I’ve just published the first of what will become a regular feature on Futurismic — weekly columns, each week covered by a different editor. This week I take the podium to talk about politics, why I think it’s a suitable topic for Futurismic and what I intend to cover in future columns
This week I’m kicking off what will become a regular feature on Futurismic — columns. Each week we’ll have a column from a different editor. Each editor will focus on a different broadly defined topic.
I’ve staked out politics as my interest, specifically the intersection of politics, science, technology and culture. I’ll spend most of my time talking about politics in the United States, but the issues I’ll cover will have international relevance. My next column will cover voting: the mechanics of voting, vote-counting machines, alternative voting strategies, Internet voting and extrapolative, radical departures from the present concept of voting.
My question for this introductory column is: Why politics?
Because politics is a nasty, partisan beast. If the blogosphere is a city, politics is a neighborhood bitterly contested by paranoid rival gangs, and Futurismic is a tourist way off the beaten track. We can talk about the Falcon 1 launch or bicycles made of nanotubes without offending anyone. The minute we start talking about warrantless physical searches, though, we might as well tie on a red bandana and pull out a Glock, because the bullets are gonna fly.
It would be easiest to steer clear of politics, but it would also be dishonest. Technology, the engine that makes the future different from the present, is embedded in a social matrix. Technological innovations are the end result of the workings of an incredibly intricate chain of value judgments, value judgments reflective of and mediated by a political system. To examine technological innovations without talking about the political matrix that forms them and that is in turn formed by them would be like studying the artifacts of an archaeological dig without understanding where they were found.
Understanding the shape of the future, moreover, is a necessary precondition to the practice of politics (or it should be). Political questions demand answers about what will happen in the future. Will the United States experience greater security if it withdraws its military forces from Iraq now, or if it waits until the insurgency is defeated? Which will better educate children, more money for Head Start or more money for standardized testing? Will raising the minimum wage bankrupt small business, or will it lead to demand-driven economic expansion?
I’ll argue that you can answer these types of questions with the application of science. Economics, ecology and sociology are just three disciplines that make testable assertions about the future based on a robust body of scientific knowledge. Many of the questions that politics deals with aren’t just a matter of opinion — there’s a right answer, and there’s a wrong answer, and we can figure out which is which. An example: do particulate emissions from coal-burning power plants increase the premature death rate of people who live nearby? Yes (details here, 2.2MB .pdf). Can emissions be controlled? Yes. Can it be done efficiently, without driving power plants out of business? Yes.
Unfortunately, politics is as much about emotion as it is about facts. Or to put it more accurately, it’s as much about values as it is about actions. What the actual results of any given political course of action will be are often less important than how that course of action fits into the complex of metaphors that make up an individual’s world view. If you believe that success in business is a marker of moral superiority, you’re likely to see the imposition of government controls on large power plants as wrong. To the contrary, if you believe that corporations are inherently evil, you’re unlikely to support market-based incentives for cleaning up pollution. And neither side’s position is going to change based solely on facts.
For a brilliant exploration of what makes liberals and conservatives tick, and a cartography of the gulf between them, see Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff. I won’t try to summarize his theories here, except to say that embedded in the minds of both political philosophies is a metaphor of government as family, a metaphor that prevents its adherents from approaching politics in a rational, head-first manner.
For the record, I’m a liberal. In covering politics on this site and in this column I won’t pretend to non-partisanship, and I won’t refrain from expressing my opinion. But I will respect people of other political persuasions, and I will do my best to keep my comments grounded in objective reality.
So far I’ve argued no site that purports to be “for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present” as we do can ignore politics. I’ve also claimed that we can talk about the future of politics with the same sense of objectivity that we talk about the future of technology or science. And I’ve pointed out that even though we can talk about the future of politics objectively, politics will always inspire emotional responses. What I haven’t explored is why I want to talk about politics. What’s so interesting about it?
Mainly it’s a hunch. My hunch is that the balance of power in the United States and throughout the industrialized world is shifting from the few to the many. That the technology of the network is a giant lever that can shift the course of the future. That the people best in a position to grab that lever and pull are the people who make a habit of thinking about the future. And that the people who make a habit of thinking about the future are the people most capable of overcoming their political biases in favor of thoughtful, informed analysis.
I’m not proposing a radical political program for Futurismic — to the contrary I’m going to do my best to keep this site out of the day to day fray. What I am saying is that forward-thinking, net-powered people are the future of politics, and I’m looking forward to watching what they do. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.