Electric Kettles

Special 1 Cup FeatureWhen my wife and I went to purchase a new electric kettle a few years back, the one we chose proudly claimed upon its packaging “Special 1 Cup Feature: Boil 1 cup of water and save up to 66% energy.” Imagine our amusement when it transpired to be nothing more than a green circle and ‘Plimsoll line’ showing how much water needed to be added to the kettle to boil just a single cup. The marketing department must have snickered to themselves as they were inflating this tiny modification to the basic design into a ‘special feature’ important enough to be emblazoned all over the packaging.

The kettle-human cyborg is a quintessentially British creature. While I lived in the United States, I was shocked that no-one I knew had a means of boiling water other than putting a pan on a hob. When I did eventually find an electric kettle, it was a nasty green plastic monstrosity that was technologically far behind the fancy glass and steel electric kettles selling in the UK these days. Of course, the trouble is that you want an electric kettle to make tea (the secular British sacrament), and the US is far more about its coffee. And to be fair, US coffee was so much better tasting than the drink that was ‘called’ coffee in the UK at the time (being a sludge of instant granules with an extremely vague relationship to coffee beans), it was hardly surprising that no-one needed a kettle – least of all to make British faux coffee. (Britain has since been invaded by coffee corporations who have forced good coffee upon us…)

Cybervirtue, which these A Hundred Cyborgs pieces discuss, is about the moral dimension of the network effects of technology; the way that a specific design for a tool affects human behaviour, positively and negatively. Earlier, I alluded to the Plimsoll line (also known as the International Load Line) – a feature of ships that shows how far they can be safely loaded. As long as you can see the relevant horizontal mark, there’s not too much cargo loaded aboard. The Plimsoll line is cyber-prudent – it helps ensure that vessels don’t leave harbour so heavily laden that they risk sinking. They save lives. The mark on our kettle just helps save energy, but it too is cyber-prudent in its own way. It is also a reminder that sometimes cybervirtue is as simple as drawing a line, and taking the time to explain what it means.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #17


Dwarf Planets

Dwarf planetsSometimes, ‘technology’ is nothing more than the question of what to count, and this is especially true for the term ‘dwarf planet’. This category exists for one and only one reason: to permit astronomers to say they know how many planets there are. This sounds strange, as if the astronomical term ‘dwarf planet’ was primarily about the ego of those scientists studying outer space. But this allegation is not far from the truth, and against this the only response any planet-lover worth their salt can offer is the formula: “Dwarf planets are planets too!” (Although please, be polite about insisting this.)

As my 2011 piece, Pluto and Eris – a dialogue explains, the discovery of the 2,400 km wide rock that bears the name of the Greek goddess of discord created huge problems for astronomers in that it is their professional task to speak for outer space and they desire, as all scientists do, to make ‘reliable witnesses’ (as Isabelle Stengers puts it) out of those objects they have chosen to investigate. But Eris is so very near to Pluto in size, and more importantly the Kuiper belt is so packed full of objects like Eris, the coming to human awareness of Eris-the-rock actually destroyed astronomers ability to say “we know all about the planets”, because it prevented these telescope-human cyborgs from being able to say precisely how many planets there are.

Hence the gathering of the International Astronomical Union to deal with this crisis of knowledge, and the immediate invention of a new tool, the term ‘dwarf planet’, which refers to a planet that ‘has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit’ (the only part of the four-part definition of a dwarf planet that other planets don’t meet). But reclassifying Pluto, Eris, and all the other newly discovered planets as ‘dwarf planets’ – which is actually a very solid scientific term, and carefully agreed to by the astronomers – wasn’t enough to defend the egos of astronomers from the cyber-hubris brought about by having found dwarf planets. So they added an additional conceptual layer to their definition, which was that “dwarf planets are not planets.”

Now poor Eris is used to being messed around, but this was rather cheeky! Indeed, she has every right to be insulted by the suggestion that – despite obviously being planets (often with their own moons!) – dwarf planets are a different kind of object entirely, rather than just a different kind of planet. It’s all so unnecessary, since astronomers are now equipped to give a much better answer to the question “how many planets are there in our solar system?”, namely “there are four terrestrial planets, four Jovian planets, and at least five dwarf planets.” The first five dwarf planets we’ve found are Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris, and they are planets because “dwarf planets are planets too.” Pass it on.

For Anwen and Branwen and everyone else for whom ‘what counts as…’ matters.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #16


100Cyborgs: 1-10

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 first ten posts:

  1. Voice Assistants
  2. MallBots
  3. Calendars
  4. Blogs
  5. Self-braking Cars
  6. Gender
  7. Chlorophyll
  8. Amazon
  9. Firearms
  10. Bitcoin

#6 and #7 are ‘line blurring’ pieces – they take ‘technology’ in a wider sense than most people are comfortable with. But these are also the two pieces that I found most engaging in this first block of cyborgs.

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 next week.


Traffic Lights

Traffic LightsThinking about the kind of cyborgs we become with traffic lights is certainly odd… we think about traffic lights as part of the road, not as part of us. But whether as driver or as pedestrians, traffic lights are cybernetic systems that control or influence how we behave. The car-human-traffic light system is a cyborg system, one that intersects with the human-traffic light system we encounter on foot in ways that are not always helpful.

While a great many car-human cyborgs respect the signals given by traffic lights (which are effectively traffic control robots), there is a nasty tendency for cyber-impetuousness. As the light turns amber (yellow in the US), there’s a sudden urge to speed through the lights, rather than stop. Even though our journey will only be interrupted by a minute and our final time at destination will be barely affected at all, there is a desire not to be impeded – and then the opposite reaction happens: a potentially dangerous dash across the line.

As pedestrians, the same cyber-impetuousness happens when we face a long walk to reach a designated crossing but could easily (sometimes not so easily…) dash across the road in a break in the traffic. Again, we don’t want our journey to be impeded and we are willing to shoulder a risk in safety, to ourselves and others, in order to satisfy our impatience. In the case of the pedestrian’s situation (although we rarely think about it consciously) the problem is exacerbated since city planners have almost universally favoured the car-human cyborg over the human on foot. In the United Kingdom, pedestrian crossings are not always or often in the places where ‘foot traffic’ flows naturally; in much of the US, travelling on foot in the majority of places is impossible. On foot, there are a great many places where you are simply less important than when you are a car-human cyborg.

The problem of vehicular cyber-impetuousness might perhaps be addressed in various different ways, not all of them practical. I sometimes idly dream of automatic paintball guns shooting those cars which run red lights, but few would approve of this vigilantism. Adding some cost, small or otherwise, to not stopping could make a difference: all car-human cyborgs respect severe damage tire spikes, not all respect pedestrians. Automatic number plate recognition could be used to leverage fines. Given that roads are always smoky, you could even produce a ‘wall of lasers’ when the lights change, creating the impression of a barrier. Sometimes, simple psychological tricks are enough to make the difference.

I find it fascinating that we treat traffic lights as necessary: it shows that we think cars are necessary. And that in turn suggests that we can’t imagine a world without cars. Even as the urban infrastructure problems become insurmountable, we’re not willing to consider giving up or changing this most problematic of cyborgs.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #15


Autodialling Ambulance Chasers

autodiallerOf all the multitudes of robots sharing our world with us today, few are as wretched as the Autodialling Ambulance Chaser. With the advent of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), automated phone calls do not even require a standalone unit like the one pictured here – all you need is a computer and access to the internet and you too can harass strangers over whatever petty matter you choose to pursue. But despite the possibility of anyone firing off scattershot phone messages to everyone else, autodiallers are primarily used as a means of directed marketing, and one particular usage outstrips all others: ambulance chasing.

You may recall the inimitable Phil Hartman’s shyster lawyer on The Simpsons, Lionel Hutz, saying “You can ching, ching, ching, cash in on this tragedy!” Well, there is plenty of money in personal injury cases and the only difficult part of the process is finding clients. It used to be that you’d have to personally locate those with personal injury claims by, for instance, hawking hospital wards – a practice that gives us the term ‘ambulance chaser’ in the first place, since the lawyer or their minion could follow an ambulance back to a hospital and then check to see if there was a law suit. But VOIP disposes of this time consuming process by foisting the legwork onto a robot that repetitively dials numbers until it finds someone with a personal injury claim.

The call begins something like this: “I hear you’ve been in an accident recently, and we want to talk to you about a claim for personal injury.” At this point, the person on the other end of the line either hangs up indignantly (in which case the robot simply dials the next number…), listens to the entire message because they are bored but does nothing (triggering the next call), or jumps through the hoops to contact the human at the attorney’s office and take the process forward. You can liken the process to fishing, and as with most angler’s experiences, there’s a lot more casting the line than there is reeling in. This means that the overwhelming majority of humans who encounter the Autodialling Ambulance Chaser have nothing close to a personal injury claim and are simply being mildly harassed by a robot.

This is another example of what in The Virtuous Cyborg I call cyber-disdain. There is no respect for the people being called by this robot, the vast majority of which are simply instrumentalist dross discarded in the search for that rare situation where somebody did recently have an accident. I suppose it could be claimed in defence of this irritating little robot that it sometimes finds people with claims and ultimately gets them money. But even then, is a society that obsessively turns to the courts to turn tragedy into cash really one that we ought to be encouraging?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #14


Divorce

DivorceOf all the technological inventions of the nineteenth century, divorce is one of the most subtle. The power it grants is that of reneging on a promise, and that in itself is quite a capacity to want to invent, let alone implement in law, as the British parliament did in 1857. Of course, divorces did happen prior to this point, but only a few hundred between Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ (the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and the Matrimonial Causes Act. It may be noted that earlier cultures had divorces – the Romans frequently rearranged their political marriages – but these marriages were not founded upon an exchange of vows, as because the custom within Christianity. It was precisely because the Christian conception of marriage was based on oath-taking that it was necessary to develop new (legal) technology to permit open access to divorce.

I have to take care arguing against the cybervirtue of divorce… I should not want to be misconstrued as claiming we would be better without divorce law. It seems readily apparent that a great many disastrous situations were terminated by a divorce and that it would be cruel to suggest that, say, a wife being physically abused by her husband should not have the opportunity to end their disastrous marriage. But the question of cybervirtue is always about the cybernetic effects of a technological network – and in the case of divorce, there are some serious debilities to take into account.

Perhaps the greatest concern that I have in this regard is that too many people today don’t take seriously the implications of marriage vows precisely because in the back of their minds is the thought ‘if it goes wrong, I can just get a divorce’. But while the ongoing legal union is terminated by divorce proceedings, it would be a complete misunderstanding of both marriage and divorce to think that the possibility of divorce removed the need to take care in committing to marriage. The fact of the matter is, when two people enter into marriage, they’re lives are irrevocably changed by those events and divorce cannot undo that – it cannot magically unravel the emotional impact of trying to form a life together, and even less so can it simply hand-wave away any children.

Although none of my families have been involved in divorce, I have witnessed some ugly ones amongst my friends, and my country is currently engaged in a nasty ‘divorce’ from the commitments it made to the European Union, and quite possibly with Scotland too. In so much as the possibility of divorce may encourage people to take less care in committing to a vows in the first place, divorce could be accused of cyber-trivialising matrimony or (more generally) oath-taking. This is not to suggest that ‘divorce is wrong’, but it is to acknowledge that divorce is seldom good. It is typically awful. And this is also true when nations get ‘divorced’.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #13


Robot Bathrooms

WashstationsI sometimes wonder if it is only me who cannot get robot taps to work. Automated bathroom facilities of various kinds have become more and more common, and as they have I have had more and more problems with that most basic of daily activities: washing my hands. My problems have been legion. Firstly, there’s the kind of tap that has an infrared sensor, and that is supposed to come on when you place your hands in position. More often as not, they will not trigger for me. Similarly, every kind of automatic hand dryer (except, for some reason, a Dyson Airblade) will not trigger for me without a series of arcane gestures that make me look like I am conducting a summoning ritual. But worst of all, the most daunting of bathrooms to encounter, is a fully automated, all-in-one system such as the Automatic Washstation (pictured above).

If you have not encountered this WashBot before, allow me to describe my experience of attempting my ablutions with it. Firstly, you put your hands in and it dispenses soap. You had better hope your hands were in the right place, or the soap plops harmlessly onto the bottom of the cavity and you will then have to wait for the robot to complete the entire washing cycle before you can try again to get soap. (Need I mention that if you aren’t using your soap, there’s not a great deal of point in washing your hands at all?) Then, the water comes on and runs for a set length of time. If you succeeded in getting soap the first time, you had better be efficient about washing it off during Round 2, because the water will stop when it decides, irrespective of your own circumstances. Finally, a burst of warm air to dry your soapy hands. If your hands aren’t where you want them to be at the end, you can always trigger the monstrosity again.

The Automatic Washstation is less a case of a failure of cybervirtue than it is terrible design. The team that put it together made choices about issues such as how long everything should run for that completely fails to take into account the pragmatic aspects of using the device. That it is advertised to potential purchasers as ‘using the latest technology’ is a stark reminder of the difference between recently development technology and good technology. The failure of cybervirtue in the case of the Automatic Washstation is the inevitable risk of complete counter productivity, of discouraging someone who has fought with the WashBot in the past to even bother to wash their hands after using the bathroom. We have in this case a robot designed for hygiene that risks being cyber-unsanitary.

The purported benefits of all automated bathroom fixtures are minimising water usage and so forth. But all such systems fail to be cybervirtuous if they do not permit their humans to be in control their own hand washing.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #12


Universities

Aberdeen UniversityGiven the historical relationship between universities and books, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the printing press was a key moment in the development of the university. But as Ivan Illich traced, it was the new writing techniques that emerged in the twelfth century (several centuries before printing) that transformed texts from an oral tool – something to be read aloud or indeed, sung – to an optical tool that can be engaged with a page at a time, rather than a letter at a time. The university, the community of scholars, grew up around this new form of text, and the content of each text was understood as a communication from and (in a sense) with the original author.

By the nineteenth century, the situation had changed considerably, but there was still a central role for communities of scholars engaging with specific texts. Writing in 1852, John Henry Newman presented a snapshot of the concept of a university at a time when the contemporary research university was unthinkable. Newman considered research a task for different kinds of institutions altogether, and alleged that intensive specialisation and narrowly construed focus – while effective at advancing a field – deformed the character of the person in question. In effect, Newman accused what we now call a university of being cyber-restrictive, of having negative consequences on the excellences of the individual who engages with knowledge in this way.

What I have witnessed in my time is the transformation of the research university Newman failed to foresee into a mere extension of the school system (something Illich also had cause to criticise). University students in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere proceed to university education as a next step in their schooling and, increasingly, as a form of training for eventual employment. Any sense that attending a university might be cybervirtuous in itself is lost in this arrangement – the merit of university education becomes purely instrumental. This situation is echoed in the payment system in the UK and US whereby students themselves tender substantial fees in order to improve their chances of employment in a specific sector.

A cybervirtuous university must be more than a provider of job training, and far more than an institution justifying itself via the economic benefits it provides for industrial benefactors. For a university to instil positive characteristics upon those who engage with it all but requires an escape from thinking in terms of measured outcomes at all – and make no mistake, it is these bureaucratic agendas that shape university life today. To encourage the best qualities of its students, a university must begin by being able to encourage the best qualities in its faculty. This has traditionally meant to foster their autonomy and their sense of community, to allow them to explore their own academic paths in the support and fellowship of their peers. If this idea of a university is not already dead, it is certainly endangered.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #11


Bitcoin

BitcoinTo talk about the cybervirtue of cryptocurrencies, we have to start by thinking about how humans relate to value, and as usual I have a game example that is nicely illustrative.

I remember back in the mid-nineties, when Magic: The Gathering was just gathering steam, that a good friend of mine refused to assess his cards for the game in terms of the market prices for selling them. Another friend and I were deeply into the meta-game of trading up for value, and so always knew what the cash equivalents for the cards were. For him, it was simply inconceivable that he should think of these tiny pieces of cardboard in terms of their resale value and not simply in terms of the enjoyment he could get from them. In some respects, he eventually won me over. It may amuse me that my Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale can now be sold for upwards of $2,000 – but I don’t want to sell it, and I don’t let its exchange value stop me from playing with my old decks once a year when I break them out to play with students.

Of course, it is a short step from disbelieving in the exchange value of Magic cards to disbelieving the exchange value of currency. And the trouble is, value is precisely a quality that is sustained by the imaginative collusion of communities – whether of Magic: The Gathering players, citizens spending national currency, or cryptocurrency miners investing in huge blocks of computers to run calculations that ultimately end up with exchange value. All these examples would be equally insane, except for the fact that they are all equally and trivially normal.

Now we’re in a position to ask whether Bitcoin (or indeed another cryptocurrency) could be cybervirtuous, and perhaps the simplest answer is to observe that money itself has not proved a good encouragement of virtue, and every alternative medium of exchange is essentially just another form of money. That said, it counts against Bitcoin specifically that the energy being expended powering its exchanges is an ever-growing, ever more wasteful human activity – and indeed alternative cryptocurrencies are beginning to sell themselves on their superior environmental implications. If I might be tempted to call Bitcoin cyber-naive, however, I would have to recognise here the all too familiar shallow sightedness we humans have with all our technology networks.

Some advocates for Bitcoin were particularly keen upon it for reasons aligning with Libertarian values, that is, they didn’t like the way their currency was dependent upon a central government and thus loved the apparent freedom that the peer-to-peer ledger systems enabled by blockchain software made possible. Even investors are now won over by cryptocurrency because they are not prone to the fluctuations brought on by credit risk. I have to wonder sometimes whether we might be overestimating the power and control of government, and underestimating the degree to which our money is ‘in charge’…

A Hundred Cyborgs, #10


Firearms

FirearmsThe rhetoric on either side of the gun debate in the United States is astonishingly weak. On the one hand, those in support of firearm ownership like to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, unwittingly drawing against two centuries of moral philosophy that divide mind from matter, and morality from ‘inanimate objects’. Even if we to try to assign all the blame in a single shooting incident to humans, we couldn’t plausibly place all culpability in the hands of the shooter: there is also the distributed responsibility of those who made and sold the gun and bullets, the organisations who campaigned to ensure easy-access to such weaponry, and many other humans involved in the culture of firearms – including but not restricted to those who make films and videogames that valorise guns and pay license fees to their manufacturers. We might justifiably challenge: why do you want to be one of those people who helps people kill people?

Yet the opposing rhetoric is equally misguided. I frequently challenge those who are vehemently against firearms to explain why we should be focussing our attention on guns and not cars, which kill more people. The near unanimous reply is that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, and this is then used to make a moral argument for why that technology is not permissible. In other words, opponents to firearms allege that guns are cyber-murderous: that this very technology creates the conditions that encourage people to kill. However, if you talk to responsible gun owners in the US you will not find murder very high on the agenda. Indeed, by far the most common motive is defence: a desire to have the capacity protect oneself, which in a culture with widespread gun ownership all but requires a gun. There is sometimes also a delight in the power of the weapon – but this is equally the case with cars, which are far deadlier.

The kinds of weapons we have exalted in action movies and certain videogames are not cybervirtuous, because they do not inspire good behaviour. But neither are the guns themselves solely responsible for the terrible things that are done with them. It’s not that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, it is that guns, bullets, shops, lobbying groups, military institutions, media corporations, and many more elements besides contribute to every disastrous outcome that begins with firearms being both glorified and too readily available. Every responsible gun owner keeps their weaponry in locked cabinets or safes, yet nothing about the design of firearms encourages this behaviour. It is rather the mark of the responsible owner that they possess the virtue of prudence in respect of their weaponry.

It is an open question whether guns might be designed in a way that encourages such care, that is, whether a cybervirtuous firearm is even conceivable. Might this possibility be worth exploring?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #9