Ethics, Social Semiotics and Creativity

October 15, 2016 at 7:31 am Leave a comment

During a seminar with @jordi_a at @argeturv , I interrupted his line of thought to say “Technology did not change the world; people did”. Don’t get me wrong, it was a quite informal conversation. Jordi was there telling us how he evolved over the last ten years from being someone who would try out any new piece of technology available in the market  into being someone who questions every single aspect of applying technology in education. Jordi has been a reference in the Spanish scenario of educational technology for a good while. To my eyes, his later version is so much more interesting the the first ones and so is what he does and says. The thing is that after my interruption, Jordi, very calmly, told me: “Oh, didn’t it? Maybe you should know that there are people out there who  ascribe some form of moral agency to technology.”, or something like that. I said, “What?”.


The “moral agency to technology” sounded like nuts for me. Before I gave the theme any consideration, my ideas about humans and technology were very clear: humans make and use technologies. Period. I understood technologies as meaning delivery artifacts, semiotic resources. But after reading “The moral status of technological artifacts”, edited by Peter Kroes and Peter-Paul Verbeek, I now think I did not quite understood what I myself was saying and writing. I had to go back to “Literacy in the new media age”, by Gunther Kress, to reorganize my thoughts. I’m not done yet😉, but here is what has emerged for the moment.

@ppverbeek argues intentionality, freedom, and agency – generally ascribed exclusively to humans – are in fact the result of intricate connections and interactions between human beings and technological artifacts. This is how material artifacts penetrate the realm of Ethics. Peter thinks it is necessary to “develop an alternative account of the relations between humans and technologies in ethical theory – an account that allows us to understand how moral practices are coproductions of humans and technologies, rather than exclusively human affairs in which technologies can only play instrumental or obstructive roles.” And there we go: artifacts have moral significance. Peter does not mean machines have agency themselves. Instead, he invites us to reconsider moral agency as a fundamentally hybrid affair. “The central idea is that technologies-in-use help to establish relations between human beings and their environment. In these relations, technologies are not merely silent ‘intermediaries’ but active ‘mediators’ that help to constitute the entities that have a relationship ‘through’ the technology.”

I am totally seduced by this argument. Actually, I am re-reading Social Semiotics with new glances now. It is like, \o/ How could I not see that? Gunther Kress says in many different moments that the affordances of technology give rise to the expression of social factors. He considers social conditions to enable that in first instance, but he reminds us “we also have to remain aware that technology as a tool has its shaping effect”. He goes on to say that “practices can only be understood when the potentials and limitations of tools with which one practices are understood”. Gunther defines his academic work as an intent of understanding how we as humans come to be who we are in our cultural and social environments. I would add, come to be who we are using the tools we have at our disposal, but I think that might only be redundant. What is implicit in Gunther’ interest statement is that we are not just humans. We come to be who we are. And we do so as we use tools. So using tools changes us as much as we change/create the tools we use – please excuse me if I am going too far, I get really exited thinking about this kind of things. This will take us inevitably to reconsider moral agency as a fundamentally hybrid affair, right?

And we can go further and think of learning. Learning in a world where meaning is mediated through an unprecedented variety of technology delivery artifacts needs to be reconsidered as much as moral agency. In “Advances in language and education”, Gunther says that “when you learn to represent, you learn a whole orientation to the world – certainly to the cultural wold, but maybe also as a means of semioticizing the natural world”. At least some technologies are means we use to semioticize the natural world. As humans, we change things, but we change too in the process. Do we change ourselves or do things we create change us? This is probably not relevant – or maybe it is -, but the point is that, as I had read one thousand times in Gunther Kress’ work, “the resources through which meaning is made are changed in the process of meaning making, but so is the inner disposition of those who have made that meaning inwardly in interpretation or outwardly in articulation”. This is precisely what takes me to creativity.

However, there is a paradox here. I can theoretically asume that even as we speak we are never only using a system. We are always to some extent creating, doing semiotic work. Semiotic work is always creative work, at least to some extent. The paradox is that when I ask my student teachers do create an education resource and tell them it can be of any theme, they can use any tool, it can be aimed at anyone… Most of their work is so plain: help kids identify the name of the colors, help kids develop habits like brushing their teeth.

Ok, I will leave it here. I’m becoming negative and i really don’t feel like after having been able to put down my thoughts on my new discovery in the filed of Ethics and my renewed way of looking at Social Semiotics. Thank you Jordi, Peter and Gunther. You chance the world with your semiotic work.

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Something that really matters Sometimes worth all times

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