I used to work for a man who was a stickler for correctness. From handling requests for time off  to responding to an official complaint from a member of parliament everything had to be done exactly by the book.

On the one hand this was logical and safe, but his inability to do anything without consulting the prescribed guidelines drove most people in the office to distraction.

He was unwilling or unable to trust his instincts in even the most minor and banal of requests.

Buying washing up liquid for the staff kitchen would demand the same amount of red tape as dealing with an accusation of sexual harassment. Actually, I can’t remember either of the last two scenarios happening but you get the picture.

The central point about his behaviour was that it was fundamentally inhuman. He was not a monster so I don’t use the word ‘inhuman’ in the sense of lacking humanity or acting cruelly. What I mean is that his actions were impersonal and dispassionate to the point that he was no better than a machine. Any feelings he had were hidden behind a cloak of bureaucracy.

I thought about this man because Week 3 of the E-Learning & Digital Cultures MOOC  is on the theme of being human in the digital age. This topic has a big effect on the trends in education where schools and universities are increasingly turning to technology and online courses, often driven more by the need to save money than to raise standards of tuition.

When considered in the light of weighty topics like artificial intelligence, biosciences and ecological sustainability, my example is quite a mundane one but I think there is a human need to put a face to all these rapid technological changes to make them feel more real.

In my view, the issue at the heart of this debate is not the dystopian science fiction nightmare of robots and computers controlling humankind  but that of Homo sapiens acting more like machines and forgetting what it means to ‘be human’.

This means acknowledging not only our potential to be more compassionate, spontaneous and passionate but also to recognize negative qualities too. René (I think therefore I am) Descartes asserted that our capacity to reason is what distinguishes us from animals but computers can now do this very effectively too, often better than we can. This doesn’t make them human though because they are incapable of introspection, brainlessness, irrationality or vulnerability; they can’t be manipulative or misanthropic unless programmed to be so.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Who knows? As the title of the post says is just me thinking randomly and without making any mind-blowing conclusions as to what this all signifies – an all too human contribution to the argument in other words!

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