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  and . 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.

The Divided Brain: Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Sunday 22nd March am

This is the fifth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will reflect on the way our society is drifting towards mechanism and the destroying of the grounds of mental and spiritual health. (From the course booklet)

Participants on the course commented that somehow this session generated a collective energy. I recognized this too, but at the time felt that the content of this session was easier to follow and maybe related more closely to our personal experiences of life and work. Whatever the reason, it was on this third day that I could see a lot of ‘Ah-Ha’ moments in the group.

Iain’s opening question was one to make us all sit up.

‘You will die, but were you ever alive?’

For Iain, life is spontaneous, super-abundant, diverse and full of possibility. Possessions do not provide the means to understand the joy of life. People can have a genuine delight in living with relatively little.

He explained that in this session he would talk about:

  • the business of life – birth, sex and marriage (procreation), death
  • the hemispheres and machines
  • machines and deanimation
  • are we becoming machines?

Birth, sex and marriage, death

Iain made it clear that in talking about this he was talking about the situation in the West, and more than that, within Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democracies, the group that has now come to be known as WEIRD. (See this article on the problems of using this sample for studies of human behaviour). Despite this, and because those of us on the course were almost all WEIRDos :-), he shared with us that research into this sample has shown that

  • the birth rate is declining and mother/infant relationships are under threat with increasing numbers of women working full time;
  • 70% of internet activity is related to porn and 20-40% of 19-25 year olds have no interest in sex. The attraction of sex is declining;
  • porn robs sex of its power through its explicitness.

Iain illustrated this point through the example of hikikomori – young Japanese who withdraw from society and never leave their rooms (see image below), even to the point of having trays of food left outside their doors.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 15.42.23 Source of image

  •  Neither has the relationship between the sexes improved over the years –  what used to be a dance is now a legal code.
  • Touch has become an issue in many spheres of life and professions. Nurses are not permitted to touch patients and teachers are not permitted to touch their pupils. Life is less embodied. There is less activity in the natural world- things are more virtual and disembodied. Risk avoidance has become an obsession, but we will die.

Death confirms life, but the ability of death to tell us about life and the value of life, is on the decline. We attempt to preserve life and defy death by hooking up to machines. This reminded me of a recent radio programme that suggested that many of the elderly would welcome death and that we don’t do them any favours by prohibiting this through interventions such as flu jabs. In the past, flu would have been a cause of death for many of the elderly, at a time when death would have been welcomed. I know that this is a generalization, but I found it interesting.

The hemispheres and machines

The left hemisphere world works the way machines work. It is a world of certainty, fixity, parts, division, abstraction, reification, quantification, inanimation, representation, utility, depersonalisation ……. and more. The question of ‘What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?’ is fully explained in the final chapter of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary (see p. 428).

Machines and deanimation

Machines devitalise us. They remodel the boundaries of a person such that we lose sense of proper boundaries. The internet erodes privacy, photos create emotional distance and technology can give inappropriate power.

We have become over-reliant on machines. Here in the UK we are the most observed society on earth and we can’t rely on machines being in the hands of people who are benign. It is now possible to send a drone through the open window of your home to observe you. Are we going to have to live in a world where we can’t open our windows? This reminded me of this video I saw recently – not on Iain’s course – but relevant to the topic and showing a scary level of surveillance.

Machines (Iain was principally talking about the effects of the internet here) affect our emotional movement and attention. We think we can multitask but in fact this is impossible (I agreed with this!). We need to pay attention. Our involvement with machines stops depth of reflection and robs us of the time to live.

Machines also bring unrealistic expectations. We now think we can outsource our memories through machines, through the use of calculators, sat navs etc. Of course these machines are useful, a lot about technology is good, but not if we over rely on it. Why? – because we are the sum of our memories. For example, memorizing a poem becomes part of us, and influences how we feel about things (and Iain was able to quote poetry liberally from memory). If we stop remembering then we are not a full person. For anyone who has a relation with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia, this resonates.

For a story which explores dependence on machines, read E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops – . Here is an online link to the whole story –

Are we becoming machines?

There is some evidence to suggest that we are in danger of losing aspects of our humanity. A Toronto teacher contacted Iain to tell him that after a career in teaching for many years, she now has to teach children how to read the human face. The children are less empathic than they used to be and less able to maintain sustained attention. This is an indication of left hemisphere dominance over the right hemisphere.

People with right hemisphere failure, such as schizophrenics, believe that they and others are machines.

These days we want explicitness, precision and speed, i.e. we want things to be machine-like, but all these replace trust and human things are better if they are not explicit, precise and fast. Most realities of life don’t allow us to be precise. Life is not like Sudoku. There is not one solution. In life there are no clear and constant objectives, no limited possibilities, no precision. Life is always open to interpretation, objectives are conflicting, consistency is a dubious virtue, and certainty is not necessarily a good thing, although this is not to be in praise of vagueness. The complexity of systems we handle means that they are recursive – we change them by intervention.

There is a lot that can’t be measured or can’t be measured in any way that helps us, e.g. love. We can’t make love explicit or change it’s nature. Measurement leaves things out. Theory deals poorly with the unique. Following rules results in a loss of spirituality and flow, leading to premature ossification of working processes. By focusing we lose the whole picture. Uncertainty and impression are necessary for life.

Hegel has written that the more certain our knowledge, the less we know. (As an aside Hegel, Heidegger and Heraclitus are Iain’s favourite philosophers).

Happiness comes from connection and community. Mental well-being depends on social connectedness. Meaning comes from living and connection. It is a matter of belief. We have to trust and start the process. We have to go and meet life. Mindfulness engages the right hemisphere.

All this might sound as though technology and machines were being demonized, but that was not the case. Everyone on the course recognized the advantages of technology and machines, but perhaps we don’t think enough about the disadvantages. We cannot go backwards, but a machine cannot replace life and it is not the ideal model for life. The world of the left hemisphere is a bit bleak, being more disembodied, lacking in empathy, believing more in representations than presence, and being frighteningly confident and optimistic in its certainty.

Should we say no to the machine model?

Authors referred to during this session

John Elster (1985). Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge University Press.

Forster, E. M. (1909). The Machine Stops. Oxford and Cambridge Review

Jonathan Haidt (2007). The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Arrow

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

Robert Putnam (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.