely emancipatory left. This is a left that has no patience with the technophobic luddism of Deep Ecology, but neither has it any truck with the complacent corporate-militarism of the DLC. The technoprogressive left is not seduced by the nostalgia of anti-democratic elites that gets peddled in the name of “nature,” “natural markets,” or “nature’s God.”

And in consequence, I think it is less and less relevant all the time for technoprogressives to decry as their chief antagonists “left luddites,” when clearly it is “bioconservatives” of the religious and social right and “corporate futurists” of the neoliberal, neoconservative, and market fundamentalist right who are our more conspicuous antagonists. Although there are vestigial pockets of technophobia and naturalist nostalgia on the left, it seems to me that there is little remaining energy to be discerned there, and that technoprogressives would do better to educate and outreach to the reasonable among those folks and otherwise let them drift out of the picture.

Crossposted from Amor Mundi

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Language and Communication

Oriental languages are doomed.

This is one conclusion I’ve come to after reading The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, and The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

As the world gets smaller — with shorter, faster connections between people and places — and flatter — with horizontal relationships between people and organizations replacing vertical models — the need for effective communication becomes increasingly important.

Effective communication must be both simple and complex. The ability to express complex ideas, to use nuance and subtle shadings that are well understood, is of great value. Many languages can do this (although English may be the most adept, due to its liberal borrowing of words and phrases from other languages).

But the other key factor is simplicity of representation. This is where English writing excels, and where the Oriental languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) show their fatal flaw.

Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters, of which about 4,000 are in common use…[i]

[W]hereas Western letters can be represented on computer screens by as few as 35 dots of light, Japanese characters can require up to 576 dots to be clearly distinguishable.[ii]

It was digits — zeroes and ones — that drove the Information Revolution. When a system developed to express and process highly complex algorithms in a profoundly simple way, basically a long string of yes/no choices, the world changed.

Similarly, Western writing — especially English — allows for relatively simple representation of complex expressions.

English has additional advantages, such as its simplicity of inflected forms — “in Latin, the verb has up to 120 inflections; in English, it never has more than five and often gets by with just three”[iii] — near total absence of gender cases, and elimination of diacritical marks (umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, and so on) that complicate other languages.

American English has become the dominant language in the online world, and not only because American culture is so pervasive. It’s a two-way street. American culture can be pervasive because the language it uses is so good at effective communication; it possesses the killer combination of complex expression and simple representation.

Shrinking and flattening will continue. Effective communication between diverse groups will matter more and more. And ideas — scientific, technical, commercial, political, and cultural ideas — will shape the future.

Today, perhaps 3,000 languages are in significant use (by 10,000 or more speakers), although this number is rapidly declining. It’s estimated that as few as 10% of these will remain by the end of this century. Looking further ahead, it’s not hard to imagine only a handful of languages persisting.

Given the factors I’ve listed above, it’s probably a safe bet to say that some version of English will become humanity’s common language, and that the ancient and beautiful Oriental scripts will become antiquated.

[i] Bryson, Bill (1990) The Mother Tongue, p. 108

[ii] Ibid, p. 111

[iii] Ibid, p. 125

Monday, July 10, 2006

Feminist response to "artificial" reproduction

On Alternet, June 6, Annalle Newitz posted an article, "Artificial Wombs and Pregnant Men".

The reason I want to bring the article up on this site is the tone of the responses to the article.

After all the reading I've been doing on various TP/TL sites, I found her position reasonable and intriguing. I agree with her view that feminists must engage in the discussion and decision making around reproductive technologies and I believe we need to view those possibilities with open minds. If we don't explore new concepts intellectually and think through the complexities without preconceived barriers, decisions will be reached without the voices of feminists being heard.

I am distressed by the reactionary responses to Annalee's article and realize my own focus, trying to grapple with new concepts and ethical conundrums, caused me to forget how entrenched most people are within the "natural" belief system. How do we reach intelligent, thoughtful women and get them to set aside their initial aversion long enough to realize they must become constructively engaged in the discussion?

If one were to take the least invasive of Annalee's manipulate hormone levels to enable men to lactate.....subtle shifts in parenting and gender roles would be possible without having to wait for tremendous advances in technology. I'm really fascinated by the possibilities that one small change might precipitate in society.

Linda Wallace

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Deliberative Development and Bifocal Perspectives

A demand for more deliberative development is exactly as central to my own version of technoprogressive politics as is the demand for sustainable development.

That phrase, "deliberative development," may conjure up the facile and fussy image of "progress" by plan or by committee meeting, a vision of a domesticated development smoothed, controlled, and constrained by experts. But the fact is that technodevelopmental social struggle releases inherently unpredictable forces into the world. It is ineradicably dynamic, interminably contentious, ideally open... So just what do I mean by deliberative development after all?

For one thing, deliberative development would indeed involve highly transparent, generously funded processes of consensus science coupled with a scientifically literate professional policy apparatus to assess risks, costs, and benefits and advise our elected representatives as they struggle to do their job to regulate, study, and fund research and development to promote general welfare. In practice, this would inevitably amount to proliferating committee meetings and inspection tours and licensing standards and granting bodies and blue-ribbon panels and published conference proceedings and impact studies and public hearings and all the rest. I happen to like nice social workers and dedicated public servants and credentialized do-gooders as a type, and I pine for a civilization in which their indispensable work is generally more appreciated than demeaned, and so this is not a vision that inspires in me the dread and disgust that will have overcome many a (self-described) "rugged" "no-nonsense" critic at this point in my account.

But I do want to insist that, even for me, the real force of any such ramifying procedural elaboration must be the deeper democratization rather than any quixotic domestication of technodevelopmental social struggle. The object will be to anticipate and document technodevelopmental outcomes in their variety on the multiple, contending stakeholders to that development, and hence to give those stakeholders a voice in articulating the form developments take from moment to moment, to better ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscience are as fairly shared as may be by all of those stakeholders on their own terms.

Given the devastating debasement of consensus science and the corrupt substitution of lobbying for deliberation under the present Bush Administration, I hope that my focus on deliberative development as a commitment to transparent processes and sound standards makes a certain kind of sense. But it is crucial to point out that the ideal of deliberative development is also a commitment to enrich and democratize the terrain of policy analysis as much as possible across its many social, institutional, and cultural layers. It is in highlighting this second dimension that I hope it becomes clearer that deliberative development is not a matter of constraining but democratically expressing technodevelopmental social struggle, not a matter of domesticating but democratizing the forces of collaborative and individual creativity.

The ongoing, experimental implementation of this dimension of deliberative development might well involve the use of digital networked media to engage citizens more directly in the assessment of alternate science and technology initiatives, perhaps to use social software to re-invigorate the concept of citizen juries on developmental questions, to create extensive occasions for citizens to testify to their own sense of technodevelopmental costs, risks, benfits, and problems, and, perhaps most promising of all, to implement peer-to-peer models of research over customary corporate-militarist models wherever possible.

Such a commitment also demands, in my view,
[1] the promotion of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills for all citizens through a stakeholder grant in lifelong education and training,
[2] universal access to networked information and communication technologies,
[3] a liberalization of "fair use" entitlements and other measures to protect and widen access to the common archive of human knowledge, as well as
[4] ensuring the availability of clear and dependable sources of information from consensus science and the most representative possible diversity of stakeholder positions on policy questions at issue.
This commitment to dependable information might also very well require more stringent regulation of advertising claims to limit fraud as well as explicit legal standards to define just what can go by the name of "news." Eventually, the commitment might also provide a rationale for the public subsidization of some consensual genetic, prosthetic, neuroceutical modifications of memory, concentration, or temper.

In general, I think that what are sometimes broadly conceived as "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches to good governance are in fact both indispensable to the facilitation of progressive and technoprogressive developmental outcomes. I have noticed that this kind of bifocal perspective on developmental politics comes up again and again in my own technoprogressive formulations. And so, for example, I advocate democratic world federalism and peer-to-peer collaborative democratization at once and as part of a single technoprogressive vision of global governance. I realize that each lens of such a bifocal approach has its own palpable dangers and terrors to display. Some progressives are wary of threats to social justice and democracy from especially one direction, others from another.

But I think we should be careful not to fetishize only one mode of governance as the more properly or more essentially democratic one over the other. A fetishization of "top-down" implementations of progressive visions facilitated their perversion in state-capitalist models all through the twentieth century, for example, while the current overcompensatory fetishization of "bottom-up" implementations renders the contemporary left imaginary -- and especially any technology-focused left in an era like our own, when corporate profit-making almost exhaustively defines the global technodevelopmental terrain -- deeply vulnerable in my view to appropriation by libertarian ideology and its always ultimately conservative, facile self-congratulatory fables of "spontaneous order."

And so, yes, I really do think that deference to the advice of credentialed experts is indispensable to good governance and certainly to technoprogressive governance. The problem these days isn't the administrative recourse to scientific and professional expertise; it is the substitution of public relations and partisan calculus for the recommendations of consensus scientists and other professionals.

Certainly, I keenly grasp the vulnerability to anti-democratic elitism in any "rule of experts." But many things count as democratic within their proper bounds that are vulnerable nonetheless to misuses that render them anti-democratic at their extremes (what passes for "free markets" provides an obvious example). I was recently reminded that Bakunin made a useful distinction between being an authority and being in authority that seems relevant here.

I think it is important for progressive and technoprogressive people to embrace a wide-ranging experimentalism and pluralism when it comes to the practical implementation of the rather broad value of democracy. So long as experts are beholden to elected representatives and elected representatives held accountable for their conduct (including the uses to which they put expert advice) I don't think we should think of their role as anti-democratic, nor should we necessarily be too quick to write them off as just regrettable but instrumentally necessary for the proper function of governance. I worry about the politics that gets stealthed under cover of presumably pre-political "instrumental calculation" in political discourse. I say, rather, that there are more-democratic and less-democratic implementations of a representative policy apparatus beholden to the verdicts of consensus science and that democratic technoprogressives want more democratic rather than less democratic implementations is all. I was going to say, "it isn't rocket science," but then at least sometimes, of course, it will be.

Crossposted from Amor Mundi.