Thinking out of Order: Pedagogy of Un-disciplined Philosophy of Technology

What follows will, in some version, end up near the end of my dissertation. I append it here to help remind me of where I want to go with the project, but also in the hope of reminding me how the project fits in with my general teaching plans for the future. As always, an comments or ideas are most welcome.

(Chapter 5 or 6?): Pedagogy of Non-humanist Posthumanism
When taken seriously, declaring we (humans) are posthuman (Hayles, 1999) or cyborgs (Harraway, 1991) or hybrid (Latour, 1993a) compels not only a reimagining of humans and non-humans, but an examination of how to commence educating students and lay publics about the implications of these claims. In this chapter, I focus on the former group: students. In academic settings, like in philosophy of technology, or STS courses, such necessarily interdisciplinary projects present various challenges for educators. First, the breadth of subject matter pushes educators to specialize, to localize around particular subtopics. Just as a survey course in U.S. literature imposes boundaries—temporal, thematic, topical, etc.—interdisciplinary courses require even stronger delineations and demarcations. In a limited time, what texts, concepts, methods and theories should students encounter and engage with to provide them the necessary introduction to a topic (non-humanist posthumanism (Sharon, 2014), or just posthumanism or transhumanism) so vast. Second, what educational goals should the course(s) seek to fulfill? Should students receive training in writing academic papers for limited audiences? Should they learn to write/perform for lay audiences? In responding to this second challenge, a fundamental pedagogical question must be addressed: do educators wish to produce their own hybrids—students capable of writing/speaking/performing in multiple registers for a smorgasbord of audiences? If so, what kind of model should the educator be? One who knows well the scholarly rigor necessary for academic journal publication? Someone versed in engagement with lay publics through various media like blogs, newspapers and magazines, podcasts, speaking/video performances (like TED Talks)?

The un-disciplined philosopher of technology I have described in this dissertation bridges the lay and academic arenas with varying degrees of success, but un-disciplined philosophy of technology, in academia at least, aims at synthesis: speaking to multiple audiences and drawing from various disciplines, sources and perspectives. The fundamental pedagogical question for UPoT, then, involves creating the kinds of environments that would allow students (undergraduate and graduate) to become the synthesis—the hybrid—that manages to traverse academic disciplines (even interdisciplines like STS with practitioners from history, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc.) without losing sight of the connections that make academic work applicable, interesting and significant for non-academic publics. Academic philosophy of technology certainly has a role to play in promoting such hybrids, but assuming students have already received substantial grounding in academic writing, un-disciplined philosophy of technology, as a set of perspectives to be taught, requires a separate foundation. UPoT aims for no mere mass appeal; its practitioners do not pretend simply to appropriate, indoctrinate and discipline lay publics. Un-disciplined philosophy of technology, with a non-humanist posthuman core, aims to challenge publics (academic and lay) and inculcate habits of critical investigation and reflection (convenient, as this is, generally, a goal of higher education) regarding the relations (or false dichotomies) between humans and non-humanities; born entities and made entities; subjects and objects.

In what follows, I outline a series of courses—including learning goals, readings, and evaluable tasks—comprising a “specialization,” or perhaps even a “certificate,” one could achieve while pursuing graduate study in Science and Technology Studies departments. Rather than seeking a total reform of STS pedagogy, I propose an incremental change, an “update” that aims to prepare graduates for professions within academia and without, but that also requires them to engage with fundamental philosophical issues swirling within contemporary STS. My central claim is that un-disciplined philosophy of technology can help students grapple with epistemological, ethical, and ontological issues implicit—if not yet fully explicit—within STS, such as Tamar Sharon’s notion of non-humanist posthumanism (2014). Perhaps somewhat unimaginatively, I begin with a trope often found in philosophy: the thought experiment.

Imagine a future where STS has moved beyond peripheries and where its practitioners need no more explain their topics of study than a chemist, mechanical engineer, or postmodern literary critic (read: Yes, they must explain their work. No, the explanation does not require some outside validation of why the work matters, should occur, etc.). Traditional dualisms have exploded; their ashes fertilize a materialism that, while acknowledging the existing of many and multiple objects (humans existing as one of many), does not seek to reduce them to concomitant parts of a seamless whole. What are, and should be, the epistemology, moral theory, and ontology of such a time? How do the things in the universe get along? How have they been produced and at what costs? Do we wish to return to traditional dualisms or Enlightenment humanism? Could we?

The above sketch for a thought experiment (or, we could simply call it the opening of a course introduction) employs what I imagine as some common strengths of thought experiments. It is fictional in the sense that the world does not appear this way currently. It is broad with clear enough descriptors to delimit the subject matter while remaining vague enough to allow the audience to imagine the world for themselves. It is abrasive/jarring in that it imagines a world/time with substantive changes that cause upheaval in how humans view themselves, the world, and their relationships to that world and everything else in it. It is compelling because there are aspects of it that both appeal to us now and challenge us to imagine how every thing would come to be this way. Finally, it permits the audience to engage in speculation about how that world/time should be organized—philosophically, politically, socially, economically, bodily—and constituted.

A grounding in ontology, epistemology and moral philosophy, allows STS practitioners (particularly emerging scholars) to capture the nuances of a non-humanist posthuman position. It is crucial for STS work because it unmasks important aspects of human, science, and technology interactions. We rising STS scholars, as children of our parents (the previous generation of STS scholars), imagine the world as our predecessors did, and though much can be learned from them, we must take their lessons about symmetry and blurring the lines between subject and object seriously. This will entail forming our own understanding of the interactions of humans and technologies, humans and nonhumans (or, more plainly: objects). We emerging scholars have been raised in a world vastly more connected: we are connected with each other without much regard to spatial and temporal limits; we are connected with our technologies so extensively that we can even intelligently and non-metaphorically converse about the possibility of cybernetic organisms (cyborgs); and, we are (re-) connected with our organic environments in ways that might even make Heidegger (1979) proud.

Sloppy Prose

“Lazy” might be the better term here. In any case, I’ll plop you down mid-thought:

It is not that the ideas from Kevin Kelly, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and Ray Kurzweil, as well as post- and transhumanists in general, are right—nor wrong. It is that their words and ideas take hold in our imagination. They (lazy pronoun reference: the words, ideas or authors) inspire us to imagine other ways of viewing the world, our place in it, and our relationships with the other objects in this world. What Ian Bogost, among others, is able to do is dazzle his audience with language: writing, producing images for his readers, crafting metaphors and juxtaposing objects to spark the imagination in others, inspiring new litanies, new connections.
Un-disciplined philosophy of technology (UPoT), based in part on the pragmatism of postphenomenology, aims to inspire habits. Ihde’s postphenomenology (cite Carl Mitcham from Evan Selinger’s edited text), in particular his variational method, is a means of promoting (prompting) habits, styles of thinking and being, in relation to technologies. As Sloterdijk claims, humans are shepherds of being, and we discipline ourselves through our use, creation, and ideas about technologies. The variational method requires us to recognize that the way we see the world, technologies and nonhumans included, must include more perspectives than those that we first imagine. The gestalt shift metaphor serves to remind us of the layers hidden, yet painted so clearly that they should be obvious; the aspects we have not yet imagined or barely realized. The method of postphenomenology asks us to live, to experience, our relationships with the world and our technologies in ways that force us to examine critically how we may have initially interpreted them. As we translate/transform the world for ourselves, we change ourselves, our habits, and our ways of being in the world.

A philosophy of technology is a challenge, even to the initiated, to imagine the world, ourselves, etc., in manners previously unvoiced—to speak and think in ways that seem foreign until they no longer seem so distant. Heidegger rightly viewed technology as a challenging-forth, as instantiations of such methods later found in postphenomenology. Building off of the challenging-forth of postphenomenology, UPoT pushes the challenge beyond academic philosophers and calls upon lay publics to take up the variational method, to see in our technologies more than the advertisements, the hope, the instantiations of specific artifacts. We should see ourselves transformed by, through and into our technologies. By acknowledging the values in our technologies, like efficiency, discipline, and profitability, we can see beyond those values and imagine our technologies as more than a sum of these parts. That technologies take on different meanings in specific contexts, the thrust of social constructivist positions regarding technology, and are influencing-influenced. Technological determinism remains viable because we permit ourselves to imagine ourselves and our world as mere products of the technologies we have created and implemented. Philosophy of technology sets the human free, but it also sets free the nonhuman.

Transhumanism and posthumanism would both be better served by paying more attention to objects, animate and inanimate. The ideals of transhumanism, that technologies can benefit all of humanity, miss a key aspect of technologies: technology forces us to examine ourselves, to seek our own essences alongside the essences of technologies. UPoT is both significant and not: its strengths are not its novel perspectives—indeed, one may fairly critique it as derivative of postphenomenology, technological mediation, OOO and SR. Instead, UPoT merely takes the task of assessing, critiquing and working with technology and places those practices/habits in more direct, everyday, lived experiences of the lay publics. The un-disciplined philosopher of technology writes/performs in arenas at once pedestrian and transcendental: it asks those cognizant beings, those able to hear and interpret the messages for themselves, to take active parts in the reshaping of habit. UPoT is, thus, explicitly political and moral in that it is challenging and a challenge. Our task in elucidating philosophy of technology should be to make PoT part of daily habits, our daily reflections and awareness.

Sharing Experience: Humans as Objects, Too

Written notes and outlines (scaffolding), allow our minds to wander without losing our place. We start with an idea for writing a book, then begin to imagine the resources, human and otherwise, we will need for the completion of the project. We think of the perspectives these interlocutors will bring with them and how these perspectives might changes our own conceptions of the issue, then we return to our initial ideas and reformulate them. The technologies of writing, outlining, etc., allow us to perform speculative work while rooting us to the core ideas that may change upon further reflection and interaction with other. All this seems a natural process of the human mind augmented, extended, by our available technologies. Just as we train our creative faculties, so we can develop our technologies to facilitate creative thought without ‘losing our place’. We gain little insight by bracketing off which aspects came from our own minds and which came from without, just as we do not question the pen or page that hold our initial idea in place for us as we mentally drift off into connections that may or may not help us develop that initial idea.

Postphenomenology, lived experience, is mediated by our technologies, our interactions with other people and our environments. Demarcating the individual human as prior or more responsible, ontologically and epistemically, only serves to distance ourselves from our lived experiences, perpetuating an enlightenment humanism that instead needs to be updated and reevaluated. We cling to a mythologized image of the individual rational agent when our lived experience tells us that we are not self-sufficient, a-contextual beings acting on rational impulses. Feminist ethics, generally, and Ethics of Care, specifically, push us to acknowledge our contextual, social roots that we share with other beings/things in the world. These are key influences in our ethical and epistemological interactions and investigations.

Accepting our shared experiences as central to understanding individuals should force us to reconsider our human-technology relations—the express goal of philosophy of technology, specifically, and STS more generally—and the values we wish for those relations to promote. We can, then, do as Selinger and Engstrom (2007) propose: evaluate how our cyborg experiences make us better, or worse, off, and how we can improve. Perpetuating the strict divide between humans and non-humans is nostalgic at best because, put bluntly, we no longer live in such a world—if we ever did. Without a grounding in history and philosophy, STS practitioners (particularly emerging scholars) will miss the nuances of such an understanding, one that is crucial for STS work because it unmasks important aspects of human, science, and technology interactions. We rising STS scholars, as children of our parents (the previous generation of STS scholars), imagine the world as our predecessors did, and though much can be learned from them, we must take their lessons about symmetry and blurring the lines between subject and object seriously. This will entail forming our own understanding of human-technology relations because we have been raised in a world vastly more connected: we are connected with each other without much regard to spatial and temporal limits; we are connected with our technologies so extensively that we can even intelligently converse about the possibility of cybernetic organisms (cyborgs); and, we are (re-) connected with our organic environments in ways that might even make Heidegger proud.

Selinger, E., and Engström, T. (2007). On naturally embodied cyborgs: Identities,
metaphors,and models. Janus Head 9(2): 353–584.

Posthumanism and Transhumanism

I am attaching a copy of a draft book review I recently did on Post- and Transhumanism: An Introduction. The review will be available soon on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective website.

Moving beyond the Human: Posthumanism, Transhumanism and Objects

We must learn to ignore the definitive shapes of humans, and of the nonhumans with which we share more and more of our existence. The blur that we would then perceive, the swapping of properties, is a characteristic of our premodern past, in the good old days of poesis, and a characteristic of our modern and nonmodern present as well. (Latour, 1994, p. 42).

First, a confession: I am a late arrival to discussions of posthumanism and transhumanism. In my own work in philosophy of technology, I have struggled to find the direction I think philosophy of technology should take regarding fundamental philosophical positions pertaining to ontology, epistemology and ethics. In that sense, Post- and Transhumanism: An Introduction (2014) has served as a useful entry into contemporary discussion of what exists, how we can (and should) go about enquiring after those things that exist, and how we should conceive of ethics in a world inhabited, seemingly equally, by humans and non-humans (or, we might posit, unequally inhabited: there are far more non-humans than humans in this universe). What follows, then, could be fairly called an “unfamiliar” or “uninitiated” review of Robert Ranisch and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner’s edited text. Perhaps as a testament to the persuasive strategies and flair of the varied contributors to this edited text, I find myself quickly taking sides between posthumanism and transhumanism, only to have that position challenged by the next entry. In the process, my ontological and ethical views have undergone contestation and transformation.

In what follows, I muddy the waters even further by bringing to the discussion emerging lines of thought dealing with ontology and ethics described as speculative realism (SR) and object-oriented ontology (OOO). Juxtaposing post and transhumanist ideas with those of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology presents a muddle, an imbroglio in Latourian terms (1994), but it also serves to make distinct our ontological and ethical positions. Just as we might find utility in clearly defining what something is not, I hope to provoke those with post and transhumanist leanings to become even clearer in their accounts by setting themselves up against some “other,” in this case speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, though recognizing what Immanuel Levinas (1990) claims that wrestling with “others” yields: “If one could possess, grasp and know the other, it would not be other” (p. 90).

As Ranisch and Sorgner emphasize in their introduction, common ground among post and transhumanists does not immediately emerge at first blush. Their introductory chapter provides an overview of the positions, including histories of the terms, specific adherents, and intellectual trajectories, but the initiate will be forgiven if she finds posthumanism and transhumanism so vastly different that they warrant their own separate volumes. Chapters on “Ontology” by Thomas Philbeck and “The Body,” by Francesca Ferrando do attempt to show how both post- and transhumanists view such broad categories similarly and differently, but I am left wondering why there should not be two chapters, written by different authors, for each subject. The posthumanist ontology and the transhumanist ontology, for instance, appear starkly at odds with one another. The common term, humanism, belies the strong differences between the two camps (if, indeed, we should only discern two camps, a point Ranisch and Sorgner emphasize is not entirely accurate). For Ranisch and Sorgner, the main similarity between post- and transhumanism is that they acknowledge the present by looking to the future. Beyond that, their trajectories diverge. As Riggio (2015) points out, “all that brings them [posthumanists and transhumanists] together is a vague sense of overcoming the human” (p. 5). The site of synthesis between posthumanism and transhumanism remains murky and contingent: the pieces are present, but much assembly is required.

This review does not aim to put those pieces together, and I am not entirely sure they should fit together into some seamless whole. Though I do side with posthumanist perspectives, at the very least regarding ontology and morality, I argue that posthumanism does not go far enough in its egalitarianism, as the discussion of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology below should make clear. On the side of transhumanism, by accepting some version of the Enlightenment, dualist view of the human (the basis of humanist thought)—as acontextual, rational, and self-sufficient—transhumanists ignore the phenomenological and ethical implications of dividing humans and non-humans. As both Ferrando and Philbeck emphasize, though it may seem natural, even intuitive, for humans to think of ourselves as separate from each other and from everything non-human, indeed even having some sort of separate “me” inside my body, humans have always already been inseparable from technologies. If we accept the human as such a mixture, then one contentious or problematic aspect of transhumanism no longer seems radical: human augmentation (physical, cognitive, etc.) through technologies has always occurred, so attempting to delineate between augmentation and therapy makes little sense. In philosophy of technology, the strengths of postphenomenological perspectives (cf. Ihde, 1993; Verbeek, 2005) lie in their explorations of how technologies mediate human experience: we experience the world through our technologies and this has normative implications for ontology, morality and epistemology. We should have an even thicker understanding of the social to include things other than humans and animals: a society of objects (humans included), equally real, impacting, influencing and interacting with each other.

Don Ihde’s postphenomenology seeks to remind us of the technologies/frameworks that mediate our experiences of the world around us and to challenge our understandings of human-technology relationships. Postphenomenology blurs divisions between subject and object in ways similar to the posthumanist position of Francesca Ferrando (2014). Ferrando makes no clear distinctions between humans unaided or unadulterated by the technologies that mediate our experiences. For Ferrando, humans have developed with technologies, not alongside them or even because of them. The “human” is inextricably linked to technologies: what we might today label “humans” cannot be explained without explicit reference to our technologies. Attempts to demarcate technology as some “other” non-human extension make no sense to the posthumanist because the human has emerged alongside technological developments (the ability to wield fire for warmth, cooking, etc., coincided with anthropological explanations of the difference between humans and our most recent predecessor) (Ferrando, 2014). In that sense, Joe Pitt’s (1999) definition of technology—sometimes maligned for its generality—as “humanity at work” fits well with the posthumanist claims that there is no strong delineation between humans and the technologies that mediate our experience with the world. Ashley Shew Heflin’s (2011) study describing tool use among non-human animals serves as a bridge that links the human and non-human, regarding tool use and technology, and makes explicit the need to move beyond anthropocentric understandings of technology use, similar to claims made by posthumanists like Ferrando and Katherine Hayles (1999).

With such a blurring of humans, non-humans and technologies in mind, Martin Heidegger’s (1979) claim that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological” implies that when we seek to explain technology as an “other” or something non-human, we imagine a master-servant relationship whereby technologies are things to be mastered and dominated (p. 35). In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger argues that the two common twentieth-century definitions of technology, “a means to an end” and “a human activity,” serve to blind us to the essence of technology (1979, pp. 4-5). The essence of technology is not equivalent to those two definitions, yet we have come to accept the instrumental definition in part because the instrumental explanation seems sufficient (p. 5). Unfortunately, seeing technology as human means to specific ends “conditions every attempt to bring man into the right relation to technology” (p. 5). The posthumanists, I argue, aim to bring humans into the right relationship with technology by exposing the idea that a definition of “human” without referencing “technology” misses a, perhaps the, crucial element that makes us human. Francesca Ferrando’s (2014) rendering of human-technology relations as a symbiosis offers a framework from which we can evaluate technologies without recourse to instrumentalist notions about technologies as servants to humans, as separate from humans. Moreover, the symbiotic relation posthumanists like Ferrando posit permit a moral philosophy that grants non-humans agent status, and this allows relations like that described by Deborah Johnson and Thomas Powers (2008) where machines/programs attain “surrogate agent” status. The separation of the human from the non-human serves instrumentalist ends, but it does not permit the view of humans and technologies in service to each other, and this view best characterizes the kind of “right relation to technology” that Heidegger envisioned, and also points to an emphasis in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism regarding intersubjective relations, which I hope to elucidate by again returning to postphenomenology.

Postphenomenologists like Ihde invoke the “variational method” to support the normative idea that multiple perspectives, the ability to imagine/interpret an object, situation or experience from more than one vantage point, are required to understand phenomena. The “variational method is a rigorous style of analysis that permits the phenomenologist to experience Gestalt shifts” (Selinger, 2006, p. 92). Ihde rejects the idea that there is only one way to observe, understand, and explain phenomena. His variational method, coupled with his own tendency to situate himself in his analysis (thereby rejecting any objectivist view of the phenomena), permits him to achieve “phenomenological parity.” Phenomenological parity allows for what F. Allan Hanson (2008) calls “extended agency.” Hanson (2008) argues for a re-imagining of moral responsibility that includes extended agencies, or humans and artifacts/technologies, as opposed to the modernist conception of agency and moral responsibility as solely human. Hanson’s usage of an ‘everyday’ or ‘casual’ definition of responsibility allows non-humans to take a share of the responsibility for an event. Just as the gravitational pull of our Sun exerts influence on planets, the car in a vehicular homicide has responsibility for the accident as well as the human (assuming a human does the driving) (p. 418). For Hanson, “the responsibility for an act lies with the extended agency that perpetrated it. If the act has moral import, the extended agency’s responsibility has a moral dimension that can be called moral responsibility” (p. 418).

To those that would contend that only humans have intentions—therefore the car in the homicide has no intentions—Evan Selinger and Thomas Engstrom (2007), as well as Don Ihde (1990, 2002) and Bruno Latour (1994), would contend that the use of certain technologies actually changes humans and our intentions. The person with a gun is not the same as the person without a gun (Hanson, 2008, p. 419), and the gun undergoes similar transformation when put to use (Latour, 1994). The potential of a person when she gets behind the wheel of a car is vastly different from her potential without the vehicle. She simply has different potentials in situations where certain technologies enable different types of action than would occur without those technologies. Of particular interest to philosophers of technology that look at autonomous agents like machines and software would be just how far agency should be extended to the autonomous technologies. In the casual sense in which Hanson uses responsibility, we would need to attribute agency and responsibility to the autonomous technology, and by extension, to the designers of the technology. Hanson’s (2008) explication of some technologies possessing extended agency as well as Johnson and Powers’s (2008) work in surrogate agency of certain programs demand that we break from instrumentalist conceptions of technologies as value-neutral and begin to develop ethical theories that account for more than traditional anthropocentric systems.

James MacFarlane’s (2014) insightful review rightly points out a fundamental difference between post- and transhumanists: the former term remains elusively ambiguous while the latter demarcates a broadly coherent set of techno-optimistic ideas. The actor network theorist, object-oriented ontologist, social epistemologist, and/or STS scholar should see an opening for analysis here: the former label covers terrain too broad for fixed coordinates; the latter has ‘settled’ its area more robustly and has achieved greater consistency. Post- and Transhumanism: An Introduction brings together diverse perspectives and viewpoints and, to my mind at least, erodes such neat divisions as “posthumanism” and “transhumanism” in a manner similar to Bogost’s relation of the object-oriented ontologist’s debt to phenomenology. Bogost (2012) contends that his philosophy deals with how things appear to beings/things, but that “it’s a phenomenology that explodes like shrapnel, leaving behind the human as the solitary consciousness like the Voyager spacecraft leaves behind the heliosphere on its way beyond the boundaries of the solar system” (p. 32). The “flat ontology” proposed by SR and OOO advocates like Bogost and Harman (2005), nourished by evocative metaphors such as a spacecraft leaving behind the known solar system, demands that humans accept a place among objects, things, automata. Speculative realism and object-oriented ontology have a place in the posthuman world, and their use in the process of imagining that world might just aid us in becoming posthuman.


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