Strange affair of man with the machine

This stunningly brilliant and passionate essay by my friend, mentor and inspiration, Karamjit Singh Gill (far too formal – he is Ranjit to me) is, sadly, occasioned by the death of his old friend, one of the most insightful, compassionate, humane commentators on technology of the past century, Mike Cooley.  I knew Mike only slightly, as a result of the occasional dinner conversation or guest appearance at a conference some 20 years or so ago, but he made a big impression on me, not least because Ranjit – my guru – introduced him to me as his own guru and inspiration.  Mike was one of those people who could talk off the cuff with the greater eloquence, sharpness, and persuasiveness than most people can write after multiple revisions. He was funny, he was wise, he was charming. His book, Architect or Bee, has been an inspiration to generations, including to me – mundanely, his distinction between auto-mation and infor-mation is an incredibly useful one but, much more significantly, it is his resolute valorization and glorification of the human and the humane that most persists and that continues to shape my own understanding of the world. These are qualities that Ranjit shares in spades, and it is mainly through Ranjit that his attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs have rubbed off a little on me.

Characteristically, Ranjit does not take the obvious or easy path of providing a conventional obituary or summary of achievements, but instead offers his own profound and far-reaching insights, in a moving tribute to the impact Mike had on his own understanding. It’s a beautiful piece, interweaving poetry and analysis into a seamless whole that offers both a cutting and urgent critique of the inhumane, debasing patterns of the machine, and a path towards hope and redemption that, far from rejecting technology, embraces it as something that can help us to become more human, more filled with wisdom and wonder, more connected. There are, however, huge risks of sliding down “the slippery slope of calculation to judgment”, that Ranjit analyzes in depth. Mike’s poem, with which Ranjit begins the essay, summarizes the gist of it well:

We create devices and then they create us

Narcissus-like, we gaze into a pool of technology and see ourselves

We acquiesce in our own demise, setting out as participants

and metamorphosing into victims

(Cooley  2013 )

This is not a piece to be skip-read – it is full of subtlety and grace, and there is something to savour in almost every sentence.

Originally posted at:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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