Digifesto

Tag: politics

three kinds of social explanation: functionalism, politics, and chaos

Roughly speaking, I think there are three kinds of social explanation. I mean “explanation” in a very thick sense; an explanation is an account of why some phenomenon is the way it is, grounded in some kind of theory that could be used to explain other phenomena as well. To say there are three kinds of social explanation is roughly equivalent to saying there are three ways to model social processes.

The first of these kind of social explanation is functionalism. This explains some social phenomenon in terms of the purpose that it serves. Generally speaking, fulfilling this purpose is seen as necessary for the survival or continuation of the phenomenon. Maybe it simply is the continued survival of the social organism that is its purpose. A kind of agency, though probably very limited, is ascribed to the entire social process. The activity internal to the process is then explained by the purpose that it serves.

The second kind of social explanation is politics. Political explanations focus on the agencies of the participants within the social system and reject the unifying agency of the whole. Explanations based on class conflict or personal ambition are political explanations. Political explanations of social organization make it out to be the result of a complex of incentives and activity. Where there is social regularity, it is because of the political interests of some of its participants in the continuation of the organization.

The third kind of social explanation is hardly an explanation at all. It is explanation by chaos. This sort of explanation is quite rare, as it does not provide much of the psychological satisfaction we like from explanations. I mention it here because I think it is an underutilized mode of explanation. In large populations, much of the activity that happens will do so by chance. Even large organizations may form according to stochastic principles that do not depend on any real kind of coordinated or purposeful effort.

It is important to consider chaotic explanation of social processes when we consider the limits of political expertise. If we have a low opinion of any particular person’s ability to understand their social environment and act strategically, then we must accept that much of their “politically” motivated actions will be based on misconceptions and therefore be, in an objective sense, random. At this point political explanations become facile, and social regularity has to be explained either in terms of the ability of social organizations qua organizations to survive, or the organization must be explained in a deflationary way: i.e., that the organization is not really there, but just in the eye of the beholder.

Reflecting on “Technoscience and Expressionism” by @FractalOntology

I’ve come across Joseph Weissman’s (@FractalOntology) “Technoscience and Expressionism” and am grateful for it, as its filled me in on a philosophical position that I missed the first time around, accelerationism. I’m not a Deleuzian and prefer my analytic texts to plod, so I can’t say I understood all of the essay. On the other hand, I gather the angle of this kind of philosophizing is intentionally psychotherapeutic and hence serves and artistic/literary function rather than one that explicitly guides praxis.

I am curious about the essay because I would like to see a thorough analysis of the political possibilities for the 21st century that gets past 20th century tropes. The passions of journalistic and intellectual debate have an atavistic tendency due to a lack of imagination that I would like to avoid in my own life and work.

Accelerationism looks new. It was pronounced in a manifesto, which is a good start.

Here is a quote from it:

Democracy cannot be defined simply by its means — not via voting, discussion, or general assemblies. Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery. This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves. We need to posit a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality, to avoid becoming the slaves of either a tyrannical totalitarian centralism or a capricious emergent order beyond our control. The command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network.

Hell yeah, the Enlightenment! Sign me up!

The manifesto calls for an end to the left’s emphasis on local action, transparency, and direct democracy. Rather, it calls for a muscular hegemonic left that fully employs and deploys “technoscience”.

It is good to be able to name this political tendency and distinguish it from other left tendencies. It is also good to distinguish it from “right accelerationism”, which Weissman identifies with billionaires who want to create exurb communities.

A left-accelerationist impulse is today playing out dramatically against a right-accelerationist one. And the right-accelerationists are about as dangerous as you may imagine. With silicon valley VCs, and libertarian technologists more generally reading Nick Land on geopolitical fragmentation, the reception or at least receptivity to hard-right accelerants seems problematically open (and the recent $2M campaign proposing the segmentation of California into six microstates seems to provide some evidence for this.) Billionaires consuming hard-right accelerationist materials arguing for hyper-secessionism undoubtedly amounts to a critically dangerous situation. I suspect that the right-accelerationist materials, perspectives, affect, energy expresses a similar shadow, if it is not partly what is catalyzing the resurgence of micro-fascisms elsewhere (and macro ones as well — perhaps most significant to my mind here is the overlap of right-acceleration with white nationalism, and more generally what is deplorably and disingenuously called “race realism” — and is of course simply racism; consider Marine le Pen’s fascist front, which recently won 25% of the seats in the French parliament, UKIP’s resurgence in Great Britain; while we may not hear accelerationist allegiances and watchwords explicitly, the political implications and continuity is at the very least somewhat unsettling…)

There is an unfortunate conflation of several different points of view here. It is too easy to associate racism, wealth, and libertarianism as these are the nightmares of the left’s political imagination. If ideological writing is therapeutic, a way of articulating ones dreams, then this is entirely appropriate with a caveat. The caveat being that every nightmare is a creation of ones own psychology more so than a reflection of the real world.

The same elisions are made by Sam Frank in his recent article thematizing Silicon Valley libertarianism, friendly artificial intelligence research, and contemporary rationalism as a self-help technique. There are interesting organizational ties between these institutions that are validly worth investigating but it would be lazy to collapse vast swathes of the intellectual spectrum into binaries.

In March 2013 I wrote about the Bay Area Rationalists:

There is a good story here, somewhere. If I were a journalist, I would get in on this and publish something about it, just because there is such a great opportunity for sensationalist exploitation.

I would like to say “I called it”–Sam Frank has recently written just such a sensationalist, exploitative piece in Harper’s Magazine. It is thoroughly enjoyable and I wouldn’t say it’s inaccurate. But I don’t think this is the best way to get to know these people. A better one is to attend a CFAR workshop. It used to be that you could avoid the fee with a promise to volunteer, but that there was a money-back guarantee which extended to ones promise to volunteer. If that’s still the case, then one can essentially attend for free.

Another way to engage this community intellectually, which I would encourage the left accelerationists to do because it’s interesting, is to start participating on LessWrong. For some reason this community is not subject to ideological raids like so many other community platforms. I think it could stand for an influx of Deleuze.

Ultimately the left/right divide comes down to a question of distribution of resources and/or surplus. Left accelerationist tactics appear from here to be a more viable way of seizing resources than direct democracy. However, the question is whether accelerationist tactics inevitably result in inequalities that create control structures of the kind originally objected to. In other words, this may simply be politics as usual and nothing radical at all.

So there’s an intersection between these considerations (accelerationist vs. … decelerationism? Capital accumulation vs. capital redistribution?) and the question of decentralization of decision-making process (is that the managerialism vs. multistakeholderism divide?) whose logic is unclear to me. I want to know which affinities are necessary and which are merely contingent.

Follow the money back to the media

I once cared passionately about the impact of money in politics. I’ve blogged about it here a lot. Long ago I campaigned for fair elections. I went to work at a place where I thought I could work on tools to promote government transparency and electoral reform. This presidential election, I got excited about Rootstrikers. I vocally supported Buddy Roemer. Of course, the impact of any of these groups is totally marginal, and my impact within them even more so. Over the summer, I volunteered at a Super PAC, partly to see if there was any way the system could be improved from the inside. I found nothing.

I give up. I don’t believe there’s a way to change the system. I’m going to stop complaining about it and just accept the fact that democracy is a means of balancing different streams of money and power, full stop.

There is silver lining to the cloud. The tools for tracking where campaign donations are coming from are getting better and better. MapLight, for example, seems to do great work. So now we can know which interests are represented in politics. We can sympathize with some and condemn others. We can cheer for our team. Great.

But something that’s often omitted in analysis of money in politics is: where does it go?

So far the most thorough report I’ve been able to find on this (read: first viable google hit) was this PBS News Hour. It breaks it down pretty much as you would expect. The money goes to:

  • Television ads. Since airtime is limited, this means that political ads were being aired very early on.
  • Political consultants who specialize in election tactics.
  • Paid canvassers, knocking door-to-door or making phone calls to engage voters.

Interesting that so much of the money flows to media outlets, who presumably raise prices for advertising when candidates are competing for it with deep pockets. So… the mainstream media benefits hugely from boundless campaign spending.

Come to think of it, it must be that the media benefits much more than politicians or donors from the current financing system. Why is that? A campaign is a zero-sum game. Financially backing a candidate is taking a risk on their loss, and in a tight race one is likely to face fierce competition from other donors. But the outlets that candidates compete over for airtime and the consultants who have “mastered” the political system get to absorb all that funding without needing any particular stake in the outcome of the election. (Once in office, can a politician afford to upset the media?)

Who else benefits from campaign spending? Maybe the telecom industry, since all the political messaging has to run over it.

Maybe this analysis has something to do with why generating political momentum around campaign finance reform is a grueling uphill battle. Because the more centralized and powerful a media outlet, the more it has to gain from expensive campaign battling. It can play gatekeeper and sell passage to the highest bidder.

Taking it one step farther: since the media, through its selection of news items, can heavily influence voters’ perception of candidates, it is in their power to calibrate their news in a way that necessitates further spending by candidates.

Suppose a candidate is popular enough to win an election by a landslide. It would be in the interests of media outlets to start portraying that candidate badly, highlighting their gaffes or declaring them to be weak or whatever else, to force the candidate to spend money on advertising to reshape the public perception of them.

What a racket.

averting the techno-apocalypse

I was worried when I wrote this that I was exaggerating the phenomenon of literati denouncing technical progress. Then I happened upon this post by a pseudonymous Mr. Teacup, which echoes themes from Morozov’s review.

(At a company Christmas party, we exchanged Secret Santa gifts drawn from each other’s Amazon wish lists. I received Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and was asked by the Ivy-League educated hacker founder what the book was about. I explained that the book’s lost cause was Enlightenment values, and he was totally shocked by this because he had never heard that they were even in doubt – a typical example of hackers’ ignorance of intellectual trends outside their narrow fields of engineering expertise. But this naivety may explain why some parts of the public finds Silicon Valley’s pseudo-revolutionary marketing message so compelling – their hostility to the humanities has, for good or ill, spared them the influence of postmodernity, so that they are the only segment of society that unselfconsciously adopts universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Admittedly, this rhetoric is misleading and conceals a primarily capitalist agenda. Nonetheless, the public’s misrecognition of Silicon Valley’s potential to liberate also contains a moment of truth.)

All of this is true. But it’s also a matter of perspective. The “narrow fields of engineering expertise” require, to some extent, an embrace of Enlightenment values and universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, the humanities, which have adopted a kind of universal-problematic rhetoric (in which intellectual victory is achieved by labeling something as ‘problematic’), are themselves insulated. Can it be truthfully said that such rhetoric is an ‘intellectual trend’ outside of the narrow fields of high brow wordslinging?

I wouldn’t know, as I’ve been exposed enough to both sides to have gotten both bugs. And, I’d guess, so has Mr. Teacup, who writes in what I believe is an hyperintellectualized parody:

The reader will find in these pages a repository of chronologically-arranged personal writings on topics at turns varied and repetitious, circulating around certain themes: the Internet and the problematics of New Media; Capitalism; Anti-Capitalism; Psychoanalysis; Film; the works of Žižek, Lacan and others; etc.

…while the author is in fact a web professional living in this century.

I think Mr. Teacup does a good job of diagnosing some of the roots of technophobia. The technophobe denies that the technologists are in fact transforming society because they believe change is possible and are terrified that it will occur, while the technologist is happy to say that Things are Changing–but just as they Always Have, though perhaps much more significantly in their era. (Isn’t the rate of technological change “increasing”? Isn’t that a natural consequence of Moore’s law?)

Those who domesticate social change are telling us that nothing is going to happen: “Yes, things will change, but don’t worry about it! Society will adjust and everything will go back to normal.” This is true conservatism. But some are afraid, because they believe change can really happen. (For example, the Tea Party is the only political group that believes in socialism, while progressives continually deny that it is a possibility.)

What if the converse is also true: those who believe in change are afraid, and this is not the same as opposing it. The technophobic nightmare scenarios of machines spinning out of control is not a delusional fantasy. On the contrary, it gives us an extremely accurate psychological representation of what genuine social change entails. The radical step is to simply endorse it. From the standpoint of the old ways, the birth of the New must be subjectively experienced as an apocalyptic event.

So, Morozov‘s loathing of the Hybrid Reality Institute is due to what again? A legitimate fear that technological change will usher in an autocratic regime that is run by technocratic industrialists without democratic consent. Mr. Teacup writes:

This reveals the general problem with deconstructing the human-technology binary: it frequently undermines legitimate grievances about the coercive uses of technology. People are not that stupid, they don’t oppose technology because they don’t realize they are always-already technologically mediated. They oppose technology because they do realize it – this is what makes it a crucial site of political resistance.

The problem, though, is that technophobia, however entertainingly it is articulated, will do nothing to stop technical change, because (as it’s already been conceded) the people responsible for technical change don’t bother reading expansive critiques informed by the intellectual trends in the humanities. Rather, it seems that technologists are developing their own intellectual tradition based on theories of the Singularity and individual rationality. A more mathematized, libertarian, and pragmatic great-grandchild of Enlightenment thought.

The question for those concerned with the death of democratic politics or the rise of technocolonialism, then, has got to be: how do you do better than whining? Given that technological change is going to happen, how can it be better steered towards less “problematic” ends?

The difficulty with this question is that it is deeply sociotechnical. Meaning, it’s a question where social and technical problems are interleaved so densely that it requires expertise from both sides of the aisle. Which means that the literati and digerati are going to have to respectfully talk to each other.