The final short writing exercise in our philosophy class prompted us to identify a concept we learned, a skill we developed, and the most intriguing emerging technology we covered. We were then asked how we would explain or describe these to someone who has yet to take the course. Below were my responses, published here with permission from the instructor.
Learning to identify and consider the ethical implications of emerging technologies was a concept I learned by taking this course. Ethics wasn’t something I generally or consciously thought about. It certainly wasn’t something I considered my responsibility as a technology user or professional. But after taking this course and realizing the impact that technology has on our lives and the decisions we make, it became quite clear that the responsibility falls on us, at least partially, to critically think about these ethical issues and begin to formulate a way to address or mitigate them.
This course helped me develop the skill to create Codes of Ethics by considering the purpose, values, and principles which apply to various emerging technologies. It has also forced me to think critically and deeply about how something that we normally take for granted, such as social media, could have a profound and lasting impact on our lives. This course teaches us to understand and build ethical frameworks. It shows us how we can highlight issues and values by looking through various ethical lenses, which we can then consider when developing our code. By applying this skill it forces us to be more cognizant of the effects new technologies can have on our lives beyond the purpose and function for which they were created.
Most Intriguing Emerging Technology
I think the most intriguing emerging technology is one that has the most potential to either propel humanity forward or push humanity into extinction, and that is CRISPR. With CRISPR, genetic engineering took a giant leap forward by making it easier and more precise to edit the genome to a level of efficiency and accuracy never before accomplished. The use of CRISPR is inevitable and will soon change what it means to be a “normal” human being. We need to closely look at the ethical implications that go along with its use and implementation. This course will help stabilize, orient, and empower you by giving you the knowledge and skill necessary to contribute to a code of ethics which can lead to a better outcome for us all.
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One of the graded activities in my ethics course this summer was the Short Writing Exercise (SWE) in which we were prompted to reflect upon a recent reading, or answer questions regarding the latest topics we have covered in class. The responses to each SWE had a strict word limit, usually between 200 and 350 words. In total, we had seven SWEs during the 7-week summer program, and I have selected three of them to publish on my site, with permission from the instructor. The post above was in response to SWE7, submitted on 2 August 2022.
First: William Damon, in his "Why Purpose is Crucial for Thriving Throughout Life", argues that having a "noble purpose" is essential for living well. What do you think your "noble purpose" is? Second: What is Nozick's "experience machine"? Do you think you would enter it? Why or why not?
What my noble purpose might be
In trying to determine what my noble purpose in life might be, I had to recall times when I felt most fulfilled or passionate about something. It turns out that some of the most gratifying work I have done in the past involved sharing knowledge and training people. At work, I enjoyed walking new hires through their responsibilities, instructing them on the company policies and procedures, and providing them with the tools and resources they needed in order to succeed at their new job. Despite being an introvert, I felt energized whenever I conducted Excel training for lawyers and legal assistants.
As a student association volunteer, I found pleasure in engaging with other students through social media, whether it was disseminating communique, answering questions, or providing guidance on how they may best find the information they sought. I may not ever have the honor of educating future generations inside a classroom. But, knowing that my modest contributions may have a positive impact on society, no matter how small, makes me feel like I am living my life well.
The Experience Machine
In Nozick's "experience machine" you float inside a tank while your brain is connected to electrodes through which a pre-programmed life of your choosing is transmitted for you to experience. You enter alone and, while inside, you will not be aware that you are in fact confined within the machine. Through this device you would be able to experience a desirable life, which you could renew or exchange for another kind of ideal life after a couple of years.
This is not a life I would choose for myself. I believe that part of what makes life worthwhile is the journey itself, the process by which we actually experience things, including the obstacles and challenges along the way. For it is by living through the good, the bad, and even the unknown parts of life that we grow and develop into the kind of people we ultimately become. Having a predetermined path robs us of this opportunity. Moreover, in the machine, we would be deprived of experiencing life with our loved ones.
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One of the graded activities in my ethics course this summer was the Short Writing Exercise (SWE) in which we were prompted to reflect upon a recent reading, or answer questions regarding the latest topics we have covered in class. The responses to each SWE had a strict word limit, usually between 200 and 350 words. In total, we had seven SWEs during the 7-week summer program, and I have selected three of them to publish on my site, with permission from the instructor. The post above was in response to SWE4, submitted on 12 July 2022.
First: What do you think humans need in order to live well? What does "the good life" mean to you? Second: How is technology impacting your ability to live well? What's one area of your life where technology is helping you live well? What's one area where you think it is impeding your ability to live well?
Meaning of the good life
In order to live well, humans need to know, understand and be guided by their purpose, values, and principles in life. Frankly, these are not things I consciously think about on any given day, but probably should. Taking inspiration from an ethics framework presentation by The Ethics Centre, I think perhaps my purpose in life is to be the best version of myself, as well as to leave this world a better place than when I entered it. I believe this because one of the values I deeply cherish—along with family, liberty, privacy, and justice—is knowledge.
A good life to me means having the freedom and resources to pursue intellectual growth and stimulation, to have access to the tools and skills I need in order to navigate an increasingly complex life, filled with both great possibilities and uncertainties. Living well for me means being able to pursue higher education from one of the best institutions in the world, and having the opportunities to exercise the knowledge I have gained in order to have a positive impact in my life and in the lives of those around me.
How technology impacts my ability to live well
Technology has played, and indeed continues to play, a pivotal role in helping me fulfill my quest to attain the knowledge and experience I need in order to earn my college degree at Harvard University, and thus live a good life. Thanks to advancements in communications and video conferencing technologies, I am able to pursue my educational endeavor as a distance student from Houston. Technology enables me to remotely join a class and learn from professors at Harvard in Cambridge, while studying alongside fellow scholars from various locations around the world.
Paradoxically, the same type of technology that helps me connect and engage with others can sometimes be an impediment to my learning goals and pursuit to live well. The ubiquity of mobile devices and social media can cause unwelcome distraction. While distractions, per se, can occasionally be a welcome respite from the rigors of college learning, the perpetual interruption and information overload also often cause anxiety and great disturbance.
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One of the graded activities in my ethics course this summer was the Short Writing Exercise (SWE) in which we were prompted to reflect upon a recent reading, or answer questions regarding the latest topics we have covered in class. The responses to each SWE had a strict word limit, usually between 200 and 350 words. In total, we had seven SWEs during the 7-week summer program, and I have selected three of them to publish on my site, with permission from the instructor. The post above was in response to SWE2, submitted on 28 June 2022.
The month of August exits stage left, leaving behind a very wet and messy track. Our adopted dogs Murphy and Tuna were in a state of fear and panic everytime thunder crackled and roared overhead. The only thing that could calm them down were these Harvard T-Shirts I purchased from The Coop while living in Cambridge this summer.
Lucky for these pups, mommy accidentally grabbed the 100% cotton shirts instead of the ones made of polyester blend. Excited to use my newly loaded Crimson Cash to do laundry at the time, I tossed these tops in the washer without looking at the tags. What later emerged from the dryer were shrunken shirts too indecent to wear on campus.
Listen, we're not all sprightly geniuses
Some of us have to work hard to make the grade. Remember when I almost quit after only the first day of class? I want to talk more about it here.
I think it's important to share experiences, positive or otherwise, to help paint the whole picture. I also believe that other students, who may be struggling or experiencing self-doubt, might benefit from knowing that they are not alone and that these feelings are not uncommon in academia. Harvard can be an extremely competitive and very disquieting place sometimes, especially for people who have very high expectations of themselves.
Revealing some vulnerabilities
There were several factors which contributed to my anxiety and state of panic. To enumerate: 1) I have been in virtual isolation for two years; 2) I felt like I did not belong here; 3) moving out of my home and my comfort zone was a big deal; 4) the expected workload changed unexpectedly; 5) my eyes were sharp only in shape, not so much in function; and 6) if I wanted my money back, I had to act quickly. I was under so much pressure, both real and imagined, that it felt as though the only choice I had left was to give up.
A closer look at what was going through my mind
First, I have been in virtual isolation for two years. Since the height of the pandemic, I seldom left my house for more than just a quick errand run. I essentially lived my life like a recluse, leaving the house only when absolutely necessary, and only in short bursts. Suddenly, it felt as though I was thrust into a classroom and forced to interact with other humans in close proximity. This caused me a bit of anxiety, to say the least.
Second, I felt like I did not belong here. The class was made up of a diverse group of learners from high school students, who were participating in the Pre-College Program or Secondary School Program, to adult degree candidates, like myself. The age spectrum was wide and varied, and my place was at the tail end of this. After observing the eager, young learners during our first meeting, I was struck with a sinking feeling of alienation. I felt like I was too old and too slow to belong in this class.
Third, moving out of my home and my comfort zone was a big deal. The last time I relocated anywhere was more than a decade and a half ago. So, when I mentioned that I only brought a backpack and a small carry-on luggage for a seven-week session at summer school, I wasn't exactly bragging about my minimalist lifestyle and efficient packing skills (okay, maybe just a little). For days leading up to my trip, I had no idea what and how much of it to stuff into suitcases. The commitment to change my zip code, even if only temporarily, still caused some consternation.
Fourth, the expected workload changed unexpectedly. The course I selected for the summer initially had a final term paper requirement along with some short writing assignments and a short presentation. We had the entire semester to build upon the main paper, submitting portions and revisions of it as we progressed through the summer. I thought this was a workload I could handle.
On the first day of class, however, we were presented with a modified syllabus. It now included a midterm and a final exam, in addition to the weekly writings. The individual short presentation turned into a group project, consisting of a 25-minute oral presentation with a Q&A portion in the end. A short written component, graded individually, was also a required part of the group project. When they said it would be a short but intensive term, they really meant it. Welcome to Harvard Summer School.
Fifth, my eyes were sharp only in shape, not so much in function. In addition to the aforementioned workload, we had some viewing (e.g., documentaries, films, short videos) as well as weekly reading assignments. These were all to be expected, of course, given the focus of the class. The readings included text by contemporary and classic philosophers who had a tendency to drone on and on and on about stuff. Most of the old texts were written in such small fonts, that I was grateful to have a device which allowed me to zoom in to be able to actually read them. Dealing with vision limitations exacerbated my worries, and knocked my confidence down a few more pegs.
Sixth, if I wanted my money back (most of it, anyway), I had to act quickly. I checked the Academic Calendar, and found out that the last day I could drop the course for the full tuition refund was on the second day of our class. This added some pressure to the timeline. I felt like I had to immediately decide if I should drop out. There was also the question of whether I could get my money back for the room and board, a more significant expense than the tuition itself.
When frustration, insecurity, and panic converge
I texted my husband frantically from the backseat of an Uber car. I had spent the day in the library, trying to catch up on reading assignments. All the while, my mind was distracted with the nagging thought that it might have been a mistake to come here in the first place. On the ride back from Harvard Yard to Currier House, I already started to imagine packing up my things in my dorm room after having only unpacked them to move in a few days beforehand.
I got to my room and I cried. I cried because I took a good chunk out of my savings to travel and move into campus this summer. I cried because it could be a while before I will have income again to replenish the funds I took out of my account. I cried because I knew it would be a waste of time and money if I dropped out now.
I cried because I felt ancient and sluggish and out of place in the classroom that was full of fresh, young minds, primed for picking up the material with ease and grace. I cried because it's already taking me so many years to get my college degree, and dropping out now would be a huge blow to my progress. I cried because thinking about quitting felt like a huge failure on my part, especially after only the first class meeting.
I cried because I was missing my husband and our dogs. I also didn't know if my indoor houseplants would survive without my meticulous plant care routines for the next seven weeks. I cried because I already felt defeated when we barely even got started. I cried because I realized I should have been studying some more instead of sobbing like a baby, in case I did decide to stay.
Done is better than perfect
A few more uncontrollable sobs later, and after some sensible conversations with my husband, my close friend, as well as my instructor, I gave myself a little pep talk. I decided that it would be best to stay in school and push through the challenges and (perceived) hardships. "Just get it done, Niki, just get it done." Get through the seven weeks, pass the class, and earn the four credits. Like an earnest prayer, I mumbled to myself repeatedly: "Done is better than perfect, done is better than perfect, done is better than perfect."
I stayed for the summer and persevered. The heavy fog of self-doubt eventually dissipated, and I was able to focus my energy on learning instead of worrying. I acknowledged and accepted my own limitations, and just did the best that I could do to move forward. I divided my workload into manageable to-do lists, ticking away at each task and taking breaks as needed. I set a goal to get through each week unscathed.
Thank goodness, the topics covered in the course were extraordinarily fascinating and thought-provoking. It didn't take too much effort to actively engage in and contribute to class discussions. Many of the course participants were enthusiastic and vocal about their ideas and opinions. It was easy to get caught up in waves of lively and fruitful exchanges. Every meeting since the first became something I looked forward to every week.
Then, it was finally done, and it was perfect.
If you ever feel similar concerns and pressures, reach out to your instructor, academic advisor, friends, family, or a confidant. Share your thoughts with someone that you trust, who can help put things into perspective. If you have specific questions for me, my email is published in Harvard's public directory. You can also find me on social media. There are helpful resources available through the University, which I have linked below.
Helpful resources for students:
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