Back on 2/25/2001, Jeff Davis wrote in response to the discussion Barbara
Lamar and I had been having about the uses and abuses of “rhetoric” in the
cultural and political contest between people seeking progress and those
opposed to it:
>To reclaim the dialectic you must distinguish between the dialectic of
>discussion, a fundamentally rational activity, and the dialectic of debate
>which is political action in action. In the politics of Luddism the
>ambitious self-serving political leadership of the Luddite herd seeks to
>whip it into a frenzy and send it stampeding toward their political
>adversaries with the intent of stomping, routing, and scattering them into
>political defeat. You won't reclaim the dialectic by reasoned and
>temperate discussion with the stampeding herd. For this dialectic you
>something with (counter-)action potential like loud frightening noises,
>barbed wire, or a stampeding herd of you own, headed on an intercept
>course. And then, you only need such a defensive response if the Luddite
>herd is genuinely dangerous, and not some phantom of media feedback and
>exaggeration. Which is my view.
>The luddite-lites of today are mere chittering henny-pennies, impressed
>with their own fierce screeching, and intoxicated with the fantastic
>delusion--"the impostume of too much wealth and peace"--that they are
>crusaders on an heroic mission to rescue imperiled Gaia.
>Meanwhile, they're out-manned, out-resourced, and out-motivated by their
>opposition. Responsible grown-ups, a vast legion of scientists the world
>over, and even vaster legions of hard-working people made eminently
>practical by enforced austerity strive for better living through
>technology, coping as gently as they can with overprivileged homo hystericus.
>Pedantic waste of bandwidth. Nevermind.
Not at all. As regular readers here will know, I personally consider this
to be a set of issues of paramount importance to those who would promote
the transhumanist agenda. Jeff, you point to two distinct but related questions.
The first is whether the “neo-luddites” are a real threat to progress or
are, instead, a “phantom of media feedback and exaggeration.” The second,
related question, is the real potential these folks have for influence on
There are two approaches to the first question. On the one hand, one can
consider the question as a purely “cultural” one, i.e. we can consider the
phenomenon of the neo-luddites solely within the context of the words and
images of culture, in which EVERYTHING is, in a sense, a “phantom of media
feedback”. In this view, I think we can conclude that they are NOT some
ephemeral will-o-the-wisp, but have become a real force in their own right
that is having a significant influence on cultural phenomena beyond the
confines of their own partisan organizations. Their leading spokespeople
get a respectful hearing in the mainstream media and, perhaps as a more
important measure of their importance, attract significant funding.
Beyond this, one can ask the more important question: Do the folks who have
explicitly identified themselves as enemies of technological progress have
an influence on public policy outside the realm of mere words and ideas?
Again, I think the answer is clearly yes. On the one hand, the decidedly
anti-technology views increasingly expressed in the regulatory regimes of
the European Union and the Pacific branch of the “Anglosphere” come from
SOMEWHERE. On the other, the “anti-globalist” ideology is becoming a more
and more well-defined political position that I see coming to take the place
that traditional Marxist ideas and policies played as an attractor for groups
throughout the world that perceive themselves to be “disenfranchised”, from
Third World political parties to a wide range of interest groups in the
First World. In the 21st Century, a conservative, basically anti-scientific
and anti-rationalist “naturism” is increasingly taking the place that straightforward
Marxism played as the leading “alternative ideology” in the 20th Century.
Assuming this analysis is correct, can we yet gauge the potential influence
that this new ideology might have on our future? I think we can definitely
see real gains by Rifkinite conservatives in the kinds of policies being
implemented by the European Union toward human genetic engineering and the
increasing prominence of the term “the precautionary principle” being used
by a wide front of groups opposed to continued technological progress.
The coalition of groups forming behind implementation of “the precautionary
principle” as a basic tenet of public policy toward research and development
of new technologies is becoming a more real political force every day.
By adopting that term – which suggests a simple, reasonable caution in the
face of untried technologies – the neo-luddites have seized a significant
rhetorical advantage that masks the impossibility of ever proving a negative.
Any lawyer will tell you that the allocation of the burden of proof is
often “outcome determinative” in any inquiry into disputed facts. Any trial
lawyer will tell you that having to prove a negative – especially when the
burden is cast as, say “beyond a reasonable doubt” – is for all intents
and purposes a pre-judgment of the facts.
By injecting “the precautionary principle” into a broad front of public
debate about technological development, the neo-luddites have stolen a march
on those who would continue to press forward the program of the Enlightenment.
In this respect, Rifkin and his ideological kin have done the same sort
of thing that anti-abortion activists did when they came to characterize
their views as “pro-life”. Who can be “anti-life”? It took a concerted
effort on the part of proponents of abortion rights to re-cast their views
as “pro-choice”, a rhetorical move that reformulated the political expression
of their policies in terms essentially skew to that chosen by their opponents.
And, just as those choices about rhetorical formulation ended up creating
a kind of “ideological trench warfare” in which no real “victory” for either
side was possible, I fear that the same kind of deep entrenchment of views
lies ahead on the broader front of social policy toward transhumanist technologies.
I feel there is nothing to be gained by not being quite clear about what
is at stake and how I foresee that this conflict will develop. I have become
convinced that the issues that have been grasped by the anti-globalists
and neo-luddites will become the defining issues of the cultural, political
and economic realms in the coming decades and that there is an inevitable
deep-seated conflict between them and those who endeavor to continue with
the program of progress through individual liberty, science and technology
begun in the Enlightenment. With every new development in genetics, robotics
and nanotechnology, the cultural and political conflict will become more
acute. The conflict cannot be ignored or made to go away by attempts to
This is why I believe that attempts to express the basic values of the Enlightenment
in terms relevant to the kinds of technological power we are developing
are so important. This is why I am an extropian. We MUST develop and promulgate
a set of values that can serve as a robust guide to action in society with
regard to the technological progress that is now upon us. Those who would
bring such progress to a halt have already begun the work of both ideological
development and political organization and action. Failing to respond in
kind is equivalent to ceding control of the future.
Greg Burch firstname.lastname@example.org
GBurch1@aol.com - email@example.com
Attorney::Vice President, Extropy Institute
"We never stop investigating. We are never
satisfied that we know enough to get by.
Every question we answer leads on to another
question. This has become the greatest
survival trick of our species."
-- Desmond Morris
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