WikiJournal Preprints/Dehumanised, Transhumanised, Rehumanised

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Article information

Author: Leigh Blackall

Blackall, L. 




Abstract

In 2017 I was invited to give a talk on the future of education and educational technology at eLearning Korea. The conference had a curious byline “a happy encounter with new technology”, and it's to this byline I targeted the presentation.

I aim to acknowledge the unhappiness created by technology and propose humanism to ward off technocratic tyranny and to discover what technological happiness might be.

I hope my proposition is clear - that for there to be a happy encounter with technology, we need to re-orientate ourselves to humanist perspectives. Those perspectives can be found in history, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, theory, art, storytelling, questioning, criticism and debate. Sensitivity to humanism needs to be nurtured, the ember that might make a flame seems at risk of being extinguished.

It is with humility and hope that I offer this idea to the eLearning Korea 2017 Conference.

Introduction[edit]

Perhaps we can begin in 1968, watching a black and white video projection of text superimposed on the image of a man and listening to him explain the things he is demonstrating in an apparently live setting. With the benefit of hindsight, we're watching a the first computer mouse, combined with video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time text editing. We know that this demonstration would later be called The Mother of All Demos.

Douglas Engelbart performed the live demonstration, showing some of the features his team had been developing over the preceding years in their Research Centre for Augmenting Human Intellect. Their work was sponsored by DARPA, NASA and the US Airforce, and hosted at the Stanford Research Institute [1]. In 1962, Engelbart had written Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework[2] in which he devoted the entire background of his framework to the proposals by Vannevar Bush, outlined in the 1945 article, As We May Think.

It was Douglas Engelbart’s attempt at realising Vannevar Bush’s idea of a Memex - both clearly pervading our technological imaginations for more than half a century.

I’ve spent a mere 15 of those years working in the intensely applied end of educational technology. That work has been almost exclusively within the all-too-similar institutions of Australian and New Zealand tertiary education[3]. I’ve played my part - espousing the revolutionary disruptions of hypertext, the internet, socially networked media, open education and networked learning. I’ve worked tirelessly at baptising teachers in the digital waters of connectivity and showing them the heavenly ways of online learning[4]. I’ve dismissed the ones who would not convert as old fashioned Luddites (sic) long overdue for their retirement, or made a concerted effort toward their ‘digital literacy’ through managerial endorsed ‘professional development’. I want to apologise for all that.

If I’m honest, I’ve doubted the value of that work in almost all of those 15 years. I knew that the w:Luddites had something to say but no way to say it. I’ve known that my job was merely instrumental, heaped with a stultifying power of technocratic urgency[5]. I knew, as did others, that the work was mostly to create the market conditions for a massive transfer of wealth into new growth industry for the few to capitalise. The conflicted among us were allowed to chatter out our ideas with disclaimers, only to be mined for occasional innovation within that narrow spectrum of commercial viability.

At this moment, another wave of hype is swelling up before us, threatening to re-energize the futurism with yet more wondrous dreams of data driven, design thinking, algorithmically convenient, autonomous robotics and augmented reality. Yet more new growth industries for transferring wealth to capital. It will boom and bust, taking with it our spirits and happiness.

Dehumanised[edit]

"At first we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us"

Perhaps wrongly attributed to McLuhan[6] we've held this saying to be true enough for more than half a century, at the peak of our Modern era, awash in new technology, inspiring and governing our thoughts.

But tell me, how can we know if we're in that time when we are free to shape our tools? Or how can we know when we are in that time when we have lost our freedom to our tools? Might we always be "at first" and free? Or is that time forever past and we are merely struggling with the unending consequences of tool upon tool?

Technological determinism has haunted us for centuries. The Greek Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and suffered an eternity of pain and frustration because of it. But Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, married the all-giving Pandora, saw her release all evils but retain hope, and so he loved her all the more.[7]

In 1829, toward the end of what we today call “The Industrial Revolution” and what we might say was the dawning of Modernism, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle published his essay, The Mechanical Age.

“It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends… By our skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilised ages.”

Carlyle, like many since, was expressing the anxiety felt about the overwhelming technocratic mindset and its relentless push toward modernity and an apparent loss of humanity to its mechanised mindset.

In 2015 Alan Jacobs seemed to lose all hope in his essay, A technological history of modernity.

“..they could not think of World War II simply as a conflict between the Allies and the Axis. There were, rather, serious questions to be asked about the emerging character of the Western democratic societies. On some level each of these figures intuited or explicitly argued that if the Allies won the war simply because of their technological superiority — and then, precisely because of that success, allowed their societies to become purely technocratic, ruled by the military-industrial complex — their victory would become largely a hollow one.”

There you see what the “emerging character” of modernity is - a mechanised people who allow themselves to believe that their ends justify their means.

Did the machines of the industrial revolution create the technocratic mindset that gave us industrialised modernity and atrocious world wars? Or is this technological determinism just another way of seeing “progress”, based in some kind of dark Darwinian logic of techno-social evolution?

Transhumanised[edit]

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the transhumanism that Aldous Huxley described in his 1931 book, Brave New World. Alfred McClay pinpointed it most clearly in his 2008 essay, The burden of the humanities.

“Yet the lure of a pleasure-swaddled posthumanity may be the particular form of that temptation to which the Western liberal democracies of the 21st century are especially prone. Hence the thrust of Huxley’s work, to remind us that if we take such a step in our “quest to live as gods” we will be leaving much of our humanity behind.”

Are we at that point today? Are we attempting to leave our dehumanised modernity behind, in a transhumanist ascension to a post humanity? Are we really willing to try that for no greater purpose than for the creation of new growth industries so that a few can gain wealth?

Adam Curtis thinks we are, articulating as much in his explorations of this postmodern confusion. His documentary, The Trap (2007) he uncovers a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures, and a false idea of freedom. And then, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) further exposing the technocratic ideology in the creation of computers and, failing to liberate humanity, we distorted what it meant to be human instead.[8]

And we can’t reference film without mentioning the greatest film maker of all, Werner Herzog, who recently took on the Internet and its accompanying transhumanism in his feature documentary, Lo and Behold (2016).

“Have the monks stopped meditating… they all seem to be tweeting”.

In an interview about his film, Herzog said that he was trying to find the human beings in the subject of his film.[9]

And before Herzog was looking for humans, Charlie Brooker had made Black Mirror, a disturbing TV anthology stirring up our long held anxieties about dehumanised technocracy and its transhuman nightmares.

Rehumanised[edit]

So it can and has been said, we have things to be very unhappy about. We might have lost significant amounts of our humanity to modernism; so much so that we might be prepared to give it all away to the post human. I’m going to assume that there are at least some people who unhappily sense this, and who don’t want it to be that way any more. To them I suggest we rehumanise.

In his 1971 book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich interpreted the stories of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora in chapter 7 - Rebirth of Epimethean Man using them to reframe modernity and the calculating technology.

“To understand what this means we must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectation. Hope, in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation, as I will use it here, means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim. The Promethean ethos has now eclipsed hope.”

As the quotes from the works selected here point out, there have been people calling for a rehumanised ethos all through our modern era, and proposing ways to go about it. Perhaps rehumanising need only be a personal project. My own is ongoing, in a project I currently call, An Ethical Framework for Ubiquitous Learning. My personal goal is to continuously seek out and build in questioning, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, history, theory, art, storytelling, criticism and debate, and to use these discoveries to find kindred spirits, to help refine meaning and purpose, and expand human-ness in the relentlessly technocratic world we live and work in.

As Paul Goodman wrote in his 1969 essay, Can technology be humane?

“And yet there is a powerful surge of localism, populism, and community action, as if people were determined to be free even if it makes no sense. A mighty empire is stood off by a band of peasants, and neither can win—this is even more remarkable than if David beats Goliath; it means that neither principle is historically adequate. In my opinion, these dilemmas and impasses show that we are on the eve of a transformation of conscience.”

Conclusion[edit]

I wish to conclude with a curated list of content that, if I had the technology here, I would remix into a kind of collage that conveys transcendent meaning beyond text or the meaning of any single item in the list.

  1. Charlie Chaplin Modern Times
  2. Why I am NOT going to buy a computer
  3. Humanist Technology Criticism
  4. How can we change the way technologies are innovated?
  5. The Manifesto of the Free University International
  6. Sensemaking: the power of the humanities (in the age of the algorithm)

References[edit]

  1. Engelbart, D. 1968, "The Mother of All Demos". www.youtube.com. Retrieved 2019-12-03.
  2. Engelbart, D. 1962, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework". https://web.stanford.edu/. Retrieved 2019-12-03. External link in |website= (help)
  3. Watts, R. 2017. "Public universities, managerialism and the value of higher education". www.wikidata.org. Retrieved 2019-10-18.
  4. Wertheim, M. 2000. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. Norton Paperback 2000
  5. Postman, Neil (1992). Technopoly.
  6. Kuskis, A. 2014. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”. McLuhan Galaxy
  7. I am referring to Ivan Illich’s version of their story, found in chapter 7 Deschooling Society, The Birth of Epimethean Man.
  8. The ideology going into something may or may not be apparent. Consciously or unconsciously, ideology is expressed by the assumptions that go into a thing being made, looked at, or used. The works on this that I refer to so far include:
    1. Prints and Visual Communication. William Ivans 1953
    2. Ideology and the Image. Bill Nichols 1981
    3. Let Them Eat Data. Chet Bowers 2000
    4. Ways of Seeing. John Berger 1972
  9. Herzog, H. 2016. Werner Herzog on Virtual Reality, the Future of Humanity, and Internet Trolls. Vice Talks Film Season 1, Episode 18

Presentation[edit]

Video recording made after the presentation at eLearning Korea 2017
Slides for presentation to eLearning Korea 2017