The context for learning, education and the arts (4)

(This entry is in five parts) One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

So why explore the intersections of human thought and computer programming? My tentative answer would be that we have not understood the breadth and depth of the relationships that we develop with machines. Human culture is defined by its on-going struggle with tools and implements, continuously finding ways of improving both the functionality of technology and its potential integration into everyday life. Computer programming may well be one of the most sophisticated artificial languages which our culture has ever constructed, but this does not mean that we have lost control of the process.

The problem is that we don’t recognize the symbiosis, the synergistic entanglement of subjectivity and machine, or if we do, it is through the lens of otherness as if our culture is neither the progenitor nor really in control of its own inventions. These questions have been explored in great detail by Bruno Latour and I would reference his articles in “Common Knowledge as well as his most recent book entitled, Aramis or The Love of Technology. There are further and even more complex entanglements here related to our views of science and invention, creativity and nature. Suffice to say, that there could be no greater simplification than the one which claims that we have become the machine or that machines are extensions of our bodies and our identities. The struggle to understand identity involves all aspects of experience and it is precisely the complexity of that struggle, its very unpredictability, which keeps our culture producing ever more complex technologies and which keeps the questions about technology so much in the forefront of everyday life.

It is useful to know that the within the field of artificial intelligence (AI) there are divisions between researchers who are trying to build large databases of “common sense in an effort to create programming that will anticipate human action, behaviour and responses to a variety of complex situations and researchers who are known as computational phenomenologists . “Pivotal to the computational phenomenologists position has been their understanding of common sense as a negotiated process as opposed to a huge database of facts, rules or schemata."(Warren Sack)

So even within the field of AI itself there is little agreement as to how the mind works, or how body and mind are parts of a more complex, holistic process which may not have a finite systemic character. The desire however to create the technology for artificial intelligence is rooted in generalized views of human intelligence, generalizations which don’t pivot on culturally specific questions of ethnicity, class or gender. The assumption that the creation of technology is not constrained by the boundaries of cultural difference is a major problem since it proposes a neutral register for the user as well. I must stress that these problems are endemic to discussions of the history of technology. Part of the reason for this is that machines are viewed not so much as mediators, but as tools — not as integral parts of human experience, but as artifacts whose status as objects enframes their potential use.

Computers, though, play a role in their use. They are not simply instruments because so much has in fact been done to them in order to provide them with the power to act their role. What we more likely have here are hybrids, a term coined by Bruno Latour to describe the complexity of interaction and use that is generated by machine-human relationships.

Another way of understanding this debate is to dig even more deeply into our assumptions about computer programming. I will briefly deal with this area before moving on to an explanation of why these arguments are crucial for educators as well as artists and for the creators and users of technology.

Generally, we think of computer programs as codes with rules that produce certain results and practices. Thus, the word processing program I am presently using has been built to ensure that I can use it to create sentences and paragraphs, to in other words write. The program has a wide array of functions that can recognize errors of spelling and grammar, create lists and draw objects. But, we do have to ask ourselves whether the program was designed to have an impact on my writing style. Programmers would claim that they have simply coded in as many of the characteristics of grammar as they could without overwhelming the functioning of the program itself. They would also claim that the program does not set limits to the infinite number of sentences that can be created by writers.

However, the situation is more complex than this and is also subject to many more constraints than initially seems to be the case. For example, we have to draw distinctions between programs and what Brian Cantwell Smith describes as “process or computation to which that program gives rise upon being executed and [the] often external domain or subject matter that the computation is about. (Smith, On the Origin of Objects, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998: 33) The key point here is that program and process are not static, but are dynamic, if not contingent. Thus we can describe the word processor as part of a continuum leading from computation to language to expression to communication to interpretation. Even this does not address the complexity of relations among all of these processes and the various levels of meaning within each.

To be continued........

 

The context for learning, education and the arts (1)

This entry has five parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

The context for learning, education and the arts has altered dramatically over the last few years as has the cultural environment for educators and artists/creators. Part of what I would like to do here is examine the intersection of a number of crucial developments that I think have transformed the terrain of technology, education, art and culture.

This is a grand claim and I would be the first to admit that we are being incessantly told that change has become the major characteristic of the late 20th century. But, I do think that we are witnessing shifts which will have a profound effect not only on the social and political structure of Western countries but on the ways in which In which we see ourselves, act upon and within the communities of which we are a part and how we create meanings, messages and information for the proliferating networks that now surround us.

The one important caveat here is that although I am concerned with the transformations we are experiencing, I will in no way claim that we are undergoing a revolutionary change. I tend to see history as evolutionary, which in no way precludes dramatic shifts from occurring. As intellectuals, artists, technology developers and educators, I believe it is our responsibility to become active within this environment and to develop the critical and creative tools to respond to the ongoing evolution of an emerging aesthetic of interactivity in which aesthetic goals are linked with ethical goals and are based on a perspective of caring for both the individual and the larger economic, political, ecological, social and spiritual circumstances that create contexts for the individual. (Carol Gigliotti;Bridge to, Bridge From: The Arts, Technology and Education? Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 2, April-May, 1998 p.91)

Our cultural claims about the various factors that produce change tend to be linear, the line being one that moves along a fairly straight, if not narrow trajectory from the less complex to the more complex. The approach that I will take looks at the displacements that are created by the movement from one phase to another, movement in this instance being more like transportation framed by what Bruno Latour has described as connections, short circuits, translations, associations, and mediations that we encounter, daily. (Bruno Latour, Trains of Thought, Common Knowledge, Vol. 6, # 3, Winter, 1997, p. 183.)

So, I will begin by exploring the various conjunctures and disjunctures created by the presence of digital technologies in nearly every aspect of the cultural context of the early 21st century. My goal, however, is not an overview, but rather, to raise as many questions as I can in order to introduce increasing levels of mediation both to our understanding of the digital and to our creative transformation of the digital into various media of communication.

To be continued.....