What can our “White Hat” characters tell us about Digital Education? (Week 2 Summary)

Film Festival – Part 2 and 1/2 

Not really relevant as a movie, but couldn’t resist using the title.

This week we once again looked at some film clips (some of the same ones as last week, with a few additions, including Chappie which was nice) and considered not only what they tell us about people’s ideas about perceptions of technology, but also how these might apply to education using digital technology. The chat was interesting, but again seemed to focus on the negative (worries about control, fear of tech going out of control, cold and inhuman aspects of areas such as Learning Analytics and so on). While it is prudent to look for cautionary tales and draw conclusions from them, I think it might be equally as useful to look at our “White Hat” characters and see what they can tell us. Perhaps in their stories we can find the seeds of solutions to the sort of problems that we’ve foreseen? To avoid my tendency to ramble on forever, let’s just look at one of the types:

Cyborgs

To survive their dying planet, the Cybermen replaced their organic parts with mechanical ones. Eventually they became more machine than human.

It seems that the general worries around cyborgs are to do with the idea that technology in some way disrupts or diminishes our essential humanity in some way. The influence of devices developed to run on lines of pure logic and reason having a detrimental effect on us, especially if they are physically part of our body. I think that this may be explored in “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway (2007), but unfortunately I’ve yet to force myself to read it all the way through as her style is incredibly annoying. I plan to get round to reading this and will update this blog entry afterwards.

So where do our cyborg characters stand on this and what can they tell us? As a reminder, we looked at Cyborg (DC Comics), Luke Skywalker, Picard, LaForge, Bashir, 7 of 9, Robocop and the reprogrammed Terminator. I consider that these fall into two categories (well, okay, many more than that, but for this argument let’s call it two):

  1. Cyborgs who are very human, just with some technological tweaks which may or may not be obvious (Cyborg, Luke Skywalker, Picard, LaForge, Bashir).
  2. Cyborgs who are mostly machine like, but are striving to become more human (7 of 9, Robocop, reprogrammed Terminator).
Cyborg from Teen Titans GO! Loud, bad jokes, eats too much, likes terrible 80’s soft rock… Human.

The first category gives us a great bit of news about becoming a cyborg (at least in terms of fiction) – it doesn’t make any difference to your humanity. Those characters embrace their humanity and live lives blissfully unencumbered by any machines taking over their mind to cause mayhem. The connection to education would surely be – it doesn’t make any difference, education is a human thing. Regardless of the technology used it is put together and received by humans. A traditional face-to-face course can be cold and inhuman (especially if we think of really traditional classes in say a Victorian Public School). The medium isn’t the message when its online any more than it is when its death by PowerPoint.

7 of 9 was captured by The Borg and turned into a cyborg connected to their hive mind – removing all individuality. Once that link was broken her humanity slowly resurfaced.

The second category shows us how even something that starts off seemingly inhuman can grow and develop in ways that make them more acceptable to our human sensibilities. 7 of 9 and Robocop where originally human, and manage to re-engage with that side of their nature. The Terminator on the other hand started off as a machine that has been reprogrammed to bodyguard a teenager, who then sets about making him display human like behaviour. I think the first two tell us that when we talk about Digital Education we are really just talking about Education. The Digital aspect is something new that seems a bit scary and inhuman to some people, but eventually these tools and techniques will just be considered to be the norm – education will have the human touch regardless of how it is delivered (it may take a period of adjustment, but we’ll get there). Sian Bayne covers this interestingly in “What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning?” (2015).

Terminator – sometimes the good guys are only good guys because they’ve been reprogrammed.

Terminator has a slightly different story to tell though. Even the most inhuman, logical, put together for sinister purposes piece of technology can be given a veneer of humanity that can fool us. The character is a “White Hat” not because it chooses to be so, but because its programming compels it to be so. While education can shift to encompass and incorporate the possibilities of digital, leading back to being a human experience, the worries we have about the abuse of data, leading learners down specific learning paths and so on will still be relevant. The public “face” of these systems can be more approachable and human, but in the background they were built for a purpose, to specific design specs, and they will carry out those tasks with maybe less oversight and intervention if we don’t scratch below the surface and see them for what they are.

Chappie’s adoption of two inept criminals as his parents is strangely heartwarming.

I would love to bring in some of the Robots and AIs, especially Chappie and his journey from being built to frighten and injure to being a person in his own right who enriches the lives of those he meets, but this post is already about five times too long. Perhaps I’ll do something in a separate post 🙂

Black Hats or White Hats? Do writers have a bit of a downer on Cyborgs, Robots and AI?

In the first week of the course we took part in a Film Festival, watching several short films and clips featuring cyborg, robot and AI characters (films linked at the bottom of this post). Our reading revolved around the idea of what it means for someone to be a cyborg, and how this links with Posthumanism.

Yul Brynner, The Gunslinger from Westworld

What struck me about the film festival was the almost universally negative image that the clips had of our technological friends and helpers. Synthetic (and part synthetic) entities were depicted as being either emotionless (and thereby likely to make hideously immoral decisions based on purely logical steps to achieve their set goals) or actively malevolent (displaying the worst traits of the humans who created them). It was all a bit “Black Mirror” (an excellent series. If you’ve not seen it then you should probably watch it immediately). The one that didn’t fit into this theme was Retrofit, which in the best traditions of Sci-Fi told us more about what it means to be a human in our time than it did about some high-concept, high tech future.

I went in search of examples of good, decent, helpful synthetics and part-synthetics from popular culture, to see if we could balance this out a bit. It also gives us the chance to see if these characters (and the “baddie” ones) can be fitted into any sort of framework and categorised. Part of my search was just wracking my brains, and part of it was pulled together by posting a question to Facebook and letting my splendid friends remind me of (or introduce me to) characters.  Unfortunately my experiments with trying to get Facebook posts to show on this blog with the comments in place have hit a brick wall, so I’ve collected the results and categorised some “white hat” characters here:

Luke Skywalker’s robot hand (example of a restorative cyborg)

Cyborgs

  • Cyborg from DC comics
  • Reprogrammed Terminator
  • Robocop
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Picard, LaForge, Bashir and 7 of 9 (various Star Trek series)
  • Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and the rest of the Autobots (Transformers) alien rather than human, but still a species bonded with machines
Chappie – “Don’t do crimes!”

Robots

  • Data (Star Trek)
  • Bishop (Aliens)
  • Baymax (Big Hero 6)
  • Johnny 5 (Short Circuit)
  • Chappie (Chappie)
  • Kryten (Red Dwarf)
  • C3P0 and R2D2 (Star Wars)
Holly – proof that incompetence trumps being evil

Artificial Intelligences

  • Holly/Hilly (Red Dwarf)
  • Emergency Medical Hologram Mark I (Star Trek Voyager)
  • Orak (Blake’s 7)
  • Jarvis (Ironman/Avengers)

 

 

Looking at our “White Hat” characters, several themes seem to stand out:

  1. Synthetics and Cyborgs who strive to be more like humans (7 of 9, Data, Baymax, Johnny 5, Chappie, Kryten, Emergency Medical Hologram)
  2. Synthetics who have incompetence built in for some reason (C3P0, Holly/Hilly)
  3. Synthetics and Cyborgs as tools or servants despite being better at what they do than their masters (Terminator, Robocop, Bishop, Jarvis, Orak, R2D2)
  4. Synthetics and Cyborgs as disposable for high risk situations such as combat (Terminator, Robocop, Bishop, Chappie)
  5. Cyborg parts not affecting how humans are treated (Picard, LaForge, Bashir, Cyborg from DC Comics, Luke Skywalker), and conversely human like characteristics of synthetics being ignored by most characters in the story (C3P0, R2D2, Orak, Jarvis).

I’m going to have a bit of a ponder on these and try to refine them a bit. I expect there are some other categories I could group them into, and that these categories could tell us something about our relationship with machines. There already seem to be some trends based roughly on the decade when the films were made (the 80’s in particular seem to have had a grim idea of the future).

The great thing about blogs is that I can go away and reconsider parts of it, make alterations based on reader comments, round up some references to back up ideas/add in ideas I come across in the reading. For instance I’ll almost certainly write something about the different types of cyborg discussed by Miller, (2011) “9. The Body and Information Technology” from Understanding digital culture. Perhaps it would be interesting to see if the types of cyborg are reflected differently in fiction (are Enhancement types usually villains or heroes?).

Film Festival Links

Booyah!

I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to this course, so I’ve been reading up on Cyborgs. I think so far Cyborg from Teen Titans GO! is probably my favourite characterisation. He has an array of cool robot parts, and a gritty back story, but despite those things he’s still very human. He makes mystery meatballs, loves 80’s TV, movies and music, and along with his best friend BeastBoy he generally has a great time cracking jokes and playing goofy games. Sort of the opposite of the whole grim, inhuman machine trope that we usually come across.