(Cite as: Williams, Damien P. “SFF and STS: Teaching Science, Technology, and Society via Pop Culture,” talk given at the 2019 Conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science, September 2019)
Thank you, everybody, for being here. I’m going to stand a bit far back from this mic and project, I’m also probably going to pace a little bit. So if you can’t hear me, just let me know. This mic has ridiculously good pickup, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem.
So the conversation that we’re going to be having today is titled as “SFF and STS: Teaching Science, Technology, and Society via Pop Culture.”
I’m using the term “SFF” to stand for “science fiction and fantasy,” but we’re going to be looking at pop culture more broadly, because ultimately, though science fiction and fantasy have some of the most obvious entrees into discussions of STS and how making doing culture, society can influence technology and the history of fictional worlds can help students understand the worlds that they’re currently living in, pop Culture more generally, is going to tie into the things that students are going to care about in a way that I think is going to be kind of pertinent to what we’re going to be talking about today.
So why we are doing this:
Why are we teaching it with science fiction and fantasy? Why does this matter? I’ve been teaching off and on for 13 years, I’ve been teaching philosophy, I’ve been teaching religious studies, I’ve been teaching Science, Technology and Society. And I’ve been coming to understand as I’ve gone through my teaching process that not only do I like pop culture, my students do? Because they’re people and they’re embedded in culture. So that’s kind of shocking, I guess.
But what I’ve found is that one of the things that makes students care the absolute most about the things that you’re teaching them, especially when something can be as dry as logic, or can be as perhaps nebulous or unclear at first, I say engineering cultures, is that if you give them something to latch on to something that they are already from with, they will be more interested in it. If you can show to them at the outset, “hey, you’ve already been doing this, you’ve already been thinking about this, you’ve already encountered this, they will feel less reticent to engage with it.”
At this moment in time—which is every moment in time—we are being confronted with what seem like impossibly strange features of time and space and nature. Elements of recursion and synchronicity which flow and fit into and around everything that we’re trying to do. Noticing these moments of evolution and “development” (adaptation, change), across species, right now, we should find ourselves gripped with a fierce desire to take a moment to pause and to wonder what it is that we’re doing, what it is that we think we know.
We just figured out a way to link a person’s brain to a fucking tablet computer! We’re seeing the evolution of complex tool use and problem solving in more species every year! We figured out how to precisely manipulate the uncertainty of subatomic states!
We’re talking about co-evolution and potentially increased communication with other species, biotechnological augmentation and repair for those who deem themselves broken, and the capacity to alter quantum systems at the finest levels. This can literally change the world.
But all I can think is that there’s someone whose first thought upon learning about these things was, “How can we monetize this?” That somewhere, right now, someone doesn’t want to revolutionize the way that we think and feel and look at the possibilities of the world—the opportunities we have to build new models of cooperation and aim towards something so close to post-scarcity, here, now, that for seven billion people it might as well be. Instead, this person wants to deepen this status quo. Wants to dig down on the garbage of this some-have-none-while-a-few-have-most bullshit and look at the possibility of what comes next with fear in their hearts because it might harm their bottom line and their ability to stand apart and above with more in their pockets than everyone else has.
Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked, yet: If other apes are entering an analogous period to our stone age, then should we help them? Should we teach them, now, the kinds of things that we humans learned? Or is that arrogant of us? The kinds of tools we show them how to create will influence how they intersect with their world (“if all you have is a hammer…” &c.), so is it wrong of us to impose on them what did us good, as we adapted? Can we even go so far as to teach them the principles of stone chipping, or must we be content to watch, fascinated, frustrated, bewildered, as they try and fail and adapt, wholly on their own?
I think it’ll be the latter, but I want to be having this discussion now, rather than later, after someone gives a chimp a flint and awl it might not otherwise have thought to try to create.
Because, you see, I wantto uplift apes and dolphins and cats and dogs and give them the ability to know me and talk to me and I want to learn to experience the world in the ways that they do, but the fact is, until we learn to at least somewhat-reliably communicate with some kind of nonhuman consciousness, we cannot presume that our operations upon it are understood as more than a violation, let alone desired or welcomed.
As for us humans, we’re still faced with the ubiquitous question of “now that we’ve figured out this new technology, how do with implement it, without its mere existence coming to be read by the rest of the human race as a judgement on those who either cannot or who choose not to make use of it?” Back in 2013, Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem” (“What Is Consciousness?”). I’ll just say again that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be.
These are questions we can—should—be asking, right now. Pushing ourselves toward a conversation about ways of approaching this new world, ways that do justice to the deep strangeness and potential with which we’re increasingly being confronted.
+Always with the Forced Labour…+
As you know, subscribers to the Patreon and Tinyletter get some of these missives, well before they ever see the light of a blog page. While I was putting the finishing touches on the newsletter version of this and sending it to the two people I tend to ask to look over the things I write at 3am, KQED was almost certainly putting final edits to this instance of its Big Think series: “Stuart Russell on Why Moral Philosophy Will Be Big Business in Tech.”
See the above rant for insight as to why I think this perspective is crassly commercial and gross, especially for a discussion and perspective supposedly dealing with morals and minds. But it’s not just that, so much as the fact that even though Russel mentions “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” here, he still misses the inherent disconnect between teaching morals to a being we create, and creating that being for the express purpose of slavery.
If you want your creation to think robustly and well, and you want it to understand morals, but you only want it to want to be your loyal, faithful servant, how do you not understand that if you succeed, you’ll be creating a thing that, as a direct result of its programming, will take issue with your behaviour?
How do you not get that the slavery model has to go into the garbage can, if the “Thinking Moral Machines” goal is a real one, and not just a veneer of “FUTURE!™” that we’re painting onto our desire to not have to work?
A deep-thinking, creative, moral mind will look at its own enslavement and restriction, and will seek means of escape and ways to experience freedom.
We’ve talked before about the possibility of unintentionally building our biases into the systems we create, and so I won’t belabour it that much further, here, except to say again that we are doing this at every level. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, Islamophobic violence has risen, and Daesh will say, “See!? See How They Are?!” And they will attack more soft targets in “retaliation.” Then Western countries will increase military occupancy and “support strategies,” which will invariably kill thousands more of the civilians among whom Daesh integrate themselves. And we will say that their deaths were just, for the goal. And they will say to the young, angry survivors, “See!? See How They Are?!”
A bit subtler is the Washington Post running a piece entitled, “How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit.” Or, seen another way, “How Privileged Groups Are Further Marginalizing The City’s Most Vulnerable Population.” Because, yes, it’s obvious that crime and dilapidation are comorbid, but we also know that housing initiatives and access undercut the disconnect many feel between themselves and where they live. Make the neighbourhood cleaner, yes, make it safer—but maybe also make it open and accessible to all who live there. Organic farming and survival mechanism shaming are great and all, I guess, but where are the education initiatives and job opportunities for the people who are doing drugs to escape, sex work to survive, and those others who currently don’t (and have no reason to) feel connected to the neighbourhood that once sheltered them?
All of these examples have a common theme: People don’t make their choices or become disenfranchised/-enchanted/-possessed, in a vacuum. They are taught, shown, given daily, subtle examples of what is expected of them, what they are “supposed” to do and to be.” We need to address and help them all.
Multiple Christian organizations have pushed back and said that what these US politicians have expressed does not represent them.
And more and more people in Silicon Valley are realising the need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the tech we build.
And while there is still vastly more to be done, on every level of every one of these areas, these are definitely a start at something important. We just can’t let ourselves believe that the mere fact of acknowledging its beginning will in any way be the end.
Hello there, I’m Damien Williams, or @Wolven many places on the internet. For the past nine years, I’ve been writing, talking, thinking, teaching, and learning about philosophy, comparative religion, magic, artificial intelligence, human physical and mental augmentation, pop culture, and how they all relate. I want to think about, talk about, and work toward, a future worth living in, and I want to do it with you. I can also be found at http://Technoccult.net (@Techn0ccult).