Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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Stoicism

By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.

Zeno of Citium (c. 334 B.C.-c. 262 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, depicted by Raphael. Picture from Wikipedia.

In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags,  and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.

In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”

There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.

So I converted.

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