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.

Higher Ed and Continuing to Look Into the Future(s)

Is X the future of higher education?

No. No it’s not.

Whatever you choose X to be, it isn’t the future of HE.

Why? Because the answer is so singular. Higher education already appears in different guises. Nobody can say that HE is simple to define, because it means so much. The concept covers so much ground.

Similarities...Differences...All Directions... (photo by solidether)

Similarities…Differences…All Directions… (photo by solidether)

New websites that make learning available to a massive audience are great. There have been so many advances in recent months and I’ve loved taking a look at sites like Coursera and Udacity with their new approaches of bringing courses to an online population. It’s telling that many universities have been placing academic material on the Internet for years now. With MIT and Harvard starting edX, large institutions are attempting to see the future of education and tap into what’s possible.

But none of this is *the* future. These services are playing a small part in the current landscape. They are experimenting.

In the future, they may play a bigger part, with more on offer and more official recognition in one way or another. No matter how successful these services and institutions become, they won’t be the singular future.

Other questions are far more useful. Questions like:

  • “How important are these movements?”;
  • “What improvements could these services bring to the world (locally, nationally, internationally…)?”;
  • “Will new initiatives manage to open up learning to more people and with greater relevance?”;
  • “Can any of this help provide a more equal chance of getting the necessary help to the people who want it?”;
  • “Can these services identify and assist those people who don’t realise how beneficial this learning could be for them?”;
  • “Do these initiatives offer anything to enhance, alter, or perhaps even fundamentally change more traditional offerings?”;
  • “What, if anything, can traditional methods and services learn from new, disruptive technologies, in order to remain equally important and relevant?”

These are just some questions off the top of my head. They won’t have single answers. They’re not meant to.

The question “Is X the future of higher education?” is merely a starting point to allow other questions such as these to be asked.

A CNN piece that asks if Udacity is the future of higher education ends with a beginning:

“I asked [Sebastian] Thrun [founder of Udacity] whether his enterprise and others like it will be the end of higher education as we know it — exclusive enclaves for a limited number of students at high tuitions? ‘I think it’s the beginning of higher education,’ Thrun replied. ‘It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.’
“Much of traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence. But to my knowledge, with one class alone, Thrun has provided a level of diversity, opportunity and academic rigor not seen before. People from any country, any background and any income level can receive an elite education at virtually no cost. We have been talking about equal educational opportunity for years. What is going on here may be its true advent.”

Higher education has been necessarily disruptive since its inception. The word ‘higher’ is a clue. ‘Higher’ shouldn’t mean ‘exclusive’ or ‘elitist’. The term ‘higher’ should be seen as looking beyond the fundamentals. Perhaps even looking beyond the furthest point currently studied (PhD folks, I’m looking at you especially here!).

HE for everyone is fantastic, so long as everyone wants it and will genuinely benefit from it. Nobody can guarantee that someone will benefit, which further highlights the lack of one, single answer. Neither can everyone agree what ‘benefit’ implies, because we want different things and see things from many perspectives.

No matter how higher education develops, equal educational opportunity is in the sights of many. No single offering can solve the problem of inequality. If we take the conclusion of the CNN piece as a major driving force behind the desire to change the future of HE, the next question should not be “Is X the future of higher education?”

A better question would be: “Can X help bring greater equality in future educational provision and, if so, how?”

I don’t think Udacity has cracked that yet. But that shouldn’t stop them searching. It’s early days. As usual, questions are followed with more questions, followed by yet more questions. It’s non-stop. Just as you’d expect!

Possible answers are great. I’m happy that so many startups and established institutions want to provide them.

But I don’t see this as the start, or a ‘true advent’. I see this as a continuation.

Keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. It’s important to keep going, even if no absolute and single solution is found. If everything was so simple, we would never need to be challenged again.

When that time comes, X really will be the future of higher education. And it will eat itself in the process. Omnomnom.