Sunday, October 31, 2010

Health Care Brownshirts

The guy in this video is retired (thank god) General Willian G. Boykin, who was Undersecretary of Intelligence in the State Department under George Bush. He was previously known for publicly and in uniform spouting off thing like "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Loci of desire

I haven't yet read Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants. I suspect I'll find it mostly annoying -- he has a habit of addressing issues I care and think about, in ways that are sort of like my own opinions, but taken too far or off in some quasi-theological direction that I find grating (OK, and the fact that he reaches orders of magnitude more readers than I do might also contribute to my annoyance). But I did pick it up in the bookstore and look in the index to find no mention of Bruno Latour, which was slightly surprising, since Latour has been talking about investing agency into non-humans for decades.

But then it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally different about Kelly's view and Latour's (disclaimer: I actually have no idea what Kelly's view is, I'm judging the book by its title which may not be fair). Latour grants agency to things, but I very much doubt he would ever imbue technology as a whole with desires, as Kelly does. Latour is interested in the politics of things and the networks that connect things and people; their alliances, their conflicts, their failures and triumphs. His project is to tease out and describe these networks -- for instance, how a mass spectrograph connects the researchers and engineers who developed it, the manufacturer, its purchasers and users, the inscriptions it generates, the actual sample being measured, and the theory it will hopefully support. Under the Latourian view humans and non-humans have ontologically equal status and are connected in networks as equals.

That is an intriguing if difficult idea, but it's very different from Kelly's, which posits some sort of overarching teleology. In Latour's world model, everything (technology included) is radically distributed and radically democratic. In Kelly's, technology is some external, autonomous, and presumably unstoppable force of nature rolling over humanity like a tidal wave of disruption.

I can actually see merits to both views; they can both be useful perspectives. But I think Latour's is subtler, richer, and ultimately more humanistic since it is all about how the desires of humans and technologies are connected.

Damn, now I guess I'll have to read Kelly's book to see if I'm being unfair to it.

The broader issue is one that has obsessed me for some time -- the fact that in the modern era nobody really knows what wants are or where they come from. A whole constellation of forces, from the Freudian unconscious and the Darwinian roots of behavior through the modern-day manipulation of the mass media -- all conspire to make it glaringly obvious that desire is never a simple act of an atomic self. So what is it, and how do we talk about it intelligently?

Here's another critique of Kelly's book, also unfair since it came out more than 30 years before he wrote his.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In the vortex we are all free

I need to have a tag for "semi-interesting, semi-weird things I stumble upon in downtown SF while waiting for my kids to finish their activities". Last time it was a Ron Paul rally, today it was a piece of the Bioneers Conference, which is some sort of high-end new-age green whole-earthy gathering. They were having a free film screening at the SF Library so I saw some of these visions of doom:

Here's a quite good one from the same series, in which Werner Herzog provides the voice for a plastic bag on an existential quest:

Plastic Bag Trailer (By Futurestates and narrated by Werner Herzog) from Strawberry Earth on Vimeo.

Like the Singularity Summit, there's a few things going on at Bioneers that seem interesting (like a Buckminster Fuller workshop and a session on green chemistry) but the general atmosphere would give me hives. And it seems way too much like a trade show for some shady industry.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Lighting out for the territories

This week's vocabulary word is pantisocracy, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1794 to describe a utopian scheme cooked up by him and his friend Robert Southey. They proposed to get 12 families to emigrate to America and live communally, and even had location picked out (the Susquehanna Valley, for some reason).
Their plan is as follows: Twelve gentlemen of good education and liberal principles are to embark with twelve ladies in April next..... Their opinion was that they should settle in a delightful part of the new back settlements; that each man would labor two or three hours in a day, the produce of which labor would, they imagine, be more than sufficient to support the colony ..... The produce of their industry is to be paid up in common for the use of all; and a good library is to be collected, and their leisure hours are to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children..... The regulations relating to the females strike them as the most difficult; whether the marriage contract shall be dissolved if agreeable to one or both parties..... America is certainly a desirable country.
It's easy to hear the pre-echos of the Zionist movement 100 years later, or the 1960s communards. Coleridge and friends never realized their dream, and he sought utopia in opium instead:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
I don't see today's youth investing in such romantic schemes, which is probably for the best. The world no longer has large uncolonized areas for elites to project their fantasies onto. Burning Man is a party where people pretend to be pantisocrats for a week. Maybe the next crop of idealists will put their energy into re-engineering the places they find themselves in rather than looking for an empty place to build on from scratch.

[for John Lennon's 70th]

Sunday, October 03, 2010

I, for one, welcome our new Chinese technocrat overlords

Hacker/activist Jeff Lindsay was musing about what a technologist political party would look like (possibly inspired by today's idiot Thomas Friedman column which is best answered by this 50-year-old Jules Feiffer cartoon).

I mentioned the American technocracy movement, with its roots in Edward Bellamy's scary utopia and Thorsten Veblen's "soviet of technicians". But that's just me being retro; most technopolitics these days is larded up with libertarian ideology, so that the idea that scientists and engineers should actually run society is not even considered, because libs believe nobody should run society.

But I also accidentally learned today that almost all the leaders of China are engineers by training. The premier, Wen Jiabao is one of them -- he has a postgraduate degree from the Beijing Institute of Geology. He was on Fareed Zakaria's show today and despite being a ranking member of the Communist Party was recommending as his favorite books Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments and Marcus Aurelius.

So, we're doomed. Not to extinction perhaps, but to eclipse. We're run by a combination of lawyers and lunatics; how could a society run by wise engineers not surpass us? Presumably a society run by engineers will at least not neglect to invest in infrastructure like we do.

The US still has a lot on the ball in its ability to do science, engineering, and innovation. But I worry about the macro-scale level of investment necessary to continue to do such things, particularly in education. The advantage of a strong, centralized, semi-authoritarian state is that it can easily decide to make such investments. The post-WWII US had that property; all the centralizing forces of the war were redeployed into a military-industrial-academic complex that gave us the computer industry and the Internet. But that was in economic good times; now that we've squandered our wealth it is hard to maintain that kind of machine.