Sunday, 17 February 2013

#EDCMOOC week 3: Are we posthuman now?

Week beginning 11th Feb 2013

Right – make a cup of tea – then… Question of the week:

Q: is the essential nature of ‘being human’ under threat from techno and biomedical advances?

A: Listen to Fukuyama (2002) on his book Our Posthuman Future:

Fukuyama discusses the effect of culture and social capital on economic life. Previously notorious for article, then book, The End of History (1989): the new modern viz. post-USSR … all walls falling down, history over, liberal values won.

Some of us watching those walls saw Russian people lose their right to employment, homes and pensions: we saw grannies on the street selling plastic gew gaws to live… and thought this was not the end of history - this was pre-history!

Worryingly, he really did not see the rise of theocracies and theocratic dictatorships. (I seem to remember that in the early part of the twentieth century GK Chesterton - of Father Brown fame – did; I must check that out…)

Fukuyama’s main argument seems to be that there is something that could be called human nature, and that moral choices, human emotions = source of our humanity = source of dignity and political rights citing Jefferson: all men created equal, 1776… except slaves of course.

Fukuyama argues that extension of rights to all (!) emanated from biological awareness of genetic equality – and thus genetic engineering will lead to inequality because people really will be born genetically different – and this is a politically serious issue.

Phew – thank goodness that all that scientific awareness has led to such an equal society!

Love the implicit techno-determinism: these terrible human behaviours somehow emanate from the technology qua technology rather than the sort of constructed and enacted humanity that allows people to live in and accept terrible inequalities and terrible behaviour in society.

The implicit metaphor set up by Descartes helps me here:

I think therefore I am

Arguably this rationalist model of humanity was so embraced because it reinforced and propelled our whole binary, dialectic world:
rational: irrational…
man: woman …
civilised: native…
white: black…
mind: body…
M/class: w/class
human: non-human

… and this is a problem for the ruling class, for the techno must surely fall on their side of this binary, it is so much more rational, more modern … it allows uber-man. The techno = threat for those who currently hold power.  

Perhaps that is why this debate seems a bit recherche to me: I am on the other side of that binary. I am already discounted. The techno holds no inherent fear for me – how can it displace me more? The only problem with the techno is that once I too am work-less, I may not be able to afford to be connected to the WWW – but I will still be connected to people.

Now off to my counterbalance - an Asimov clip from 1988 on the Technology Enhanced Learning blog:

Asimov predicted the internet – and the ability to learn at your own speed, in your own home – to follow your own interests – to enrich learning and have a one-to-one relationship with knowledge – not mediated by the tutor… JAs in the 17th C  radicalised religion with Protestantism said you could have a one-to-one relationship with god – not mediated by the pastor or priest.

Four hundred more years to even think about radicalising education suggests that the power of socially constructed ‘education’ is even more powerful than the church: that the ideological state apparatus of education is stronger than that of religion. I knew this tacitly – but Asimov’s words threw a new light upon this.

‘Like prison, the reward of school is getting out!’ The sorrow here is not that so many of us flee learning – but that school kills our natural love of learning…

On to the next cup of tea – and the next position:

Q: universal human nature does not exist… with am implicit optimism that what is made can be made differently…

A: see: Core Reading: Steve Fuller’s Warwick TEDx talk: Humanity 2.0: defining humanity Which I accessed through: (thank you).

Continues thread opened last week – we are metaphorical beings conceptualising the world through metaphors and metaphorical processes – and reminds us that what and how and who that we think humanity and being human is has also been thus conceptualised.

What humanity and the human IS – is not abstract or a meta-narrative – but we are beings and concepts of being, inextricably embedded within our own contexts, cultures, times. If this is so – then for us in the west – existing as we do in these stressful, hierarchical, unfair and unjust digital times… whatever we are now, is being human within digital cultures…

This reminds me of Plato and his notion of the perfect forms existing in the cave of the gods, that we are but humble shadows of… and his concept of three types of human being: bronze, silver and gold – and that these different forms of people had different aptitudes and were suited to different roles and rewards in society. So people who saw themselves as enlightened could contemplate possessing slaves because they did not see those as truly ‘people’… which of course resonates with class and caste – which is still very healthily alive in society today… and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor, the rhetoric of hardworking families struggling to earn an honest coin whilst the feckless wallow behind their closed curtains. I particularly like it when Etonian millionaires like Cameron & Osborne (UK prime minister and chancellor) condemn the workless for feeling ‘entitled’ to their unearned £75.00 per week unemployment benefit – whilst feeling perfectly entitled themselves to inherit their unearned millions, their unearned and highly paid sinecures as directors of companies… Ah – but I digress again.

Finally, the overarching Q for this week seems to be:

Q: Can we reassert something quintessentially human in our digital world? Can we reaffirm ‘our commitment to humanist ideas which underlie many educational philosophies and approaches to practice, such as equality, freedom and autonomy[?]’

A: I think all the blogging that I’ve been doing rather insists that the only truly human characteristic that I can think of is cruelty: we are in-humanity… It’s been that sort of week! But now to the viewings, Lay on MacDuff… 

Film 1: Toyota GT86: the ‘real deal’ advert (1:01)
Wow! Whilst it is so easy to see all the flaws with this – the glorification of an implicitly macho technology and an unsustainable ecology/economy all being normalised as the very opposite of that… I see the evocation of Blade Runner… I see the pixellated burger in the hand of the guy who has the conduit to an idealised freedom… I hear, ‘No Regrets’ and know that it is saying that we have so much to lose… by which they mean the castration implied by safety technology which will take the life out of driving and out of our culture… while they sell you back technology and a de-natured culture…

But, there is a dangerous beauty to the piece, a density of ‘poetry’: so much conveyed in one minute…

Film 2: BT: heart to heart advert (0:40)
Yes – mediation posing as non… with the telephone offered as more ‘real’ than say a Skype contact… Couldn’t possibly be because Skype is online and cheaper than a phone call? Boy – what an old cynic…

Film 3: World builder (9:16)
Suggests a world where ‘god’ is a blue collar worker building a life size Second Life perfect world, against the clock, for his terminally ill wife… Even as she wonders at the space he has created for her – he can see something menacing on the skyline – a blot – a flaw in his heaven… And yes, she is Cinderella-summoned back to ICU; and although he was absent from her dreams he can enter the nightmare of her illness, placing a flower plucked from the virtual into the glass on her bedside table. ‘There are more wonders… than you can dream on in your philosophy, Horatio…’ – and we are all alone for aye that. (I thought the Windows logo glowing on her forehead very spooky!)

Film 4: They’re made out of meat (7:20)
Two suitably strange almost human looking life forms commenting on the human race: they are made of meat… their brains are meat… they communicate by meat. Nifty references to alien abductions – and desperate smoking to convey life… Absolutely excellent short film – that just is a commentary on our frail humanity.

Google+ Hangout with the tutors:
I do so enjoy these opportunities to meet our excellent tutors and see them discuss the course – and their apprehensions of our participation. There was some discussion of the different ways we are negotiating this MOOC – and that this in itself also creates difference – some privileging the visual and synchronous over the disembodied; others seeming to prefer the fragmented and contingent asynchronous. Interesting as it illustrates how immediately we as humans tend to inhabit new space in these habitual ways… and thus that there will be potential for research… but reminds me of why we created our Beach Space in SL to support student learning by stimulating different ways to inhabit and stake claim to educational space.

Advanced reading: Badmington, N (2000) Introduction: approaching posthuamanism Posthumanism NewYork; Houndmills: Palgrave

The posthuman… (Hah - also references Descartes; happy self-congratulatory smile on my part!) - Descartes: there would be no de facto difference between a machine monkey and a monkey, because no monkey possesses reason; but there must be that difference between man and machine man… 

Badmington cites the Germans: Marx, Freud, Althusser, Engels – overturning Hegel:
  • Our consciousness is shaped by our contingent material conditions. Rather then being essentially something that is naturally human, different material conditions produce different humanities.
  • We are prompted by our unconscious and desires that are not controlled by our consciousness…
And notes that whilst the theorists argued about humanity, post-humanity, non-humanity and a-humanity – Hollywood produced Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, War of the Worlds: we are at risk from the in-human ‘other’; this debate was not the sole preserve of the intellectual.

Though critics assumed these to be a reaction to the Cold War rather than the second world war: communists look like us, they masquerade as us… but they are not us, Badmington cites them as evidence of man’s insecurity :
Man, the films insisted, would survive: this was destiny, the law of nature… [but] why defend Man if ‘his’ position at the centre of things is inevitable? … Humanism was in trouble: Hollywood knew this but took refuge in denial. To borrow a paradox from Jean-François Lyotard, the cinema depicted Man dying in abundance, passing away from prosperity, croaking from health. And yet, although they shared a common concern with the end of human sovereignty, theory and mass culture were kept generically apart. When they eventually met, however, posthumanism was born.

Cyborg nature
Baudrillard proposed that technology is transformational: the supposedly autonomous Cartesian man now dependent on technology for everything – including access to and views of ‘the world’. Of course everything from anthropology to feminism were already de-centring ‘man’ from the centre of this universe… So, did Derrida’s post-structuralism bring us finally to the post-human? But Derrida points out that systems always contradict themselves from within…

Reflecting on my own response to this week’s questions on ‘being human’, I see that whilst I obviously believe that we are not essential beings, but human beings formed by our relationship with contingent circumstances – material and virtual – I obviously hoped or wished for an essential quality, something that valued and values all life no matter how ‘not like me’ that might be. Though not religious, it might be summed up as ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. Simple and elegant – and manifestly not embraced by secularism or any of the religions struggling – and sometimes with terrifying success – to reassert their power over the world… perhaps that is the posthuman quality that I am hoping for.


Unknown said...

Uh that kind of a week? Hope the weekend is helping. :)
I think both is default in human beings the possibility to be cruel and to be what we falsely call "human" = empathic. The thing is our society/culture defines in which direction we go. No question about where capitalism leeds to...
There is a fantastic documentary about horror movies
( I don't like them but this documentary is outstanding!)
called The American Nightmare - The History of Horror's Golden Age "A fascinating documentary, released in 2000, which examines the nature of 60s and 70s American horror films and how they reflected contemporary American society."
It's very much worth a watch but I don't know if it's really the right thing after your bad week...maybe try it out some other time? But your post make me think:
Did you realize that today it's Zombies and Vampyres again?
What does it mean?
I have some ideas but I think I will watch the docu again first before I write it down.

Ronald L said...

Thanks for your post. Interesting yet misanthropic view.

I interpreted the world builder movie quite different.
I saw it as a form of therapy to the woman in coma to activate her brain with images and maybe even memories in a hologram therapy area, to make here better.

There's still a lot to do to make the world better.
Pure capitalism will make differences bigger, but regulated market mechanisms may help to establish a middle class in poor countries. From that middle class a true revolution could emerge which in the end could help the poorest people as well.

I was intrigued when I read somewhere, don't know where, that the easy accessible Internet through cheap phones and tablets, kind of creates a new kind of middle class, a digital middle class which can form a new power source.

Britt Watwood said...

Nice summary of the articles and films. As I age (and not very gracefully), I start to take on technology in very personal ways. First, glasses in order to see, and then an artificial knee. Technologies...but they do not define me or remove my human nature. I think the same is true of my virtual self.

And I think it is very human, as Ronald L noted, to see the digital age as making the world better.

Unknown said...

thanks so much for all the comments -though imagine my surprise when Ronald called my view misanthropic! Me! Misanthropic... I am now muttering to myself in disbelief!