When file sharing first exploded onto the technology scene, it was something many of my friends were involved in. For some, it was just exciting and new – hear The Orb’s new album before it’s released on Napster, get torrents for new episodes of Battlestar Galactica months before any British television station airs them... There wasn’t much thought about what was being done or indeed why, and if it was ever approached as a moral question, the standard justification was that it was the giant multinational media corporations who were taking the loss and thus that this was a victory for the little guys.
I eventually came to repudiate that view: because of the scale of their operations, the corporations still had something to gain by having their media shared and talked about; it was precisely artists like The Orb who were losing out in this arrangement. If you file share a Disney movie you may get the schadenfreude of denying them payment, but you still contribute to the domination of their intellectual property by participating in that cultural activity (watching Disney movies – including Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars films) rather than any of the other things you could have been participating with. What’s more you will, in the process, have denied money to the cinemas or the shops who would otherwise get a share of the money being exchanged; you have concentrated cultural power, not disrupted it.
Personally, I began to have severe qualms about what I was taking from the black library, as I call it (since it is like a black market, but no money is exchanged), but when I did, the unexpected result was that I simply stopped listening to music altogether. My experiences with file sharing led me to conclude that the packaged goods model that was being used to market music was painfully overpriced, but I wasn’t willing to take music without the creators permission either. I simply stopped participating in music entirely (since I am now too middle-aged and family-bound to relive the glories of my gigging years). This situation persisted until Spotify gave me a passable compromise. I hear people complain that the cut that artists get from Spotify is too low, and this is probably the case: but at least there is once again a line of revenue between myself and musicians. Free, in this case, was far too cheap.
This simple example of the moral dimensions of new technologies illustrates the complexity of our inter-relationships in the light of the cybernetic explosion of the last century. This is about more than just computers; cybernetics is a field concerned with communication and control systems, including such systems where they occur biologically, and radio is a clear example of a cybernetic system that did not require computers. The term has also given us a striking new word for the kind of beings we are: cyborgs, cybernetic organisms. Yet as Donna Haraway made clear in 1991, we were always cyborgs, and as I have argued elsewhere, the ants and the beavers were cyborgs before us. All life is cyborg life, it is never biological versus inorganic since all organisms are systems of both kinds, and inorganic matter is part of the field for all organic life.
Ethics entered an entirely new phase when people like Haraway, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Peter-Paul Verbeek began to look at the relationship between humans and tools from different perspectives. The Enlightenment had taught us that humans were the centre of ethical considerations, and that tools (as objects) were morally neutral, a position already coming into doubt in 1954 with Heidegger’s lecture and essay The Question Concerning Technology:
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.
According to the secular animist view that is currently being developed in various different ways, agency cannot be afforded to humans alone. Our tools have a role in our agency or, equivalently, agency emerges from networks of beings and things (or just things, for those who prefer to simplify rather than untangle). In making media forgery nearly effortless, file sharing had a significant moral impact; it changed the entire relationship between artists, corporations, and consumers of media, in a way that could not adequately be reduced to an attempt to defend the old monetary exchanges nor indeed to ‘sticking it to the man’. We are cyborgs: our ethics entails our robots as much as ourselves.
These ideas, which grow from thoughts expressed here at Only a Game for about a decade now, lead me to the pressing need to interrogate the idea of cybervirtue, the positive moral qualities of cyborgs, and in particular, the ethical dimension of human-robot relations. That smartphone in your pocket may not look like R2D2 but it is still a robot – as the operating system ‘Android’ makes quite clear, and as programmed assistants like Siri also reveal. For my purposes, a robot is merely a tool with any capacity for independent function; the jukebox is just one example of an unrecognised robot, one that has been around for more than a century. Robots have been with us for longer than we think, but we were so hung up on our expectation of humanoid robots (androids) that we failed to spot them as they surrounded us.
Bringing moral reflection into our relationship with robots is challenging, because it requires us to think in new ways, but this is thankfully an area where philosophy has plenty of experience – indeed, it is the exemplar of having to think through new problems, and indeed to create new problems by thinking through existing situations. Moral philosophy, more commonly called ‘ethics’, is the place where we contemplate (collectively, if we are doing it right!) the problems of how to live. While ethics has three faces – that of outcomes and thus decisions; that of actions and thus rules; and that of agents and thus virtues – the manifest problems with corporate and national consequentialism, and the disaster we have made of rights (both discussed in Chaos Ethics), make it clear to me that disentangling our ethical crisis may have to begin with virtues. This leads inevitably to the issue of cybervirtues – and the important question of what they might be.
Back in the day, I joked that this blog was a non-fiction role-playing game and held campaigns like the Metaphysics Campaign in 2006 and the Ethics Campaign (which concluded in 2008), where I would explore a topic and the players (i.e. the readers and commenters) would help me explore it. The last campaign I attempted was the Fiction Campaign… but there was not much by way of players. ‘Stickier’ cybernetic systems like Twitter and Facebook have swallowed up the available attention, and virtuous discourse has become endangered. But I have never learned how to stop tilting at windmills, so here we are now at the start yet another campaign, one about the moral relationship between robots and their humans.
You are invited to play, by reading, by commenting, by sharing your thoughts here or in the more addictive digital public spaces that have swallowed us up. I will write and share my thoughts on this topic, but every idea in this undiscovered country is open for debate, resistance, transformation, usurpation, and playful experiment. Please, feel free to mess around with these concepts; I do not own them nor would I wish to. Use the hashtag #cybervirtue, tweet, retweet, and share random thoughts about your robots and their influence upon you, and help anyone who is interested participate in this game of communal ethical enquiry.
Welcome to the Cybervirtue Campaign.
The opening image is a 1957 machine painting by Akira Kanayama, which I found at Wikiart. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.