Selling Off Immortality

A blog post on NPR asks Are We Turning Into Machines? It is a big question, but as is often the case, the answer is descriptive and passive:

I’m guilty as charged, by the way. This is no diatribe against the ills of modern technology. Nevertheless, I find it crucial for us to reflect upon what’s going on in real time…

To forego our natural evolutionary past is to forego an essential part of our humanity: It’s to let us become something we are not.

Is it a serious issue or not? Why bother reflecting if you’re already resigned to being ‘guilty as charged’?

There is a lot of room in articles like these for authors to move beyond descriptions of “everyone’s” unhealthy balance of technology use. There is room to describe ways they are trying to achieve and embrace a balance. Or, even to describe what such a balance means to them – this would be a positive step.

This morning on the way in to work I listened to Yuval Harari talk about a possible futures, and a lot of it is depressing. Much of it is cool, for sure, but the parts where mega-rich billionaires achieve immortality and sell it off to less-but-still-rich others is depressing. It is disturbing when he describes a future ruled by data, not elected officials or religion. (Making news stories like this one about Peter Thiel’s political involvement even more scary)

The two essential points that Harari makes were that all of our technology use is not deterministic, and that knowing yourself is really the only way out of a technology/algorithm ruled future. This is all the more reason to stop being passive about the “continuing trend of increased human-machine integration”. Describing (and accepting) ourselves as we relate to machines isn’t knowing ourselves.

The Salvation of Technology

I read a Peter Thiel quote last week that chilled me:

The only thing that matters, he said, is that politics never be allowed to interfere with technological progress, because it’s the latter, not the former, that will be humankind’s salvation. (source)

If human decision and action aren’t its own salvation, if humans have already outsourced free will to technology, then salvation is already lost.

The thing with libertarians is that I doubt very many of them would want to start from point zero – they want the change off the back of the current system, replacing voters with those at the top of the money pyramid. Thiel, a libertarian who just gave a speech at a major political party’s convention, is a billionaire in the tech industry: Of course he wants a wild-west of no regulations for his tech industry. Of course he wants an absence of government involvement – the billionaires would then fill that void.

What matters is making a beneficial society for as many people as possible, regardless of technology progress.


Cultural Racism

I’ve been thinking about that Loury and McWhorter video again – it’s difficult not to think about racism these past few days. Stars and stripes are in the news.

The term ‘structural racism’ comes up at one point in the video, a term that McWhorter takes issue with because of it’s lack on involvement with people, the human. Perhaps the concept is better stated as ‘cultural racism’. Culture does involve people and humans and their learned behavior. Racism is certainly a part of American culture, as it is in many countries around the world. For various reasons, America’s racism is more extreme, more tragic.

Cultures don’t change quickly, they go through centuries of evolution – extended debate, civil wars, policy and law reform, budgets, and elections. The process of cultural change is a process that a culture or society usually undergoes, rather than actively decides. But does this need to be the case? Are we at a point that masses of people, through the help of certain technology, can start to make conscious decisions about the evolution of their culture?

This next election is turning out to be a critical point America’s long struggle with cultural racism. For one political party, it’s still an advantage to avoid openly condemning racism. Until it becomes a disadvantage for that party, until they lose more at the polls than they gain (the only thing political parties care about), they won’t condemn racism.

Technology has been a magnifying glass on society in the social media age – the good, the bad, the lingering behaviors that have been slow to mature. Perhaps technology can also be used as a reactive instrument in confronting exposed cultural flaws. It may be a lot to hope for, but as someone watching America from the outside, I hope the many, many people in America who detest their cultural racism decide to make this next election about racism and racism only.

Technology can help spread the message that if a political party won’t openly condemn racism, then they will never stand a chance at winning an election, regardless of any of their other beliefs. Democracy is meant to be representational, but it can also be representation full of aspiration.

Aspiring towards a conscious shift in culture is a massive outcome to hope for. America itself is also a massive place, with an amazing, still developing, culture.


Technology for Friction

From Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here“, a description of a certain type of technology that aims to create friction:

tech seen as 1

tech seen as 2

This seems to me a blueprint for education. EdTech spends a lot of effort on making technology seamless, easy to use, and never technology for the sake of itself. What if educators tried using edtech more for itself, to create friction and perplexity? I wonder if such a strategy cold become mainstream.

Dewey was big on perplexity:

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on ” general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it.

Why bother using technology to create perplexity?  Many of our habits are established though technology (machines, and devices) – Through habit, we become our machines (Says Wendy Chun). Perhaps a little friction caused by these habit forming machines may encourage thinking and reflection about such habits, which often lie under the touch-screen surface of daily life.



Negotiating Word Meanings – What is Racist?

I watched this video last week of a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about various topics surrounding Donald trump and racism. The topic of “Is Trump a racist?” is interesting in itself, but what I enjoyed most is how the two speakers discuss the meaning of the word “racist” and “racism”.

How has the concept changed over the years? To what degree can a concept be attributed to both a culture and a personality? Does language need to differentiate between the two? How does language communicate ideas that exist on a spectrum (ie: color)?

Debating definitions of words is time consuming, but worthwhile. This discussion is a great example of two people negotiating the finer line of language representation:

Attending to Reciprocity

To start off Attending to Technology, Jacobs writes about the ‘Attending’ part of the title, or what it means to give attention to someone or something:

What we fail to perceive we have on some level chosen not to perceive; we have looked away; we have allowed indifference to have sway over us. Genuinely to attend is to give of oneself with intent; it is to say: For as long as I contemplate this person, or this experience, or even this thing, I grant it a degree of dominion over me. But I will choose where my attention goes; it is in my power to grant or withhold.

The choice to use “Attending” in this thesis is fantastic, and gives this exploration of technology a fresh feeling. To think about our own attention is to consider such questions as:

Do I really have the power to grant or withhold? If not, how might I acquire that power? And even if I possess it, on what grounds do I decide how to use it?

In answering, I suspect that Ursula Franklin would use the word reciprocity. How can we increase (or force) reciprocity when we communicate? Or, even, how can we use reciprocity to change the increasingly tendency for interaction back into a form of actual communication:

In general, technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties.

Education Analytics

Taking a break from preparations for the oncoming and inevitable infrastructure wars of the 2020s, I was reading about Big Data and Education today. I love the question quoted below, in which the they question what it means to ‘learn’.

Big data-driven platforms such as learning analytics aim to ‘optimize learning’ but is it always clear what is meant by ‘learning’ by the organizations and actors that build, promote and evaluate them?

The article goes on to quote some educational science data, cognitive science, neuroscience, etc. Read the entire article here, it’s a great article for provoking questions about learning analytics, at least for novices like me.

The flipside to the answer though is to question what is meant by ‘education’. The article, like most I read, tends to use ‘learning’ and ‘education’ as interchangeable terms. What do Big Data driven platforms mean by ‘education’?

An aspect of ‘education’ distinguishing it from the concept of ‘learning’ is the intentional decision of what to learn about. Whether this is done by a government, society, industry, institution, culture,or an individual, in education there’s some choice involved about the subject matter surrounding the learning. In this case, if we were to “optimize learning” does that include optimizing that choice? In other words, will big data help me (or whoever is making that choice) make better choices about what to learn about?

I hope any learning analytics system wouldn’t be designed to help me gloss over the natural variation by which I decide to learn about things. Let’s not kill curiosity.