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Posted by on Jun 21, 2011

A moral philosophy of mobility

Reader beware: rambling post ahead. Hence the music below (Cathart) in case you want to listen to something to spell the time.

I manage a blog for work as well as this one for my own personal writing and I had recently posted about a new book from a content partner of ours, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh on the moral philosophy of plants. The book is called Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany by Matthew Hall and had me intrigued as it attempts to demonstrate that the plant kingdom, often considered as devoid of moral content, exhibits many of the same characteristics that allows us to establish moral environments in other areas of our lives. Hall does this through esatablishing an historical antecedent in Western philosophy, botanical history, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Pagan mythologies and Indigenous worldviews. Plants have traditionally had moral content, just not often exercised. A few quotes from the book seemed applicable to this realm of mobile learning that I often write about.

In light of the global assault on our plant based ecosystems, Hall uses both religious and contemporary scientific thought to argue that plants are intelligent, relational beings who are the appropriate recipients of care and respect.

The appropriate recipients of care and respect. Intelligent, relational beings. Active agents in our sensemaking processes, our navigation through this waking life. I think this seems relatively applicable to mobile technology as intelligent agents, environmental structure. I am thinking more ubiquitous technology here, but even handheld mobile technology, wearable technology, all of it speaks to agents that influence moral decisions, interactions. They influence our ability to discern in this world. Posthuman and cyborg influences abound here. A further quote from Hall takes it a bit further.

Largely because it is depicted as devoid of the attributes which require human attention- such as mentality, agency, and volition- nature is left out of the sphere of human moral consideration.

For nature, that is more or less merely an erroneous depiction as countless studies (and even several blog posts from the aforementioned work blog) have demonstrated agency in plants dealings with their environment. Mentality maybe not, but it is hard to argue against agency with spores guns and zombie ants. And this philosphical construct can extend to technology as assistive, as environmental, as supplemental in deciphering discernment points in our moral universe. Therefore, it stands to reason that we evaluate mobile technology (principally our use of it) as highly moral in that it augments human capacity and extends our moral environments a bit further.

So technology can extend our moral arena, lace our physical realities with digital additives, reconfigure and redefine. But what of mobility itself? That motion, the whirling dervish of human existence? How do we reposition our learning, understanding of self, and understanding our worlds as moving targets? Fluid, rhizome-like, organic as the plant creeping alongside the tree. To understand perhaps that interfacing with a computer, that dynamic, was the aberration of about 40 years and that we are returning to situations that echo our learning past. Foraging, scavenging, sensemaking. Which all fits quite well with posthumanism as evident in the following passage (in an incredibly lazy piece of writing, I pull directly from Wikipedia-however, I have read the source work as well so maybe just lazy referening, not lazy research).

The posthuman is a speculative being that represents or seeks to enact a re-writing of what is generally conceived of as human. It is the object of posthumanist criticism, which critically questions Renaissance humanism, a branch of humanist philosophy which claims that human nature is a universal state from which the human being emerges; human nature is autonomous, rational, capable of free will, and unified in itself as the apex of existence. Thus, the posthuman recognizes imperfectability and disunity within him or herself, instead understanding the world through context and heterogeneous perspectives while maintaining intellectual rigour and a dedication to objective observations of the world. Key to this posthuman practice is the ability to fluidly change perspectives and manifest oneself through different identities. The posthuman, for critical theorists of the subject, has an emergent ontology rather than a stable one; in other words, the posthuman is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can “become” or embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives.

A process of always becoming, emerging, embodying different perspectives and identities as need or actualization dictate. It fits mobility generally in this process of perpetual emergence and knowing. The first step, at least pedagogically, was acknowledghing that knowledge itself is fluid and socially constructed (constructivism, connectivism, even activity theory to some degree); following that, it is a short walk to believe that the knower of fluid knowledge, the individuals themselves, are in perpetual states of construction. So mobility as a philosophy certainly has pedagogical antecedents.

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So, as mobile technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, as mobile learning becomes if not the standard then certainly not the aberration of learning, then we will find an actual discussion of the moral agency of mobility and the assistive technology that helps us make sense of it all. This is beyond the digital divide discussion (however pertinent) or access to the internet being a human right, although that certainly contributes to the discussion. It is more the notion that technology is not merely secondary, but expansive, augmentative, an active agent in defining what it means to be human. Whenever and wherever technology is appropriated for human interaction (with other humans or their environments) then that has moral substance. Discernment follows capacity. And how can I not end in as pompus a fashion as possible with a Foucault quote? The quote is spot on, though:

Any person, brought into the presence of this fact, stops for a few moments and remains pensive and silent; and then generally leaves, carrying with him forever a sharper, keener sense of our incessant motion through space.

And our incessant appropriation of motion through space in our perpetual process of emerging, of knowing. I like this embrace of perpetual emergence (and avoidance of permanent structure) as I believe the modern learner, the modern knower will be working against their own perception of knowing, not some social construct perpetuated over a course of years and years. There will be less to react to, a la James Joyce and modernism, and more in terms of appropriating, managing, and shifting. If this subject interests you at all, I strongly encourage you to investigate the real thinkers in this space,

  • Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002), 1088 pages. (incredibly difficult to read, but very good). 
  • Haraway, Donna J, “Situated Knowledges” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Routledge, New York: 1991. (classic)
  • Hayles, N. Katherine (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University Of Chicago Press.
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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant. A great blog all-round! A joy to read.

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