I would say the most important take away for me was that I had some of my assumptions challenged and changed my views about technology and its impact on our lives and values. These changes were a direct result of conversations in our seminar. For example, going into our Winter Seminar meeting, I was pretty sure I was a Michael J. Sandel kind of person with some real concerns about the ethical implications of certain technologies. But thanks to a recommendation of a fellow seminar participant, I read Alan Buchanan’s Better than Human. Buchanan attacks Sandel for being kind of “hysterical” about the future implications of technology and his arguments are pretty sound. In addition, in other conversations with Seminar participants and with students (more about that in a minute) I found myself entertaining ideas about the future a la Kurzweil that I would never have considered before. One of the deepest challenges is to recognize for example that if immortality were really on the horizon, everything that has been at the heart of my field of literature for centuries would be turned on its head—or even lost! It’s very hard to have the things we believe in most challenged in this way, but I think that was the purpose of the Seminar.
Teaching serious philosophical texts about technology and pairing them with films like Gattaca, Transcendence and Ex Machina and a very readable novel called The Office of Mercy, gave me an opportunity to enter into exciting conversations with students who raised questions about why so may of these texts and films are dystopian, what it would mean to have “enhancements,” who would have access to new technologies and who might be left behind. Throughout the semester students thanked me for offering a course that introduced them to these ideas. One student commented that it made him feel like he knew about things his friends did not! This course also gave me some new creative opportunities for assignments. The Seminar in which we discussed avatars led me to assign a final essay in which students constructed their own avatar or cyborg. Students were invited to explain what their cyborg would do, what its goals would be. I was delighted at how quickly they adapted this topic to their own interests—a cyborg that could be a night nurse and never get sleepy, one that could work with autistic children, one that could examine food for toxicity—even a cybernetic soldier—all for the good of humanity. I’m looking forward to tweaking this theme and doing it again.