teaching the machine

There’s this peculiar video that’s on YouTube at the moment, an excellent example of contemporary pedagogy in many ways, called ‘The machine is Us/ing Us’. It’s gathered nearly 2 million hits and since it’s only about 4 minutes long, probably most of those people have watched it. There’s a beautifully slick feel to the way the video performs itself. It’s about the ‘Web 2.0’ (the new ‘social web’) and it makes use of the text inputs we make on the ‘net all the time to mix and edit between them, presenting its ideas as the video progresses.

The main thesis seems quite basic, though one that needs to be kept in mind perhaps, and that is that the new forms of communication are not, in fact, communication but connection. They do not allow the easier flow of some pre-existing material but in fact constitute new material, new connections and new flows (even though they also might allow the easier flow of existing material). It seems reasonably positive, reasonably human, reasonably thoughtful. In effect I agree with what Michael Wesch says (the maker of the video and assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas Sate University). I also applaud his skill and ability to produce this piece. There was, however (of course there’ll be a ‘however’ ;-) one phrase that occurred that stuck in my mind and which seemed, how shall I say it, strange. It seemed, at the very least, strange.

This phrase was precisely ‘teaching the machine’. Aside from the fact that this assumes the machine can learn it also makes me consider who is the machine? The hint, from the title of the video, is that the machine is somehow ‘out there’ (the society of control in one of its manifestations perhaps) and we are its food, we are its means of sustenance. I was chatting to someone the other day about this, suggesting that in fact the wonders of Web2.0, the whole ‘social web’ meme, is in fact a mistaken perception of the reality which is that the web is becoming a living machine that needs food (clicks) provided by a set of organic creatures (humans) who are nothing more than the food for the beast. The web eats us, eats into us and eats away at us. It’s corrosive connectionpower is in fact a way of disconnecting face-to-face and reconnecting word-to-word, image-to-image, code-to-code. The peculiar power of the face, as Levinas might describe it for example, in offering us an ethical Other, a lived-other, is being displaced and eaten away.

Of course this is nothing more than an apocalyptic thought-experiment. There’s no reason to hold this dynamic as dominant over the more positive hued dynamic usually surrounding the ‘social web’ meme.

One other thought, though, arose from watching the video, which is that the machine that’s being taught is plainly not a PC somewhere, even a network, but instead it’s the machine that is the organic flesh connection, it’s us. In this sense the machine is precisely ‘Us’, whoever this ‘Us’ is. All of this, of course, is hinted at in the ‘slashed’ title of the piece, The machine is Us/ing Us. So far, so trivial then, perhaps. What, I suppose, was the strange thought – and this is nothing more than a question at the moment – is if we are the machine, if it is an Us, then where are they who are no longer the machine, where are Them? And do I want to join Them?

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

4 Responses

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  1. Matt Astill
    Matt Astill at |

    For some reason the University computers won’t stream videos, and since I’m now living over the road and don’t have a computer, I’ll have to admit defeat in being able to watch.

    As you know I think that our ‘connection to’ and ‘use of’ technology are fundamentally uncritical – the inanity of clicking to feed the beast is a good example of this.

    You write: “Of course this is nothing more than an apocalyptic thought-experiment. There’s no reason to hold this dynamic as dominant over the more positive hued dynamic usually surrounding the ’social web’ meme.”

    The way in which the face-to-face series is disconnected and other series are connected raises in me the suspicion that the ease of flow is guaranteed by whatever most belongs to the current form of common sense – that the selection of these series as lines of least resistance (user-friendlyness, more clicks, more ‘participation’) is a straightforward fascism.

    This said, the new material that is created can be considered increases of power (puissance), and the academic view you indicate should go as far as it can, and we should go as far as we can, in the direction of finding these connections interesting. But I’d like to say this is analogous (!) to the image of the man beating the dog, where there is a real virtue of action involved in the raising and lowering of the arm, and yet an obvious moral content that we go against in affirming this. But what of a world of people beating dogs?

    I want to suggest, therefore, to read your comment: “Of course this is nothing more than an apocalyptic thought-experiment. There’s no reason to hold this dynamic as dominant over the more positive hued dynamic usually surrounding the ’social web’ meme.” As a kind of ethical vs moral position. As is my wont these days it seems.

  2. Metaphilly
    Metaphilly at |

    I must admit I watched the film, then read both comments then watched the film again. I got the Mary Shelly feeling, which in many ways it pure myth making, myths being that which resembles nature in some way but is far enough removed to allow us to ponder on it – more like a fable I suppose – the cautious warn us – go slowly, don’t be in such a hurry (or maybe that was just my mother). The moral of the story is that there is no morality, ethically speaking there is only governance, and the ethics that governs governance is governance. Are we born free and giving rights or are we born into serfdom and obtain rights – it’s an old question – who decides the answer is the answer. Maybe at best we are given the illusion that we can change things, the duality of them/us is lubricated, the KY slips from our fingers – it only makes us more slippery – then it only makes them more slippery. We look over our shoulders, a single bead of sweat falls from our brow – we ask, plead – who is the machine – is it our fault, my fault – should I have done something, is there something to be done? It is easy, maybe, for me, to say that morality is a myth, one that in the twisted, dark cavern lives only Nietzsche – the will to power – slashing at those that want more than a material world, full of god knows what and ready at any moment to take away any power you may feel you have – crushing your will with the myths that only warn. But then what?
    If Blair decides to take the line, moving those oh so honest hands, the windmill that grinds away at your freedom, ‘there is no morality’, of course the music is now “who’s zooming who” as against “things are only going to get better” – he continues, some say even his eyes lie – but if you watch them – they don’t, there is no soul but many windows – ‘God is Dead!’ – ‘I am God’ – ‘Long live the God’ – now it is he that sweats – ‘the only conspiracy is that there is not conspiracy’, he gives a nervous laugh, one arm manages to do a full circle – ‘there is no machine – no them and us – there only is – IS!’ – one reporter suggests Blair must have been reading Heidegger. Yet, no morality, ethics as governance, what does it all mean, what is the meaning – socialization, who was that masked crusader? We are then the machine – the questioning machine (strange how my mother’s comments are bleeding into this text) – ‘who’, ‘what; and ‘when’ – we are frozen by fear – running for our very lives – keep moving, then they will not get you – if you gonna be a target, best to be a moving one. The story unfolds, as with time, maybe, at some point the questions that have been launched into meta-space, come back, generally whilst enjoying a nice cup of tea – morality vs ethics – something vs nothing – time vs space – intelligence vs passion – rich tea vs jaffa cakes! Then it starts all over again –no one person wins and no one person loses – the machine is lubricated – with clicks – it too becomes slippery – the poor die young – the rich die fat – or visa versa; until the end – no more lubrication, stillness, nothingness – then we will not look over our shoulders, we will not ask why – then will be the time to really worry about “who’s zooming who”.

  3. Metaphilly
    Metaphilly at |

    I agree we are complex, so complex that we don’t, after thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, understand ourselves completely, this in my mind seems to be because of the type of synthesis that creates materials like the mind, that then create ideas, which merge with emotions and visa versa; thus create contradictory notions that have yet to be fully comprehended. Ethics, although to study, for me, is not that interesting, however in the lived experience I am troubled by it most days, the whole nature / nurture bit – even this morning I wanted to do violence on someone that was being ignorant on the train, it really gets to me, but the conflict in this case is internal, caused by the external – the rude man – and possible because not only the socialization that has informed me of accepted behaviour, the sub cultures that I have been influenced by and my own processing, but also that of silent biological factors. However, as I think Freud suggested, the one thing that you cannot run away from is yourself, I would add that we can’t undo, completely, all that socialization, thus even the hermits, in their little, cold caves still deal with the ethical concerns, even if it is just their own. It is a strange notion that we have not only the them and us, but also the me and me, the battles within ourselves, I don’t think the Super Ego notion really hangs together the fact that at some point ideas taken from without merge with the within – when does a idea become my own – is it only my ideas that I can claim to be mine – have I really had a private idea, against the public language of Wittgenstein – the question is then how do you stop, what will stop, and right up to the very end, how could we really dictate how we will be in the very next five minutes. I have always liked the idea of the hermit on top of the mountain – then – some years ago I wondered what if near the time of death I really regretted doing it…

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