defending human nature


There seems to have been a real outpouring of commentary this past couple of weeks about ’emotion’ and the perils of technology…. I guess because the theme of ‘humanity’ coincided with the ‘competition’ and playing with new tools going on in week 3.

The short films of week 3 gave another mixture of advertising and artistic critique …

The ‘real deal’ ad for Toyota plays with ‘virtual reality’ and the gamification of life, presenting the experience of driving a new car as ‘more real’ and the way to ‘break through’ the bullshit of socially and corporate controlled life into ‘freedom’… a virtual man in a greyish simulation of life scenario finds and drives a ‘real’ red sports car (strangely in the middle of his office, like a dream), and he suddenly no longer wants to inhabit virtual reality, jumps in the car and smashes through the screen to drive on ‘real’ (well, full colour cinematography) roads in lovely landscape…. yes well, we’ll leave the ironies and insults of that representation to speak for themselves….

real deal

An equally sad and silly ad from British Telecom unconvincingly tries to persuade that landlines are more ‘real’ in relationship maintenance than other modes of communication…. why? because the couple thus tied are imagining hot sex in their scheduled rendezvous? So now they use sexy women not to sell red sports cars, but landlines? I wonder just how low, sad and pathetic advertisers and their corporate clients can get… and whether they’ll ever grow up…

Moving away from the mad men world of advertising to the whatever the hell it’s about of World builder… a strangely eery (and what the hell is it with all the creepy blueness of all the representations of so-called virtual reality? the uniformity of that look is oppressive and depressing) computer generated sci-fi fantasy about  – we discover at the end – a comatose woman being given some kind of virtual reality experience by her geeky man… I don’t get whether this is supposed to be suggesting that some sort of simulated second life can bring the half dead back into real life, or whether it’s implying that his elaborate attempts are in vain, but I don’t care, because jumping to the next film was much more fun…

world builder 2

The best is last – Made of Meat… what a gem! hilarious – witty even… visually quoting Edward Hopper, this is a clever little narrative of  two aliens dressed up as humans, so as not to be noticed, sitting in a ‘diner’ discussing research findings about the strange species on earth who have been trying to make contact with other sentient beings in space for decades via radio waves and yet who themselves don’t transmit the waves (they build machines to do that)… because they are entirely made of meat – even their brains! … The aliens find this incomprehensible to imagine how meat can think and communicate, but there it is….

made out of meat 2
made out of meat 3

made out of meat  made out of meat 4




Thank goodness for something that takes the piss…. I was getting bored and irritated by the relentless nonsense of advertising and ‘serious’ fantasy…. give me ridicule any day.

So the theme at the centre of all this messing about in videos is human nature, what is and isn’t ‘real’ and how technology-dependent or driven life might be threatening all we hold near and dear…

And as I began by saying, it seems there’s been a huge response along those lines in the image fair and in the various discussion spaces…. apparently lots of feeling the need to defend feelings, and argue the case of our unique individual identities amidst diversity, (or homogeneity)…. maybe people are just being playful, but I found myself getting increasingly confused and bemused as I browsed around this week, about how the ‘defending humanity’ topic is being interpreted… I’ve been feeling kind of alienated… the majority seem to be accepting the notion that humanity needs defending, because somehow everything we know and love really is under some kind of threat of annihilation.. but I don’t think that is what they meant at all (!) when they made these selections of videos and readings…. aren’t we just  being invited to consider this particular popular storyline… in order to critique it, not to swallow it undigested?…. or do we just hold off on that til next week?

In terms of what digital technologies mean for education, there’s been a lot of representation of children and babies playing with mobile phones, ipads and laptops, for example… lovely and amusing images, but with the suggestion that there is potentially something dangerous and ‘dehumanising’ about it that we should be protecting children from… messages that a a child using a range of relatively new technologies is somehow ‘redefining’ what it is to be human… that youth is being ‘led’ somewhere else, somewhere.. bad…. that brains are being ‘rewired’, or on the other hand, that ‘digital natives’ might have the answer…. but what was the question?

This kind of determinism makes no sense to me at all 😦  I just don’t see how or why playing with digital communication tools or developing ‘digital literacies’ makes anyone ‘different’… and I am quite sure I have no ‘wires’ in my brain to start with, so how would my brain be ‘rewired’? I used to get annoyed about that particular metaphor… now I just try to laugh. Of course it changes what we can do, and how quickly, and with whom… but the notion of changing our ‘nature’ that quickly is a little… well, silly, given how we’ve hardly changed at all in hundreds of thousands of years. This all reminds me of the sort of racist nonsense that gets spoken of ‘primitive’ people sometimes…. having grown up in Australia, and having taught a lot of Australian Studies in other countries, I have very frequently encountered the discourses that seek to represent indigenous peoples here as utterly transformed by contact with European culture, as though it’s somehow the change in technologies that effect change (for good or devastating ill), rather than the socio-political processes of colonisation…. widespread still is the view that you’re no longer a ‘real’ Aboriginal person once you start speaking English, using cars and cameras, and marrying whitefellas…. hmmm. I deal with this sort of racist rubbish by doing deconstructive discourse analysis – it’s the only weapon I have in my repertoire!

So why are folks finding it seductive to seriously imagine that sitting here, as we are, typing or reading words, would somehow be utterly changing and radically transforming our entire sense of ‘self’?

One thing I’m quite sure of is that I am simply doing still what I’ve been doing since I was born – learning and using language, mainly, along with other modes of representation. Isn’t that what you’re doing? Did you or I ever exist anywhere or anyhow else? hmmm… next week

But Badmington’s paper is in week 3’s readings… and it’s a gem of a summary of 20th century critiques of ‘humanist’ discourse… in the forms of Marxism, psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, that simply aim to stop and look critically at how we imagine human nature – not in order to destroy everything we know and love, but to understand more of what the hell is going on in our lives in a way that is less blinded by the political and ideological control mechanisms we are governed by and most of the time unaware of….



2 comments on “defending human nature

  1. Hi, Emily,

    I do think that interaction with technology “changes” us in some ways, but it does not necessarily change the “essence” (if there is such a thing as “essence”) of what it means to be human – at least not yet. I still feel pain, I am still mortal, and I have a distinct perception of mortality, which of course shapes the way I view life. I can feel, think, and use language – all those human things.

    While I am still the same, perhaps there are small invisible changes that I experience when interacting with technology. Here is an example: I hate reading web articles and pdf articles on a computer screen. The scrolling makes me lose focus and I often have to really struggle to keep concentration while reading long articles. However, since I started using the reader in my iPad, which converts any webpage into a reading document, I noticed that I am able to read long articles without losing concentration. These are, of course, very minor changes but still… and, no, it has not changed what it means to be human for me.

    As someone who has studied the long history of humanity, I find very little that is admirable or worth defending. Humans among all species have exhibited tremendous capacity for cruelty and hatred towards their own species and complete disregard for the environment. In fact, I would argue that if it were not for the Industrial Revolution (and all its consequences) that led to the mechanization of labor, the mass production of goods, and the use of new energy sources such as coal and oil, we would be still using forced labor (and we still do in some places). Our values (such as the respect for the freedom and dignity of each individual) have not “evolved” naturally as a part of a natural biological process but have changed as a reaction to technological, economic, and social changes.

  2. yes quite! – I’m no believer in ‘essential’ qualities, but in social and discursive constructedness, and agree we can see a long history of how the definition changes for various social and technical reasons, and how categorisations of human and non-human include and exclude differently… some of the reading material has been a good reminder of that… but I do get very bored by some of the more hyperbolic flights of fancy, that want to imagine radical transformation caused by technology, rather than by how we might choose to use it and talk about it 🙂

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