This article is a version of what was originally drafted as a presentation entitled, "The Creature" for the Pune Design Festival, held on February 10-11, 2017. The festival's theme was "Transformation." This presentation was mainly directed towards the students in the audience.
The idea behind this presentation is to thread together a narrative based-on topics I have worked with, and observations I have made over the past several years. These areas include technology, education, and culture, taken as a whole, form a complex dynamic. In part, I will highlight a few elements which bind our notions of these systems. I will point out, that there are no new revelations, no recipe or cure for the challenges of our immediate future. If anything, I am simply retelling a very old story in somewhat unambiguous terms.
That is, in considering the idea of transformation, I was a little surprised to keep finding myself returning to a heroic figure in the context of science fiction; one recurring time and again with a consistent set of attributes, qualities, even conflicts.
Science Fiction is arguably one-of the more important narrative forms because it allows a writer to critique the hopes, fears, aspirations, etc. of contemporary culture. For us, it is an opportunity to contemplate ourselves and what we, collectively, would like to bring into a future reality. Because the future is a speculative void, at the very least, Sci-Fi is able to provide us with some sort-of operational image of what that future might be. Of course, it is misleading to represent all science fiction as popular culture, but for sake of presentation, I have considered a few notably popular cinematic experiences.
|By Per Sundqvist [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0],|
via Wikimedia Commons
"The famous story of the inhuman creature who lurks forever in the human imagination." Is the tag line on the cover of a printing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Even in the early 19th century, the notion that science, at some point, may potentially offer a remedy for life everlasting. This obsession of Doctor Frankenstein's, fueled by blind ambition (or perhaps a broken heart,) would ultimately be his demise. It is a classic story of modern times because it challenges us in considering the ethical role of science, as well as, the depth to which we accept the integration of technology in our lives. But, the ultimate tragedy of Frankenstein was his inability to consider the unpredictability of the natural laws.
Technology is an integral part of our evolution. So pervasively--in terms of biology, even sentience-- that it is difficult to measure the effects, let alone quantify the outcome of any number of possible scenarios. We are in the process of a great experiment, even with something as seemingly innocuous such as social media; contained by neither geographic nor cultural boundaries. However, we are committed and completely dependent upon these processes. We cannot go back.
|By Florian Elias Rieser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],|
via Wikimedia Commons
We are also completely accepting of technology because it is viewed as an advantage. The biggest advantage technology has to offer us, are some of the things we inherently lack, or are not very adept at working out. One thing we struggle with, is nature's complexity. It is difficult for us to imagine exponential functions as a process. Perhaps this is due to our experience of time as a linear event, but exponentials throw us for a loop.
|Gold Cortex II|
Visually, and mathematically, this form has been the basis for how we relate to the world as artists, designers, musicians, etc. The form and structure exists everywhere in nature, including our own bodies. What we have learned about ourselves, we have observed through our interactions with these patterns. In turn, the structures we create are derived from the science of these observations. Technology has been invaluable as tool in perceiving the nature of the universe which lies beyond our biological limitations. What if we could integrate the technology into our bodies? What if our minds where augmented for efficiency? This a wonderful premise for number of sci-fi narratives.
|The Matrix (1999)|
The metaphor, of technology as an external factor which allows us to unlock the potential, lying dormant within our minds, manifests as the sci-fi hero with powers to revival the sentience of the malevolent machine which has taken control of the human species. This hero has been augmented (made self-aware) of his environment, allowing him to develop the ability to experience the virtual reality as the computer experiences it, and he understands the processes and abstraction of data, as that experience. His ability to control the environment is as great as the computer itself. The one caveat is that his power only exists while his conscious is fully immersed in the realm of the machine. Outside of the virtual reality, he is quite ineffectual, or ordinary. So what if the world-actual were the machine? Then, would the division between technology and humanity not be as contrasted and obscured by the measure and depth of integration?
|Scene from Lucy (2014)|
Lucy, the unlikely hero, similarly finds her power through chemical augmentation, and arrives at self-awareness by another route. However, the properties and theoretical underpinnings which form the virtual reality, namely a world comprised of numeric representations, are defined as those defining the world-actual. Her enemy is a tyrant fed by the greed of his own wealth, as well as, the limitations of her own biology, and her own fear of her transformation. In adapting, her conscious abilities allow her to flip through time like pages in a magazine and manipulate matter on a molecular level. Instead of understanding the machine as an external entity, her conscious evolves to understand that *it* is the machine, at the cost of stripping away emotion qualities characteristic to humanity. She sheds her mortality and embraces a greater consciousness because she has no other choice. This hero realizes a greater conscious which is machine-like.
|scene from Ex Machina (2015)|
What if the machine has the capacity for deductive reasoning? What if the machine takes to decisions without us? It is more sophisticated than Frankenstein's creature, but what made Frankenstein’s creature dangerous was his unpredictability roused from unidentifiable emotions. His ability to feel, desire, perhaps even a longing for fulfillment, as well as any number of emotional states which define our humanity, most likely plagued the creature. What sense of self-identity was the creature given? This too, the doctor was blinded by ambition. He failed to recognize the dangers of being human. Human nature is prone to illogical and/or emotional behavior. At our current stage of consciousness, we are not the most trustful and reliant of beings. (That is, if consciousness predicates ethics or morality.) Even if we are able to quantify these attributes, it does not seem to make sense to design machines with the emotionality of a human. However, this is recurring theme in Sci-Fi in which the story does not turn out well. Perhaps if the machine's ability for deductive reasoning is sophisticated enough, it naturally becomes ambivalent? Could our hero be a machine with the ability be the best of what humanity has to offer? Could she be profoundly curious, yet contented by her identity? Could she develop a sense of profound introspection? After all, there is a logic in philosophy.
The qualities of humanity that we recognize and try to encourage, socially, can be summed up by one word, empathy. Empathy shapes our decision-making processes, and it allows us to solve for the greatest good. It allows us to build a community, and it facilitates our capacity to collaborate and effectively progress towards an ideal. It also gives our hero something to fight for--a motive to excel and succeed--and the power to rise above oppression or catastrophe.
"Computational thinking is typically associated with coding and computer programming, but is more than that, involving 'solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour.' ”
Therefore, in the evolution of technology-humanity, it seems more likely that humans will be the element of empathy in the machine; a realization that this jump of consciousness has to originate from within ourselves, as opposed to creating this consciousness in an external entity.
Perhaps it seems far-fetched and altogether irrelevant, but if you code, you are beginning to think like the machine. This notion of thinking like a machine has already begun integration into educational systems, and will likely be developed in many more educational paradigms in the years to come. In the EU, educational planning has outlined a directive for students to work with code from a very young age. The intent is not only to develop a marketable skill, but for the fundamentally more poignant outcome of having students, future citizens, assimilate computational thinking.
Overall, it clearly indicates a shift towards an education of the future, as being radically different to how education appears today. Like a systemic, it is an interdisciplinary approach. This type of educational agenda, is just one way in which we can transform our thinking as we move ahead. But, it is not to say that this approach is valid or even relevant for propagating computational thinking in other cultures. It does, however, invite innovation.
Students who are exposed to coding and the processes of computational logic will not necessarily be imbued with the heroic ability to read the universe as a pythagorean, like so many of our heroes from sci-fi. But, it does provide a greater likelihood that any given individual will develop a more evolved comprehension of exponential processes. In other words, maybe thinking like a machine is possible without be a machine or sacrificing the qualities, like empathy, which make us human.
Information is not experience.
Information does not invoke empathy.
Empathy is realized through experience.
|scene from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Pt.2 (2015)|
As the dynamics for problems increase, we become more reliant on the information we receive. Information is abstract, and we don't empathize with abstractions so well. Humans do not have a visceral connection between information and experience. It is only through experience that we come to some sort-of understanding, and the narrative structure, like those in sci-fi, are a large part of this process.
The admirable hero understands the media and is media literate. She has skills in distinguishing validity between sources of information. She is familiar with the real meaning of the words. Again, the hero is ordinary, one who survived a trial before becoming an icon. First, as an icon for the suppressor; a necessary step in learning the language of propaganda, the medium of messages, and how to disguise herself in plain view. This experience allowed her to transform herself into an icon for the oppressed. The hero's transgressions worked in favor of opposing forces, utilizing the same methods of persuasion. It is only through heroic courage and self-awareness, that she is able to find a truth. Here too, empathy plays a role in maintaining her humanity, not the fictional narratives which paint her character.
|scene from Insurgent (2015)|
Humanity is in need of a recalibration, a transformation in terms of our perceptual bias for media and technology, new facility for critical and analytical thinking. We are only going to be growing our reliance and integration with technology. In order to do this constructively, we need to better understand at least a couple of things. Firstly, how technology functions. If it is to surround us, immerse us, inform us, teach us, serve us; innovation in the educational system is essential. Secondly, we need to be able to internalization the real and virtual. This entails the biggest challenge, one of heroic proportions. That is, knowing ourselves.
The commonality between most, if not all the sci-fi heroes, is the critical point in their stories. It is the confrontation which will allow them to succeed or fail in the larger quest. It is the crucial conflict against themselves. There is always an element of doubt and fear which is established early on in these narratives, and is touched upon with regularity as the story progresses. It is weakness, a challenge the hero's completeness. Before the hero can complete the mission, save the community, defeat the ultimate evil; he or she needs to confront themselves. In some way, this incompleteness reflects on his or her's own identity. Who am I?
|scene from Scott Pilgrim v. the World (2010)|
In the context of a global digital culture, a measure of a collective success will depend on the relative means and strength of the identity of the individuals of that system, and the ability of this individuals to maintain empathy towards everyone else sharing the community. It is only in this way, or some other variation, that we will be able to proceed to the next level. Otherwise, like Frankenstein's creature, we will be unable to recognize our environment, find contentment from a sense of place, and fall back upon the unpredictability of detached emotions.