Reinventing Humans

Here is the course description for my ENGL 1102 course this spring.

Any suggestions?

In this course, we will examine the commercial viability, social implications, and ethical consequences of posthuman technology that appears in selected science-fiction series.

Our social and cultural critiques of this technology will serve as inspiration for our own inventions to change the way humans interact with each other and with the material world.

During the first half of the semester, students will pitch ideas and designs for a new invention, focused primarily on the advantages to science and business.

During the second half of the semester, students will integrate these inventions into a science-fiction narrative that interrogates the social and ethical consequences of these technological advancements.

In our final reflection on these inventions, we will consider the ways in which these technologies might become a reality.

Dollhouse image courtesy of Bright Lights Film Journal

Student Showcase

On Wednesday, Dec 8, students in my writing and communication classes presented their ideas on collaborative consumption to the Georgia Tech community. Students enjoyed the challenges of communicating their proposals to students and faculty unfamiliar with the concept of collaborative consumption. Among the materials students showcased were videos, websites, and posters. See my syllabus for more information about the course. Below are some photos from the symposium.

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TechShares Symposium

On December 8th, my students will showcase their capstone projects on collaborative consumption, a rising movement in consumer culture that promotes community, sustainability, and economy, defined by Rachel Botsman in What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption.

I asked students to bring collaborative consumption to Georgia Tech’s campus. The college campus is fertile ground for collaborative consumption, and it is a market that has yet to be tapped. Here are a few of their ideas:

  • Nexus Connections: a campus transportation system consisting of solar-powered carts with zipcar-style access (don’t miss the video!)
  • Buzz2Buzz: a campus network for buying, selling, and trading goods
  • Buzz Bikes: a bike-sharing program built from a repository of pre-owned bikes
  • Food for the Forgotten: a volunteer program that redistributes leftover food from GT dining to the homeless population
  • Tech Hubs: collaborative work spaces designed to facilitate group projects (see especially the Google Sketch-Up rendition)

How to Annotate Digital Texts

(Cross-posted on TECHStyle.)

In a recent discussion on “The Real Cost of College Textbooks” in the New York Times, Anya Kamenetz, author of the controversial book DYI U, proposes: “Get Rid of Print and Go Digital.” Kamenetz suggests that professors abandon print textbooks in favor of eBooks and online resources. She asks:

Why should we be content with static, rapidly outdated, heavy print textbooks that can cost community college students as much as their tuition, when professors and students can work together to create dynamic, rich-media learning environments instead using free and open source software tools?”

While her proposal inspired some readers to reflect on new ways of looking at reading material in the classroom, it also caught the attention of staunch traditionalists. Many critics who wrote in response to Kamenetz’s proposal suggest that reading on the computer is characterized by short attention spans and excessive distractions.

Print books, the critics argue, force students to shut off the technology and focus, enabling them to more fully engage in the material object of the book, complete with highlighting, annotating, and tagging the pages directly. One respondent writes:

Paper texts are easier to make notes in and to reference, both critical processes for students. If you want to read throw-away novels, go for the e-text. If you want a tool to use for passing a class and for ongoing use in your educational or professional life, use the traditional technology.”

I agree that what is most important in the college classroom is how students interact and respond to reading material.

However, for the many critics who lamented the loss of the ability to annotate print textbooks, I have a mini-guide to several tools now available, for mostly free, that not only facilitate student-text interaction, but improve upon it. (more…)

A Community Exchange

In the basement of my apartment building, there is a square yellow folding table. It stands next to the door exiting to the parking lot. On this table are random objects:

  • a porcelain doll in a blue velvet dress
  • a small white ceramic teapot with a wicker handle
  • a miniature birdhouse
  • a black ceramic lamp shaped into a dancer

Since moving here a year ago, my eyes have been constantly drawn to the offerings on the table. Could it really be that these items were free for the taking?

There’s no sign with instructions. Nothing says free on it. The basement otherwise serves as a repository for resident storage–usually bicycles, grills, extra furniture.

But the table is different. The items are loose, random, and clearly unwanted. Occasionally there’d be something I was interested in, but didn’t take.

  • a small wicker basket
  • a wooden candlestick lamp
  • a round white laundry basket

Nothing spectacular. Until I saw a pair of charming wooden snack bowls. They were small and I could discreetly carry them upstairs. I decided to take them.

It was a little strange taking something for free without explicit permission, and I almost felt as though I’d be caught stealing. I ended up being very happy with the bowls. Later I took the remaining large wooden bowl. Then I took a white oblong lampshade. Then a blue teapot.

By now I have taken so many items that hardly any remain. I realized then that I need to replenish the table.

In completing the circle of exchange, by donating items in addition to accepting them, I have officially joined the silent exchange table that is the yellow table in my basement.

Mosquito Meditation

In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das addresses the problem of “meditation with mosquito.” He’s simply referring to the moment when we are deep in mediation practice and a mosquito, or any other irritating distraction, appears buzzing at our ear.

What do we do?

Of course our natural instinct is to swat it away or simply become upset at our distraction by it. Lama Surya, however, suggests simply focusing on the buzzing as a “vibration in your eardrum. Buzzzz. . .” Development of this response cultivates mindfulness, “where awareness saves you from responding to the mosquito, or anything else, with a knee-jerk reaction.”

While Lama Surya’s main teaching is centered on this idea of mindfulness, what I feel most inspired by is how he suggests a Buddhist saint might respond: “A Buddhist saint might wish that the mosquito finds a tender juicy spot, has a decent meal, and a safe flight home.”

Not only do I respond very heartfully to this notion, but I find that it’s not so very out of reach in the viscerality of my imagination. Now, if only every distraction in my life could be transformed into that mosquito buzzing in my imagination’s ear…

Combating Laziness

The Places That Scare YouPema Chodron identifies three kinds of laziness: comfort orientation, loss of heart, and “couldn’t care less.” Comfort orientation, in particular, she describes as our tendency to over accommodate our physical needs, such as by turning up the heat at the first sign of brisk weather, and by doing so, we “dull[] our appreciation of smells and sights and sounds.”

It’s interesting to think of “comfort” in this way–because, for example, it’s possible to actively create comfort for ourselves in lighting scented candles, opening a window to let a cool breeze in, baking cranberry-apple crisp in the oven. These creations of comfort actively stimulate the senses instead of dulling them.

However, the kind of comfort orientation that Pema Chodron is referring to is that which is not active. We might seek comfort by sleeping in late when it’s too stimulating to shock the body into its awakened state or comfort by staying inside instead of jogging to avoid exhaustion of the lungs. Both modes clearly point to comfort by remaining static, by avoiding ignitions of the nervous system and engagement of the body.

In making a clear distinction between these two kinds of comforts, we might better care for our bodies and souls. To realize when staying in, staying put, and therefore becoming static is a kind of deadening of the senses and deadening of life experience–rather than a kind of resting nourishment–can enlighten us to when we avoid living and the “rawness of emotional energy.”

"The World Out of Clothes"

Of course Teufelsdrockh’s Philosophy figures clothes – in one way at least – as the invisible fabric of society, but this passage – with its crude literal denunciation of clothes – does indeed convince us to desire a “world out of clothes,” though our German philosopher would have us believe we are nothing but an “air-image” in this “so solid-seeming World.”

From Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) [1832-3]:

“While I – Good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; some film of it, frayed away by tear and wear, must be brushed off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither, and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down. O subter-brutish! vile! most vile! For have not I too a compact all-enclosing Skin, whiter or dinger? Am I a botched mass of tailors’ and cobblers’ shreds, then; or a tightly articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?”