Once upon a Nietzsche…

In a haunting story that has always remained with me, Friedrich Nietzsche tells:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.
One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly – as though the world’s axis turned within it…
Has Nietzsche described our fate? What do we really know? How do we come to know it? What knowledge is of the most worth (and for what or for whose purposes)? What are the tensions between the knower, known and the unknown? Where does knowledge reside? To what extent is human knowledge made rather than uncovered? My cluster of questions, and subsequent return to Nietzsche’s story, is provoked by a colleague urging me to read Deleuze’s doctoral thesis, in which I’m struck by/stuck on this passage:
How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow – or rather, to make it impossible.
Nietzsche’s storyline in “Truth & Lies In a Nonmoral Sense” reveals that “knowing” does not proceed logically in any case, suggesting that all the material within and with which we build our beings, our stories and our truths are derived from what Nietzsche calls “never-never land.” According to Nietzsche, knowledge is most certainly not derived from the essence of things as everything arises “from the equation of unequal things.”
The margins of my mind are blurring as I find myself trapped in a perpetuating purgatory of knowing, but not knowing… with no easy way out of my boundlessly boundaried state of being between “knowing that I don’t know” and “unknowing that which I know.” Proud, promiscuous words are tempting, but not telling… Help!!

Totally like whatever, you know?

A poem by Taylor Mali:

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences – so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not –
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Biology of Knowledge… Biology of Love?

How is life related to the mind?
Is mind continuous with life?
How do we know what we know?
What’s love got to do with it?

Maturana & Varela bring forth these questions in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987). They believe that “living is sense making” and that “all life is cognitive.” While these phrases don’t have the popular power of “cogito ergo sum,” they are good reminders that cognition and life are co-emergent and inseparable. All experiences change the brain and in turn, our level of brain functioning shapes the content of daily experiences.

If you are curious about the mind and the way that it works, The Tree of Knowledge is very readable. “Knowing how we know,” is the main subject of this book, which outlines a unified scientific conception of mind, matter and life. Maturana & Varela’s view of cognition has important social and ethical implications as they assert the only world humans can have is the one that we create together through the actions of our coexistence (p. 248):

“We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth. If we have succeeded in bringing the reader around to this reflection, this book will have achieved its second purpose.”

In addition to their beautiful conclusion, Maturana & Varela (p. 246-247) express how:

This [love] is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness... To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet from what we have said in this book it should be apparent that such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots.

So, to live as human is not simply to know and feel, but also to love. Life and cognition are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other, and love brings forth all of the diverse possibilities for our tender true humanity to be.


Ways of Being-In-The-World


[similes of being]

BLOCKHEADS: Like letters carved in rock

Blockheads are rigid in thought and action, accepting only their way, unable to see beyond their impenetrable blocked ego. Blockheads live a hard life on the wrong side of the metaphorical door, shutting them out of privilege, opportunity, awareness, softening and feeling. They freeze feelings and turn ideas into stone with their dogmatic ideals that require absolute obedience. Their one-sided ways, the Buddha says, are like letters carved in rock, for they cannot see beyond the blocked entrance. They cannot move beyond their blocked ego so when they act, they act out blindly and cruelly.

These characters live among us today in the form of White supremacists, political terrorists, rapists, gay bashers, hate mongers, and at times: me and you. How do we unfreeze our blockheaded habits and drill our stubborn consciousness? These are not heady acts: too many of us live inside our heads, far too often. How do we see and hear a trickling of the sand through the rock of unexamined and habituated beliefs?

SPLITHEADS: Like letters written in sand

Splitheads do not open the metaphorical door to more awakened paths, however, they have glimpses into alternative sides of themselves. While not impenetrable, they allow “the social self” to take the place of “the authentic self” until the difference between the two is blurred. Splitheads are playing a part in a script written by their social roles and habits, living according to others’ expectations, forgetting who they are, sleepwalking through life, and not looking for cracks of awareness in the rock..

FOUNTAINHEADS: Like letters written in running water

Fountainheads are neither this nor that, but coming and going, like Bakhtin’s mode of linguistic homelessness (where no one ideal is grasped). Fountainheads do not retain their passing thoughts and their minds are always clear: the fluid self, freely moving, living energy, with mental alertness, inner strength and mindfulness.

The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Kosaido Printing, 1990)
Like Letters in Running Water: A Mythopoetics of Curriculum (Mary Aswell Doll, 2000)

Maturana & Varela on Knowledge & Cabbages

What cabbages do you insist upon carrying with you?

Perhaps this question will make more sense if you read a Sufi story told by Maturana & Varela:

A story is told of an island somewhere and its inhabitants. The people longed to move to another land where they could have a healthier and better life. The problem was that the practical arts of swimming and sailing had never been developed – or may have been lost long before. For that reason, there were some people who simply refused to think of alternatives to life on the island, whereas others intended to seek a solution to thier problems locally, without any thought of crossing the waters. From time to time, some islanders reinvented the arts of swimming and sailing. Also from time to time a student would come up to them, and the following exchange would take place:

“I want to swin to another land.”

“for that you have to learn how to swim. Are you ready to learn?”

“Yes, but I want to take with me my ton of cabbages.”

“What cabbages?”

“The food I’ll need on the other side or wherever it is.”

“But what if there’s food on the other side?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not sure. I have to bring my cabbages with me.”

“But you won’t be able to swim with a ton of cabbages. It’s too much weight.”

“Then I can’t learn how to swim. you call my cabbages weight. I call them my basic food.”

“Suppose this were an allegory and, instead of talking about cabbages we talked about fixed ideas, presuppositions, or certainties?”

“Hummm… I’m going to bring my cabbages to someone who understands my needs.”

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. [p. 249-250]

Shah, I. (1971). The Sufis. New York: Anchor Books. [p. 2-15]

What is truer than the truth?

ANSWER: The Story.

Isabel Allende asks this question as she begins her inspiring TED Talk on Tales of Passion. Paraphrasing a Jewish proverb, Allende believes that the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives often reveal as much (or more) about us as hard-evidenced facts.

We are all storytellers who, individually and collectively, lead storied lives. Storied lives that are lived before they are ever told. We understand the past in terms of our stories, just as we seek to understand the future in stories. We take our stories with us as we journey through our lives and our worlds, often finding a hidden presence of our stories in others.

I think there is something strangely satisfying and community-affirming when I find my own story told through the story of another. One such instance recently occurred in my laundry room, a rather serendipitous moment in which a creatively-enlightened man shared this quote with me (by critic Barbara Hardy, 1968): we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative…”

In Qualitative Research: Challenging the orthodoxies in standard academic discourse(s), Kouritzin, Norman and Piquemal (2009) remind us that we are living in stories all the time and we are continually attending to the stories of others. As such, they seek research that represents story as an important and legitimate research methodology. Rather ironically and in spite of the pervasive prevalence of stories in our lives, the scientific method has weakened confidence in the validity of story, perceiving storytelling to have irrational and inconsequential worth for critically-esteemed academic research. This impoverished belief in the worth of our stories frustrates me.

From my perspective, scientific principles are stories, logically told to a humanity that dangerously assumes science is the absolute truth. Instead of trying to close down understanding, it is important to be always and already questioning, with the hope of opening-up fixed meanings to a multiplicity of possibilities and wide-ranging insights that integrate storied knowing (listening to people and learning from their experiences). For the stuff of our existence includes a totality (not a dichotomy) of atoms, molecules, chemical reactions, relationships, desires, hopes and stories.

How do you know what is truth? Do you agree with Freire’s personal testament: “I know with my entire body, with feelings, with passion, and also with reason” (Pedagogy of the Heart, 1997). I believe that we are transformed by our imaginations more than we are changed by intellectual ideals, political urgings or ethical convictions. Telling of the power of story, Arundhati Roy boldly exclaims:

“Our strategy should be not only to confront the empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”

Your thoughts, your stories?


Technoethics (TE)

EggRobotoThe growing field of technoethics is based on the premise that it’s of vital importance to encourage dialogue aimed at determining the ethical use of technology, guarding against its misuse, and devising thoughtful principles that help to guide new technological advances for the benefit society in a variety of social contexts and ethical dimensions.

Technoethics is not only an intellectually analytical process, it is also a cultural product with serious implications for understanding some of the “none-too-visible” dimensions of how policies and decisions about technology are made.

Most people agree that technology drives our society, but precious few think about the way that technology changes our society, our morality and our ethical being-in-the-more-than-human-world. Technoethics is an interdisciplinary research area concerned with all moral and ethical aspects of a technological society. Typically, scholars in technoethics have a tendency to theorize technology and ethics as interconnected, co-constitutive and embedded in life and society. As today’s ethical challenges are so great and the dangers of the misuse of technology are so global, entailing a potential catastrophe for all humankind, we need a much higher level of public involvement with diverse perspectives to inform technoethics.

How might we develop a moral compass to use collectively as a gage for ethical thought and technological action, such that we can go forth together as a united human family without getting stuck in political divisions and cultural differences? How might we nurture a holistic and integrative technoethic that values compassion as the key motivation for our technological endeavors, such that our well-being and the well-being of our planet transcends technology’s relentless lust for progress, status, profit and competition? In addition to compassion, I believe that we need awareness of our vulnerability for being misguided in such a rapidly changing technological reality, as well as humility for the fragility of our planet. You might object that values of compassion, humility and vulnerability are unrealistic or of secondary significance, but the earth is our only home and as our human family faces the unknown frontiers of a technological world, what other option do we have?

PJ’s Philosophy of Technoethics:

The more we want to learn about technology,
the more we need to understand about being human.


Heidegger’s Questions Concerning Technology:

In Demythologizing Heidegger, Caputo (1993, p.137) talks about Heidegger’s questioning that is built by thinking and how we must preserve our space for dwelling: “The need for dwelling is not merely that we do not know the essence of dwelling but that we do not know that we do not know, that we do not know that this is necessary, what is needed most of all. What we really lack is thought, not shelter; what we really need to provide for is thinking, not housing… The house that we really lack is the house of being, the home we really need is to make our home in a thoughtful poetic language in which we can ponder the essence of dwelling.”

As Heidegger argues, the Questions Concerning Technology (1977) really matter. The quality of our lives and the very definition of life itself depends upon which questions get asked and who gets to do the answering. If we do not think the questions through ourselves, then (for better or for worse) the answers will be inevitably forced upon us. “But where danger is, grows the saving power also… Heidegger (1977, p.35) believes that the coming to presence of technology holds in itself what we least suspect: the possible arising of its saving power. As we get closer and closer to technology’s danger, the ways into its saving power begin to shine more brightly as we become more questioning. Revealing these questions is the essential nature of technoethics.

TL&T International Conference

Submit your proposals and abstracts! An exciting international conference is advancing upon the horizon…

Culture, Design, Sustainability,
Human Ingenuity

June 17-21, 2010
Vancouver, British Columbia


Technological accomplishments characterize and transform cultures, and yet their relevance is undervalued and their place remains obscure in today’s learning institutions, in government policy, and in the public mind. With implications for culture, design, sustainability, and ingenuity, the conference and exposition explore how technological learning and thinking are celebrated, dismissed, taken for granted, or mystified. What mechanisms work for, or against, the integration of technological learning and thinking in democratic societies? What are their implications for culture, design, sustainability and ingenuity? What is the nature of technological learning and thinking?

The conference organizing committee invites papers that address various dimensions or problems of technological learning and thinking. Scholarship is welcome from across the disciplines including Complexity Science, Design, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Education, History, Indigenous Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology of Technology, and STS. The conference is designed to inspire conversation between the learning and teaching of technology and the cultural, environmental, and social study of technology.

In addition to academic papers, this conference features an exposition of student and professional projects that provide examples of culture, design, sustainability, and human ingenuity at work. The exposition will be held on the last two days (20-21 June 2010) of the conference in a large exhibit hall on the University of British Columbia campus. Projects are welcome from all ages: teachers and professors are especially encouraged to enlist their students in meeting the project challenges and timelines.

Email PJ if you want to discuss your ideas or collaborate, and know that I’m totally interested to hear from you! Visit the conference site for more specific details: http://learningcommons.net

Gaming & Robotics Summer Camp For Youth

Greetings! We are now accepting applications for 101 Technology Fun, a summer research camp for youth to learn how to:

  • design and program robots using Lego Mindstorms NXT and Pico Cricket
  • make computer games and virtual worlds
  • create digital videos and photos
  • be a technology researcher in a groundbreaking UBC study

We welcome ALL youth to apply and no previous experience is necessary. EXTREME FUN is a must!! Registration is complimentary for all selected participants. A delicious lunch and nutritious snacks will be provided daily.

CAMP DATES: July 20-24  –or–  July 27-31 (9am-3pm)

Step 1:
Download this application form
Step 2: Please email your completed application to

FOR MORE INFO: Please view the 101 TECHNOLOGY FUN Information Kit.

AGE 15+ We have an ADVANCED ROBOTIC camp that may interest you.

Please contact Fareed Teja or PJ Rusnak with your questions and/or comments.

Do we want machines making moral decisions?

What are you reading these days? I’m slowly turning the pages of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrongby Wendell Wallach & Colin Allen (2009). An excerpt to share:

“Does humanity really want computers making morally important decisions? Many philosophers of technology have warned about humans abdicating responsibility to machines. Movies and magazines are filled with futuristic fantasies regarding the dangers of advanced forms of artificial intelligence. Emerging technologies are always easier to modify before they become entrenched. However it is not often possible to predict accurately the impact of a new technology on society until well after it has been widely adopted. Some critics think, therefore, that we should err on the side of caution, and relinquish the development of potentially dangerous technologies. We believe, however, that market and political forces will prevail and will demand the benefits that these technologies can provide. Thus, it is incumbent upon anyone with a stake in this technology to address head-on the task of implementing moral decision making in computers, robots and virtual bots within computer networks.”

Eeeeeek! Introducing the emerging (and rapidly expanding) field of robot ethics, Wallach & Allen convincingly argue that as robots take on more and more responsibility, they must be programmed with moral responsibility and moral decision-making abilities. The authors think that even if moral agency for machines is a long way away, it is necessary to start building a functional kind of morality in which artificial moral agents possess basic ethical sensitivity (as robots are already engaged in high-risk situations, such as the Predator drones and the more heavily armed Reaper drones now flying in Pakistan).

Yes, we need to examine, design and create more socially engaged robots and machines that are capable of telling right from wrong. However, if today’s ethical theories and human values are not adequate for living well in the world, then there will be subsequent challenges building artificial moral agents to think and act virtuously. For I believe the problem is not with our technology, the problem is with the people using/designing technology.

Despite all of the remarkable achievements of a technologically advanced society, humans are still a conflicting mix of genius/stupidity; love/self-hatred; peace/anger; wealth/poverty; modesty/narcissism; desire/delusion… I have yet to meet someone who has not suffered, who has no problems nor self-destructing habits, who has no worries. Historically speaking, religion has offered The Way, The Truth and The Light for contending with the evils of the human race, the problems of human suffering, and human death. Technology is now beginning to realize the dreams of theology, and I find this spiritually unnerving…

Can we build intelligent machines with a morality that surpasses our flawed human morality? If human-autonomy for robots is possible, should it be allowed? Else, do we want our robots to be forever relegated to a slave morality such that they will never make choices that are harmful to humanity nor threaten human dominion over the world?