Previous month:
February 2017

Tenacity and the Domination of Things

Anselm Kiefer (2013) Morgenthau Plan (detail)Our robots never tire, and always pursue what we have instructed them to do if nothing disrupts them along the way. Can their tenacity be made to work on us, to bring out our perseverance where we most need it? Or are we doomed to be dominated by the systems we have designed?

The question of when persistence and determination constitutes a virtue is parallel to the ambiguity that accompanies fidelity. Indeed, these are closely related virtues – one binds us to a ideal, a practice, or a community, the other to a course of action. Yet clearly not all activities are equal when it comes to tenacity: a heroin addict’s perseverance in their habit, and their dedication to acquiring money for it, do not count as any kind of virtuous tenacity.  The shift in our understanding of agency brought about by re-assessing the role of things in our decisions gives us a way of appreciating why: the heroin is in charge of that chain of events, and the human is reduced to its servant.

To construct a virtuous understanding of tenacity we need a viable understanding of what Enlightenment philosophers called ‘will’ – the resolve to take a certain path; to commit to an uncertain future and make it happen. This is distinct from impulses – I can hanker for a sandwich but I cannot will one, although I could will that I mastered the art of sandwich making, or baking bread, or that I would open a sandwich shop. But what does this distinction consist in? Is it a difference of kind, or merely one of degree?

The one surviving place in our language where the concept of will survives is in talk of ‘willpower’ – but our current understanding of biology renders this concept suspect. If there were a viable concept of willpower, it would distinguish between two kinds of people: ones that had it, and thus would show tenacity in all things, and those who lacked it and would thus be condemned to perpetual sloth. But this isn’t what happens in life. Although we do see differences in persistence both in terms of people and in terms of activities, a person who persists in all tasks does not seem ‘high in willpower’ so much as obsessive-compulsive, unable to stop themselves from attending to whatever happens to be in their attention. Both willpower (and the earlier concept of will it descends from) presume our capacity to assert agency in a selective fashion, such that we appear to be in charge of our own actions.

What we find in our biology wherever we look for persistence is habit. Take getting up in the morning. I recall a time in my life when I had been staying up late most nights, carousing with friends or playing games. At some point, I resolved to get my sleeping back in order – but was dismayed to discover that setting my alarm early made little difference to my routines. Barely awake, I would snooze or switch off any alarm before my half-conscious mind knew what was going on. Today, I get up at the same time every day and getting up is comparatively easy to do, even at 5:30 am, a time I had previously associated with calling it a night. This transformation has nothing to do with willpower but everything to do with habit. It was not enough to commit while awake to something that would happen before I would be fully conscious: I had to establish the habit. This, as it happens, is far easier when we act in the context of other people: exercise groups and dieting clubs establish successful habits more easily than people acting alone.

Here, then, is a way of tracing a boundary between will and impulse, tenacity and capriciousness. To will something entails founding and sustaining habits that are steps towards what is imagined. Our impulses, on the other hand, strike us on a moment-to-moment basis – and when these impulses become habits, as with heroin, we are sacrificing what we might will for forming circumstantial habits; we are enslaved to the will of other beings, or the inclinations brought on by things. While there are certainly debilities corresponding to an absence of diligence and determination (apathy, for instance) perhaps the more interesting contrast is this one between tenacity of the will, and submissiveness to impulse.

When it comes to thinking of cyber-tenacity, it may initially seem that we have a context where our robots might indeed foster enthusiasm and perseverance in their humans. We only have to look at videogames for endless examples of cyborgs persisting against rage, confusion, or boredom, or indeed establishing ostensibly positive habits such as walking, which Pokémon Go (for instance) makes essential to its play. If we are comparing tenacity to apathy, our robot-mediated games clearly come up trumps – if there is indeed a form of cyber-apathy I have yet to see it, and every commercially successful game encourages its players to come back for more.

But then, whose will is being served here? If the player is truly imagining a future and pursuing it, we might very well call the desire to keep playing the cyber-tenacity of the human-robot pairing. Yet when a videogame has us in its grip we are submissive to it: our desire to keep playing is often more like the heroin addict’s habit than the will to become a master baker. In particular, if we look at what the lazier exponents of what is called ‘gamification’ have recommended, this seems indistinguishable from the Behaviourist’s schedules of reinforcement – habit formation through repetition and reward... dog training for humans. This is submission, not tenacity.

As I have argued elsewhere, gamification is all too often stultification. Jacques Rancière makes the claim in The Ignorant Schoolmaster that education is counter-productive when teachers attempt to force upon students their understanding of a particular topic or skill, rather than encouraging the student to acquire their own competences. He calls the effect of an education that teaches a specific way of understanding (rather than encouraging learning without specifying a specific form of comprehension) stultifying. Learning avoids this when the teacher’s will is bound to the student’s solely in terms of committing to the learning being achieved; whenever the means that learning will proceed eclipses this binding of a common will, the outcome is stultification, and learning is hindered or entirely stifled.

Gamification risks stultification because the game developer (or behavioural engineer) is specifying what is being learned, and there is no engagement of the will of the player (or employee). Submission is the inevitable outcome of this failure to create a common vision. What’s more, through mandatory achievements and scoring systems like Xbox’s Gamerscore we have witnessed the gamification of games... an emphasis on cyber-submission over the more engaging alternatives. This state of affairs is now endemic in software design: what is Twitter and Facebook’s Follow counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality? Everywhere game-like scoring systems occur, there is a degradation of our judgement as we are drawn away from even asking what we will, and into submission to the designed system and its values – the ultimate manifestation of which is money itself, our greatest and most dominating cybernetic network.

Yet the cyber-submission of videogames is by no means the whole story. Videogames also demonstrate cyber-tenacity in the way humans form teams and co-operate towards goals together, and although competitive play often brings out the worst in people, there are virtuous communities of players in a great many situations where their will is being exercised, albeit within the limited context of the games in question. The player who commits to the pursuit of a digital sporting victory is not, perhaps, the paragon of tenacity – but they are not so far removed from the physical athlete, whose determination we justly admire. Add to this the exercise of imagination, in the narrative play of MMOs and elsewhere, or the creative projects realised in Minecraft, and the situation does not seem so resolutely submissive.

These examples occur in the context of play, which is always a negotiable, transient experience. But they point to ways that our robots can illicit cyber-tenacity in cyborgs. There are possibilities here worthy of exploration, but they must avoid the stultifying risks of cyber-submission and empower us to set our own wills in motion – and see matters through. Here is somewhere that our robots have a natural advantage, for they are automatically cyber-tenacious in the personal sense – they do not tire or flag, and keep progressing towards what we have willed unless prevented by inability or malfunction. If we can couple that indomitable spirit with our own wills, without being dragged down into submission along the way, there might be no limit to what we cyborgs might achieve.

The opening image is a detail from Anselm Kiefer’s Morgenthau Plain, which I found at the Royal Academy page for their Kiefer exhibition. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked. My thanks to seymourblogger (@abbeysbooks on Twitter) for the suggestion of this artist.

A Fabulous Planet to Die On

Delighted to report that Justin Robertson’s interview with me for Ransom Note went up today! Here’s an extract:

I trust my mechanic to fix my car when it’s broken – except when the manufacturer has made the car into a black box that people can’t actually acquire practical knowledge of. And I trust that my physicist friends can calculate how to adjust satellite data for distortions. All in all, I think there’s plenty of expertise around today. But you don’t ask a mechanic to decide on the base rate of the Bank of England or a physicist to bake a soufflé. Most of the problems with expertise happen because we’re failing to recognise who has knowledge of what.

Check out the entirety of A Fabulous Planet to Die On when you get a chance.

The Dependent World

Banksy.Robot BarcodeEither the dog is the paragon of fidelity, expressing boundless loyalty to their human, or dogs are incapable of fidelity. It comes down to whether the bond a dog forms with their pack leader counts as a promise, and there are good reasons to say that it doesn’t. Nonetheless, I come down on the other side of the argument and see dogs as practicing fidelity in their own unique and admirable ways. The counterpoint amounts to claiming a dog’s commitment is merely instinctual habit. This contrast – habit as against fidelity – is precisely the battleground upon which cyborgs are losing.

In Imaginary Games, I draw against Félix Ravaisson's remarkable 1838 conception of habit as what sets aside beings from things. Habit, for Ravaisson, has two sides – it is the foundation of all our skills and excellences, which only achieve anything through the repetition of training and application. Yet it is also the source of addiction, and it is not coincidental that phrases such as ‘habitual user’ and ‘habit-forming’ have attached to substances such as heroin. The virtue of fidelity that I have been carefully tracing is what allows our skills to achieve their excellence, for the artist, athlete, researcher and so on achieves their proficiency only through commitment to their chosen path. If my argument in Wikipedia Knows Nothing is accepted, this means all knowledge comes from fidelity, since if knowledge is understood as a practice, only fidelity to a practice attains it.

Yet there is something missing in this characterisation, a hidden aspect I tried to draw attention to last week by taking marriage as an exemplar of the relationship between faith and fidelity. Whenever we exercise fidelity, we form a bond with other people. This is most visible in marriage, but it can be found in all cases that fidelity occurs (even if it is sometimes a commitment to honour the dead in some way, rather than the living). The athlete’s fidelity to their sport binds them to their trainers and fellow competitors; the researcher’s fidelity to scientific methods binds them to their research community (for all that the empirical sciences sometimes foster a perverse obfuscation of their human dimension); the artist’s fidelity to their craft binds them not only to the lineages of art that inspire them, but to communities of appreciators without whom their work is incomplete. Fidelity, therefore, is both the root of knowledge and the wellspring of community and culture. To lack fidelity is to become, as traced at the beginning of this discussion, a cultural nomad, and this is not freedom but a kind of ephemeral prison.

As cyborgs, we are assaulted with habit-forming situations because commercial technology is designed, from the ground upwards, to be addictive, to form habits that turn to desire rather than fidelity, to addiction rather than knowledge. Take, as the smallest example, your relationship with your smartphone. By design, this robot is not intended to last, it is not meant for repair beyond trivial interventions (a broken screen, for instance). It is intended to habituate you to its action before being rendered obsolete by the escalating scales of computing power that drive hardware sales. The announcement of a new iPhone or Android phone is intended to push our buttons and draw us into ‘upgrading’, a euphemism for indulging an addiction to the new. This critique can certainly be challenged, but to do so on grounds of increasing utility is to fall prey to the moral disaster of consequentialism and thus be shallow sighted.

Although I am no fan of motor vehicles, I would like to compare the way cars were designed fifty years ago to the way they are designed now. For it is not a coincidence that classic cars are still in service: they were built to last, and designed for repair. A mechanic could express fidelity towards these machines and thus gain knowledge of them. Today, the core function of an automobile is barred to all but the wizards of manufacturing, and an onboard robot controls almost all functions thus reducing the role of mechanics to merely substituting faulty components when instructed. These are machines built for obsolescence that bar all practical knowledge of their workings except as proprietary trade secrets. In short, the design of contemporary machines aims at dependence, and this cyber-dependence is the first principle of commercial technology. It is not a coincidence that the clockwork torch (or flashlight) was designed for Africa and not the ‘developed’ world. ‘Developed’ here is a synonym for ‘dependent’.

Thus Facebook (or any other social media platform for that matter) is designed not for fidelity, nor for binding people together in practices that foster knowledge, but for dependence and addiction. Follows and shares are the motivating force by design, and this pursuit of metrics to measure ‘social success’ serves to substitute dependence for fidelity, addiction for community. That is not to say that fidelity cannot be expressed through these purportedly conversational media – merely that they are not designed to support it. They are created for cyber-dependence, and the utility of the communicative networks they create blinds us to this in yet another example of shallow sightedness. It is scarcely surprising that propaganda, ‘fake news’ as it had been dubbed, thrives in systems that discourage fidelity and thus minimise productive community. Knowledge requires fidelity to a practice; when it is reduced to repeating, we come adrift from our epistemic moorings, as the Wikipedia, that methodical aggregator of corporate artefacts, epitomises.

What would cyber-fidelity mean, and could we imagine technology built for it? Fidelity is founded on a promise, literal or figurative, a commitment to be part of something and thus to foster knowledge within that community (whether we are talking sports, research, art, or whatever). Cyber-fidelity would therefore apply whenever our robots aided our commitment and our communities without simultaneously engendering our dependency. At the moment, whatever fidelity is expressed via the internet does so against the prevailing winds of dependency. If you wish to learn about fidelity, you will find exemplars more easily in the so-called Third World than in the Dependent World we live in. Hence the suggestion that there is a pressing need to technologise the planet is another aspect of the moral disaster of consequentialism – the free ‘Third’ world does not need to learn our dependencies from us; colonial occupation already established dependencies that will not be resolved by adding technological addiction to economies that were optimised for colonial export and that always acted as cyber-dependencies, long before computers upped the ante.

What I am calling cyber-fidelity is another name for what Ivan Illich called convivial tools, technology that empowers individuals within their communities, rather than creating dependence and dividing or destroying community in the name of ‘progress’ (the consequentialist war-cry par excellence). The bicycle versus the car is just one example of cyber-fidelity versus cyber-dependence – and here it is not a mere footnote that the former fosters physical fitness and mechanical skill through maintenance, while the latter fosters ‘road rage’ and planned obsolescence. Note that both cars and bicycles are products of overlapping technological networks: tyres, gears, steering... but one empowers its human and community, and the other fosters dependencies, on manufacturing, oil, and infrastructures that are far from egalitarian.

In asking earlier if dogs could express fidelity, what was at stake was a distinction between habit and dependence, and now I can suggest another aspect of this question: the dog’s commitment to its pack is the evidence of its fidelity. The dog not only belongs to a community – and for domestic dogs, that means both the humans they live with and the neighbourhood dogs they fraternise with – but it has knowledge of that community. Indeed, it is the principal knowledge that any dog learns. The dog cares which other dogs have been in the park recently, and cannot wait to be reunited with members of its pack as they come back home. The dog, in other words, is a convivial being, as (in its own way) is the cat. The human too has this capacity; we are, as Donna Harraway suggested, a companion species to our dogs and cats, and rather less so in the context of our robots.  

Like cars, computers opened up a space that could be convivial or could fall into dependency – and at this point it seems clear which way they have gone. Nothing marks me out as a heretic quite as spectacularly as my suggestion in Chaos Ethics that we have more to learn from the traditional cultures of the Third World than they can benefit from moving uncritically towards the Dependent World we live in. If we wish to build computers that can foster cyber-fidelity, perhaps we should look to the clockwork torch and the way it was designed to be of use outside our enmeshing networks of technology. I do not know what a convivial computer might be, I do not know whether cyber-fidelity is even possible in a world of robots – but we have truly narrowed our horizons of possibility to mere technological addiction if we cannot even imagine trying to explore this uncharted and unimagined frontier.

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.

More cybervirtue next week.

Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD, but in the meantime a few quick remarks.

Brian’s example that we are now used to people pulling their phones out all the time in the final part sits badly with me; I do not think this an example of a cultural shift to deal with technology consequences so much as I think we have instituted our rudeness and now accept a higher degree of impoliteness towards each other. The same thing happens in big cities, of course: we learn to be less polite. I do not think this specific example upholds the point Brian wishes to make, in terms of adapting to technology, although I do agree with him that this adaptation both needs to and will happen. We just need to be careful in recognising the active role required in shaping norms.

At several points, Brian trots out the example of people who need to protect their identity. I do not think this is as strong an objection as he and others do; his more general arguments about everyone’s need for privacy are much stronger in my view, in particular because they apply to everyone. If we thought public identities would solve all the problems, the need for some people to adjust their permanent identity online would be a manageable issue. But as Brian nicely outlines, public identities aren’t a guaranteed fix. This is not even a likely fix, as Brian elaborates very clearly in part 3.

We need to be having these discussions, and I am enormously grateful to Brian for wading in here, and making such a thorough report on the issues. I heartily recommend you check out all four parts.

Living with Machines: A Dialogue

Living with Machines was a seven part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, life with social media, dinosaur hands, sex robots, and smartphones.

The dialogue originally ran from 26th January to 9th March 2017. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The seven parts are as follows:

  1. Corporate Venality
  2. Monopoly and Other Games
  3. Mediaddiction
  4. Godzilla’s Tiny Hands
  5. Touching Robots
  6. Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With
  7. Techdolls

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment! A new Babich and Bateman dialogue begins later this year.

Babich and Bateman: Techdolls

Following on from last week’s discussion of robot friends, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss mechanised dolls.

GI BarbieBB: Sex dolls are another thing again, aesthetically speaking, and there I do not have many hopes for prime time (as it were) anytime soon and not at all for heterosexual women (but the question of desire has its own complexities). To my mind it is plain that there is a market for this, there already is such, inasmuch as such sex dolls are already manufactured, and the new marketing tactic for these dolls is simply to call them robots, but this may be just a little like the Latourbot [discussed last week] and beyond the silicone dolls one can already purchase – there are already plans to create celebrity version of these ‘sex robots’ – it does not seem that these ‘robots’ will be more than talking versions of the supposedly ‘realistic’ dolls on offer. And there are children’s dolls like this, one pulls a cord and the doll utters one of a stock set of phrases. Most children take less than a day to lose interest.

CB: It has passed into cliché that children play longer with the box than with the toy, but there is a certain truth to this. I have found few toys as flexible as a suitably-shaped stick for entertaining my children. Yet there is still a lingering ideal to the powered-up toy that provides the draw – hence my eldest son who just turned six enjoys watching toy commercials (which I try to guard him from) because he likes to get ideas for things he could have. There is a fantasy being sold, here, whether with dolls for boys (“action figures” as Hasbro brilliantly rebranded them in the 1960s to get over the problem that fathers would not otherwise buy dolls for boys), dolls for girls, or dolls for sexually frustrated men.

BB: And here the sex dimension may make all the difference. A little girl may be more demanding than a guy who just wants a robot to have sex with and does not much mind that it doesn’t walk or do anything remotely human like. This is one of the reasons that I suggest that a sex robot for women might need to move in fairly complex ways, just in order to be a sex robot – but also because women do want more than one thing, ought also perhaps to be able to carry things, including its human lover across puddles and muddy fields, up hills and so on, and who would miss the jet pack?  There could be the Colonel Brandon model (just for carrying one up hills when one’s broken heart has left one caught in the rain and dashing off, when one catches cold, to fetch one’s mother) and there could also be Dr Strange models, or Heathcliff models, Tristan models, and Professor Snape models, just to fight the good fight, tortured and conflicted, all terribly romantic, against the Dark Lord and any wandering miscreants while he is at it. But even there, perhaps, and as science fiction authors have long argued, the deficiencies of the human may turn out to be an advantage. To this extent, our “promethean shame,” à la Günther Anders may be our salvation, contra Anders who was of course massively sardonic.

CB: Given the extent that masturbation is driven by imagination, it seems to me that a robot sex doll will do the same job that a pornographic magazine does. But again, the aesthetic of realism interjects itself – the sex doll is somehow more desirable if we judge it to be ‘more real’ than the magazine, and the sense of that realism is utterly flexible; any justification will suffice.

BB: One of the insights of The Matrix worth thinking about is not the updated version of Descartes’ doubting or his evil genius, as some philosophers like to suppose, but much rather the realization that machines are dependent on human beings to invent them (this is the Vico moment) to deploy them now for one thing, now for another (call this the Simondon moment) but ultimately also to power them.

CB: This element of The Matrix would have sat better with me if the plot did not involve blocking out the sun to cut off the robot’s solar power, given that this would also kill all life on Earth. But do go on...

BB: I mean this prosaically not in terms despite its appeal to the myth of machine or the even greater myth of the computer simulation, as we currently project this fantasy vision, as if the machine were a vampire of human energy as our sci fi writers like to pretend (Matrix vision  is a variation on Childhood’s End) but much rather and more prosaically, the machine invented to remedy the lacks or needs of a consumer, mostly a male consumer’s, affective and erotic life – this is the plot of Ex Machina – will also (this was not detailed in Ex Machina because the beauty of a fantasy is that you can pretend that all those tech details are taken care of, and this in turn is the reason for the plot wrinkle you mention in the Matrix) but any foreseeable sex robot would need you to move it, arrange it and also take care of it, keep it clean, do its hair, all that and not least remember to plug it in. Thus the phantasy of the Matrix, well beyond that of the ideal sex doll, is the pure or perfect automaton: the machine that runs by itself, a perpetual motion machine.

Letrons-transformerCB: Thus our science fiction fears that we should be afraid of AI research because the machines will surpass our powers and finally destroy us, as in the mythos of Terminator. Which is darkly amusing, really, because we are destroying ourselves far more effectively than imaginary robots are. Right now, its robot cars, which we’re told are great because… well, actually, I haven’t seen this case made yet. Some people suggest they will be safer, and yet all the discussions of the ethics of robot cars have focussed on who gets killed in a collision, a pedestrian or the driver, because who would want to buy a car that didn’t protect its driver. Never mind that if all our cars were capped at 25 miles per hour no pedestrians would have to die – and we’re talking millions of people a year, more than anything we actively fear, like plane crashes or terrorist attacks. What’s more, I hear it suggested that robot cars will be great because they can go faster than humans, which entails a jaw-dropping evasion of the problems of both energy and transportation that would set Illich to spinning in the grave. And all this sets aside the more worrying point that a huge number of people are employed to drive cars, as truck drivers or taxi drivers and what have you, and that robot cars thus have much to offer millionaires and billionaires who can own mechanical slaves but cannot officially own humans.

BB: But here is where the hermeneutico-phenomenological can be helpful just to the extent that includes attention to current reality and current state of the art, rather than assuming that R&D will make all such considerations irrelevant (this is like debating the morality of full head transplants before doctors have figured out how to do them much less how to heal injuries to the spine, the severing of which is required twice over for a head transplant). As it happens, one of the great challenges of contemporary life, and also one of the problems for the environment in complicated ways that have everything to do with what is needed to make a battery to begin with, is the matter of finding a free power outlet, even at home where most outlets are already fully occupied. Travel is worse to the extent that it takes one out of one’s own rhythms and one’s machines out of machine routine. Hence your pocket robot, as you quite rightly name cellphones, drains massively the minute it needs to search for a wifi signal or a new carrier and so on. Airports today come complete with the modern version of the penitent’s soul in guilty search of outlets or, rather like Dante’s Inferno, captive souls chained to a power socket, sitting on the floor for the sake of fifteen or however many minutes of juice. The solution, of course is and will be to design life around the needs of the tool: plugs everywhere, power outlets at every seat. Route 66 has fuel station after fuel station and it is this that makes Route 66 and other roads the kind of complement to the automobile that they are, and the same thing is the reason, among other things, that we still do not have viable jetpacks, hoverboards, what have you.

CB: We spoke before of the invisibility of hands, but the invisibility of the flow of power is just as tangible, and brings to mind Milan Kundera’s remarks in The Unbearable Lightness of Being of our capacity to ignore the rivers of excrement flowing in and around our houses. And then there are those places where these invisible networks come acutely into focus – driving pass the pungent stench of a sewage ‘farm’, for instance, or encountering a ‘charging station’ in a shopping mall or airport. 

BB: I travel frequently and have to say that most of the time, this is 2017, the plane or train seats assigned to me do not happen to have power outlets. Not yet, so we say. The design solution might be not the environment, but self-charging robots (and the Matrix scenario returns…). Yet even this, even apart from dystopic robots, the problem is not necessarily thereby resolved as even if one could design a robot that would, of itself, plug itself in, clean itself, there would remain — this is the robot 2.0 problem as I see it, it is the robot Don Juanism of the tech junkie — the next model with its own set of different challenges and perhaps different power technologies – even if we don’t need to envision a Blade Runner like uprising among the now autonomous and (already or soon to be) outdated models. Valley of the ‘plastic friends’…

CB: Aye, I was struck by a journalist interviewing a man who had queued overnight to get a new model iPhone. They asked him why he had done it, what the new phone could do for him. And he didn’t know; that had never even entered into his mind.

BB: It is one of technology’s enduring mythologies that it pretends or supposes a solution either on hand or else (this is most common) “soon” to be deployed, like jam tomorrow, but never jam today: I call that cargo cult technology, our new millenarianism. The mischief is that we believe in this. We are, in Thoreau’s phrase, the tools of our tools.

More from Babich and Bateman later in the year.

Faith in What?

Banksy.Girl with BalloonLast week, I outlined the way high technology has crippled the virtue of fidelity by ensuring that is only ever practiced as the thoughtless failure to recognise how little freedom we possess with respect to the technological traditions we are enmeshed within. It is still necessary to understand why fidelity is a virtue, why loyalty to people, practices, and ideals serves a vital purpose in human life, without which our capacity for judgement is impaired. But this requires first a change in our understanding of faith.

The place to start is marriage, but not because everyone accepts the merits of this institution. Indeed, before same-sex marriage managed to put this practice back on the agenda in a significant and hopefully lasting way, I feared matrimony was to be the latest casualty of the homogenisation of contemporary life. While there is a host of feminist (and more recently, male-advocacy) arguments against marriage, I do not intend to engage with these because they have little day-to-day force. Besides, if a feminist or anti-feminist eschews marriage on principle I see this as merely a new form of monastic commitment, one founded on political rather than religious grounds. You are not bound to adhere to what any gender advocate thinks, which is not the same as saying their arguments don’t matter.

The people around me in long-term relationships who did not wed are what I only half-jokingly call unmarried, in a parallel manner to talking about ‘undead’ for imaginary beings that are neither dead nor alive. These unhusbands and unwives tell me more-or-less the same thing: we don’t need the government to validate our relationship; a ring on our fingers changes nothing; what would a wedding ceremony do except cost a lot of money… All these objections miss the core purpose of marriage in a society of equals: to make, as equals, a public commitment to building a life together. The act of promising is the key to matrimony, because it is, in a very real sense, the marriage. It is both the act of committing, which forms a particular kind of relationship between individuals and their futures, and the witnessing of this act, that constitutes  the wedding, thus founding the marriage. You don’t necessarily need to get married in front of your families – but if you cannot present your future spouse to those with whom you have prior long-term relationships, how serious about your promise are you?

The promise, whether public or private, is the basis of fidelity. It is not coincidental that having extramarital sex is called ‘infidelity’; it is a breaking of vows, of faith in the other – hence also ‘unfaithful’. The very word comes to us as faith, fides in Latin. We have come to associate this term with religion thanks to the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, but this need not concern us here. The important point is that faith, as a trust that cannot be unequivocally vindicated, is an essential aspect of human experience, and we lose sight of this if we buy into the mythos of ‘faith versus reason’, which stages a battle between faith in tradition and faith in the sciences that is spectacularly unhelpful for understanding either.

Thinking that continued scientific research will only make the world better is having blind faith in the sciences; it is neither testable, nor at this time even entirely plausible, that this is the case. But we have faith in the sciences because we contrast what we have to what our ancestors had and judge it better, and by this isolated measure we seem to be vindicated. The equivalent blind faith in tradition occurs when faith, which is a disposition towards uncertainty, becomes equated with unjustified certainty, all too often with disastrous results. In almost any situation, blind faith is a debility since it substitutes rigid conviction for the balance of faith and critical thinking required to negotiate the difficulties of future uncertainties. In matrimony, this blind faith can be seen when one partner ceases to be actively engaged in the endless negotiation of a shared life and merely assumes that the marriage will continue. This is not having faith in your partner at all, but rather the painful path towards divorce.

It is because the future is always uncertain that faith is an unavoidable aspect of human life. Rather than recognising this, we find ways to hide from it by highlighting things that feel beyond doubt and pretending that faith is a character flaw of others. The moral disaster of consequentialism, reducing all judgements to questions of utility, is a crucial example of this since it obscures manifest problems by setting them entirely outside of consideration (as discussed last week). How useful various tools might be will prove irrelevant to a species that has destroyed its environment to the point of risking its own extinction.

Yet if this catastrophe comes too keenly into our attention, it becomes depressing, it robs us of our will to act, because our apparent powerlessness against the most serious problems of our time diminishes our sense of autonomy, and thus our willingness to even attempt to act. Against this paralysing impotence, the only possible bulwark is faith – and in this context it almost doesn’t matter what that faith is vested in, as long as it bolsters our capacity for effective action rather than merely comforting or entertaining us into accepting the status quo. Levi Bryant recently argued for an outcome-focussed ethics concerned with the fragility of the future of ‘bodies’ (organisms, organisations, nations…); these futures are the ones we construct for ourselves out of what we deem they ought to be – and to be able to imagine such futures requires a faith in what could be.

Yet faith in this sense is not fidelity, but merely the background required to understand it. Returning to the example of marriage, fidelity does not necessarily mean abstaining from sex with others besides your spouse – depending upon the vows that were taken even this is not necessarily excluded from fidelity, for all that it might be generally safer to do so. Fidelity means keeping the faith of the vow that was taken, which in the memorable phrasing of the Christian ceremony means to keep the faith against all adversity “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Thus fidelity marks the sustaining of faith against the ever-changing turbulence of life. Aristotle suggested that for every virtue there was a debility caused by lack of it, and another for having too much – for fidelity, blind faith is the debility of excess, and faithlessness its absence.

There is another sense of fidelity that is important here. A recording is said to be ‘high fidelity’ (from which we get ‘hi-fi’) when it accurately reproduces the audio quality of the original music. We then call the resulting recording a ‘faithful reproduction’ of the original event. Fidelity in this sense is a relationship between past, present, and future – what happened in the past is reproduced in the present, and reproducible in the future. And this is also the sense in which fidelity applies in all other cases too, if perhaps with a less draconian standard of exactitude to qualify as ‘faithful’. For the spouse who does not cheat upon their partner avoids infidelity and this means that there is a fidelity between the past – the vow – and the present and future that follow from it. Fidelity is thus continuity, constancy, loyalty. It is take a leap of faith about the future and then remain true to the meaning of that prior event.

Now there is an important challenge here: how do you know what you should be giving your fidelity to? Alain Badiou, a philosopher for whom fidelity to an event of truth is the very essence of morality, is keen to stress the disasters that will occur if we pledge ourselves to something which is not true. This, to his critics, makes him no better than the Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who challenged us to be true to ourselves in the face of the absurd, the infinite, God. The twentieth century existentialists, shaking God out of the equation, shook free any standard that might allow us to know with any confidence what was true, and thus took the equalities of the Enlightenment and inadvertently collapsed them into the disaster of individualism. Like the existentialists, Badiou denies God – albeit by a bizarre recourse to mathematics (‘the one is not’) – yet wants to hold on to Kierkegaard’s divine truth all the same. Can he?

Between Kierkegaard’s solution and Badiou’s lies a range of encounters with events that might invite people to exercise fidelity. The question of how we know whether something is deserving of our faith is, surprisingly, not as important as it seems, for having faith and falling into blind faith are not the same thing. It is tragic that practitioners of religion confuse the two, and ironic that opponents of tradition can make the same kinds of mistake. Faith and certainty are opposing concepts, even though they come from essentially the same source, differing primarily in degree. It would not be a leap of faith if we could be certain about something, and the future is the one thing that could not, could never be certain. It is always fragile. It is precisely that fragility that can only be combated by fidelity.

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: The Dependent World

The Meaning of Play: Chris Bateman's US Tour (April 2017)

Play.Jan RasiewiczDelighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along. 

My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.

Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!

Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm 
Open to all

Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX

Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all

Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA

Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm
Open to all

Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

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

Following on from last week’s discussion of hands and robots, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss living with robots.

MarvinsBabette Babich: I think that such robot “friends” [mentioned last week] are coming soon, if I also expect to be underwhelmed by them, just as I was underwhelmed by the realism of most realist game designs (I am mindful that you have worked out an aesthetic for this and as an informed aesthetic can make all the difference, according to no one less than Adorno, I am hoping to learn enough to have this either resolve or else to help me deal with my disappointment).

Chris Bateman: Well at the risk of deflating your opinion here, I’m not sure if I do have an aesthetic for realism in videogames. I describe Imaginary Games as my game-aesthetic grundlegung [groundwork], in a nod to Kant, and I don’t think my book gets that much farther into its chosen territory than Kant’s own moral grundlegung did (which was, of course, still significant). The trouble with realism in games is much like the trouble with realism in life – what are we choosing to highlight as real, and what are we obscuring by doing so? Realism is invoked in both contexts primarily as a means of asserting bias, and in videogames this manifests in enhancing a player’s enjoyment of a particular kind of pornography (in Joyce’s sense of desire-invoking) – gun porn, car porn, gore porn, dictatorship porn, capitalist porn, even straight up sex porn... and when videogames are not indulging in these distractions, we get realism in the didactic sense of alignment with the science megatext (what gets called ‘hard sci fi’), thus drawing our attention away from the relevant questions. Thus, for instance, ‘realistic space travel’, which is very nearly an oxymoron, is supposedly ‘real’ in a certain sense of alignment with contemporary theory, and that particular sense draws attention away from the impossibility that humanity will get to explore space if it doesn’t learn to live on Earth first.

BB: This is a huge issue, on several counts, given the listing of porn varieties as you mention these, in Joyce’s sense.  There is in the context of gaming the disputed question of Gamergate – and although this is usually parsed in feminist terms it was the complex sense of realism as you express these complexities that elicited what was by far the most intense debate among my students last term at Juilliard.  One half of the class was aligned with feminist concerns, the other half with a kind of truth in advertising kind of realism.

CB: Gamergate is such a spectacular example of our current fault lines in thought and our worrying inability to communicate... I have chastised both ‘camps’ publicly, for what little it means, and I so wish that the videogame civil war had led to a productive discourse instead of this divisive hate-fest that failed to achieve anything positive. Microcosms everywhere, I suppose, of the larger problems.

BB: Given the current hyperbolic politics of the unreal (and there are elements of the unreal in Brexit and in Trump , and the more standard journalistic language of ‘fake news’ and post-truth) a great many of the standard conventions or givens, the “supposedly ‘real’,” may be up for grabs. The talk of post-truth is complicated and emotions run high. When Steve Fuller made the very modestly intentioned (so I read his) observation in The Guardian at the end of 2016, “Science Has Always Been a Bit ‘Post-Truth’ ”, reaction on social media was both uncomprehending and antagonistic.

CB: He draws against Kuhn, which I have also liked to do at times (or Foucault, as the mood takes me, as I am one of these people who likes to draw the parallel lines there). But I think Latour’s critique here has a few additional teeth: Boyle’s vacuum pump and Hobbes’ Leviathan mark an epic moment where the split into subject and object, which I like to link up with Descartes and Kant as well, creates the ‘modern constitution’ and the assignment of authority to the State for subjects and the sciences for objects... and precisely what is revealed by ‘post truth’ is that the cracks in this problematic division have become so wide that it is no longer just the academics who are having to face that there is a crisis with what we mean by truth, a catastrophe for which Nietzsche was especially prophetic. It’s suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, drawn my own philosophy into dealing with epistemology, which is what Wikipedia Knows Nothing was all about.

BB: Part of the problem may be the durability of barefoot empiricism as the philosophical greybeards of my youth used, very condescendingly, to say, but another part of the problem is the brute difference between social realities and references to the supposed real world, just to stick to the reference to the ‘real’ dimensionality of the real world where being able to go barefoot and not being able to do so, for whatever reason – think of Socrates’ idyllic example in the Republic – makes all the difference in the way we talk politics of climate change, people present and unpresent at presidential inaugurations, all of which is window dressing when it comes to questions of reality and real world practice. Thus the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was massively protested, and which seemed to have been successful, is indeed proceeding apace: as of today, the protest camp has been ordered dismantled and ABC news is confident enough to tweet that it will be finished “and ready to flow oil in as soon as two weeks”. Beyond the ongoing business of mainstream media and “fake news”, to me, it is the disconnect with real world ‘reality’ that matters and the same people who frack and plan disastrous pipelines and hedge fishing models to permit greater quotas also tend to be people who do not live adjacent to fracking fields or alongside said pipelines.

CB: The NIMBY problem: ‘not in my back yard’.

BB: This means that one can talk about ‘real’ space travel and ‘real’ space exploration but ignore the more paltry results of the same real science. China lands a rover on the moon in December 2013 and we see and hear about it for how long and under conditions scientists name ‘mysterious’? We have wonderful images of the outer planets, but NASA enhances each and every one of them. Will a later generation manage the rendering of the same data differently, ‘enhanced’ in different ways? But your point is a powerful aesthetic-moral one, deserving a separate discussion. What should count as realistic? I once wondered in print about the realism, so-called, of Myst, and the realism, so-called, of Avatar, My own conviction is that this realism, here I am in accord with your observations, depends entirely on a selective focus. In art, supposedly ‘realistic’ styles present considerable variation over the centuries and not less across cultures. This is also the question when it comes to supposedly realistic robots.

CB: ‘Realistic’ here standing for the ease of imagining it is something that it is not.

Sex-robot-in-vertical-sectionBB: Hence sex robots are very realistic, from a certain perspective which tends to depend upon a certain level of inattention and conventionality. Both seem to correspond to a fairly general male heterosexual convention. By contrast, male robots currently on offer are literally built out of versions of the female ground plan, mouths designed as receptacles (o, joy), and so on. Most significantly the male robots qua based on the female robots are the same size. On the one hand this is a ‘good thing’ given that sex robots must be dragged about manually inasmuch as they are exactly not automata à la Descartes. They could not be mistaken for a human being wandering in the street because there is no wandering that they do.

CB: Aye, the sci fi movies taught us to expect ambulatory androids… thus we failed to recognise how ubiquitous robots became in a relatively short space of time. You mentioned that you expected to be underwhelmed by ‘robot friends’?

BB: I expect to be underwhelmed by them because the test of the Turing test tends to have absurdly low standards to begin with: we credit others with having minds, this is the good old problem of ‘other minds’ after all, but as Nietzsche points out we are quite capable of retracting that credit at any time, especially when we think back on things and when it comes to interaction, a certain amount of our engagement with a friend and a great deal of our engagement with a lover involves reflection on and reconstruction of motivation and intention.

CB: It seems to me quite clear since the very first bot, Eliza, which was created in the mid-60s, that all something needs for us to inject consciousness upon it is a willingness to let ourselves talk at it. Eliza’s trick was picking up keywords in what the human typed and turning it into a question – you say “I’m angry at your mother”, and Eliza says “Tell me about your Joseph Weizenbaummother.” Which is a clever trick, when you think about it, and one that therapists also like to deploy. Personally, it seems to me that Joseph Weizenbaum should be the patron saint of contemporary social media bots, because his Eliza paved the way for them (although, as a Jew who fled Nazi Germany, ‘patron saint’ is probably a bad choice of wording). As someone who studied AI at a Masters level, though, my main takeaway was that we have no viable way of making a robot that is a being we could be friends with, even though we can certainly make bots capable of interaction. But then, a cactus can interact with you...

BB: That thing-interaction was Schopenhauer's presentative point regarding the world, though I am fairly sure he was not thinking of cacti. Regarding the diffusing of bot interaction, which has its own set of codes, of course, it may be that the Turing test has a certain bit of trivial play left in it.  It can happen that one can mistake one kind of bot for another kind of bot.  And proof of the Turing test is the thrill kill one can experience on Twitter upon discovering that a bot one takes to be a not is not a bot after all. I used to play with Latourbot, for the fun of it, talking to Latourbot as if he were Pepé le Pew, a cartoon skunk dating back from years before my time, until Latour himself yelled at me (if one can yell and of course one can) not to pay any attention to the Latourbot as it was only a troll. Only. A. Troll. I was crushed. Maybe it wasn’t Latour who did the take down, what else was unreal, blue pill or red pill?  What could I do? And so I unfollowed what I had taken to be an automated account, a robot account and just because, as it turned out, it was not a robot account. The Latourbot was not a bot. Had it been a random algo, a tweet generator as I had supposed it to have been, it would have been better, if it is also true that I needed it to have been an Aramis-style automated joke designed at Latour’s behest. At the same time, inasmuch as I had been pretending to myself that the algorithm (again, I never took it to be Latour) was a cartoon skunk, I was also rather relieved. As one of many fake-twitter accounts, some of which but not all include ‘fake’ in the name, like the Twertzog account, tweeted by William Pannapacker pretending to be Werner Herzog, the dissonance of an accent (Hertzog’s German and Latour’s French) became an element not of charm but disquiet. This is one of the problems of projected intentionality as even this animates mechanism.

CB: Aye, nothing is truly autonomous, is it? The networks of connectivity bear upon agency in so many ways, and not just in questions of interpretation and meaning, since the practices we learn can’t be dismissed as entirely subjective, even if what those practices mean to us, or to others, is always somewhat negotiable. How quickly we learned to put on a mask and present ourselves in the digital public spaces – and how slowly we realised the costs of that anonymity.

The dialogue concludes next week: Techdolls