100Cyborgs: All-Request August!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWith twenty cyborgs under my belt, it’s time to open up the floor for requests! So throughout August, the posts I’ll be writing for A Hundred Cyborgs will be based on suggestions from anyone and everyone. What technology do you want to see considered in terms of cybervirtue and debility? What tools do you think most inspire positive behaviour? Which devices have the most heinous consequences?

Let me know what you want me to write about in the comments here, or by responding to any relevant tweet in Twitter.


Deck of Cards

Deck of CardsI am hard-pressed to identify a technology with a more profound influence upon my life than the deck of cards. I might never have become a game designer without this simple collection of 54 printed cardboard rectangles to open up the possibilities of the design process to me at a very young age… I was designing card games by age 12, although to be fair I was adapting 8-bit arcade games to the playground at age 9 (Joust remains a favourite) so perhaps I was always fated to pursue game design in one form or another.

If a game console is a device designed for the express purpose of executing arbitrary programmatic systems for entertainment, then the deck of cards was the world’s first game console. All previous games except dice had components specific to their design, but this was not the case for the first cards (quite possibly Chinese ‘money cards’, although the history of the deck of cards is rather hard to trace owing to the poor survivability of actual cards). By creating a set of components that were coded into both numerical values and suits (usually four), human-deck cyborgs had a means to create myriad different games – and have indeed done exactly this over the millennia that followed.

Now the question of the cybervirtue of a deck of cards is an interesting one precisely because for much of their history card games were expressly gambling games, and therefore seen as a quintessential expression of vice. Yet anyone who carries a deck of cards with them has the capacity to wile away spare time with engaging solitaire games that cultivate attentiveness (if not patience, per se), and an ability to create a convivial play experience for an arbitrary number of other humans who can be easily incorporated into the same cyborg network more or less at will. The deck of cards experience can be cyber-hospitable, cyber-disciplined, cyber-prudent, cyber-cunning, cyber-creative… the number of positive qualities that can be instilled by playing cards with other humans is far more than I suspect anyone has ever thought much about.

On the other hand, few games encourage quarrelsome behaviour quite as much as Bridge, and overly competitive behaviour is also a debility that can be brought on by using a deck of cards. And while deck design does invite artists to display their excellences, most custom decks are essentially just advertising for the endless river of corporate-owned media that saturates our world today. I know most people in videogame development are more impressed by the latest computer specifications for high powered digital games consoles, but I can’t help myself: the deck of cards trumps all other multi-role game technology for its flexibility, its simplicity, and its potential to encourage virtue.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #20


Painkillers

PainkillersWe have all accepted uncritically a vast legion of the assumptions of contemporary medicine. One that particularly intrigues me is the notion that medication for pain relief is automatically justified whenever there is pain… but this is actually a rather odd state of affairs. To learn to bear pain is to have the virtue of endurance – we may not desire this virtue in ourselves, but we still admire it in (for instance) athletes and dancers.

Painkiller cyborgs (and I include myself here) are susceptible to what might be called cyber-frailty. If we are unwilling or unable to endure pain, if we reach for the over-the-counter pills at the first sign of discomfort, do we not rob ourselves of the chance to learn to endure? Set aside the extreme counter examples (i.e. burn victims, morphine drips for terminal patients) and focus solely on the trivial cases, those where over-the-counter pharmaceuticals like paracetamol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen are taken for ailments like headaches and scratches. To depend upon drugs in such cases is to remove even the possibility of self-improvement or self-mastery from the situations where our pain tolerance is tested. Although I habitually turn to the medicine cupboard at the first sign of discomfort, I am increasingly conflicted about it.

Should I really prop up pharmaceutical companies profits rather than learning how to endure pain?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #19


Reddit

RedditThe cyborgs of Reddit, or ‘Redditors’, are frequently maligned in respect of the nasty undercurrent of hate and hostility that accompanies those subreddits that, by their very name, commit themselves to injustice. The recent deletion of r/KillAllJews, for instance, can have alarmed no-one who understood the Enlightenment principles upon which the right of free speech depends.

While cyber-disdain, cyber-cruelty, and indeed cyber-indignance are all amongst the moral network effects of Reddit, the same is also true of all other social networks. But unlike other online collisions between myriad anonymous cyborgs, Reddit also fosters a great many more granular communities, where positive discourse takes place and indeed loose friendships can be formed. I am reluctant to condemn Reddit unduly – not least of all out of an appreciation for where it comes from.

The direct precursor to 2005’s Reddit were the UseNet forums of the 1980s and 90s, which I participated in during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. Decentralised, self-organised, and self-governed, UseNet also had the same capacity as Reddit to support communities under any arbitrary banner (personally, I spent a lot of my time in rec.arts.startrek and rec.games.rpg). I loved it… at least until fights broke out. One of UseNets problems was that everything flowed down uninterrupted under each group – and arguments were thus often heated and hard to resolve, as often happens when you lock nerds together in the same (virtual) room.

Enter Reddit with its democratised (and thus anarchic) upvote and downvote system. With this, an organic curation of content occurs – and this in at least two ways. Popular content (whatever that happens to mean) floats to the top. Simultaneously, anything anyone finds annoying for even the most trivial and petty reasons is downvoted. I can find nothing cybervirtuous about the downvote system, which is mostly used to bully those you happen to disagree with or dislike. But the upvote system is harder to judge… It is certainly, as Andrew Marantz suggests, a feedback machine. But so is all social media except perhaps blogs. But it is also cyber-sympathetic in a way that is distinct from this element of retweeting, sharing, and liking. A Redditor who upvotes sometimes just decided that someone else deserves to be heard. I am not convinced Facebook and Twitter are as good at this – there are more personal stakes entailed in choosing to place other people’s thoughts into your timeline in these spaces.

Like so much of the internet, Reddit brings out both the best and the worst in its cyborgs. But in that it can and does sustain granular communities, it seems to me that something is happening here that does not happen on, say, Facebook, which is flat and vast. If there is still infinite room for improvement on Reddit, it should also be accepted that in some respects, it is doing better at holding communities together than many rival social networks.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #18


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