October - December 2017 | Issue 101


Markets, Morals
and Semiosis:
Thinking Technology
and Educational
Changes Historically

By Jude Chua Soo Meng, PhD FRHistS FCOT FCollT, Head, Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group

There has been a lot of interest in the way technology has changed the way ideas are delivered, and how it can therefore radically transform education. Digital media and Info-comm technology certainly have roles to play. The possibilities these technologies inspire are many. Already there is much interest in the way which technology simulates reality. The virtual realities that technology affords have all kinds of pedagogical potential. Healthcare professionals will be able to avoid messing up with real life and death scenarios. Pilots will be able to crash without irredeemable consequences until they get it right. The substitution of reality with the virtual is limited only by our imagination. Perhaps one day, we could even be educated by artificial intelligences

So institutions and educators want, quite naturally, to be ‘future-ready’. The market might signal that such technologically-driven educational transformations are welcome. However, I feel that inevitably as educators, we may have to influence consumption to shape what the market propels us towards. Strictly speaking, this is not market ‘intervention’ per say. To borrow Frederich Hayek’s own example, I am not suggesting we twirl the hands of a clock, but merely lubricate its gears. I, myself, would not dismiss what consumers think is best suited for their needs; the more or less accurate coordination of the entrepreneurial supply of goods with needs is indeed the genius of this undesigned and marvelous institution — the free market, whatever its other flaws. Readying ourselves for the future requires taking these economic signals into account. Mine is not another leftist opportunistic rant against neoliberalism, market or business thinking. I want to distance myself from the outset from some of the inaccurate diagnosis of the sources of the terrors of performativity that pins these problems on ‘market thinking’. Indeed the distortion of moral agency can fester in neoliberal cultures or centrally planned, bureaucratic cultures; neither is completely immune.

Yet the consideration of what the future holds should still be discussed with some astuteness. What do we mean by the ‘future’, and what therefore, does it mean to be ‘ready’ for such a future? The question is not one about definitions. Rather the question is posed in order that when we answer that question and related ones in which that term is employed, we are focused on the real issues that truly matter. These questions are about the market no doubt, but also, I would argue, about morality. As educators and leaders of educational institutions with some power to help consumers think about their real needs and human flourishing, we need to take into consideration both of these.

The significance of asking that question and answering it well is brought out by considering the following scenario:

Imagine that a lady who has been dating a young man asks him point blank, “What is our future?” The question is, I doubt, about the temporal sequence of events. If the man offers a rational projection of what will happen several months into the year — the plans they could have for ongoing dates, for instance — he misses the sense of the question (or perhaps, intentionally evades it? Yikes!). What is being surfaced for discussion is not the way things are to be projected in time. Rather the question asks for something else. It asks, “Where are we, as a couple, headed?” It asks, “Are we moving towards a desirable goal, or not?” Imagine after persistent interrogation, the young man is only able to report further projections of what they could do together on future dates. The young lady then cries out that they “have no future”, and seriously considers terminating their relationship. Yet both individuals are healthy young bodies with years ahead of them. There is life in the future for both of them. What then does she mean? She was not implying that they had run out of time, but rather that they were moving nowhere nearer the state of affairs that she thinks they ought to arrive at — that point that their series of present actions find fulfillment. Indeed they could go on dating into temporal infinity, but for the lady, the ‘future’ eludes them.

From this we grasp that the contemplation of the future may be about the consideration of something other than: ‘what temporally will occur in a certain time-frame’. Indeed sometimes the even more important sense of the ‘future’ is not merely something temporal, but rather something that concerns the term or end of the evolution of an emerging phenomenon. Something like this sense of the future — and also in relation to it, the ‘present’ and the ‘past’, and hence of ‘history’ — was employed when Francis Fukuyama, drawing on the Hegelian sense of the historical, argued that liberal societies were at the ‘end’ of history. By this he did not mean that in the temporal future all illiberal societies would be liberal, but rather that as the battle of our ideological consciousness raged, ultimately the principles that liberal societies stood for — namely justice and equality — would emerge victorious. Hence in the dialectical battle of ideas, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and where-ever a nation-state stood in time, it could be anywhere along this historical continuum. In this way, one’s historical biography over time was not synonymous with one’s trajectory along this other than temporal historical continuum. Indeed it was possible for them to be pointing in completely different directions, as might be the case when over the next five years into the temporal future, a liberal society suddenly regresses into an illiberal one, and hence moves backwards into the past along this Hegelian historical continuum.

For our present discussion, the other than temporal ‘future’ I wish to signal is that which concerns human fulfillment. Like the lady who yearns for a ‘future’ with the young man, but nevertheless despairs of ever approaching it, so also we need to yearn for a ‘future’ that approaches the end of the continuum of a historical trajectory. Such a historical trajectory is not identical with Fukuyama’s Hegelian version, but I suspect that it would be something similar. Here, we are not concerned with the clash of ideologies that define that end (which incidentally Fukuyama did not altogether relish). But as our conscious meditation of possibilities are defeated by normative intuitions that object to some of these proposed possibilities, so also that last thought standing that we cling to would determine what that end or future of mankind ought to look like. Still, like Fukuyama’s notion of history, there is no guarantee that our entrance into the temporal future means that we move in the same direction along the historical continuum. It might well be possible that in the temporal past, we were placed nearer the end, but over time have regressed backwards in the direction of the beginning.

Our fascination with technology, unfortunately, presents this very risk. Our fascination with the virtual and the possibilities that accompany the simulation of the real, feed our infatuation with that which appears to be real. Yet the substitution of the real and the fascination with the simulated, even with its technological bells and whistles, to me does not seem deserving to be located at the end of history. Hence, they are not what we ought to take to be belonging to the future, but should rather be located somewhere nearer the beginning. When the Greek philosopher Plato expressed his low esteem for the artist, who for him concerned themselves with things three times removed from reality, he may have stood for something of the future some 2,500 years ago. Being an artist in the photographic medium myself, I have serious reservations and indeed resent his evaluation of the artistic community. But the point here is the celebration of the real, and the low esteem for the concern with the apparent, the imitation. This esteem for reality continued into the middle ages. The Thomists and Scotists of 13th century scholasticism could not see eye to eye on how being (esse), the principle of reality, was to be distinguished from the essence of things. One camp insisted on a ‘real’ distinction, while the other claimed that the distinction was merely ‘formal’. Their scholastic jargon is lost on many, but remains appreciated that however differently they articulated their metaphysics of reality, they were all huddled around the same phenomenon, which they esteemed. That being the real things which they also considered to be good on account of some principle of the convertibility of being and goodness, and which they considered worth giving an account of. Even during the Enlightenment when René Descartes came onto the scene, this respect for the real was very much in play. Although a sojourn into the Cartesian Meditations might eventually leave one trapped in solipsistic epistemological skepticism regarding the real world because of what scholars call the Cartesian circle, Descartes’s project was motivated originally by the desire to ground that reality on surer, indubitable foundations. In other words, despite what he eventually bequeathed us, his original intention was not to demolish that reality, but rather to prop it up, and to better cement its foundations.

If I have written as if these characters in the past stood closer to the future than the presently trending infatuation with the virtual, I might be accused of begging the question. Yet I think there are reasons to consider my position defensible. Nearer to our own time, Robert Nozick’s pleasure experience machine thought experiment usefully surfaces moral intuitions that can help us grasp the uneven value of the real in comparison with the simulation. As adapted by John Finnis in his monumental ‘Natural Law and Natural Rights’, it goes like this.
Imagine there was such a thing as an ‘experience machine’ that could simulate any and every experience you could imagine. The simulation would be so realistic that once you plug into that machine, you would not for that moment think that it was a simulation. We could programme the simulation to be whatever you wish. The problem however, is that you would have to be plugged in for life. If you so choose to plug yourself in, you cannot be unplugged. Would you plug into the machine? You would be floating in a tank of water if you are plugged in, but in your mind, you would experience the programmed virtual reality as if it were real. You might have the illusion of being free and of having agency, or of making and arriving at important achievements in life. But all of it would in the end, an illusion. You would experience relationships when plugged into the machine, but these are nothing but simulations. Finnis suggests that most of us would at least hesitate, and that we would think that it would not be worthwhile to plug in. The accompanying insight when we decide not to plug in, he suggests, is that at the end of the day, we value reality and the truth much more than the simulated virtual.

Finnis’s insights into the comparative value of the real in relation to the virtual have the advantage of requiring no substantive metaphysical commitment like a Platonic ultra-reality of forms, a scholastic theology of pure reality that the medieval scholars called God, or any contentious hermeneutic of the Cartesian corpus. As stand-alone results of a thought experiment, they present us simply with the reflective insight that our existence approaches futility as it displaces the real with the simulation. This does not mean that the virtual cannot ever be welcomed. What it seems to suggest to me is that, we ought to explore the function of the virtual, if we do employ these, as useful tools for leading us to the real, and to enjoy and to love the latter. The real must be our end, the good that we eventually seek. The reverse would be a disorder.

Such a broad recommendation of course yields no specific engineering prescription. But a recent product in photography by Leica cameras has caught my attention and stands out as an interesting example for discussion when thinking about the way technology can be designed to relate the virtual with the real. Recently, Leica produced the Leica M-D Rangefinder Camera. The Leica M-D Rangefinder Camera is a digital rangefinder camera like those of the previous digital M series. However, unlike typical digital cameras, this camera has no liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor screen on its back. Typically in digital cameras, the LCD screen allows you to select all kinds of settings to modify the image. It also allows you to inspect the image you had just taken. You would think that with all the technology at your disposal, you would exploit these and allow all kinds of adjustments to the image in camera, as with other cameras Leica has brought out. In the case of the M-D, however, the designers and engineers at Leica made the conscious choice to pay homage to analogue photography. The idea is to reproduce the experience of shooting film.

I do not have the Leica M-D. Its price is prohibitive and if I were to purchase the M-D it might immediately lead to marital disharmony. I do however, shoot a pre-war Leica II Screwmount Rangefinder, and can competently talk about what it is like to shoot film, and by extension, the M-D. The thing is that without the LCD screen on the back, you really do not know what it is you have captured or how it looks like until you have developed the images. With an LCD on the back of the camera however, the tendency is to ‘chimp’, meaning to constantly check the images one has captured. That ‘chimping’ soon habituates one viciously and the focus very soon becomes the image, the picture, and one risks loosing one’s presence to the phenomena that one is photographing.

So, the phenomenology of photography without the LCD screen is very different from the photography with an LCD. You really have no choice but to focus your attention on the phenomenon surrounding you. It is not the photo or the visual simulation that consumes your attention. Once the shutter is pressed and picture is taken, you have no more access to it, and you just have to move on. Your attention returns to what phenomenon is available for your next frame. Of course the picture making still matters, and perhaps the picture, a visual simulation of the reality, is what drives the photography to start with. Still, as the photographic experience plays out, as mediated by the ontology of the camera and its architecture and the way it steers your attention, the pictures become more like markers of that experience rather than the end of that experience. These experiences and phenomenon do not exist for the sake of the image; rather the photos help these experiences leave a trace.

The M-D, like film cameras with their photographic potential, baits us with our fascination with artful simulation, and yet, operating like a sign, at the same time points us beyond that, and connects us back to an other: the real. This seems to me very interesting because in some sense the very nature of the photography is to simulate. The purpose of its apparatus programming is precisely to yield the image, the likeness, the simulation. Yet, contrary to what Vilem Flusser worries about photography, the M-D appears to me to take us beyond the camera apparatus, and does not leave us subject to the camera’s programming. From this point of view, Leica truly looks into the ‘future’ in the sense we take the word: its object ontology is a kind of semiosis — a kind of pointing to — the real. Hence, also, the Leica M-D ‘readies’ its users for that future — the architecture of the camera nudges the user to pay greater attention to the real, and at the same time locates their attention in that direction. My intention is not to make Leica an exemplar, but to employ the Leica example as a stimulant for positing this question. How and should we aspire to design technology that works like a semiotic tool — something which is receptive to our interest in the virtual but at the same time, leads us on and points us towards something other, viz., the real? Would this, or something like this, be the way we can enter the future in its important sense? Perhaps this is where designers and educational theorists can provide some answers.

I would end by saying that I am optimistic about the way we will negotiate our history. If we can still think and discuss these issues, and if the posing of these issues is still a possibility, then at the very least we still have with us the cognitive resources for steering our institutions (both our educational ones, as well as the free market) into the future. Although it is not impossible that one day, these questions cannot arise because the discourse in which we rely on to pose these questions becomes unintelligible. It may well be that important aspects of our intelligence are not our own doing, but the result of prior, environmental conditions about us. If we lose these environments and their ontological or semiotic conditions for thinking to arise, then they may not be easily recovered. We may not be able to think ourselves back into these ontological conditions or grounds that give rise to our ability to think. Thus Frederich Hayek often resisted certain social systems that deprived people of the right to accumulate private property and freedoms, fearing that men night lose the ability to think original thoughts altogether. More relevant to our discussion, Martin Heidegger has insisted, according to a recent reading by Richard Capobianco, that the original Greek experience, that ‘wonder’ which fostered our desire to contemplate the truth and therefore of the real, was a direct result of our encounter with nature (physis), that coming into view (before passing away) and hence the presence-ing of things in the real world. The unrestrained embrace of the virtual could divorce us by and by from that gleaming gaze of nature. Along with the absence of nature’s presence-ing, might also be concealed the insight of our practical reason that truthful reality is a fundamental good and ought not be displaced by the seduction of the simulated. Once that happens, it will be very challenging for us to go back to the future.

More Stories →

Quality, Innovation
And Impact For A
Future-Ready NIE

What Holds Back
Individuals From
Expressing Their
Potential Abilities ?