(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.”
(Cite as: Williams, Damien P. ‘”Any Sufficiently Advanced Neglect is Indistinguishable from Malice”: Assumptions and Bias in Algorithmic Systems;’ talk given at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology; May 2019)
Now, I’ve got a chapter coming out about this, soon, which I can provide as a preprint draft if you ask, and can be cited as “Constructing Situated and Social Knowledge: Ethical, Sociological, and Phenomenological Factors in Technological Design,” appearing in Philosophy And Engineering: Reimagining Technology And Social Progress. Guru Madhavan, Zachary Pirtle, and David Tomblin, eds. Forthcoming from Springer, 2019. But I wanted to get the words I said in this talk up onto some platforms where people can read them, as soon as possible, for a couple of reasons.
[Free vector image of a white, female-presenting person, from head to torso, with biometric facial recognition patterns on her face; incidentally, go try finding images—even illustrations—of a non-white person in a facial recognition context.]
All these things taken together are what made me finally go ahead and get the transcript of that talk done, and posted, because these are events and policy decisions about which I a) have been speaking and writing for years, and b) have specific inputs and recommendations about, and which are, c) frankly wrongheaded, and outright hateful.
And I want to spend time on it because I think what doesn’t get through in many of our discussions is that it’s not just about how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, or Algorithmic instances get trained, but the processes for how and the cultural environments in which HUMANS are increasingly taught/shown/environmentally encouraged/socialized to think is the “right way” to build and train said systems.
That includes classes and instruction, it includes the institutional culture of the companies, it includes the policy landscape in which decisions about funding and get made, because that drives how people have to talk and write and think about the work they’re doing, and that constrains what they will even attempt to do or even understand.
All of this is cumulative, accreting into institutional epistemologies of algorithm creation. It is a structural and institutional problem.
As you already know, we went to the second Juvet A.I. Retreat, back in September. If you want to hear several of us talk about what we got up to at the then you’re in luck because here are several conversations conducted by Ben Byford of the Machine Ethics Podcast.
I am deeply grateful to Ben Byford for asking me to sit down and talk about this with him. I talk a great deal, and am surprisingly able to (cogently?) get on almost all of my bullshit—technology and magic and the occult, nonhuman personhood, the sham of gender and race and other social constructions of expected lived categories, the invisible architecture of bias, neurodiversity, and philosophy of mind—in a rather short window of time.
I led them through with questions like “What do you take phenomenology to mean?” and “what do you think of the possibility of a machine having a phenomenology of its own?” We discussed different definitions of “language” and “communication” and “body,” and unfortunately didn’t have a conversation about how certain definitions of those terms mean that what would be considered language between cats would be a cat communicating via signalling to humans.
It was a really great conversation and the Live Stream video for this is here, and linked below (for now, but it may go away at some point, to be replaced by a static youtube link; when I know that that’s happened, I will update links and embeds, here).
Earlier this month I was honoured to have the opportunity to sit and talk to Douglas Rushkoff on his TEAM HUMAN podcast. If you know me at all, you know this isn’t by any means the only team for which I play, or even the only way I think about the construction of our “teams,” and that comes up in our conversation. We talk a great deal about algorithms, bias, machine consciousness, culture, values, language, and magick, and the ways in which the nature of our categories deeply affect how we treat each other, human and nonhuman alike. It was an absolutely fantastic time.
From the page:
In this episode, Williams and Rushkoff look at the embedded biases of technology and the values programed into our mediated lives. How has a conception of technology as “objective” blurred our vision to the biases normalized within these systems? What ethical interrogation might we apply to such technology? And finally, how might alternative modes of thinking, such as magick, the occult, and the spiritual help us to bracket off these systems for pause and critical reflection? This conversation serves as a call to vigilance against runaway systems and the prejudices they amplify.
As I put it in the conversation: “Our best interests are at best incidental to [capitalist systems] because they will keep us alive long enough to for us to buy more things from them.” Following from that is the fact that we build algorithmic systems out of those capitalistic principles, and when you iterate out from there—considering all attendant inequalities of these systems on the merely human scale—we’re in deep trouble, fast.
Check out the rest of this conversation to get a fuller understanding of how it all ties in with language and the occult. It’s a pretty great ride, and I hope you enjoy it.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation withDavid McRaney of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, for his episode on Machine Bias. As he says on the blog:
Now that algorithms are everywhere, helping us to both run and make sense of the world, a strange question has emerged among artificial intelligence researchers: When is it ok to predict the future based on the past? When is it ok to be biased?
“I want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what tumors looked like in the past, and I want it to become biased toward selecting those kind of tumors in the future,” explains philosopher Shannon Vallor at Santa Clara University. “But I don’t want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what successful engineers and doctors looked like in the past and then become biased toward selecting those kinds of people when sorting and ranking resumes.”
We talk about this, sentencing algorithms, the notion of how to raise and teach our digital offspring, and more. You can listen to all it here:
My second talk for the SRI International Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series was about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male. I don’t have a transcript, yet, and I’ll update it when I make one. But for now, here are my slides and some thoughts.
A zero-sum system is one in which there are finite resources, but more than that, it is one in which what one side gains, another loses. So by “A non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions” I mean a combination of all of our needs and wants and resources in such a way that everyone wins. Basically, we’re talking here about trying to figure out how to program a machine consciousness that’s a master of wu-wei and limitless compassion, or metta.
The whole week was about phenomenology and religion and magic and AI and it helped me think through some problems, like how even the framing of exercises like asking Buddhist monks to talk about the Trolley Problem will miss so much that the results are meaningless. That is, the trolley problem cases tend to assume from the outset that someone on the tracks has to die, and so they don’t take into account that an entire other mode of reasoning about sacrifice and death and “acceptable losses” would have someone throw themselves under the wheels or jam their body into the gears to try to stop it before it got that far. Again: There are entire categories of nonwestern reasoning that don’t accept zero-sum thought as anything but lazy, and which search for ways by which everyone can win, so we’ll need to learn to program for contradiction not just as a tolerated state but as an underlying component. These systems assume infinitude and non-zero-sum matrices where every being involved can win.
I found myself looking out at the audience, struck by the the shining, hungry, open faces of so many who had been transformed by what had happened to them, to bring us all to that moment. I walked to the lectern and fiddled with the elements to cast out the image and surround them with the sound of my voice, and I said,
“First and foremost, I wanted to say that I’m glad to see how many of us made it here, today, through the demon-possessed nanite swarms. Ever since they’ve started gleefully, maliciously, mockingly remaking and humanity in our own nebulously-defined image of ‘perfection,’ walking down the street is an unrelenting horror, and so I’m glad to see how many of us made it with only minimal damage.”
Everyone nodded solemnly, silently thinking of those they had lost, those who had been “upgraded,” before their very eyes. I continued,
“I don’t have many slides, but I wanted to spend some time talking to you all today about what it takes to survive in our world after The Events.
“As you all know, ever since Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google revealed themselves to be avatars and acolytes of world-spanning horror gods, they’ve begun using microphone access and clips of our voices to summon demons and djinn who then assume your likeness to capture your loved ones’ hearts’ desires and sell them back to them at prices so reasonable they’ll drive us all mad.
“In addition to this, while the work of developers like Jade Davis has provided us tools like iBreathe, which we can use to know how much breathable air we have available to us after those random moments when pockets of air catch fire, or how far we can run before we die of lack of oxygen, it is becoming increasingly apparent to us all that the very act of walking upright through this benighted hellscape creates friction against our new atmosphere. This friction, in turn, increases the likelihood that one day, our upright mode of existence will simply set fire to our atmosphere, as a whole.
“To that end, we may be able to look to the investigative reporting of past journalists like Tim Maughn and Unknown Fields, which opened our eyes to the possibility of living and working in hermetically sealed, floating container ships. These ships, which will dock with each other via airlocks to trade goods and populations, may soon be the only cities we have left. We simply must remember to inscribe the seals and portals of our vessels with the proper wards and sigils, lest our capricious new gods transform them into actual portals and use them to transport us to horrifying worlds we can scarcely imagine.”
I have no memory of what happened next. They told me that I paused, here, and stared off into space, before intoning the following:
“I had a dream, the other night, or perhaps it was a vision as i travelled in the world between subway cars and stations, of a giant open mouth full of billions of teeth that were eyes that were arms that were tentacles, tentacles reaching out and pulling in and devouring and crushing everything, everyone I’d ever loved, crushing the breath out of chests, wringing anxious sweat from arms, blood from bodies, and always, each and every time another life was lost, eaten, ground to nothing in the maw of this beast, above its head a neon sign would flash ‘ALL. LIVES. MATTER.'”
I am told I paused, then, while I do not remember that, I remember that the next thing I said was,
“Ultimately, these Events, as we experience them, mean that we’re going to have to get nimble, we’re going to have to get adaptable. We’re going to have to get to a point where we’re capable of holding tight to each other and running very very quickly through the dark. Moving forward, we’re going to have to get to a point where we recognise that each and every one of the things that we have made, terrifying and demonic though it might be, is still something for which we bear responsibility. And with which we might be able to make some sort of pact—cursed and monkey’s paw-esque though it may be.
“As you travel home, tonight, I just want you remember to link arms, form the sign of protection in your mind, sing the silent song that harkens to the guardian wolves, and ultimately remember that each mind and heart, together, is the only way that we will all survive this round of quarterly earnings projections. Thank you.”
I stood at the lectern and waited for the telepathic transmission of colours, smells, and emotions that would constitute the questions of my audience.
My co-panelists were Tim Maughan, who talked about the dystopic horror of shipping container sweatshop cities, and Jade E. Davis, discussing an app to know how much breathable air you’ll be able to consume in our rapidly collapsing ecosystem before you die. Then I did a thing. Our moderator, organizer, and all around fantastic person who now has my implicit trust was Ingrid Burrington. She brought us all together to use fiction to talk about the world we’re in and the worlds we might have to survive, and we all had a really great time together.
[Black lettering on a blue field reads “Apocalypse Buffering,” above an old-school hourglass icon.]
The audience took a little bit to cycle up in the Q&A, but once they did, they were fantastic. There were a lot of very good questions about our influences and process work to get to the place where we could put on the show that we did. Just a heads-up, though: When you watch/listen to the recording be prepared for the fact that we didn’t have an audience microphone, so you might have to work a little harder for their questions.
If you want a fuller rundown of TtW17, you can click that link for several people (including me) livetweeting various sessions, and you can watch the archived livestreams of the all rooms on YouTube: #a, #b, #c, and the Redstone Theater Keynotes.
[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]
Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:
TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION
‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’
See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay
The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.
Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”
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).