09 January 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we apes in a technological jungle? + News

Essay + news

Dear friends,

If it wasn’t for the PC in front of you, you wouldn’t be able to read this essay. Or maybe because of the PC in front of you that you cannot read this essay. The question we will be discussing this Sunday is indeed: are we apes in a technological jungle?

And because we are lucky to have access to technology I am able to convey the following news items which were brought to my attention.

- Present Conflict between Israel and the Palestinians-
Kim tells me that there is a demonstration this Sunday, at twelve noon, Puerta del Sol, in support of the Palestinians. And from Richard and Asu

From Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: http://www.ffipp.org/news_blog
On the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza

December 30, 2008
The present Israeli devastation of Gaza is the culmination of years of
a suffocating siege: together they sow death and suffering to an
appalling, insufferable extent. Israeli policy, having already provoked
a vicious cycle of attacks, retaliation, and counter-attacks by Hamas,
now has escalated. Current military action includes the direct shelling
of the Islamic University in Gaza. Israeli bombers have destroyed the
main laboratory buildings and damaged six other buildings, including
the library, lecture halls and the student cafeteria.
As academics, students, and intellectuals, we condemn the Israeli
attack on the Islamic University and call for an immediate cessation of
all military and violent actions by both sides. We demand an end to the
siege on the Gaza strip and full protection and guarantee of the
freedom of education.

Please spread wide and far.
Sign Petition http://www.ffipp.org/civicrm/profile/create?reset=1&gid=4

- The Hakani video -www.hakani.org
Edwin kindly tracked down the original version and web site of the video I mentioned last Sunday which shows the burial of live children in the Amazon by members of their tribe. They do this for many reasons, to keep the population down or simply because nobody wants to care for these children. The video is quite disturbing, but personally I don’t feel that parts of the video were made to objective journalistic standards. I am of course not saying that the plight of these children is not real nor that the video is fake or not; technically/journalistically I feel it leaves a lot to be desired. See for yourselves and decide. The site itself is very interesting.

Take care and see you Sunday



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Are we apes in a technological jungle?

How should we understand this question that is clearly steeped in metaphor? Today’s conventional use of jungle means that we are more likely to interpret this question in the negative sense than in a positive way. But if philosophy is about questioning and clarifying the meaning of propositions, and questions, than this question needs some further clarification.

The metaphorical meaning/interpretation of jungle is that of struggle, disorder, lawlessness and maybe even chaos. But we probably we owe this meaning to the fertile imagination of philosophers and social commentators of centuries gone by. We certainly did not come across this idea or meaning of jungle by making an objective analysis of jungles and life systems that inhabit jungles.

Apart from this rather subjective meaning of jungle we have inherited, we are also at a disadvantage because very few of us have any real experience of what it like to live and function in a jungle. Packaged tours to some six star holiday complex in the periphery of the Amazon or Borneo does not count as life in a jungle. Moreover, very few people will have the opportunity to experience life in a jungle because homo-sapiens and not apes nor primates are fast destroying these important parts of the world.

What is important for us is that meaning and interpretation of words, concepts and metaphor can be biased if not misleading. I hope to show later on how and why meaning and interpretation can lead to bias.

Given today’s meaning of this question we would be compelled, but maybe not obliged, to, interpret the question to something like this: we are inundated with technological devices and gadgets today that many of us seem primitive and unsophisticated creatures when having to use this technology. We may even go on and add that there is so much technology around us that we seem to be helpless and beholden to the whims of this technology. Maybe some are, but are we really primitive and helpless creatures the same way apes seem to be helpless and primitive in their jungle?

We can also agree that today technology influences and affects every aspect of our lives especially in western countries and modern cities. In fact, there has been a consistent effort these past few decades to replace humans with some sort of machine. In the past we had ticket collectors to check our tickets at underground (metro) stations. Today, in some cities, we have ticket barriers to check our tickets and let us through. Many times they work but they have an incredible knack of breaking down during rush hour. Some societies just trust their travelling public to take responsibility and buy a ticket.

It is also true that we seem to require some sort of complex knowledge and psychological skills to use certain technologies to perform day to day basic functions. Print a document, wash clothes, get to our money and make a telephone call. It is not enough to make a telephone call, but we can include a picture, send an sms or an email and even hold a conference call with all out friends and colleagues wherever that may happen to be. Assuming of course we can get our finger on the right button given that these things seem to have been designed to be used by sparrows and not descendents of apes and primates.

It is not enough that technology seems to fail during the wrong moment, just when we’re late to get to the appointment or office, but failing technology can have very serious consequences. Never mind, nuclear power stations blowing up and radiating half a continent for centuries, think of what happens when batteries give up the ghost just when you are about to conclude the deal of your life, or at least charm the love of your life. In my case, when the battery of my PDA gave up the ghost my writing production went down enormously. Using old technology with new technology can also be inefficient, inconvenient and even incompatible; I mean, I like writing using a fountain pen and paper but this also means double effort and not very practical in certain situations such as a crowded train carriage.

Technology does seem to have its down side and certainly its limitations as the question seems to imply. But surely failure is part of the system in the same way that we fail sometimes. Of course, none of this makes us feel better or safer, in fact it just makes us more stressed and probably angry as well. Just because things happen it does not mean that we don’t have to be cheesed off. I strongly believe that the more sophisticated (and expensive) the system is, the more we are entitled to be cheesed off if it fails.

But even given what I have written so far, I am still drawn to ask the question: is this a question about technology or is it a question about the limitations of metaphor and language? I promised I will consider bias in metaphor. In fact I will try and go one step further and show how metaphor, at least in our question, is limiting if not misleading.

By using the word ape are we suggesting that we are primitive unintelligent creatures, maybe even aggressive and barbaric? Of course, to begin with apes don’t have the same moral systems we seem to have developed. And in any case, apes have evolved to survive in their environment as we have done in ours. Apes in their environment are of course quite intelligent.

And if we accept that apes (primates) and us have common ancestors, then surely you must also agree that this side of the family is not doing very badly. Of course, apes do not go to our extremes of spending huge amounts of money on sports cars simply to attract a possible mate. But then again, buying a sports car to influence the heart of your love is much better than having to beat up her (or his) boyfriend (girlfriend) to make the point. Apes do it there way, we do it our way.

But where this metaphor fails is in the assumption that an ape’s jungle and our technological jungle have the same status or rather are qualitatively the same. Both today’s apes and our ancestors found their jungle ready made and took from it what they could and what they wanted. And when the jungle stopped meeting the needs of the these apes, some of them moved on and evolved into presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, managers and philosophers. The rest started creating the tools and inventing the technology to make some of these people powerful and or influential. “Plus ca change, plus ce la meme chose.” OK, maybe not philosophers although some never lost the knack to hang on to things.

However, our technological jungle is the product of our own inventions and creations. Our technology is there because we, as humans, built it and developed it and not because we found it there. Or as the tycoon would say to his accountant, “I built this empire from nothing.” The big difference between apes and us is that apes take things from their jungle whereas we have created a technological jungle to exploit the environment around us. Including the apes and their jungle.

I have already hinted at some of the shortcomings of technology, but what are the philosophical implications in our context?

The first philosophical issue is surely one of epistemology. Technology is the product of our epistemological development. Our ability to learn and apply our knowledge, and to build tools to solve problems we encounter in our environment, is testament of how important epistemology is for us.

Despite the flaws and weaknesses of technology, technology is still a marvel of human ability to be able to consistently and reliably exploit our environment to meet our needs. But what are the consequences of being able to invent and build this technology?

Although apes in a jungle may, with some effort, destroy a complete troop of competing apes what they cannot do is wipe out a whole species of other creatures or animals. They might destroy and damage trees in their path, what they cannot do is spray defoliant or pesticides in their jungle or denude their neighbourhood of all virgin jungle. However, human beings are doing this at this very moment as I write and you read this essay. And we’re doing this as a consequence of our efficient and effective technology. It seems that the imperative that necessity is the mother of invention, has turned into invention is the grandmother of all destruction.

I therefore propose that technology has introduced some sort of obligation on us on how we use this technology. Furthermore, this obligation also means that we have to choose what technology to build and develop. But even if we choose the technology that creates the most good for society this strategy is not free from controversy. I only draw your attention to the academic debate in economics of whether Britain should have chosen guns instead of ploughs on the eve of the second world war.

A third philosophical issue I would consider is having access and opportunity to use and owe this technology. If technology gives us an edge in the survival game, it also makes us more dependent on it for our survival. Hence, if we need technology to survive as a species and as individuals, what are the implications regarding the owning and access to technology?

We can start with the original philosophical issue of ownership and property rights to the more complex modern issues of what is the most equitable patent system we can devise. We are all familiar with the problems here so I won’t go into any details. But to illustrate my point let me try and give this example. I would say that today anyone living in a western country fully depends on technology simply to go to work. And those who say they walk to work or cycle to work it still involves technology. Bicycle tyres are still the product of technology, shoes are still the product of technology.

And having access to technology either from choice or necessity involves us into some complex ethical issues. When we import from developing countries technology which our lives depend on does this represent shared economic opportunities or the use of cheap labour? Are we paying a fair market price when we buy hi-tech items from China or Vietnam and are the Chinese and Vietnamese selling us ethical goods when they under cut everyone else by simply paying cheap wages. It is ironic that when we demand goods from these countries we demand the highest quality standards we are accustomed to but when it comes to paying labour costs we are happy with the local mediocre standards. And to confound the issue some of the technology we do import from these countries does create good and utility to those who can afford it. And if it wasn’t for the enterprise of some individuals amongst us we wouldn’t have these incredible conveniences in the first place, one of which is of course the PC you and I are using.

However, access to technology brings us back to epistemology. Used properly, technology can be quite useful, but it also means that we have a constant learning curve. Every time new technology is introduced it also means that we have to learn how to use this new technology. Without revealing my age and yours we have progressed from ball pens and pencils, to type writers, the Sinclair Spectrum, Amstrad, DOS, Windows 3, McIntosh System 7, Windows XT, PDA, Vista, the Blackberry and so on. While most of these technologies did not deliver nirvana, they certainly delivered enough learning curves.

Finally, irrespective of what I have said so far, the metaphor of technological jungle is quite apt. After all we did evolve from ancestors that were once dependent on a jungle. Bill Bryson, in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, refers to studies which seem to indicate that it was not so much as the apes coming down from the trees to conquer the world, but that the trees were taken away from underneath them when weather patterns changes the eco system in Africa.

Not only did our ancestors have to face the first epistemological shock, necessity is the mother of invention, but it seems they had no real choice in the matter. The fact that most of us have to get up at seven in the morning to go to work suggests that our ancestors had no alternative either.

Even if we put aside the metaphor, it seems that we have to surround ourselves with a jungle or be surrounded by a jungle. So we have created the technology jungle. But could there be more to technology than simply a tool to achieve a goal?

Could there be a more one-to-one relationship between our evolution, which suggests adaptation to our environment, and the progress of our technological development? In my essay “The impact of technology on us” I argued that technology is a physical extension of us, that is a physical extension of our physical body. Snakes developed fangs and venom, we developed arrows and pesticides. Elephants developed strong trucks we developed the bulldozer. What is the difference as far adaptation to our environment is concerned? Don’t forget our epistemological heritage is much more powerful than what the snake and elephant can muster.

However, it seems to me that what really makes apes and us different is that apes seem to be happy with only a jungle whereas we seem to be partial to both a jungle and technology. As I said earlier a sports car certainly gives us the edge in style. Personally I am not that much bothered whether we live in a tree jungle or a technology jungle, that is as long as I have access to the internet to communicate with you.

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Are we apes in a technological jungle? + News

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