© Evan Selinger and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Selinger was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 31st, 2011
Dr. Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Graduate Program Faculty at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability. He received his Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in 2003, where he specialized in phenomenology and avant-garde STS theory. During his time at Stony Brook, Evan was involved in Don Ihde’s internationally renowned Technoscience Research Group, and worked on the fusion of artificial life and analytic philosophy with Patrick Grim’s Group for Logic and Formal Semantics. Recently, he has been a visiting professor at the Danish Research School in Philosophy, History of Ideas and the University of Twente (Center for Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Science), and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. He is Editor of the Springer journal ‘Philosophy and Technology’ and book Series ‘Philosophy of Engineering and Technology,’ and has published extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, ethics and policy of science and technology, phenomenology, and applied ethics. His monograph Expertise: Philosophical Reflections was published by Automatic ⁄VIP Press in 2011, and his latest co-edited books are 5 Questions: Sustainability Ethics (Automatic ⁄VIP Press 2010), Rethinking Theories and Practices of Imaging (Palgrave McMillan 2009), and New Waves in Philosophy of Technology (Palgrave McMillan 2009).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Answers to questions like this tend to be interesting only if they have a mythic feel to them, particular so when, as I’m asked to do, the task requires considering one’s life in media res for purposes of public consumption.
Providing a mythic narrative requires tailoring a multitude of diverse experiences to fit a recognizable plot of adversity and hope. It thus requires some degree of fiction. I’m willing give you the needed fiction not because I’m ashamed or unimpressed by the truth, but because myths serve many useful functions. Perhaps most importantly, myths help us manage complexity while providing ethical parables to draw inspiration from. And this, after all, is one of the reasons why questions like yours get asked in interviews. People read interviews to find their story told by others. They want to be inspired by others so that they are better prepared to affirm how they handle their own difficult choices. Offering this meta-commentary doesn’t make me immune to the same basic and perhaps primal tendency. At this stage of my life, I may be an established professional, but I often still think in mythic terms. I guess this means that if, as some espouse, the philosophical enterprise is supposed to oppose mythic thinking, I’m a lousy philosopher.
According to my often-repeated origin story, I decided to become a university professor as a partly conscious and partly intuitive response designed to counter emotionally impacting forces outside of my control. To be more specific but still brief, in order to deal with a troubling family life, I left home on my 16th birthday and became legally emancipated from my biological parents soon after. Being on my own while attending high school in an affluent Long Island suburb was extremely difficult. But, it had its enlightening benefits as well. Through an outsider’s status, I developed a sense that powerful forces existed that shaped social interactions. Although unacknowledged by others and too subtle for me to identify, it was clear that some of these forces promoted misrecognition, while others furthered injustice.
To survive in the absence of common goods, I experimented with relationships rooted in dependence, developed interesting forms of collaboration, and embraced unusual existential categories. To give but one example of the latter, as an adult I became legally adopted by the Schachters, the family who had long played a supportive, surrogate role. Despite agreement between the parents and four siblings, the legal system took a long time before it was ready to authorize my adoption. The pace wasn’t due to the slowness associated with bureaucracy in general. Rather, the law wasn’t equipped to make quick judgment on extraordinary kinship relations of this kind.
In my mythic narrative, therefore, I became a university professor in philosophy to better grasp and help others understand the dominant characters in the story told thus far: subtle but strong forces, unusual dynamics, emergent processes and improvisational responses to them, creative collaborations, extended kinships, and deeply vexing issues of responsibility. Given that we’re living in a time of increased interdependency and complexity, these characters aren’t exclusive to my “autobiomythical” story (to use a phrase coined by Jathan Sadowsi, a philosophy undergrad I’m currently working with). They feature prominently in a collective mythology.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
The role of the university professor has changed tremendously since I was an undergraduate (1992-1996). At that time, Binghamton University had a curricular vision—at least in Liberal Arts—that placed it on the Left side of the culture wars. A spirit of multiculturalism and recognition justice combined with classes in area and identity studies guided students more than the traditional canon, which was routinely denounced as chauvinist and imperialist. If Allan Bloom would have seen our syllabi, he would decried this preference for HERstories over Shakespeare as a tragic closing of the American mind illegitimately made possible by the taxpayer’s dime.
I was moved by this environment that called for appreciation and respect being given to experiences of minority and oppressed groups. My peers were finally being asked to consider experiences unlike their own. Authorities were finally requiring them to ask hard questions about the price marginal groups paid for the dominant powers to increase their well-being. Nothing like this happened in my high school. Then, as per affluent suburban logic, outsider stories, including my own, were totally alien and supposed to remain that way.
While the problems that motivated my teachers remain in various forms, today’s college students face a different basic challenge. The pantheon of gods that populate their mythologies include new figures, while heroes that once were up to the challenge of redemption are falling on their swords. Let me put this point in less metaphoric terms. Today’s students were kids during the September 11th World Trade Center tragedy. They grew up with constant “terror alerts,” and as they aged, they became exposed to a collapsed global economy and increasing broadcasts announcing the possibility that global warming might lead to existential catastrophe. When students enter the university now, they do so fully knowing that the middle class is being eroded, both short and long-term prospects look bleak, and professors lack the knowledge of what needs to occur to make things better. This last bit captures an important distinction. My professors were experts in the logic of marginalization, and they wanted to use that expertise to help us be more responsible to others when we became successful—an endstate that was more or less assumed. Today’s professors lack the expertise to cope with the prevailing “wicked problems” (a specific category of complex problems identified by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in the 1960’s) that include terrorism and global warming. They don’t know what to do with their students to ensure that the world still offers them opportunities to be successful!
Your question emphasizes media, and an understanding of this important “character” is required to understand the myths circulating now. The current generation of college-age students recognize that the world is filled with complex problems that prevailing institutions and leaders are ill-equipped to deal with. They understand that their time in higher education might not be enough to empower them to subsequently live at the same level of wealth, comfort, or even assured survival as their parents. If these students don’t feel completely powerless, they at least feel scared and insignificant. Social media plays a critical role here as a tool against their understandable despondency. Commentators are prone to overlook this point. When they criticize shallow uses of new media as by-products of coddled and spoiled users who grew up with undeserved self-esteem as a result of reactive shifts in parental and educational styles, they turn a blind eye to important broader contexts.
What, then, of the critiques of new media? Many laments of digital narcissism are hyperbolic and overly dystopian. Still, there is truth to the idea that students see social networking and the array of on-demand, personalized media as an addictive refuge that is antithetical to the grim reality presented on the 24/7 news cycle. In this narrow horizon, everything is familiar, safe, predictable, and self-affirming. As ambient intelligence technology advances and smart phones pale in comparison to smart homes that anticipate our desires and moods and adjust the environment accordingly, it will be increasingly easy for students to distance themselves from awareness of globally experienced catastrophes. If world events continue to go poorly, there may be increased psychological pressure for them to do so, to avoid being overwhelmed by forces outside of their control.
In a similar sense, while critics often overplay their hand by pointing to the corrosive effects of video games, we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that many of the standard ones create communities where players embed themselves in micro-worlds to achieve satisfaction by giving in to tribalism and primitive behaviour. To be sure, this can be cathartic. But, catharsis alone is a limited experience. The experience of simulated quests and battles doesn’t enliven moral imagination; it doesn’t simulate the creation of new mental models; and, it doesn’t heighten deliberative skills—at least not beyond their applicability to superficial instrumental goals, like the acquisition of digital treasure. Whatever cognitive, emotional, and social rewards such games offer, time spent playing them essentially is time spent avoiding the real world’s complexity.
Of course, the point of distraction has always been avoidance and easy satisfaction. There is nothing new in wanting a time out. And, there is nothing wrong in wanting taking a break to blow off steam or avoid being overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the case at issue may differ from predecessor opportunities for procrastination by virtue of the ease by which synchronized and asynchronous group distraction can occur, as in the case of online massive multiplayer games. This situation entails significant opportunity costs. While social instincts are rewarded, rarely do opportunities exist to work with groups in immersive online environments to obtain catharsis while also furthering morally valuable ends, such as becoming better adept at addressing real collective action problems. A minority of exceptions aside, professors aren’t stepping up to transform this opportunity cost into valuable opportunity.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Any professor over 30 who sees current students, the so-called members of Generation Z, primarily as younger versions of him or herself is flat out wrong and guilty of the trespass worried about by so many Continental philosophers—namely, reducing the “other” to the “same”.
Today’s digital natives are thrust into an Internet enabled, smart phone dominated world, and grow up immersed in ubiquitous computing and microchip saturated environments that display ever-increasing amounts of ambient intelligence. In coming of age during the explosion of social networking and massive multiplayer online games, the very structure of the Generation Z brain and the basic fabric of their social experiences came to be shaped profoundly by interactive media. These cyborg citizens are primed for different interactions than those typifying my generation and previous ones, and their formative experiences differ substantially from ours. Given these differences, professors who remains content with presenting students with information that does not resonate deeply with contemporary sensibilities fail to take responsibility for helping Generation Z become leaders and conscientious citizens who are ready to address the range of contentious environmental, economic, and political problems that grab the lion’s share of headlines. Simply put, the toolkit for teaching the Industrial Age students of yore is obsolete, and the price to pay for failing to appreciate the passage of time is ineffective teaching. While tragic, such misrecognition is understandable. After all, the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century did radically transform society in ways that could not have been imagined due its ability to mass produce goods and create economies of large scale. Such a potent spectacle can be hard to get past.
A main educational goal, therefore, should be for professors to embrace the strengths, sensibilities, and proclivities of Generation Z while acknowledging the limits of their own expertise. Simply put, digital natives have skills that professors like me lack. As I previously stated, they also face challenges that didn’t plague my cohort of college students. In the face of wicked problems, they are incentivized to put their skills to good use, if given the chance. What does giving them a chance entail? Unlike the longstanding “deficit model” of education (to appropriate a phrase from the public understanding of science literature), which aspires to teach students things professors already know, we should be motivated to get students to learn the things that prove what we hope to achieve collectively is possible. In the new mythological horizon, students, not the professors, are the leading heroes. Indeed, this is the challenge of teaching students to come students to cope with wicked problems. Instructors don’t know how to solve them anymore than do leaders around the world. What we do know are the limits of moving forward on issues like innovative technological development and sustainability while being restricted to solutions that are only adequate for addressing “tame” problems. To make the most of our ignorance, the best we can do is coach today’s students to be the best digital natives they can be and exceed our wildest expectations with hardware and software that we find opaque.
If you understand the drift of what I’m saying, you’ll appreciate why I don’t believe capturing student attention is a paramount pedagogical goal. That ideal has a command-and-control feel to it, and its influence can be found at the heart of the deficit model of education. The main orientation, therefore, shouldn’t be to find a balance between distracting and necessary uses of laptops, or to razzle dazzle students with the newest media an institution supports. A better goal is to coach students to capture our attention with their surprising technologically mediated solutions to complex problems. This point brings us full-circle to my response to the last question. My professors never questioned the value of their expertise as being sufficient to bring about our success. What we need now is less self-satisfied expertise and a more experimentally open relation to coaching. Of course, to be successful, such coaching can’t be opposed to expertise; it needs to draw from it in a different way than the deficit model orients professors towards.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
In graduate school, my primary mentor was Don Ihde (Stony Brook), with Patrick Grim (Stony Brook) playing a very helpful supportive role. Harry Collins (University of Cardiff) stepped up to the plate during my time as a junior scholar, when I was trying to work out how different factions in Science and Technology Studies studied expertise. I could go on and on about their individual contributions, but this detail would risk diminishing an import general point about mentoring. Every good mentor is a shaman. Each does more than impart information and improve upon your technical abilities. Mentors fundamentally transform how you conduct research and equip you with the knowledge and skill required to navigate the myriad of obstacles that can make it difficult to pursue studies that matter. Sometimes, mentors help you frame problems differently—more productively and more interestingly. Sometimes, they encourage you to value new topics and forms of output. Sometimes, mentors enable you to see collaborators in unlikely places. Sometimes, they help you better appreciate the complexities at stake in developing a distinctive style that is worth maintaining over time.
I was lucky. My mentors contributed to all of ends. Being the recipient of such fine mentoring, I feel obligated to play it forward. I try to inspire students in my own shamanic way. And since, as mentioned in the last question, I hope to be inspired by students who can solve complex and difficult problems, I remain open to the possibility that they can serve as agents of transformation as well.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I’ve got two pearls of wisdom to offer.
The most important advice I can impart to both graduate students and junior faculty is to immerse yourselves, as soon as possible, in collaborative partnerships with researchers outside of your field as well as within your field, but who work outside your areas of expertise. In part, this should be done to enhance research. The main problems of our time require collective action, and to meet this challenge, significant academic research must be interdisciplinary and integrative. That said, my advice is not limited to matters related to the “publish or perish” imperative. To be mentally equipped for the long game, it is essential embed oneself in positive feedback loops. Unfortunately, less of day-to-day academic life provides this affirmative feedback than many idealistic graduate students expect. This is where good collaborators come in. Good collaborators do more than share information and offer co-authorship on articles and grants. They act as lifelong co-mentors, i.e., people who mentor you, while allowing you to also mentor them. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Academics are prone to making the mistake of believing that once they are no longer graduate students, they have outgrown mentoring. To avoid this fallacious thinking, everyone should acknowledge that shamans are crucial characters in academic life. Leaving graduate school doesn’t entail leaving shamans behind. Rather, it requires finding new ones, specifically peers who treat you as shamanic in return.
A related piece of advice is to form collaborations that allow humanities and social science insights to contribute to the direction that actual scientific research takes, particularly its ethical dimensions. When humanists and social science scholars remain content with the outdated model of only commenting on the logic, practice, and consequences of technical activity, they sell themselves, their colleagues, their students, and society short. It is hard to get past this passé model, however, as doing so requires becoming part of a significant multi-investigator scientific project. It can take time to find such a project, which is why early scouting is crucial.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
If the university is conceived as more than a vocational training ground, but a central place for inspiring leaders capable of addressing the most pressing problems of our time, then yes, the university is in deep crisis. Unfortunately, despite several books and a flurry of editorials being written on this issue, the needed change isn’t happening quickly enough.
With vigorous nods to the innovation imperative, universities claiming to offer a value-add toolkit of 21st century teaching tools vow to prepare students to master bold new challenges—challenges that render obsolete longstanding methodologies, pedagogies, and disciplinary boundaries. Through administrative speeches and branding material, Generation Z students are told that to in order secure a secure future that meets the demands of intergenerational justice, they must transcend an Industrial Revolution mentality. Put somewhat hyperbolically, the main shtick goes something like this: “Welcome, digital natives, to the brave and exciting new world of transformative, integrative, and translational knowledge. Get ready to update your Facebook status. You are about to tread on the experimental precipice of creative and globally responsible problem-solving. Beyond new technical skills, you are going to develop heightened ethical skills and leave academia prepared for collaborations across time and space.”
But much like the broad appeals to interdisciplinary exchange and training of the last decade, the innovation imperative claims shouldn’t be completely believed. A hype machine spews motivational rhetoric that, alas, is far too disconnected from reality. For the most part, science and engineering professors are no more excited about collaborating with humanities colleagues, including ethicists, than before. When the sociology of academic labor shines its light, iconoclastic hymns give way to solemn sermons. This is tragic because an integrative, problem-based approach that wipes out disciplinary knowledge boundaries is essential to securing the future. Take climate science as an illustrative example. An intelligent literature review shows that too many articles on climate policy in philosophy lack an adequate understanding of climate science, while way too much climate science material displays a paucity of ethical understanding.
I’ll say more about how I’m trying to buck this trend when we discuss my sustainability ethics project. For now, I’ll give one example of how I’d structure universities differently if I had the power to do so. This response brings us back to my earlier advice for graduate students and junior scholars in the liberal arts and social sciences to become embedded in scientific research projects.
In my ideal university, I’d take institutional steps to embed humanities and social science scholars into the ongoing research found occurring in the natural sciences and assorted engineering disciplines. Rather than sticking to contracts that center on the number of classes professors are obligated to teach, I’d replace part of the standard course-load with opportunities for ongoing dialog. Dialog may sound too flimsy to some administrative ears to give such a prominent role to. To these skeptics, I’d ask: How can we know and respond to the values that are embedded in research pathways? Sometimes this can only happen through real-time analysis that occurs before trajectories become too ossified to alter. When conversations about these are not compensated (as in the current system), they all too rarely happen. By contrast, I predict that if the right people were given this chance, universities would produce better sponsored research (e.g., research that is more responsive to the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts criterion) and be better equipped to train the current generation of scientists and engineers to tackle wicked problems, such as global climate change. Fortunately, I’m not the only one with this vision. Others, like Michael Gorman, who just completed a rotator term at the NSF, seem to be on the same page.
Let’s move on. You are an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a Graduate Program Faculty at the Golisano Institute of Sustainability; an award-winning instructor with a passion for collaborative writing and pedagogy as well as a philosopher of technology with a background in phenomenology. How do all the facets of your career reinforce one another?
The best way for me to answer this question is to describe the National Science Foundation supported sustainability ethics project that I’ve alluded to.
Inspired by Hubert Dreyfus’s conception of engaged and committed learning through active problem-solving and John Dewey’s advocacy of “productive inquiry,” this project aims to create a new approach to teaching sustainability ethics. Along with Tom Seager (Associate Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University), Susan Spierre (doctoral student in Sustainability at ASU), and Jathan Sadowski (undergrad philosophy major at RIT), I am developing a set of innovative pedagogical recommendations and simulations that introduce students to moral dilemmas in sustainability that are engendered by non-cooperative, game-theoretic conflicts. By placing students in emotionally resonant and cognitively taxing games that center on problems related to environmental externalities, environmental scarcity, competing generational priorities, and tensions between investment and consumption, we have set up a unique ethics laboratory in which two salient questions continually get asked: “What are my obligations to others?” and “What am I willing to risk in my own well-being to meet those obligations?” Experiments in this laboratory teach science and engineering students how to develop collaborative and deliberative skills, while inspiring them to generate and defend moral hypotheses. The project thus imparts enhanced ethical problem-solving skills to future leaders in technology and science who are increasingly be held responsible for the broader social implications of their research.
Our use of games is timely, given that the habits typifying “Generation Z” differ substantially from those of previous generations. My main collaborator Thomas Seager thinks of the difference in the following way. Predecessor generations learned teamwork, fairness, and justice by playing in the streets and sandlots as kids. To participate in any of the standard pick-up ball games required generating rules that would be fun and fair to other kids, and which justly treated special cases associated with mixed ages, integrated sexes, and fluke events. Without such ethical nuance and commitment, there wouldn’t be enough participants to play. Beyond internal considerations, ethical attention had to be extended to respectful conduct with people living on the street. Upset neighbors meant game play would end. By contrast, it is often the case that Generation Z is socialized into more structured environments, ones that fail to provide regular and inspiring opportunities for experimenting with ethical reasoning and deliberation skills amongst peers and elders. This is especially troubling, since, as mentioned in response to some of the preceding questions, the global problems they face are immensely complex and challenging.
What we’re hoping to do, therefore, is create a paradigm shift away from the read-write-discuss mode that typifies so much liberal arts and social science education, and get students to find something in games that takes them beyond distraction. Preliminary experience in teaching with these games suggests they provide students with the following positive results, including: a heightened sense of self-awareness about their own beliefs and how those beliefs relate to their actions, the courage to question components of their self-identity when faced with experiences that contradict their beliefs, increased aptitude for taking risks and acting outside of their habituated norms, the tolerance to learn from and be positively motivated by failures, increased comfort with problem discovery and improvisational solutions in unfamiliar and complex situations, the ability to distinguish problems that require collective action from problems that can be addressed by individuals, the skills necessary to deliberate in high stakes group settings when multiple perspectives compete for attention and control, enhanced awareness of the interests, communication styles, and underlying cultural values that shape interactions between peers in group settings, and the capacity to proactively perceive changes in a group dynamics and respond appropriately.
You have recently edited a book entitled New Waves in Philosophy of Technology. Are the “new waves” you allude to in the title primarily of a technological or a philosophical sort?
Some might find it reassuring to believe that philosophical theory more or less has stopped advancing, and that the main goal in philosophy of technology is to determine how to best apply old ideas to new technologies that, pace Moore’s law, are changing at an ever-accelerated rate. Were that true, things would be considerably easier than they are, and likely more boring as well. Contrary to such sentiment, we’re living in a world where theory and technology are both in a state of flux. In the philosophy of technology, a field that is really starting to mature, theory is constantly changing for two principle reasons: 1) interdisciplinary research is pervasive, with ideas from science and technology studies and various sciences of the mind being brought into productive dialog with ones emerging from philosophy; and 2) new philosophical problems are being formulated as a result of analysts grappling with substantial technology induced changes to how people think, perceive, and act. The latter can require inductively generating concepts that are appropriate to the new situations at hand. These remarks should not be taken to suggest that longstanding wisdom has no place in the contemporary world where digital technologies saturate all aspects of life. To use an example recently discussed in my Philosophy of Peace class, just war theory still has an important role to play in discussions of cutting-edge military uses of robotics and artificial intelligence, even if new military technologies also are used in ways that call into question the theory’s applicability. Nevertheless, were I to invent a philosophy of technology T-shirt, it would be emblazed with this slogan: “Technological innovation outstrips moral imagination.”
Failing to recognize that this is the case is to give in to a very dangerous tendency—the tendency to believe that things either will carry on much like the present, or else be met by positive adaptation. To be sure, we’re an incredibly adaptive species. The history of technology forecasting is filled with doomsday predictions that missed the mark precisely because they failed to anticipate how well we would adapt to disruptions in old norms and routines. Nevertheless, radical change brought on by converging technology (i.e., the integration of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science) is possible—perhaps even likely in the not too distant future. The more we believe in adaptation as an adequate coping mechanism, the less prepared we are to bring rational and ethical expectations to bear upon future conditions that lack adequate precedents. Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, put it best when he said: “daunting complexity..seems to drive at least some people back into the comfort of ideological certainty and absolutist worldviews –a retreat from complexity that in itself becomes ethically questionable, given that these technologies, and the world they help to create, are not going to go away.”
What are you currently working on?
In comparison to the other interviews in your series, this one has gone on longer than the rest. Consequently, I’ll just briefly mention one of the other main projects I’m currently working on.
In collaboration with Kyle Whyte (Michigan State University), I’m engaged in a research track that we’re calling, “Technology and Feedback Loops: How Perceptions of Meaning Effect Ethics and Engineering.” The basic thrust is as follows. Advances in technology and the sciences of the mind are profoundly altering the design structure of built environments and digital interfaces that are created for the primary purpose of helping people overcome intellectual and emotional obstacles—obstacles that make it hard for agents to act in accordance with values and goals they profess to maintain. The phenomenon of meaning can pose a fundamental problem for inserting humans into these behavior-modifying systems because variability (or, as postphenomenologists put it, “multi-stability”) is an ever-present possibility. In other words, cross-cultural cognitive tendencies exist, people nevertheless can perceive the meaning of a situation or bit of information differently as a result of personal, social, and cultural variations. Since no robustly predictive science of meaning exists, “semantic variance” introduces complexity that can get in the way of the standardization required to ensure these feedback-managing systems produce causal outputs that reliably yield generalizable behavior. Our initial research on this topic has focused on Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s solution to this problem, a theoretical, practical, and ethical endeavor they call Nudge.
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