Saturday, 20 October 2012

How's Your News?

This is really heart-warming stuff. Let's hope it leads to more work being done in mass communication and journalism studies on ableism.

I, along with most of the blogosphere it seems, have by and large migrated to another social media platform. I'd still like though to update this blog occasionally. In any case, please watch the clip for the documentary I've posted here.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Need for Dignity

My father passed away last month so just trying to return to normal now. I'm no "confessing animal", to use Foucault's description, so I won't be waxing poetic by offering bon mots about death as part of "the human condition", or going into great personal detail about what has just happened. However, I am prepared to say that I am now hoping, more than before, for a future where people can be dignified and old.

I've certainly heard enough horror stories where, because of the poor working conditions, aged care facilities are understaffed. So, for the sake of manageability, some respite care homes are drugging the clients who have Alzheimer's and dementia to make them more docile and therefore less demanding. There is obviously a huge unmet need for new forms of cognitive therapy to engage the elderly rather than just leaving them to vegetate and sit out the clock. "God's waiting room" was one apt description that came to mind when visiting these places--they are seriously depressing.

But I regard any therapeutic "solutions" as merely a way station to something more ambitious. Yes, governments depend on us dying so they don't have to pay for our upkeep if we aren't self-funded retirees, but I hope it will be possible to rethink and ultimately radically restructure the work-life cycle to redress the lack of value invested in older citizens. Part of the irony, of course, about governments panicking about declining birth rates is that little consideration to date has been given to how greater investment in negligible senescence research could mean that children need no longer be solely relied on as the future reserve army of labor: I am certain that more older adults would prefer to remain productive in some capacity, which would counterbalance the need to fund respite care. Just think of the reduced costs of early education as a "knock on" effect of more transitions in the life cycle of the existing populace, rather than having to "start from scratch" with each new generation of children. I am not advocating a zero-sum game though because I simply believe that more people, especially women, would genuinely benefit if they had greater freedom to postpone (or avoid them altogether, if preferred) caregiver duties, or to decide whether children were their best option for leaving a "future legacy," or for finding someone to look after their welfare when they grow old.

 Ultimately then, I hope there can be more than just a losing hand for those who devolve into the "second childhood" where they become totally dependent and can't even shower, go to the toilet, or dress themselves; let alone retain their identities because of memory loss. I am sure there would be some devotees of psychoanalysis who would diagnosis my basic problem as being a lack of a capacity to "mourn" and therefore accept the inevitability of decline. I remember the sociologist and analyst Ian Craib eloquently describing how he tried to teach his clients this lesson, and yet Craib passed away in his early fifties from cancer. Perhaps there is some "cold comfort" in accepting your lot in life, but by the same token, surely nobody wants to feel cheated of all the productive years (for some this would mean paid employment or volunteer work) that might, and should, have lain ahead.

Just after my father's passing, I caught wind of a talk by sociologist Steve Fuller about ageing. I've been too busy to listen to it yet, but its timely appearance was a reminder to me of why I have to keep monitoring and, where possible, commenting on, developments with serious future implications. I find Fuller's sociology a more useful tool than Craib's. As Fuller reminds us, death is not the exclusive preserve of the old, "the young can get into it too." He's not trying to be flippant here either. I have it on my iPod so will try to listen to it later today as I work my way through things.

And yet, my father did enjoy this Death In June song:

Featured on :
- But what ends when the symbols shatter
- Disc-riminate
- Heilige!
- Live in Italy
- Something is coming

Black angel, black angel
As you grow up
I want you to drink
From the plenty cup
My little black angel
My little black angel as years roll by
I want you to fly with wings held high
I want you to live by the justice code
I want you to burn down freedom's road
My little black angel
Oh lie away, oh lie away asleeping
Lie away safe in my arms
Your father, your future protects you
And locks you safe from all harm
Little black angel I feel so glad
You'll never have things I never had
When out of men's hearts all hate has gone
It's better to die than forever live on
My little black angel...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Here is where bioethics has something unique to offer

What other academic field requires you to issue strident moral challenges to the very people who pay your salary and sit on your tenure committee? If you are feeling a little too comfortable with success, it doesn’t usually take much work to dig up some sort of ethical problem to expose. Conflict of interest, research scandals, malpractice lawsuits in waiting -- any of these will do. Go to a dean or a hospital administrator, kick up a fuss with your Institutional Review Board, or if you’re really feeling lucky, go straight to the media. Bang, you’re dead! Professional suicide! This is the beauty part. In bioethics, there is always somebody for you to alienate. Take a step in one direction and you piss off the activists. Take a step back and you anger the doctors. Step to the right and the dean wants your head. Step to the left and the media will crucify you. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself hopping around like a hyperactive five-year-old who has forgotten his Ritalin. One day you will come into work and find the locks changed on your office door. When that happens, sit back, have a cigar, and start looking through the want ads. Congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine

In a promotional article in the Huffington Post for the publication of Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine, Tom Koch, a Canadian gerontologist and bioethicist,  writes:  

"The foundation myth of bioethics, the 'demi-discipline's' self-professed raison d'etre is at best inadequate if not demonstrably false. Its grounding lies not, as bioethicists insist, in a robust ethic of care necessitated by new science and a failed Hippocratic sense of duty and care. Instead its origins and purpose demonstrably rest upon its service to the neoliberal, postmodernist economics that made health a commodity rather than a service."

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dark Pools and High-Frequency Drones

It will be very interesting to see if Philip Mirowski, author of Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, decides to update his thesis in light of Scott Patterson's new book, Dark Pools: High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System. Or perhaps Mirowski might just write a review instead. I haven't read the book yet myself, so I can't comment on whether Patterson's thesis itself presupposes technological determinism, but journalists are certainly quick to resort to it when characterising Patterson's arguments. The Sydney Morning Herald's Paul Sheehan, for example, argues that "regulators are always caught in the wake of technological change. This wake has grown into a froth as the computer age keeps accelerating its own evolution (emphasis mine)".

And there's a viscosity in the imagery quoted from the book, somewhat reminiscent of The Terminator, which speaks in terms of ''a worldwide matrix of dazzlingly complex algorithms, interlinked computer hubs the size of football fields, and high-octane trading robots guided by the latest advances in artificial intelligence''.

For Sheehan, the upshot of all this is clear:

"At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. By last year, it was 22 seconds. By now it will be as long as it takes to read these first two paragraphs...This evolution includes the ''dark pools'' that gave Patterson the title of his book. They are giant pools of liquidity which financial institutions use to trade with each other, outside the sharemarkets, to avoid the preying Bots that seek to exploit any large trade. Dark pools are also an attempt to create stability. As Patterson writes: ''Insiders were slowly realising that the push-button, turbo-trading market in which algos battled algos … at speeds measured in billionths of a second had a fatal flaw … a vicious self-reinforcing feedback loop … Because speed traders had pushed aside more traditional long-term market makers … algos could trigger their own form of self-reinforcing mayhem.''

But if such systems are portrayed as autonomous, then any attempt to regulate them risks appearing a hopelessly dated and defeatist humanist gesture. This is where Patterson's work could reinforce the posthumanist presuppositions of Luhmann's theory and dovetail with Knorr-Cetinna's thesis of the "post-social" environment inhabited by traders. So this book is a reminder of why we have to make sure our social theory does not become too complicit with its object of analysis, without sacrificing any of the complexity needed to adequately address emergent social phenomena. I can't see that this need be too difficult though, especially when Patterson states that his thesis is postmodern:

''With electronic trading, a placeless, faceless, postmodern cyber-market in which computers communicated at warp speed, that physical sense of the market's flow had vanished. The market gained new eyes - electronic eyes …"

Social theory and sociology have been dealing with postmodernists now for more than twenty years, and have proven, contra Baudrillard, that reports of the "death of the social" have been greatly exaggerated. So I feel confident that a new generation will be able to rise to this latest challenge as well.

One final thing, be sure to watch the clip I've posted here till the end, because it concludes with some interesting speculations about the future applications of drone technology. Drones legally become available for commercial use in the United States in 2015.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

My thanks to Steve Fuller...

...for the following kind words:

What is lacking in the first three sites is more than adequately compensated for by yet another Australian website„ named for the planet where most of the Ridley Scott film, ‘Alien’ takes place. This is the only website that I would recommend turning into a book or perhaps even multi-media package. It is an amazing source for commentary and clips on the nexus where critical social theory and trans-/post-humanism meet. The steady stream of current news items, science fiction references and other elements of popular culture – laced together with consistently incisive observations – is a marvel to behold. It is one website that always aims to keep its readers at the edge of their seats. 

Made me feel a bit guilty though for not maintaining a "steady stream of current news items" etc this year because of other commitments. I still greatly appreciate the sentiments, of course. Trying to get something else (a publication) in the works this month, and if it starts to come off,  hope you won't mind Steve if I need to run it by you. Still early days, so not sure yet.

Speaking of dystopias...

 ...having just discussed Peter Thiel, it's disturbing how a feminist science fiction author could advocate something almost as frightening. I've just read an incisive piece that attributes the blindspots in Sheri S Tepper's work to second-wave feminism,  "a movement that was largely defined by and for middle-class white women and notoriously failed to deal with the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality that women outside that narrow bracket negotiate daily".

In an interview back in  2008, Tepper announced her faith in eugenics as a means of dealing with persons:

"who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human,” she said in a 2008 interview with Strange Horizons .
Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food. There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a ‘cure.’ There will be no chat about this sequestration being ‘inhumane,’ because the persons so confined are not human by definition.
(Whether she is unaware that forced sterilization has been used routinely against low-income women of color well into the 1970s, or whether she simply doesn’t care, isn’t clear.) Tepper’s ideal society is a terrifying dystopia in and of itself, and once you know that about her, it’s easy to see those politics reflected in everything she writes".