Technology: How much is too much?

One of the more comic technology items introduced in 2013 was the iPotty. A simple device was attached to a toilet training potty for very young children. They could play with apps and Google away while waiting for nature’s call. Now in itself it may seem harmless, yet the problem is that this key developmental stage in an infant’s life has a lasting impact on their personality. Harsh punishment during toilet training create a submissive personality. The theory being if we can control little children biologically, they’ll be equally submissive adults and seek out authority figures to tell them how to live their life. There’s some evidence for this view. In the former East Germany toddlers in State run crèches were all sat upon a toilet training bench and required to toilet on cue. Later they became submissive citizens of an authoritarian state. The theory goes that an iPotty creates co-dependence on technology. As the child grows and develops, every time it answers the call of nature, it would need access to an iPad. One doesn’t want to over analyze here, but there are obvious developmental issues as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood. In fact I’ve often wondered why so many people enter public conveniences with an iPad or digital device in hand.
There’s no doubt that the iPad and its multiple applications, along with other mobile devices have brought additional resources into the daily lives of everyone. Yet most of us are conflicted. On the one hand we argue for creating more civilized societies, becoming interconnected and building a better world; while on the other hand we embraces technologies some of which have the most devastating and alienating effects on families and communities and undermine the very concept of nurture and a duty of care towards one another.
For example, there’s evidence to suggest people behave more rudely and aggressively online. Psychologists call this the dis-inhibition effect- a name for bad-mannered, anti-social behavior. It is suggested that people feel less inhibited when not seen and can express themselves more freely and without feeling vulnerable to criticism. But the result of this kind of reasoning put into practice can have devastating and tragic consequences. One of the cruelest examples of online anonymity and the dis-inhibition effect is the tragic and untimely death of 13 year old Megan Meier. Megan began receiving nasty messages from a boy a few weeks after she met him, via her MySpace account. After many messages of kindness and support she received one telling her the ‘world would be a better place without you’. Megan believed she had been rejected by the boy and committed suicide in her home. However, the boy never existed. He was a virtual character created by Lori Drew, a 47 year old married woman and a mother herself, who lived four houses down the street. Whereas parents were once the bridge between home life and the social interaction of their children, today technology is taking on that role. The once strong, stable pillars of family and community are being replaced by bridges of aluminum and fiberglass courtesy of Apple Inc., Samsung and Microsoft et.al.
For the most part I can fully appreciate and understand the gains to humanity through the development of technologies which assist and aid us in understanding and improving the human condition. Yet, on occasion events occur which cause me to pause and reflect on where we are heading. Such a moment occurred after reading a BBC news report about a company which markets neuroscience educational kits for children. It developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach. This can be controlled through a downloadable app on a mobile phone. The child is able to control the movement of the creature. The company argues that allowing children to dissect another creature, place electronic devices into it and control its movements is giving them a 5-10 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further claim they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their peculiar equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but suggest they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current primary, middle and secondary school curricula. It is by all accounts a misleading and false argument.
Those of my generation learned a lot in primary school about neuroscience without being asked to cut-up another creature. I recall wonderful teachers who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to accidentally standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures showing how the brain and central nervous system functions. It was an interactive, highly sociable communicative process which instilled in us a lifelong love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those we didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. We learned their role in the wonderful complex Eco-system called life, along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
To argue that allowing children to capture and mutilate then insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is fabricated nonsense. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an Eco-system – even in the digital age-which ensures the survival of all species. Humans and other creatures matter a lot. It is this key relationship between ourselves and other living things we need to understand in the digital age. So, how much is too much technology? Today we’ve gone beyond an answer to such a question. A more meaningful question is whose brave new world do we want to live in, our own or one belonging to someone else?

ISIS, Boko Haram & the Banality of Evil

When the German philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem between 1961-1962, she drew the conclusion that far from being psychopaths-the majority of people (Nazis from all walks of life) who participated in the killing of 11 million people, (1.1 million children) including the mentally disabled, mentally ill, Jews, Gypsies, Christians, Muslims and other minorities, had made clear moral choices. She argued that:
“…under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation” (Arendt, 2006)
Her words are a chilling reminder of the precipice humanity finds itself on as we bear witness to the atrocities being carried out by the group called ISIS across parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and the Nigerian group, Boko Haram in West Africa.
Essentially Arendt argues that when any person subordinates their own ability to think for themselves, and embraces the ideological narrative of a group, they also give up significant aspect of their unique status as a human being. A person’s ability to think with integrity and to value the dignity of all human life separates those who choose through their own moral turpitude the banality of evil-that choice to go with the crowd, to get lost in the mass psychology of hysterical conformity.
Her argument is corroborated through a number of interviews conducted by Gilbert (Gilbert, 1947) during the Nuremberg trials. Among the men Gilbert interviewed over the months leading to the trials were, Hermann Goering, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, Julius Streicher and Joachim von Ribbentrop. Each told a different story, yet each claimed to have only done their duty within the ideological narrative of Nazism. They had as Arendt so succinctly put it, made deliberate personal moral choices while serving an evil cause.
And in recent times arguments of ‘simply carrying out orders’ or being ‘called to a higher cause’ have been heard during trials at the International Criminal Court. Such was the defense of Slobodan Milošević, the former President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Charles Taylor the former President of Liberia. Each of these men failed their own unique destiny to be fully human and fully alive and to know themselves as they are known, and to fully embrace their own dignity as a human being and the collective dignity of all humanity.
Yet we would be mistaken to think the banality of evil is only to be found in the grand narratives of religious extremism, or the secular political narratives of totalitarianism or the aggressive discourse of advanced capitalism. Failure to think for ourselves, to question everything, to critically appraise all arguments of certainty creates a fertile breeding ground for those without a mind of their own, to follow those who have lost their minds.
References:
Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Classics.
Gilbert, G. (1947). Nuremberg Diary. New York: Farrar Straus.

Burying Our Heads in the Sands of Silicon Valley

In the modern corporate themed allegory ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ about adapting to a changing set of circumstances, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw have to adapt to a sudden change in their environment when their ‘cheese’ or key resource disappears. Only one of the characters is able to adjust fully to the change or ‘disappearance of the cheese’ successfully-an interesting point to note. From this quaint fable about changing facets of life in the 20th and 21st century we are expected to come to the realisation that change is inevitable and those that do not adapt or ‘bend with the breeze’ will break or be left behind. The tale has been told often and is used as a kind of corporate mantra in the post-modern world. Yet, the type of change in the story which advocates and supporters of ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ promote isn’t like Cardinal John Henry Newman’s concept of change-that of inward spiritual growth which will lead us to become more fully aware and compassionate human being; rather it’s based upon Frederick Taylor’s mechanistic view of the human being as outlined in his 1909 book “The Principles of Scientific Management.” This was one of the earliest studies in change management and an example of a mechanistic model of behaviourism which was used to manipulate people into becoming robot like and enabled them to be used merely as cogs in the servitude of the owners of the means of production.
And it is this model of change which futurists like Peter Diamondis promote. In a recent presentation in the city state of Dubai, Diamondis proclaimed his own doctrine of change arguing that it no longer happens every 100 years, but every year (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). He claims as his own, the somewhat paradoxical mantra that ‘change is a constant’ feature of 21st century life.
Well, yes and no. One could argue that there’s always change just as day turns into night and the seasons predictably come and go (perhaps less so these days due to climate change), and we are born, grow old and die. These kinds of ‘constants’ in change are founded upon the existential conditions in which humanity constantly strives to survive and where we have created such a mess of it all. We need to address with increasing urgency whether or not we want our species is to survive, and endure the kind of future predicted by Dr. Diamondis.
Among the kinds of changes he predicts are that high school students will have the ability to sequence their own DNA and that life will become more ‘like a manufacturing process” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I can already hear Marx and Engels chortling quite happily “we told you so”. He claims that today 100 years of age is the new 60. Well Dr. Diamondis, I’d prefer not to be alive at 100 as I’m damn sure I’m not going to feel much better than I do now at 60!
3D printing will develop to the extent we’ll be able to “print cement to build our houses and manufacturing will become “geography independent” and the mass of humanity will become ‘empowered’ (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I’m not sure how this will work for the 99% who won’t be able to afford the printer, electricity or who may not even have a shelter in which to begin this great architectural innovation.
Artificial intelligence will gradually supersede our ability to make choices and privacy will be a “thing of the past” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Well, thanks to Edward Snowden, we already know this, and with Facebook buying the messaging app Whatsapp for $19bn it is all but confirmed.
In addition he predicts an even more gloomy ignominious future with more “jobs going to China to India to Robots” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Not sure how the 1.3 billion Chinese will respond to this, but if Tiananmen Square is any indication of ‘moving the cheese’ in that country-I wouldn’t want to be Sniff, Scurry, Hem or Haw. However, they might fare better in India where the 1.27 billion might adjust given their reluctance to break out of their rigid case system, and where any kind of cheese is a welcome relief to the abject poverty and misery of their disenfranchised population.
President Obama will not be happy at all with Dr. Diamondis health care predications for the future, in which we will be able to ‘self-diagnose our own medical conditions’ and treat ‘most illnesses at home’. (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014) After all the delays and angst over ‘Obama Care’ it now seems the President would have been better advised to consult with Dr. Diamondis. He could have avoided the Supreme Court challenge and that awful public brawl with those ungrateful Republicans.
The point is futurists have their place in the world alongside Tarot card and Palm readers, who I often consult-well; so did Nancy Reagan! As for the future my money’s on the predictions of Rick Evans (Evans, 2013) as sung by Zager & Evans in 1969. They reflect a far greater and more urgent reality: the existential condition of humanity; whereas Peter Diamondis has his head buried in the lucrative and exclusive sands of Silicon Valley:
In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do, and say
Is in the pill you took today
In the year 4545
Ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes
You won’t find a thing to chew
Nobody’s gonna look at you

In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs got nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you
In the year 6565
Ain’t gonna need no husband, won’t need no wife
You’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube’ Whoooa
In the year 7510
If God’s a-comin’ he ought to make it by then
Maybe he’ll look around himself and say
Guess it’s time for the Judgement day
In the year 8510
God is gonna shake his mighty head then
He’ll either say I’m pleased where man has been
Or tear it down and start again
In the year 9595
I’m kinda wondering if man is gonna be alive
He’s taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain’t put back nothing
Now it’s been 10,000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man’s reign is through
But through eternal night
The twinkling of starlight
So very far away
Maybe it’s only yesterday
In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may thrive
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do or say
Is in the pill you took today ….

References
Evans, R. (2013). Zager & Evans Lyrics. Retrieved from Metro Lyrics: http://www.metrolyrics.com/in-the-year-2525-lyrics-zager-and-evans.html
Masudi, F., & Nazzal, N. (2014). 2050: The Shape of Things to Come. Dubai: Gulf News.

Backyard Brains often Lack Intelligence

Backyards conjure up lots of images of recyclable materials and storage space or nicely cultivated lawns and gardens as a place to relax and enjoy the labors of the day. On the other hand Backyard Brains creates a mixed metaphor and one needs to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what’s hidden in the backyard to see if there’s anything of real value. A bit like treasures in the attic I suppose.
With the help of the BBC News I did discover something rather unusual about a company named Backyard Brains and there commercial exploitation of digital learning, along with the imprecise and often unequivocal area of neuroscience, and children’s vulnerability and fascination with how things work, at a time when they have a penchant to be masters of their own environment while being dependent upon it.
According to the BBC News report Backyard Brains has developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach and a downloadable app from a mobile phone is able to control the movement of the creature. Interestingly on the same page of this news story the BBC ran an advertisement on a program detailing the legacy of the Nazi medical experiments inclusive of a picture of Hitler- ironic or not I thought the coincidence appropriate.
The company Backyard Brains (aptly named perhaps?) argues that through allowing children to dismember other creatures, place electronic devices into them and then control their movements they are giving them a 5 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further argue that they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their bizarre equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but claim that they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.
It is by all accounts a disingenuous and dishonest argument.
I learned a lot at primary school about neuroscience without being asked to dismember another creature. I recall a wonderful teacher who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures on how the brain and central nervous system of sentient beings worked. It instilled in me a life long love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those I didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. I learned their role in the wonderful complex eco-system called life along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
It is the lack of concern shown by the Backyard Brains’ company to our moral relationship with other creatures which should worry parents, educators and children alike. The thinking which underpins the concept of Backyard Brains is based upon the myopic and disdainful thinking of early Western thinkers who claimed that humans lack any kind of contractual and ethical relationship with other creatures because they are not moral agents and they lack feelings, therefore if we do not perform experiments on them we are failing science. Such ideas have been used over the centuries to push some creatures to the edge of extinction through hunting and killing for body parts. The irrational arguments of Rousseau, Robert Boyle and Voltaire on race and the natural world often led to the justification of inequality and to enslave people of differing religions, politics, beliefs, color, and women and even to justify the oppression of children. According to the philosophy which underpins the work of Backyard Brains; Rousseau’s outrageous claim that “woman is especially made for man’s delight” would be acceptable today! We have after all inherited the imperfect irrationality of Rousseau and his ilk on our relationships with other creatures.
There are much more acceptable moral and ethical ways to teach neuroscience to children than having them turn defenseless and helpless creatures into electronic toys that may be controlled by a mobile phone application. Just as causing unnecessary pain and suffering to one another is unacceptable, it is unacceptable to cause pain and suffering to other creatures.
The study of neural circuitry is important in medical science and has been studied at the appropriate age and level for many years with wonderful success. To argue that allowing children to capture dismember, insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is disingenuous and dishonest.
The kinds of experiments designed to harm other creatures and marketed by Backyard Brains under the guise of human scientific endeavors runs counter to the idea that we live in a very fragile world, morally, ethically, environmentally and socially. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an eco-system which ensures the survival of all species-other creatures matter a lot. It is this key idea which children need to understand and learn to live with more, to counter the illusions of the digital age and the dishonest marketing ploys of companies like Backyard Brains.