Babich and Bateman: Touching Robots
Babich and Bateman: Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With

High Tech, Low Fidelity

Untitled BanksyThe virtue of fidelity is perhaps the hardest idea for anyone to appreciate in this age of robots. The concept of faithfulness and loyalty to a person, cause, or ideal feels like a relic from a time before our own, and attempts to espouse the merits of this otherwise simple concept flounder on the twin moral calamities we face. Understanding why fidelity is something valuable – indeed, invaluable – means defending against both of the catastrophic corruptions of ethical life that have afflicted our time, and showing how both are rooted in an abandoning of fidelity for something lesser. Yet before it can be argued that fidelity is worthwhile, we must recognise that we currently lack it, and appreciate how this came about.

A brief warning is required. When we enter the fault lines of our ways of thinking, it can be difficult to remain open to new perspectives. Moral horror, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, makes it hard to even listen to a new perspective that strikes us as beyond belief. Thus to talk about fidelity and freedom in the paradoxical way I am about too is likely to set in motion all manner of resistances. Objections will loom large and make it easy to miss the point I am trying to make. By all means consider the arguments against what I am presenting; I would expect no less. But always leave open the possibility that no matter what I may have got wrong, there might be an essential truth at the heart of my argument worth grasping.

To understand the subtle problem I wish to outline, we must be able to appreciate the cybernetic networks (or cybergs) that we are enmeshed within, and how they relate to the moral catastrophes of our time. Consider first the disaster of individualism that tells us that we only have to be loyal to ourselves, and celebrates breaking free of tradition as a triumph of the individual will. There are indeed situations worth celebrating here, and movies like Footloose and Bend It Like Beckham rely upon this for their drama: parents enforcing religious standards bar their children from behaving in certain ways. Yet these stories serve to re-illuminate Christian and Sikh practices; Footloose is as much a lesson for Christians as it is a celebration of individual freedom, and while Sikh traditions are a smaller part of Bend It Like Beckham, the same general point remains.

Conversely, individualist doctrine serves to valorise any exit from religious traditions as a victory for freedom. Yet this escape is of the most fragmentary kind: those who make a clean break from their family and its locally-social network merely transfer from one small cyberg into the dispersed gigacybergs that absorb us all. Without ties to other practices, those founded upon people, the result is a chimerical existence as a free individual, one whose freedom consists solely in the choices of consumption being placed before us. This is the disaster of individualism at its core: we say we value individuality, yet foster a way of living that sacrifices any more substantial  freedom in favour of merely pre-prescribed market decisions.

We have misunderstood liberty as individual choice, and in so doing have lost any grasp over authentic freedom. This mistake is so subtly concealed from view that our typical understanding of our situation is the inverse of what a closer examination reveals. For we think that breaking free of the traditions and practices of our parents or extended family is the mark of freedom because we remove from our lives an influence that seems to impede our autonomy. Yet the core practices of both individual and group remain the same after this alleged ‘split’: we are still embedded within the cybernetic networks of money, digital media, medicine, cars, and transportation – the spaces where we are assured of our individuality through participation with a common culture of movies, games, scientific discovery, news and so forth that tells us we are free because we can change job and move to a new city – that we are free, in other words, because we are nomads, unbound from tradition.

Except, of course, for the traditions of money, media, medicine, technology, and transportation, which are (in the case of money) as old as the religious traditions that it is supposedly an expression of freedom to break with. The point being that we have equated our capacity for infidelity as freedom because we do not see any expression of liberty in the possibility of disentangling ourselves from the various cybergs that enclose us. Moreover, we do not even see that possibility at all. It is entirely beyond our thought.

Within the cybernetic networks that enfold us we possess only the minimum freedom of choice within a closed market, never the mark of authentic freedom that would come from the liberty to disengage from the cyberg itself. The car makes this clear: please, choose which motorized vehicle you wish to use to participate in transportation... you must do so if you are not to be radically disadvantaged by being unable to move around in the ways required by our planetary infrastructure. It is, paradoxically, only the human who lives outside the road network who possesses an authentic freedom of movement – the physical nomadism of the Tuareg shows a genuine personal freedom when measured against the cultural nomadism of the city-dweller, who claims their infidelity as freedom, while having no choice but to engage in transportation, money, and so forth.

Yet this is done willingly; it does not seem like a lack of choice because accepting all of these enmeshing networks is clearly desirable to us all, since the values by which we gauge our decisions to participate are taken to be beyond question. This is the moral disaster of consequentialism: we know unequivocally that outcomes matter (this is beyond doubt), and thus utility – the capacity to bring about desired outcomes – is the yardstick of all choices. Who could doubt that better technology is more useful than the tools remaining the same, or that living longer is better than dying young, or that getting between two points faster is better than doing so slower, or that superior entertainment beats boredom? Who could doubt that more money is better than less?

We weigh outcomes and think that this is the measure that cannot be doubted. But when this is the only way we evaluate things, we are being shallow sighted. Yes, once we level transportation down to mere time between points, its a relatively simple question of what is better. Yet this hides the way roads replace other, more egalitarian spaces; how pedestrians and cyclists must choose between going further or gambling with their lives; how both the cost and the impact of living is raised by mandatory car ownership. Do we want to give up cars? Probably not. But we ought to look at them more closely than measuring them by expense, fuel consumption, and speed. You don’t just buy a car, you buy into the automotive infrastructure that the car requires to work. You buy into the car’s cyberg and all that entails, every submerged aspect that is buried beneath the imagined ideal of faster travel and the fantasy of driving conveyed by automobile commercials. A higher top speed won’t get you to your destination any sooner when you spend most of your journey stuck in traffic, as cities are learning far too slowly.

So too medicine: no-one can look at the frequency that women died in childbirth just a century or so ago, nor the number of children that perished as mere babes, and not feel compelled to speak out against those who, for instance, opt out of vaccinations that benefit everyone. But again, we are shallow sighted about medicine. The medical establishment causes almost as many problems as it cures, not least of which because this view of life – as permanently extensible as long as we have the right tools – sets us up for certain failure. Unlimited health care asks that we identify every problem as a disease, to research a cure, and to administer all cures to all people. Yet this is an ever-growing task, becoming more and more expensive and either distributing the best health care only to the wealthy, or gradually bankrupting nations that attempt to pay for everything for everyone. Do we want to give up medicine? Absolutely not. But still, we shall all eventually die, whatever we do, and medicine does not help us deal with that inevitability – it is rather our most effective way of hiding from it.

Money is the subtlest trap of them all, because the idea that more money is better is so effective at concealing the radical unimportance of money to well being. That is not the same as saying poverty is great – by definition, those living in poverty don’t have enough. But what standard do we aim for? The moment you are living inside the car cyberg, your cost of living just skyrocketed because transportation is taken as expected for each individual instead, as humans once took for granted, as a community good. So you no longer need just food and shelter, now you need a car too. And the more money you have, the worse it becomes... second houses, sports cars, private jets – expense rises to match income, ensuring dissatisfaction. Worse still, the large accumulations of money become cybergs all of their own: capital chases its tail in a game of perpetual commercial deployment that has little benefit to anyone but the venture capitalists playing with the networks of extreme wealth.

Now the point here is not the critique of these specific cybergs – although there are dozens of unthought, undiscussed problems and crises hidden just beneath the surface. It is that our supposed expressions of individualism – breaking from tradition, leaving the family business, moving to another city or country – do not adequately represent personal freedom since whether we stay within or break away from our childhood culture, we remain inside all the gigacyberg networks of our time. This is not even a new critique: Ivan Illich already outlined these problems (albeit from a different perspective) in the 1970’s: we are beset by radical monopolies, dominating systems that replace freedom with choices set upon their own rigid terms. 

Christian, Hindu, atheist, Sikh, Buddist, pagan, Muslim... all are taking part in the same practices – technology and all it’s messy fruits. The decision to break with your parent’s practices is at the same time the utter continuation of the medical, transportational, commercial practices that you acquired from your parents. So individualism is a crisis not because it is wrong to want to be free, but because we say we are free merely because we can vary the minutiae of our lives and beliefs and do not recognise how the common basis of evaluation remains unchanged. Individualism destroys fidelity because ultimately it is unbreakably allied to consequentialism in its narrow guise of utility.

High technology, low fidelity. We always go for the better, the new, the taste of the future over loyalty to the past. We do so because we are cultural nomads, and we have all chosen to live in essentially the same ways – not out of loyalty, but out of a bitter necessity borne of our dependence upon the cybergs towards which we cannot even claim fidelity. For how can we be faithful to something that we cannot even imagine the possibility of leaving?

The opening image is by Banksy. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by Banksy, which seems unlikely.

Next week: Faith in What?


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Thank you for addressing my two central issues with modern society! The ideals of freedom and individualism not only trap us within ourselves but are also used by corporations and governments to control us, detain us and neuter any form of protest.

I very much like your casting of our concept of freedom as infidelity. And it's amusingly appropriate that some of this infidelity may even not be perceived as such. Which brings me to my question: could the liberty dogma of breaking with tradition not be seen as a tradition onto itself by now? And if so, would a more efficient way of breaking with tradition not be actually following tradition at this point?

Very much looking forward to "Next week: Faith in What?"

Hi Michael,
What you're calling 'the liberty dogma' is a corruption of the drive for autonomy that was a crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. But in the 18th century, 'autonomy' implied individual self control and alignment with commonly-held moral ideals, at that time associated with religious practice. Today, 'autonomy' has come to mean the exact opposite! So while I would agree that the liberty dogma is a tradition in itself, I would prefer to see it as a corruption of an older tradition worth saving rather than simply a free-standing tradition. This for me is true of so many things today...

I would also like to distinguish between those traditions that possess knowledge (which is to say, have reliable practices) and those that do not. The liberty dogma does not obviously possess knowledge, in that its judgements are seldom reliable and indeed are frequently self-deceptive, and nothing is reliably produced by practicing it. I would welcome pushback on this, but I'm not sure what it could possibly be!

"would a more efficient way of breaking with tradition not be actually following tradition at this point?"

Aye, to my own infinite surprise, it sometime seems that the only viable act of rebellion left to us might be to align with and revive older traditions - in art, philosophy, culture and so on. Yet, at the same time, I would not denounce every aspect of contemporary life as failing to produce an authentic knowledge-practice. For instance, players of MUDs (the early text-based virtual worlds) formed genuine communities and developed practices that seem to me as worthy of fidelity as anything 'classical'. Is not your own project, The Endless Forest an extension of this young tradition?

So while I would agree that reviving older traditions is a way you could break from the traditions of contemporary life (which are over a century old at this point, if you trace them from the industrial revolution), I still believe in the cyberpunk ideal of subverting technology to oppose the system - even if this latter path is becoming harder and harder to maintain faith in.

Pleased that you enjoyed this piece, which does after all seem right up your street! There are two more that complete this discussion to come over the next few weeks.

With unlimited love,


I don't quite agree with the idea that, "It is, paradoxically, only the human who lives outside the road network who possesses an authentic freedom of movement...."

They don't have freedom of movement. If they want to go visit someone they know inside the road network, then they cannot move freely; indeed, they must participate in the road network, perhaps on a temporary basis.

I think the problem comes when movement is bound to a cyberg like the road network, yet we do not allow everyone to participate in it. The person who does not have a vehicle (cannot afford, cannot operate, etc.) is cut off from the road network, and thus cut off from people who require the road network to visit.

Now, the road network is a good thing. Instead of only visiting people within a short walking distance from my domicile I can go visit people much further away. Tomorrow I'll be driving 2-3 hours to visit someone for lunch; without the road network I wouldn't be able to do this, or it would take a much longer time to visit.

So, how do we fix the problem of not everyone being able to participate in the road network? One answer is to go back to the old ways, to rip out the road networks and allow people without vehicles to participate in movement again. However, this also cuts off options we have available to us today.

Another option is to devise ways to allow people without vehicles to still participate in movement with the road network. We see a bit of this with things like public transportation, but this tends to be an inferior options unless there's commitment to making it work. The dream of self-driving cars means that we may be able to give more people convenient access to the road network... assuming that the profit motive doesn't kill this possibility.

So, I think the real problem is when we have something that becomes "vital" for modern life, but that we do not choose to spread to as many people who want it. In our modern society, this is mostly about leaving behind people who can't afford to pay to buy into these "vital cybergs".

Anyway, great food for thought. Now, back to writing those blog posts on online anonymity. :)

Hey Brian,
Your objection that the Tuareg loses their authentic freedom of movement when they have to enter areas with road is one that I did consider... but the Sahara desert is 3.6 million square miles of territory, and the vast majority of the land surround it has only dirt tracks with very little traffic. (In my experience of sub-Saharan Africa, these roads literally wash away in the rainy season!) It is only as the cities impinge upon the desert that the problem occurs. But I accept this objection, with the caveat that I still maintain only nomads such as the Tuareg enjoy anything close to authentic freedom of movement.

I break with you on two counts when we come to discussing road infrastructure. Firstly, robot cars are not obviously an answer to anything other than 'how do we accelerate our employment problems?' and 'how do we increase our dependence upon corporate manufacturing?'. The only kind of robot car I'm willing to contemplate as viable is one capped to 25 mph, that would thus make the roads safer and share well with bicycles. And actually, I should like that to happen to all cars for use within cities.

"One answer is to go back to the old ways, to rip out the road networks and allow people without vehicles to participate in movement again. However, this also cuts off options we have available to us today."

I think we can both agree that this isn't going to happen, but it is not actually as crazy as it sounds to do so. With the technological prowess we now possess, we could develop some amazing solutions to the infrastructure problems if we could start again. Alas, I do not believe we can or will.

"Another option is to devise ways to allow people without vehicles to still participate in movement with the road network. "

Public transportation is better than not having it, and can be done well (I'm looking at you, the Netherlands!). It is at its best, however, when it is not dependent upon roads, which are a solution that does not scale well to 1:1 motorized vehicle ownership...

"Now, the road network is a good thing. Instead of only visiting people within a short walking distance from my domicile I can go visit people much further away. Tomorrow I'll be driving 2-3 hours to visit someone for lunch; without the road network I wouldn't be able to do this, or it would take a much longer time to visit."

Aye, you just described the US experience rather well. When I moved from the UK to the US, I was excited about all the friends that would be nearby. That 'nearby' meant 1-4 hours drive away. That overhead meant that I did not actually see them very often - certainly less often that a good number of my friends in the UK, who were not in fact much further away in distance. The difference here was the rail network. But it is also worth noting that I had friends in the UK that I could cycle to as well, whereas in the US even walking to the store was to risk being run over and killed.

If there is a solution to this problem, and alas I'm not convinced there is any more, it would be to look at infrastructure, employment, housing, community etc. from a perspective that did not presuppose cars. We are as spread out as we are because the mythos of the automobile means we do not need to plan settlements for practical use at all. "You'll just drive there" is the explanation for a staggering number of our infrastructure problems.

Rethinking settlements is what's required, but what there is no appetite for.

If I can take you back in time, before it was practical to just nip over and have lunch with someone 100 miles away, what happened was that you planned your journeys over a longer space of time. So travelling further also meant that you stayed longer. What prevents us doing this now is an employment regime that is a form of indentureship. I had best not go down this line now, or we'll never get back!

The point I am trying to wildly gesture at is that being able to take five hours to have an hour's lunch with a friend a hundred miles away is not obviously or definitively superior to having to make a longer trip to visit them for a day or a week. Convenience is being wildly overvalued in our assessment of facilities.

I don't, clearly, have solutions to these problems, but it is not an option to keep heading down this same path. The topography of two dimensional planes has made the automotive infrastructure invalid for cities. It is time to start rethinking our future.

Many thanks for your thoughtful commentary, and I very much look forward to reading you on anonymity!

With infinite love and respect,



Note that I agree with you about the problems with the road network; it has a lot of problems and design flaws. Like an system built organically over time, there have been a lot of bugs incorporated as "features" into the system. Inertia and profit motive keep a system that could be greatly improved in its current state.

But, this is not the precise topic of discussion; I was talking specifically about freedom of movement. For all its faults, the road network has overall given us more freedom, not less. And, yes, this freedom for some comes with costs, obligations, and a curtailing of some freedom for others.

But, your example about taking a longer trip doesn't show more freedom, in my opinion. Instead of driving a 100 miles or so, I could have taken transit and stayed in the area; in this way, I am no different than the people of yore. The differences is that I can also choose to use the road network to travel to my lunch and back again in the same day. Having more more options means greater freedom to me. Even if one of those options is less appealing given the alternatives now.

Further, this wasn't just a visit to lunch with a friend; this was a business lunch to look for consulting work. The fact that the cost of the trip was low works well for me in a capitalist sense; having to plan a long trip just to do an initial business contact would get expensive. In fact, without the road network neither of our careers would be where they are today!

But, again, I think there are some problems. Taking away some freedoms from people to enhance freedom for others is always tricky. Is the freedom to go do a business lunch 100 away worth making an elderly person feel isolated and alone because they cannot participate in the road network? I don't know.

Spreading people out so there are less community hubs and less feelings of community in a neighborhood is obviously a big downside of the road network. But, I think issues like this are not at all related to the freedom of movement issue you brought up. I think you're right in that, in an ideal world, we'd take a look at the fundamental assumptions made in urban and transportation planning and figure out how to improve things overall. Sadly, as you say, there is little appetite for this type of work.

Hope this clarifies. I've enjoyed this series immensely!

Hi Brian,
Two topics have collided here - firstly, convivial living in an age of motorised transport, which was what my point in the previous comment regarding longer trips was in reference to, and secondly, the freedom of movement issue raised in the original post. It's important to keep these in focus, as they are different problems related to the same core issue.

You say:
"For all its faults, the road network has overall given us more freedom, not less."

My reply to this is: the perspective from which the road network has given greater freedom rests entirely on judging in a very particular way, namely thinking with the road network and not thinking through or against it. When you think with the road network, you see the benefits it affords - such as impulsive mid-distance trips, or day trips over several hundred miles.

But if you think against the road network, these benefits disappear, since in the absence of the road network you would still be able to make mid-distance trips, you'd just be doing them on a different scale in terms of the distance. A vast number of people are invisible over the distance you travelled - if you didn't have the road network, your relationship with them would also be different. But here we are into counter-factuals, and this is dangerous space for an argument as there is never solid ground when you are thinking against what is.

Perhaps more interesting, then, is to think through the road network, then you can see why freedom of movement is illusory within the road system. And key to this is: what can you do on your own? And on the road network, the answer is nothing at all! You must purchase a car, you must fuel that car, you must use that car - the 'freedom of movement' that you have, is a radical monopoly, mandatory consumption. It is the illusion of agency (something we videogame designers are very good at creating ourselves!) that makes the car seem to offer freedom of movement. But there is no free movement, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Now look at how your free movement has been constrained by the road network. To do this, you must recognise that as a pedestrian, you are now no longer able to move freely, because the road network constrains you at every turn! Vast tracts of land are forbidden to you on foot... you must take detours to cross roads, or you must cross dangerous roads at great risk. This is the hidden face of the road network, which is not a paragon of free movement at all - nothing of the kind! It blocks movement at every turn - except that singular kind of movement it is intended to support, and which is never free.

In the US, where car ownership is an even stronger radical monopoly than in some other countries, the car seems to grant freedom, because citizens in most places in the US are trained to think of the car as the basis of movement. But it is never free movement to travel in a car. Elsewhere, where people move around freely (on foot, mostly, but also with bicycles, horses etc.) the sense of gain with the car is lost and these issues can come into clearer focus.

The things the car gives you are solutions to the problems its road network has made for us, like travelling longer distances because everyone is spread out over a wider area. I do not accept that any authentic freedom of movement is to be found here, although the devil's bargain that automobiles provide certainly feels perfect in its Faustian disregard for what is not being considered...

Thanks for staying engaged! Your support in this, and all things, is most welcome.


PS: I ought to make clear that authentic free movement is the capacity to move in any direction. The distance travelled is what deceives us.

Well, I'd quibble about your definition of free movement. It's correct in a sense, but not terribly useful. I think that freedom of movement would include distance as well as direction. Being able to travel farther, faster gives one more options such as jobs the can seek out on a daily basis, which increases their options and freedom in an absolute sense. Even if the can no longer walk on where the roads are placed as freely as they might otherwise.

Ultimately, this is like the social contact. I no longer have the freedom to murder people, but I have some freedom in there being restrictions in me being murdered myself. The problem is, as I said before, not everyone gets to enjoy the expanded capabilities; I think this the important moral dimension when talking about cybergs, letting everyone enjoy the benefits as much as possible.

Anyway, thanks for the enlightening discussions! It has certainly made me think about the concept of cybergs and how they affect our life.

Hi Brian,
Thinking in terms of distances is what got us all into this problem in the first place! :) It is precisely the trick-of-the-mind that sustains the transportation radical monopoly. It is not easy to think of freedom of movement as the freedom to move in any direction when you have been inculcated into being a human-car cyborg, which lacks this capacity. But I encourage you to give it a go. It's a good exercise for game designer, or indeed for any human.

And if nothing else, you can now see why I suggest the Tuareg has an authentic freedom of movement and we do not. :)

Many thanks for these exchanges, which have helped me clarify the thoughts in the original post. Much appreciated.

All the best!


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