I am currently a PhD candidate in cognitive science at the Complex Software Lab at University College Dublin in the School of Computer Science. I study the dynamic and reciprocal relationships between emerging technologies, personhood and society. Specifically, I explore how ubiquitous technologies which are interwoven into our personal, social, political, and economical sphere are shaping what it means to be a person. In doing so, I lean on theoretical frameworks from traditions such as embodied cognitive science, complexity science, critical race studies, and Black feminist epistemology.
The blogposts you find here vary in topic. Some are related to my research, some are personal musings, and some serve as archives where I collate various links and resources that I often lean on when preparing talks and teaching contents or pieces that might be relevant to my research.
Just like my blogposts, my research touches upon various areas and topics as I attempt to approach technology and the question of personhood through the lens of various non-traditional frameworks. Nonetheless, the Möbius strip, which is the heading of my blog site, captures what remains at the core of my thinking, despite my seemingly disjointed writing. Take a closer look at the Möbius strip and you will see that any attempt to clearly distinguish between the inside and outside of the Möbius strip is a futile endeavour. Similarly, I believe, dichotomous approaches or efforts to neatly separate inextricably linked concepts such as nature and nurture, object and subject, mind and body, person and world, online and “real”, are hopeless. Instead, I think, acknowledging and embracing fluid and dynamic entanglements and nuanced interrelations and complexities is much more rewarding.
I teach Critical Thinking and Data/AI Ethics to data science students, Introduction to Ethics as well as Critical Thinking to first year (mainly) philosophy students.
I came across your work through your article in Aeon Magazine. I found it confirmatory of the dialogical approach which I have studied in Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Buber. Many many thanks for what you pursuing.
Very kind of you. Thank you!
I also came across your work through your article in Aeon Magazine and I wonder whether you would be interested in being interviewed for a podcast for the Middle Way Society on the topic of ‘Why a person is a person through other persons” ? Here’s an idea of the views we hold in our society on the self and embodied meaning which I feel are resonant with your own.
The society is an international group, first founded in the UK, for the study, promotion and practice of the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. One of our members, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation, describes the Middle Way as:
“… the chaotic and confusing place between the extremes. While the extremes are simpler and more attractive, it is the mess in the middle where the interesting and creative activities occur – it is where we should be.”
We challenge the overworked distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to support and promote integrative practice, overcoming conflicts of all kinds.
Here are some interviews that I’ve done so far with people you may know or could possibly be interested in:
Ed Catmull on creativity
Philosopher Evan Thompson on Waking, Dreaming, Being
Iain McGilchrist (patron of the society) on his book on brain lateralization ‘The Master and his Emissary’ and in a further interview on dogma and the brain.
Guy Claxton on his book ‘Intelligence in the Flesh’
Philosopher Richard Shusterman on Somaesthetics.
Social psychologist Ellen Langer on mindfulness and the power of possibility
Educationalist Mike Rose on the mind at work
Dan Siegel on his book ‘Mind: A journey to the heart of being human.
Science journalist Sharon Begley on ‘The Emotional Life of your Brain’ which she co-wrote with Richard J Davidson
Philosopher Adam Briggle on how philosophy lost its way
Karen Armstrong on religion and the charter for compassion
Journalist, screenwriter and author Jon Ronson on public shaming on social media
Krista Tippet, host and creator of the Onbeing radio show on her book ‘Becoming Wise’
Social psychologist Elliot Aronson on cognitive dissonance
Cultural psychologist Igor Grossman on why mixed feelings are a sign of emotional complexity rather than indecisiveness.
Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik on her book ‘The Philosophical Baby’
The interviews are conducted via Skype and would only take up 30 to 40 minutes of your time.
You may feel the society’s aims and values are not sufficiently in line with yours, so please don’t feel uncomfortable about saying no. I just thought I’d ask.
Thank you for your kind words about my article and also the invitation to interview on your podcast – what a privilege! Thank you! Here (email@example.com) is my email address and perhaps we can discuss things further through emails.
Dear Abeba Birhane. I, like the commenters, was struck by your Aeon essay. I teach creative writing in Vermont and for years have been trying to figure out a book about how I came into selfhood after living for ten years in the Adirondack backwoods, how that self related to environmental consciousness and by extension how place and environment guided and gave rise to the quality which we think of as human consciousness itself, which includes language, culture, cosmos. As a way of tracking its emergence I have been to some of the places where we have earliest material evidence of its appearance, defined as “symbolic capacity,” so far Blombos Cave and the Cederberg Mts in South Africa and many of the French Paleolithic caves, focusing primarily on the surrounding lansdsapes and the shadows that remain there of the Paleolithic or Middle Stone Age landscapes of the sites. I speculate on the peoples’s shared lives with usually more abundant species surrounding them, and attempt through contemplative practice and achieving a degree of familiarity of the land, to break through the illusion of time and have an “experience,” however poetic and limited, of a reality that might have not recognized a self disentangled from and non-integral with the immediate environment. (I’m a writer, not a scientist.)
I’ve been off the track after a few years of illness and employment, but I have gotten a new agent who has me back on it. My college has given me partial funding for a couple of weeks hiking and writing around Chauvet and its famous Pont d’Arc. I would love a chance to talk to you, hear more of where your essay felt like it would be going in the longer form, what drew you to the study, more about how people in contemporary Africa might think of the question. I hope you will email the address below if you would be willing to consider a phone or Skype interview in the next few weeks. And is there any chance you might be in France this summer?
You may read my chapter on Blombos and the incised ochre on the Green Mountains Review site. Google “The Symbolic Coast.” My book is Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, W.W Norton.
I hope to hear from you and to talk. Great work, thank you. Chris Shaw
I came across your Aeon article through Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter. I found it informative and beautifully written – and when I saw your ‘anti-Cartesian rants mostly’ tagline, I was hooked.
My personal view is that the next major step humanity needs is to add a cultural toolset (a metaphysics) for consciously addressing complexity without reductionism. After all, all of our big problems – Climate Change, economic stagnation, and our major ambitions – understanding humanity ever better – to mention just a few, are defined by their immense formal complexity.
This means that, powerful tool that it is, reductionism is not enough, and that a mindset which has reified reductionism (due to its powerful results over 4 centuries) will be blind to the way things really work.
We’re a new public project with an insanely ambitious idea – to build a public ethical framework that is useful. Useful in improving public engagement with ethical thinking (and in helping people to realise that, despite the modern assumption that ethics are essentially individual, there is large and deep congruency across society on many issues). And useful in addressing novel questions asked of society by things like technical innovation and climate change.
We’re at the very beginning of this work, and indeed we assume that such a project will never be ‘over’. For now, our thought is not to search for universal fundamentals, and build outward from these, but rather to realise that the fundamental thing is the mind’s search for homeostasis in a dynamic world. That our minds don’t decide on the basis of a few core precepts, and judge everything with reference to these.
Our working approach is to represent ethics as a framework – a cloud of interacting propositions, all linked together in patterns that respond to new stimuli. If these stimuli can be easily assimilated into the pattern, then we ‘know what we think’ about that issue – and can act in reasonable confidence of not feeling badly about our in/action. On the other hand, if a novel question cannot be assimilated – causes incoherence or fracture – then our framework needs to grow, to learn, to be re-examined, until a response that is more congruent can be formulated.
We hold two sorts of events – Public Debates, framed around a speaker, and Working Parties, during which we engage in some aspect of the work needed to bring this ambition closer to reality. I wonder if you are ever in London, and might be interested in speaking at an event?
We’re wide-open as to specific topics, and we’re typically looking for short (15-20 minute) contributions. We have a general membership of smart and interesting people, most of whom haven’t studied ethics.
Or events are held in London, in Shoreditch, at Newspeak House. They’re generally weekend events, but we have no regular timetable, so can be flexible.
The format we have in mind is this;
A brief introduction to the Project, its ambitions, its processes, its current state
Randomised selection (sortition) of four members of the audience to participate in the debate, along with the the speaker.
Collection of and voting on suggestions as to Ethical Issues for debate
Moderated debate on two or three Ethical Issues – at least one relevant to the Guest Speaker’s topic. The aim being not to decide on an ‘answer’, but more to identify which ‘Ethical Propositions’ relate to any consideration of the Issue, and how.
We aim to record these events and build a library of public ethical debates as part of the project.
There is a great deal more of interest about the project, but this is long enough – thanks for reading – and for your blog.
Project for a Progressive Ethics: https://www.meetup.com/Project-for-a-Progressive-Ethics
Newspeak House: http://www.nwspk.com
Discussion forums: https://www.meetup.com/Project-for-a-Progressive-Ethics/messages/boards/
Hi Abeba, I’d like to discuss with you a project I’m involved in called OpenCare – exploring DIY responses to welfare system collapse. Might you be interested sharing some thoughts from a cognitive science and dialogical perspective? I’ve been noticing the role of language in creating the conditions for greater care. If this is something you’d be open to discussing, could you email me and I’ll send more information.
I’m an undergraduate with high-functioning autism pursuing an interdisciplinary communication studies degree in Boston. I came here from your essay in Aeon, and I’m very glad that I did. Your essay more or less distilled the exact same idea that I had a few weeks ago while traveling, and have been working to express in writing ever since.
As far as I’ve been able to discern, there are no guidelines for or research about people like me. I live inside a paradox. On the one hand, a lack of understanding of and empathy for people around me. On the other, an inescapable recognition of the interdependence of human beings, and of the importance of properly dialogical relationships.
I would love to better understand your work, and, if you have the time, I also think that you could help me to better understand mine. Would you be willing to exchange emails?
Hey Abeba, I came across your piece on Aeon, really enjoyed it, well done!
It seems your work focuses on Africa, but thought you might also be interested in Melanesian Odysseys: Negotiating the Self, Narrative, and Modernity (by Lisette Josephides). Great narrative-based ethnography that supports your argument and elaborates on similar debates in anthropology
Thank you, John! You’re too kind.
I stumbled on your posts on Twitter and found them very interesting which led me here. I have enjoyed reading some of your blog now too. I am also a PhD student and we have many similar interests. So, I thought I would reach out to connect and perhaps correspond a little?
Thanks for posting such interesting ideas and congrats on the new job 😊
I came to know about you through Timnit Gebru. I noticed she is following you on Twitter.
I would like to know if I can have 30 mins of your time, and want to show you what my friend and I are working for PhD candidates.
Would you please give us just 30 mins of your time?