Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Heroism of Transformation and the Machine

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 which shape our expectations of the future. In part, I will highlight a few elements which bind our notions of these systems, pointing out that there are no new revelations, no recipe or cure for the challenges of our present times or 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, and 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 by creating a temporal remoteness. 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 print of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Even in the early 19th century, the notion that science, at some point, may potentially offer solutions 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 and the ability to empathize with the stark reality of his creation.

Technology is an integral part of our evolution, and pervasive--in terms of biology, even sentience-- that it is difficult to measure the effects, let alone quantify the outcome of any number of possible future scenarios. We are in the process of a great experiment, even with something as seemingly innocuous as social media; we are contained neither by geographic nor cultural boundaries. Because we are completely dependent upon these processes, we cannot never go back. We are committed. 

By Florian Elias Rieser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
We are also completely accepting of technology that we consume without question, mainly because it is viewed as an advantage. In science, the advantage technology offers, are things we inherently lack, or are not very adept at working out. We struggle with nature's complexity because it is difficult for us to imagine exponential functions as a process. Perhaps this is due to our perception 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.

scenes from 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 rival 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. He understands the processes and abstraction of data, as the operable parameters of this reality. His ability to control the environment is on par as the computer. 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 and 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 through an evolved consciousness while experiencing the world-actual. 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 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* [her body], is the machine. The cost of stripping away emotion qualities characteristic to humanity. She cost of shedding her mortality is her loss of identity. This heroine realizes a greater conscious which is machine-like. She has no choice but to go forward.

 scene from Ex Machina (2015)
What if the machine has the capacity for deductive reasoning? What if the machine takes to decision-making without human intervention? It is more sophisticated than Frankenstein's creature, but what made Frankenstein’s creature dangerous was his unpredictability roused from unidentifiable emotions and associations from the former life. His ability to feel, desire, perhaps even a longing for fulfillment, as well as, any number of emotional states, were likely incoherent fragments which plagued his reality. What sense of self-identity was the creature given? This creator, the doctor, blinded by ambition, failed to recognize the dangers of being partially human. Human nature has the beautiful aspect of illogical and emotion-based behavior. At our current stage of consciousness, we are not the most trustful and reliant of beings. Even if we are able to quantify these attributes, it does not seem to make sense to design anthropocentric machines. However, this is a recurring theme in Sci-Fi. Usually, the story does not end well. Perhaps if the machine's ability for deductive reasoning is sophisticated enough, a natural ambivalence emerges. Could our heroine be a machine compiled with the best of what humanity has to offer? Could she be profoundly curious and content with her identity? Could she develop an acute sense of introspection? After all, there is a logic in philosophy. 

The qualities of humanity that we recognize and encourage, socially, can be summed up by one word: empathy. Empathy shapes our propensity for kindness, effects our decision-making processes so as to solve for the greatest good. It allows us to build a community and 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.

Therefore, in the evolution of technological human, it seems more likely that humans will be the element of empathy in the machine; a realization that this jump of consciousness has to first originate within ourselves, as opposed to, creating compassion in an external entity.

"Computational thinking is typically associated with coding and computer programming, but is more than that, involving 'solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour.' ”

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 to be integrated into educational systems world-wide, and will likely be developed in many more educational paradigms in the years to come. In the EU, educational plans outline 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 contemporary education. Systemically, 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 comprehensive understanding of exponential processes. In other words, maybe thinking like a machine is possible without being a machine or sacrificing humanistic qualities, like empathy. 

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 of problems increases with complexity, we become more reliant on the information we receive. Information, such as data, can be quite abstract, and we don't empathize with abstractions well because humans do not have a visceral connection between information and experience. It is only through experience that we come to some sort-of learning and understanding. As the narrative forms in emerging media are assuming more substantial and intimate roles in our daily lives, increasingly our experience will be a digital fabrication. 

The admirable heroine understands the media and develops media literacy. She has learned skills in distinguishing the validity of informative sources. She is familiar with the double-speak and can unhinge the intent, from outcome. Again, the hero is ordinary, one who survived a trial before becoming an icon. As a symbol for the suppressor's rule of law, the heroine took the necessary steps in learning the media's language, the medium of messages, before she could evolve into a symbol of revolt. And behind these messages, she learned how to disguise herself in plain view. The heroine's transgressions worked in favor of the opposition, utilizing the same methods of persuasion learned from the oppressor. It is only through courage and self-awareness that she is able to find her own truth. Her empathy is disguised as her fictional persona plays her role, quietly maintaining her humanity.

scene from Insurgent (2015)
Perhaps humanity is in need of a recalibration, a transformation in terms of our perceptual bias for media and technology. We require a new facility for critical and analytical thinking as our reliance and integration with technology grows. 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 internalize the real and virtual, perhaps it is not necessary to distinguish the two, as it is to be able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. This entails the biggest challenge, one of heroic proportions; knowing ourselves.

The commonality between most, if not all sci-fi heroes, is the critical turning point in their story. It is the confrontation which will allow them to succeed or fail in the larger quest. This 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 to the heroine's completeness. Before the hero can complete the mission, save the community, defeat the ultimate evil; he or she needs to confront themselves. To varied degree, this incompleteness reflects on his or her's own sense of identity. Who am I?

scene from Scott Pilgrim v. the World (2010)
In the context of a global digital culture, a sense of collective success will depend on the relative means and strength of the identity of the individuals of that system, and the ability of these individuals to maintain empathy towards others. It is only in this way, or some other variation with similar scope, that we will be able to proceed to the next level. Otherwise, like Frankenstein's creature, we will be unable to complete ourselves, discontent and detached from place, and ultimately fall back upon the unpredictability of detached emotions and empty fantasies.

Student Notes: Anonymus