Digital Interactions and the Ways We Perceive Them As Humans

[Martin’s note: A slightly different post today. This is my submission for #edcmooc, a University of Edinburgh MOOC running via Coursera. It’s a wordy ramble about digital interactions and being human. If you are interested in that type of thing, I hope you enjoy it.]

Technology (photo by iMaturestudent - Andy Mitchell)

Technology (photo by iMaturestudent – Andy Mitchell) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Subjectivity blurs. Without definitive meaning, terms like utopia and dystopia are not separable and boundaries between the human and the posthuman are not clear.

My life is shaped through the interactions that take place and my interpretations of those interactions. Digital interactions extend beyond the physical and material, yet have room for creating crossover, as demonstrated in Avatar Days.

Avatar Days highlights online characters walking around a real world, yet they do not interact with the people around them. Even waiting in line in a supermarket queue, the film does not show a transaction at the counter. Despite appearing to the outside world, the avatars looks noticeably distant and detached. What is real is unreal and vice versa.

Does this make us different as humans? And at what point do these changes allow posthumanism to exist, if not already?

I suggest that technology alters behaviours in communication more than it alters the people communicating. Learning itself hasn’t evolved into something unrecognisable, but the methods available to us to facilitate that learning have grown. What was once only possible face to face is now possible with no other living person present, or with other people participating all over the world at the same time. People must still analyse the detail, find enthusiasm to get the most out of the resources, and have reason (and the choice) to be a part of something.

Transmitting a message from one side of the world to the other has become faster, easier, more accessible, and ‘closer to the real thing’ than ever before. Break it down and it’s still transmitting a message. Conversation is still conversation. Information is still information.

Conversations and information transmit with speed and ease, reaching a growing number of people. Before publishing this artefact, I saw David Hopkins’ submission for #edcmooc. His presentation linked to a video that is rather fitting.

Isaac Asimov’s vision is playing out now. This is made possible by technology, yet it happens through our actions, interactions, and collaborations. Creative links to what has been can help create what is to come.

The Harlem Shake meme gripped the attention–and creativity–of many people around the world in a short space of time. Within days, thousands of videos were being posted online. Each video an artefact. I considered a few alternative versions in the hope that other people had already created them:

The videos existed. Other people had experienced similar thoughts to my own and I was able to see this using a single search term for each in YouTube.

Digital cultures and interactions start to show–almost in realtime–that we can get along together, create together, converse together, and experience so many things as a collective. By the same token, when overlap doesn’t appear, tensions are such that our own reality finds it difficult to make sense of another person’s reality.

Jonathan Haidt describes this in The Righteous Mind:

“Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.” [p.110]

Under Haidt’s scenario, out goes common sense, truth, and a sense of right and wrong. However, their removal is practically impossible in our own sense of reality and in the collective (and divisive) nature of the world.

If we are so different amongst the similarity, where does being human end and posthuman begin? Indeed, at what point does a transhuman condition exist? If transhumanism is an ongoing project, when did it begin and who decided?

Don Tapscott ponders the link between human and computer:

“I have written often about today’s smartphones evolving into digital co-pilots, our constant companions that will help us get through the day. [Ray] Kurzweil sees such devices shrinking to microscopic size and residing within our bodies. Will we have tiny computers in our bloodstream, ever alert for something amiss? These devices will be our links to what is now called the cloud, the vast computing power of the Googles, the Amazons, the Apples and the IBMs of the world.”

Would these devices–inside the body–achieve posthuman wonders, and how do they compare to medical advances of the past, such as radiology, keyhole surgery, and many different drugs? The Transhumanist Declaration states, “Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future”. But what of the past?

The possibilities here are theories and philosophies, despite the transhumanist desire to introduce a practical angle. They are subjective because the focus is on concepts, not facts. When answers are not forthcoming, we are left either to ask more questions or to fill in the gaps with our own answers.

Michael Stevens, of VSauce, says that “we are all alone in our minds” [at 2min 9sec].

Contradictions are at play. Are we connected or alone? How about connected *and* alone? A binary view is unsustainable. Similarly, the future will be neither utopic or dystopic. Utopian and dystopian narratives, on the other hand, will likely live on, because text is powerful. The imagination can open doors to characters and actions that we may never see with our own eyes. Does this make sense? How real is a memory? If our memories could be captured and transferred to another being, how real is any of it?

The struggle to decide what is real will never go away because we cannot know anything beyond our own self. Adding to the confusion, perceptions of self are liable to change with every new experience. The tendency toward narrative explanations of what we encounter in life skews reality anyway. My reality is mine alone. Your reality is foreign, no matter how much we seem to agree. Empathy can enhance the simulation, but does not make it real.

Our individual minds cannot penetrate another, yet control over others is apparent at the same time. Theory of mind has, by definition, not reached reality. Correspondingly, perceptions of the material do not give way to the digital, even though technology brings greater choice and ease over (attempts at) personal exchanges. It is our sentience that stops the binary of one thing over another. Be it utopia and dystopia, human and posthuman, or otherwise. Subjectivity blurs.