Film and philosophy

Blackwells recently started to publish a series of philosophy books called “Philosophy and Pop Culture,” with titles such as Family Guy and Philosophy, Mad Men and Philosophy, and Batman and Philosophy. These books introduce serious philosophical themes such as knowledge, remembering, identity, sociability, individualism, objectivity, truth, and value. The philosopher Slovoj Zizek arguably introduced this trend to draw on film to illustrate, but also to advance complex theoretical understanding, in the early 1990s with books such as Enjoy your symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out and Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Some think such excursions into popular media devalue and trivialize profoundly important questions. Can any media content be used to illustrate theoretical and philosophical issues? From Battleship Potemkin and Rear Window to SpongeBob and Naruto: is it all valid philosophical fare? Is there a difference between a movie that is profound and one that is merely illustrative? Which films fall into either category?


Exclusion and the Internet

Whatever people think about the Internet as a means of providing opportunity, restoring an informed and active citizenry, overcoming social barriers, and realising Enlightenment educational objectives, access to digital networks is uneven. The Internet really belongs to highly literate, economically progressive individuals, groups and nations. Like all new and pervasive technologies, the Internet is implicated in the reconfiguration of social relations, and, whatever its merits or demerits, those who are not connected are at a disadvantage. As data and information becomes increasingly available to those connected, so it becomes less accessible to those outside the network. The network provides opportunities for some but excludes others. Is this portrayal of the injustices concealed by the rhetoric of ubiquitous access accurate?

Creative Artificial Intelligence

Harold Cohen once said of his painting program AARON (

AARON exists; it generates objects that hold their own more than adequately, in human terms, in any gathering of similar, but human-produced, objects, and it does so with a stylistic consistency that reveals an identity as clearly as any human artist’s does. It does these things, moreover, without my own intervention. I do not believe that AARON constitutes an existence proof of the power of machines to think, or to be creative, or to be self-aware, to display any of those attributes coined specifically to explain something about ourselves. It constitutes an existence proof of the power of machines to do some of the things we had assumed required thought, and which we still suppose would require thought, and creativity, and self-awareness, of a human being.

If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the ‘real thing?’ If it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?

These last questions infect more or less all discourse about computers and creativity, or indeed computers and intelligence. Perhaps to answer them we need a much clearer idea about what “intelligence” and “creativity” actually are. A lot of hot air has been generated around those terms, and they are arguably no closer to being clarified. What we can be reasonably clear about is what computation is, what computers are actually doing. We can characterise computational processes and consider their potential, and whether they have limits. But this seems to leave much still open.

Later on Cohen said (

I don’t regard AARON as being creative; and I won’t, until I see the program doing things it couldn’t have done as a direct result of what I had put into it. That isn’t currently possible, and I am unable to offer myself any assurances that it will be possible in the future. On the other hand I don’t think I’ve said anything to indicate definitively that it isn’t possible. Many of the things we see computer programs doing today would have been regarded as impossible a couple of decades ago; AARON is surely one of them.

Can we ever get beyond this pragmatic agnosticism?

Network Nation

Changes in computer and communication technologies and the move to a complex information-based society have made this form of communication the cheapest, most convenient, and potentially most powerful option for geographically dispersed groups of people who must regularly exchange information and opinions.

This is an account of the promise of “computerized conferencing and related technologies” presented by Hiltz and Turoff in their ground breaking book The Network Nation, first published in 1978 (p.30). The text suggests that the deployment of such communications media is optional. Thirty years later no one can live without mobile phones, messaging, Skype, and social media, or can they?

Prosumer utopia

In their book Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams conclude that “profound changes in the nature of technology, demographics, and the global economy are giving rise to powerful new models of production based on community, collaboration, and self organization rather than hierarchy and control.” We customers co-create goods and services to become what are known as “prosumers.” That new technologies bring about a better, fairer and more democratic society is an old sentiment, echoing nineteenth century hopes about the introduction of steam, rail travel, and electricity. Are predictions about a technologically enhanced new “big society” just fantasies? Do such aspirations, no matter how unrealistic, motivate technological society towards improvement? Are utopian fantasies just delusions that keep us acquiescent and compliant under the domination of capitalism?

Proposed mixed use utopian development, Bahrain

Proposed mixed use utopian development, Bahrain

Get a life coach

To improve your life you need to get a better metaphor. So say online advertisements for life coach partnering. What’s your metaphor: juggler, acrobat, traveller, detective, chameleon, marching band, tsunami, electric blanket, dartboard, onion, endangered species? Who or what are you when you create, write, design, invent, compose and perform? When you create do you surf untamed seas of mobile metaphors, plunge into their turgid darkness and emerge encrusted with lustrous pearls bloated with steaming genius? Do you need metaphors to create? Is this all just a bit extreme?

Acrobat, Montmartre, Paris

Acrobat at Montmartre in Paris, Summer 2010

Hands off the body

Smears and greasy finger prints characterise the world of mobile hand-held touch screen technologies. DNA residues left by skin and sweat on keyboards and touchpads testify to the tangibility of everyday computing. Experimental and commercial products encourage average computer users to deploy their whole bodies in digital interaction, whether at work or play. Small eye movements by the mobility-impaired are amplified by digital processing to improve body capabilities. Game environments, 3D social environments, and SGI scenes in movies are populated by virtual bodies animated by movements captured from human actors, animals and algorithms. Everyday bodies are artificially and digitally implanted, tagged, scanned, patched and enhanced. Are these mediated digital interventions making our bodies any healthier, better off, safer, more active, or more expressive? In the quest for body enhancement are our “actual” bodies becoming superfluous? Any transforming technology brings about a reaction. Is there any evidence of a return to the body, untethered to the network, free, outdoorsy, unimproved, glitchy and sensuous?