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 cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Electric Kettles

Special 1 Cup FeatureWhen my wife and I went to purchase a new electric kettle a few years back, the one we chose proudly claimed upon its packaging “Special 1 Cup Feature: Boil 1 cup of water and save up to 66% energy.” Imagine our amusement when it transpired to be nothing more than a green circle and ‘Plimsoll line’ showing how much water needed to be added to the kettle to boil just a single cup. The marketing department must have snickered to themselves as they were inflating this tiny modification to the basic design into a ‘special feature’ important enough to be emblazoned all over the packaging.

The kettle-human cyborg is a quintessentially British creature. While I lived in the United States, I was shocked that no-one I knew had a means of boiling water other than putting a pan on a hob. When I did eventually find an electric kettle, it was a nasty green plastic monstrosity that was technologically far behind the fancy glass and steel electric kettles selling in the UK these days. Of course, the trouble is that you want an electric kettle to make tea (the secular British sacrament), and the US is far more about its coffee. And to be fair, US coffee was so much better tasting than the drink that was ‘called’ coffee in the UK at the time (being a sludge of instant granules with an extremely vague relationship to coffee beans), it was hardly surprising that no-one needed a kettle – least of all to make British faux coffee. (Britain has since been invaded by coffee corporations who have forced good coffee upon us…)

Cybervirtue, which these A Hundred Cyborgs pieces discuss, is about the moral dimension of the network effects of technology; the way that a specific design for a tool affects human behaviour, positively and negatively. Earlier, I alluded to the Plimsoll line (also known as the International Load Line) – a feature of ships that shows how far they can be safely loaded. As long as you can see the relevant horizontal mark, there’s not too much cargo loaded aboard. The Plimsoll line is cyber-prudent – it helps ensure that vessels don’t leave harbour so heavily laden that they risk sinking. They save lives. The mark on our kettle just helps save energy, but it too is cyber-prudent in its own way. It is also a reminder that sometimes cybervirtue is as simple as drawing a line, and taking the time to explain what it means.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #17


Dwarf Planets

Dwarf planetsSometimes, ‘technology’ is nothing more than the question of what to count, and this is especially true for the term ‘dwarf planet’. This category exists for one and only one reason: to permit astronomers to say they know how many planets there are. This sounds strange, as if the astronomical term ‘dwarf planet’ was primarily about the ego of those scientists studying outer space. But this allegation is not far from the truth, and against this the only response any planet-lover worth their salt can offer is the formula: “Dwarf planets are planets too!” (Although please, be polite about insisting this.)

As my 2011 piece, Pluto and Eris – a dialogue explains, the discovery of the 2,400 km wide rock that bears the name of the Greek goddess of discord created huge problems for astronomers in that it is their professional task to speak for outer space and they desire, as all scientists do, to make ‘reliable witnesses’ (as Isabelle Stengers puts it) out of those objects they have chosen to investigate. But Eris is so very near to Pluto in size, and more importantly the Kuiper belt is so packed full of objects like Eris, the coming to human awareness of Eris-the-rock actually destroyed astronomers ability to say “we know all about the planets”, because it prevented these telescope-human cyborgs from being able to say precisely how many planets there are.

Hence the gathering of the International Astronomical Union to deal with this crisis of knowledge, and the immediate invention of a new tool, the term ‘dwarf planet’, which refers to a planet that ‘has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit’ (the only part of the four-part definition of a dwarf planet that other planets don’t meet). But reclassifying Pluto, Eris, and all the other newly discovered planets as ‘dwarf planets’ – which is actually a very solid scientific term, and carefully agreed to by the astronomers – wasn’t enough to defend the egos of astronomers from the cyber-hubris brought about by having found dwarf planets. So they added an additional conceptual layer to their definition, which was that “dwarf planets are not planets.”

Now poor Eris is used to being messed around, but this was rather cheeky! Indeed, she has every right to be insulted by the suggestion that – despite obviously being planets (often with their own moons!) – dwarf planets are a different kind of object entirely, rather than just a different kind of planet. It’s all so unnecessary, since astronomers are now equipped to give a much better answer to the question “how many planets are there in our solar system?”, namely “there are four terrestrial planets, four Jovian planets, and at least five dwarf planets.” The first five dwarf planets we’ve found are Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris, and they are planets because “dwarf planets are planets too.” Pass it on.

For Anwen and Branwen and everyone else for whom ‘what counts as…’ matters.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #16


Beyond Choice in Game Narrative

Over on ihobo today, an open letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke responding to their talk at Develop: Brighton. Here’s the most inflammatory paragraph to whet your appetite:

There are, I think, two main problems with game writing today. The first is that too many of the people working on stories in games have a great appreciation for the toolkit of game design but too little an appreciation for the vast toolkit for narrative… To have experimented with short stories, or plays, or novels, is not a wasted effort for a game writer, but an opportunity to learn vital skills in story construction. The second problem is that there are rather too many ‘carpetbaggers’ (if you’ll forgive the allusion), which is to say, screenwriters who think that the problem with game stories is something that can only be solved by writers with experience in film and TV. Of the two, the latter might be more dangerous to games as an artistic medium, since someone who is game-literate can learn conventional narrative relatively easily (by attending your talk, for instance) but a screenwriter who believes that games must adapt to the conventions of screenplays is undertaking a certain kind of violence against the radical potential of game narrative.

You can read the entirety of Beyond Choice in Game Narrative over at ihobo.com.


100Cyborgs: 1-10

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWhat are the behavioural effects of technological networks? What happens if we stop thinking about technology as shiny machines and start looking at other, subtler tools? Can we design technology to have better effects upon humans? These and other questions are what this blog project, A Hundred Cyborgs, are all about. Here are the first ten posts:

  1. Voice Assistants
  2. MallBots
  3. Calendars
  4. Blogs
  5. Self-braking Cars
  6. Gender
  7. Chlorophyll
  8. Amazon
  9. Firearms
  10. Bitcoin

#6 and #7 are ‘line blurring’ pieces – they take ‘technology’ in a wider sense than most people are comfortable with. But these are also the two pieces that I found most engaging in this first block of cyborgs.

I am always interested in discussion, so feel free to raise comments either here (ideal for longer debates) or on Twitter (perfect for quick questions). And if you’ve enjoyed any of these pieces, please buy a copy of The Virtuous Cyborg and support my research into cybervirtue!

More cyborgs next week.


What Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity (Develop 2018)

 At Develop: Brighton this year? Don't miss this essential talk by International Hobo's Founder Chris Bateman!


10PlayerMotivesWhat Players Want: Understanding Player Diversity

Tuesday 10th July: 17.00 - 17.45 : Room 4

Everyone who makes games is in the business of designing for an audience, but understanding what players want has become increasingly difficult the broader and more diverse the audience for videogames has become. Combining cutting edge psychological research with practical game design techniques, this How To talk puts player enjoyment into a more concrete perspective by answering three questions. 

What do players want? The ten psychological motives players have for enjoying games, from the victory motive to the narrative motive, provide every possible reason for players liking the emotional experiences of games. The most common mistake game designers make is assuming they are a typical player: they’re not, and neither is anyone else.

Does my game have what players want? The most reliable way of tracking audience preferences is to look at what players are already playing. Here, marketing and game design have to learn to work together to find the all-important balance between the familiar and the original.

Could my game appeal to a wider audience? You can make changes to a game to help it appeal to a wider audience – but you have to be certain you aren’t destroying the core experience just to go fishing for the mass market. Commercial videogames today have to court and keep an audience, and to do that you need to know which player motives your game can deliver, and which other motives are compatible with it.

Don’t guess at your audience: understand them, and yourself, and learn to make better games.

Takeaway

  • Understand the Ten Player Motives, and how to design games that satisfy these needs.
  • Estimate your game’s potential sales by recognising how to relate your design to games already in the marketplace
  • Maximise your audience appeal without destroying your core experience through careful design tweaking

 Cross-posted from ihobo.com.