Monday, August 3, 2015

Swearing at electric sheep

Cursed knowledge
I am apparently ‘prone to curse the internet’. I have been dedicated a few things, but my companion’s book stands out for its humorous observation on my inclination to curse machines. The irony of the thing is that I grew up amongst people who would display their fascination at our new electronic world in very similar ways. I would find their reactions funny, so out of pace with the knowledge that they deal with soulless and brainless things. I remember my granny’s rather angry conversation with the answering machine, providing instructions to relay to my mother; the answering machine’s tiny cassette has survived and today stands as a reminder of human finitude. I have a much filthier mouth and more advanced machines to swear at.

Perhaps it has got little to do with age – although generational gaps are bound to impact on familiarity with technology – and more with common human aptitude – the gift of tacit knowledge. By ‘tacit knowledge’ I refer to our unmediated understanding that during this peculiar non-interaction we are alone, therefore unable to communicate our swearing to anyone. At first, Kojéve’s (1969) Hegelian musings on intersubjectivity come to mind – how can we establish connectivity with inanimate technology? Then I take a step back: we can always play a vital part in a network of animate (human) and inanimate (machines) components, collaborate and produce human/machine complexes (Latour 1993). Yes, it makes sense to curse the slow computer.

Doug ‘The Great Leap Forward’, Creative Commons/Flickr

On gods, sheep and technology
If so, then why do I bother swearing at computers in the first place? I certainly do not share the consternations of older generations, nor am I technophobe: we have come a long way in just a few decades to discard the knowledge we have accumulated on technology because of dystopian suspicions it will dominate us. There is something more intimate about cursing the internet that involves an evolving dialogue with yourself and the trust that your inanimate viewer that will not answer back. It is emancipatory to blow off steam. It is a mutation of Archer’s (2003) ‘internal conversation’, only now we can project this onto technologies, therefore externalise its emotional aspects that technology cannot articulate without our contribution. At least for the moment.

Technology is not god, although there are societies in which technology-inspired technics connect to metaphysics. Here I am prone to both agree and disagree with Fuller’s (2012) view on our relationship with science. First, humanity’s scientific impulse does not connect to European religious metaphysics singlehandedly – many people like myself are non-believers, hence do not afford a connection with ‘God’ to define their relationship with science and technology. Also, there are billions out there who live in alternative cosmological universes but with Western technology. Second, the sole emphasis on reason disables our holistic understanding of what it means to be human: where is emotion to account for in our relationship with gods, machines and other humans? Fuller's Popperian Weberianism and complete rejection of the Stanford School as parochial does away with the complexities of cultural difference and does not look back again to explore reson within emotion or alternate cosmological approaches. To be fair, Fuller recognises that science that speaks on behalf is not necessarily good science, but he stays firmly grounded in a particular intellectual tradition. For centuries now, intellectuals who articulate human connectivity to science and technology err on the side of reason, allowing some to assume that emotion has no intentionality. It is as if, to refashion Philip K. Dick’s famous title, cursing at electric sheep is part of a disjointed dream, barely consigned even to the domain of our libidinal economy (even though dreaming is central to reasoning in various cosmological universes). The complexities of feeling with machines are then set aside as peculiarities to laugh at, outbursts of irrational old people, non-white humans who think about metaphysics otherwise or women. I will leave the last comment for others to reflect upon.

Archer, M. (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fuller, S. (2012) ‘The art of being human: A project for general philosophy of science’, J Gen Philos Sci, 43: 113–23.
Kojève, A. (1969) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. New York: Basic Books.
Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. London and New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

 Rodanthi is currently completing a monograph on different conceptions of 'technology' in cinematic visions of risk society. In it she maintains a dialogue with the three cited scholars, amongst others.

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