Sunday, April 28, 2013

Where Does Technology Belong and Where Does It Not?

Katya and dog, outdoors, playing. 

Recently I began nannying for an eight-year old girl named Katya. She and I spend HOURS playing “make believe”, dinners reading Matilda, we walk to the dog park where we race back and forth across the fields, and plenty of time in transportation conversing, covering all the bases. She is very smart and perceptive—some of the things that come out of her mouth are truly remarkable. But one thing she simply cannot resist is the computer, specifically a website called Moshi Monsters. It is a classic website aimed at children where one creates a virtual monster who must be looked after and given plenty of attention. There are music videos starring monsters. Friends can me made and alliances can be formed. I have to fight for her attention and hope that as another living and breathing human who is actually paid to entertain her, that I may possibly be better than the computer.
She attends a Brooklyn charter school with plenty of hands-on and aware parents, teachers, and peers, yet Moshi Monsters is still a focus at school and at home. This contrasts with my Waldorf charter school upbringing where we were forbidden to talk about TV and actually reported on each other if we heard anything of the sort. If we ever heard anyone discuss anything related to media, we would actually begin yelling at the top of our lungs “NO TV TALK!” It was always exciting to tell the teacher about “TV talk” because there were never any hard feelings, everyone knew the TV was strictly off limits.
So in this age of technology in the classroom or at least dialogue about technology in the classroom, I have to step back and really think. The mother instinct of mine which kicks in when I play the role of caretaker for Katya makes me want to tear her away from the computer and carry her kicking and screaming to the park or a garden. I want to clap three times and have the computer be replaced by a book, Harry Potter preferably. When I walk in the door I want her not to ask me to watch cartoon music video of a monster version of Justin Bieber, but instead a picture she drew or maybe a song on the piano. Not only is this wishful thinking and terribly critical of her interests and likes, but it just wouldn’t make sense for a child who is growing up a complete digital native. Then I begin to think about what this means for her growing up, on her way to becoming a master of technology and Internet. What a wonderful thing! Access and familiarity with the Internet is a vital skill for everyone nowadays, child or adult. Katya is well on her way!
And anyway, she and I have plenty of media-free wonderful times together. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Enlightenment? More Like Enlighten-NOT

During the Enlightenment there was reordering of society based on reason with an emphasis on the empirical scientific method, which began a progressive societal journey. This is the much agreed upon trend that the Enlightenment inspired, however it can be argued that it produced in society something very different than that, an argument which Foucault alludes to and outlines in his essay Panopticism.
While discussing the juridico-politcal implications of a panoptic society, he suggests that with the Enlightenment’s demarcation and spreading of basic human liberties in the political spectrum came “the disciplines”. These disciplines are the “counter-laws”, for while juridico-political laws guide a person to align themselves with a certain ideal to so as to encourage the best possible society, the disciplines deal with the controlling and limiting of those who do not fit the ideal, the “abnormal” and the “other”. This is the darker side of an Enlightened society, but inevitable considering the fact that an ideal society can only exist with an archetype for an ideal member of society. Everyone must be characterized, classified and organized in a hierarchy and those who do not fit the ideal must be dealt with in some way.
The way that the disciplines can go unnoticed is an example of the genius and the danger of the panoptic juridico-political system. A citizen can go through life enjoying the privileges and liberties given to a free individual, while never quite realizing these “universal” rights are given to an individual based on their adherence to a rather strict code of being in society. The rise of the “enlightened despotic” rulers in Europe in the second half of the 1700s shows the fascinating dichotomy in the adoption of an ideal and free society. Socially and economically, things were better for the average citizen who lived under an enlightened political regime. For example, an aspect of Catherine the Great of Russia’s leadership involved the dissolving of the powerful and engrained institution of serfdom. In addition, Enlightenment political theorists such as John Locke inspired the Declaration of Independence which helped birth the United States of America, backed by the ideals of liberty, democracy, and religious tolerance.
These are all things that are good for the common, normal man of three hundred years ago, however, without realizing it, that man was adopted into a system of control and discipline. In fact, his whole family was, including his many descendants, including us. It is important to note that the reordering of a political system of society comes with many different implications, some of which may not be clear right away and may not be reversible. At this point it is hard to imagine that the framework upon which modern societies are built could be removed or reordered, and it is difficult to imagine a system in which no brand of people are oppressed. It is hard to imagine a time when there will ever not be another brand of people who will always seek power, and with that the power to oppress. The Enlightenment moved us forward in many ways, but it was not a great equalizer nor was it the end of oppression, simply a reordering. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's Your Internet Identity Have Against You?

           You meet someone, hit it off, become friends on Facebook. You look at all their pictures, read all their statuses (even “like” a few of them), and listen to all the songs that they post. Once you meet in person, you get along very well. One thing feels odd, you already know a lot about each other’s lives because of the wealth of information Facebook supplies. On the one hand, it’s different to not get to know someone in person for the first time. At the same time, the two of you have already made it past the awkward stage and already have a lot to talk about, so many stories to tell. It cannot be forgotten, though, the fact that information one learns on Facebook is information written by the person as part of their online identity, and it’s often a distorted picture.
            This person may be a friend, it may be a potential significant other, or it may just be some weirdo. The point is everything you know about them at the start is based on how they want to be viewed, on what they want you to know. This is not wrong in itself on some sort of moral basis, that is, its breaking from tradition does not make it bad. It cannot be ignored, however, that the more traditional way of using one’s powers of observation, rhetoric, and the randomness of unplanned run-ins can teach one a lot more about a person a lot more quickly than a person’s contrived profile. Interactions with people may not be as perfect (a person may be sweating profusely in gym clothing, while the other is hungover with last night’s eyeliner smudged), but the decision to have that cup of coffee together will definitely be more interesting than a casual viewing of someone’s latest tagged pictures.
            To me, it feels like instead of hiding behind the identity we have built for ourselves (or has been built of us) on Facebook, it is important to try our best to show our true selves to people when we interact with them in person. If possible, to shatter the preconceived opinion and judgment someone has made of us. Even given this, it is still important (for social and professional lives) to have a nice profile on Facebook, one that shows who you are and what you are all about in the best possible light. This is because nowadays, the first thing any normal person is going to do when they are deciding whether they want to see you again or hire you is check out your profile on Facebook. So as contrary as it may seem to characterize Facebook as “important bullshit”, I think there is something to be said for it. It means nothing and can tell you very little about a person’s actual character or story, but its existence is important to put you on the same plane as everyone else of this generation and in this world. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can We All Live and Breath Today with a Living and Breathing Document?


          Writing in the form of a printed and bound book traditionally has an inherent authority. This authority is a result of an assumed verification and editing process that the author of the work had to go through, proving it was factual and relevant. However, a factual piece of work can transform into something in need of adjustment or replacement, once it has spent years on the shelf. When an old text such as the Constitution of the United States of America keeps serious authority in the domain of the law over the years, the relevance and influence of such a document must continue to be checked.
            How, in a world that changes so swiftly and completely, can the essential law of the land not also live, breathe, and evolve with us? The outstanding battle over how authority of the historical text should be exercised in the United States occurs prominently between those who adhere to originalism—a term which includes original intent and original meaning—and those who believe in a living constitution. A living constitution means a document which is dynamic and changeable, the reasoning being that the old context that the constitution was written in cannot apply to new policy created today and asserts that the framers wrote it using vague terminology in order to allow it to evolve with the new country. This struggle of doctrine exists within the institution of the Judiciary, where the Supreme Court interprets and manipulates the constitution. Their execution of case law keeps the constitution alive, but whether it is written in stone or changeable causes much debate.
            It is difficult for a democratic country with a rich and wrought history to honor its past and also make room for its future. Many countries reach democracy after years of struggle, and the resulting constitution is written and viewed as instructions for freedom and human rights for their citizens. A constitution can serve as a guideline for the enactment and continuation of many characteristics of a sovereign state, but perhaps a guideline for how a constitution can smoothly evolve into the future is also required. For example, the United Kingdom, although it follows an “unwritten constitution”, still adheres to the authority of precedent presented by their books of authority. These books are a way to honor the history of its courts which date back to the medieval period, whose original intent there is no way of verifying. The far younger country of Canada uses the living tree doctrine to interpret its constitution, an approach which requires reading the constitution broadly to allow for smooth change and progress.
            All this is not to say that old text and bound books should not have any clout, a compliance with a collection of such laws create an invaluable environment of order. When that order is interrupted, however, individuals begin to condemn or commend an aged and somewhat irrelevant document. Attention and energy is then wasted discussing intention and interpretation instead of moving forward to create a safe and just environment for us all today. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Is Progress Worth the Retrogress?

Transhumanism is a movement which offers progress for all, but inevitable will leave a significant number of people in the dust. The abbreviation of H+ is enough to show that in a transhumanist society where some individuals have something extra, there will be those who have something less. A fundamental focus of the transhumanist movement should be how those who will be disadvantaged either by choice (luddites) or by circumstance (marginalized people) should be “handled”. A society where some need to be handled or given extra attention does not have equality and a shift to such a society would set the world’s attempt at equality back significantly. The question then is whether it is worth it for the good of society and individuals benefiting to make the switch anyway given the possible health of individuals and the environment. In addition the intellectual and technological gratification society would receive as a result of the profound progress and change would be profound.
            There is hardly any question that there are amazing benefits to adopting certain transhumanist ideals into society in the form of gene modification and robotics. Robots can be programmed to perform difficult or dangerous jobs that currently human error or incapability limits from occurring or proves fatal. If robotic technology was more advanced the gushing wellhead during the BP oil spill may have been able to be fixed more quickly. As it was the remotely operated underwater vehicles failed and the oil gushed for three months, allowing 4.9 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the gulf, killing countless creatures and causing  millions of dollars in damage and loss of profit. Already robotic technology is being used to supplement human action in risky and precise brain and other surgeries, where the unreliability of physical human movement can have terrible consequences. Similarly, the possibilities avoiding illness and chronic disease through genetic modification could do wonders for individuals who no longer need to suffer personally or through a sick family member while also developing the entire human genome to be free of such biological limitations. These possibilities are somewhat unbelievable, what would a society benefiting so much from non-human workers and free from the terrible burden of unexplainable or incurable disease mean for the humans living in it. With the elimination of chronic disease and the potential genetic modification methods, it is possible that humans would approach the elimination of death altogether. This is especially possible when robotic or computer technology became such that a person’s personality, intelligence, and genome could be uploaded onto a storage container allowing it to truly last forever.
The question becomes would this be a human life? If one cannot die, does one’s life lose value or meaning? Or once the restriction of death has been lifted, are countless opportunities for further development and discovery simply opened up? It seems improbable that an individual living a life with no end in sight is likely to spend every day and moment productively working for the future. It seems more likely that an individual would look at the vast empty space of time ahead of them and put off work until the next day, metaphorically sleep a little longer (assuming the necessity of sleep has been eliminated). In the area of transhumanist society wherein some are superior to others it is assumed that lazy humans not taking advantage of the opportunities given to them because of the hard work of generations before them would be scorned and inferior. What can a transhumanist society do with those who do not have energy to work and develop if the threat of starvation and death is taken away? Another type of inferior individual in such a society would be those unwilling to change their genetics to be superior whether for religious, moral, or fear-based reasons. The progressive ideal of the importance of civil liberty often goes with other progressive ideals shared by transhumanists such as the elevating of the human race as a whole by raising individuals beyond their potential. Therefore the preserving of civil liberties is often a priority, or at least is portrayed as important. In reality it is likely eventually those in charge will not even pretend to make civil liberties universal. By that time perhaps the division between those who have embraced and/or are fully experiencing transhumanist society and those who are not will be so vast that there will be a separate set of rules, expectations, and responsibilities for each. The undeveloped souls may need extra help and the developed may have extra responsibilities. The unanswered question remains is the good of all humanity worth the inequality that society will be? And beyond that, how long will it take for people to forget about the importance of equality all together?