Friday, July 01, 2005

Technorealism?

From the important historical site Technorealism.Org:

In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to maintain our bearings. The developments that unfold each day in communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? Should we welcome or fear them?

The answer is both. Technology is making life more convenient and enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. But it is also affecting work, family, and the economy in unpredictable ways, introducing new forms of tension and distraction, and posing new threats to the cohesion of our physical communities.

Despite the complicated and often contradictory implications of technology, the conventional wisdom is woefully simplistic. Pundits, politicians, and self-appointed visionaries do us a disservice when they try to reduce these complexities to breathless tales of either high-tech doom or cyber-elation. Such polarized thinking leads to dashed hopes and unnecessary anxiety, and prevents us from understanding our own culture.

Over the past few years, even as the debate over technology has been dominated by the louder voices at the extremes, a new, more balanced consensus has quietly taken shape. This document seeks to articulate some of the shared beliefs behind that consensus, which we have come to call technorealism.

Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and appropriate use.

As technorealists, we seek to expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism. We are technology "critics" in the same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art critics, or literary critics. We can be passionately optimistic about some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others. Still, our goal is neither to champion nor dismiss technology, but rather to understand it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values.

Technoprogressivism Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia

[via Amor Mundi] 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 assumes that technological 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.

While some technoprogressive positions will amount to little more than uncritical technophilia, it is crucial to recognize that there is no necessity about this, and it is likewise true that not all advocates of particular bioconservative positions are uncritically technophobic either.

In their more reasonable versions, both technoprogressivism and bioconservatism 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 seems to me that what is wanted in this unprecedented historical moment of technoconstituted quandary and confusion is a new technocriticism. What is wanted are new critical technocentric discourses and practices, equally attentive to the complex and competing costs, risks, benefits, and promises of radical and intimate technological developments and prosthetic practices.

Technocriticism must strive to remain a constellation of disciplines devoted to the study of technological development considered as personal and social practices of research, invention, appropriation, use, meaning-making, argumentation, and discourse. It must relentlessly resist the prompts to treat technological development as some culturally indifferent accumulation of useful inventions, or as the presumed unfolding of developmental inevitabilities inhering in the "tools themselves," else it will usually just devolve into varieties of delusive reductionism or self-congratulation.

“Descriptive” projects of technocriticism include some scholarship in the history of technology and invention, in science and technology studies, in technocentric ethnography, and especially in technocultural studies. More “prescriptive” forms of technocriticism consist of the various branches of technoethics, for example, media criticism, bioethics, neuroethics, roboethics, existential risk assessment, and environmental criticism and design theory.

Just as it is true that the lack of adequate language will limit our capacity to break through the crust of customary assumptions, to overcome the dreary ritual debates of established antagonists, close off our imaginations to thinking otherwise, I hope that providing new terms, new disciplinary locations, new positions, new problems, new figures, new tropes, new topics, new frames will enrich the field in which our imaginations, our strategies, and our conversations might make their play.

Beyond technophilia and technophobia? There are whole worlds of technocentrism, technocriticism, and technoprogressivism.

Let’s find out what we are capable of.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

A transhumanist brain bug?

From Micheal Wong's Brain Bugs essay:

"Brain bugs" is my personal term for ideas which are implanted in the collective consciousness of sci-fi fans. They enter through the ears ... and warp themselves around the cerebral cortex. This has the effect of making the victim extremely susceptible to ... suggestion. As they grow ... follows madness. And- oh, I'm sorry, am I quoting Khan again? Anyway, these ideas start as an insignificant microbe and then grow of their own accord, gradually infecting the mind like a malignant tumour.

This is generally not a problem with a sci-fi series that is authored (or at least closely directed) by one man. However, Star Trek is a collaborative effort spanning several decades and dozens (perhaps hundreds) of different writers, not to mention different producers. In many cases, the writers grew up as fans of earlier series, which meant that throw-away items from those earlier series became brain bugs in their minds. They infected the minds of the viewing public (including these writers), where they grew and festered for years into bloated, monstrous masses of diseased tissue. The result was that with each spin-off, minor elements of earlier series were blown completely out of proportion and became self-sustaining mythologies in their own right. In this document, I will discuss some of these brain bugs.

Evolutionary Transfigurations

Evolution is a slow process: one which is poorly understood by the general population, particularly in America, where more than half of the population expressed support for "creation theory" (a deceptive term which implies that creationism is a scientific theory) in CNN and Time polls. If you're an American and you're offended by that, I don't mean it as a national insult; more of a commiseration. There are a lot of creationists up here in Canada too; in fact, there's one or two in my office (although I can debate them into the ground, so they don't bother trying to convince me).

In any case, any animal population contains significant built-in variation. Over many generations, certain variations will be favoured by natural, artificial, or sexual selection. Those variations will become dominant, thus changing the makeup of the population and also the range of variation. Over a large number of generations and successive changes, major structural change can occur. Sufficiently large changes can make the population intersterile (ie- incapable of breeding) with other populations with which it was once compatible, thus causing evolutionary speciation.

Unfortunately, many science fiction writers seem to have no idea how evolution works, to say nothing of speciation. In their minds, structural change takes place through a miraculous transformation (bathed in white light, of course) rather than a gradual selection of preferred (and pre-existing) variants. In Star Trek, a species "evolves" to the next step in its evolutionary development by undergoing a dramatic transfiguration; in fact, there was a TNG episode called "transfigurations" in which we saw precisely that: a humanoid male who miraculously transformed into a being of white light and then floated away.

Star Trek is not the only offender. Babylon5 had an entire planetary civilization which was about to undergo such a transfiguration, but they were trapped on the cusp of their change by a soul hunter (don't ask). In these cases, we have individuals or whole populations which undergo an abrupt, dramatic change from their forebears, often in the midst of their lives (rather than simply being part of a genetic sub-group which differs from the median). This is not evolution, ladies and gentlemen! In fact, it is the opposite of evolution.So where does this brain bug come from? Well, to put it bluntly, it comes from creationism. The creationist mentality of scientific ignorance and miracles finds itself a new mouthpiece in sci-fi, where biological change occurs in dramatic, abrupt metamorphoses before your very eyes (and always bathed in white light). It doesn't take a genius to see where this theme comes from. Worse yet, Babylon5 showed us humanity 1 million years in the future, and (surprise, surprise), we have become "energy beings", floating ethereally through space in our transcendent glory. The only thing missing was the harp.