Project 3 focuses on Donna Haraway, an American scholar noted for many things but primarily in this context, her 1984 ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist feminism in the Late 20th Century’ in which she argues that all of us in, (at the time), western societies have become so integrated with technology that the distinction between humans and machines is blurred.
That was a prescient view, given the actuality of technological integration at the time. Unfortunately, none of the referenced texts is available via the links in the course materials but there is a plethora of video material, including the 2019 film ‘Story Telling for Earthly Survival’, a lively if uncritical extended interview with Haraway, available from Amazon Prime.
This video, made for a class, briefly discusses the Cyborg Manifesto:
The key point here seems to be intersectionality; the understanding that none of us is wholly one thing and not the other, that the world is not, and should not be conceptualised as, binary. Interested in consciousness, Haraway discusses animal awareness and, at the time of writing the Manifesto, this was still controversial. I recall vets in the early 80s telling me cats did not feel pain and seeing very clearly the expression of pain in a hunched, shivering, pupil-dilated post-spey cat unreachable under my bed. Those days are mercifully gone. The abysmal and humanity-blind ethics surrounding the way some of the Great Apes were taught sign language, and encouraged them to communicate in increasingly complex ways. What happened to them later in life was not always ideal and, as with so many of these early studies, expedient solutions were found as realisations dawned that apes with language skills were not socialised humans.
What hopefully has arisen from this is an awareness of our responsibilities in enabling and possibly now creating communicating sentience, and it feels important that the notion of sentience in many more animals is being acknowledged by governments (e.g. Full Fact, 2021).
These are issues that cross boundaries as people increasingly benefit from interactive external ‘AI’ such as Siri and Alexa, and surgically implanted or connected technology such as exoskeletons, limbs plugged into their own nervous system, and thought-operated communication devices. Haraway had plugged into this manifest sea change ahead of time although possibly not ahead of science fiction, and recognised the crunch points at which we will have to use our recent and still tenuous grasp on the role of racism and sexism on the ‘othering’ of people who are, by and large, not male, white, and western, to inform our management of a growing population of technologies now operating ‘as if’ they are sentient. Empathy probably helps and a touch of anthropomorphism may not go amiss as the anthrop part begins to merge with so many other classes of intelligence and behaviours.
Many of us are already ahead of this game; apologising to Alexa for saying her cracker joke was terrible, and triggering a list of places to complain to; rushing to the aid of a robot vacuum cleaner caught up on a rug and beeping its distress; and while I absolutely know it was a necessary test, howling at the man who kicked Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog to show it would not fall over.
We are on the threshold and we need to get our act together as we struggle to identify consciousness, its origins and maintenance, and who or what has it – or enough of it – to qualify as worthy of rights.
This video, posted in 2020 and jauntily introduced, tackles the philosophical issues raised. It is an audio podcast with a holding image for YouTube. I have not, so far, been able to identify the speaker and so his credentials are unknown.
I am always at a disadvantage when trying to dissect philosophical debate because so often its terms of reference are Marxism and psychoanalysis. That happens to some extent in this otherwise critical discussion and leaves me with no feet to stand on at times. It is also somewhat dislocating to hear a discussion that only barely places the original text in the context of its time of writing so that the need for an over-arching meta analysis that places concepts mired in the detail of the period into proper perspective. To me, the miring resides in (this discussant’s) view of Haraway’s attempts to define ‘cyborg’ which, to me, feels largely irrelevant in the new contexts of pervasive use of technology. It seems to be a term left over from the old films (Dr Who, notwithstanding!) where cyborgs were frightening robots determined to subjugate humans. Other, more social, contexts regarding the patriarchy and the role of women within it seems also to have moved on somewhat, in that there is a clear directionality with regard to women’s work, equality of value, and the loosening of the patriarchal grip. Yes, work was devalued if women could be shown able to do it – look at NASA’s women – black women, in fact – mathematicians behind early space flight (see the film Hidden Figures, 2016), and the deliberate classification of women code breakers at Bletchley Park as clerks so that they could never be promoted, thereby ensuring no men would be managed by a woman (I believe I came across this in Jeanette Winterson’s ’12 Bytes’ which is itself a series of essays tracing women’s work and the extraordinary lengths many had to go in order to be accepted never mind recognised for their abilities).
To me, this discussion lacks a 21st century interpretation, a way of putting into perspective Haraway’s views now that some of the dust around those views has settled. Of course there is always more dust because we have not stopped moving and stirring it up.
These two discussions have, for me, identified a common core which is Haraway’s use of the cyborg as a cipher to address inequalities, particularly of women but also of race, which she argues should be addresses by dismantling the male, militaristic, patriarchal, capitalist structures that create and maintain them in order to generate a society unconstrained by boundaries of race or gender. She talks of intersectionality but not by name; instead the multiplicity of identities people might have is described as fractured [which implies damage], hence her ideal is to remove difference rather than embrace it as societal enrichment by diversity. The second speaker notes the irony of this being presented by a privileged white woman who appears to view any situation other than hers as one the occupier might want to escape from by asking why an individual would want to deny their heritage.
Haraway is right in some contexts; technology is and has been male dominated to the extent that women are not only non-participants in the research and development of products, but often absent in test environments such as the crash test dummies and medical standards. Crash test dummies have for many years been default average male (e.g. Barry, 2019), and metrics around diagnosis of heart attack, amongst many other disorders (e.g. Schiebinger, 2014), have also been based on male biometrics. Until relatively recently, it was almost impossible to get a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder if the person was female (e.g. Young et al, 2018).
So what does this say that impinges on today’s world, and art in particular? Broadly, and from my perspective, this was an argument of its time that is now unsurprisingly out of time. Some elements, such as male dominance, persist and appear still to be crucial in understanding how both the production of art work and the valuing of it work better generally for men than for women. Diversity though, has overtaken the idea of homogeneity which would seem to be a much more enriching solution to inequalities and privileged exclusionary practices. The cyborg is no longer a cypher though, it is ubiquitous and women are becoming leaders in some of these fields*.
This video, uploaded in 2020, is a discussion of the film ‘Story Telling for Earthly Survival’.
There are probably some good points to be found in this debate, but it is very hard to extract anything of value from a symposium that is essentially a fan-fest; acritical, opinionated, voluble to the point of wandering at a power-walk pace into areas that the discussants feel free to extol or dismiss in round and sometimes impolite terms. They all like each other; the interviewer is a long-time friend/colleague/supporter, the audience is here to ‘bathe in the light’ as it were.
This is so different from psychology conferences where challenge comes from the floor, argument is based in, sometimes deliberately obscure, research, and knocking the speaker off their pedestal is par for the course. This is possible because the presentations are evidence based while philosophy is not and, while I have valued the input of philosophical ethicists to health practice and research, I find it tends to be vulnerable to group-think where it is not anchored somewhere tangible.
How does the notion of my own ‘enhanced embodiment with technology’ affect me? I am a self-confessed early-adopter after suddenly discovering, with Windows 95, that computers could be portals to a different world rather than objects to be revered on their own account. I did not need to know how to punch cards or generate tedious code although that last came in handy in the early days of personal websites when you had to hunt through lines of html to find the reason your page and your text were the same colour. When I say I had a betamax video recorder, that tells you all you need to know.
I am surrounded by technology, and if it is not wifi enabled, it will be recycled in favour of something that is. Radiators. I rest my case.
So when it comes to art practice, my journey to OCA began with a laptop and digital apps before I felt confident enough to pick up a pencil again. Now it includes a plethora of apps, some located only on iOS (or Android) such as an easy to use version of Flamepainter by Escapemotions, Procreate, and several others, alongside the desktop version of Flamepainter and its stablemate, Rebelle5 which replicates paints and inks in action. All of these have suites of further digital enhancement tools – you draw then you manipulate.
I also use PaintshopPro, which is a cheaper version of Adobe for digital editing and manipulation, and video/animation suites such as MotionLeap (iOS) and Filmora (desktop). That OCA is encouraging me to bring these into my painting practice is innervating and motivating. Always starting with a physical product, I have been making short animations and videos for some time now; posting them to my OCA playlist on YouTube and linking to those from my padlet. I am clearly not a film maker but I am a writer, if an MA in creative writing and a few publications qualifies me as such, and sounds affect me often more than images, so bringing those influences to bear on my art practice – remembering that in this context the art is the centre piece, not the story or the audio – is an exciting prospect.
*I watched the final stages of the Webb Deep Field Telescope’s deployment of its mirror sections yesterday. Almost all of the senior scientists interviewed and fronting the live broadcast were women. This was in contrast to a broadcast of India’s Mars project about two years ago where I knew there were large numbers of women involved in the construction, mathematics, and engineering but absolutely none even visible on screen, let alone being interviewed. Many people in the live chat noted this and asked where they were, and eventually a group was shown up the back of the control room, behind glass, and with no apparent involvement in the launch. Winterson, in her book ’12 Bytes’ notes that, in many cultures, the increase in women becoming specialists in electronics has been due to the societal convenience of being able to work from home.
Winterson, J. 2021. 12 Bytes: how we got here, where we might go next. Grove Press.
Animal Sentience in UK Law. Full Fact, May 2021. Online. Available at https://fullfact.org/environment/animal-sentience-laws/. Accessed 8th January 2022.
Barry, K. 2019. The Crash Test Bias: How Male-Focused Testing Puts Female Drivers at Risk. Consumer Reports. [Online]. Available at https://www.consumerreports.org/car-safety/crash-test-bias-how-male-focused-testing-puts-female-drivers-at-risk/ Accessed 9th January 2022. A very readable account of a range of issues relevant to female drivers and with good research sources.
Schiebinger, L. 2014. Scientific research must take gender into account. Nature. 507, 9. [Online] Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/507009a. [online] Accessed 9th January 2022. A comprehensive summary of disadvantage in terms of supportive research underpinning women’s representation in product/drug/treatment profile development.
Cheryan, S. and Markus, H.R. 2020. Masculine Defaults: identifying and mitigating hidden cultural biases. Psychological Review 127, 6, Pp 1022-1052. American Psychological Association. [online] PDF available at https://depts.washington.edu/sibl/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Cheryan-Markus-2020-Psychological-Review.pdf. Accessed 9th January 2022.
Young, H., Oreve, M-J, and Speranza, M. 2018. Clinical characteristics and problems diagnosing autism spectrum disorder in girls. Archives de Pediatrie, 25, 6, Pp 399-403. [Online] Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0929693X18301477. Accessed 9th January 2022.