Man to Superman; Surviving the Virtual Desert

Man to Superman; Surviving the Virtual Desert

This post is largely drawn for a recent conference by OPUS (an organisation for promoting understanding in society) appropriately named: Man to Superman, Humans, Robots and Communities.

The conference was held at the University of London, 9 October 2010, and included two presentations.

The first by Dr. Simon Western was entitled:

cyborgs and entanglements: locating ourselves in a strange land

Dr. Western tackled a number of interesting issues. The most fascinating of which was Actor-Network-Theory.

Very simply the premise of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) is that technology has agency. Now I’m not sure exactly what is meant by agency or what its implications are. But this much is clear, ANT ‘s hypothesis is that there is value in viewing society of being made up not only or human but also of technological agents.

Technology of all sorts, from laptops, to mobile phones, to cars, trains and planes, is an active participant in our society’s architecture. It plays an active structuring role in our lives and our community.

Computers are an extension of our minds, influencing, shaping and transporting our thought.

Mobile phones connect us to the world and in doing this move us around, interrupt us, connect us, call us, entertain us and so on.

Technology of all sorts moves us around the planet, locally and internationally. And our towns, cities and homes, as well as our lives are shaped around and influenced by the operations of some form of technology.

So without getting all twighlight zone about it it is still clear that technology is an active agent in our modern world. The moment we lift our perspective above the purely human a picture emerges which is quite different from the one we normally relate to, in terms of our usual understandably very human-centred view.

I think it’s important here to make the point that we don’t have to infer consciousness or even volition to infer agency.

Imagine for a moment an alien species that is neither organic nor machine in composition observing us. In other words the observation of a composite neutral perspective. Imagine how they may view our society and you get an idea of what ANT is all about.

And honestly I encourage you to do this; it’s a very interesting exercise, look around yourself in a busy street and observe how significant machine agency is. And how it interacts with us all the time, every moment of the day.

In psychoanalysis there is something known as objects relation theory. This is simply what parts of our unconscious selves are projected onto objects, and what the implicit unconscious relationship with these objects is.

To frame this slightly differently my as my favourite intellectual Slavoj Zizek says you only have to observe toilets to understand how ideology is alive and well in our society today.

Slavoj Zizek on toilets .

So an interesting question here, in terms of our theme of discovering meaning, is:

What is our relationship with this technology? What portions of ourselves have we invested in, or projected onto, this technology? And what has it come to represent for us?

Is there an ‘us’ to speak of anymore free of this technology? And if so what does that look like and would it be desirable? Is there a point of return so to speak.

Our lives are as they are in large part because of that technology. And no doubt it serves us on many levels, but it does not come without a price.

One of the costs of this technology in our working environment is, according to Dr. Western, a feeling of alienation. A feeling of being somehow disconnected. Something which is central to the way we are as people, but is missing from technology, is emotion, feelings.

We spend the most productive parts of our day engaged with our machines, our laptops, our mobile phones, our blackberry’s etc. But there is never an emotional response from them, all the emotions is ours.

Actually the veraaier (betrayer, man who turned his back on his home land) who has been my stalwart and firm companion in England made an interesting point. He said when we talk to other people, or friends, loved one etc. either on phone or Skype etc. we have the idea we are connected.

But we are not; it’s just an illusion of connection. Now I know that this statement wouldn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical critique…. What do we mean by connection? Are we ever connected? And so on.

But that’s not the point I think. Rather I propose that we all know exactly what he means by that statement.

We know that the connections we make over a digital medium are not the same as being face to face with our friends. And it’s interesting to note what ideology is used to convince us of its benign purpose. Ideologically it is sold to us as ‘being connected’. Think only of the marketing of all of the vast number of telecoms giants from At&T to Vodaphone.

There is always this explicit and implicit message- stay connected. But connected to what exactly?

Dr. Simon Western closed his presentation with a story from a time he spent with the Amish in their beautiful Virginian farmland. He said , the Amish say they are not against technology. For example they have a phone, a single phone, which is available to the community.

But they won’t have a phone in every home, just as they won’t have a TV in every home. For the reason that their belief is it interrupts family life; and as such is a disruptive rather than constructive agent in their lives.

The Amish ask a simple question in their evaluation of nay new technology. Does this serve the community, or not?

The second presentation of the day came from Dr. Shankarnarayan Sirnath:

a new kind of wisdom for a new kind of world

Dr. Sirnath articulated some of the affects of the digital revolution:

  • By 2010 67% of the world’s population have access to mobile phones and 27% to the World Wide Web.
  • The changing face not only of communication but of publishing. Essentially the death of paper publishing and its rapid replacement by e-readers.
  • The information overload and how this was changing the way we process information. Specifically how scanning has replaced reading. (I can confirm this. As a blogger one of the golden guidelines is no one actually reads your blogs, at best they scan them, which kind of begs the question why I’m writing this doesn’t it, oh well old habits die hard )
  • The development of an explicit global consciousness in the WWW. (for the record my phrasing not his)
  • The invasion of our privacy and consequent reduction in the degree to which our lives are private anymore.

This is an interesting point. The reduction of privacy.

It is true as we become increasingly present and engaged in the digital space our lives are also increasing transparent. We are more and more accessible to the world and there has been some idealisation around this idea by some web advocates.

The concern expressed by Dr. Sirnath is whether this does not somehow reduce our interiority our inner life?

What do you think?

It is not only the web of course but the fact that with mobile phones and smart phones we are constantly reachable and there is an expectation placed on us to stay ‘in touch or available’.

Personally I have an unusual take on this situation. Or at least I think it’s unusual maybe not. I have always wanted to be observed, to be seen. In fact I only feel real, in a way, when I’m seen. As anyone who reads my blog knows my degree of sharing myself in my posts goes beyond the norm.

So for me this idea of not being private is not threatening. However a parallel idiosyncrasy is I refuse to answer my phone fixed line or mobile if I am engaged with anything else, I will simply not allow it to interrupt me.

I would be very interested to know how you experience this shift away from the private.

Some of the concerns that Dr. Sirnath raised were:

  • The radical changes to our normal conception of time and space in the digital world and how we are adapting to that.
  • The potential for data manipulation.
  • The loss of emotive connectedness with material objects in the virtual space.
  • Our rapidly changing structural environment.

Another point Dr. Sirnath made was concerning the increasing consumerist nature of sports fans.

He was referring specifically to cricket, a sport about which he is most passionateJ. However it strikes me that the web is actually transforming many other aspects of our culture into that of being consumer driven.

I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the whole of the web is a massive consumerist orgy, including, and maybe even especially, social media.

Have you noticed how friends on facebook are more than friends and also less than friends? I propose, and I suspect few would disagree, that friends on facebook are more of an indication of the value of your network than people you genuinely engage with and care about.

The last issue I would like to highlight, mentioned by Dr. Sirnath, is that of knowledge vs. experience.

The web and other digital information sources, much like books, give us knowledge not experience. And as for those of you who have tasted the forbidden fruit know, having sex is not quite the same thing as googling it .

Concluding thoughts

This is such a vast topic that it’s difficult to say something short in conclusion and avoid saying something which is utter rubbish.

In my personal view we are on the precipice of an evolutionary jump. The rate of exponential change we are witnessing in technology today is something unimaginable 50 years ago or even 30 years ago. We are witnesses to a change which goes beyond what the most imaginative science fiction could guess at a few short decades ago.

The world our children are being born into is so different from ours that the degree of guidance we can give them is very limited. Some of core definitions of what it means to be alive and be human are changing before our eyes.

I fall in the Kurzweilian camp of being fundamentally optimistic about the future, but am not so naive as to uncritically accept my optimism.

I think the chance for a breakdown in this process is very real. Or the possibility that it will lead us into an unpleasant and inhuman (by our current standards) place. These are real possibilities and concerns. Mirrored, to some extent, in the aspiration to an apocalyptic end to this craziness, evident in the frenzy around the Mayan Calendar predictions and the doomsday talk of much of the green earth movement.

My late godfather George Farah once said to me, when he was quite old already, that he was glad he wasn’t much longer for this world, as the world was going mad. That was about twenty years ago, and I think, at the very least by the standards of that time, the confirmation of that prognosis can, today, be unequivocally confirmed.

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