Being Human

Image by Dan Coulter. Creative Commons license CC:BY:NC:SA

In this second block of the MOOC we will ask the question: ‘what does it mean to be human within a digital culture, and what does that mean for education?’

We tend not to question, in our everyday lives, where the boundaries of ‘the human’ lie; but developments within digital technology, bioscience, philosophy, ecology and popular culture are increasingly pushing at those boundaries and making them seem less secure. Examples of such developments include:

  • biomedical developments in cloning, genetic and tissue engineering, transplantation and reproductive medicine
  • advances in artificial intelligence and the promise of seamless brain-computer interfaces
  • the increasingly mundane and unnoticed embeddedness of digital technology in our everyday lives
  • posthumanist philosophy which has challenged some of our often taken-for-granted assumptions about 'human nature' and the ways in which we define what it means to be human
  • movements which question the ecological sustainability of human-centred ways of thinking.

In all of these and more, we are seeing a constant flow of new challenges to our definitions of what is ‘essentially’ human. Not all these challenges, of course, are simply or primarily ‘digital’. However, they do help us understand how digital re- workings of ‘humanity’ are positioned within a broader cultural context where the constitution and boundaries of the human are very much up for debate.

As Elaine Graham expresses it:

What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century. (Graham, 2002, 11)

Who or what, in your view, will define what it means to be human in the future? Who or what defines it now? These are crucial questions for those of us engaged in education in all its forms, because how we define ‘desirable humanity’ will inform at the deepest level our understanding of how and why education might be conducted and why it matters. Paying attention to online education foregrounds these issues in a new way, helping us look at them afresh. 

In the two weeks to follow, we will approach the question of the human from two different perspectives. 

  • In week 3 we will look at examples of approaches which respond to the apparent threat to ‘the human’ posed by technology by re-asserting the importance of what is (arguably) irreplaceably valuable in human ways of being and learning.
  • Then, in week 4, we will look at perspectives which focus on how technology works to re-define what constitutes ‘the human’ - for better or worse - and what that might mean for education.
To help approach these ideas, we can simplify by saying that for our purposes there are broadly two positions on the human and its relationship to the posthuman: our work in week 3 is mostly focused on the first of these, and in week 4 the emphasis is on the second. 

1) First is the view that human nature and human ways of being are under threat by scientific and technological advances, and that this is dangerous for us because it undermines the basis of who we are and how we define an ethical and fair approach to living (there are a lot of connections between this view and the dystopian visions you have been looking at). For one example of a thinker who takes this view, you might read some of the extracts from Francis Fukuyama’s book Our Posthuman Future, or if you prefer, watch this video of Fukyama lecturing on his book

2) Second is the view that universal and fundamental ‘human nature’ does not really exist - ‘the human’ is something that has been made, by history, by politics, by language, by our relations with technology. In other words, ‘the human’ and ‘human nature’ are social categories, not absolute truths. And if this is the case, we can re-make ‘the human’ and begin to understand it differently. Why would we want to? Critical posthumanist thought would say we need to because the philosophy of humanism (which has to date dominated the way in which we think about what it means to be human) has traditionally failed to recognise its own role in perpetuating hierarchy and inequality, too readily defining ‘the human’ in terms of who has conventionally held the most power. The association of ‘the human’ with ‘Man’ is just one example. The lecture from Steve Fuller you'll be watching in week 3 throws some more light on this view, and for a glimpse into how these ideas map onto the question of animal and human rights, you may find this short clip from Carey Wolfe ( also of interest. 

So - two very different perspectives to inform us here: one that takes the notion of an essential ‘human nature’ as a guiding idea for our collective futures; and another that questions the very existence of a universal ‘human nature’, while at the same time drawing our attention to the ways in which by defining ‘the human’ we also marginalise and exclude from view other ways of thinking about who we are. 

Graham, E. L. (2002). Representations of the post/human: monsters, aliens and others in popular culture. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 

In addition to the content, look out for the following activities: 

    • In week 3 we are running a competition! With prizes! Alongside engaging with this week’s tasks, we invite you to begin experimenting with visual ways of representing your understanding. This is not a compulsory part of the course, but it will be a good opportunity to practice the kind of skills you’ll be using in the final assessment. To take part, create an image that represents or illustrates any one of the themes you have come across in the course so far. This image can be created any way you like, using any tools - digital or otherwise - that you have access to. Be sure to check out our copyright guidelines and suggestions for using and creating images
      Find out more about the Week 3 Image Competition and how to take part.

    • At the end of week 3, we’ll be broadcasting a live Google Hangout, in which the course leaders will discuss emerging EDCMOOC topics and ideas. The Hangout will be available to view live on our Coursera announcements page, our Google Plus page, and YouTube. It will also be available afterwards as a recording on our YouTube channel. To watch the hangouts live, go to the announcements page in Coursera at the following times: 
      Friday 21st November at 17:00 GMT  

  • During week 4 we will be offering 2 'office hours' hangouts, available as above. They will take place at the following times: 
    Wednesday 26th November at 08:00 GMT 
    Thursday 27th November at 16:00 GMT 
  • You will also need to begin creating your digital artefact in week 4. This is the final assignment for the course, and you will submit it for peer assessment during week 5. Read more about the Digital Artefact here.
Remember, you must submit the artefact AND complete the evaluation to complete the course.
Last modified: Sunday, 28 June 2015, 11:09 AM