Reflection on Period I: MA Media Studies: Digital Cultures

Photo credit: Jill Heyer

During the course of this last eight weeks in the MA program we have covered a diverse and interesting array of topics. From the hopes, dreams, practicalities and problems surrounding Blockchain technologies, to the possibilities and concerns expressed regarding the use of Augmented Reality in a variety of fields, the themes presented in the two periods have been multi-faceted and fascinating.

Naturally, this does not mean I didn’t have my personal favourites. Firstly, there was a philosophical principle discussed during the very first week of the course Real Virtualities coined by Marshall McLuhan which I found very poignant and which has stuck with me throughout the rest of this period. To put it briefly, at the risk of presenting it as simplistic, McLuhan contends that the ‘medium’ of a technological artifact ‘is the message’. Essentially, he claims that arguments made by technological instrumentalists; that technological devices are mere neutral tools for man to use and can thus be employed both for good and for evil, is naive folly. For McLuhan, such a view overlooks an obvious yet insummountably important fact; that the medium is the message, that any technology, be it the railway, the telephone, the internet or the computer, changes fundamentally our understandings of, perceptions of and experiences the world because it mediates these experiences. Before the train, McLuhan says, the concept of both time and space were phenomenally different; even expensive travel was slow, one could not be expected to move from one side of the country to the other for anything but matters of the utmost importance, even timezones were different, with one province not needing to keep the same time as the other, as no message or person could ever travel fast enough for it to matter. The railway changed all of this, yet when we use it today, we hardly notice all the effects it has had and still has on our perception of reality. This concept, so simple yet so rich with possibilities for application, particularly in the digital age, is certainly one I will remember and may return to.

Further and not entirely unrelated, the discussion during the course Transformations in Digital Cultures covering the creation of, gendering of, employment of and imagined futures for humanoid robots in society was highly intriguing. The creation of such robots, especially when they are assigned a binary gender and placed in specific social roles has significant cultural, ethical and political implications. On one hand, if we, for example, place a robot designed to present as normatively female in the role of a housekeeper, carer, nurse or sex-worker, does this not reinforce harmful and dated stereotypes and assumptions about the roles which women ‘ought to’ hold in society, assumptions against which feminism and the gender equality movement have fought for so long? On the other hand, could not the very ability to assign, modulate, recalibrate and tinker the gender of a robot be a catalyst for a more flexible, nuanced and redefined view of gender as a whole, one which sees it not only in robots, but also in people, as something less rigid and less important, with this significance instead shifting to the central question of who they are, what they do and how they contribute to the world around them? In all of this, what role do the biases of the robot’s creators play in such a dynamic, and what can or should be done to mitigate this? And even then, none of this addresses the possibility that we may at some point need to consider these robots not just as devices, but fellow beings, beings who we may be obliged to recognise as having rights.

Such questions are very contextual, very inter-related and very difficult to answer. We are certainly not able to predict all the possible outcomes are faced with seeing these new robotic agents, and their prolonged interactions with humans, in practice. Nonetheless, by talking to their creators, their promotors, the members of the public eager to meet them, and those apprehensive of their approach, we may at least be equipt with tools to be able to critically analyse and adapt to the changes they bring to our society in ways that benefit both humans and our robotic counterparts. It also occurs to me that these kinds of questions, potentially enriched by theories such as that of McLuhan, could potentially be very interesting to study for a Master’s Thesis. In thinking of this, it is also important to note that the academic skills trained during this course, phenomenology, ethnography and qualitative interviewing, could each or together provide invaluable if I wish to explore the concrete lived-experience or communal experiences of interacting with these robots, and/or wish to engage the creators, critics or enthusiasts in an in-depth dialogue.

All in all, I have been satisfied with and had by interest piqued by the content of these courses. I look forward to seeing how the things I have learned return and are expanded on in the upcoming modules.

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