All posts tagged: media studies

What Will a Future with Androids Among Us Look Like?

What will it be like when we have robot assistants and companions, that we own, that are not human, and yet that activate all of our instinctive empathy toward humans? Shall we have to unlearn this empathy? Or will we account for that empathy by instinctively redefining humanity in terms of behavior without any sense of inner life? And what would that do to us? We live in a wondrous time, in which artificial intelligence is increasingly and impressively a part of our daily lives. As an informed observer, I expect that contemporary techniques will eventually yield humanoid robots that—in professional interactions, casual conversations, and even shallow romantic relationships—will seem persuasively human. That is, even if they do not look quite like us, their movements, appearance, and conversation will evoke from us all the empathy that a three-year-old can bestow on a motionless toy bear and that adults habitually reserve for fellow humans. What we see now is just the beginning. Concerning a future of pervasive and persuasive robots, we must ask two questions: What …

What Social Media Does to Time

Social media feeds present the myth of endless and therefore purposeless time. Twitter is a prime example. Picture the top of a Twitter feed where a new tweet appears, then the next, then the next. If you scroll down, you know what you will find: more tweets. What happens to all those tweets down below? They slip-slide away, into the past: down, down, down. Theoretically, they are all retrievable but with the passage of more and more time, they are each more and more covered over by the mist of movement. Where is the present on social media? It appears that the present is back up on the top of the feed, where new tweets come, passing for an instant as the present thing. That present thing will momentarily become a past thing as a new thing comes over the top. But imagine, if you will, not a single user’s Twitter feed but all Twitter feeds collapsed into one. How quickly does a tweet pass through the present? It is probably just about at the …

The Addictions of the Catholic Samizdat

Imagine a film so entertaining, so captivating that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes away from the movie. The viewer is paralyzed by the act of watching, losing all control of the will. The rest of life fades away as the viewer escapes from the workaday world into the phantasms that appear on the television screen. The creation of this seductive entertainment is central to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The film (also called “the Entertainment” or “samizdat”) anesthetizes each person who views it. The person is emptied of everything except an insatiable desire to watch the film. The film is but one form of addiction that Wallace highlights throughout the novel. But the movie is the key that unlocks Wallace’s diagnosis of a U.S.A. hooked on the pleasurable phantasms created by alcohol and drugs, by elite sports, by consumerism and the entertainment industry. “The Entertainment” is a parabolic literary device expressing our love of pleasure and self. As Rémy Marathe, a member of the Wheelchair Assassins, says about the samizdat: These facts of …

The Vast Re-Education Program of the Superbowl Ads

The zeitgeist of any new year can often be distilled by observing the snapshots of commodity culture that Super Bowl ads provide. A cursory survey of this year’s Super Bowl ad lineup includes the usual suspects. We like movies. We like cars. We like movies about cars. We like feeling safe. We like movies about not feeling safe. We like beer. Minus the corn syrup. This read is not wholly inaccurate but it is superficial. It assumes that the content of the ads is merely projecting our cultural interests and desires right back at us. But that is never the whole story. As Marshall McLuhan liked to put it, the content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat that the burglar offers the guard dog before ransacking the house. What are we missing by focusing on the products and gags that the advertisers serve up? We are missing something profound about the medium itself. Or in the case of the late television era, we are missing something profound about the tectonic shift from …

After Failing the Covington Catholic Test

Like many others, I failed the Covington Catholic test. I let myself be manipulated (apparently at the hands of anonymous internet bots operating with precise coordination to unleash maximum mayhem) by the original video and castigated these boys without pausing to think about whether there might be more to the story. I was all ready to pitch an op-ed calling out the March for Life’s cozying up the “Make America Great Again” crowd—when, much to my surprise, more videos were released that caused me to revisit what I thought I had just seen. These boys, though not 100% innocent, were far from the villains in the affair. The rush to publicly ruin their lives, and even threaten their school with violence, was absolutely sickening. But even in the face of direct evidence to the contrary, many simply could not let go of the original narrative and went looking for more evidence in support of it. They were partially successful. In response to a Native American’s claim that whites stole their land, a boy who attended the March …

Classroom Technology as the End of Education

As recently as half a decade ago, popular opinion regarded educational technology as a panacea for struggling schools and the key to reimagining American education. The New York Times was feting Khan Academy and the Washington Post continually lauded the possibilities afforded by “ed tech.”[1] In 2013, Google Classroom was still in its infancy, and the “flipped classroom” was more a novelty than a widespread practice.[2] Just a few years later, the educational cognoscenti are less certain. Pundits warn against indiscriminate adoption, and anxieties over excessive “screen time” have grown.[3] Many have become wary of the cultural and economic dominance of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like, especially in the education sector.[4] The fact that many tech executives send their children to tech-free schools alone should give us pause.[5] Yet most of these cautions are issued from a neurological, positivist-psychological, or otherwise materialist standpoint and retain the same criteria under which educational technology was applauded in the first place. We are told to be careful about the amount of technology in the classroom because it …

Reading the News as a Spiritual Exercise

We know there is a problem with the way we disseminate, consume, and respond to the news. We also generally share some sense of where the problem lies. It has something to do with a complex interaction of factors like the structure of digital media, the industries that support those technologies, and our cultural, economic, and political climate. Somehow those factors both foster and are fostered by trends such as narrowing echo chambers, a fractured accountability to diverse publics, comments that fail to respect and engage others, decreasing attention spans, and the exhaustion and despair that fester before the parade of emergencies that counts our days and disciplines our emotions like a liturgical calendar. Something is wrong with how we pursue the truth together in a digital society. Reasonable suggestions for how to address this problem generally come in two flavors. The first approach emphasizes the structure of our news technologies and the corporations that develop and profit from them. We must fix Google, Facebook, and Twitter through legislation and consumer pressure. The second approach …

Robots Without Families: On Identity and Organic Continuity

When Pascal constructed his calculating machine in 1642, it did not matter that the thing looked like a jewelry box. The “Pascaline” was not meant to simulate human appearance but to perform a function previously possible only for the human mind. In contrast, it matters very much to some present-day robot-makers and users in rather different commercial spheres, such as markets for artificial friends or lovers, that their creations can simulate the look and feel of a human being well enough to satisfy a customer—for a few moments at least. Engineers are working to make robots sufficiently lifelike to make a person forget about their willing suspension of disbelief, or to have diminished qualms about interacting with a machine as if it were a human. Here I would like to provide some taxonomic distinctions to clarify our discussion. The difference between Pascal’s invention and the goal of these robot-makers reflects the difference between what I would call computational artificial intelligence vs. complete artificial intelligence. The Pascaline, and computers in general, could rightly be called a …

Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation

“Avita contemplativa without acting is blind, a vita activa without contemplation is empty,” writes the rising star of the German philosophical scene in his book The Scent of Time. Byung-Chul Han draws a nuanced account of “lingering with God in loving attentiveness” as a spur to action from the writings of Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. He then defends the mystical tradition from his own spiritual master, Martin Heidegger.[1] The late Heidegger began to turn his philosophical attention to the path of contemplation, but it is at the heart of Han’s project from the start. He shows us how contemplation creates the time and space for meaningful action in a breathless, frantic, and networked modern society. Han’s next book, The Burnout Society, was a smash hit in Germany and his native South Korea that will soon be translated into 13 other languages. Unexpectedly, a meditation on the importance of contemplation, including prayerful contemplation, now animates debates about the future of the global Left,[2] the legacy of Foucault, and the direction of contemporary …

The Patron Saint of Media Studies

When WIRED magazine christened the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan its “patron saint” on the original masthead in 1992, it seemed like a fitting honor. After all, the new tech culture magazine was the self-proclaimed authority on where the world was headed in the digital age. So tagging McLuhan, the late English professor turned media philosopher, added some prophetic pomp. His popular slogans like “the medium is the message” sounded like Zen koans written by an ad man, perfect for a Silicon Valley culture fixated on spreading the gospel of techno-utopianism. Here is something you will not find in WIRED magazine: “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”[1] A theological take on “the medium is the message.” This is also McLuhan. Whether McLuhan coined his famous phrase while looking at a television or a crucifix is of little importance. What is interesting is how McLuhan applied …