Saturday, May 22, 2004

Death of a Cold Fusion Proponent

From Technology Review: Eugene Mallove, a science writer who for the past 15 years had dedicated himself to advancing the case for cold fusion, was murdered Friday in an apparent robbery. Mallove, 56, was founder and president of the New Energy Foundation and editor in chief of its magazine, Infinite Energy. He was previously chief science writer at the MIT News Office. He left MIT largely because his point of view on cold fusion was vehemently opposed by most scientists at the Institute. No comment.

Friday, May 21, 2004

The Sun Shines

Today's edition of The Sun Herald has a short piece on transhumanism. 'Transhumanism takes technology to the level of faith', written by a Margie Wylie, is not as critical on the movement as the title suggests. An excerpt:
Transhumanists come in a wide variety, said James J. Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association based in Willington, Conn.

Some are interested in life extension. Some want to be immortal. Some think nanotechnology - the emerging science of molecular machines - will someday repair our bodies from the inside out. Others are convinced they'll someday extend their memories with computer implants or upload their consciousness into a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence.

What all share is the desire "to ethically use technology to become more than human," said Hughes, whose organization has 3,000 members in 24 chapters across 98 countries.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Business of Changing the World Need Not Be Business After All

[via Amor Mundi] Alex Steffen, over at WorldChanging, has posted a very useful critique of the whole constellation of assumptions and metaphors associated with “social entrepreneuship” as a way to think through what works and what needs to happen when we use new technologies to collaborate for social and political change. “[D]espite some real strengths,” he writes, “the idea of social entrepreneurship, like its symbiant ‘venture philanthropy,’ seems to act like a magnet for fuzzy thinking. Beyond the category error involved (social change is not a business, and philanthropy is not an investment, and taking these terms as more than analogies can lead to really poor decision-making -- points we'll come back to), the term "social entrepreneur" is being slapped on all sorts of people and efforts who are not in the slightest way innovative or dynamic leaders, much the way the ‘change agent’ or ‘catalyst’ were last decade.”

For over a decade a kind of Libertopian Blight has seemed to colonize the thinking, the arguments, even the tropes and figures through which technology workers and enthusiasts and theorists have made sense of social and political problems. The Blight has imposed the reductive assumptions of market fundamentalism onto every formulation of public life. And worse, it has imparted this awful hucksterizing sloganizing management-lit English to almost every expression of hopefulness about how new tools might be used to change the world in positive ways. And this Blight has seemed to exercise its influence on almost everybody who has spent time thinking seriously about technology and left that encounter with a feeling of hope rather than despair -- whether they were coming temperamentally from the left or from the right or from some inspired oscillation between the political poles.

But it would appear at last that the technophiles are rediscovering the political as a problem-space whose rationality is not reducible to straightfoward instrumental calculation. Much of this shift is attributable to the fact that the latest generation of technological radicals are emerging out of the context of social and environmental activism first, rather than as coders whose definitive encounter with the political was one of technically illiterate regulators trying to censor their networks without much awareness of their beauty or power. And certainly it would seem that living through the humiliations of the dot-bomb has curtailed the dot-bombast of many of the most egregious Randroid types at least.

In the comments section to Steffen’s piece, Paul Harrison points to the emerging significance of free software and open source as prompts for the more general shift away from Blight. “I think there's a fundamental difference between an open source leader and a traditional leader (or entrepreneur). A person like Linus Torvalds doesn't set bold plans, decide the next big thing, and so on. Instead what Linus does is review a great many patches and ideas, picking out the good ones for inclusion in Linux. Same sort of thing applies to web sites. The best people to run big web sites are probably the ones that are good at filtering and filing, not being original.” Less rugged individualism and more bricolage can only be a step in the right direction!

Steffen himself concentrates his attentions on the ways in which simply inhabiting networks re-acquaints us with the unique demands and promises of political rationality – which is never about just means and ends (and what later on he describes as an obsession with “performance metrics”), but working together toward ends that differ and that change in the attaining of them. “[C]hanging the world is all about changing the network,” he points out. “It's about playing well with others… [finding] willing allies and ready resources. And I would submit that these things far more often emerge from collaboration and networks than they spring from the foreheads of Fountainhead-style visionaries. When doing social change work, the strength and quality of the connections matters at least as much as the leadership zeal of any particular node. That being the case, business (at least business as it functioned in the 20th Century) is in fact exactly the wrong model for leadership development. You don't want to train a whole mess of egotists who excel at making funding pitches to boards.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Marriage Evolves

Definitely it is a pleasure to observe the flummoxed frustration of social conservatives who are beginning to realize that widespread homophobic hate is no longer a tool they can count on quite so confidently as they once did to divide otherwise reasonable people from one another.

My own partner Eric and I are content for now to be "domestic partners" (here in California this status actually amounts to something), and have no immediate plans to marry even when we legally can. But definitely we are thrilled at the spectacle of happy couples enjoying the recognition and social support they desire and deserve.

Even though the headlines are focusing on the ways in which gay families mirror so-called "traditional" ones and so deserve equal protection -- there is little question that widespread support of gay marriage will help marriage continue to evolve from a patriarchal institution that traffics in women as property, or as a social support for strictly heterosexual reproduction, into the social recognition of and support for all kinds of significant mutual dependencies and affiliations among people, whether reproductive or not at all.

It's nice to think that legalizing gay marriage is a stepping stone along a road that will eventuate in a richer recognition and support and legal protection of the diversity of modes of human affiliation and responsibility as they actually play out in the world -- diverse partnership arrangements, group marriages, flexible-parenting contracts, and so on.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Celebrity Cyborgs

Check out these incredible Photoshopped images of Celebrity Cyborgs.

Stop Congratulating Yourselves, Digirati, and Get Back to Work

[via Amor Mundi] I agree with the many people who are claiming now that the wide circulation of damning digital images and documents from Iraq and elsewhere might begin to contribute -- now that people are finally talking about these things in sufficient numbers -- to a turning of the tide that will culminate in the toppling of the current inept and immoral U.S. Administration.

But the sudden avalanche of articles about how digital dissemination will always topple tyrants looks to me like just so much hype-edged hysteria. Militarism, social justice, and democracy are actually topics too important to be reduced to yet one more occasion for pampered North American early-adopting web-enthusiasts to indulge in another interminable and very-public self-congratulatory circle-jerk about their splendid toy-pile.

One wonders how this latest Net Bubble squares its heady joys with the reality that the same digital networks and cameras existed to document the largest anti-war protests in the history of the planet, protests in which informed and respected voices routinely claimed that there were no weapons of mass destruction to find in Iraq, that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, that real democratic liberation is never imposed at gunpoint, that oil-money should not be valued more than human beings.

One would imagine that with so many millions of people on the side of truths so palpable (and now proved), the digital tools that existed then as now should have made a better showing at frustrating the drumbeat for these hideously pointless and destructive neocon war adventures.

But they didn't.

And that must also be part of a balanced accounting of the political impact of digital networks.

The same digital tools that can provide a check on tyrants can be deployed opportunistically by tyrants to secure the appearance of justification and consent for their crimes.

Digital media can generate wonderfully consolidating echo-chambers for spin, they can facilitate distraction from reasonable objections, they can be machineries for the swift character assassination of critics, they can whomp up environments of uncritical mania in which reasonable voices however loud and clear are as good as silent, they can bury truths in spam and scandal, they can exacerbate information asymmetries to harass the weak, and often enough they can veil the wrongdoing of the powerful for just long enough.

Sure, new tools change things. With luck and good will and hard work they change things for the better. But anybody who wants to tell you that new tools will change everything wants to sell you something. Sometimes they want to sell you something while they sell themselves the same thing, which is worse.

Here's your assignment, democratic digirati: Prove to me your triumphalist theses about the digital networked communication and information technologies are righteous by shining your digital spotlight on prison abuses in the United States right this minute, and on the problem of rape in the United States military right now. Let's see if the domestic analogues to the current scandals provoke comparable outrage and prompt comparable and needed demands for change.

Use your cool tools, my Netizen friends and comrades. I assure you the images, the texts, the exhibitions, the testimony, the broken promises and broken lives are all there. Show me how the new emergent democracy of many to many digitality can speak truth to power and make the world a better place.

It's not that I think you can't do it. It's that I think only you can do it. Your tools are waiting for you to make good use of them. They don't give a damn about the uses to which you or the tyrants you decry will put them. It's you who wants to be free. Information doesn't want anything.