Week 4 Resources

Popular cultures

Film 1: Robbie (8:45) 
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Film 2: Gumdrop (8:05) 
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This surprisingly moving short film takes on a core theme of popular cyberculture - the possibility of machinic sentience and the questions advanced artificial intelligence raise about what it means to be human. Here, the boundary between human and machine is questioned - if Robbie is capable of experiencing loneliness, happiness, faith and friendship, in what senses is he not human? If the humanistic principles of autonomy, rationality, self-awareness, responsibility, resilience and so on can be held by an artificial intelligence within a mechanical form, what does that say about the extent to which they rely on human cognition and the flesh of a human body to give ‘human’ meaning to the experience of the world? A vacuum-cleaning robot actress who doesn’t do hallucinogenics or nudity? Gumdrop will cheer you up after Robbie. She raises many of the same questions, but this time there are differences - literally - of voice and of embeddedness in the human world. For once, the vision of a posthuman future is not dystopic...
Film 3: True Skin (6:12) 
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Film 4: Avatar Days (3:54) 
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‘No-one wants to be entirely organic. No-one wants to get sick, or old, or die. My only choice was to enhance.’ In the future-world of True Skin, synthetic enhancement is normal, and the boundary between human and machinic body has been erased. Where Robbie and Gumdrop look at the human in the robot, True Skin considers the robotic in the human. In particular, you might want to think about the final scene of the movie in which another core sci-fi fantasy - memory backup - is drawn on. What does this notion say about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it? Warning: this film has some mild sexual content around the 2 minute mark. Interviews with players of the online game World of Warcraft are placed over a seamless merging of virtual and real life. This is another play on the messiness of our division of the human and non-human, this time within the context of avatar creation and role play. What does the final section of this film in particular reveal about the relationship between player and avatar, between the human and the simulation? What versions of the human are opened up here, and which are closed down?

Ideas and interpretations


Interview with Stefan Herbrechter (2013) Critical Posthumanism http://criticalposthumanism.net/?page_id=228:
This interview with the author of Posthumanism: a critical analysis (Bloomsbury 2013) gives quite a useful introduction to the idea of ‘critical posthumanism’ – a complex set of ideas that are nonetheless very useful to us in thinking about what ‘the human’ means to us as educators. 

It is important to understand that ‘posthumanism’ is not simply another way of talking about cyborgs or other fantasies of human enhancement - it has a philosophical and critical inheritance which is far more to do with the question of how we define and value what it means to be human (think back to last week’s advanced reading on philosophical humanism in education). In this sense, it is much more theoretically rich than the ‘transhumanism’ with which it is sometimes confused (see the next reading).

For a usefully concise comparison of humanism and posthumanism, take a look at this post on the Digital People blog.http://digitalpeopleuncc.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/humanism-posthumanism.html 

The Transhumanist Declaration

This brief text offers an insight into transhumanism. Transhumanism is rather different from the more critical modes of posthumanism that are covered in the Herbrechter article above. Where critical posthumanists see posthumanism primarily as a philosophical stance which, among other things, draws attention to the inequalities and injustices often wrought in the name of ‘the human’, transhumanists in general see ‘the human’ as a sound, though incomplete, project. For transhumanists, ‘humanity’ is a temporary, flawed condition: the future of human evolution is in the direction of a post-human future state in which technological progress has freed us from the inconveniences of limited lifespan, sickness, misery and intellectual limitation. 

Transhumanism, in summary, is to a large extent based on the extension of the humanistic principles of rationality, scientific progress and individual freedom that critical posthumanists would question. The ‘Declaration’ is included here as it gives us a way into thinking about how the language used in transhumanism tends to permeate our discussions of online education. In the UK, for example, it’s becoming normal to talk about online education as ‘technology enhanced learning’, yet the notion of ‘enhancement’ is very rooted in transhumanist visions of human cognitive perfectibility through technological advance. 

Thinking about transhumanism provides us with an interesting perspective on reading the Carr article below. The former foregrounds the positive potential of technology for human cognition and well-being; the latter portrays a much bleaker vision of how technology might affect our capacity to think. 

Perspectives on education

Carr, N. (2008) Is Google making us stupid? http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ 

This final reading pulls together many of the themes we’ve touched on over the period of the course. For Carr, our media environments develop their own logic, to which we adapt socially and physiologically. In a return to a now familiar theme, ‘human nature’ and ‘human being’ is ‘made’ in response to technological shift. Yet this ‘making’ of the human is far from the vision of empowerment and enhancement that we saw in the Transhumanist Declaration. 

‘As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence’, concludes Carr. Is it possible to counter the technological determinism of this view, without resorting to over-simplistic assertions of human dominance over technology? How should we respond, as teachers and learners, to the idea that the internet damages our capacity to think?

Last modified: Monday, 29 June 2015, 12:18 AM