Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

What does it mean to live an authentic, fully human life? What distinguishes us from other animals? Are we truly set apart in some way?  How should we think of ourselves? What are we? What should we do?

If these questions have ever concerned you then you could do no worse than read Sarah Bakewell’s fascinating book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, in which she takes us on a wonderful journey through the lives, loves, and sometimes tortured existence of the existentialists, who not only struggled to answer these questions and find the meaning of life, but also had to contend with the political chaos that Europe was in during the 20th century.

Bakewell, S. (2016). At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Chatto & Windus.

In this book, we are introduced to many philosophers (not all of them existentialists), but when I go back through the notes  I made to accompany my reading, I see that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus are the ones that stood out for me.

Last year I read Sartre’s philosophical novel ‘Nausea’ for the first time and it really would have helped to have read Sarah Bakewell’s book first. Bakewell describes Sartre as an ugly, loud-mouthed uncompromising extremist who despite this was a magnet for women, not least Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he had an ‘open’ relationship for more than 50 years. For Sartre, the big question was ‘What does it mean to be free?’ Seeking the answer to this question was his life’s work and indeed his life as he attempted to live by the philosophy he espoused (in Iris Murdoch’s terms he inhabited his philosophy). For him denying this freedom was to act in ‘bad faith’, although by this he did not equate freedom with ‘anything goes’, rather that ‘only with context, meaning, facticity, situation and a general direction in our lives can we be free’.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Source of image: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/did-sartre-and-de-beauvoir-groom-high-school-girls/

Bakewell describes Simone de Beauvoir as the most transformative existentialist. de Beauvoir dedicated her work to applied existentialism; she was interested in the power lines of desire, observation, jealousy and control that connect people, and how constraints and freedom work together, particularly in relation to the oppression of women. She investigated the female experience and wrote of the alienation of women, who see themselves as ‘other’, living most of their lives in ‘bad faith’. Bakewell points out that the problem of how to be a woman is an existentialist problem par excellence; we are profoundly gendered beings. She writes of de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ as the single most influential work ever to come out of the existential movement.

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s work was influenced by many others, including Heidegger, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with whom they had love/hate relationships. All these philosophers followed each other’s work and seemed to openly insult each other on a regular basis. Had Twitter existed in their time, they would have had a field day, although I think Heidegger would have hated Twitter. Heidegger thought that saying the first un-thought out thing that came to mind, which is called ‘discussion’ today, was empty ‘chit-chat’ and chided his students saying ‘We do not Heideggerize here! Let’s move on to the matter in hand.’ Hannah Arendt, who was one of his students and for a time his lover, claimed that what she learned from Heidegger was how to think.

Source of image: http://www.phillwebb.net/history/Twentieth/Continental/Phenomenology/Heidegger/Heidegger.htm

Heidegger’s life-long concern was the beautiful, intense, terrifying mystery of human existence, the reason things exist and ‘Being’ (das Sein); what does it mean to ‘be’, what does it mean to live an authentic life? For Heidegger living an authentic life is being fully aware that our life is surrounded by death. Heidegger wanted us to avoid wasting time on the endless superficial ‘chatter’ of everyday life, which robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves. He wanted us to resist falling under its sway and become answerable to the call of our own voice, our authentic self. He calls on us to wake up and be ourselves and recognise that we are surrounded by nothingness (death), and that human existence is temporary and has an inbuilt expiry date. Heidegger recognised that we are not hovering above the world, we are in it, and everything is connected. Bakewell writes (p.148) that Heidegger thought that we are ‘not made of spiritual nothingness; we are part of Being, but we also bring something unique with us.’

Despite Bakewell’s wonderfully easy narrative style, Heidegger’s ideas are difficult to grasp and require ‘letting-go’ of one’s own usual critical ways of thinking. He comes across as a complex, solitary, unpopular figure, despite the widely recognised importance of his legacy, particularly because he never did apologize for his temporary support of the Nazi party.

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, were also key characters during this time. Both ultimately fell-out with Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Albert Camus

Source of image: http://www.port-magazine.com/literature/remembering-albert-camus/

The question Camus tried to answer was ‘If life is revealed to be as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, how should we respond?’ In other words, Is life worth living? Most of the time we don’t stop to think about this, but occasionally a dramatic turn of events forces us to ask why exactly do we go on living. For Camus there is no ultimate meaning to what we do. For him life is absurd. Sartre and de Beauvoir could not agree with this, even though Camus pointed out that if life is absurd, then we are impelled to live life more intensely.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Source of image: https://grupoautentica.com.br/autentica/autor/maurice-merleau-ponty/1396

Of all the philosophers Sarah Bakewell discusses, Merleau-Ponty comes out as the ‘good guy’. She dedicates a whole chapter to him, bearing the title ‘The Dancing Philosopher’, because he was the only one of the group of existentialists, who, in their regular visits to cafes and night clubs, would ask a girl to dance and take to the floor. (Bakewell’s chapters all bear wonderful titles). Merleau-Ponty was not an existentialist, but a phenomenologist (Camus was neither). Bakewell describes Merleau-Ponty as the most revolutionary thinker of them all and his book The Phenomenology of Perception’ as a masterwork. Merleau-Ponty was not interested in anguish and authenticity, but in the mystery of existence and how experience comes through perception (all the senses working together holistically) in an embodied way. His focus was  embodied cognition, studying consciousness as a holistic social and sensory phenomenon, rather than a sequence of abstract processes. He reminded us of the central position that the body, perception, childhood and sociality occupy in real life. Bakewell tells us that a phenomenologist must put into words what is ordinarily not put into words, what is ordinarily considered inexpressible and how experience comes to us as a whole rather than separate parts. She took this quote below from The Phenomenology of Perception to sum up Merleau Ponty’s vision of human life.

“I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And Yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.”

Bakewell’s book is a delight to read. She brings these philosophers, and many more, to life, sharing her knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. She clearly shows us how they interacted with each other and how they influenced each other. She also discusses them in the context of their time, describing a war torn Europe, which influenced each of them differently and determined who they would meet, when and where, and how they would communicate, both during and after the war.

In chapter 3 (p.32) Bakewell writes:

“The existentialists lived in times of extreme ideology and extreme suffering, and they became engaged with events in the world whether they wanted to or not – and usually they did. The story of existentialism is therefore a political and a historical one: to some extent, it is the story of a whole European century.”

In her final chapter (p.245) Bakewell urges us to reread the existentialists and writes:

‘They remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.’