H+ Magazine
Covering technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing–and will change–human beings in fundamental ways.

Editor's Blog

Woody Evans
May 14, 2009


Freedom Politics

Traditional political parties work hard and spend lots of cash marketing themselves to new supporters and likely voters, but in the very big tent of the transhumanism community, intelligent voters splay out left, right, and center.  Transhumanists are all over the map, some going blue for the big-party money pumping up social safety nets and stem cell research, some red for low taxes and military innovation with DARPA dollars, some green to urge sustainable energy research, and, of course, many go for the Libertarians – a party that has always attracted greater percentages among technophiles than among the general population. 

We've got civil libertarians who holler for the right to become half-cheetah, and we've got mad scientists who don't go blue or red so much as they go... gray goo. More than a few even rally under the black flag of anarchism, trusting on future self-replicating patterns to make some kind of sense out of the chaos.

So it might be helpful to attempt a brief (and hopefully even-handed) overview of some of the major political parties' interests in technology and our freedom to use it. As the big parties spend more, as red states (and red senators) go blue, and as smaller parties get fiercer in their critiques of the big ones, what's the shape of the territory left to the rah-rah techno-progressive?

The strict polarization of "personal freedoms" or "civil liberties" versus "government intrusion" or "government spending" that is used as a criticism of big party politics by libertarians seems -- at least to some of us -- simplistic.

Take it as a given that most supporters of transhumanism trend toward advocating for more personal freedom: keep the government out of our bedrooms and biologies please. But the political aspects of economic issues are trickier.  While transhumanists as a set, roughly speaking, may want more freedom and less state intervention in personal decisions (particularly in questions of privacy and personal use of technology), the state purse does a lot to advance the technology many wish to access.  Cutting government access to funds (and cutting taxes) could lead to cuts in programs that are bringing the best goods.

Although private corporations (Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, etc.) are now leading the revival in space exploration, their way was paved by 50 years gestating in the belly of big government. The Air Force and NASA engineered our path into and beyond Earth orbit. 23andMe's personal DNA visualizations would not have been possible without Federal dollars spent with Watson's team at the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s. 

So there's a tension in politics, or at least in the way politics is popularly understood and promulgated by National Committee chairmen. The strict polarization of "personal freedoms" or "civil liberties" versus "government intrusion" or "government spending" that is used as a criticism of big party politics by libertarians seems -- at least to some of us -- simplistic.  Once you throw a technologically progressive plank into the mix, the relationships between technologies, freedoms, and governments become almost fractal-like in their complexity

But if we can reduce the two most primary concerns of the transhuman community down to "technology and freedom" ("encourage or fund the hell outta tech, and promote the personal freedoms to use the tech any damn way a gal sees fit to use it!"); how do the political parties stack up?

Shallow Searching: The Magic 8 Ball of Technopolitics

A quick and dirty domain search hints at answers.

politicsI start by searching "freedom." This brings back over 1700 results on the Libertarian Party's pages (lp.org), about 1000 in Republican sites (gop.org), and considerable fewer at Democrats and Green Party pages (322 and 255 at dnc.org and gp.org respectively).  Running searches on technology terms, the "liberal" parties tend to do a bit better.



The Green Party, with its 12 hits for "biotechnology", beats the Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians combined. Of course, a lot of those may be because they hate transgenic foods and Monsanto-style food production politics. Still, let's give them credit for placing attention on this controversial and techno-centric subject.  Perhaps the Republican's high ranking for "freedom" but low numbers on "civil liberties" suggests neo-traditional concern with economic liberties above personal civil rights? Again, hints and whispers.

Using this casual technique, we only see which parties might talk the most about liberties, and which chatter about innovations, but this thumbnail sketch is born out by more careful work.

Looking Deeper: Platforms

A more thoroughgoing approach to vetting parties for posthuman concerns is to explore their official platforms.

Political platforms aren't just statements of vision, principle, and belief. They are expertly crafted marketing tools, meant to fan the embers of particular emotions in particular demographics. So even if the Grand Old Party's National Committee mapped out explicitly detailed plans for encouraging private sector development of more advanced artificial intelligence algorithms -- we'd never read it in their platform.  It's too fringe an issue, and the transhuman community is too fringe a market to appeal to — it's wiser to aim for folks closer in to the mainstream of citizenship/consumption.

Even so, the platform remains the best tool we have for fairly understanding what a party intends to do with its power; which issues it intends to push in legislation; and which demographic segments it intends to court for support.  It's the party in its own words, and if we play along and take them at face value, it turns out to be a reasonably fair way to compare the interests of one party to another.

The Democratic platform has "science, technology, and innovation" as a plank for "investing in American competitiveness".  Concerns with technology appear early -- in the intro to the first plank, there is an acknowledgment that "technology has changed the way we live and the way the world does business."  The Dem's platform is peppered with mentions of technology and how it can help us get out of jams. They claim they will "invest in the next generation of transformative energy technologies and health IT and we will renew the defense R&D system."

The Republican platform talks about "new technologies" at a number of points, most pointedly in sections on energy and "environmental protection." Minor mentions concerning technology appear in sections on  "health innovation technology" and in the education plank where telecommunications is promoted as a way to push classroom innovation forward. Also, technological tools are promoted as ways to continue military superiority and monitor criminals. "Innovation and technology" is also mentioned as part of their economic plans: tech = new industries, new jobs.

The Reds and the Blues are both working hard to appeal to technocrats, and despite the Blues use of social web tools to help win the White House in 2008, neither party platform pulls away from the other as a clear "winner" in terms of being concerned with innovation. They both, at least, want to appear to be leaders in bringing technological solutions to bear on American problems. Both pay lip service to the Bill of Rights, too.


Politics

A Few More Mountain Dews, Kid

As for which party has a more fundamental grasp on the issues important to the transhuman in you, it seems to be an ultimately non-partisan question.  This early in the new century, transhumanists are nobody's "base".  There is no Freedom & Technology Party, and there are no Liberties & Innovations wings of the Democratic, Republican, Green or Libertarian parties.

Corporate and banking interests have big stakes in the big parties, but rose-googled geeks out at the fringe are still on their own.  Industry and labor can still make the Blues and the Reds squirm, but who on Capitol Hill answers wee-hours calls from a Vinge, Moravec, Bostrom, Drexler or Doctorow? Transhumanism lacks the swagger and salt to call a sitting Speaker of the House to a west Arlington curb at midnight. h+ doesn't yet sponsor luncheons with Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Seems that if this techno-and-liberty happy agenda wants to make moves out of the server farms and into the state halls of power, the geeks are going to have to learn to play politics -- just like everybody else.

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