10 February 2013

The Machine is Us...


"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." 
Benjamin Franklin.

Week 2's exploration for the Coursera MOOC, E-learning & Digital Cultures asks us to look forward to the future of educational learning within a digital realm. Retaining our thinking about Utopian and Dystopian representations, this time we were to focus on the "sorts of metaphors that are used to draw comparisons between the unfamiliar and the familiar, or the abstract and the concrete" as a way to try and understand the assumptions made about e-learning - the digital ‘native’ and the digital ‘immigrant’ being one of the most widely used at present, for example.

Sunrise, Singapore, Morning Run, 09 February 2013
A Utopian perspective presents technology as our salvation - transformative and revolutionary; a Dystopian perspective sees technology as destruction - as attacking and supplanting. Separation of the two is not easy, in fact they seem almost mutually inclusive, particularly in terms of the future of technology and where we are going with it. On the one hand, we want technology to take us forward and help us out - and there is no denying that the advent of technology makes life easier in some respects. For example, I feel safe when I go out and run.  Having only lived in this country for a few months, I do tend to get lost - but my iPhone empowers me to be able to go out and run, which makes me feel good. I am not worried about getting lost as I can open a map that allows me to find my way home. My husband can also locate me should I be out longer than anticipated and check all is ok. I can record my route, my time and distance and compare my pace with every other run I have ever done. I can take and share photos of the beautiful sunrises and scenery I encounter and share them easily with my friends all over the world in the click of a few buttons. I can be connected with everyone back home and never lose touch of the latest news and goings on. I can talk to my brother on the other side of the world and virtually sit in his sitting room - my family, his family, our family, all together chatting, the kids sharing toys and news. Brilliant. But where is this going next? Already, my running app allows me to link with friends and compare routes; already globally, are worried about privacy and how sites are using our searches to tailor results and adverts specifically aimed at our needs. What is the future?


Corning's video advert, 'A Day Made of Glass' (above), suggests a future where technology will be fully integrated into our every task and is an interesting view that posits a possible future where every part of our life will be linkable, sharable, reachable. It is a bright, clean, gleaming world that allows seamless integration of technology to transform and revolutionise. This Utopia is taken one step further however in the short film 'Sight' where the gleaming world presented in 'A Day Made of Glass' becomes sinister, clinical and empty. The emptiness and isolation that is portrayed in 'Sight' goes against what I currently like about my technology; the fact it lets me engage and interact with my environment and family rather than separate me from it by replacing that reality with the virtual. Equally, the notion that our lives may become so much about technology that the line between the virtual and the real is blurred so our entire existnece becomes a game, dictated to by machinery, is more Dystopian - attacking and definitely supplanting. 


video

The integration of the technology over our actual view of the world presented in 'Sight' goes beyond interacting with and using tech for communication, it becomes our actual world. It becomes us. It is us. It reminds me of people I saw once whilst on a safari in Sri Lanka. We had a little camera and captured a few shots of the elephants we were lucky enough to encounter for prosperity, but the real joy came from being in the elephants' environment, in their environment with them, and in seeing the joy on the faces of my children being so near to them. We came across another jeep containing a couple with expensive looking cameras that did not once leave their eyes. Their experience of the elephants was veiled virtually through a lens; they were so concerned with capturing the experience they never really saw it, they never were really there. In fact, they experienced it so much through a viewfinder they may as well have watched a documentary. Their blinkered narrowed focal point meant they missed the baby elephant who ran through the grass right past the jeep; they missed the lone elephant hiding behind the tree to one side; they missed so much in their endeavour to preserve the experience that I wonder how much of the experience they actually remember compared to how much comes from preserved images. It seems so false, preserving images only seen through a lens. What worries me about a future as presented in 'Sight', is that right now, I feel empowered by technology to run but am not reliant on it, whilst the main female character in 'Sight' is not able to 'see' or experience her run because her tech failed. What worries me is that my experience is the thin edge of this wedge. Do we see through the lens of technology already - how much is real, how much is manipulated, how much are we reliant on it for our experiences each day? Has my day really happened if I have not preserved each significant event in a Tweet? I don't like the robotic look in 'Sight'; I don't like the clinical feel, the lack of homeliness or emotion, the blankness of the world populated mainly by the virtual. I don't like the idea that tech goes beyond support into control. I want my life to be enhanced by not replaced by the virtual world. 

If 'Sight' takes the idea of 'the machine is us' one step further, one step beyond, Futurestates short 'Charlie 13' takes this further by replacing a part of us that is unique, that identifies us as us and implants tracking devices. Fingerprints are violated by chips that allow us to be controlled - or 'safe', where the 'opt in' or choose to 'opt out' mentality is one that I struggle with, particularly at work. The lines are greyed; tech needs to be part of what we do NOT what we do. Point the finger. 

'Charlie 13' blurs the line between salvation and destruction, where control is portrayed as safety; 'Plurality' (above) takes this even further by tying tech to our very essence, our DNA, which can be read anywhere by anything - hands on railings, hair against shop window glass. 

Set in 2023, it suggests that we will be safer by control; we lose our right to privacy yet gain a life of safety, a state challenged by 'plurals' who return from a future to challenge this 'ideal'. Many allusions to Dystopian futures abound in this short film that lead us to question the future road our technology is taking us down. The Inspector working for 'The Grid' is named Jacob Foucault - an interesting choice if we consider that the Biblical Jacob's renaming to 'Israel' when translated sees him as one "to rule, be strong, have authority over" but also as a "God contender", particularly thought-provoking when mixed with the French philosopher's ideas of panoptic surveillance to 'discipline and punish', both of which hark back to the points I made in my last post about technology as the new religion. Posters in the background of the film warn of 'Big Brother' alluding to Orwellian surveillance purported in 1984, and the helicopters circling nod to Philip K Dick's 'Eye in the Sky'. Pluralism theory acknowledges diversity of interests; Pluralism as theory considers it imperative that members of society accommodate their differences by engaging in good-faith negotiation. Interestingly however, the 'Plurality', the one who returns to warn and acknowledge difference is the one who does not belong to 2023. Named Alana Winston, nodding again to Winston Smith in 1984, whilst combining with Alana, meaning 'precious awakening', her statement that 'The Grid', the panoptican state, the all seeing eye has "replaced freedom with the illusion of safety"and her dare to challenge, earns her a sentence to time on Ellis island - ironically, a penitentiary of the future, now living up to its past nickname, "The Island of Tears". 

All these films made me question what it is these future states suggest we need to be safe from.  Utopian ideals of protection quickly have become Dystopian states that need to be broken down. What is it that needs us, in the future, to be hardwired into 'protective grids' and constantly monitored? Each other? Freedom? Choice? What are we being protected from exactly? It brings to mind Dystopian futures portrayed in films such as The Matrix or iRobot, where the machines we create take us over. The technology we create becomes more than its creator. The idea that technology is what moves us forward is didactic; we create the technology; the technology creates us. How we manage this creation will be significant. The machine is us.