Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 3

This week was the final week of the history part of this unit. We continued to discuss Marx and Heidegger in particular.

Kerry began the class by talking about an article about cyborg insects, you can read it here. This article is about scientists fitting a real dragonfly with a small backpack that can directly issue commands to the insects neutrons and can control its flight.

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It is hoped this kind of technology could one day be used to treat humans with certain medical issues. A very interesting article.

Back to the philosophy and we discussed Karl Marx and his theory of Political Economy. Marx recognises that the labour process is man and nature participating together and we must obey the rules of nature, we are part of nature. We are transformative beings and we reveal parts of our nature when we are involved in the labour process and the tools that we use. However, we are not truly transformative beings as we still make the same mistakes over and over again. Marx says we are not technology, we design and make something useful, an instrument. We went on to talk about the economy and how it is a social thing, the economy is for the purpose of society. We talked about how economy should be more in the service of society, if everyone had a stake in the economy then we would be more responsible and not waste resources if there was a direct knock-on effect to us. An example is global warming, we are all invested in our planet and future generations.

We then went back to Martin Heidegger and he had some fantastic points about technology. He said that we are most aware of technology when it breaks! This is so true. At its best, technology disappears and is seamless, this is an essential feature of Heidegger.

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http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/martin-heidegger-4970.php

Kerry’s first example of this was the pencil. The point here is that when you are writing with a pencil you are not really aware of the pencil, it is invisible. The pencil is doing its job and it becomes an extension of your arm. Another example given was a car. When you’re driving you are (sometimes, mostly) not even aware of the car. Reading glasses was another example, when we wear glasses and when we read, watch TV or do work we are not aware of them, they essentially become a part of us.

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Present-at-hand means you are aware of the technology, it is disconnected from us. If technology is present-at-hand we get annoyed with it and cast it away or try to fix it. Until it becomes a ‘means-to’ it is of no use to us.

Ready-at-hand means the technology is invisible, it becomes an extension of us, it is seamless and working perfectly. This also applies to the human body, when it is working perfectly we are not aware that we are doing certain things. When we walk we are not consciously thinking about our legs, but if you have a bad foot then you would be thinking about it.

The next Heidegger point was that technology is a method of revealing or concealing.

“The potter’s wheel, the paint brush, the hydro electric plant, the computer, all reveal or disclose something about human beings. Of course humans must have the potentiality to use the technology, however, it is in using technology that these aspects of the human are produced.”

Technology can reveal certain skills that we possess, however, it can also conceal skills we used to have and need. An example is with autonomous cars, we no longer need to learn how to drive a car as the computer inside the car will drive it for us, so our driving skills become concealed. 3D printing can also be seen to conceal skills of arts and crafts, however, other skills may be revealed, such as computer design skills. Email conceals hand writing skills but reveals other technological skills.

We finished the class by reading an article about nano-intentionality. We read that living organisms are intrinsically goal-directed, it is inherent in the behaviour of living eukaryotic cells. So we started to compare biology with computers. We decided that biological beings have conscious, purpose and are self-aware. It is also in our advantage to be aware of ourselves, flight or fight. Computers are programmed, not conscious or self-aware. Machines have no reason to be self-aware.

So this week we finished the history side of the course and now we will start to explore more contemporary philosophy. More to follow next week!

Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 1

My first new course for 2017 is Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine, a 10 week course at the University of Sydney.

In this opening week of the course we learnt what technology is, and isn’t, and had some interesting debates about driverless cars, human looking robots, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger and Freud.

So, what is technology?

Technology is any humanly created artefact, system or technique produced to achieve some human end or purpose. Technology is the manipulation of nature, which transforms or makes nature available for human use.

All human societies make use of different tools. The first primitive tools were used to manipulate nature in some way, such as to make fire, cook food and hunting. It is interesting to note that fire is considered a form of technology when it is produced and controlled by humans. As our use of technology has increased so our environment has changed dramatically.

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The word technology also means technique. An example being the control of fire is not an artefact, but its manipulation is a technique which alters nature.

Technology is not for itself, it is a tool used to achieve something. Using Martin Heidegger’s terminology, In Order To. Heidegger exempted art from his definition because it is For-Itself.

The word technology comes from the word technê. Technê is “the set of principals, or rational method, involved in the production of an object or the accomplishment of an end; the knowledge of such principles or method; art.” It’s aim is making and doing, orientated towards producing something.

aristotle

Ancient Greeks viewed art negatively and craft positively. The reason is craft is the practical application of an art, rather than art as an end in itself. Socrates and Plato also shared this view.

Another important feature of technology is that it either compensates for some lack in our own human abilities or enhances some human feature. A tool for breaking rocks compensates for our soft hands for example.

Heidegger also notes that tools are not independent entities, without their definition they are useless. All tools only make sense when connected to other tools and institutions. Heidegger’s example of a hammer which needs a workshop, nails, wood, things to build and reasons to build them.

One other really interesting point from tonight is called the uncanny valley. The concept of uncanny was developed by Sigmund Freud and means something that is familiar but is slightly strange. The uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost human like provoke feelings of revulsion and eeriness. The valley part denotes a dip in the observer’s affinity for the replica. uncanny_graph_blog.jpg

As the image above shows, the valley is shaded in grey. As realism increases so the empathetic response dips. The graph shows a few examples. This is why we don’t see more human looking robots, they just look weird and creepy.

This first week was really interesting and I think the next 9 weeks are going to further enhance my knowledge of technology and philosophy, can’t wait!