Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Precarity and Experimental Subjection

[Crossposted from Amor Mundi]:

Precarity is a word that is coming to be used by more and more people to designate what they take to be key continuities in the conditions, experiences, and implications of a growing majority of the human population to the characteristic mode of exploitation in the contemporary world.

More specifically, precarity in these discourses indicates an ongoing casualization of the terms of employment under which ever more people labor to survive in today's world, usually conjoined to an ongoing informalization of the terms under which ever more people struggle to secure the basic conditions of housing, healthcare, access to knowledge, and legitimate legal recourse under which they live.

Whether it denotes the dismantlement of established entitlements in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies arising out of the market fundamentalist gospel of an endlessly elaborated and augmented "personal responsibility," or denotes the erection of barriers to the achievement of entitlements for people in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world" through the terms of globalization euphemized as "free trade," precarization describes a social and cultural inculcation of human insecurity as well as the consequent opportunistic mobilization of that insecurity to maintain and consolidate the complicity, obedience, or at any rate the acquiescence, of the overabundant majority of people on earth to the terms of their own exploitation and to the disproportionate benefit of incumbent elites.

"Casualization" is a term that describes the emerging preponderance of people who labor in temporary, part-time, intermittent, "flexible" forms of employment, typically with diminished entitlements, security, occasions for advancement or provision for the future, or institutional recourse in matters of grievance. Usually this tendency is described as a shift away from the expectations of especially the citizens in relatively democratic North Atlantic societies that desirable employment will be permanent or at any rate stable, full-time, skilled, characterized by relatively secure benefits, pensions, underwritten in some cases by professional traditions like tenure but more broadly by the provision of more or less extensive welfare entitlements.

"Informalization" is a term that is often used interchangeably with casualization to describe the same trends in prevailing conditions of employment, but also describes the contemporary proliferation of insecure, "unconventional" (though ever more conventional) "off the books" social transactions more broadly: bribery, black-markets, influence peddling, kickbacks, barter, payment in kind, blackmail, unpaid labor, squatting, peer-to-peer production, and so on.

Jacob Hacker's recent book The Great Risk Shift captures this dimension of the casualization thesis very well. In the book, Hacker tells the story of the consolidation of the American middle class in the aftermath of the New Deal. During this era, a majority of Americans grew both steadily richer and steadily more secure (especially if they were white), as a consequence of health and retirement benefits they received from employers, and welfare entitlements they received from new public programs like Social Security and Medicare, which provided benefits when employers would or could not. But Hacker points out that this framework has been dismantled over the course of the last generation, exposing the majority of Americans to the unprecedented risks of a turbulent market economy. "Increasingly," Hacker suggests, in a fairly typical expression of a precarity thesis, "Americans find themselves on a financial tightrope, without a safety net if they slip." Hacker's narrative of the intensifying precarization of the American lower and middle-classes emphasizes rising bankruptcy rates, falling rates of the insured, growing job insecurity as automation and outsourcing render workers less valuable or altogether dispensable, and a growing volatility of individual fortunes, as family incomes fluctuate in ways that are comparable to the swings of stock values in volatile global markets, but in ways that uniquely threaten the capacity of individuals to survive from day to day or make reasonable plans for the future.

Most accounts of precarity, however, take pains to emphasize the special vulnerability of women, youths, immigrants (legal and especially illegal), and refugees (both political and especially, one expects all too soon, environmental) to the casualization of employment and informalization of general welfare they mean to describe as the current catastrophic precarization of life. Nevertheless, precarity characterizes the social conditions under which an ever growing majority of humanity lives, even comparatively privileged people who confront diminished expectations and increased existential volatility. Indeed, part of the special force of the various accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their facility at connecting up these disparate experiences of increasing insecurity and hence their capacity to provide new grounds for global solidarity and efficacious political organizing. Meanwhile, at one and the same time, part of the special vulnerability of many accounts of the Precarity Thesis will be their inadequate sensitivity to the differences between, say, the anxieties of a well-educated white middle-class temp-worker in a North Atlantic suburban enclave, on the one hand, and the imperiled existence of an illiterate undocumented itinerate laborer squatting in a toxic floodplain in some urban mega-slum in the Southeast Asia, on the other.

According to the International Labor Organization, fully half the workers in the world -- approximately one and a half billion people -- live in families that survive on less than US$2 a day per person. Half a billion working poor live on US$1 or less per day. The overabundant majority of these people work in the sprawling informal workforce, without welfare benefits, secure housing, basic healthcare, or reliable recourse to the law, farming, fishing and otherwise scrambling for subsistence in poor villages and alleys or rooftop garden plots. Outright unemployment rates continue to rise globally, while approximately half of the total of unemployed or underemployed people in the world are young adults, aged 15 to 24.

In his chilling and urgent recent book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis writes of the plight of this planetary precariat, of the billions of people living under the precarious conditions of "informal" employment, housing, legality, living out a threatened and precarious personhood. Opening with the description of the historical watershed moment when the urban population outnumbers the rural (an event that has very likely already taken place), he goes on to delineate the monstrous new urbanity of the megacities in which this population dwells: in squalid desperately violent slums without services or reliable infrastructure. It is a new planetary polis that better bespeaks the morphology of the refugee camp than that of the splendid historical cynosures of the City, London in the eighteenth century, Paris in the nineteenth, New York in the twentieth.

The vast "surplus populations" driven into cities by the brutal urgencies of neoliberal austerity regimes, by the reorganization of the countryside by agribusiness, by war, by genocide, or by climate change are concentrated into segmented, surveilled, and unsupported spaces, incubators for pandemic disease, disorganized rage, and organized crime. In a ghoulish mimicry of the leisurely volunteerism that produces open source software and peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia and the user-generated promotional verbiage Amazon.com uses to sell books, wherever the informal precariat manages to sculpt from the dangerously unstable septic, often outright toxic, geographies to which they are typically consigned something like a minimally liveable and hence rentable place, they are, be sure, unceremoniously displaced as quick as may be, and so function as a kind of unpaid, dispensable collaborative developmental force of last resort. Low-lying and coastal as these megacities usually are, one can scarcely contemplate what is going to happen to some of these "surplus populations" as Greenhouse waters continue to rise.

It is in Chapter 25 of Capital, that Karl Marx argued that "capitalistic accumulation itself... constantly produces... a relatively redundant population of workers... a surplus-population." The long-valorized former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (and former inner-circle acolyte of the breathtakingly bad market fundamentalist guru cum crappy romance novelist Ayn Rand), Alan Greenspan provided ample confirmation of Marx's prediction, as throughout his endlessly garlanded and prolonged bipartisan tenure he repeatedly expressed the attitude that it was part of his job to keep the economy "healthy" by ensuring that a goodly proportion of people remained unemployed, inasmuch as the job insecurity maintained by an abiding reserve labor force restrains demands for higher pay and benefits, keeps costs down and hence "global competitiveness" up. Here, as elsewhere, public figures paid by public moneys to work in the public interest diligently work in fact to immiserate some substantial portion of that public to the conspicuous benefit of another portion.

For Marx, this is all quite elementary: "It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same." Given the incomparable complexity of the functional division of labor which renders it difficult to impossible for anyone to gauge in an objective way just what their indispensable contribution to ongoing production really is, and hence demand appropriate compensation for it (call this "alienation"), and given the way our primary to exclusive focus on the price of a commodity available for exchange distracts our attention away from questions of its objective utility or considerations of the conditions under which it is made or concerns about the longer-term impacts it makes on the environment (call this "commodity fetishism"), and given the current globalization of "free trade" under the regime of the multinational corporate form it is ominous to register Marx's insistence that "[t]he more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital."

In a usefully complementary formulation, Michel Foucault proposes in his Discipline and Punish, that it is no accident that centuries of reformers have been able to demonstrate through recourse to the more of less unchanging evidence of prevailing crime rates and, more to the point, rates of recidivism, that "prison fails to eliminate crime." And hence, for the typical assumption that it is the task of the liberal prison to effect such an elimination, Foucault proposes the substitute hypothesis that the prison is an institution that "has succeeded very well in producing delinquency, a specific type, a politically or economically... usable[,] form of illegality." (p. 277) The prison, and especially (famously) the exemplary prison architecture of the Benthamite Panopticon, becomes a figure that condenses the "discourses and architectures, coercive regulations and scientific propositions, real social effects and invinciple utopias, programmes for correcting delinquents and mechanisms that reinforce delinquency" (p. 271) all of which have their share in the "carceral system" or operation of "disciplinarity" that Foucault finds operating "around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those [who are] punished -- and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized [!], over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives." (p. 29)

"[I]n producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal but in fact centrally supervised milieu," the prison -- as one exemplary institution among others in "a carceral archipelago" of supervisory locations including schools, asylums, hospitals, workplaces, and so on -- produces "a pathologized subject" (back to p. 277), one that solicits massive normalizing administration at a moment's notice should the "need" arise, one that is "legitimately" exploitable as a resource should this come to seem desirable, and one that functions as a palpable example of the frightening costs of abnormality for the not-as-yet marginal and, hence, exhibiting through conspicuous contrast, while at once prompting, the exemplary workings of the normative practices that produce "normal," self-regulating, properly economizing subjects in the first place.

Precarity discourses typically take such canonical accounts of modern subjection as a point of departure, but then go on to propose that new institutional conditions, cultural machineries, and normative urgencies have lately been set in motion that need to be taken into account to grapple with novel contemporary circumstances of exploitation and duress. These tend in an altogether unique and unprecedented way [1] to be staged on a self-consciously planetary terrain, [2] to be articulated through rhetorics of corporate-militarist "competitiveness" that bespeak neoliberal globalization as much or more than they do customary (inter)nationalism, and [3] to take the form primarily of technodevelopmental social struggle (and, as I shall elaborate a bit at the end, biomedical developments in particular) among a diversity of contending, differently authorized, stakeholders .

Although it is undeniable that an insecure workforce has always existed in industrial societies, it is significant that the demands of so-called "Fordist" production models for stable and skilled workers long ensured that this casual or "flexible" labor-force remained structurally peripheral in North Atlantic industrial societies to a more secure labor-force. Whereas, at the heart of precarity discourse, one will find a special emphasis on the rise and recent hegemony of the contemporary multinational corporate form -- which is structurally compelled to increase shareholder profit, whatever the consequences otherwise, while being simultaneously structurally incapable of distinguishing profits garnered relatively effortlessly through the endless externalization of risks and costs from profits achieved through the difficult enterprise of genuine innovation and superior production -- and the concomitant rise of postwar neoliberal globalization models that systematically prioritize the demands of investors over the needs of individual welfare, and emphasize "deregulation" for incumbent interests while imposing debt, "market discipline," and excessive "personal responsibility" on vulnerable majorities.

(This shift from classical Marxist and Foucauldian formulations is announced already, I would say, in the shift in the work of the later Foucault to extended accounts -- many of them finding their way to publication in English only recently -- of the rise of "biopolitics" and the operations of a "governmentality" through which autonomous and "enterprising" selves enlist themselves in projects of self-control that complement the controlling interests of social incumbents as these are indicated in the operations of formal governance.)

By way of a conclusion of this extended meditation on the promising, if problematic, idea of precarity, I want to propose that there are interesting connections for me between precarity and two other topics with which I am preoccupied here at Amor Mundi. The first connection is to the politics of environmentalism, and I have sprinkled references to these issues here and there throughout this discussion already.

The emergence of planetary consciousness connected with the rise of organized environmentalist political movement promsies (threatens) to displace the internationalist consciousness of corporate-militarist competitiveness. (And, as an aside, it does seem to me that no small part of the energy that drives the so-called Global War on Terror is that it functions as a direct counterweight to this emerging planetary consciousness: a counterweight that bolsters incumbent interests precisely as environmentalist movement instead threatens them; and which formally mimes environmentalism as, ostensively, a response to a global existential threat, and one that can displace awareness of a more urgent with the spectacularization of a comparably less threatening one.) An environmentalist discourse of precarity would register the disproportionate distribution of risks and costs associated with climate change, biodiversity diminishment, material toxicities, soil erosion, and so on, while at once testifying to the interdependence of human beings with the planet's dynamic biosphere as well as the human interdependence that both threatens and seeks to remediate the damage of extractive petrochemical industrialization on that biosphere.

There is a second connection, I think, to the politics of prosthetic self-determination, morphological and lifeway diversity, topics about which I talk quite a lot hereabouts. It seems to me that precarity discourse might usefully address itself to certain so-called "bioethical" quandaries, especially concerning the scene of informed, nonduressed consent.

I have proposed the phrase experimental subjection to describe the ongoing and upcoming transformation of the historical frame through which agency is coming to be articulated in human societies now under the unprecedented pressures of rapid and radical technodevelopmental changes and social struggles.

So long as you don't push the analogy too hard, it can be helpful to think of this frame shift into experimental subjection as roughly comparable to the classical shift from royal subjection to citizen subjection. Broadly speaking, that involved a shift from an understanding of proper selfhood deriving from one's sense of their location within a "natural order" overseen by god's representatives on earth to a conscientious selfhood invested with "natural rights" and overseen by the exigencies of market exchange.

Under the terms of experimental subjection, to the contrary, proper selfhood derives from one's sense of their location within an intelligible narrative of ongoing self-creation, and this within the larger context not of "natural order" but of a conspicuous and proliferating lifeway diversity. Further, experimental selfhood is not so much conscientious as consensual. The experimental self engages in an ongoing negotiation between desire and risk. Her every assertion and self-assertion is an assumption of personal risk and cost as well as an assumption of social responsibilities. This is because, for one thing, the experimental and self-creative subject is a figure in danger as much as in bliss, and bears both the personal scars and skills that testify to the costliness of experimentation for finite, vulnerable beings under conditions of uncertainty.

Precarization is an inextricable dimension in the emergence of experimental from conscientious subjection as it plays out in all its devastating differences in the world. And an emphasis on this precarity undermines the facile volunteerism that will tend to overtake accounts (especially technocentric ones) of self-creation narrated from positions of privilege: So long as prosthetic self-determination is figured through the precarious scene of an expression that is as apt to misfire, provoke, confound, embarrass, or fall on deaf ears as it is to be felicitous, it is less likely to take up instead the commonplace figure, and manic fantasy, of a prosthetic encrustation of the fragile organism in a cyborg shell rendering him immune from harm, from time, from dependency, the man in his castle, an atom in the void.

Biomedicine is arriving at a state of something like constant revolution, throwing off so many promising and threatening therapies from moment to moment that one often cannot calculate with ease the impact to one's risk or benefit in embarking on a course of therapy of just how far along in the developmental state of the art one happens to be. Nor can one know in advance what the combinatorial effects of proliferating therapies will be. And so on. Under such conditions it is difficult to know just what it will mean to say of an act of consent that it is a properly "informed" one. These difficulties become all the more vexed when we turn from the scene of consent to the scene of decision in which parents and guardians embark upon or refrain from therapeutic courses that will articulate (and quite often, you know, irrevocably) the capacities of preconsensual subjects.

Quite as important, and still more relevant to a discourse of precarity, it is especially difficult to think through the ways in which one might be variously positioned as "competent," "knowledgeable," "authorized," or as already "abject," "imperiled," "hopeless," and so on, and all in ways that will definitively skew the address of therapeutic claims of promise or threat in the first place. It goes without saying that the Marxian accounts of the production of especially vulnerable "surplus populations" are of special concern in the face of biomedical projects that promise such exquisite outcomes (the radical "enhancement" of desired human capacities or the extension of healthy lifespan) that risks and costs imposed or cajoled onto abject populations might acquire a certain allure, especially to those who are likely to profit doubly (to spell it out: both monetarily as well as therapeutically) by them. So, too, Foucauldian accounts of the production of "pathologized subjects," seem especially in point in the face of biomedical projects that would police human bodies into a conformity denoted as "optimal health" for fear of otherwise imposing "unfair costs" on existing citizens or "disadvantaging" future ones.

The emergence of global bioremedial networks, integrating burgeoning clinical trial data, always-on biometric sensing and tracing, complex private and/or public networked medical administration, assessment, disbursal, and record keeping, and all of this supplementing the still ongoing disruptive transformation from a mass-mediated to a peer-to-peer digital networked public sphere, seems to me to be producing a novel and provocative political consciousness -- very much like the impact of accumulating evidence of climate change on a humanity that has recently seen the earth from the perspective of orbit and understands for the first time that the world is indeed a planet likewise has done. We are becoming experimental subjects, inducted in interminable technodevelopmental social struggles, acting on a planetary rather than a national, international, or even global terrain.

The political imagination of medicine is presently transforming under pressure of a collision between a normalizing model of liberal healthcare administration and this “experimental subjection” model of consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification. The liberal model is defined by an ideal of universal “basic” healthcare provision (an ideal at which we never, of course, really arrived in fact, especially in the United States), while the experimental subjection model is defined instead by an ideal of perfect morphological control and of the widest possible lifeway diversity compatible with a perfectly intelligible scene of informed, nonduressed consent (an ideal at which we will just as surely never arrive, either). What remains is likely, as ever, to be a shifting politics of risk, profit, and stress management, but one which will be differently articulated depending on the ideal that drives it, and one that, to be sure, will manage to be more democratic and more fair the more we manage to ensure the scene of consent is as informed and nonduressed as possible by keeping access to knowledge open and poverty at bay for all. By all means we will want to ensure that just as we must resist the elite insistence that casualization, informalization, and precarization constitute some kind of emancipatory flexibility and loosening of onerous constraint (as indeed it might be were, say, a universal basic income guaranteed to all as a birthright), so too we must resist the elite insistence that our universal induction into planetary bioremedial networked clinical trials constitute some kind of carefree shopping for elective enhancements when in fact we will be exposed to unprecedented scrutiny and danger (as well, no doubt, as opportunity), and when the distribution of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits is not the least bit likely to be safe, fair, or deliberative unless we make it so.

There are, to be sure, resources for both pernicious mystification as well as for practical hope in the ways these new discourses of precarity variously connect up to the deep awareness -- or, likewise, to the all-too-potent, all-too-common disavowal of awareness -- of the ineradicable finitude or precariousness that definitively articulates the human condition in its environmental vulnerability to suffering and death and in its social vulnerability to misunderstanding, humiliation, and abuse. As Judith Butler has commended to our attention in an important recent essay, this attention to (or disavowal of) our existential precariousness can be mobilized in the service of democratizing projects of empathy, conversation, and solidarity or just as easily to mobilize moral panics, hysterical censorship, or punitive wars without end. It can inspire the necessary planetary consciousness of environmentalist movement or just as easily the crazy rage fueling "our" interminable racist militarist "War on Global Terror." It can drive the consignment of "surplus populations" to deaths-in-life that live only in their trace in the life of privilege, or it can drive the emergence of an era of universal consent and, hence, emancipation.

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.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thinking Out Loud About Democratic World Federalism

The expectations generated by the too-formal, too-insubstantial rhetoric of democracy of North Atlantic industrial societies are interminably prone to the eruption of education, agitation, and organization for actual popular democratization. So, too, expectations of prosperity arising from unsustainable cheap oil, gunboat diplomacy via the military base archipelago, and technodevelopmental exploitation are likewise interminably prone to the eruption of unassuagable social discontent the moment their beneficiaries are forced by changing circumstances to pay the real price (nonsubsidized costs, nonduressed costs, environmental costs, etc.) of these goods and privileges.

Global information and communication networks foreground the inequities of the North Atlantic postcolonial inter-national system of global governance to everyone within their reach, while disseminating the expectations of the beneficiaries of that system across the globe, exacerbating the vulnerability of that system beyond its capacity to accommodate. Where this system has not already failed, it is presently failing.

Now, violence is inevitable (as has always been the case whenever and wherever human plurality emerges), but since the tools of violence at the disposal of discontent are now capable of unprecedented destructive power it is crucial that we constrain its expression within the legitimacy of democratic governance, general welfare, and the provision (via legitimate coercion) of a legible space for the noncoercive adjudication of social disputes.

Democratic world federalism is indispensable to global social intercourse, as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up hitherto. Conventional NGOs cannot provide this legitimacy precisely because they are not democratically representative bodies, and neither can conventional states because the terrain on which the key problems are playing out (climate change, human rights violations, unfair trade, uneven development, weapons proliferation) is planetary and because too many of the crucial actors on the contemporary terrain are not national but networked.

It is crucial that global governance fund its activities through progressive taxation and then that it legitimize its taxation through legible representation and the substantiation of informed, nonduressed consent and human rights culture. If this development does not occur, then corporate-militarism will continue to define the global political terrain instead and it is difficult to imagine that humanity will survive this state of affairs for long.

Corporate-militarism/neoliberal-neoconservative (eg, "Free Trade") Globalization lacks the institutional intelligence to respond adequately to information that is not susceptible to proximate profitability (hence a tendency to short-term over long-term thinking, and hence a disastrous tendency underestimate wider social costs and risks), nor to respond to the needs of technodevelopmental stakeholders who are not familiar or node-proximate (hence a tendency to disastrously exacerbate social discontent). In the emerging political terrain these inadequacies fatally encourage environmental collapse, incubate and facilitate genocidal violences, and produce the conditions in which WMD are ever more likely to be deployed.

What passes for “Free Trade” Globalization, then, is not just facile and flawed ideology, but has come to represent an Existential Risk to human survival.

Through our technology we have seen the earth from orbit and we can never again mistake a neighborhood or even a nation for the World. We know the problems of unsustainable consumption and extractive industry are problems we are all of us equally heir to, as we know that militarism is also always farcically parochial. Through our technology we have seen the faces and heard the voices of people across the earth and we can never again reasonably deny that they are our peers and collaborators in the making of the World, whatever nation or culture they hail from. We know they deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them, we know that we stand to benefit from the testimony of their experience and desire, we know that unless they have the standing of bearers of rights that our own standing is imperiled by its denial to them.

We know the world is not flat.

Only by tearing our technology from our hands, only by crushing the knowledge out of our bodies and brains could we "go back," whatever that would mean.

There is no choice but to embrace the planet that has become the World we live in.

There is violence coming, borne up on a deep and bloody tide of historical and ongoing violation and indifference that will demand its payment all too soon.

Constrain that violence in legitimate democratic governance, ameliorate it through the global administration of general welfare, compensate it with the magnificent bribe of secularization, a basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifetime education, therapy, and retraining, renewable energy, free software and subsidized peer-to-peer content and oversight provision, and maybe, maybe we'll make it through to the blessings of technoscientific emancipation technoprogressives more uniquely hope for, environmental remediation, superorganic foodstuffs, a longevity dividend, relative abundance from the nanoscale, and a nice space elevator and solar diaspora to give the restless a new frontier to pine for.

Crossposted at Amor Mundi.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Technoprogressivism Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia (Revised)

Well, it's easy to carp and snark in comments, I know, but I figure I should offer up something for others to criticize for a change! In between teaching gigs I've been working on two book projects this summer, one a revision of my dissertation Pancryptics: Technological Transformations of the Subject of Privacy and the other a manuscript currently called Progress Is the Great Work: Democratic Technodevelopmental Social Struggle Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia, A Technoprogressive Primer. The acorn from which the latter mighty mighty oak hopeth soon to spring is a text I blogged ages ago on Amor Mundi and have revised and expanded many times since, all the while vacuuming in bits and pieces that mattered to me from many other blog-posts and assorted writings I've generated along the way. I'm posting the latest (and lastish) revision here, in the hopes that it might generate useful comments and criticisms. Any folks out there who might want to volunteer for the exquisite torture of reading the much longer manuscript in progress, e-mail me and tell me so.

Part I.
Technocentrism, Technophilia, and Technophobia

A technophile is a person to whom we attribute a naïve or uncritical enthusiasm for technology, while a technophobe is a person to whom we attribute a no less uncritical dread of or hostility to technology. But what does it tell us that there is no comparably familiar word to simply describe a person who is focused on the impact of technology in a critical way that is attentive both to its promises and its dangers?

Why is it that any technocentric perspective on cultural, historical, political, and social questions is always imagined to be either uncritically technophilic or technophobic? Is it really so impossible to conceive of a critical technocentrism equally alive to real promises and alert to real dangers?

I think the lack of such a word ready to hand bespeaks profound and in fact dangerous limitations in the way we understand the role of technological developments in our lives, in the hopes and fears with which we invest them, and in our capacity to take up these developments and actively shape them in ways that better reflect our hopes.

Because I believe that technological development is the last remaining historical force abroad in the world that could plausibly be described as potentially revolutionary, and because I believe that we might make of technological development our most tangible hope that humanity might truly and finally eliminate poverty, needless suffering, illiteracy, exploitation, inequality before the law, and social injustice for everyone on earth I am often mistaken for a technophile.

And because I believe that whenever technological development fails to be governed by legitimate democratic processes, whenever it is driven instead by parochial national, economic, or ideological interests, that it will almost always be a profoundly dangerous and often devastating force, exacerbating existing inequalities, facilitating exploitation, exaggerating legitimate discontent and thereby encouraging dangerous social instabilities, threatening unprecedented risks and inflicting unprecedented harms on individuals, societies, species, and the environment as a whole I am often mistaken for a technophobe.

Within the lifetimes of many millions of human beings now living, emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical technologies will likely provide us the means with which to eliminate many diseases and renegotiate lifespans, as well as to render traits of basic morphology and temperament radically more discretionary. With proper support, new renewable energy technologies could provide abundant, clean, and inexpensive alternatives to fossil fuels for developed and developing societies, while new biotechnologies could reinvent agriculture to feed burgeoning populations or to engineer microorganisms to help reverse the damage of primitive industries on the planet’s ecosystem. Emerging digital networked information and communication technologies are already reshaping global cultures and economies, and are providing new tools to facilitate collaboration and proliferate intelligence, invention, and criticism. With these tools we could expand the reach and force of democracy, support more representative and accountable global institutions, and help secure the rights of humanity around the world.

I regularly distinguish between two broadly technocentric contemporary sensibilities that seem inevitably to arise in response to the prospect of such developments or to the appearance on the scene of their precursors today: technoprogressivism and bioconservatism.

Technoprogressivism and Bioconservatism

Technoprogressivism assumes that technoscientific developments can be empowering and emancipatory so long as they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments. Technoprogressivism is a stance of support for such technological development in general, and for consensual human practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification in particular.

Bioconservatism on the other hand, is a stance of hesitancy about technological development in general and tends to maintain a strong opposition to the genetic, prosthetic or cognitive modification of human beings in particular. Whether arising from a conventionally right-leaning politics of religious/cultural conservatism or from a conventionally left-leaning politics of environmentalism, bioconservative positions oppose medical and other technological interventions into what are broadly perceived as current human and cultural limits in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category.

At its heart technoprogressivism is simply the insistence that whenever we talk about "progress" we must always keep equally in mind and in hand both its scientific/instrumental dimensions but also its political/moral ones. From a technoprogressive perspective, then, technological progress without progress toward a more just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of that technological development will not be regarded as true "progress" at all. And at the same time, for most technoprogressive critics and advocates progress toward better democracy, greater fairness, less violence, a wider rights culture, and such are all desirable but inadequate in themselves to confront the now inescapable technoconstituted quandaries of contemporary life unless they are accompanied by progress in science and technology to support and implement these values.

In their more reasonable versions, both technoprogressivisms and bioconservatisms will oppose unsafe, unfair, undemocratic, undeliberative forms of technological development, and both recognize that such developmental modes can facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice and incubate dangerous social discontent. Almost everyone will feel the compelling tug of reasonableness in particular formulations arising from either broader sensibility from time to time, according to their own personal experiences and hopes. These two sensibilities, often deeply at odds in particular campaigns of advocacy, activism, policymaking, meaning-making and education, will nevertheless usually share at least enough common ground for productive dialogue to be possible among their adherents.

It is also crucial to recognize that both bioconservative and technoprogressive sensibilities, rhetorics, and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what I would describe as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment.

This denaturalization is a broad social and cultural tendency, roughly analogous to and structurally related to other broad tendencies like, say, secularization and industrialization. It consists essentially of two trends: First, denaturalization names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, sometimes in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, denaturalization consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technological development, and the distribution of its costs, risks, and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

It is a truism that the technical means to eliminate poverty and illiteracy for every human being on earth have existed since the eighteenth century, but that social forms and political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most technoprogressives remains to use emerging technologies to transform the administration of social needs, to provide shelter, nutrition, healthcare, and education for all. To this end, a deepening and widening of democratic participation in and accountability of governance, administration, and developmental deliberation through emerging networked information and communication technologies is crucial. For technoprogressive the imperative is always: Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All.

Part II.
Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy

The most legitimate concern of some sensible bioconservatives (and of those who tend to sympathize with their arguments for now), and certainly of most technoprogressives, is that the rich and powerful will enjoy medical "enhancement" and longevity long before the rest of us do, or that powerful elites will control digital surveillance technologies or unprecedented nanotechnological capacities that will consolidate their power in unimaginable ways.

The NBIC convergence of nanoscale technologies, biomedical technologies, information technologies, and cognitive/neuroceutical technologies promises unprecedented human emancipation but threatens no less than the literal rewriting of social injustice as a form of dreadful speciation.

I want to propose the following initial, provisional programmatic redress of social injustice as an indispensable part of a properly technoprogressive politics of radical, disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle. Comparably technoprogressive alternative recommendations are welcome and even necessary, of course, and quite likely to be abundant soon enough:

A First Technoprogressive Campaign:

Technoprogressives must demand a basic income guarantee as an indispensable complement to any general championing of disruptive technological developments. This would effectively eliminate poverty from social life and sustain every citizen as a stakeholder with enough freedom to contract the terms of their participation in society as they see fit. This income (together with a life-long stakeholder grant in education and retraining) would foreground the value of citizen participation in a properly technoprogressive democratic civilization, empowering citizens to contribute free creative content, including technoscientific research and development, to participate in new collaborative forms of media oversight and policy deliberation, in addition to voting on policy-measures and representatives for public office.

The public provision of a basic life-long guaranteed income should be thought of first of all as the implementation of safeguards against arbitrary misuses of authority in peoples' workplaces. It would provide everybody with the means to "opt out" of the current circumstances in which they attain their livelihoods. Thus, it would provide a constant check on misuses of power in the workplace by institutionalizing a permanent position of security from which workers could renegotiate the terms of their employment and demand redress for abuses without fear of unjust reprisals. It would also encourage people to grow and take chances, try new things, learn new skills, invest in new enterprises to the benefit of all, and all without the threat of utter devastation to bedevil and constrain them. A world with a basic income guarantee would still be a world in which many worked for profit, surely, and in which many more would work voluntarily in projects that are especially important or satisfying to them, or provided unique benefits for them.

These entitlements would enlist world citizens in incomparable peer-to-peer projects to establish justice, ensure local tranquility, provide global security, and promote general welfare both as citizen-critics on global networks, providing media oversight, problem-solving, free creative content, participatory sousveillence, developmental policy deliberation as well as compensating us (and sustantiating our capacity for real consent) as we assume more and more risks and lose a real measure of customary privacy in our emerging role as experimental citizen-subjects, as indispensable "data-points" in global experimental projects to hasten and regulate emerging longevity and modification medicine.

It is crucial to remember that media have always been publicly subsidized. Even in relatively “minarchist” Founding-Era America the architects of the republic recognized the indispensability of media to working continental-scaled democracy: hence, the establishment of a postal service and roadways, and later the subsidization and regulation of every media form as it emerged on the scene right up to the recent creation and support of the internet. A basic income guarantee can be defended as a comparable subsidization of peer-to-peer networks and media (including collaborative forms of in-depth security and surveillance/sousveillance) on this view, quite apart from its many other justifications.

Progressives defend basic income guarantees as the deferred fulfillment of the emancipatory promise of struggles against slavery and conscription by eliminating at last the economic duress that compels so many today into wage slavery and voluntary armies doing the bloody-minded business of corporate-military elites. To these defences, technoprogressives add that basic income guarantees also provide ways to empower resistence to techodevelopmental outcomes favored exclusively by elites, as well as to ameliorate conspicuous anti-democratic concentrations of wealth faciliated by automation. I describe such pernicious technoconstituted wealth concentration, together with the technodevelopmental dislocations faciliated by sophisticated communications and transportation networks as technodevelopmental abjection (discussions of the "outsourcing" of jobs can often be usefully translated into these terms).

A Second Technoprogressive Campaign:

Technoprogressives must demand universal basic health care provision as well as a stakeholder grant to support some lifelong consensual recourse to modification medicine as an indispensable complement to any general championing of research, development, and the support of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine. This effectively eliminates the greatest threat to the lives of the relatively less powerful (unecessary suffering, the burdens of untreated illness, as well as powerful pressures to engage in any unwanted treatments and modifications) and enlists every citizen as a participant in a civilization-wide peer-to-peer experiment in better-than-well health-care provision and rejuvination medicine. This stakeholder grant in healthcare and enhancement would foreground the value of morphological freedom (more on this term in a moment) in our democratic civilization, empowering citizens to enage in proliferating projects of self-creation, as peers celebrating a prostheticized reimagination of embodied lifeway multiculture.

For democrats and technoprogressives social justice cannot tolerate unequal distributions of authority beyond a certain point (we are, I fear, well past that point at present in the precarious North Atlantic democracies) —- but it is just as true that our sense of justice demands the preservation and celebration of inequality in its forms as distinction and diversity. For me, the key here is to champion what I describe as a Culture of Consent.

So long as a trait does not render the scene of consent illegible -- the expressed need for sexual reassignment, valuing deafness, or the exhibition of mild autism, among countless other things, all seem to me clear examples of such traits -- then it seems to me that advocates of a culture of consent cannot properly deny any citizens who incarnate such a trait as a part of their own personhood either

(a) the validity of any of their performances of consent on that basis or

(b) the consensual recourse to modification medicine to come to exhibit that trait or the consensual restraint from modification so as to maintain the trait.

It is crucial to realize that legibility of consent is a weaker standard than, say, "optimality" (on whatever construal) would be -- and that it is a weaker standard for a reason: Too restrictive a standard will likely skew the difficult balance between the democratic value of informed, nonduressed consent (which, to be substantial rather than vacuous has to be propped up with universal standards on contentious questions of basic health and general welfare), and the no less democratic value of diversity.

People of good will can argue about the extent to which an "optimal" scene of consent might properly be encouraged or discouraged via strategies of subsidization and such, whether in the name of administrative economies, general welfare, or what have you. But the simple fact is that anybody who advocates both a substantive vision of the general welfare as well as for the value of diversity is eventually going to stumble onto fraught moments when they have to figure out how to reconcile these values on the ground.

I do personally think the legible, informed, nonduressed consent of citizens is the key to work through some of these difficulties, but it has to involve a substantive rather than vacuous commitment to consent. That is to say, to be legitimate, the scene of consent needs to be shored up with all sorts of assurances against misinformation, ignorance, force, and duress that don't presently prevail for the most part. Also, the standard of legible consent must be a standard weak enough to incubate a real proliferation of consensual performances rather than a standard so strong that it imposes conformity... and yet the standard must be strong enough to ensure that "consent" doesn't become an alibi for violation, exploitation, or neglect.

A Third Technoprogressive Campaign:

Technoprogressives must demand the implementation of democratic world federalism, recognizing that planetary problems demand planetary governance and that democratic governance is no less legitimate on a global scale than it is on national or local scales.

Technodevelopmental social struggle takes place on a planetary stage and its proper stakeholders are not confined to any nation, culture, region, class, race, gender, or faith. All human beings inhabit and impact the same indispensable biosphere and environment, just as all are threatened by its vulnerability to human recklessness. All human beings produce, consume, collaborate, and trade through a globe-girdling ritual artifice of norms, laws, and protocols, all of us ineradicably interdependent, beholden to a common inheritance of creative intelligence and accomplishment, just as we are all threatened by exceptionalist interpretations of norms, selective applications of law, or unfair protocols articulating production and trade. All human beings benefit from the security of their planetary fellows in their rights, the legitimacy of their governments, their general commonwealth and shared stake in an open future, just as all of us are threatened by the violation of rights, the decay of democractic legitimacy, and the abjection of poverty, stigma, violence, or hopelessness anywhere else on earth.

Of course, there are already various progressive campaigns afoot to implement basic income guarantees, universal healthcare, global education, and democratic world federalism (whether through the democratic reform and strengthening of existing institutions like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the International Labor Organization, through direct action by way of global people's movements for peace, human rights, fair trade, sustainability, transparency, or through a combination of these and similar campaigns). Technoprogressive critique, education, agitation, and organizing identifies new connections among these familiar radical democratic struggles and hence promises to reinvigorate them. Technoprogressive perspectives are sensitive to different historical stakes amidst the unprecedented dangers and promises of disruptive technoscience, and also recognize different strategic opportunities across the dynamic technodevelopmental terrain on which these struggles are unfolding. But those who imagine that "technoprogressive" politics will amount to an endless indulgence in pet "futurist" utopias and dystopias, the substitution of proximate planning with far-flung fixations on medical immortalization, robot armies, nanogoo, traversible wormholes, and such will be, I fear, rather disappointed by my own understanding of the term and by the rather familiar radical democratic priorities that arise from that understanding.

For me, it is crucial to grasp that the main distinction between technoprogressive and bioconservative political orientations is not a matter of whether one's politics are "tech-positive" or "tech-negative," since "technology" really has no interesting political existence at that level of generality. What is wanted are technodevelopmental outcomes that are democratizing, consensual, sustainable, emancipatory, and fair. What is resisted are technodevelopmental outcomes that consolidate elites, are nonconsensual, unsustainable, exploitative, and unfair. A global basic income guarantee, universal healthcare and education, and democratic world federalism seem to me to provide the context most likely to facilitate progressive, democratic, sustainable technodevelopmental outcomes.

Part III.
The Politics of Morphological Freedom

Morphological freedom designates a right of human beings either to maintain or to modify their own bodies, on their own terms, through informed, nonduressed, consensual recourse to, or refusal of, available remedial or modification medicine.

Morphological freedom fighters today are battling the racist War on (some) Drugs (by means of other drugs), they are psychedelic experimentalists, they are sex radicals, queers, transsexuals and advocates for intersex people, body-modders, feminists fighting to keep abortion safe, legal, and universally available as well as people fighting to expand access to assistive reproductive technologies (ARTs), people fighting for the standing, rights, and lives of the differently enabled, including both advocates whose emphasis is to secure the rights of the differently enabled as citizens whatever their differences, as well as those whose emphasis is to secure access to transformative genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies -- whether these therapies are "normalizing" or not, activists struggling to secure the right of people to end their lives on their own terms as well as advocates who seek to ensure that the suffering and vulnerable are not callously consigned to a social irrelevance that encourages them to suicide.

And so, the politics of morphological freedom weaves together many struggles that share a common commitment to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways. More specifically, morphological freedom is an expression of traditional liberal pluralism, secular progressive cosmopolitanism, or humanist and posthumanist multiculturalisms, but applied to an era of disruptive planetary technoscientific change, and especially to the ongoing and palpably upcoming transformation of the understanding of medical practice from one of conventional remedy to one of consensual self-creation, via genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification.

I first encountered the term “morphological freedom” in a short paper by neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, who defines it quite simply as "the right to modify oneself according to one’s desires." In Sandberg’s formulation, the right to morphological freedom derives from a conventional liberal doctrine of bodily self-ownership and amounts, more or less, to a straightforward application of negative liberty to the situation of modification medicine. The political force of such a commitment under contemporary conditions of disruptive technoscientific change is quite clear: It appeals to widely affirmed liberal intuitions about individual liberty, choice, and autonomy in order to trump bioconservative agendas that seek to slow, limit, or altogether prohibit potentially desirable medical research and individually valued therapeutic practices, usually because they are taken to threaten established social and cultural norms.

But I worry that this formulation of morphological freedom, however initially appealing and sensible it may be, is fraught with the quandaries that bedevil all exclusively negative libertarian accounts of freedom. Because any universal intuitions about the indubitability of bodily “self-ownership” will radically underdetermine the specific entitlements and protocols that will claim to be derived from them, such foundational gestures will always mobilize compensatory projects to deny and disavow possible alternate formations. These projects to “naturalize” and hence depoliticize what are in fact historically contingent and vulnerable conventions will inevitably privilege certain established constituencies over others and so will just as inevitably eventuate in some form or other of conservative politics. In my own understanding of the term, on the contrary, the commitment to morphological freedom derives primarily and equally from commitments to both diversity and to consent.

The force of the commitment to diversity seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom will properly apply equally to those who would make consensual recourse to desired remedial or modification medicine, as well as to those who would refrain from such medicine. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of intervention and modification at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. While this bias is quite understandable given the precisely contrary bias of the bioconservative politics the principle is intended to combat, I worry that an interventionist bias will threaten to circumscribe the range of morphological and lifeway diversity supported by the politics of morphological freedom. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to diversity as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of “postmodern relativism” or some such nonsense. But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that prioritizes intervention over diversity will threaten to underwrite eugenicist projects prone to imagine themselves emancipatory even when they are nonconsensual, and will police desired variation into a conformity that calls itself “optimal health,” stress management, or the most “efficient” possible allocation of scarce resources (whatever wealth disparities happen to prevail at the time).

The force of the commitment to consent seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom are of a piece with democratic left politics. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of negative libertarian formulations of freedom at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. Although neoliberal, neoconservative, and market libertarian formulations often appear content to describe any “contractual” or so-called “market” outcome as consensual by definition it is quite clear that in actuality such outcomes are regularly and conspicuously duressed by the threat or fact of physical force, by fraud, and by unfairness. And so, whenever I speak of my own commitment to a culture of consent I mean to indicate very specifically a commitment to what I call substantiated rather than what I would reject as vacuous consent. A commitment to substantiated consent demands universal access to trustworthy information, to a basic guaranteed income, and to universal healthcare (actually, democratically-minded people of good will may well offer up competing bundles of entitlements to satisfy the commitment to substantiated consent, just as I have offered up a simplified version of my own here), all to ensure that socially legible performances of consent are always both as informed and nonduressed as may be. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to substantiated consent as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of social democracy. But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that demands anything less than democratically accountable and socially substantiated scenes of informed, nonduressed consent will threaten to underwrite authoritarian moralists with unprecedented technological powers at their disposal who would impose their parochial perspectives on a planetary scale, quite satisfied to retroactively rationalize the righteousness of even mass slaughters and mass capitulations.

Part IV.
The Proportionate Precautionary Principle (PPP) as a Democratizing Framework for Developmental Deliberation

In the 20th century, some humans acquired through technological development the hitherto unprecedented capacity to destroy all human civilization, the whole human race and indeed all life on Earth. Symbolized in the detonation in 1945 of the first atom bomb, the subsequent decades of the last century witnessed an awesome proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, bioengineered pathogens, and other potentially apocalyptic technologies. There also emerged new dilemmas of global industrialization, characterized by unprecedented complexity, diffuse causes and deeply worrisome but ill-understood results. Among these were the rise of waste gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, the possibly catastrophic rapid depletion of inexpensive fossil fuel resources, the widespread introduction of toxins into soil and groundwater, the overuse and diminished effectiveness of antibiotics and the planetary loss of biodiversity.

Although the standards of prudence have always had to reckon with the difficulties of estimating best outcomes in the face of future uncertainty, imperfect knowledge and unintended consequences, these standards have never yet managed to stretch enough to accommodate comfortably the new stakes of uncertainty in an era of potentially apocalyptic technologies. One effort to delineate such standards has come to be called the "Precautionary Principle."

Many technoprogressives champion what might be called a Proportionate Precautionary Principle (or, "PPP"), a version which advocates that:
[1] We should always be cautious in the face of possible harm;

[2] As assessments of risk and harm grow more severe according to the consensus of relevant science, the burden of their justification rightly falls ever more conspicuously onto those who propose either to impose them or to refrain from ameliorating them; and

[3] The processes through which these justifications and their assessments properly take place must be open, evidence-based, and involve all the actual stakeholders to the question at issue.

Technophiles who value speedier technological development in the expectation that it will deliver sooner for some goods of incomparable value, sometimes like to imply that all advocates of Precaution are indifferent to the risks that sometimes arise from refraining to act, or assess actual risks unnecessarily stringently, or exhibit a kind of blanket hostility to the attainments of medical-industrial technocultures (on which, of course, the Precautious depend themselves for their own standards of living).

While all of this is certainly true of some bioconservative advocates of Precaution –- and partisans on both sides can of course always find photogenic specimens to trot out in the support of their prejudices -– these accusations ignore the extent to which the Precautionary Principle was introduced precisely in response to damaging corporate-friendly government or self-sponsored research that selectively framed and published its results, and in response to the deployment of impossibly high standards of certainty to create the false impression that widely held, well-founded suspicions and concerns were in fact too controversial to provide a justification for regulation.

Such critics of Precaution also tend to ignore that many of the most influential formulations of the Precautionary Principle (which has as yet no definitive or canonical expression) confine their attention to cases of (1) likely nonreversible harm to the health of individuals or (2) to environmental harms that are likely to impose remediation costs higher than the benefits they generate or finally (3) to existential or extinction-level threats.

In proportionate formulations of precaution the stringency of the justificatory burden on actors is weighted in proportion to the sweep, scope, character, and intensity of the developmental consequences anticipated by stakeholders to that development and warranted by shared ethical and evidenciary standards.

As it happens, few formulations of the Principle are in fact oblivious to the ineradicable dimension of risk that inheres in all human conduct, including decisions to "refrain" from action. (It is crucial to remember that the status-quo rarely arises indifferently out of inaction but must itself be actively reproduced by those who have or imagine themselves to have a stake in its maintenance.) And while I will grant that it has not yet often been mobilized in arguments of this kind, the Precautionary Principle would seem to me to impel the development and deployment of emerging technologies and techniques to more effectively address global harms, malnutrition and ill-health, certain existential risks that have not hitherto been susceptible of effective response (for example, a defense against asteroid impacts, or a global warning system to inform vulnerable populations of tsunamis and the like, the tracking of weapons proliferation or global pandemics).

For its technoprogressive adherents, PPP is a democratizing deliberative framework for sustainable development, at once impelling a fairer distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technological development onto all of its stakeholders, while likewise enlisting the wider collaboration of these stakeholders in the actual process of research and the assessment of its results.

Regulation Between Relinquishment and Resignation (RRR)

In our own era, technological development poses a host of unprecedented quandaries for which anxious contemporary debates about genetic medicine, ubiquitous surveillance and widespread automation are faint premonitions. Confronted with the horrifying reality or prospect of new technological threats the first impulse of the North Atlantic democracies is almost certain to involve misguided compensatory expansions of state surveillance and control.

Bill Joy, among others, points out that probably-immanent technologies could exploit capacities for self-recursion (for example, software that could program ever more sophisticated versions of itself without direct human intervention or understanding) and self-replication (for example, biotechnologies or molecular nanotechnologies that could reproduce versions of themselves that spread exponentially) that will make them at once incredibly powerful and difficult to control.

Joy is so horrified at the destructive potential of these technologies that he notoriously proposes to ban their development altogether. The typical technophiliac rejoinder to Joy's proposal of a principled relinquishment in the face of unprecendented risk is that it is unenforceable, and would simply shift the development and use of these technologies to less scrupulous people and less regulated conditions. This would, of course, exacerbate the very risks relinquishment would be enacted to reduce.

Most technoprogressives concede the force this rejoinder, but are leery of facile misreadings of its implications. The fact that laws prohibiting murder don't eliminate the practice certainly doesn't imply we should strike them off the books. If Joy's technological relinquishment were in fact the best or only hope for humanity's survival, then we would of course be obliged to pursue it whatever the challenges.

But surely the stronger reason to question relinquishment is simply that it would deny us the extraordinary benefits of emerging technologies -— spectacularly safe, strong, cheap nanoscale-engineered materials and manufactured goods; abundant bioengineered foodstuffs; new renewable energy technologies; and incomparably effective medical interventions.

Corporate futurists and neoliberal technocrats often seem altogether too eager to claim that technological regulation is laways and absolutely unenforceable, or that developmental outcomes they desire happen to be "inevitable." But of course the shape that development will take -— its pace, distribution, applications -— is anything but inevitable. And all technological development is obviously and absolutely susceptible to regulation, for good or ill, by legitimate laws backed by force, as well as moral norms, market signals, and structural limits.

Market libertarian technophiles often like to suggest that any effort to regulate technological development at all is essentially the same as bioconservative efforts to ban it altogether. Many declare their faith that scientific research and investment on its own is best able to defend against the threats that science itself unleashes. This is a faith many technoprogressives largely share with them, but only to the extent that we recognize how much of what makes science "robust" is produced and maintained in the context of well-supported research traditions, stable institutions, steady funding and rigorous oversight, most of which looks quite like the "regulation" that libertarians otherwise abhor. For me (and this is a topic on which technoprogressives have many differing views), consensus scientific culture itself is an expression, accomplishment, and implementation of the democratic idea, and certainly not any kind of "spontaneous order."

Neoliberal, neoconservative, and market fundamentalist ideologues often advocate a kind of "market" resignation that seems to me exactly as disastrous in its consequences as any bioconservative's recommendation of relinquishment. In fact, the consequence of both policies seems precisely the same -— to abandon technological development to the least scrupulous, least deliberative, least accountable forces on offer. In saying this, the point is not to demonize commerce, of course, but simply to recognize that good governance encourages good and discourages antisocial business practices, while a climate of fair trade and general prosperity is likewise the best buttress to good democratic governance.

Part V.
Humanist and Post-Humanist Humanitarianism

Above all, it is difficult in my view to see how bioconservative defenses of what provincially passes at the moment for "human nature" could finally help us much in these worthy democratizing projects. I do not mean to be dismissive of humanism, but it seems to me that historically speaking the so-called universal accomplishments celebrated under the banner of humanism from the Renaissance to the present day have rarely been available to more than a privileged group of males, and occasionally a few females, within strictly limited socioeconomic strata. Even at its most capacious, any anthropocentric human-racist grounding of ethics will stand perplexed in the face of the demand of Great Apes, dolphins, and other nonhuman animals for standing and respect. Further, the category of "humanity" seems rarely to have provided much protective cover for even fully sane, mature, "exemplary" human beings caught up in the genocidal technoconstituted dislocations of the modern era.

A number of post-humanist discourses have emerged to register these dissatisfactions with the limitations of the traditional humanist project. It is important to recognize that the "post-human" does not have to conjure up the possibly frightening or tragic spectacle of a posthumous humanity, an end to the best aspirations of human civilization, or even a repudiation of humanism itself, so much as a new effort emerging out of humanism, a moving on from humanism as a point of departure, a demanding of something new from it, perhaps the demand that humanism live up to its universalizing self-image for once.

Bioconservatives often express a general fear that new technologies will "rob" us of our humanity. But for me the essence of our humanity, if there could be such a thing, is simply our capacity to explore together what it means to be human. No sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. I believe our personal and collective prosthetic practices are contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, and that those who want to freeze that conversation in the image of their pet platitudes risk violating that "humanity" just as surely as any reckless experimentalism would.

Technoprogressives understand that we have all grown too queer and too prostheticized to be much seduced by the language of innocent "nature," or sweet bioconservative paeans to the so-called "human dignity" or to the "deeper meaning" to be found in pain and suffering from potentially treatable diseases. Technoprogressives believe that we can demand fairness, sustainability, responsibility, and freedom from the forces of technological development in which we are all immersed and in which we are all collaborating, and that this demand is the contribution of this living generation to the ongoing conversation of humankind.

The Politics Are Prior to the Toypile

Despair is as destructive to our democratic hopes as is the arrogance or nostalgia of elites. Neither the hype-notized dreams of our technophiles nor the disasterbatory nightmares of our technophobes tell us where we should build the next bit of road together (although both occasionally helpfully let us know when we've gotten off track altogether).

I believe that much of what people really mean when they either praise or excoriate something they call, in some general way, "technology" is to speak instead about the political values and concrete practices that drive technodevelopmental social struggle from moment to moment on the ground.

The very same corporate-militarism in America that has devastated independent media, co-opted our elections, debauched our representatives, fueled the drumbeat of deregulation without end that presided over the vast looting of our supportive infrastructure, and dismantled our civil liberties is of course the very same corporate-militarism that would enclose the creative and now, too, the genetic commons, that bolsters primitive extractive petrochemical industries while constraining the emergence and implementation of networked renewable alternatives, fights a puritanical war on re-creational drugs by means of corporate-approved drugs of docility and distraction, arms the diabolical machineries that drench the world in blood and violence.

In the hands of elites and in the service of elite agendas technologies too often exacerbate inequity and exploitation. While in more democratic societies, technologies have the best hope of serving emancipatory ends instead: Regulated by legitimate democratic authorities to ensure they are as safe as may be. And regulated as well to best ensure that their costs, risks, and benefits are shared by all of their stakeholders. And all of this in the context of a culture of informed nonduressed consent -- that is, with open access to consensus scientific knowledge and in the absence of the duress of physical force, financial ruin, or conspicuous humiliation.

Current democratic formations have demonstrated their extreme vulnerability to the depredations of corporate-militarism, as have the world's most vulnerable people by the millions. We must take up emerging peer-to-peer digital networked media and social software to reclaim and reshape our democracies just as we must take up emerging renewable technologies to lighten the human bootprint on our earth even as we welcome ever more human minds and lives into the community of full democratic citizenship. Both of these efforts are indispensable to any realizable globalization of the promise of democracy as well as any serious effort to turn the global anti-democratic corporate-military tide.

Further, I believe we must facilitate the fuller flowering of diversity and freedom made possible when the resources of culture expand to encompass the informed, nonduressed, consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification of human lifeways in the image of our diverse values.

Without democratic accountability, answerability, responsibility corporate-military technodevelopment will leave the earth a charred cinder, but so too without the emerging tools of peer-to-peer digital networks, sustainable energy technologies, better-than-well medicine (and, one hopes, soon enough, replicative nanoscale manufacturing), the social formations of democratic governance progressives and technoprogressives advocate will little likely command the material and rhetorical resources to fight the vast established interests that drive corporate-militarism today, nor to mobilize humanity imaginatively today and tomorrow to establish a global democratic, sustainable order and culture of universal informed, nonduressed consent in an open future.

What is wanted instead in this unprecedented historical moment of technoconstituted quandary and confusion are new progressive, sustainable, democratizing technocriticisms. What is wanted are new critical technocentric discourses and practices attentive to the complex and competing costs, risks, benefits, promises, pleasures, and dangers of disruptive and intimate technological developments and prosthetic practices.

Technology Needs Democracy, Democracy Needs Technology

Over the years of my lifetime, conservative ideologues have seemed to frame their usual corporatist, militarist, deregulatory schemes more and more in apparently revolutionary terms. They seem to hyperventilate ever more conspicuously and insistently about their customary money-grabs and power-grabs in the faux-revolutionary cadences of “freedom on the march” and with faux-revolutionary visions of “free markets” surging, swarming, crystallizing, and well-nigh ejaculating the whole world over. And over these same years of my lifetime, the democratic left—already demoralized, perhaps, by the failures of long-privileged revolutionary vocabularies—seemed almost to sleepwalk into the rather uninspiring position of defending the fragile institutional attainments of imperfectly representative, imperfectly functional welfare states in apparently conservative terms. They have struggled reasonably but too-often ineffectually, spellbound with worry over the real harms to real people that have accompanied the long but apparently irresistable dismantlement of the social democratic status quo, such as it was.

This was and somewhat remains a problem for the radical democratic left. On the one hand, there appears to be an ongoing failure to take seriously the vast resources and breathtaking organizational discipline that can be mobilized by the real desperation of religious and market fundamentalist elites panic-stricken by global secularization and its threats to the traditional, parochial, and “natural” vocabularies that have legitimized hitherto their otherwise unearned privileges and authority. And on the other hand, there has simply been a failure of nerve and, worse, imagination in the fraught efforts to formulate an appealing post-marxist revolutionary democratic vocabulary that could inspire people to struggle for long-term general emancipation rather than short-term personal gain.

For me, of course, such a new revolutionary vocabulary would need to be a palpably technoprogressive one. It would consist of the faith and demand that global technological development be beholden to the interests of all its stakeholders as they themselves express these interests, that existing technological powers be deployed to redress injustice, ameliorate suffering, diminish danger, remediate the damage of prior and ongoing technological development (especially the legacies of unsustainable extractive and petrochemical industrialization), and finally that new technologies be developed to incomparably emancipate, empower, and democratize the world.

Conservatism cannot appropriate a technoprogressive vision, since any conception of progress that insists on both its technical and social dimensions will indisputably threaten established powers. But there is no question that conservatives will take up technodevelopmental politics for their own ends. Indeed, conservative military-industrial technophiles, neoliberal technocrats, and global corporate futurists already largely define the terms in which technodevelopmental politics are playing out in the contemporary world. Conservative technodevelopmental politics in its corporate-conservative mode will continue to insist that “progress” is a matter of the socially-indifferent accumulation of useful inventions to be enjoyed first and most by the elites with whom particular conservatives identify. And in its bioconservative modes conservative technodevelopmental politics will continue to indulge in daydreams of unenforceable bans on scientific research and of blanket disinventions of late modernity (trying all the while not to think too much about the genocidal die-offs entailed in such pastoral fantasies) on the part of deep ecologists and anti-choice activists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I believe that without democracy technology will likely destroy the living world, and that without technology democracy will likely wither into irrevelance and so destroy the human world. But I believe no less that a radical democratic politics of global technological development will likely emancipate humanity at last. Radical democracy needs to take up its revolutionary stance again, to gain and remake the world for us all before the world is utterly lost to us all.

Beyond technophilia and technophobia? There are whole worlds of new responses, new responsivenesses, and new responsibilities.

Let’s find out what we are capable of.