Saturday, February 10, 2007

Two Faces of Techno-Progress

Technoprogressive analyses and campaigns take on wide-ranging (and not necessarily comfortably compatible) forms, but they all assume two definitive ideas about progress. First, they characterize progress as an historical process, a process of ongoing heterogeneous technodevelopmental social struggles, rather than as some autonomous expression of an evolutionary or innovative "impulse," or as a linear or socially indifferent accumulation of useful techniques. Second, they insist that progressive technodevelopmental outcomes must always satisfy two emancipatory dimensions at once, a technoscientific dimension and a sociopolitical one.

By the technoscientific dimension of progress I mean to describe the ongoing increase of warranted descriptions of the world that emerge out of the protocols and institutions of consensus-science, and the consequent increase of the capacities of human beings to manipulate the environment and anticipate experience in the service of shared ends. By the sociopolitical dimension of progress I mean to describe the ongoing democratization of societies, in which ever more persons and peers have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them and are ever more empowered to articulate the terms which define their morphologies and lifeways, through self-creative practices of informed, nonduressed consent.

Granting the interdependence of these two dimensions of progress and granting their equal indispensability as registers of progress for technoprogressives, there still remain questions of whether either dimension has a priority over the other for technoprogressives, in any sense, under particular circumstances.

I will propose that this question of technoprogressive priority has a somewhat paradoxical conclusion (and that its paradoxical quality helps explain some vulnerabilities that technoprogressives have to contend with in their thinking, in their organizing, and in their rhetoric):

On the one hand, there should always be for technoprogressives what I will call a structural priority of the sociopolitical dimension of progress over its technoscientific dimension but, on the other hand, there will often be what I will call a conspicuous strategic priority of the technoscientific dimension of progress over its sociopolitical dimension.

When I say that there is a structural priority of the sociopolitical dimension over the technoscientific dimension in technoprogressive accounts of proper progress a large part of that claim derives from the belief that technoscientific outcomes depend on sociopolitical outcomes in a significant sense. That is a claim, in turn, with multiple dimensions:

It reminds us, for one thing, that the protocols and institutions of consensus scientific practice (and, hence, technoscientific progress) always deeply benefit from, and usually even depend on, the nourishment provided by the context of stable, prosperous, informed, critical-minded, accountable social orders (and, hence, sociopolitical progress).

More urgently, perhaps, the claim also highlights some idiosyncrasies of the global technodevelopmental terrain with which we are contending in this specific historical moment. That is to say, technoprogressives will usually insist that it pays to remember to what extent technodevelopmental forces are at present overabundantly articulated by the urgencies of multinational corporate competitiveness and international military competitiveness.

This has the consequence that what often passes for "neutral" or "apolitical" technodevelopmental policy discourse will simply take these conditions of corporate-militarism as a point of departure and, hence, will functionally and stealthily endorse what are in fact the highly problematic politics of their maintenance and, even, their consolidation.

Developmental policy discourse in its "neutral," "technical," "problem-solving" guises drifts almost irresistibly into the mode of apologia for the status quo: Whether by uncritically foregrounding the value of "innovation," pretending that this term names a commitment to creativity or free expression when it regularly functions more concretely to underwrite commitments to specific contingent intellectual property regimes that preferentially benefit incumbents; -- Or by incessantly emphasizing questions of risk, security, and threat rather than of possibility, democracy, and freedom, pretending that this is the mark of seriousness and professionalism when it regularly functions more concretely to shore up authoritarian and militarist organizational responses to radical change and social instability rather than popular and indigenous responses.

All of this is, needless to say, profoundly political even when (or most when) these discourses disavow their politics, and so it is important to recognize how often sociopolitical critiques of particular technodevelopmental outcomes that are accused of pointlessly or perniciously politicizing technoscience are often instead responding to a pernicious politics already well in play.

If I may be forgiven a lapse into even more abstruse considerations, I will add that the claim about the technoprogressive priority of the sociopolitical over the technoscientific also indicates the interdependence of normativity with factuality, inasmuch as even objective claims have as their tests their facilitation of prediction and control of shared ends.

This matters, because the palpable and widespread discomfort and even hostility of so many people (and not only incumbent interests) to the confusing contingencies and demands of normative interpersonal affairs very often inspires widely compelling but ultimately reactionary projects to circumvent the political by making recourse to a "scientificity" construed as apolitical.

I don't deny that there is a key difference between scientific beliefs whose protocols of warrant solicit consensus, and political beliefs whose protocols of warrant register an ineradicable dissensus of legitimate ends (and because I grasp and grant this point, I fear those who would want to dismiss me as a "fashionably nonsensical" "postmodern relativist" or whatever will rightly have a hard time of it, indeed), but I do deny that this is a difference that can successfully bear the weight of foundationalist dreams of circumventing the painful exactions of normative life under actually-existing conditions of personal plurality.

Now, let me shift things a bit. Even if I strongly prioritize the sociopolitical over the technnoscientific with an eye to all of these structural considerations, despite all of the foregoing, I still agree that there are usually very good read practical reasons nonetheless to distinguish concrete political efforts to achieve technoprogressive ends like securing more public funding to facilitate medical research, biotechnology(/nanotechnology), renewable energy technologies, techniques of sustainable polyculture, a2k and p2p for networks and immersive media, proliferating cognitive and morphological prostheses, space elevators, and so on (the sorts of things one might well want to place under the heading of technoscientific progress), as opposed to political efforts -- most of them deeply appealing to technoprogressives, even foundational for them -- to implement the provisions in the United Nations "Universal Declaration of Rights," to support international and multilateral efforts to police global crime, terrorism, and human trafficking, to insist on the diplomatic circumvention of warfare, the end of war profiteering, the radical diminishment of arms, to implement universal basic health care, treat neglected diseases around the world, to provide a global basic income guarantee, to achieve universal literacy and numeracy education, and encourage the emergence of democratic world federalism from the current international (dis)order (the sorts of things one might well want to place under the heading of sociopolitical progress).

I happen to think that there are plenty of already-existing ands well-established organizations doing good work toward sociopolitical progress in the latter characterization and that to the extent that such progress is one's more proximate concern it is probably a good idea to help them out (you know, give to Oxfam, join the ACLU, read up on BIG [basic income guarantees] online, or some such thing).

However, this does not mean in the least that I think technoprogressives should focus instead "solely" on concrete technoscientific campaigns, for the three reasons I discussed at length a moment ago. I personally think that the primary contribution of technoprogressive efforts at education, agitation, and organizing should be to foreground the actual promises and dangers inhering in concrete ongoing and upcoming technoscientific change, but always particularly for and against the accomplishment of the ends characterized as sociopolitical progress. That is to say, I advocate the apparently paradoxical position that technoprogressives are usually most useful whenever we foreground our distinctive insights about the concrete threats and tactical opportunities inhering in radical technoscientific developments, but never in a way that denigrates, seeks to circumvent, or forgets the actual priority of sociopolitical progress: democracy, equity, peace, and consent.

Again, the key thing for me is understanding that the structural priority of sociopolitical to technoscientific progress for technoprogressives (in all their diversity) is still a different question from understanding that the site for the most conspicuous analytic and organization contributions from technoprogressives is likely to focus more often on concrete technoscientific change than on general sociopolitical questions. All this in turn simply implies that technoprogressives should take care always to keep track of sociopolitical questions of democracy, justice, peace, and rights -- even when these issues are sources of difficult and painful contention within organizations and campaigns, even when the specific and urgent contributions of organizations and campaigns are apparently less contentious questions of concrete technoscientific outcomes -- simply because without a firm grasp of and attention to the sociopolitical dimensions of progress the forms technoprogressive advocacy will take will too likely come to undermine the sociopolitical underpinning of technoscientific progress, whether we like it or not, whether we mean for it to happen or not.

I will mention, by way of conclusion, that the present discussion is a crucially different one from my very regular jeremiads against the confusion of properly outcomes-oriented technoprogressive politics from the subcultural politics of self-celebration and membership-outreach -- a confusion that I believe overwhelms, to their cost, some of the more technophilic folks with whom I often find myself in very useful and provocative conversation. I do think that the concerns I am talking about here today do sometimes contribute to the confusions I talk about in my critiques of technocentric subcultural politics qua practical politics. I do think that technocentric subcultural identities often arise very particularly as a response to the deranging depth of contemporary technodevelopmental change, and that responses of generalized affirmation of or hostility to such change are the engines of affinity from which various "futurist" and "luddite" interpretive communities are substantiated and invigorated.

Too often members within such technocentric subcultures substitute for what I have been calling the structurally prior sociopolitical dimension of progress what is in fact the generalized and often uncritical technocentric attitude that fuels their particular practice of identification and disidentification (the curious conjuration of "pro" verses "anti" technology "forces" in some impossible ideal generality). Meanwhile, what I have been calling the strategically prior technoscientific dimension of progress tends to become a fetishized spectacle of technological detailing functioning primarily to interminably re-confirm the plausibility of the ever deferred futures that ideally exemplify either the daydream or nightmare of "technology" that binds technocentric communities together and enables them to provide the uniquely subcultural satisfactions of mutual recognition, support, belonging, meaning-making, and so on.

Obviously, my point is not to denigrate such subcultural satisfactions. I rely on my own moral memberships quite as much as anybody else, and even if I do not personally garner my subcultural satisfactions from technocentric identification I certainly don't believe my own idiosyncratic sources for visibility and support are qualitatively different or superior to that of the common or garden variety technocentric. My point is, of course, to insist that the pleasures of identification and disidentification are crucially separable from the exigencies of practical stakeholder politics and to warn about the confusions that arise when the one becomes a stealthy surrogate discourse for the other. The complexities with which I have been grappling in this post today make it easy to understand the allure of such discursive surrogacies, but provide no reason at all that I can see to succumb to them and every reason for technoprogressives to keep their priorities and their premises as clear as may be.

Re-posted, and slightly edited, via Amor Mundi.

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