week 11 summary

I have to confess that I just this moment realised that we’re meant to continue our tumblogs through weeks 11 and 12. As we Americans say, d’oh.

But I’ll soldier on with a few things I was thinking about in week 11, although displayed post-humously…

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The Big Bang Theory, a show that I am compelled to watch by virtue of being married to a physicist, does virtual presence. Coincidentally enough, Sheldon chooses this manner of being present in the hopes that he will keep his body alive until his consciousness can be transferred into a computer and can thus be immortal. Of course the virtual presence is foiled in the end by virtue of Sheldon wanting Steve Wosniak to sign his vintage Apple. What struck me about this was that the attitude the other characters had (and thus the audience were expected to have?) was a long-suffering incredulity about Sheldon’s self-centredness and unquestioning belief in technology. It wasn’t anti-modernism (‘look what kind of trouble tech has gotten him into now!’) or anti-humanism (‘look at his vain attempt to beat death’), but rather a neutral view of tech and perhaps a reaction to humanism–at least centred around one person…Edwards’ subject?

An extreme example of the person becoming a machine is the cyberman, something else I’m required by holy matrimony to know all about. In recent years, these have been given a bit of a twist: in one of the revival episodes (10th doctor, series 2, 2006 if you’re a serious anorak), a regular character is turned into a cyberman, but remembers her life as a human. She sees it in a completely dispassionate way and can’t understand why the humans are so distraught. Is this opaquely suggesting the impossibility of Sheldon’s dream of moving an intact consciousness into a machine, devoid of physical presence not to mention bodily chemistry? Or is it just the emotion inhibitor? (And why is there an emotion inhibitor? Because if there wasn’t, the brain would be so appalled at what had happened to its…person…that it would die.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, separation of body and mind is seen as simply an inconvenience (this scene and Rimmer’s permanent hologramatic state):

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Or an technicality to be exploited:

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In both of these extremes, however, we find another dichotomy–not just body versus mind, but body versus [robot casing, hologram, killing machine]…or, translated into the debate that seems to really be going on, body versus [Facebook identity, avatar, discussion board moderator, wikipedia contributor...or equally: university alumni profile, letter to the editor, report on the main exports of Uruguay...] It’s not just a case of whether the mind (or personality, consciousness, identity, etc.) can be separated from the body, but what it [the mind/etc.] is if that separation occurs. Lister’s mind is saved onto a highly improbably disc and dropped into a cup of tea–is the disc Lister? Is the war machine Nixon?

Jumping ahead in the future a bit–this approaches my assignment topic at a bit of a tangent, in particular my investigation into fan fiction. In this situation, we have the mind of the original author; the original text; a character (if we can assume that the character is ‘greater than’ the text…which, it seems to me, is the premise that fan fiction is based on, although I won’t draw any conclusions yet…); the mind of the ff author; the text that the ff author writes; the reception of that text by others with intricate knowledge of the first three. Are they all separate entities, or do they all work to create a transtemporal posthuman…?

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virtual vagrant

Costa Coffee O2 Wifi registration page

This week began with our home broadband dying, making me a sort of virtual vagrant on my study day…I have to confess that I avoided the university library because 1) I needed to be able to answer my mobile and 2) undergraduates. I also avoided the office because 1) work. So where was I to go in the Durham snow? Coffee shops, natch. I’d already given all my personal details to Caffe Nero’s free wifi provider, but had some more to do online after I’d finished the coffee, muffin, cup of water… So I went over to Costa. It’s hard to take a picture of an iPad with a phone while trying to look nonchalant and not knock over your coffee…but someone else has done it, so here it is. After submitting, you are also asked for your name, birthdate, postcode and Costa loyalty card number. I faked the middle two, left the third blank and signed up…but the server was down. Sat drinking second large latte of the afternoon…checked email with husband’s 3G…tried wifi again…started writing this…coffee almost gone…wifi started working…couldn’t sit in full cafe any longer with empty mug. Gave up and went home.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the amputated feeling that five days of no home internet gave this particular cyborg. I think it was more the non-monetary cost of getting online…exchanging information about yourself for a service seems more invasive than exchanging money (although exchanging money over public wifi feels pretty invasive too!), especially when the service is advertised as ‘free’ and the purchase of mildly overpriced, non-essential food items is required before one can avail oneself of the service to begin with. And this all assuming that you’ve got a wifi-ready device about your person…

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Horrible Histories – Napoleon Bonaparte vs The Mechanical Turk

A silly but pithy clip about the Mechanical Turk–more extensively explained here: A Point of View: Chess and 18th Century artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it was the non-humanness of the ‘Turk’ that made it internationally famous…but this would have been down to the ingenuity of the creator (if it had been real) and its chess-playing skills were in fact down to a series of bendy masters (its cyborg mates?). In a kind of way, though, the Turk was also a post-human: an amalgam of the creator, the machine, the chess master inside, the chess board and pieces, the rules of the game, and the expectations/perceptions/suspensions of disbelief of the Turk’s opponents and audience. Without one of these, it wouldn’t have existed as…itself!

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Week 9 summary

I think I can best summarise my scattered thoughts over the past week with a quote from my undergrad Anthropology professor: ‘Invention is the mother of necessity’.

He was speaking in terms of biological evolution, but this concept quite nicely hints at a nexus joining those much maligned categorisations of the real, the ideal and the virtual.

To start with, the ‘natural’ state of humans is problematised biologically: evolution is all about adaptation to the outside world, regardless of whether is was created by ourselves or not, or whether we want to adapt or not. Moreover, it is driven by anomalies: ‘informational’ mistakes–accidental inventions–that eventually came to be necessary to survival, and necessary to be called human (and not neanderthal, etc.).

From this point of view, the ‘cyborg’ is as unremarkable as a grey moth in Birmingham. The invention process just added another step–there was the accident of a gene that made us capable of considering using animal skin to keep us warm; we just had to enact it. Ditto building shelters, fire, weapons, vehicles, farms, radios, Facebook (more or less). It’s just the complexity of the current invention system that tricks us into thinking that our latest adaptations are ‘unnatural’ or ‘abnormal’.

And the complexity can also be understood in ‘natural’ terms. Dawkin’s ‘meme’ seems to have had a cultural resurgence in helping to define social media phenomena, and is a pithy way of thinking about evolution in post-human terms as the adaptation of a complex [of anything] to inventions external to it (if anything is really external in this sense) and of its own making. Crucially, this is a completely dynamic complex; it doesn’t stop evolving, moving, changing.

I’m arguing here as if ‘post-human’ is a description of how things ‘really’ are, and we’re only just realising it now. I don’t think that’s quite right. First, I’m using the ‘nature’ argument mostly as a challenge to the mystification of the cyborg–not necessarily to say ‘whatever is, is right’. But I’m also aware that a self-satisfied ‘we’ve finally got it all figured out now’ is precisely what post-humanism is not. So I’ll just leave post-humanism as a potentially useful way to perceive…stuff…

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Information age

I certainly found Hayles more comprehensible than Haraway (which brought me much pleasure in itself…). I ‘ve just highlighted a few points that struck me:

  • The concept of information as disembodied. I’d never thought about this before, particularly to the extreme that Shannon suggested. I think if someone had presented me with this view outside of this context, there’s a 50-50 chance I would have completely accepted it (either in a simplistic way, because info isn’t tactile, or in a semantic way, because it’s only interpretation that makes the various 1s and 0s that form an Excel spreadsheet, for example, ‘informative’–which seems relevant to McKay’s argument); I could have rejected it just as easily on the grounds that Hayles discusses, or because I don’t know enough about neuroscience or computers to decide for myself whether ideas or data files are material or not…! And I think my ambiguity betrays a pervasive cultural attitude about information, whether it’s a both/and idea (sometimes information is material, sometimes it’s not), a typology (this type of information is material, that type is not) or, again, a semantic riddle (e.g. is it only ‘information’ when it is material, but something else when it’s not?).
  • The body as incidental to consciousness. This is of course connected to the first point, but is interesting as a possible link between humanism and posthumanism (p. 4); is Hayles implying toward the end that this is a skeuomorph–a strangely significant leftover from an older philosophy? It doesn’t seem to me that this disembodiment factors into Haraway’s cyborg or Pickering’s posthuman…rather the reverse…
  • The experience of an information/material duality is a culturally limited phenomenon. Hayles points this out clearly, and I think we could take it further to say that much information is only information (I know I’m playing the ‘meaning’ card again, but it seems to keep resurfacing) if it can be translated materially. Impoverished people could be given access to the world’s data on disease cures, agricultural techniques, manufacturing processes…insider stock market tips, my PIN and internet banking password, the PM’s private email address…but without the material objects to make use of this information, or to offer it to people who can, it really is just a collection of blots of ink, 0s and 1s, vibrations of air molecules.
  • But what does all this have to do with education? After blagging my way through an explanation of what I’d been reading this past week, I was confronted by this question. The answer that I pulled agilely out of the hat was that it gives pause to our usual ways of perceiving the entire learning process. To be fair, this goes back to IDEL discussions, and the example of Aristotle’s concern that writing things down spelled (so to speak) the end of good education. But what I pulled from Haraway, Hayles and Pickering was that not only does the typical education process artificially separate fields of study which are really all intertwined, but it presupposes that both these subjects and the students themselves are (as far as learning is concerned) disembodied–Platonic forms of information that can be exchanged and compared, decontextualised, to each other. Examples could range from a spelling test to an economics seminar discussion on stock market fluctuations. In the first case, the actual knowledge being tested is decontextualised, but a part of the cyborg (the dictionary or spell checker) has also been amputated. In the second case, the seminar leader may expect the students to look at socio-cultural factors, the psychology of traders, the history of market economies, etc.–but only in a distilled form in line with the learning outcomes of the course…and, in a live seminar situation, all from the students’ own heads. The simpler version of this is nothing new: would you rather have a doctor who was good at cramming for an exam, or who knew where to look for the latest information?
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The Talking Shoe

Pair this with some Google Goggles and an iWatch and you’ve got the latest spring cyborg! (But do they get along?)

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I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess

These are my notes and reflections about the Haraway chapter, in no particular order or rationalisation…

For the first few pages I felt like I was reading James Joyce (and much amused by a later reference to the same). I’m not sure if the style changed or I just got used to it, but I think it also had something to do with my pretty much complete lack of knowledge about feminist theory/history/tropes. I didn’t feel like I was a member of the community Haraway was addressing (online or off!).

Maybe this is why one of the points under ‘State’ struck me: ‘invisibility of different social groups to each other’ (p.50). I felt that the ‘book audience’ was a social group that was invisible to me; not that I would not be interested in the same things they were, or that I might disagree with them politically or socially, but that I didn’t have the assets that I would have needed to be a member. And I think this is closely related to Haraway’s problematisation of ‘unity’. As identity is neither one-dimensional nor static, uniting a group based on a single, unchanging identifier is (at least) unsatisfactory. Her mention of affinity groups (p.38), then, struck a chord as far as our conversations over the last couple weeks about what defines community and whether and how much identity is involved… Obviously I didn’t have the right ‘affinities’.

But Haraway seems to struggle with this a bit, which is perhaps why I noticed it more. For example, from my uninitiated perspective, I felt that ‘developing feminist science/technology politics in alliance with anti-military science facility conversion action groups’ or the ‘welding’ of ‘personal preferences and cultural tendencies’ onto politics (for middle-class professionals) (p. 49) was unification on the assumption that ‘if you have affinity A, then you’ll probably have affinities B and C’). This didn’t seem to fit in with the heterogeneous cyborg at all. There’s a high likelihood that I’m missing the point, but I’m concerned that it might be more difficult to sustain messy plurality than Haraway sometimes intimates. Haraway certainly doesn’t try to hide her potential subjectivism, but it is interesting to see it creep in unexpectedly, as when she generalises from specifically American issues.

I found the insistence on questioning the existence of an objective ‘organic or natural standpoint’ (p.39) especially applicable to conversations around online/offline duality. I was wondering if this relates to survival. Several times Haraway makes it clear that the aim of the cyborg is survival (p. 49, 53, 54) but I’m not sure if this is meant to be the aim so much as the explanation of a process of natural selection by which the people who are the best at being cyborgs are more likely to survive…? Or if it’s meant to be conscious survival, it does seem to suggest a curious Machiavellianism. Or is it the survival of an evolving kind of cyborg feminism? Or something else?

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