Technology as extensions of our selves – but what’s actually extending?

Jim Makes a Frittata in His New Frittata Pan
Jim Makes a Frittata in His New Frittata Pan

Some initial thoughts on human-computer interaction after several weeks of intense literature review on ‘virtual embodiment’.

I was eating a frittata the other day – if you don’t know what a frittata is, that’s OK, doesn’t matter to get the idea (but it’s that thing up there in the picture).

Anyway, while I was taking the last piece from the oven casserole (which is made out of material that feels like porcelain or something), I used a knife to gently scratch some crispy cheese from the corners of the pan. A sudden, annoyingly simple idea came to me: with the stainless steel dinner knife, I was able to feel the material of the casserole, and judge from that if I would scratch and ruin it or not.

While thinking of this, I also tried the pan surface with my fingers. The feeling I got from that pan was basically the same as with the dinner knife.

Now, this might feel rather arbitrary and useless pondering of everyday life, but from such little realisations often come the most interesting things. We are so used to such experiences without thinking how they occur to us that we don’t always think how they might take place in other contexts, such as in using virtual environments.

If I am able to get the feeling of a material or a quality through another object, such as the feeling of a frittata pan through a dinner knife (similarly perhaps how a tennis player experiences a ball through a tennis racquet or a crane operator feels a crate through the crane), what various things do I get a feeling of through interactive media input-output technology? It seems that authors and others like to jump on board with McLuhan’s (1964) term ‘an extension’, but do we extend our thinking beyond that term (which itself is a tool of language to communicate about these matters)? What actually does extend?

So, what different matters or qualities might get extended through control devices such as game controllers? As a gamer, I can reflect that for example in Halo games, different weapons and vehicles feel different, and I prefer some over others – I loved the double needler when it was available. Nothing could give more satisfaction than blowing someone away with them with a huge explosion.

At the same time, interactive media extends our sense of social presence. Now, this is a different matter altogether. Technology gives us the possibility to see another person in the form of a virtual embodiment, an avatar. How the avatar looks like, what it does and how it communicates transmits us through a screen that there is actually someone there. It extends social interaction, and the social interaction is as real as it is in “the real”. The growing normality of this experience is blurring the fact how unique that is in the evolution of human-technology interaction.

As a sub note, I am developing a rather big issue with terms such as virtual and real. I feel Rob Shields (2002) has done a nice job in trying to get us out from this definition muddle. If we continue to talk about ‘virtual’ as something less real than the concrete world around us (which also psychologically and philosophically is very much debatable) we are basically saying virtual experiences are not real. This would mean that our experiences in various virtual worlds, such as the long grinding sessions in WoW or Borderlands never happened. I am sure no reasonable person would give such a comment. So why do we continue saying experiences such as social interaction in virtual contexts are somehow less than face to face? Based on some of the studies I have examined, for some users some forms of experience can be even be more.

Thinking such things tend to gather sort of blank stares and comments like “well, that is very philosophical, but…”. I disagree with the “it is so philosophical” (whatever it might mean for some people to say this). I think it is rather pragmatic to use your head to try to see what these experiences really truly mean instead of jumping on the technology hype or the luddite movement. It lifts the veil over the novelty of emerging technologies and sort of re-focuses thinking to how we actually interact with objects and other people.

Reflections on thinking, learning and the message

Learning as a process or a phenomenon is something I sometimes try to escape in my reasonings, as some days I can not even stand the topic because of the too mixed up discourses around it. But for some reason it comes back to thoughts, often with new flavours. Call it passion, call it whatever.

When I moved to Australia, I had to choose just a couple of “real” paper books with me. What I left behind was almost a roomful. Although some consider it after his golden era, I had grown fond of Heidegger’s ‘What is called thinking?’ (Was Heisst Denken?, 1954) and brought it with me. I do not consider myself as Heideggerian, although a certain person (you know who you are) have suggested that. Still, I cannot deny that introduction to his thinking has indeed provided new venues for my own.

As the name of the book implies, it discusses thinking, and simply summarized, with an assertion that we are still not thinking.

Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking. (p. 6)

My reason to write this is not to try to explain what Heidegger possibly meant with the series of lectures of which the book builds on. What interests me here is examining the arguments with higher education learning as the focus.

Heidegger suggests that

Teaching is even more difficult than learning. (…) because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than – learning. (…) The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they – he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. (p. 15)

I have to resist quoting the whole paragraph, because that is most likely too much. Some of the words in this argument make me think if he really used these terms or has something been lost in the translation. However, this particular part, coming all of a sudden in the book, in conjunction with thinking as the focus, is interesting to me.

Heidegger suggest we are still not thinking. What does this mean? When we are on our paths in the so called formal education, are we not thinking? We “cover a lot of content” and write essays about them in culturally accepted forms. Does this not constitute as thinking? Dears he suggest that this is not what thinking is about? What am I not thinking when I am writing this blog post? What “withdraws” from me, from us?

I feel a connection could be found from Finland, from Yrjö Engeström’s thinking (the use of word intended), and his theory of Expansive Learning. In one of his books, Kehittävä työntutkimus: perusteita, tuloksia ja haasteita [in Finnish, sorry folks], he refers to Bateson’s levels of learning [in English].

These matters connect with Heidegger and his thinking. For us to learn, we very often think about the content and not with it or how it affects our own thinking and frames of reference. I have not followed this idea through, but for me this sounds something to be also connected with Jonassen’s “learning with technology“. We need to ponder what terms such as “medium” and “technology” mean to us. Information and communications technology. Technologies, weather digital or for example processes, are to support humans to achieve something easier. [How] is information and communications technology helping us learn thinking?

We are fond of consuming and examining content, but we do not pause and reflect upon it, or ourselves in the event of learning.

Reflection is also one of those troublesome terms. With reflection, I mean thinking about our own thinking, and thinking about ourselves in the middle of the event of learning; Do we just try to hack the game of learning, how to beat the system (Bateson’s level 2 learning), or do we actively inquiry into how the learning events and stimuli affect our thinking, questioning our very being and thus really try to learn and think? In general we are too fond of following the routes that please us, that make us feel good, rarely asking could something else that does not seem to please us in the beginning to be more important for our understanding.

To think, is to think and reflect the world and ourselves in it, the stimuli we receive and how they affect us. Great deal of evidence shows that we are very picky in our personal theory making, too often we assimilate new information to our existing patterns of thought. I feel that to truly be in the world, is to question the stimuli, processes, our own thinking and how we are in the events we are thrown to. To look beyond those in a larger systemic context.

So what is the message of learning? As I’ve been attending to a media convergence course conserning myself both as tutor (a role assigned to me) and a learner (a role assigned by me), I feel obliged to refer to McLuhan and his “Media is the message”. What are the messages of higher education as a medium [of learning]? The message is written in the processes, in how we act our roles during the play, on what we spend our time in the university and what we try to achieve, and how. The message is quite easily there to be noticed if one reads the world and the word (thanks to Joan Wink and of course to Freire for this nice thinking tool).

Heideggers suggests that the most thought provoking in our thought provoking time is that we are still not thinking. If we are not thinking in the events of learning, what are we doing?