Queer Technologies and Reproductive Rights

The issue of Zoe’s Law (2) remains unresolved. Three sessions of parliament have passed where the issue has been debated. I was a member of the audience in that parliament for the last two, along with a large contingent of protesters against the motion.

One of the issues that has come up around my participation was why I felt this issue was a queer issue. I thought I would take the time to explain myself on that. While I think that these matters are primarily an issue for women, they are part of a broader narrative of queer resistance against the medicalisation of bodies and bodily autonomy. For a really good contemporaneous example of this conflict, I would refer you to the opposition against medical intervention of intersex children – it is a similar refrain that homosexuals fought to have their sexuality declassified from being a mental illness 30 years ago.

Women should hopefully find allies on this issue within the queer movements, and I encourage women to embrace this issue as an intersectional one, to oppose the medicalisation of sexual bodies.

Queer Technologies

So much of the history of the queer movement has been around challenging medicalised notions of sex, sexuality, and gender, and shifting them more towards a framework that is about actualisation. By this, I mean that these struggle seek to make the experience of personality superior to the experience of embodiment, and using a variety of technologies to help change, control, and remodel our physically lived experiences to suit the designs of our personality. While the most obvious example of this relates to the use of hormones and surgery to assign and reassign sex, issues that relate to the regulation and control of reproductivity are also part of that broad spectrum.

In many ways, this struggle is directed towards the way we understand the practice of medicine, and various technologies within its purview. It seeks to move medical practice away from normalising bodies towards a position of liberating those bodies instead. That is, so much of queer resistance is against a medicalisation of sex, sexuality, and gender. It is against the co-option of medicine and science to construct our bodies in a manner that is useful only to patriarchy and heteronormative ideas.

[Queer Resistance] seeks to move medical practice away from normalising bodies towards a position of liberating those bodies instead.

Reproductive technologies are a subset of what I consider queer technologies because of the way they remove the constraints of biological determinism. They challenge traditional notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. They reconfigure them from serving reproduction, to serving a broader range of agendas, including identity, pleasure, and power.

For women, intersex people, and trans people (amongst others), queer technologies are granting autonomy over our bodies, that they might be shaped in a way that conforms with their desired experience of that body. Thus, I consider the pill as one of the world’s first queer technologies, because it helped precipitate the sexual revolution by granting women control over their reproduction.

The Medicalisation of Bodies

Medicalisation is a process that uses medical expertise and knowledge to render phenomena of living down to its basic biology and physiology.

Medicalisation is a process that uses medical expertise and knowledge to render phenomena of living down to its basic biology and physiology. Our distinctiveness is described less in the context of social characteristics, and more in terms of anatomical and biological ideas. In doing so, medicalisation tends to view difference and variation in a very pathological manner, because definitions of ‘health’ refer frequently back to standard and normal models. Consequently, medicalisation is actually counterposed with legal notions of personhood, because it actively seeks to move away from social predicates of being towards medical ones.

That is, the law is itself a social construction. It is limited by an issues called the fact-value distinction, which means that any issue before the law must distinguish between empirically observed matters (facts) and what those facts mean for society (values). Because it is almost impossible to determine what we ought to do based on what has been observed, the law must refer to social values to give those facts meaning. Thus the law is a fabric of social values, which gives meaning, agency, and power to a variety of things and interactions that happen around us.

More importantly, the law must reduce complex ideas down into simpler ones. The law is inherently reductive because it struggles to cope with ambiguities. Not only can thousands of dollars depends on an interpretation, but judges are required to return a definitive interpretation. Leaving room for ambiguity only serves to undermine a piece of legislation. Check out my Beyond Binaries policy brief for how many of these issues play out, even under a legal framework that seek to be actively inclusive.

The Carriage of Personhood

In the instance of foetal personhood, the above-mentioned issues are doubly troublesome. On one hand it personifies a foetus, and on the other hand it medicalises a mother. That is, it gives a foetus the status of a personality, and it reduces a mother to her caricature as a uterus. She is no longer a mother, but a carriage for another person.

The problem here is that this law is conflating personification with the ascription of personhood. Personification is understandable, because mothers and parents are neurologically wired to bond with their children, and humanity has historically inscribed human characteristics onto all manner of things. Even babies are capable of recognising faces, revealing that it is something of an innate skill.

However, the reason that personification must be distinguished from personhood is because one has significant social consequence. Personhood imputes agency through entitling an entity with a suite of legal rights. Agency is a crucial component of the law, because it relates to actions and agendas, not merely philosophies. To grant personhood is to grant agency to an entity. It means that that entity has the capacity to impact upon and interact with the law.

Children are given increasing amounts of agency as they mature, until they are recognised by law as being responsible for their own choices. This is another reason why it is important to allow personhood to be dependent on birth, not merely the appearance of humanity. Children may be dependent on their parents socially speaking, but a foetus is dependent for its very existence on its mother. A society can remove an infant from the custody of its mother if it deems it to be in the best interests of that child. However, the law only permits medical intervention to remove a foetus from a mother in situations that are medically justified.

Bodily Autonomy

This brings us back to my original position. These shifts Zoe’s Law (2) proposes would carry the unintended consequences of medicalising mothers and personifying foetuses. Moreover, granting personhood to a feotus grants them agency that would contrast that of the mother’s.

This is incredibly insidious, by medicalising the mother and personifying the foetus it increases the ambit around what justifies medical intervention. We have already seen one instance where a mother’s was entirely reduced to her capacity as a uterus, completely disregarding her status as a person. Moreover, external forces had to act as proxies for the feotus in order to act in this way. For these reasons, and for all the reasons I previously articulated, no law should recognise the personhood of a feotus.

Women should hopefully find allies on this issue within the queer movements, and I encourage women to embrace this issue as an intersectional one, to oppose the medicalisation of sexual bodies.

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The Heisenberg Messenger

There is a recent article that seems to have gone viral over the net. In it, the author announces that his upcoming book will allegedly substantiate that the figure of Jesus Christ was none other than a Roman conspiracy. Specifically that much of his identity and was little more than a fabrication of the Roman ruling class in order to subdue the Jewish dissidents. While I will visit the substance of this issue in brief, I will only do so to attend to a broader subject that this necessarily provokes. Usually I tend to accept that a repost is not necessarily an endorsement of content, however in this instance I saw a large number of those reposts contain positively validating messages. While I accept this is largely an anecdotal evidentiary point, I think how pervasive the issue is does not disqualify the need to revisit these issues.

Propagators of information should acquire some critical disposition to the content we reflect back to and upon our networks. [The] simple act of stating our position in response to content is the first step in separating the message from the messenger.

My main concern with the article was less to do with the content, and more to do with the rapidity that Atwill’s claim managed to take hold on popular imagination, almost in complete defiance of any valid scepticism. It is to this issue that I wish to address more significantly, because I think it speaks to the way we are absorbing and regurgitating stories via social media without any significant critical thought.

Thus, this issue provides an object lesson that necessitates a review of critical thought and our engagement with digital content. Effectively, I hope to cover some ground on being critical in the age of social media, particularly with regards to how and when we present content and the vicarious authority we lend it. It is one thing to find the article itself interesting and intriguing, but it is another to laud its content without critical reflection. I suspect that in many instances, this stands as a symbol for a desire to critique religion’s disproportionate influence on mainstream society, but done in a lazy way.

It was my observation that far too many people happily vaunted the claim on face value because it aligned with their world view or what they would like to see be truth. This is a traditional case of confirmation bias, where we accept claims presented to us because they confirm our disposition. Admittedly, much of what I will speak about is scarcely new, but considering a significant number of the people I saw posting are people with levels of university education, they should be exemplars of scepticism rather than victims of a media cycle. Education, particularly higher education, is (as a friend of mine put it) vaccination against shallow thought.

The Historicity of Jesus

This discussion refers back to questions of the historicity of Jesus, which has a number of subtle historical traps that may catch people not invested into historical studies. This is because there is a popular understanding of this figure compounded by depiction through religious doctrine; notwithstanding the validity and substance of any historical and archaeological evidence that speaks to his existence. Rather than weigh in on this issue at length, as I am neither an expert nor wishing to focus on that issue itself, these matters have been debated with great alacrity by Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Richard Carrier, all of whom have debated prominent Christian apologists.

For now, it is sufficient that I demonstrate that in making claims as to the existence of a figure that is known as Jesus, we are really attempting to position ourselves against or alongside a number of distinct claims. From a purely historical point of view, these include whether there was an actual historical Jesus, what we can know of him from evidence, whether he was actually some manner of moral philosopher, what historical acts can be attributed to him, how much of his attested philosophy and religious ideology can be verified as originating from him, and lastly how much of his attested cultural impact can actually be attributed to him.

The historian would likely stop at these points, where the theologian would being to ask questions about whether he was of divine nature and so forth. From an historical point of inquiry, one need not necessarily dismiss supernatural claims off hand, for these claims are attendant and significant in the popular understanding of this figure. They must be weighed according to some rational method. If we consider the stories of Jesus’ miraculous acts as a type of story, then we begin to ask whether there was any kernel of truth to their legend, and how much of their story has been magnified or mythologised by subsequent interpretations and iterations.

Atwill’s Claims of Conspiracy

[E]ven if there was a conspiracy, the odds that the conspirators produced a written confession and the confession survived until the present day (when few manuscripts from that period have) and has only just now been discovered… multiple the improbabilities out, and a Secret Mark-style forgery is more likely.

Atwill’s claims are nothing short of extraordinary. It makes an allegation that one of the most thoroughly studied historical figures was the direct intentional fabrication of a contemporaneous group of elites. While some have suggested that this claim is no more extraordinary than the claim than his depiction in the bible, this kind of misses the point.

Technically, if I was presented with a dilemma of Roman conspiracy vs. literal biblical account, Occam’s Razor would favour the conspiracy. This is simply because the claim of ancient conspiracy is a less extraordinary claim than the claim of miraculous powers. However, this is not the dilemma that is actually being presented, because the claims of miraculous powers are not actually juxtaposed against the claims of conspiracy. It is actually a two-part claim: it firstly refutes the existence of an historical Jesus (either entirely or partially) at least as far as the biblical account is concerned; and then goes on to propose that the biblical account was an intentional act of deception, which achieved wide-spread popularity.

Chris Hallquist provides a succinct response to why we must be sceptical of these claims, in outlining that even taking into account biblical bias amongst theological scholars, that there is nevertheless something of an academic consensus that Jesus probably existed. Moreover, those that doubt his existence do not posit a claim of conspiracy of the type that Atwill claims. He rounds off his rebuttal thusly:

[E]ven if there was a conspiracy, the odds that the conspirators produced a written confession and the confession survived until the present day (when few manuscripts from that period have) and has only just now been discovered… multiple the improbabilities out, and a Secret Mark-style forgery is more likely.

When we view the claim this way, it is much easier to see why this is actually an extraordinary claim. It would require unprecedented historical evidence, of a kind that is elusive and unlikely in its own right. As an immediate step in encountering this extraordinary claim, one of the first questions that we should be asking is who is making this claim, and whether they have any expertise to do so. In the instance of Atwill, a basic background check would reveal that he has made claims like this before, and that they have been responded to with significant criticism. Atwill seems to have no notable academic qualifications, and is not attached to a university. All this paints a picture of someone making a radical claim that is not only divorced from an academic consensus, but without any significant grounding in the field itself. This further multiplies the aforementioned improbabilities cited by Hallquist.

NB: The above is not to suggest that universities are the only persons qualified to speak on subjects, but as institutions they remain our best at ensuring that those who lay claim to academic-levels of expertise are justified in that claim. They are useful shortcuts for us in assessing someone’s ability to make claims.

Critical Social Media

It is at this point, that I now return to the question of our engagement on social media. Social media is not an environment that readily lends itself to the type of critical engagement that we might accept in academic circles. Many of these issues are magnified by the nature of social media, where we tend to inhabit echo chambers.

Most of the major social media platforms have inbuilt mechanisms that allow us to filter out information that does not resonate with our view point, and elevates ideas that do resonate instead. This creates a reinforcing social sphere that reflects back to us positions that vindicate our own expectations without credible challenge. As more and more people transfer their consumption of digital knowledge from traditional media platforms onto the loosely collaborative fora of the internet, we are increasingly exposed to a new type of media circus, one with little accountability for content, its veracity, or its framing of message.

Part of this reflects a growing fallacy regarding internet behaviour, which imputes the existence of a digital native: people whose lives have been surrounded with online engagement to the point that they natively inhabit its virtual spaces. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows that we are observing the emergence of a generation of people who intuitively use media, but lack more than a superficial understanding of its medium. Similarly, there is similar evidence that shows that while a growing number of students know how to source content for their academic writings, they do not know how to vet that content for veracity properly, or if they do simply fail to do so.

I am beginning to come to the position that we have some manner of obligation in the content that we share and re-share.

It is for these reasons that I am beginning to come to the position that we have some manner of obligation in the content that we share and re-share; particularly for those who are not merely consumers of digital content, but creators and professors of the same (I use the word profess here to mean: to make a claim of knowledge). As our media platforms become increasingly synonymous with individual presenters, our society begins to lose meaningful distinction between the message and the messenger. Our very personalities frame and contextualise any content, and as we acquire public voice, we lend veracity to the things we present. For these reasons, it is in our interests to separate those ideas that we would simply share for consideration, and those we would profess or propagate.

While I would be loath to propose some kind of artificial checklist of actions to take I think it is meritorious to consider the idea of a digital ‘professor’. Propagators of information should acquire some critical disposition to the content we reflect back to and upon our networks. Increasingly, I have come to sign any content that I am merely presenting with the statement “presented without comment” (or PWC on twitter) to signify that I am not authenticating or acknowledging its positions. I think this simple act of stating our position in response to content is the first step in separating the message from the messenger.

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Marketising Climate Change

NRM-Clusters-Map

In this article, I review the newly formed Coalition’s agenda to repeal the carbon pricing scheme implemented by the Clean Energy Bill 2011, and the policy program of the Clean Energy Plan. These actions are subsidiary to a broader political attack upon the doctrine of State-based initiatives to regulate climate change. It is perhaps most clearly manifested in their initial actions to repeal the Clean Energy Bill, as well as abolishing three agencies incentivising renewable electricity production in Australia: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), the Climate Change Authority (CCA), and the Climate Commission (CC).

That the political debate has moved on from the question of climate change to its solution is worth interrogation, but not within the scope of this article. Instead, by focusing specifically on the interactions of these agencies with potential energy markets a single thread of the debate is analysed debate while contextualising the relevant political components.

…should the policy platform produce the results anticipated by the Coalition, it would be remiss to suggest that it was due entirely due to market forces

Political Climate

Broadly speaking, the political division over climate change falls upon the Clean Energy Plan. The polarisation centres not upon climate change and denial, but the application of political ideology as to the best means to address it. The Coalition’s policy reflects a neoliberal scepticism towards government regulation, deferring instead to market-mechanisms. In counterpoint, the Clean Energy Plan exemplifies a rejection of the market alone as the means for resolution, and places incumbency upon the State to induce sufficient change.

The Clean Energy Plan is and its attendant carbon pricing is a policy program responding to anthropogenic climate change, synthesising the disciplines of environmental sciences and political economy. It emerged after a failed attempt by the Rudd government to secure an Emissions Trading Scheme, and a subsequent compromise through the hung parliament under Gillard. It implicitly entails a classical economic approach that reconciles government agenda with environment concerns, and attempts to model its program on economic rationality. This necessarily filters the debate of climate change through economic discourse, by emphasising the nature of emissions as externalities. Implicit in this position is a contention that the market cannot respond rationally to climate change, and requires government intervention (see such claims as made in this book). Typically such critiques claim that market mechanisms cannot internalise emissions because individual choices within the context of market forces are subject to profit seeking over public interest.

The counter-argument lauds the capacity of market forces in selecting for environmentally sound practices: as the externalities of the environment increase social costs, and as these demands become increasingly urgent, industry and technology are able to respond with a solution by sheer dint of the demand. In this light, the Clean Energy Plan has been criticised on a number of fronts, including an inability to realise its ideals due to economic sleight-of-hand, which prevented incentivisation; another being a failure to engage with the populace on the significance of the carbon price, beyond how it impacts on the daily cost of living. These two arguments are exemplar of climate change denialism that rejects the potential thread of a Malthusian catastrophe, as exemplified in the works of Lomborg. These critiques effectively accuse the Clean Energy Plan of environmental authoritarianism (for example).

Power Dynamics

Having laid the groundwork of these political divisions, the contentions between market-mechanisms and State-based mechanisms become much more apparent. The ‘Carbon Tax’ is easily the most visible component of State-based instruments, and the principle focus of the Coalition’s actions. However, where we see additional complications and nuances on these issues is the Coalition’s focus on the abolishment of the climate change agencies.

Firstly, the CEFC’s principle mandate was the subsidisation of renewable electricity innovation: in the last year the CEFC managed to invest $560 million in projects, including the Moree solar farm and the Taralga wind farm. Moreover, the CEFC has laid claim to having encouraged an additional $1.6 billion worth of private investment towards clean energy projects. Incoming Climate Action Minister, Greg Hunt, has critiqued the CEFC of being a green hedge fund, “borrowed in taxpayers’ name for investing in speculative ventures” . It is worthwhile noting that such actions and positions are perfectly in line with the neoliberal sentiment of deregulating interference with the market.

The predominant form of electricity production in Australia is coal, comprising 77.2% of the country’s total electricity production

However, the issue is not as reductive as there are other political and commercial interests relevant to these changes; not the least of which is the significance of Australian coal. The predominant form of electricity production in Australia is coal, comprising 77.2% of the country’s total electricity production in 2003. Though different States and Territories have specific energy policies, the aggregate cost of most electricity production is based on the price of coal at the power station: coal also constitutes one of Australia’s principle energy exports to China. So the question remains that if State-based mechanisms are removed to incentivise change and Australia is economically dependent on the coal industry, will market-mechanisms alone be sufficient to achieve the government’s mandated renewable energy targets for 2020. If critiques hold true, then deregulation will simply expose a vulnerable environmental system to greater intrusion by market mechanisms, which cannot redress the issue. If the neoliberal vision holds true, then the market should reach a point of equilibrium as the burden of environmental degradation affects consumer choices.

There are two principle issues that will significantly play into this: the first is the cost of peak coal production, and the latter is the tipping point of solar power energy production. Currently there are a series of predictions suggesting that the production of solar powered electricity may become equivalent to conventional fossil fuel production. That Germany has taken a significant lead in adopting solar powered energy production, and thus growing the global solar market. There is also predictions of the decline of the global coal market, with Citi analysis predicting coal consumption in China could peak as early as 2014. Equally compelling, there is some evidence that renewable energies are gaining confidence in the US market, to the point of being considered reliable. This competition of solar and coal energy markets is made even more pertinent in Australia, as the Climate Commission revealed a significant uptake of solar panels.

To suggest these changes signal the success of the neoliberal vision is flawed, particularly in context of these competing energy markets.

To suggest these changes signal the success of the neoliberal vision is flawed, particularly in context of these competing energy markets. Neither of these energy markets has changed significantly without some form of government intervention. In 2012, the Chinese government invested $68 billion into renewable energy, making it a leader of that investment. In comparison, Germany and its production of solar power is more difficult to determine. At first glance, Germany seems to depict a narrative of a staunchly pro-nuclear power leading changes to become the world’s top photovoltaic installer. However, some later commentary predicts the burst of the solar bubble, and Lomberg specifically critiquing the policy project as being economically unsustainable. While a genuine economic critique is far beyond the scope of this essay, it is reasonable to say that neither the reduced cost of solar power in Germany nor the peak consumption of coal in China are purely the consequence of market mechanisms.

Due to the vagaries of both China and Germany, it is far too early to predict the success or failure of the Coalition’s policy platform to respond to the issue of climate change through a high dependency on market mechanisms. Moreover, should the policy platform produce the results anticipated by the Coalition, it would be remiss to suggest that it was due entirely due to market forces, which are merely capitalising on opportunities produced through contrary political economic agendas.

Technology: the Modern Prometheus

In this article I examine the question of how intrinsically related innovation is to growth. The question is one of environmentalism because it intends to help demonstrate why we seem to consistently position issues of environmentalism through economic lenses. It’s not a perfect argument, because the approach is intended to make broad sweeping generalisations rather than a highly nuanced analysis of all the specifications.

In part, by asking this question, I am actually trying to detangle the philosophy of Prometheism from neoliberalism. As Prometheism isn’t a concept that enjoys a lot of public analysis, it is necessary to outline a few basis points. In doing so, it may seem self-evident as to why it leads to neoliberalism, and the task then becomes one to demonstrate that it is merely a necessary but not sufficient predicate.

Moreover, I wish to argue that Prometheism just as easily lends itself to economic agendas on the other side of the spectrum, including Marxism, but the end point one takes is very much an issue of one’s view on (economic) justice.

The teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.

Prometheism: Stealing Fire

The first myth of Prometheus is an Ancient Greek one, wherein a Titan stole the fire of the Olympians and gave it to Man [sic]. This is an allegory for taking the spark of innovation from the heavens. It has come to represent the idea of humanity successfully challenging the status quo set by divinity and often alludes to an element of hubris. Not so for its eponymous philosophy.

The central premise of Prometheism is one that vaunts human innovation, and does so in such a way that it predicts that human innovation will provide a solution either leading up to or as a result of any major crises we may encounter. Specifically, it often positions itself against arguments denouncing economic growth, which claim that unlimited growth will lead to a catastrophic environmental collapse. Its response is that the potential power of human ingenuity and ability to provide technological solutions far surpasses the magnitude of these issues.
One of the best ways to see this dialect is through a comparison of these following videos, first Paul Guilding’s ‘The Earth is Full’. Followed by Peter Diamandis ‘Abundance is Our Future’.

Both provide a vision of the eventual trajectory of human development, one suggesting that the only genuine way to preclude a catastrophic environmental failure is through a steady-state economic system, the other suggesting that any limits to growth will ultimately hinder humanity’s potential to discover a solution by strangling resources. In essence, the position that vaunts human innovation to provide technological solutions seems to require access to as many resources as we can provide for research.

This is a position argued strongly by such theorists like Lomborg who takes the apparently next logical step to suggest that there is no environmental crisis, “The Truth about the Environment”. A position that was iterated by other historic economists like Simon in his work, the Ultimate Resource, which places human ingenuity as a far more valuable resource than most natural resources. It was the thinking of Simon that underscored the attempts to combat ‘radical environmentalism’ articulated in Reagonomics and Thatcherism.

Technology with a big T

The reason that I consider these arguments to be falsely equivalent, that growth is inextricably linked with innovation, is because it begins with an economic premise and imposes that regime onto a technological impetus. By this I mean to allude to the way we have collectively invested some kind of agency into a shared notion of Technology and what it does for our society. That this ideal is deeply implicated, and even integrated, into almost every aspect of Western society. It is this social constructivist view of technology that makes me capitalise the word: to separate Technology as phenomenon as it interacts with society, rather than to describe an assemblage of objects and devices that humanity creates.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon. As a type of technology becomes ubiquitous its meaning is subsequently replicated throughout our society until it becomes invisible. We cease to make a conscientious connection between the two and start to unconsciously associate them. In certain extreme cases, the value we attribute to an artifact can excite and even elicit strong emotions from us, to the point where the artifact is fetishised. We need look no further than the Apple Cult for a recognisable example.

As Technology comes to represent the aggregate aspirations of human innovation, it foments an implicit teleology into the ideal it represents. Technology becomes embedded into nearly every aspect of our environment (social and physical), even serving as an intermediary for our socialisation. It begins to shape our fundamental experience of being human and lends itself to some notion of a shared manifest destiny, which is purportedly realised through humanity’s innovation.

Such notions reinforce the value of things from a humanocentric point of view (or even technocentric). Not to say that a humanist perspective is bad, but that in terms of making assessments about Technology, it comes pre-packaged with its own value system. This makes it difficult to decouple any notion of technology from a human framework. This tends to position Technology in line with human progress, and against a commonly held view of Nature. It places technology (and human capacity) in opposition to the environment, creating a crude dialectic between them. However, any conceptualisation of Nature is just as much an imaginary construct as Technology: they are both the result of humanity ascribing particular qualities onto a complex system.

The Economics of Environmentalism

I briefly mentioned how one side of the debate lent itself to Reagonomics and Thatcherism. I mention this because at the heart of this debate is how a given society responds to the systematic issues of and within the environment. Environmentalism as part of a counter-cultural movement is a decidedly Western phenomenon, positioning itself against State authority and a lack of corporate accountability. Outside the West, socio-cultural dispositions towards the environment are not politicised in the same way, and when they are they have often been a Western import.

This leads me to my next major point, being that almost entirely our sense of environmentalism is couched in economic terms. In part, this is because it is a political agenda, meaning is it a social product, and in part because it seems to be the closest type of systematic rationality we can apply to its issue. I say this, because on both sides of the debate (whether stable-state or unfettered growth), the arguments seemed to have started with an economic position, and worked their way back to the environmental system. That is, both neoliberalism and Marxism are world views of an economic nature, each predicated on a set of values. Those values can roughly be reduced to the fundamental concepts of liberty and equality respectively.

From these original positions, a kind of economical reasoning allows its relevant proponents to extrapolate a political regime of a just society and does so in such a manner as to bury the original dialectic far from sight. This was the dialect of the Cold War: iterated and reified through politics and societies; the collapse of the Soviet Union prompting the pronouncement of the victory of liberal democracy (read neoliberalism) by Fukuyama. Though hardly an original contention for student of international relations, we are now twenty years on and our retrospection of this becomes increasing removed and academic.

Let us re-examine the Western response to the environmental protests of the 60s and 70s, one that was almost Weberian in its approach. During this period we see a State treat radical environmentalism as being equivalent to the imposition of Communism, and subjected to a kind of new McCarthyism; a Green Scare if you will. The State response was much more subtle, by instating environmental ministries, by bureaucratising environmental issues, it was able to systematise the issue and placate a public demanding a response as a kind of governmentality. However, like many Western state-led environmental initiatives, the actual outcomes of any given program have often fallen far from their purported objects.

Rational Discord

If you’ve followed the monologue so far, I have attempted to demonstrate that both Technology and Nature are vulnerable to the constructivist black box. That we can interact with these things, but we cannot fundamentally know them independently of the meaning we already impose upon them. In doing so, we tend to arrive at notions of both the environment and technology with predispositions towards them.

I have also attempted to demonstrate many of the arguments and approached towards engaging with the environment are informed by underlying economic ontologies. So while on the surface the debate seems to be a contention between Technology (that human innovation is our greatest resource and therefore it should be unlimited) and Nature (that nature is a finite natural resource and therefore humanity’s impact upon it should be regulated), in reality they are built upon much more fundamental issues about how we, as societies, should organise economically: whether more towards an entirely unregulated market with an ultimate goal of prosperity (neoliberalism), or more towards a heavily regulated market that removes many individual liberties for a greater good (Communism).

Prometheism: Love Your Monsters

The second part of this article explores the other main allegory making claim to the name Promethean, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus). In her book, Dr Frankenstein uses (pseudo) science to defy the assumed natural order to revivify a dead body into an unnamed man. The scientific allegory is almost self-apparent, in a “What Has Science Done?” kind of way. Again, the parallel is one that science is humanity’s hubris against the natural order. Specifically, it is invoked in lieu of the precautionary principle.

It is to this notion that I return to one of the extrapolations of Prometheism that responds to this accusation of hubris, namely that we should love our monsters. In summary, the responding position claims that science, and all its artifacts are the consequences of human innovation; specifically that “Dr. Frankenstein’s sin was not his hubris to create life but rather his fright that led him to abandon rather than care for his creation”. In other words, it is something of an extension the original position advanced by the Prometheans. It argues that science itself provides its own solutions, and that our approach should be one of loving the works of our creation instead of abjuring them. However, there is a kind of rationality implicit in the scientific method, which doesn’t always translate into the political arena. Rather the rationality of any evidence-based position is almost always subsequently co-opted by an economic framework and it’s own particular rationality. That is, the scientific method is subsumed by rational choice theory (which means its findings are often subjected to the Tragedy of the Commons).

On Energy and Emissions

In the context of modern environmentalism, there are two core issues that are visited frequently. One reflects the source of our production (typically energy, but also acquisition of raw materials) and the other reflects the waste of our production (pollution). While there are a number of ways that these issues can be explored, the most prominent ones relate to energy, such as in renewable energy sources, and its almost directly related issue of emissions, such as in climate change. One side seeks to address what it considers to be a depletion of natural resources, and the other an impact on the environment we exist in. Rather than revisit the specifics of those debates (some of which is already alluded to in the growth vs stable-state debate above), I will instead highlight that both these debates are very frequently framed as economic issues. This is more true for energy than it is for emissions, and it is this comparison that I wish to use to help show why we tend to fall back on economic conceptualisations of the environment in order to address environmental problems.

Perhaps the most constantly visited argument relevant to energy production is its absence and our current societal dependency on a certain amount of energy production. The core issue at play is one of abundance. There is a certain amount of a resource that our society must acquire in order to produce or perform baseline functions. As the population increases, and as more of the global population modernises and industrialises, the amount of energy required increases. According to the International Energy Agency, the average energy used per person in the last decade increased by 10%, as the world population increased 27%. So the question of how much energy is available from our current sources is an important question, and one that very much aligns with some of the attendant issues with arguments for the limits of growth, viz. if there are finite energy resources then there cannot be infinite growth. Naturally, this tends to shift the burden of energy production to renewable energy sources, which are limitless (at least as far as our foreseeable future is concerned in any meaningful sense). That we are reaching a point where the production cost of solar energy (possibly our most abundant renewable energy) is able to challenge the production cost of fossil fuels. In 2008 energy power source for oil was 33.5%, coal was 26.8%, gas was 20.8% (meaning fossil fuel was a total of 81%), ‘other’ (hydro, peat, solar, wind, geothermal power, biofuels etc.) was at 12.9%, and nuclear was 5.8%. Oil and coal alone combined represented over 60% of the world energy supply in 2008.

If the production cost is the only relevant factor in changing our source of energy from a fossil fuel source, to something renewable or at least comparatively abundant and cheap like thorium and/or nuclear, or indeed the use of garbage to create fuel, those changes would be widespread. Lamentably, energy production contains other issues, including safety and emissions, which are much harder to reconcile into that equation. At this point, we naturally segue to the other half of this section: emissions.

This means that both types of initiatives [carbon pricing and emissions trading] depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first.

I won’t iterate the lengthy debates on climate change, but provide my agreement with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and very likely to be anthropogenic. Most of the major international programs that are seriously attempting to off-set climate change relate to market mechanisms, including pricing carbon or emissions trading. Both of these attempt to reconcile the externalities of emissions, by including them into the market. This means that both types of initiatives depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first. Thus, we come full circle.

Post-Scarcity

So we return to my original challenge: that is that Prometheism isn’t inherently neoliberal. The above comparison of energy and emissions politics has proved useful for the last step of this argument. Specifically, it will show how both are issues relevant to human impact upon the environment, but that there is actually a distinction between matters of allocation and distribution (how resources are applied vs. who benefits from those resources).

One of the reasons why programs turn to market-like mechanisms to help resolve energy and emission problems is because of the real costs associated with those problems, whether that’s the production cost of energy or the externalities of emissions. The prevailing system of liberal democracy in the West means that any such broad and systematic program has to somehow reconcile the private benefits that we seek to acquire as consumers versus the public goods we hope to enjoy as public citizens. However, there is a very symbiotic relationship between the market and liberal democracy. So attempting to resolve the issue of environmentalism through this framework simply reinforces the idea that the market mechanisms will provide the solutions. I say this, not because I’m about to lead to rejection of market forces (and/or capitalism), but merely to reiterate how deeply entrenched they are in almost every aspect of Western culture (I am somewhat skeptical that we can actually engage with large complex systems without filtering it through an economic lens on some level, but that’s an article for another day).

Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity.

The question remains: how would Prometheism potentially align with more socialist economic systems like Marxism? Simply put, because most of them also assume some kind of technological teleology, which will drive them towards a particular economic state. Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity. Scarcity, holds that society attempts to balance human needs against the scarcity of material resources; a technology that produces energy sufficiently cheaply would reduce its production costs to a negligible cost, meaning it would be abundant for all practical considerations: thus, achieving post-scarcity status. Albeit, post-scarcity is still a live debate, being hailed alternatively as utopia and as a pipe dream. However, both these arguments seem to be reduced to either an acceptance or a rejection of an impending Malthusian catastrophe, which is itself the core contention of growth vs stable-state economics.

In summary, the teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.

Are MOOCs a Smart Investment?

Today’s article is actually a research paper on the comparative economic benefits of forms of eLearning and base funding within the higher education sector in Australia.

You can download the brief here:

eLearning Economics

You are welcome to share this document, provided that it is linked back to this source.

Our evolution will be televised

Following my recent article, which explored the relationship between privacy and social media, I wanted to explore this issue from a slightly different angle. Apple will be introducing a kill-switch into the operating systems of its mobile devices this August. I find it interesting that the last time a smart phone kill-switch was mentioned, it elicited a significantly different response.

Namely, U.S. Patent No. 8,254,902 by Apple last year described an option to grant governments the ability intervene into wireless devices. Effectively, this patent could create an area-based kill-switch, which would impede the recording, collection, and transmission of media recorded through mobile devices. Why is the media much more forgiving this time around, and how much of this has to do with the purported use of the technology?

The abovementioned patent was ostensibly designed for socially permissible blackouts, such as for concerts, cinemas, and similar, but the explicit patent statement outlining potential use for covert police or government operations demonstrates this ability; one that could manage and control the dissemination of information from the emerging practice of ‘point-of-view’ media from the general population.

The fact that we have two such contrasting attitudes over similar technologies speaks more to our notions of security, than privacy. Accordingly, the article concerns itself with differences in public perception, particularly in relation to subtle issues around asymmetric privacy controls. To do so I will make a point of comparison with this technology and the impending distribution of Google Glass. Both devices entail an intrusion of privacy: Apple’s  intrusion is consigned to government control, while Google’s is consigned to the people.

I predict that in about five years, some of our fundamental notions of privacy will be continually contested, if not substantially rewritten.

The Price of Information

To understand the importance of this comparison, I will detail a few issues on the business models of Google and Apple. However, rather than rehashing this particular debate, I will extract a few salient points and synthesise them here. For a more detailed background information, I recommend this article by Forbes.

Roughly speaking, Google’s business model profits from advertisement revenue, and most of its products are designed to be as open as possible to maximise usage. Contrast this with Apple’s model, which profits directly from product purchases through a proprietary store of devices and applications, and therefore seeks to create brand loyalty within a closed iWorld.

These deeply contrasting models produce divergent behaviours. It is a principle reason behind Apple wanting to tether its software platforms to Apple devices, and why Google wants to make its platform as available as possible on whatever device necessary. Both of these models suggest something about how their organisations wish to exploit the commercial value of (personal) information. Apple’s imperative is the containment of particular information, including data and applications, within a closed ecosystem. So their practice is one of protectionism, but in a manner that ostensibly autopoietic. Conversely, Google’s imperative is the deregulation of information usage and custody, which is why its practice is one of ubiquity, for the broadest possible penetration of its market reach.

The Augmentation of the Gaze

It is very easy to make Orwellian comparisons of Apple’s new patent, because giving government the capacity to control the flow of personally acquiredinformation  holds the overtones of a Big Brother in the vein of Orwell’s seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four (a point of high irony considering Macintosh’s equally seminal launch video during the 1984 Superbowl). In fact, it is the seemingly self-evident nature of this technology’s oppressive potential that is pertinent. That is, while the Apple technology was signified as an imposition on our public experience and our civil liberties, the same could be said of Google Glass, and yet the Glass technology does not seem to evoke the same public outcry.

Now granted, there are some adverse reactions to the launch of Google Glass, including privately owned establishments banning them from their premises, similar to the prohibition of other recording devices. However, the immense popularity of the device has managed to produce a demand long before there was a supply, suggests that these concerns are a dissenting minority. Furthermore, some of the running commentary has already observed that the potential for Google Glass to intrude upon our privacy is far more pervasive. It is this ubiquity that is exemplar of the Google model, because it has the possibility of creating a true panopticon: making every observer simultaneously the subject of observation. This dissemination of technology is ultimately in Google’s interests; this reflects Google’s business model as it means much more personal information is made available to be mined.

One of the most blatant ways to demonstrate the distinctiveness of this intrusion is to compare the device to Apple’s competition device, the iWatch. Both are intended to be wearable smart computers, but the difference is that Glass are affixed directly onto our subjective point of view. My conjecture is that the very fact that the observational device is mounted upon our gaze is what renders it invisible.

That is to say that there is already a native social context for person-to-person observation, and we actually have an implicit expectation to be the subject of another person’s attention. To piggy-back a sensory device upon a socially acceptable form of scrutiny obscures the intrusive nature of that technology. The iWatch, in comparison, requires a mode of interaction that does not naturally integrate into unspoken forms of social communion; its intrusion would be much more apparent.

My conjecture is that the very fact that the observational device is mounted upon our gaze is what renders it invisible.

The Asymmetry of Information

I contend that the reason the Apple technology appears more intrusive is because it reveals a mechanism of control, rather than because it is an actual intrusion: indeed, one could reasonably argue that the shutting down of information gathering in a public sphere is the amelioration of intrusion. What provokes concern is the way the Apple technology enables a governmental body to control the media we collect through our private devices. It signals a type of complacency with the brokering of power and control over our experience of liberty, even when they relate to the impact of our personal actions in public.

Rather, I suspect we frame the visceral experience of insecurity this technology evokes as a sense of intrusion, which we then articulate as an invasion of privacy because it readily maps onto that concept. I also suspect that the objection relates to the asymmetry of information control, more than the intrusion of privacy. However, the issue of custody of personal information and the issue of asymmetry is a much more abstract notion to describe subjectively without some awareness of how our identity is situated and expressed through the medium of the internet.

Given these prepositions, the reaction to a centralised control of information by some third party generates suspicion, but the new mode of social scrutiny is simply integrated into our socialisation; partly because we have adapted to virtual interlocution, and partly because the (potential) ubiquity of the device is incredibly democratic. That is, Google Glass is much more likely to transfigure social norms, by virtue of its integration, and yet because its intrusion is much more invisible. I also believe that we, as a society, will adapt to this intrusion more quickly.

It is very easy to think that Google Glass marks the inception of a convergence of the human lived experience and the imprecation of technology upon our lives, but in reality it is merely the continuation of a process that has been happening since the proliferation of mobile technologies. Considering it took less than a year or so to adapt to smart phones and how they their use meant the intrusion of the internet into our intimate spaces, I doubt that we will have much difficulty adapting to this new intrusion.

Google Glass is much more likely to transfigure social norms, by virtue of its integration, and yet because its intrusion is much more invisible.

I predict that in about five years, some of our fundamental notions of privacy will be continually contested, if not substantially rewritten. That in perhaps ten to fifteen years our notions of what constitutes a public space and a private space will seem almost unrecognisable to today. Part of this contest will emerge over issues of copyright, particularly in the context of social participation at events and public gatherings where ownership is recognised, such as galleries and theatres.

The limits of privacy, for public people

This year’s Federal Election has been hailed as a competition of social media, with deliberate attempts to imitate the social media campaign of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, not to mention the hiring by the Federal ALP of some of the people behind it.

Naturally, the  Australian context has some differences, since voting is mandatory there will be less emphasis on getting potential voters to enrol as part of the campaign, and likely there will be more emphasis on connecting the political personages with the people on the ground. Already, we have seen Kevin Rudd share the political spot light with his cabinet, which is politically astute on a number of fronts. Firstly, it shows that he is more self-aware of how he presents when he monopolises the political spotlight over his fellow party members (as opposed to against the Opposition); secondly, it shifts the sense of the recognisable face of the ALP towards a broader collective of people that the public can tune in to. Not only does this off-set the decimation of the Cabinet after the change of leadership, and the loss of a large number of publicly recognisable ALP front-benchers, but it presents a unified political front while off-setting the appearance of faceless power brokers. I would consider this to be a significant contributor to the jump in polling.

Ownership of public discourse

The focus of this particular entry is to make a number of observations around the way social media is changing the landscape of politics. Firstly, I think there is a rather cynical observation to be made about the disconnection between the established and current generation of politicians and their use of social media. It is a public secret that a vast number of politicians have staffers who provide commentary on their behalf them on Twitter and Facebook. These become more of an extension of their public profile, rather than a true opportunity to access their personal space. There are some exceptions, and some of my favourite political commentary comes from live tweets from politicians on the floor at the time, such as the interactions between MLCs Phelps, Sharpe, and Faehrmann in April 2012 during the debate on whether the Legislative Council would in-principle endorse Marriage Equality.

The real question is, if new technologies are defying the established lines of communication between the people and their representatives, and thereby returns the ownership of public discourse to the populace, are we sufficiently competent to be able to engage in the political discourse on our own terms?

The elision of the private-public boundary

Social media seems to be increasingly eliding the line between the public and the private spheres for those people who hold public office. It is my observation that we are now experiencing a society with changing social norms of privacy; one where I expect our fundamental constructions of privacy to be radically challenged in the next decade. Public officials, I contend, represent the first to group to have to reconcile this nigh-contradiction in terms, and that this will broaden very quickly to include other public personalities; note, that TV and film celebrities, as well as royalty, already experience an intrusion of this nature, but I think the difference is occurring on the way new social media is changing the way the public can and does intrude.

These increased demands of accessibility and intrusion are making it more and more difficult for attain a genuine private life, or to sequester a portion of a lived experience into a private space. That is, I think there is a greater social expectation for people in office, to still be representing their constituency in private circles, and I think this is because this intrusion is causing us to increasingly conflate the public office with the person in question. I think a rather interesting example of where we have seen this tested was Alan Jones’ comments at the USyd Young Liberal club. While I don’t condone the content of his statements, it does highlight that there are indistinct lines around what we seem to hold as public and private, and under what context we consider a public persona is entitled to make ‘off-the-record’ comment. I think that this is partly attributable to the public, by and large, is unable to separate comment from commentator.

As the networking of social media increases, there is a simultaneous intrusion of the public interest into the lives of our public persona (note, the use of our as to signify some entitled sense of ownership over these people), and an increased expectation of them being accessible personalities. As Facebook and Twitter bring these people into proximity to our own personal lives in a fashion that is both seemingly direct and personable, it easily lends itself to an assumption that these produce intimate connections with our representatives, and becomes a surrogate for actual political interaction. I think what we are seeing is a shift in emphasis upon placing a social obligation upon our political representatives to be effective communicators of policy (ostensibly public formal positions) and more towards being communicators of personality (drifting more towards cults of personality and leitkultur). In this, there is an interesting juxtaposition of our desire to be in the proximity of real and perceived power, and an increasing desire to humanise and connect with our representatives in a political landscape that is increasingly disaffected by a cynical public.

As Facebook and twitter bring these people into proximity to our own personal lives in a fashion that is both seemingly direct and personable, it easily lends itself to an assumption that these produce intimate connections with our representatives, and becomes a surrogate for actual political interaction.

Ownership of the public discourse

In attempting to humanise these public persona, we are effectively demanding insight into their private lives. However, there is an intrinsic contradiction int his attempt. As the public, we are unable to escape the fact we can only view them through the public lens. That is the means by which we receive and consume their private lives is automatically filtered through a public medium, whether its Twitter, Facebook, tabloid press or other journal articles. We aren’t directly engaging with these individuals, and we are not in the immediate sphere of their private lives. Consequently, whatever human foibles we receive are, if not deliberately manufactured, at least intrinsically framed by the lens that reports it, or construed through our interpretation. On one level we could theoretically apply a Death of the Author critique at the publicly available commentary of our public figures.

This brings me to this notion about who owns the discourse. Part of the legitimacy intrinsic in public office is the notion that instatement into office can only be achieved through the consent of the people, and are therefore obligated to ensure that this ephemeral ‘will of the people’ be represented in office. Even if we set aside the issue of how that consent has been achieved, and whether it was manufactured (however you wish to construct that issues), this immediately segues into a much more complicated discussion around the voice of that representative. A public official, in this context, is in some sense a synecdoche (as a single individual they ostensibly encapsulate the voice of the constituency). Most politicians, who aren’t entirely independent, have to navigate a (sometimes) difficult tension between the needs and public perceptions of their constituency against the interests of the party machine. The best results (from the perspective of the public official) are achieved through an alignment of public opinion with party platform, but that immediately returns us to questions of how manufactured the political consent of the people is (one need look no further than Fairfax media and Murdoch).

Here, I believe we reach the crux of the issue. It is an example of Metcalfe’s law in action in relation to the increasing inter-connectivity and complexity of the network of social media. Ownership of commentary, and ownership of editorialisation is being democratised, moving out of the hands of hierarchical traditional media structures and into a network. It is this, that I contend, necessitates a change of social disposition to providing public comment. Significantly, the way that these technologies bring the people (more than the office) into our proximity, allows us to deconstruct them with greater detail than ever before.

The real question is, if new technologies are defying the established lines of communication between the people and their representatives, and thereby returns the ownership of public discourse to the populace, are we sufficiently competent to be able to engage in the political discourse on our own terms? This inevitably begs the question of how we (or who) define political competence, and on what terms.