Sunday, February 4, 2007

To exist, or to be free?

We've talked a lot recently about "saving the world" and "saving humanity". Dale Carrico (one of my own favorite writers) has a different perspective: the championing of freedom and democracy above all else. The following is from a recent email from Dr Carrico. One of the great qualities of Carrico's writing is that it is dense with things to talk about. I'd like to hear Dr Brint's response to this in terms of conflicts between freedom and liberty (as he described in his book, Tragedy and Denial).
I will add, as an aside, however, that I am not too keen on the rhetoric of a humanity that needs saving when all is said and done, since what I think humanity needs most of all is to be free. I do not mean to belittle in the least the discourse of existential risk (and I am an advocate, for example, of a proportionate version of the precautionary principle as a democratizing peer-to-peer deliberative framework for technodevelopment, one that is more likely to encourage public works and r & d than to discourage them) and so on. But I do worry that the commonplace move of thinking about "the" future through repeated recourse to survival over self-creation, security over democracy, threats over promises, and more particularly elite knowledge of threats over rash and biased popular ignorance about these threats skews too much "futurist" discourse into profoundly (bio)conservative forms, usually forms that drift all-too-comfortably into ready-made neoliberal economic terms and forms of security-speak that rationalize endless military spending (that is to say, in affirmative action for elites). Again, I don't deny the dangers, but I insist that democratization yields more a robust, flexible, reliable, responsive knowledge base with which to deal with danger, and hence democracy is a priority even if one worries about danger. Again, I don't deny the instrumental force of concrete technodevelopmental outcomes, but I insist that it is not this force but the fairer distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of concrete technodevelopmental outcomes that renders them emancipatory or not.

6 comments:

mlinden said...

I'm sure this guy is smart, but maybe too smart to help the layman. I don't really understand what he's saying here. Is he saying, "Make us free and give us the tools to save ourselves" or is he saying, "If you limit technology to save the world, we won't have the technology to save the world", or is he saying a combination of both?

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

I should mention that this comment was not intended for a wide audience; rather, I lifted it out of context from a missive to Carrico's colleagues. I certainly have plenty of questions, myself. There are many ways one could interpret his comment. Is he trying to shift the debate away from a binary life-and-death paradigm? Is he assuming the "Worldchanging perspective" by asserting that we will emerge from this historical moment having either won it all--freedom, democracy, self-creation *and* existence--or having *lost* most everything we value? Apparently he is worried that outcomes of discourses that focus solely on "saving humanity" could lead to neoliberal economic policies that favor elites. Democratic values, to him, must be tightly integrated into any notion of progress. Technodevelopment, in order for it to truly count as "progress", must actually emancipate people from injustice. In other words, technological "progress" is not really progress at all unless it provides means of implementing *social* progress. And this, in my view, is the beautiful quality of Carrico's particular flavor of technocriticism: Thanks to Carrico, one can begin to understand how radically powerful technologies fit into the history of American leftist thought. "Achieving our country" (to use Richard Rorty's words) will be possible only if the "instrumental force" of technologies--which always have a political context--accelerate our politics and our relations with one another toward egalitarian ends. (Matthew, I hope this helps even a little.)

Heather said...

Wow, you guys lost me. Maybe if Carrico wrote in sentences less than six lines long...

I'm sure there are some profound and worthwhile things in there, but I can't make heads or tails of that excerpt long enough to find them.

mlinden said...

Maybe Heather and I are being left out of this conversation because Jon and Carrico are in fact the elites that they fear. Wouldn't that be ironic--liberal academic elites! I'm not worried Jon, I'm beginning to understand. Ndugu in Uganda isn't going to benefit from a fifth generation computer, but he might like some inexpensive immunizations and a sustainable food source.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Well, we might enjoy fifth-generation computers to help us write and fantasize about fantastic technologies that don't exist yet. Maybe the State Department can--with the help of us starry-eyed liberals--use those fast puppies to emancipate people. Oh, wait.

Scott said...

I would acually contend with John. Saving the world comes first, because we simply can wait for other countries to become democratized...sure I think the push isn't wronge, but the issue at hand is practicality towards specific groups of people, not abtract political agendas that may have the intensions to help the people, but never get to because of lobyist, special intrests group, donations. I hope that one realize that by making some a political action one already makes the issue become and elite...because it take money and a specific group of people do this. So regardless, even if the outcome in the longer run favors "all"...the probabity is that it will inevitably start out with the elite.....It's not a wrong path, in fact, it could have great benefits, but it is NOT the ONLY path and simply NOT the FIRST. Developing the individuals that will change the culture is a most more effective way in my opinion.

What I am taking about is not truly
"saving the world", it is about "saving ourselves"...I am not using the right words but I will try and expain the BIG difference at a later date.