By Edmund Berger
Socialism has had a sort of poor track record as of late when it comes to science and technology. From Stalin’s violent repression of Mendelian genetics (and privileging of the pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko) to the modern contemporary contingencies of anarcho-primitivists, it’s often easy to see what is ostensibly an ideology of advancement oscillating itself between confirmations of the worst despotisms of the dominant, capitalist order, and regressive attitudes towards the raw materials of possible emancipation. The paranoia of computers, simulation, and modelling that blossomed in the 1960s and has persisted until recently recalls, uncomfortably, the anti-scientism of climate change deniers. Where it does embrace technoscience, it adopts them as adjacent to, but not directly bound up within, the emancipatory project. Radical experiments in leftist technoscience, be it Chile’s CyberSyn or the Soviet Union’s own attempts at some form of cybernetic socialism during the Khrushchev years, have fallen by the wayside and are obscured from view. Critical theory continually returns to Situationist discourse, but always seems to focus on those elements that foreshadow insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory. It ignores the constructive side of the ‘construction of situations’ equation – the side on which we can find Constant Niewunhuy’s New Babylon, or Asger Jorn’s celebration of automation.
This is what I think is the greatest strength of Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future – the reinstallation of technoscience as something intrinsic to a radical, left wing program. Automation, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and the planning of complex economic systems all find their application of the largely imaginal horizon of a post-work world. Far from their inevitable brutal application under capitalist control, they offer a vision of technoscience as emerging from long-term state investment (where it emerges from in our current world, anyways) under the direction of democratic control by the population. Alongside this, breaking beyond capitalism requires the repurposing of existing technologies and infrastructures, to unmoor the class structures and exploitative mechanisms designed within their application. Building on Spinoza, the two suggest that “we know not what a sociotechnical body can do. Who among us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await discovery in the technologies that have already been developed? What sorts of postcapitalist communities could be built upon the material we already have?”
Such a program – of developing new technologies through democratic mechanisms, and the repurposing of existing technologies – implies the generation of a sociotechnical literacy (to borrow a term from Arran James). How can a population be brought up to the level of being able to have substantial input into this sort of dynamic reformation? In a time when anti-scientism has yet to wane, how can the working class – and the surplus populations – learn of complexity, modeling systems, and the way that these technics and techniques exist in reciprocal feedback with the ebbs and flows of the population? True, outlets for learning of these things exists, but they remain shunted off in the university (itself repurposed long ago as training grounds for the petite bourgeoisie) or behind exorbitant paywalls. These privatizations of knowledge and knowledge production find their match in cultural attitudes and mores that tell the working class that these forms of knowledge are irrelevant to their daily situations – unless, of course, there is a perceived threat to their pocketbooks. To build a sociotechnical literacy, essential to a future-oriented hegemonic project, thus requires the building of an educational infrastructure that will help people to navigate the cutting edges of technoscience, while also speaking to them on a cultural level.