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September 2018

100Cyborgs: 21-30

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

    21. Trees
    22. Vintage Collectibles
    23. Robot Recommendations
    24. Euthanasia
    25. Calculators
    26. Cash Machines
    27.  Contactless Payments
    28. Twitter
    29. Lotteries
    30. Houses

#21-25 were part of ‘All Request August’ and suggested by players of the game - my thanks to everyone who contribute to this! The remaining five are loosely themed around money, except for #28 Twitter, which continues my critique of social media. For those drawn to the strange and wonderful, the most line-blurring of the bunch is #21 Trees.

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

More cyborgs every week in October.


Techno

Drum MachineAlmost all human music is made by cyborgs – from the pipes and drums of the Stone Age to electronic music today, the compositions we are engaging with are facilitated, created, and distributed through technological networks. Techno was among the first genres of music to arise specifically from digital computer technology, and as with most twentieth century innovations in music, it grew out of Black urban culture. The Belleville Three pioneered a new Detroit sound that they described as “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk were stuck in an elevator.” Along with the house and electro styles it inspired, techno spread thanks to the inexpensive music robots like the the Roland TR-808 programmable drum machine that opened the door to a more intimate relationship between musician and machine.

Techno and its brethren grew in power in part because the British rave scene, fuelled by widespread availability of the illegal drug Ecstasy, made it the centre of their culture. As a teenager in the 1980s, I loathed the roughshod electronic dance music that seemed inescapable on the club scene that I felt honour bound to attend each week. But nostalgia wins you over eventually, and now I remember fondly what was once an audio ordeal, no doubt helped by an ever growing love for electronic music that began with The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds and never ended. Like my love for electronica, Techno never went away: it is now so ubiquitous on the Balearic island of Ibiza that people complain about the scene having been diluted to the point of being “over-exposed.”

To ask about the cybervirtue of Techno is to enquire about the positive and negative effects of the network of beings and things it connects. And what a network! Detroit musicians, a Japanese electronics company, British ravers, illegal European drugs labs, radio stations (both legitimate and pirate), media corporations, privately owned clubs, DJ’s with lifelong careers and vast collections of vinyl records... Techno has fostered a global network that successfully brings communities together. If those groups of people are less tightly knit than churches in preceding centuries, they still share with these older communities a striving for authentic communal experience and a desire for transcendence.

There are dark corners, too – deaths from misused or mismanufactured Ecstasy, brains burned out on too much of a good thing, people reduced to ‘living for the weekender’ – yet compared to any other cybernetic network of this scale, the negative impact is rather less than tabloid sensationalism would have you believe. The Techno cyborgs created something that has lasted because the good outweighs the bad, and the music ultimately means more than the drug-taking it attracted. Considering my teenage animosity for this bastard child of Parliament-Funkadelic and kosmiche (itself born of the musician-computer cyborg), I find today I hold Techno in great respect for what it achieved outside of the strictures of governments and corporations.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #35


The Black Library

file-sharingIf a ‘black market’ is anywhere goods and services are exchanged illegally for money, a ‘black library’ is where they are exchanged for free. Although some illicit copyright infringement did happen in bricks and mortar library buildings – music CDs copied, for instance – there was nothing like what I call the Black Library before internet connectivity opened the door to filesharing piracy. Any media that can be stored electronically – films, TV, music, books, pictures – is now shared via the BitTorrent protocol thanks to the vast digital infrastructure of the internet, the availability of computers able to connect to it, and a widespread willingness to break the law.

The Black Library fascinates me. From its contents, it is clear that is primarily operated by a ragtag conglomeration of nerds, especially (but not exclusively) in the US. Yet despite the illegality of copyright infringement, this disparate community maintains its own sense of virtue. Those who persistently maintain files in the Black Library are ‘seeds’; those that take and don’t give back are ‘leeches’; there is a strong ethos of aiming for at least a 1.5 ratio of data downloaded to uploaded – that is, the pirates of the Black Library are encouraged to ensure not only that they pass on what they take to another cyborg, but to another ‘half’ a cyborg too. You will find few other places in the media economy with such virtuous ideals.

Unless, of course, it’s your work being pirated – then the cry of ‘theft!’ will be upon your lips. Except filesharing is not much like stealing and much more like forgery: you don’t take something away, you duplicate it without legal right to do so. But then, so did everyone who videotaped a television show and kept the recording, or made a bootleg recording of a rock concert (now considered valuable cultural artefacts). Here lies the strange world of intertwined virtue and vice that is the Black Library: because we cannot help but notice that it is the media corporations who suffer the greatest losses from piracy, with creators largely only suffering significant loss if their sales are at superstar volumes (like long-time filesharing enemy Madonna), it is rare for pirates to feel any remorse for what they do.

Personally, I see the moral weakness of the Black Library not in terms of copyright infringement but in the absence of thought it encourages with respect to the complex network of media creators whose work is (potentially) disrespected as it is parasitically copied. Yet I place great stock in libraries of all kinds; the litmus test of a civilisation is the state of its libraries. I cannot in good conscience condemn a someone for operating a library, even when doing so is breaking the law – and there are far more scurrilous and despicable cyborgs in our world today than these outlaw librarians.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #34


Venture Capital Funds

Venture CapitalOf all the strange things that money does to humans, one of the most arcane is the venture capital fund. These networks of investors and businesses are geared towards the willing exploitation of start up companies who happen to have business models that could succeed on global scales solely through the addition of vast sums of money. In other words, venture capital is there as a means to scale up operations of either already successful companies, or newcomers that might have the ‘next big thing’. There is something of a Faustian pact involved: venture capitalists (VC) want a stake in the company, and like any capitalists they care little about anything but the numbers. If you wanted to build a company for keeping people in your community in work, VC is roughly the diametric pole, being focussed primarily on heading for a share offer (an initial public offering or IPO) to cash out with.

Yet venture capital cyborgs behave weirdly... I have frequently noticed how companies successfully pursuing VC almost invariably raise much more money than they could realistically use. When pioneering social games company Zynga pursued VC money in 2007, it made a lot of sense for them – they had a hot property in FarmVille, which turned successful Japanese designs like Harvest Moon into a form tailored for the mass market. They needed money to expand. But how much did they really need for this? They ended up pursuing an astonishing nine rounds of funding raising $866 million. Valued at $7 billion, the IPO was ‘only’ valued at €1 billion – which when you consider how much was put in was a damp squib. The story ends with a lawsuit alleging a fraudulent concealment of the true state of their business after the IPO. Not entirely surprising... given the amount invested, Zynga would have needed to clone planet Earth to have a large enough audience to justify those investments.

I previously discussed how lottery tickets are intimately associated with poverty. Well, venture capital funds are the lottery tickets of the ultra-wealthy, and the returns (unsurprising) are far better. Only one in five VC bets pays off... but those that do are billion dollar jackpots. Of course, Zynga shows that even winning a billion isn’t always enough. They pursued nine rounds of funding because they could – the money was being waved in their faces. Venture capital funds have a time limit, and it's ‘better’ for VC to invest and lose than to have failed to invest – so when one VC finds a good bet, the pack isn’t far behind. Capital – the vast accumulation of money beyond any human need – is a game of chasing tails, and venture capital funds are the apex lottery; good odds, but proportionally smaller returns than lotteries for the poor – albeit at billion dollar scales. This self-perpetuation of circumstances is perhaps the defining feature of a world whose most influential cybernetic network is money.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #33


Free Parking

ANPRWe should not confuse ‘free parking’ with the ability to park without cost. The latter is a capacity created by the absence of any parking arrangement, although not in the absence of technology since we are always dealing with roads, paving, street markings, lights and so forth whatever the rules of parking might be. No, free parking these days is something more sinister... it is the urban angler fish, a vehicular Venus fly trap to catch unwary drivers.

Not that long ago, the business model for parking lots was based on paid tickets. You parked, purchased a ticket to cover the time you’d be there, displayed it in your car, and that was that. If you exceeded the time you paid for (and were caught doing so) you paid a ‘fine’ (although this was often merely a civil payment under contract law, depending on the local legislature). You paid for the time you were using parking facilities, and you were told that this is what you were doing. Whatever you think about this arrangement, it was not obviously predatory.

Now enter the Automatic Number Plate Recognition robot... It can tell when you arrive and leave a car park and thus radically cuts the on going costs of running car parks by eliminating or reducing the number of humans required. These new devices, used by nefarious companies like Parking Eye in the UK, allow operators to advertise ‘free parking’ and make their money solely from the enforcing of the strictest letter of the agreement. Motorists will be fined for exceeding the time limits, spanning bays, or any other infractions that the robots detect – after which car ownership data is used to issue parking charges that look like legal penalty notices but are in fact merely invoices for money claimed over the contractual terms posted in the car park. Victims of this scam are pressured into quick payment, often in situations where the ‘fine’ is not in fact justified.

Like the angler fish and Venus fly trap, the scurrilous aspect of ‘free parking’ is rooted in misdirection... pretending to be something you are not. Companies like Parking Eye offer free parking as a lure to make revenue from fake ‘fines’ where they masquerade as having a legal power that is entirely fabricated. They want victims to think they have been fined for breaking the law – but nothing of the kind has happened. Indeed, the invoices passed off as ‘fines’ operate under contract law – if anything illegal happens here, it is the parking operators who could be accused of criminal behaviour by violating advertising standards or similar laws. This is a business model that makes the worst free-to-play, microtransaction-driven videogame seem almost innocent by comparison. Beware the parking predators of the urban jungle...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #32