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Responsible…Responsive

Photo Credit: “Doug Engelbart Demo 1968” by mac steve

In a graduate seminar I’m teaching, last week’s reading was an exchange between Steve Mailloux and Diane Davis regarding the hermeneutic dimension of rhetoric. That discussion revolves around the question of whether the category “rhetoric” can be completely collapsed into the category “hermeneutics.” Mailloux argues that we have no choice but to interpret various others and that these interpretations, though they always involve some level of interpretive “ethnocentrism,” offer the possibility for rhetorical exchange between different people and cultures. Davis agrees with all of this. She grants that we have no choice but to interpret others (people, texts, etc.) and that such interpretations are entirely necessary.  However, she also argues that the address of an other to me exposes a non-hermeneutic dimension of rhetoric. That is, the interpretation of the other (inevitable as it is) is not the only portion of the rhetorical situation that we can study.  The approach of the other exposes my exposedness to that other, it communicates communicability.  This exposedness is, for Davis, rhetorical.  She does not argue that we should pay closer attention to the other.  Rather, she argues that we are put into relation with others regardless of any choice on our part and that rhetoricians should consider, study, and “attend to” the approach of the other as other. The approach of the other “brings me more than I can contain,” and it upsets any attempt to collapse rhetoric into hermenuetics.

Now, shift gears.  In an undergraduate course I’m teaching called New Media Across the Disciplines, we recently read a portion of Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”  In that report, he details his various attempts to augment the intellect by way of digital technologies.  This conceptual framework eventually became a technological framework.  Engelbart and his team developed tools and software that are the basis of today’s Graphical User Interface and Mouse. In what has become known as “the mother of all demos,” Engelbart demonstrated the NLS (oNLine System).  That system included a mouse, a GUI, and a chord keyset. Steve Jobs owes a great deal to Engelbart and his team for at least two reasons: 1) They created the interface that we all now take for granted; 2) They (arguably) created “the demo.”  While Engelbart did not wear a turtleneck, it’s difficult to watch Engelbart’s demo without thinking of the iPad rollout (though, Engelbart is not nearly the ham that Steven Jobs is…in fact, he’s clearly nervous as hell).

Engelbart’s demo is available on YouTube, and I’d encourage you to watch it if you haven’t already.  But my focus is on a short moment toward the very beginning of the demo:

The entire demo reveals a nervous Engelbart. He’s clearly feeling exposed. But beyond a mere linguistic hiccup, this responsible/responsive mixup points to difficult and interesting questions of ethics and technology. Engelbart’s suggestion that a computer would be “alive” for you all day does not trip him up. However, when he accidentally posits a computer as “responsible,” he senses that he’s made a gaffe.

This seems understandable.  We don’t like to think of our machines (digital or otherwise) as being “responsible.”  Rather, we see these machines as tools that we operate, and we see our-selves as the responsible party.  But as any number of posthumanists have suggested, the relationship between machine and human is not so clean.  Human and machine approach one another – this is not a one-way relationship.  Further, this approach points out what Davis calls response-ability. The ethical question here is not about what we should do (i.e. a set of maxims about what is good). That question is an important one, and it focuses on how we should treat each others.  However, while this question has been the focus of Western Philosophy, it tends to rely on a conscious, coherent, Enlightenment subject.  That is, “I” make decisions and act in the world, and I am completely aware of my motives for those actions.  This has also been the focus of rhetorical studies.

We are exposed before our various machines, and this makes Engelbart’s linguistic hiccup more accurate than he might be willing to admit.  The computer is responsible (or response-able), and it approaches us, exposing us as response-able.  What makes this entire situation even more difficult is that nearly all of our machines are networked.  Thus, it is not just the machine to which we are responsible.  In addition, we are exposed and response-able to all of the various others that arrive via the networked.  How do we deal with this ethical predicament that arrives on our doorstep, prior to (or regardless of) any decision on our part? How do we approach the other?

Software is one mediatory figure that we build to deal with this problematic of the other.  Networked software has to, by definition, deal with the question of the other and the question of hospitality.  How software takes up that question has everything to do with our ethico-rhetorical predicament: The other approaches. I must respond. How will I respond? Engelbart’s project of “Augmenting the Human Intellect” is especially relevant here, since he saw the software and hardware that he was building as much more than a mere “tool.”  He saw the GUI as an augmentation to our thinking, and his nervous laughter upon calling the computer “responsible” suggests that the cyborg he had in mind was not a robot or a calculating machine. The augmented human intellect still had to deal with the approach of the other, with issues of ethics, with the predicament of being response-able.

But the question we might ask, given Engelbart’s Freudian slip, is how response-able our hardware and software is.  How do these tools respond to the problem of the other?  How do they sift and sort the various arrivals of human and nonhuman collaborators (or saboteurs)? How hospitable or tolerant are they?  In short, how response-able are are our machines and how might we attempt to understand their ethical dimensions?

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