[WSMDiscuss] Whether it’s in outer space or on the front lines of a pandemic, humane technology won’t save us (Marcel O’Gorman)

Jai Sen jai.sen at cacim.net
Sun Apr 19 17:48:59 CEST 2020

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Viruses in movement…, Ideas in movement…, Reflections in movement…

… “the more we seal ourselves into an exclusively human cocoon …, the more our animal senses – themselves co-evolved with the winds, the waters, and the many-voiced terrain – are blunted, rendering us ever more blind, ever more deaf, ever more impervious to the more-than-human Earth.”

[I’m doing two posts on our experience of the pandemic this morning; be careful – as in caring – with both.  Either, or both, could significantly change the way you look at things, and perhaps even your life – but in very different ways.  I think that this is in the very nature of the times we are going through…  In a sense, we’re going through that portal everyday, and we’re going to continue to do so, the deeper we get into this...

[I don’t like the title that’s been given to this essay; so I request you to try and look beyond it, and read the text… and between the lines :

Whether it’s in outer space or on the front lines of a pandemic, humane technology won’t save us

The belief that humans are at the centre of creation, and that our technological prowess can overcome anything, has kept getting us into trouble. Is there a better way ?

Marcel O’Gorman

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-whether-its-in-outer-space-or-on-the-front-lines-of-a-pandemic/ <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-whether-its-in-outer-space-or-on-the-front-lines-of-a-pandemic/>
Marcel O’Gorman is a University Research Chair and director of the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo.

Beachgoers at Florida's Cocoa Beach watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blast off with 60 satellites for the Starlink broadband network from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2019.  (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)

What is it like to be an Elon? This question haunted me as I prepared recently to watch a live broadcast of the SpaceX Falcon 9 blasting into low orbit and releasing 60 more satellites. I am captivated by what might be called Elon Musk’s “radical otherness,” which provokes me to ask a number of ludicrous questions about what it means to be human in a technocratic, extraterrestrial age. Some questions even sound like the setup of a bad joke. For example, what do Falcon 9 and the coronavirus have in common? The joke became more poignant recently when Mr. Musk refused to close down the Fremont, Calif., Tesla factory after suggesting that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” <https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1236029449042198528>
At once hailed and reprimanded for his weirdness, Mr. Musk will soon be the orchestrator of a satellite megaconstellation that astronomers fear will pollute our orbit <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-we-are-polluting-outer-space-its-time-to-clean-up-our-orbit/> and hinder the study of outer space. Meanwhile, far below, The Boring Company, a SpaceX spinoff, is tunneling its way through the underworld of Las Vegas. The company’s mega-drills sport literary names such as Godot (as in “waiting for”) and Line-Storm, which he pinched from the title of a steamy Robert Frost poem. “What matter if we go clear to the west, And come not through dry-shod?” asks the love-soaked narrator of A Line-Storm Song. Clearly, Mr. Musk is not afraid to get his feet wet, whether underground or on Mars.

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk.  (Steve Nesius/Reuters)

The promo for Mr. Musk’s book Rocket Man reveals his ambitious mission to “secure the future of humanity” by means of prodigious technological sorcery. While some may ask whether this vocation is fit for a man who may not be human at all <https://gizmodo.com/evidence-that-elon-musk-is-an-alien-1780130528>, the real problem with this heroic gambit is its human-centric ideology, its anthropocentricity. What Mr. Musk’s Barnumesque adventures ultimately reveal is that the future of humanity is not a technology problem – it’s a human problem.

Rockets and drills, spicy as they are, will not save humanity from itself. And any attempt to make technology more human, or humane for that matter, completely misses the point if it fails to recognize that humans, after all, are technological animals. We exist only because of a co-evolution with technical things, from flint axes and horse-drawn wagons to modernist poetry. Especially in a time of pandemic, this human/non-human co-dependency should be considered more of an existential fact to keep in check rather than a cause for unbridled, spaceward self-congratulation.

This was the first official picture of Sputnik I, released by the Soviet government in 1957 days after they launched it into orbit, the first human-made object to reach there.  (The Associated Press)

One year after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Hannah Arendt chose that momentous event to open the prologue of her epic existential treatise, The Human Condition. Downplaying the technological prowess that propelled the Russian orbiter, Ms. Arendt noted that the initial public reaction “was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery,” but rather, as an American reporter put it, a sense of relief about this first “step toward escape from men’s imprisonment on earth.” Ms. Arendt then asks a rhetorical question, equally poignant, that provides an entry point onto The Human Condition: “Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away … from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”

Once the Enlightenment managed to orchestrate the death of god, the skies became man’s scientific playground – and I do mean man’s. For modern science, the trajectory of the human species can only be erectile. Evolutionary biology presents us with the tidy schema of an earth-bent ape, transformed step-by-step into an upright, bipedal, tool-wielding male, sometimes depicted at the end of the line as a straight-up businessman in a two-piece suit, carrying a briefcase. But what if we followed a different schema, one based not on a tool-bearing vertical disposition, but rather on the more horizontal interrelationship of the many strange creatures that inhabit the earth, Elons included?

I would like to propose a new schema for the human species based not on erect posture, but on inclination. Not only inclination in the sense of disposition or bias (e.g., I’m inclined to upgrade my iPhone because it’s practically free to do so), but also in the postural sense: a Homo inclinus to counter Homo erectus. This idea came to me while reading Adriana Cavarero’s Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude <https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=24541>. I define Homo inclinus by its ability to incline not toward technological progress but toward the other, a capacity which, in Ms. Cavarero’s words, “is the essential dimension of the human.” This is a different brand of human than the one described by Ms. Cavarero as a rocket-launching being who, “by freeing himself from the world, proudly raises himself over himself.”

Our speciesist pride is acknowledged by Yuval Noah Harari when in his book Sapiens, he notes that we don’t like to contemplate “the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.” Mr. Harari’s transhumanist vision is inspired by a future in which “people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships.” But we don’t have to climb aboard the Mr. Musk’s BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) to encounter radical otherness. It’s all around us.

A pangolin and its baby in a Bali zoo. The scaly mammal is blamed as one possible culprit in COVID-19's jump from animals to humans.  (Firdia Lisnawati/The Associated Press)

An evolutionary perspective not guided by technological progress might incline us to look around, sideward and even down, rather than up. It might even generate novel and complex reconceptions of the human condition, demonstrating that we are just as entangled with Mr. Musk’s BFR as we are with the less cocky pangolin, that endangered, ant-eating mammal being blamed for spreading the coronavirus <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/science/pangolin-coronavirus.html> thanks to a bite from an infected bat. Like hapless prey, the human species is now helplessly ensnared in a zoonotic net.

The pangolin’s existential crisis has engendered our own. I’m not talking about the end of human existence (keeping in mind how the word “existential” has been abused of late <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/2020-candidates-say-everything-existential-threat/591967/>) but a philosophical crisis that calls on us to reflect on our precarious state of exposure as animals confined to a planet with many other species. We can deny our animality by hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing our hands, but like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, we are now in a good position to embrace the absurdity of human life.

The Plague, which has been called “essential reading” <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-there-is-more-to-admire-in-men-than-to-despise-the-plague-is/> for pandemic times, has been interpreted as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. Closer to home, both U.S. President Donald Trump <https://time.com/5806657/donald-trump-coronavirus-war-china/> and French President Emmanuel Macron <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/world/europe/coronavirus-france-macron-travel-ban.html> have declared war on COVID-19.

But is the word “war” accurate in this context? War is a human affair, a tactical game between technical animals, made possible by adherence to abstract concepts such as nation and culture. The absurdity of labelling the pandemic as a war should remind us, once again, of our own animality, our existence as fleshly, vulnerable creatures.

The capability of a peculiar and unassuming anteater to – possibly – cause a pandemic should take the whizz out of our rockets and incline us toward non-human others, pangolins and satellite debris alike, that will probably outlast our species.

Bats fly out from Linno Gu cave in Hpa-An, in Myanmar's state of Karen. Bats are another suspected link in COVID-19's animal-to-human journey.  (YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images)

In an influential essay published in 1974, Thomas Nagel asks the following speculative question: “What is it like to be a bat?” The impossibility of an answer is precisely the point of his thesis on the philosophy of mind. “It will not help,” Mr. Nagel insists, “to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic.” What Mr. Nagel seeks is not an imaginative exercise in empathy, but rather, he wants to know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” Humans are simply not equipped with the science required to answer this question. In fact, science may be the wrong approach altogether.

Mr. Nagel’s trick question is designed to demonstrate the boundaries of science and the limits of objective truth, both of which are confined to human language. Much like Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphoristic insights in Human, All Too Human, which repudiate the narrow perspectives of science and art alike, Mr. Nagel proposes an exercise in humility.

Similar gestures have been taken up more recently by philosophers and critical theorists labelled as posthumanists. Posthumanism in this sense is not a science-fictional fairy tale about the beings that come after us, such as the cyborg creatures imagined by Mr. Harari that threaten to replace our species. Instead, posthumanist philosophers ask critical questions about capital-H Humanism, seeking to find a point of view that unseats the human from its self-entitled position of dominance in the universe. In a nutshell, posthumanism is about what comes after Humanism; it is not about what comes after humans.

Jane Bennett, for example, in her book Vibrant Matter <https://www.dukeupress.edu/vibrant-matter>, champions a view of the material world that “draws attention sideways,” away from a humanist perspective based on a “Great Chain of Being, and toward a greater appreciation of the complex entanglements of humans and nonhumans.” Rather than chastising humans for playing God, Ms. Bennett’s flavour of posthumanism asks what may be learned if we cast a levelling, sideward glance at all things on Earth, rather than setting our sights on the sky.

What is it like, for example, to be a pangolin, both the potential intermediary host of COVID-19 and the most trafficked mammal in the world <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/science/a-struggle-to-save-the-scaly-pangolin.html>? The answer can only tell us more about human values than it can about the mammal’s ant-eating way of being. Confronted with human queries, the pangolin curls up and withdraws into an armoured ball. But this seemingly absurd question reminds us of the consequential entanglement of human and non-human things, which in the case of the pangolin is a fatal snarl caused by an all-too-human abuse of power. The pangolin problem underscores what Nietzsche described as “the problem of order of rank.” This problem exists not just between humans, but between Homo sapiens and the multitudes of others with which our species is entangled.

The coronavirus mystery will no doubt end with the computational mining of genomic information that finally points a finger at the infecting culprit. But hopefully, the “Techno-Heroic” side of this tale, to borrow from science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, will be tempered by an acknowledgement of the human inclinations toward domination and excess that led to this infection in the first place.

Medical workers walk by a police robot at Wuhan's airport on April 8, a week after travel restrictions to leave the city were lifted. China's measures to contain the coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, included several high-tech solutions like digital surveillance and apps notifying people when to stay home.  (Aly Song/Reuters)

I am puzzled by the way well-meaning watchdogs insist on positioning the human being as the victim of tech gone awry. Tristan Harris’s focus on “Humane Computing” is surprising, given that his primary object of attention these days, if Twitter feeds mean anything <https://twitter.com/tristanharris?lang=en>, is not human-computer interaction but the interrelationship between humans and their earthly ecosystems. Maybe the “downgrading” <https://www.theverge.com/interface/2019/4/24/18513450/tristan-harris-downgrading-center-humane-tech> of the species, as Mr. Harris calls it, is exactly what we need to counter the toxic effects of the tech industry. Not in the sense that Mr. Harris intends, however, but in the sense of taking the human down a notch.

Other examples of techno-humanism abound, from the title of the otherwise forward-thinking All Tech Is Human <https://alltechishuman.org/> conference to Douglas Rushkoff’s compelling book/manifesto, Team Human. It’s time to take the “man” out of manifestos that call for responsible computing. There is nothing to be gained by locking the discussion of technology and ethics in a human container.

David Abram focuses on the more-than-human-world in his article titled Magic And The Machine <https://emergencemagazine.org/story/magic-and-the-machine/> to critique the humanist bias embedded in contemporary technological production. In reference, for example, to the increasingly ubiquitous Internet of Things, Mr. Abram bemoans the fact that “there’s no radical otherness involved: it’s all humanly programmed, and it’s inhabited by us humans and our own humanly-built artifacts; it’s all basically a big extension of the human nervous system.” Mr. Abram reveals his posthumanist inclinations when he suggests, “the more we seal ourselves into an exclusively human cocoon … the more our animal senses – themselves co-evolved with the winds, the waters, and the many-voiced terrain – are blunted, rendering us ever more blind, ever more deaf, ever more impervious to the more-than-human Earth.”

Future generations will describe how our eyes were cast down, glaring at our devices as COVID-19 crept up on us unexpectedly. And how our heads stayed down in a state  of quarantine as we scrolled through social-media updates and anxiety-inducing newsfeeds. Admittedly, the devices also serve as vehicles for human connection in a time of self-isolation. But maybe our postquarantine state, if there is one, will prompt new connections motivated by a different sort of perspective. Not a skyward glance, coupled with a desire to escape our Earth-bound fates, but an opportunity to sidestep slowly, carefully, out of our human cocoons and look elsewhere, a chance to develop new empathetic inclinations, even inclinations toward radical otherness.

Mr. Musk’s offer to manufacture ventilators is a responsible step in the right direction, even if GM beat him to the punch <https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/21/21189184/gm-ventec-ventilators-tesla-musk-coronavirus>. But surely, “the real-life Iron Man” <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/09/elon-musk-the-real-life-iron-man> can do better, especially if he joins forces with other giants in the tech industry. Jeff Bezos, where are you now? That said, no one would be surprised if the billionaire tech crew is planning an escape to Mars, the ultimate form of social isolation for jet-setters with an extraterrestrial reach. In the meantime, the rest of us will be down here, mingling with the pangolins and reading Camus on our tablets.


Jai Sen

Independent researcher, editor; Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Globalisation Studies at the University of Ottawa

jai.sen at cacim.net <mailto:jai.sen at cacim.net>
Now based in New Delhi, India (+91-98189 11325) and in Ottawa, Canada, on unceded and unsurrendered Anishinaabe territory (+1-613-282 2900) 

CURRENT / RECENT publications :

Jai Sen, ed, 2018a – The Movements of Movements, Part 2 : Rethinking Our Dance. Ebook and hard copy available at PM Press <http://www.pmpress.org/>
Jai Sen, ed, 2018b – The Movements of Movements, Part 1 : What Makes Us Move ? (Indian edition). New Delhi : AuthorsUpfront, in collaboration with OpenWord and PM Press.  Hard copy available at MOM1AmazonIN <https://www.amazon.in/dp/9387280101/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1522884070&sr=8-2&keywords=movements+of+movements+jai+sen>, MOM1Flipkart <https://www.flipkart.com/the-movements-of-movements/p/itmf3zg7h79ecpgj?pid=9789387280106&lid=LSTBOK9789387280106NBA1CH&marketplace=FLIPKART&srno=s_1_1&otracker=search&fm=SEARCH&iid=ff35b702-e6a8-4423-b014-16c84f6f0092.9789387280106.SEARCH&ppt=Search%20Page>, and MOM1AUpFront <http://www.authorsupfront.com/movements.htm>
Jai Sen, ed, 2017 – The Movements of Movements, Part 1 : What Makes Us Move ?.  New Delhi : OpenWord and Oakland, CA : PM Press.  Ebook and hard copy available at PM Press <http://www.pmpress.org/>
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