The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Lottery ScratchcardsIt is exceptionally common to hear lotteries being accused of being “a tax on stupidity” or “the poor person’s tax” but I have found it very difficult to accept this conclusion uncritically. It rests on treating the lottery not as the game that is clearly being played by its participants, but in comparison to investments. But these days, even over a lifetime, the cost of a single lottery ticket does not generate enough interest to buy even another lottery ticket, whereas a person who actively enjoys lotteries purchases not only the excitement of the possibility of winning but the invitation to fantasise about winning, a reverie that in some cases is the last bulwark against the crushing hopelessness of poverty. The moment it ceases to provide these enjoyments, the lottery becomes worthless – but for as long as it works, it provides a dream of escaping unbearable circumstances that is far more plausible than investing, no matter how remote the chance of winning.

I don’t play lotteries, unless you count political elections, not because they are ‘bad investments’ (a can of coke would be a much worse investment, as Joe Weisenthal attests), but because the game doesn’t interest me – I have nothing worthwhile to win. A million is not enough to fix anything that is wrong with the world, but it is enough to ruin a person’s life. In this respect, the low odds of winning are far more of a blessing than a curse, since the fantasy is frequently much more idyllic than the reality. The lottery-cyborg imagines a better future that is far from guaranteed to result from the actual win. A great deal of the millionaires I have encountered inadvertently cut themselves off from friendship and walled themselves away from the world in a manner oddly reminiscent of the way that Tolkien’s Smaug metaphorically addresses the soul-crushing isolation of greed through the ‘dragon-sickness’ that afflicts Thorin when he comes into contact with the fire-drake’s horde. 

But despite all this, there is little good to say about lotteries in terms of cybervirtue. Especially these days, a modest weekly lottery is supplemented by lottery scratchcards  that are cyber-compulsive in a way that, sadly, many contemporary videogames are committed to emulating. It is one thing to fantasise about a big win with a modestly-priced weekly ticket, and quite another to fritter away all your disposable income in the desperate hope of rescue from poverty. The expanded arsenal of retail gambling is a stark reminder of how little hope for a better world is left on our streets, and how much our dreams are conditioned by the power and undeserved allure of money. Money, it is truly said, cannot buy happiness. For most of the millionaires I have met, it brought solely misery. But the absence of money brings a certain desperation and, as Roger Caillois observed back in 1958, it is precisely as a salve to this despair that lotteries find their niche.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #29


TwitterAs someone who is faintly terrified by Facebook, I was not entirely convinced about joining Twitter. I did so because it was recommended to me by games industry friends while I was visiting Seattle for a speaking gig. The justification was purely based upon utility: I would be able to promote my books more effectively. Years later, I remain conflicted about my engagement with Twitter. It too often feels as if the primary purpose the network serves is as a pressure valve for unloading excess anger and hatred – and what an incredible surplus there is to behold!

Amongst all the moral dimensions of Twitter, one that particularly intrigues me is the taboo about subtweeting, that is, writing negative remarks about someone but not addressing it to them. It’s not the done thing, Twitter cyborgs (known as ‘tweeps’) seem to insist. Witness Selena Larson’s report on research regarding subtweeting, which from the very title begins with the understanding that this is an inherently negative activity – odd, considering saying nasty things at all would seem to be the core issue. The accusation amounts to the claim that Twitter (or indeed any individualised social broadcast system) are cyber-disdainful – even cyber-cruel i.e. they encourage disdain and cruelty – an accusation I take seriously in the book, The Virtuous Cyborg, that this series is inspired by.

Yet I have difficulty with the idea that it is subtweeting that epitomises this moral failing as such, for this seems to insist upon a need to address our disdain and dislike directly at its intended targets, and it surely cannot be better to provoke confrontation in all cases – this exacerbates the problem of cyber-disdain and can do nothing to encourage respect. Precisely the problem I am confronted with every day on Twitter is an absence of respect, an abject failure to engage in disagreements productively. Whether it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, Jews vs. Labour, or Trans activists vs. Lesbian feminists, conversation is instantly blocked by the wall of anger thrown up by our moral horror of what they are saying. At least the subtweet redirects that anger as a digital muttering in the corner. Demanding all criticism is loosed like an arrow is a call for warfare – one we see heeded on a daily basis.

From Douglas Adams, to C.S. Lewis, to Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is a staple theme of science fiction and fantasy that telepathy invites misery. Yet by asking us to write and display our current frame of mind in a few hundred characters, Twitter afflicts us all with the curse of digital telepathy. Others read our inner thoughts as the medium makes them public. Subtweeting is not the root of this problem: it is our abject failure to appreciate the consequences of projecting our personal emotional landscape into a public forum. How can we direct our outrage productively when it is dissipated in the fractious fireworks of a thousand meaningless clashes of words?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #28

Chris Billows on Nostalgia

Chris Billows (AKA Doc Surge) has replied to the earlier A Hundred Cyborgs piece on Vintage Collectibles with his own reflections on nostalgia. Here’s an extract:

Nostalgia is a chemical mixture that blends complimentary and contradictory ingredients. For it to work, it needs to be readily accessible or relatable, provide a sense of comfort, and provide a contradictory sense of fantasy. One cannot entertain adventure unless emotionally ready for it and it is readily available.

You can read the entirety of Nostalgia: The Chemicals Between Us over at From the Journals of Doc Surge.

Contactless Payments

ContactlessOne of the most common values that consumer-facing corporations have been pimping in recent decades is convenience... This was readily apparent in the earlier discussion of the appeal of Amazon, a company built upon leveraging convenience through economies of scale. It is also clear that contactless payments have taken off precisely because of the immense amenity of paying by simply tapping plastic against a small payment robot. No longer does it take a whole thirty seconds to enter your pin and dial up, now you just tap and go. Who could possibly complain?

Well, the most vocal objections to contactless payments have been raised in connection with their magnificent potential for fraud. The BBC reported £7 million of fraudulent payments within the UK in 2016, up from £2.8 million in 2015. There is a clear sense of this technology being cyber-insecure, since anyone who steals or acquires a suitable card can use it freely to pay for anything. Even at a cap of £30, large spends can be racked up in days, and the possibility of ‘skimming’ (cloning the radio frequency ID) is occasionally used to scare up panic, although at a required range of about ten centimetres this particular scenario seems somewhat fanciful, and the fraud department I spoke to about this didn’t even consider it a possibility. Besides, in all these cases of petty fraud, the banking organisations behind the cards cover these loses and can easily afford to do so, with the risk to the consumer largely resting in their not checking their transaction list for items they did not authorize.

This year, the media coverage of contactless has focussed less upon fraud and more upon who is now accepting payment this way, which now includes the Churches of England and Scotland, London buskers, and even a vendor of ‘homeless’ magazine The Big Issue. But the prevalence of the payment system – which has overtaken cash in popularity – conceals another concern about its behavioural effects, one no-one is discussing: contactless payments risk being cyber-thriftless, they encourage people to spend more freely, and think less about what they are spending. To be sure, the move away from cash in favour of payment cards already created these conditions for profligate spending by divorcing transactions from the immediate capacity to track your personal money that cash provides. This is offset by easier accounting for those who choose to investigate later – but it’s not clear how many people this applies to.

Say what you will about coins and notes, when you have to get your money in advance by transacting with a bank (these days, mostly indirectly via ATM robots, as discussed in the previous piece), you are aware of how much money you have, and how much you have spent. The contactless cyborg gives up the immediate awareness of what you are doing with your money in return for greater convenience. I suppose at this point, we can hardly be surprised.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #27

Cash Machines

ATMFor the majority of people reading, the cash machine has been the primary dispenser of money for their entire lifetime. I am old enough to remember when my parents had to plan to go to the bank to get cash, and a musician I used to work with recalled having to plan weekly and monthly finances around the need to turn a pay cheque into currency. Indeed, the decline of the cybernetic network that issued and endorsed cheques precisely aligns with the rise of the cash machine – although as will become clear in the sequel to this piece later this week, the venerable ‘hole in the wall’ is now also facing a near-inevitable decline.

The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is a remarkably honest name for a robot: it makes it immediately clear whose job is being replaced and by what. The rise of the ATM as the primary provisioner of currency has been as much due to the relative compactness of the units as anything else: a bank branch requires floor space, significant security arrangements, and pesky human staff who require paying at regular intervals. The cash-dispensing robot just requires the construction of a miniature vault, robotic ‘fingers’ to count the notes, and all the computer hardware and software required to make it work with the already-extensive cybernetic banking network. As is so often the case, the appeal of the robot as a solution to a problem is that you only have to pay once to buy it, while the on-going costs (such as security guards to deliver money) are the same or less than the alternative arrangement. As usual, economic benefit wins.

What can we say of the cybervirtue or otherwise of the cash machine cyborg, the human dependent upon these robots for hard cash? It is not immediately that clear there is an upside here beyond ‘convenience’ – compared to the alternative, cash machines are the epitome of availability. Unlike banks, robots are up all night – which has been a boon for cash strapped humans, not to mention muggers. In removing human contact from the acquisition of currency, the ATM embodies our increasing reliance upon networks of robots to manage our affairs. After all, even if you did go to your bank branch, the human teller would engage with a robot of some kind that would talk to other robots in the process of arranging your withdrawal. Yet there may yet be a positive side to the cash machine, if we contrast the kind of personal economy it enables against the one that is currently replacing it – one centred upon contactless payments that eliminate currency entirely. It is these cyborgs that the next piece considers.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #26