Developing My Research Philosophy Part 3: Digital Morality: Neo-Luddism, or Noise and Nonsense?


In the previous post, I said I would focus on my choices in transport and telecommunications. But before I do that, a discussion today forced me to think about my research focus and how I can make what I do relevant to the institution. I often arrive at views that are not trendy, which can be anathema to one's research career.

It is not that I want to conduct research that arrives at a particular view - this would not be political science. But I do not want to conduct research that helps to make the world of Terminator a reality either. So I will explore this issue here before going any further.

Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong time period. But then I like the time period I was born in (the 1970s) - it's everything that has happened since social media and smart phones came along that irks me. If nothing had changed after 2007, I would be fine with it all.

But what does this mean for my future? Can I stay where I am now? Or will I be propelled along against my will? Do we live in a technologically determined world?

I recall a story about General George S. Patton living out of his time. But this was not the case - he claimed to have been reincarnated, so it can be said that he lived in several times. But I don't believe in reincarnation. In fact, lately I have taken to saying that I am glad that I will be dead before Terminator becomes real. But it is happening so fast it may happen before I die (assuming I die of old age, that is).

My 1988 Mercedes W124 300E
Things like driver-less cars. I drive a 1988 Mercedes W124 300E. It is the greatest car ever. When people talk about Bluetooth in their cars, I cringe. If I could, I would not have a mobile phone and therefore I have no need for Bluetooth.

I mean it. From 2009 until 2015, I went without a mobile phone. It was such a novel idea Campus Review wrote an article about it in 2012. I was free. I have some of this freedom left because I don't give out my number and I rarely answer so nobody calls me, and I detest texting.

But another anti-technology decision forced me to accept the mobile phone. Not because I wanted to, but because it was a condition set by my partner.

I was increasingly annoyed by the changes happening in Canberra. "Freak shakes" was the last straw. How freak shakes represented Canberra coming of age was beyond me. Not only did the emperor have no clothes, but he was playing with himself in public.

Keswick, Gunning NSW
So we moved to Gunning and we live in a Federation-style house built in 1926, built on a quarter acre block. It is my dream house. The three dogs, two cats, two chickens (we'll get more as soon as I finish the expanded coop), and three fish have room to breathe. When there is no moon, it is so dark you can't see two feet in front of you. The yard next door has sheep in it. We often see complete rainbows after it rains. 

You can hear the Hume Highway in the evening, and the trains go past at all hours, but this just fits into the rhythm of the place. I felt my first earthquake a couple of months ago (I thought the cat had knocked something over). We have a 1923 Beale pianola in the "parlour" (the living room). I grew up with one (a 1928 model - my sister still has it). This takes pride of place and there is no television in the room.

We don't have a microwave and I use an aluminium stove-top espresso made in Italy. We have hundreds of hard-copy books and I subscribe to several hard-copy magazines. We have wood fires for heating.

I had to get a mobile phone in case either of us broke down on the commute to Canberra. It was a small price to pay. 

And I don't need Bluetooth because I burn my podcasts onto CDs and have a stash of these in the glove box. I tried audio-books (from the Gunning Library) but I don't like them. Podcasts from Art of Manliness, which include a surprising array of academic content, are my listening of choice at present.

In Gunning, almost every house and building has a history. I spent weeks researching the history of our house and the town using Trove. This inspired me to join the Gunning and District Historical Society and we have since started a blog capturing local stories from the past.

The Gunning Library is superb. We have run a few workshops on conducting local and family history research and these have proven successful. Trove published a blog article about our first workshop.

The village consists of a small community and most people know each other. Village life is relaxed and quaint. You can even have a coffee with your local councillor in the local cafe. Sleeping in a room with an open wood fire is par for the course in winter. Of course, I am grateful for what we have, but all of this is material and therefore fleeting. But what isn't fleeting is the sense of living.

I keep hearing about how technology is giving power to the people. Ride-sharing is sexy. Stay in somebody else's house instead of paying full price for a hotel. Sack your staff via text (I get in trouble for saying SMS - apparently nobody says that anymore). Use your UAV to wipe out your enemies without ever looking them in the eye. You get the idea. I think it is all noise and nonsense.

But it does raise a number of issues, especially if I will actually live to see Terminator in my back yard (maybe not in Gunning, but I can picture Arnie exposing his titanium skeleton while riding around Canberra on a Harley armed with a freak shake).

The first thing that got me was the concept of digital morality (as a colleague named it today). This could cover all aspects of the morality of new technologies, from biotech, to big pharma, to UAVs, to digital citizenship. 

There is such belief in an inevitable technological future that how we teach will be assessed against this imagined future. I am cautious. I once thought that social media was going to save the world. If current events are anything to go by, we might be better off looking for John Connor

I was reading KPMG's @gov magazine recently, and an article on the policy imperatives of autonomous vehicles got me thinking, especially this bit:
It is 2025 and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are a fact of life. Many drivers are still behind the wheel of their “classic cars” but the switch rate to autonomous is much faster than predicted. Indeed those still driving are feeling embarrassed by their choice, because society is increasingly intolerant of any road accident, particularly those involving injury or fatality (KPMG @Gov).
In the meantime, the peer group pressure to conform to driver-less vehicles could prove problematic. When I smoke my (tobacco) pipe at home, all is well. But if I lit up while walking around Civic, well! Hopefully I will still be alive in 2025, so wishing and hoping that I will pass the Terminator world by is a sub-optimal strategy

I lost interest in it all (Terminator III was terrible and I can't stand popular movies these days), but if the script is anything to go by, it all starts in 2029. This is only four years after KPMG's prediction!

But as Hsee et al. (2012) hint at, seeking happiness in the face of technological determinism may well require such sub-optimal choices that defy contemporary economic wisdom. If personal experience is anything to go by, I couldn't be happier.

I think we are being conned into higher density living. Light rail = trams, and even Brisbane had trams before 1901. High density living in Sydney led to slums. Really, what are we thinking? Even Money Magazine is telling investors to avoid buying inner city apartments because there are too many. 

And what happens when the trendy thirty-somethings (I was going to say something about smashed avocado but I had to ask my wife what that was all about so I won't) have families and realise that raising your "tin lids" in a single bedroom apartment in the middle of the city is a really, really, really stupid thing to do? Unless, of course, the richer millennials see Idiocracy (see below) as a viable alternative to Terminator

In thinking about all of these issues, I searched for an article about being born in the wrong time period. Thought Catalog provides a useful checklist for those suffering from such a condition. Here is my assessment against the twenty-six signs:
  1. Yes. I have to use Urban Dictionary whenever I see posts by my kids (who are both in their early twenties).
  2. No. I do not say "jive talk".
  3. No, but then again, I don't know who the hell J. Alba is.
  4. No, but I had to look up "Dougie" on Urban Dictionary. I am none the wiser.
  5. Yes. I own several typewriters and I have one right next to me as I type this now.
  6. Yes, I appreciate modern technology. I tried using the hard-copy Gregory's when driving around Sydney but don't do it - it is impossible. I use Google Maps all the time I drive in Sydney now and I don't get as lost.
  7. No. I don't know these people and I haven't seen Family Feud since Tony Barber.
  8. No. I can't stand dress-up clubs or bars.
  9. Yes, see photo of my car above.
  10. Sort of - I don't know what Oregon Trail is but if it was Squatter, then yes. Wow, you can still buy Squatter? I'm buying it!
  11. Yes. I had to buy a television when our old analogue televisions stopped working. I bought a 32" Sanyo from Big W for about $249 in 2012. It is still going strong and you can find it by sticking your head around the kitchen door hidden in a recess in the "conservatory".
  12. No. I don't care to watch sport, and although I played basketball as a kid, I am not interested. It's true. I've even been to the cricket twice in the last year and the drunken booners annoyed me so much I wrote complaints to the Australian Cricket Board (they didn't respond).
  13. No. But my mum didn't agree with vaccination, so during the 1970s, my sister and I sat through mumps, chicken pox, measles, and scarlet fever as we watched World Championship Wrestling Australia on television for what seemed like weeks at a time. In the army, I was completely vaccinated several times (they kept losing the record) and my kids were definitely vaccinated.
  14. No. I am known to be so clean I annoy people. If I don't have at least two showers a day, I am out of sorts. Even in the scrub I have to shower twice a day, "regardless of season, weather, or terrain". But my shower habits do not fit the current water-wise approach and water-saving devices have to be installed while I am not looking.
  15. Yes. I don't like gossip. I do it, but I am trying to rid myself of the habit by following Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues program.
  16. No. I dress more like a character from an old Crawford Productions television show and I wouldn't
    Photo: Sydney Morning Herald
    even know how to ride the magic carpet or find the ganja man these days. But I didn't have to look that one up.
  17. Yes. I can remember buying aniseed balls for 1 cent each and salty plums for 2 cents each.
  18. Yes. I have physical photo albums. I also collect stamps and I still write letters.
  19. No. I am not very good at trivia. And I agree with Bruce Lee - Breakfast at Tiffany's is racist. But I do like Truman Capote's books.
  20. No. And I had to look up both The Temptations Radio and Pandora. Oh, I get it. I listen to The Temptations on Microsoft's Groove via my laptop or my XBox 360 4GB I think it is (I used this to watch ABC iView before we had the latest Telstra T-Box).
  21. Yes. Adam West is definitely my favourite Batman. I also like to watch Adam-12 on YouTube.
  22. Yes. I hate "texting". It takes me forever. I even hate calling SMS "texting", and I cringe when I hear somebody say "I texted them". I prefer to "speaked" to you.
  23. Yes. I try to eat breakfast at the table each morning and we have had several meals at the table in the last week.
  24. No. I don't use the term "supper". I still say "tea" instead of "dinner" sometimes. Does that count?
  25. No. I do drink tea, including St John's Wort, but if I am sick, I will take the Western drugs.
  26. Yes. I think I was born in the wrong era, therefore I am - wait, is that a question, or am I paraphrasing Descartes? OK, the world before 2007 works for me. As long as I could still have seen Madmen.
Of course, these signs are from 2012 and are therefore all out of date. Which completes the profile and confirms I was born in the wrong era. Mind you, if I was born so that I died before 2007, then I would have been too old for the beginnings of personal computers and the Internet, and I would have been writing this about how crappy things were before social media.

So it is more than a dissatisfaction with the modern era.

But if we go back through history, not much has changed. Indeed, Horace wrote in 20 B.C. what we still say in the present:
Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.
Which means that living in another age is all bunk.

But how can I conduct research that doesn't perpetuate the current madness?

Take Twitter, for example. The only reason Twitter is such a big deal is because the regular news media are making Twitter a big deal. Out of the 20,000+ students I have taught in the last twelve years, I know at least 2 of them who have a Twitter account.

It is an echo chamber. Much like the stuff about the new US president. The same media saying the same things to the same people. It is more like the Two Minutes Hate:

Is it even possible, then, to find some middle ground? Well, I think so.

A few years back I stumbled upon a recommended reading list that one could subscribe to - it was sent out what appeared to be intermittently. The reading list was by Ryan Holiday. I've since read Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way. And his Daily Stoic has been a blessing.

I like what Holiday does because he reads. And not e-books, but hard-copy books. He also blogs and uses social media. But he doesn't crap on about social media saving the world. I like these two things most.

As for the Two Minutes Hate and the echo chambers that annoy me so much, he has some illuminating things to say.

In his latest post on the New York Observer, Holiday explains why these echo chambers perpetuate. It is a marketing technique. I knew it! I feel vindicated etc. Yes, but so what?

The first thing is that I have this blog for me. It helps me think, it helps me keep a record of things. It is public therefore I check myself (mostly) before ranting like a fool. But I also read hard-copy books and I enjoy practising and learning through Stoicism and I like my old stuff and so on.

But I am not a Luddite. I can still teach many a young person how to use web-based tools and I have been acknowledged as a cutting edge practitioner in e-learning or online and blended learning and the flipped classroom and insert buzzword to describe technology-based teaching and learning here.

But I don't want to give up the tried and tested ways that work. If you want to learn, read and write essays. Technology won't change that except for in technical training. We keep hearing about all of the jobs we don't even know about yet. It would seem that technical skills will be mostly useless, outside of software and information technology development.

So what skills will be needed in the future? Not what can be gleaned from Ted Talks, I am sure. I am with Benjamin Bratton on the "recipe for civilisational disaster" bandwagon for sure (see Idiocracy above).

That doesn't mean that I am anti-technology. But I am not entirely a fan of the digital world. Fortunately, the Huffington Post has put together a Field Guide to the Anti-Technology Movements, Past and Present for people who are "not a fan of the digital world".

I am drawn to some of the ideas of Neo-Luddism, but not all. For example, Neo-Luddites oppose globalisation. I don't. They support the environment. So do I, but I don't have to be a socialist to do so. I will have to suspend the thought there or I will go off on a rant asking Why is there no economic liberal AND social liberal (or libertarianism as some refer to it) political party? (No, that party is not libertarian at all). Anyway, this idea can easily be taken too far. But I digress.

I tend to agree with this statement by David Gelernter:
I think it would be tremendously valuable, not in the sense of a destructive Luddite movement that makes it a practice of destroying computers... But a group of intellectual dissent that asks us to slow down, that asks us to evaluate what we have achieved, that asks us in practical terms what we have gotten for our money, asks us what environment our children are growing up in.
Further, Geoffrey Poitras suggests:
Today's neo-Luddites continue to raise moral and ethical arguments against the excesses of modern technology.
Which brings me to my colleagues' point today: digital morality. My telecommunications research suggests that between Marshall McLuhan's conception of technological determinism and Berger and Luckmann's conception of social constructivism, there is a third way, referred to by Thomas P. Hughes as "technological momentum". This theoretical understanding of technology and history proved useful in my PhD thesis.

Hughes states the key issues here:
To draw attention today to technological affairs is to focus on a concern that is as central now as nation building and constitution making were a century ago. Technological affairs contain a rich texture of technical matters, scientific laws, economic principles, political forces, and social concerns.
Now to the point. If I focus on transport and telecommunications (and pedagogy, naturally), and I am interested in history, time and space, then it follows that I can devote my research to issues of digital morality as they relate to these areas. For Hughes, electricity networks formed the basis for his understanding of the history of technology. If I look at the issues of transport and telecommunications then there is scope for an ongoing contribution that fits in with the direction of the institution.

This means that in Part 4, in the absence of some other brain wave, I will need to explore technological momentum in more detail.