Amazon shoppingRemember that video that went viral where somebody started with an empty room and then filled it with furniture and decorations without ever leaving? What a glorious demonstration of the way our insatiable lust for convenience has successfully isolated us from each other and euthanised any kind of economy not grounded in corporate-operated, internet-enabled marketplaces.

I don’t feel good about being an Amazon cyborg, but I don't stop either. For all that I am always looking for new options for buying books, I have not been able to shake off the world’s largest ‘bookstore’. Equally worrying are the number of times I order some other kind of item via Amazon, either because I looked in the bricks-and-mortar stores around me and couldn’t find it, or because I don’t have time to make it out to the shops and convenience becomes impulse becomes purchase.

Setting aside various allegations about the work environment for employees of Amazon, and the shockingly low national taxes being paid by the internet giant, the trouble with being an Amazon cyborg is on the one hand the cyber-impulsiveness it encourages, and on the other the ignorance about what we are doing when our buying process is simply a search and a click. People are quite frequently purchasing from Amazon without any concept of whom they just purchased from... perhaps for many people this doesn’t even matter – but it’s rather difficult to see any virtue in this wholesale disregard for context.

To be fair to Amazon, the situation we are now facing is an entirely logical extension of the aggregation of retail revenue that has taken place over the last century. Chain stores in the 1920s, supermarkets in the 30s and 40s, shopping malls in the 50s and 60s, warehouse stores in the 70s and 80s, megastores and big box retailers in the 90s and 2000s, followed by the logical extreme: online marketplaces backed by a vast warehousing and distribution infrastructure. All Amazon has done is extend the trend of taking retail out of individual hands by exploiting ever-growing economies of scale and capitalising on the possibilities of the internet to take this yet one step farther.

The thing about the Amazon cyborgs’ cyber-impulsiveness is that it doesn’t even register as a debility of any significance and is all too easily dismissed by invoking the consumer’s ultimate moral values: convenience and price. The attempt to stack up any other kind of perspective against this becomes largely untenable if we have already accepted this rather strange logic that places ease of action and lowest cost above any other means of assessment. Thus we end up in this peculiar predicament where we Amazon cyborgs are sustaining the online retailer and any qualms we might have are swiftly swept away by the sheer comfortable ease of our ongoing relationship. I might pause to express some anxiety about what’s happening... but within a week, I’ll have ordered something else from Amazon.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #8


ChlorophyllIndulge me while I blur a few lines...

We don’t think of biology as technology, except when humans have tampered with it. Even if we’re not comfortable with interpreting the incredible achievements of organisms in terms of technology, we can understand the connection by analogy. The gap here, the difficulty, is that we view technology as something planned and designed, and don’t want to share this feat with other animals, even now when it’s clear that tools are something we share with other mammals, birds, fish, and more than one kind of octopus.

DNA is the original technology, or proto-technology if you prefer, a means for combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus into amino acids and forming those into proteins, from which all organisms are founded. Now intriguingly, other atoms are used in biology but solely because of the creation of proteins that happen to fold in such a way as to bond to some specific atom or ion like a key fitting a lock. Magnesium, for instance, sits squarely in the centre of a molecular ring ‘designed’ to make use of it in chlorophyll. It’s a clever piece of molecular engineering, and one that animals would later reuse for haemoglobin, which has the same basic structure but with iron in the centre. For chlorophyll, the magnesium forms a chemical photocell capable of absorbing certain wavelengths of light from our sun and turning it into energy. All plant and indeed animal life on our planet depends upon this specific chemical that algae developed and which later gave rise to plants.

Now if we take the entities built of DNA and its five elemental building blocks as ‘organisms’, chlorophyll can be seen as a magnesium-based photocell technology, and plants can be thought of as a proto-cyborg (accepting this blurring between organism and technology for the purpose of thinking this through). That allows us to ask: what are the cybervirtues of chlorophyll?

Precisely because of their intimate relationship with chlorophyll, plants are punctual and tenacious (proto-)cyborgs that show a potentially admirable commitment to soaking up the sun. Yet they also developed diverse responses to sharing space with one another: while some plants compete to tower above and collect the most light, others settle into spaces below the canopy and content themselves with living in shade. Indeed, they become so comfortable in such places that too much sunlight would be fatal. Still, they remain resolutely committed to collecting sunlight. We can admire the cyber-tenacity of the chlorophyll cyborgs, even without thinking that there is no conscious choice involved in them behaving this way.

If this is a fanciful way of thinking about plants – as photocell cyborgs – it at least offers a way of thinking about contemporary biotechnology that isn’t just about configuring organisms for human profit. Cyborgs or not, plants have their own excellences. We ought to consider that when we decide to tamper with the nature of their being.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #7


Facebook_genderWhen Facebook began offering a bewildering array of options for users to select ‘gender’ (56 in the US, 71 in the UK), it garnered a great deal of attention. Advocates for the trans community welcomed the change, which freed them from the limitations of menu technology that forces a binary ‘male or female’ decision upon people whose relationship with these terms was nowhere near as simple as checking one of two boxes. The change also allowed millions of people in the LGBT demographic to be more accurately targeted by the marketing of companies who advertise on Facebook… like all the other gender technologies we currently use, there was both a political and an economic face to its use.

To speak of gender as a technology, as Teresa de Lauretis did in 1987, is to recognise the way that our concepts of technology are, like software in general, available to be hacked, and at the same time to acknowledge the way those gender concepts are embedded within technology. For example, cinema and television have various ways of portraying and thus normalising gender roles on screen. Beyond this, the network of things that we are all embedded within has myriad traces of gender: high heeled shoes, ‘Action Figures’ (which are thus divided from ‘dolls’), tampons, jock straps… no matter how individuals claim and re-purpose these things for their own identities, the traces of gender remain throughout consumer culture.

What we often fail to address in our dealings with gender technologies is that, as tools, they do different jobs. The notion of complementarity that many religious practices embed had radically different meanings before the struggle for economic equality supplanted them, and created what we call discrimination. At its best, the tool of gender complementarity can encourage respect for difference, create safe spaces for conversation, and distribute power in many ways that are not necessarily economic. Conversely, the notion of non-binary gender that inspired Facebook’s explosion of gender categories is a tool ideally suited to the job of recognising what has been concealed in the margins. It provides a deconstruction of ‘male’ and ‘female’ concepts, and a wider understanding of the many ways of being human. This gender technology runs into trouble, however, when it tries to supplant complementarity – when instead of offering itself as a more subtle tool for fine working, it insists it is the only permissible tool.

Pragmatically, a great many (although not all) non-binary genders require the gender tools of complementarity to validate their meanings. It does not make sense to transition from one gender to another without using both the complementarity tool and the non-binary tool. We are not doing a great job with either at the moment, and I don’t know if this is because our tools aren’t good enough, or whether we simply lack the appropriate skills to get the most out of what we have.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #6

Self-braking Cars

AEBThe BBC ran with the headline ‘The most significant development since the safety belt’, directly quoting Thatcham Research’s opinion of Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), a feature in new Volvo cars. These systems use lasers, radar, or cameras to detect when the vehicle they are fitted to is too close to another car then trigger a warning. If the driver does not respond, the system applies the brakes automatically. Within the way we habitually think about transportation, Thatcham Research’s position makes logical sense. It is another question what such systems mean from the perspective of cybervirtue, that is, the potential for our technology to instil positive qualities in us.

We are deeply confused about cars and transportation, caught up in a series of fantasies that distort what it means to travel in this way. Perhaps most significant is the way we do not recognise that the car-human cyborg is the deadliest creature on the planet, responsible for more human deaths per year than the one million attributed to the mosquito (which typically is bestowed that ‘honour’). If we add the tens of of millions of people who are injured or disabled by motoring accidents, the situation becomes far worse – and this is without factoring in the environmental, political, and human impact of the demand for oil.

Thatcham Research are a reputable company who do respectable work, but their existence is premised upon buying into the imaginary world almost all of us share wherein cars are necessary and convenient. That we could eliminate almost all motoring deaths by capping the speed of all cars to 30 miles per hour is beyond consideration for Thatcham or indeed almost any of us – and this indicates the vast chasm between our desire to prevent deaths and our ability to look at our technology through honest eyes. The sense of freedom and power that the first car drivers experienced is now merely the dream portrayed by the automobile commercial, where amazingly the vehicle on display always finds empty roads.

As a system that autonomously operates a vehicle’s brakes, AEB seems unlikely to be a cybervirtuous system, whatever its mooted safety benefits, because such a system cannot possibly instil good habits, skills, or excellences upon its driver. Indeed, the opposite is true: by providing an apparent safety net against crashes, an AEB risks increasing the carelessness of those who drive with it. There is another possibility: that having the system signal closeness to another vehicle will increase the driver’s awareness of their road position. This would be a putative case of cybervirtue, instilling a certain cyber-caution into drivers engaged with AEB. Perhaps such a hypothetical scenario will make it easier to continue turning a blind eye upon the world’s deadliest cyborg.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #5


BlogWhen I write a blog post, as I am doing now, it differs from writing letters since a letter is addressed to one person whereas a blog post can be read by anyone. In the heyday of the blog, however, bloggers were writing for an audience consisting mostly of a core of ‘regulars’ who were participating in conversations at a number of related blogs (a cluster), along with various passers by who had just dropped in. The blog cluster was maintained not by one system, but by a loose alliance of different blogging platforms and reading platforms, and this technology collectively fostered a community. It was that community that made blogs substantially different from the social media that followed.

What happened in the blog clusters was what I have called virtuous discourse, which is to say, communication that was founded upon a degree of mutual respect. Blogs fostered cyber-respect, which is to say, that the design of the technology coupled with the qualities of the humans engaged with that software produced situations that encouraged respect. The social media that came later tend more towards cyber-disdain, and the conversations that occur inside them are much less respectful than the typical blog exchange.

One reason for this degradation of conversation was precisely that blogs are a communal technology (or were, before social media networks became the means of distribution for blog posts) and communities are always more likely to foster respect than random collisions between strangers. As I listen in to exchanges on Twitter, for instance, what I encounter more than anything else is folks who have posted a strident view that has then prodded those who vehemently disagree to respond with their contrary view, and an ‘argument’ results (although it may be better to call these exchanges slanging matches, since ‘argument’ might imply an engagement with contrasting ideas).

Blogs posts did quite frequently provoke irate responses. But like letters, they were a slower form than contemporary social media… it took time for people to get to replying, and that gave them time to cool down, and it gave other members of the community an opportunity to bring in a measured response. The result was that conversations that may have started with outrage quite often finished with mutual respect and understanding. This is not a claim you can justly level at the faster forms of social media, which trap people into high-speed, emotionally charged exchanges almost certain to bring to out the worst in people.

Wherever you find technology fostering a community of equals, you will find cybervirtue –  even if there may also be various cyber-debilities alongside. What’s striking about what happened to the blogs, however, was that the technology didn’t go away (you’re reading a blog post now, after all) but the communities were undermined by the faster, more immediate, yet morally-impaired social networks. There is, I suggest, a lesson here about technology that we would be wise to learn.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #4


Calendar App

Pause for a moment to reflect upon what it would be like to have an eleven day week, or a three day week. What would a weekend look like in these fictional calendars? Imagine working two days and then having one day off, or having a three day weekend but an eight day week, or having an extra weekend halfway through the week. Imagine having no concept of a weekend at all. Does the idea of a week even make sense without it?

After money, the most significant cybernetic intervention in the history of our species is the calendar. From Stonehenge to calendar apps today, our cultural journey since the dawn of civilisation has been conditioned by this way of imagining the relationship between humans and time. The importance of the calendar to agriculture has gradually been occluded over the centuries by the way the organisation of days apportions festivals, and in contemporary life money and time have formed their own strange alliance as we gain money on working days, and expend it at the weekend.

I am a cyborg with many calendars. A day planner tells me what I need to be working upon at any given moment, and reminds me of birthdays, festivals, and visitations. A calendar hanging in the kitchen tells the whole family when I’m away, or which events are coming up. I unburden myself of my daily stress, one page at a time, into a diary that I have kept or more than three decades. My pocket robot’s digital diary chimes to remind me of something when I’m away from my desk. For me, these automated calendar systems are a last resort; for others, their entire life is coordinated by robots.

The day planner and I are cyber-reliable, cyber-productive, cyber-efficient; the practices I’ve formed through working with this simple technology have helped me overcome my absent mindedness and succeed at all manner of tasks that I would not have completed without its assistance. Unlike my wife, I cannot picture the relationship between days without looking directly at a calendar. I have learned and developed calendar practices that allow me to get more out of my time.

Once you learn to use it well, the robotic calendar operated from a phone of computer potentially offers similar cybervirtues, and practical benefits such as being able to coordinate calendars with multiple people. Mind you, so does the calendar in my kitchen, and its battery never runs out, nor does it ever crash. What makes calendars effective, ultimately, is sharing the same calendar system, and we have all now (regardless of our religious backgrounds) adopted one in particular that has been maintained for a great many centuries by the Catholic church. Computers have not revolutionised this cybernetic tool – our robots have simply joined in with the same game our ancestors have been playing for millennia.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #3


73346694In shopping malls and airports, there has been a trend towards expensive touch screen computer assistants – what I’m calling a MallBot – and away from printed leaflets with maps. It’s highly likely you’ve encountered one of these robots somewhere near you, and your experience with them may have been good, bad, or indifferent (please let me know which!). If you are the kind of person who hates to talk to another living being in person, the MallBot offers you a convenient escape from human interaction… it’s not entirely likely this is a good situation from any perspective other than indulging your desire to avoid your anxieties, which does nothing to help alleviate them in the long term.

At their best, the MallBot offers a simple search for the stores in the shopping mall either by name or by subject, and then displays the location on a map. But that is often where the trouble starts. In the worst designs I have encountered, the MallBot attempts to direct you to the store by providing directions… but these are not the directions of an intelligent being like a human that can construct a set of instructions suited to our way of thinking. You will get no “walk this way until you see the fountain, then turn left.” Rather, you will be shown a stream of incomprehensible images intended to capture the steps required to reach your destination. Clearly these made sense to someone in the robot’s design team… but they mean nothing to the majority of humans who engage with it.

Before the MallBot, the standard solutions were a fixed installation with a printed map or a leaflet containing a map with an overlaid grid, and a directory of stores with the grid reference. If you can use a map, you can deploy either of these methods to find what you are looking for. It lacks the option to search, although pragmatically you can scan a list of shops faster than you can operate a touch screen search. It cannot be updated as easily as the digital version, but this is hardly a matter of virtue.

The difference between these two situations is that the leaflet or static map requires you to exercise your own competences while the MallBot attempts to do everything for you. That a rather worrying number of MallBot designs fail at giving directions is a sign of bad design, but it is not a cyber-debility unless we count the capacity for this situation to enrage you. But the humble leaflet is cybervirtuous in so much that encourages you to navigate, builds your own knowledge of the layout, and trusts in your skill and autonomy as more than enough to solve the problem facing you. It offers a cyber-capable arrangement. I rather suspect the leaflet is also cheaper to provide than the robot. The sole advantage of the MallBot is that it feels futuristic… but I worry about that vision of the future.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #2

Voice Assistants

Zelda 1926Try this simple test with whichever voice assistant you use, Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, or whatever: ask it “Which year was Star Wars: A New Hope released?” It’s almost certain it will tell you 1977. But this is incorrect. That is the year that Star Wars was released, but this film did not become A New Hope until the modified version was released in 1981, adding the subtitle and episode number to the name and the opening crawl.

Now this is clearly a pedantic point, but shouldn’t your robot provide you with accurate information? Our sci-fi androids like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation were characterised precisely by this kind of obsession with detail. But your smartphone has no intelligence of any kind: all it can do is search the internet, and parrot back answers, sometimes wildly wrong answers such as the one shown in the picture of Siri telling me The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was released in 1926, and attributing this ‘fact’ to the Wikipedia.

What a voice activated robot offers is convenience, and this is seldom something that encourages virtue, although that doesn’t make it inherently negative. Some forms of convenience are cyber-indolent i.e. they encourage laziness, some (such as cars) are nowhere near as convenient as we tend to think, and some are relatively benign. My ice-making robot, for instance, is a more convenient way of freezing water than ice cube trays, and doesn’t obviously instil any bad behaviour in me. The risks in using a voice assistant depend entirely upon what it is deployed for: using it to fact-check, as the opening example highlights, is a rather bad idea; asking it to play a song or phone someone is rather less risky.

That said, I found that Siri repeatedly failed to action my command “call after school club” because it forgot this was a number in my directory and instead started searching the internet for nearby after school clubs. So I changed the contact to ‘After School Club Sausages’, which briefly worked, before again reverting to internet search. Now, my son’s after school club is a contact named ‘Regina Sausages’, and I say “Call Regina Sausages” to call them. This works reliably. But notice how I have had to adapt to my voice assistant and not the other way around.

Voice activated robots are little more than a heuristic computer program triggering certain set functions and passing unknown commands to a search engine. But when we use them, we are relying on the computer systems of a central corporate-owned server to do the legwork. In the process, they gain information about us that helps the company to advertise and monetise us. There is nothing cybervirtuous about this arrangement, and perhaps we ought to be more cautious about what we are trading away for apparent convenience.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #1

A Hundred Cyborgs

One hundred cyborgs in five hundred words, a cybervirtue project.

What kind of being do we become when we use our smartphones, our laptops, our high-tech cars, or the ever-growing array of other robots on offer today? If a cyborg is the fusion between technology and organic life, then we are already cyborgs. Indeed, as Donna Harraway suggested, we have always been cyborgs. What’s more, we are now surrounded by an increasingly wide variety of robots, by which I mean machines that can act autonomously – everything from computerised calendars to something comparatively simple like a jukebox. The kind of humans that we are and the qualities of the technology we are living with collectively determine the kind of cyborgs we become.

In my new book, The Virtuous Cyborg, I explore the idea of cybervirtue. A virtue is a positive quality we ascribe to a person – she’s resilient, he’s compassionate, they’re fearless. Any given human-robot cyborg situation is cybervirtuous if that combination of humanity and technology encourages virtues in its human. A calendar app used to provide reminders for its human can help that person act in a more punctual manner, so we can call the human-calendar cyborg cyber-punctual or cyber-reliable. A FitBit can encourage its wearer to to exercise and thus could be called cyber-athletic, or cyber-healthy. Any positive quality we can talk about has its associated cybervirtue if there is some human-technology combination that can encourage it.

Often, our relationship with technology is less than virtuous. I call the negative behavioural consequences of living with technology cyber-debility. When a videogame combines addictive play with predatory monetisation we can call it cyber-compulsive or cyber-impoverishing. When internet sites encourage us to rely upon them for information instead of our own learning, they are cyber-stultifying or even cyber-stupefying. When a social network encourages abusive behaviour in its users, it is cyber-cruel. Often, the kinds of cyborgs we have become entail both cybervirtue and cyber-debility, and more besides.

This serial, A Hundred Cyborgs, looks at one hundred different cyborgs – a hundred interactions between humans and technology – in five hundred words or less, starting twice a week and switching to weekly near the end of the Summer. The purpose of the serial is to think about whether there are cybervirtuous possibilities in each situation considered, and to explore the cyber-debilities each technology implies. There is nothing definitive in what I will say (every form of cyborg life is open to interpretation and debate) but I hope by opening up our technological relationships to discussion in this way it will foster debate about the kind of cyborgs we are, and the kind of cyborgs we want to become.

Interested in cybervirtue? Please buy a copy of The Virtuous Cyborg and help support our independent small press publishers.

Cyborg Living: The Virtuous Cyborg Book Launch

Cyborg Living

How often do you go out without your smartphone? What’s the longest you’ve gone without the internet?
Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we have become cyborgs – human-machine hybrids. Whether it’s Facebook selling our personal data to be ‘weaponised’ by Cambridge Analytica, or Google suggesting answers to questions like “are women evil?” to people who asked for no such thing, our lives are affected by the machines we are living with. Cybernetic networks are all around us – and thinking about ‘neutral tools’ is no longer helpful. You’re already a cyborg… join us to help find out what would make a good cyborg!

Thursday 10th May 2018, 6:30 pm to 9 pm

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NU - order your free tickets here!


  • 6:30 pm Are You A Good Cyborg?
    Game designer and philosopher Chris Bateman takes us on a journey through the strange world we now live in, asking what the good life might look like for us cyborgs.
  • 7:30 pm Cyborg Living Panel
    Lively debate about our relationship with technology, the internet, robots, and machines.

A special night as part of of Justin Robertson’s “It’s Alive!” Exhibition, and Book Launch Event for Chris Bateman’s new book The Virtuous Cyborg, from Squint Books. Order your free tickets here!