The Adoxic Adventures of John Henry in the 21st Century
"The people should fight for the law as for a wall." -- Heraclitus1
There is a new, persistent, and perhaps even growing sense that a major question of this century for Black Americans, individually and variably collected, will be: How can technoscience be made to underwrite more meaningful and humane life spaces for Black people? What follows is an exploratory gathering of three distinct methodological approaches to generating if not answers to this looming question, then, at minimum, lines of purchase for those concerned to grapple with, prod, dismantle, or perhaps even dismiss it. The reader is invited to figure as she sees fit, but, in any case, implored to figure.
At the same time that variously situated Black communities are being presented with dizzying arrays of technoscientific promises about purportedly inevitable futures -- space colonization, novel energy sources, neuroscience, advanced robotics, sense-enhancing surveillance technologies, genomics, performance-enhancing pharmacology, nanotechnology and nanoscience, to list only the merest sampling of oft noted specimens -- there is an absence of strategic placement of those Black communities into those futures in any meaningful fashion. The established organizations that once provided leadership on matters of consequence to Blacks are more or less silent on the significance of scientific knowledge and novel technical artifacts to Black communities, apparently stuck with a rearview mirror perspective of the future. In an attempt to help incubate a solution for this lacuna, this essay explores three promising yet partial answers: technoeconocentrism, Afrofuturism, and technological substantivism. Although individually no one of this trio is broad enough to underwrite a Black technopolitics, I contend that a configuration of selected strengths from each prepares the way for such programs.
Technoeconocentrists are the most conventional and (paradoxically) timely Black intellectuals to have seriously and practically considered the nexus of Black culture and technoscience. For these intellectual commentators technoscience must be of immediate and central concern to Black Americans because of the economic significance of technical innovation and novel scientific knowledge. The creation of new wealth via the introduction of disruptive technologies into innovation-sensitive industries, and the new patterns of employment made possible and even necessary by such change, represent a terrain of opportunity that Black Americans literally cannot afford to ignore. As the moniker suggests, a cash-value-consciousness serves as the moral compass for this school of thought.2
It should come as no surprise that the intersection of domestic Black politics and technoscience in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is conceptualized in market terms. In the area of nanotechnoscience alone, the domestic federal investment in research and development (R&D) was more than $1,000,000,000 in 2005, and this amount does not include individual state funds or private sector investment.3 This explosion in R&D investment interacts synergistically with an aggressive intellectual property law regime based on liberalized legislative, institutional and doctrinal structures designed to lubricate and accelerate the translation of technoscientific innovation from laboratories to marketplace.4 Technoscience is big business, and the technoeconocentrist position aims to garner a large slice of that proverbial pie.
Anthony Walton’s 1999 essay, Technology versus African-American, is arguably the flagship of published technoeconocentric thought.5 The work is cogent, evokes the commonsensical tone of technoeconocentrism generally, and represents a laudable effort to articulate the social, political and cultural significance of technoscience for Black Americans. But Walton’s writing has many problematic moments as well, most of which are endemic to the technoeconocentrist position. To begin, Walton approaches the nexus with disturbing presumptions and an uninformed, quasi-romantic perspective of urban Blacks. So, speaking to what he considers to be the great financial opportunities presenting themselves to Blacks (his “inner-city” or “ghetto” youths), Walton wonders: “Where are the armies of ghetto youths ready to meet the innovation and programming needs of an exponentially expanding electronic frontier and get rich in the process, in what is perhaps the last gold rush in American history?” The outsourcing of programming jobs to software engineers scattered disparately across the globe appears a perfect option for Walton’s vision of young city-dwelling Blacks (“What kind of job could be more appropriate than to perform this kind of service?”). Putting aside the practical absurdity of the proposal –– considering the structural socio-economic plight of so-called “ghetto youth,” it seems quite inconceivable that more than a few could “surf the Net at school or the library, get the assignment and specs [of a programming job], and send the finished work back” –– and reading generously, Walton’s essay does offer a pair of very useful strains of thought.
First, Walton provides a prime example of technological determinism. The notion is traditionally central to sociological, politico-philosophical and (to a lesser extent) legal discourses on the cultural and societal significance of technologies. While the concept remains useful as a means of expanding our understanding of what technologies do, when pressed beyond this heuristic value, a deterministic view of technologies surrenders too much. Technologies are neither perfectly autonomous nor inevitable; and the value of the concept as a kind of machine for thinking -- we might think of it as a negative ideal -- should not be confused with an empirically grounded state of affairs. In my view technological determinism has, at a minimum, two virtues: the concept (i) captures the notion, popularly and recurrently trafficked throughout American history, that technologies and techniques—electricity, harnessed atomic energy, information technologies, recently nanotechnoscience -- define whole epochs and control their fundamental characters, and (ii) makes the extreme case for the extra-operational capacities and potentials (that is, effects beyond any narrowly prescribed uses) of artifacts to guide, shape, challenge and frustrate human affairs, ways of life, and configurations of power. In its popular register, technological determinism can serve as a launch-pad for critical engagements with the artifacts and technical systems, fully operational or embryonic, which it so often bolsters; and in its governance register, pruned back from a hyperbolic scope, the concept makes the case for considering artifacts more broadly, beyond conventional concerns such as cost-efficiency.
In the literature of the philosophy of technology, where technological determinism has been given its deepest treatment, it tends to be presented in one of three forms. The most common, referred to as normative technological determinism (Bimber, 2001)6, expresses the notion that the typical performative and instrumental traits of artifacts -- particularly speed, efficiency and productivity -- by dint of sheer abundance in modern technological societies overwhelm and supersede traditional modes of assigning and assessing values. Beyond their instrumental effects, artifacts impact human communities at an imaginary and moral level, according to this view.
A second definition of technological determinism is derived from another problematic capacity of technologies arising from their origins as human constructions: uncertainty and uncontrollability regarding their ultimate effects. The unintentional fallouts and dividends of technological development (how far from DARPA’s dream of an apocalypse-proof communication system has the Internet drifted?) seem on occasion to dwarf its original goal, and cast doubt on the power of would-be intentional actors to anticipate the outcomes of innovation. Referred to as the unintended consequences account of technological determinism, this perspective understands technologies as, to some significant degree, autonomous in effect and beyond the radius of human control.
The third definition of technological determinism is the most etymologically strict of the family. Titled nomological (from the Greek “nomos,” meaning “law”) technological determinism, this position sees the impact of technology as unfolding in accordance with natural laws -- such as electromagnetic phenomena or gravity -- beyond the reach of social regulation. A truly autonomous notion of technology, this notion envisions the aggregate of human artifacts as the master of social destiny, and the social desires oppositional to technological dictates as futile.
Walton attempts to anticipate charges of technological determinism (“Technology in and of itself,” he notes, “is not at fault; it’s much too simple to say that gunpowder or agricultural machinery or fiber optics has been the enemy of an entire group of people.”), but such efforts are outweighed by the final unfolding of his argument. In the process of developing his underlying thesis, namely that “the history of African-Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounter with technology, an encounter that has proved perhaps irredeemably devastating to their hopes, dreams, and possibilities,” and buttressing it with examples (he argues that the invention of the caravel and other Western technologies were the basis from which the Atlantic slave trade emerged), Walton’s implicit position becomes clear. Of these three possible species of technological determinism, he exhibits greatest affinity with the nomological variety. It is the technological encounter that has “proved perhaps irredeemably devastating to African-Americans”; consequently, Walton necessarily finds himself in the position of holding that the thoughts and desires of Blacks are irrelevant “given a particular state of technology.” Ultimately Walton fumbles technological determinism, embracing its vulgar excesses and letting slip through his fingers its more modestly advertised and pragmatically actionable claims.
The second of Walton’s gems is his quiet assertion that Blacks have been too often out-of-phase with contemporary technoscientific developments. Although the contention is aimed at thawing the “Black folkways” preventing a full-blown engagement with technology and science, Walton’s claim of lateness also calls into question his set of theses and technoeconocentrism at large. Both the school and its leading public voice are detrimentally untimely in their vision. If technical devices and systems are beyond the reach of Blacks in their creation and dissemination, then a possibly prudent, arguably rational even if politically and morally questionable path might be one of cash-value-consciousness, of essentially making the most of a technosocial scenario beyond one’s control; but once the early phase of technological development, design and scientific knowledge-creation has passed, so, too, have many of the most pivotal decisions of social and cultural consequence. While we may grant technoeconocentrism’s contributions to our understanding, we should not succumb to an analysis that presupposes Blacks as always out-of-phase with technological and scientific innovation. Ultimately, however, it is this malperception––taken as a spur to becoming more nimble, to developing a future-oriented politics that seeks preemptively to engage novel devices, systems, networks and knowledges –– that is most valuable and provocative in technoeconocentrism.
Afrofuturism sidesteps Walton’s emphasis on the current condition of Black Americans and focuses instead on the trans-Atlantic African Diaspora. As Alondra Nelson, a founding exponent of this line of thought, has documented, Afrofuturism was largely inspired by the dearth of politically and culturally attractive alternatives to the digital divide concept, which framed so much of the debate around the Black/technoscience nexus in the late twentieth century.7 This reactive move is an element of a larger strategy to replace outmoded and often racist (or at least racialist) arguments that situate Blacks in opposition to technology and progress (Nelson, 2002: 1). The practical basis of this strategy is semiotic, turning on appropriation of images and other depictions of Black futures, and on re-articulations of the meaning of such signs.
Kodwo Eshun (2003) has articulated a more robust and generalized conception of Afrofuturism that turns on “chronopolitics,” an ideological temporal cold war in which prophetic visions of the future, past historiographies and understandings of the ever receding present contest for supremacy. This conception of Afrofuturism is partially based on a contemporary strain of science fiction studies that was articulated by Darko Suvin but which can be traced in embryonic form to Samuel Delany’s earlier (1969) work, About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy-Five Words. SF exists, according to Suvin, for the sake of “radically different, strange and estranging newness” (1974:1), the main effect of which is an implicitly critical and alternative world “or imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (1979: 7). But Delany had already broached the theoretical sufficiency of a science fictional effect as a, if not the, motive force underpinning “the violent nets of wonder called speculative fiction” (Delany 1969: 64). Eshun collapses Black existence and science fiction into one by describing the capture of those enslaved Africans ancestors of the present-day Diaspora in terms of science fictional alien abduction. This powerful and fruitful melding leads Eshun to assert that “Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision” (298).
Afrofuturism has effectively overcome the technoeconocentrists' position of being stuck in the present. Its analytic insistence on and placement of futures at the forefront of its varied projects opens up an entire field of questions and possibilities for a Black technopolitics. Chronopolitics, by bridging the past and the future, provide an indispensable plank to any seriously constructed and actionable technopolitics. But some troubling signs are apparent and need to be addressed.
Afrofuturism as articulated by Nelson and Eshun makes no obvious move to extend itself beyond academic semiotic exercises. The very term Afrofuturism is riddled with question marks. More specifically, the relationship between the name of this contemporary, mostly Black group of academics, intellectuals and artists, and the Russian and Italian Futurists (avowed fascists) of the early twentieth century should give us pause. Disentangling Afrofuturism from these predecessors is more difficult than Eshun’s quick dismissal (291) would suggest.8 The superficial matter of titular kinship via “futurism” is of lesser concern, however, than the conceptual and philosophical dimension, which calls for a much more nuanced and complex examination than any Afrofuturist, to my knowledge, has yet produced. This hurdle is the corpus of Friedrich Nietzsche, a fount of political philosophy drawn upon liberally by all three Futurist species.
The influence of Nietzsche on the Russian intellectual scene as early as the 1890s, and on the Russian Futurists in the early 1900s is well documented (Rosenthal 1986), as are his corpuscular incorporations by Marinetti’s Italian Futurism (Berghaus 1996: 15-46). The earlier futurisms focused more on the Nietzschean concepts of Übermenschen and Will to Power, while Afrofuturists tend to subscribe to a Deriddean interpretation of Nietzsche that focuses almost exclusively on appropriational semiotics and, to a lesser extent, Nietzsche’s temporal problematic, the Eternal Return, elegantly refurbished as Eshun’s “chronopolitics” and channeled through Deleuze’s Nietzsche (and Virilio).9 Eshun (1999, 2003) draws liberally on the name effects of Nietzsche and his epigones –– Heidegger and Deleuze in particular. While these three futurisms cannot be reduced to variations on a single theme without reduction to the point of obfuscation, Afrofuturism needs a more complex and substantial theorizing of its relation to Nietzscheanism and to its various offshoots. The defining motif of the Afrofuturist response, as the name implies, has been the placement of futures as the entry point to analysis of Black technopolitics. But there is possibly more in the name that requires our attention.
Amiri Baraka is most widely known for his poetry, jazz criticism, fiction and plays, but in addition to these occupational hats, he has also written a significant piece representing a third mode of technoscientific analysis. In Technology & Ethos (1969), Baraka (then Leroi Jones) uses his unique style of writing -- at that time, Bebop reified onto the page -- to address the political content and consequences of technological artifacts. When he notes that “Machines (as Norbert Wiener said) are an extension of their inventor-creators” (318), Baraka resonates conceptually with a line of thought that the philosopher Andrew Feenberg (1999) has called substantivist.
Substantivist theorists of technology vary considerably, but are fairly uniform in their view of artifacts as modes of governance that cannot be reduced to mere instruments or tools.10 The notion of technologies as material contributors to what it means to be human lies at the base of substantivist thought. Technologies are seldom considered determinative in a totalizing sense by contemporary substantivists, but there is basic commitment to examination of the socially and culturally formative capacities of technological artifacts, techniques, systems and networks. Langdon Winner captures this power of technology succinctly in the concept of technological legislation.
In Winner’s classical contribution to the substantivist tradition, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, technological legislation can be understood as a four pronged composition. First, technological legislation is a critique of the progressive “conventional view” of technologies that focuses exclusively on how artifacts are made and their tool-like use. On this account, to reduce technological artifacts to intrinsically progressive tools is a sign of political naïveté (Winner, 1977: 25, 277).
Second, the concept can be understood as an expression of material governance, the sense in which built environments, or governing architectures -- whether those of molecular nanotechnology, distributed communication networks, or transportation systems -- are constitutive of social spaces. As Lessig states in reference to design features of cyberspace, “The code or software or architecture or protocols set these features; they are features selected by code writers; they constrain some behavior by making other behavior possible, or impossible. The code embeds certain values or makes certain values impossible” (89).11
A third connotation of technological legislation is captured in Winner’s neo-Baconian redefinition of technocracy. Where classical technocracy signified a socio-political arrangement in which scientific and technical elites governed the major decisions of modern society, in its redefined form -- call it technocracy´ (“technocracy prime”) -- the concept signifies the confluence of two technopolitical dynamics: reverse adaptation, “the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means” (my emphasis) (229) and the technological imperative, the necessary satisfaction of the host of functional and social prerequisites that must precede technological development (100-105). If, in its strongest nomological form, technological determinism can be understood as an assertion of metaphysical fact, technocracy can be taken as an alternative approach to assessing how technological systems can impact societies both through normative disruption (e.g. the promulgation of mechanical imaginaries of human beings and culture) and through the conditions required for their installation (e.g. the economic, social, legal and material changes that must precede most major artifact constructions).
Finally, technological legislation can be understood as a politically ideal thesis of complementarity. In this manifestation, the concept suggests that for each political configuration there exists the theoretical possibility of a morally resonant and culturally coherent artifactual base. Or, as Winner states: “Different ideas of social and political life entail different technologies for their realization” (325).
As defined by substantivist theorists, technoscience is constitutional. Artifacts govern by incorporating the moral and political dictates of their designers. The paradox of substantivism theories, even those of Winner and Lessig, both of whom carefully avoid the politics-shriveling effects of technological determinism, is their lack of politics. Lessig (1998) is right to worry that his theoretical efforts will only further concentrate and refine Power, just as Winner is correct in stating that “Somehow one has to remember the content of other theories and visions in order to catch a sense of [substantivism’s] significance at all” (278). The best that substantivism can do is powerfully raise the issue of technopolitics by laying before us some very muscular question marks: “...what is our spirit, what will it project? What machines will it produce? What will they achieve? What will be their morality? Check the different morality of the Chinese birthday celebration firecracker & the white boy’s bomb. Machines have the morality of their inventors” (Jones, 1969: 321).
A New John Henry
In the twenty-first century, projects of Black solidarity -- domestic and/or diasporic, nationalist and/or neighborhood-based, academic and/or grassroots -- must come to grips with and incorporate the lessons of these three basic schools of technopolitics. In the hypermodern networked society defined by ephemeral productive techniques and constant flows of data, the digital lingua franca of information technologies acts as an accelerant by facilitating generation, storage, retrieval and transmission of information, thereby showering developmental dividends onto other technoscientific domains such as medical devices, energy sources, and material science, and leading to accelerating technological development. In such a milieu, economic forces cannot be ignored.
By virtue of this global condition, the discourses and practices that have historically cast Blacks as oppositional to “progress,” even pitting them against meaningful and humane future visions, now have planetary reach. These forces must be contested at the same time that the very notion of “progress” itself is vigorously interrogated. Fine tuned, evolving semiological appropriation strategies and aggressive styles of chronopolitics based in systematic disruption of adversarial futurologies seem invaluable to a fully blossomed Black technopolitics.12 Even if Black Weltanschauungs are not uniformly concerned with science fiction, tactics designed to incubate Black technopolitics will need to be, in effect, intensely science fictional -- that is, at base, adoxic: disruptive of convention, material configuration and sclerotic imaginaries, and catalytically conducive to novel framings and conceptualizations of the import of technoscience. Arguably, some significant degree of control over technologically legislative artifacts must sit close to the heart of any such project. Substantivism’s greatest value may be in its persistent questioning of the socio-political and cultural suitability of a community’s technoscientific infrastructure; but those communities cannot live on questions alone.
So, whither and what for a Black politics of technoscience? Perhaps such questions are premature, not to mention unanswerable, by individuals or thought collectives. In a democracy, however, such cultural elites, as political theorist Norberto Bobbio (1987) suggests, have a legitimate place, provided that they see their task as basically one of proposition rather than imposition. With this caveat in mind, let me close with the briefest possible sketch of a partial answer.13
Imagine: a consortium of technically and financially savvy actors housed in geographically disparate but “virtually” co-resident locales and laden with a social mandate to guide publicly funded research and development activities. The core set of these actors might be based at a series of stable and well-managed historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and hemmed together via a secured communication network. These individuals would provide a basic set of technoscientific R&D services covered by academic offices of technology transfer (OTT): research fund acquisition and management; intellectual property consultancy; and at least rudimentary marketing when appropriate. The services of this core group would be made available to other HBCUs on a subscription basis significantly cheaper than the cost of running an autonomous OTT office. This consortium would use part of the collected subscription fees to endow annual chairs focused on technopolitical issues including futurological politics and technological legislation. These positions might float from one HBCU to another.
Considering the state of many HBCUs, the previous paragraph itself might be considered a work of science fiction in the worst traditions of pulp. But I think more valuable than a measure of its feasibility would be the constructive conversations that would flow from such a proposal if taken seriously. A revitalized Spirit of John Henry -- reappropriated from a nearly totally disintegrated labor movement (not to mention Black psychologists and behaviorists) -- might appear: economically engaged, but at the level of patents and copyrights rather than strictly concerned with short-term gains; agonal, but battling in futurological arenas against temporal cold warriors, as distinct from merely opposing technoscience; legislative, both materially and in the realm of implicit values and morals, and no longer merely subjected to such legislation.
Recall that in several renditions of the ballad mythologizing his exploits, John Henry was a musical “striker”; his hammer blows prepared hostile terrain for a reconfiguration suitable to forms of life underwritten (legally, economically, even morally) by a world of rail transport. The pits he struck into the existing world were filled with explosive charges that ultimately ruptured it, making way for the emergence of new worlds. The legend is, strictly speaking, apocalyptic. And our new John Henry, too, should be so boldly disruptive.
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Bennett, Michael. “Does Existing Law Fail to Address Nanotechnoscience?” Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE, vol. 23, no. 4 (2004), 27-32.
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____. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Notes
1. Arendt’s (1958: 63 n62) translation. (The Greek word for wall, teixos, also meant city-wall, fortification.)
2. The framing of a discussion of technoculture grounded in Black societies, culture and politics must begin with moral and civic philosophy for a simple reason: the pervasiveness of market mentality and technical sensibilities that haunt so much of public “moral” discourse can lead only to emaciated and embarrassingly curt discussions of the countless question-marks that modern technoscience regularly pushes up through the dirt of our tattered civic spaces. In a strange fashion, the technoeconocentric position -- I use the term “position” loosely to refer to theory, analyses and commentary focused more or less solely on the economic significance of technological change to Blacks -- foregrounds this point.
3. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2005: 8-10).
4. See Rai (1999), Slaughter & Rhoades (1996), and Bennett (2004) for discussions of the Bayh-Dole Act, creation of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and case law supporting significant expansion of patentable subject matter. See Arendt (1958), Latour (2003) and Winner (1977) for philosophical arguments suggesting that any barrier between laboratories and other social spaces is more or less imaginary.
5. A surrogate for this position might be Timothy Jenkins’s unabashedly bourgeois “Black Futurists in the Information Age” (2003 reprint), or James Boggs, “The Negro and Cybernation” (1966). Obviously ideology understood in the vulgar sense does not impact this collective’s coagulation. The broad ideological spectrum traversed depicts the tenacious and strange attraction the technology/economics confluence exercises.
6. My discussion of technological determinism draws heavily upon Bimber; his account is, in my opinion, currently definitive, and is especially useful in evaluating the significance of various technologies. Compare Winner (1977: 324) and McLuhan (1995: 238f) regarding technological “somnambulism” and the “Narcissus trance,” respectively. Both these terms seem to fit within the definition of normative technological determinism. Though sharing certain assumptions with technological legislation, technological determinism lacks the proactive dimension of the former.
7. The term Afrofuturism was neologized by Mark Dery (1993; 1994). See also Nelson (2002: 14). However, Kodwo Eshun (1998) argues that the general analytics, themes and arguments of Afrofuturism predate Dery’s christening.
8. Ron Eglash tagged this titular issue in the closing moments of his essay in Nelson (2002: 60).
9. Derrida’s (1985) explicit engagement with the Nietzschean corpus is valuable for numerous reasons, but, in this context, especially so for suggesting a limit to textual appropriation generally (29) and for anticipating and problematizing (possible) Afrofuturist entanglement in a “powerful [Nietzschean] utterance-producing machine that [possibly] programs the movements” (ibid.) of all three brands of Futurism.
10. Considering Baraka’s erudition, it is likely that he is referring to Wiener less as some form of orginary precedent than as a nod to the then intense discussions of cybernetics, the latter surely at least a partial inspiration for his poetic essay. Classic examples of substantivist thought include Marx’s Capital, Engels’ On Authority, Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology and preeminently Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology. More contemporary substantivist analyses can be found in the works of philosophers associated with science and technology studies, such as Winner (1977; 1986) and Latour (1992); the New Chicago jurisprudence of scholars such as Lawrence Lessig (1998); and software designers subscribing to the methodological and design principles of captology as developed by B.J. Fogg (2003).
11. Winner’s most famous example of material governance is his description of Robert Moses’ new Long Island bridges and the racist and classist values embedded therein. See Winner (1986). Lessig uses the same example (1999: 92).
12. Sheree R. Thomas’ anthology (2000) of marginalized science fiction and futurological literature written by Black authors, and Martin Kevorkian’s (2006) critical analyses of cinematic depictions of Blackness and information technology are two excellent and provocative starting points, the former presenting futures, near and remote, that center on matters of Black culture, the latter deconstructing the racial politics of major science fiction films such as the earliest Star Wars trilogy.
13. Though my remarks go to the condition of Black folk, I see no reason that the basic arguments should not find some similar degree of appropriateness within the contexts of other politicized populations.