A Fabulous Planet to Die On
Coming Soon: The Virtuous Cyborg

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.


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