Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD, but in the meantime a few quick remarks.

Brian’s example that we are now used to people pulling their phones out all the time in the final part sits badly with me; I do not think this an example of a cultural shift to deal with technology consequences so much as I think we have instituted our rudeness and now accept a higher degree of impoliteness towards each other. The same thing happens in big cities, of course: we learn to be less polite. I do not think this specific example upholds the point Brian wishes to make, in terms of adapting to technology, although I do agree with him that this adaptation both needs to and will happen. We just need to be careful in recognising the active role required in shaping norms.

At several points, Brian trots out the example of people who need to protect their identity. I do not think this is as strong an objection as he and others do; his more general arguments about everyone’s need for privacy are much stronger in my view, in particular because they apply to everyone. If we thought public identities would solve all the problems, the need for some people to adjust their permanent identity online would be a manageable issue. But as Brian nicely outlines, public identities aren’t a guaranteed fix. This is not even a likely fix, as Brian elaborates very clearly in part 3.

We need to be having these discussions, and I am enormously grateful to Brian for wading in here, and making such a thorough report on the issues. I heartily recommend you check out all four parts.

Living with Machines: A Dialogue

Living with Machines was a seven part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, life with social media, dinosaur hands, sex robots, and smartphones.

The dialogue originally ran from 26th January to 9th March 2017. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The seven parts are as follows:

  1. Corporate Venality
  2. Monopoly and Other Games
  3. Mediaddiction
  4. Godzilla’s Tiny Hands
  5. Touching Robots
  6. Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With
  7. Techdolls

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment! A new Babich and Bateman dialogue begins later this year.

Babich and Bateman: Techdolls

Following on from last week’s discussion of robot friends, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss mechanised dolls.

GI BarbieBB: Sex dolls are another thing again, aesthetically speaking, and there I do not have many hopes for prime time (as it were) anytime soon and not at all for heterosexual women (but the question of desire has its own complexities). To my mind it is plain that there is a market for this, there already is such, inasmuch as such sex dolls are already manufactured, and the new marketing tactic for these dolls is simply to call them robots, but this may be just a little like the Latourbot [discussed last week] and beyond the silicone dolls one can already purchase – there are already plans to create celebrity version of these ‘sex robots’ – it does not seem that these ‘robots’ will be more than talking versions of the supposedly ‘realistic’ dolls on offer. And there are children’s dolls like this, one pulls a cord and the doll utters one of a stock set of phrases. Most children take less than a day to lose interest.

CB: It has passed into cliché that children play longer with the box than with the toy, but there is a certain truth to this. I have found few toys as flexible as a suitably-shaped stick for entertaining my children. Yet there is still a lingering ideal to the powered-up toy that provides the draw – hence my eldest son who just turned six enjoys watching toy commercials (which I try to guard him from) because he likes to get ideas for things he could have. There is a fantasy being sold, here, whether with dolls for boys (“action figures” as Hasbro brilliantly rebranded them in the 1960s to get over the problem that fathers would not otherwise buy dolls for boys), dolls for girls, or dolls for sexually frustrated men.

BB: And here the sex dimension may make all the difference. A little girl may be more demanding than a guy who just wants a robot to have sex with and does not much mind that it doesn’t walk or do anything remotely human like. This is one of the reasons that I suggest that a sex robot for women might need to move in fairly complex ways, just in order to be a sex robot – but also because women do want more than one thing, ought also perhaps to be able to carry things, including its human lover across puddles and muddy fields, up hills and so on, and who would miss the jet pack?  There could be the Colonel Brandon model (just for carrying one up hills when one’s broken heart has left one caught in the rain and dashing off, when one catches cold, to fetch one’s mother) and there could also be Dr Strange models, or Heathcliff models, Tristan models, and Professor Snape models, just to fight the good fight, tortured and conflicted, all terribly romantic, against the Dark Lord and any wandering miscreants while he is at it. But even there, perhaps, and as science fiction authors have long argued, the deficiencies of the human may turn out to be an advantage. To this extent, our “promethean shame,” à la Günther Anders may be our salvation, contra Anders who was of course massively sardonic.

CB: Given the extent that masturbation is driven by imagination, it seems to me that a robot sex doll will do the same job that a pornographic magazine does. But again, the aesthetic of realism interjects itself – the sex doll is somehow more desirable if we judge it to be ‘more real’ than the magazine, and the sense of that realism is utterly flexible; any justification will suffice.

BB: One of the insights of The Matrix worth thinking about is not the updated version of Descartes’ doubting or his evil genius, as some philosophers like to suppose, but much rather the realization that machines are dependent on human beings to invent them (this is the Vico moment) to deploy them now for one thing, now for another (call this the Simondon moment) but ultimately also to power them.

CB: This element of The Matrix would have sat better with me if the plot did not involve blocking out the sun to cut off the robot’s solar power, given that this would also kill all life on Earth. But do go on...

BB: I mean this prosaically not in terms despite its appeal to the myth of machine or the even greater myth of the computer simulation, as we currently project this fantasy vision, as if the machine were a vampire of human energy as our sci fi writers like to pretend (Matrix vision  is a variation on Childhood’s End) but much rather and more prosaically, the machine invented to remedy the lacks or needs of a consumer, mostly a male consumer’s, affective and erotic life – this is the plot of Ex Machina – will also (this was not detailed in Ex Machina because the beauty of a fantasy is that you can pretend that all those tech details are taken care of, and this in turn is the reason for the plot wrinkle you mention in the Matrix) but any foreseeable sex robot would need you to move it, arrange it and also take care of it, keep it clean, do its hair, all that and not least remember to plug it in. Thus the phantasy of the Matrix, well beyond that of the ideal sex doll, is the pure or perfect automaton: the machine that runs by itself, a perpetual motion machine.

Letrons-transformerCB: Thus our science fiction fears that we should be afraid of AI research because the machines will surpass our powers and finally destroy us, as in the mythos of Terminator. Which is darkly amusing, really, because we are destroying ourselves far more effectively than imaginary robots are. Right now, its robot cars, which we’re told are great because… well, actually, I haven’t seen this case made yet. Some people suggest they will be safer, and yet all the discussions of the ethics of robot cars have focussed on who gets killed in a collision, a pedestrian or the driver, because who would want to buy a car that didn’t protect its driver. Never mind that if all our cars were capped at 25 miles per hour no pedestrians would have to die – and we’re talking millions of people a year, more than anything we actively fear, like plane crashes or terrorist attacks. What’s more, I hear it suggested that robot cars will be great because they can go faster than humans, which entails a jaw-dropping evasion of the problems of both energy and transportation that would set Illich to spinning in the grave. And all this sets aside the more worrying point that a huge number of people are employed to drive cars, as truck drivers or taxi drivers and what have you, and that robot cars thus have much to offer millionaires and billionaires who can own mechanical slaves but cannot officially own humans.

BB: But here is where the hermeneutico-phenomenological can be helpful just to the extent that includes attention to current reality and current state of the art, rather than assuming that R&D will make all such considerations irrelevant (this is like debating the morality of full head transplants before doctors have figured out how to do them much less how to heal injuries to the spine, the severing of which is required twice over for a head transplant). As it happens, one of the great challenges of contemporary life, and also one of the problems for the environment in complicated ways that have everything to do with what is needed to make a battery to begin with, is the matter of finding a free power outlet, even at home where most outlets are already fully occupied. Travel is worse to the extent that it takes one out of one’s own rhythms and one’s machines out of machine routine. Hence your pocket robot, as you quite rightly name cellphones, drains massively the minute it needs to search for a wifi signal or a new carrier and so on. Airports today come complete with the modern version of the penitent’s soul in guilty search of outlets or, rather like Dante’s Inferno, captive souls chained to a power socket, sitting on the floor for the sake of fifteen or however many minutes of juice. The solution, of course is and will be to design life around the needs of the tool: plugs everywhere, power outlets at every seat. Route 66 has fuel station after fuel station and it is this that makes Route 66 and other roads the kind of complement to the automobile that they are, and the same thing is the reason, among other things, that we still do not have viable jetpacks, hoverboards, what have you.

CB: We spoke before of the invisibility of hands, but the invisibility of the flow of power is just as tangible, and brings to mind Milan Kundera’s remarks in The Unbearable Lightness of Being of our capacity to ignore the rivers of excrement flowing in and around our houses. And then there are those places where these invisible networks come acutely into focus – driving pass the pungent stench of a sewage ‘farm’, for instance, or encountering a ‘charging station’ in a shopping mall or airport. 

BB: I travel frequently and have to say that most of the time, this is 2017, the plane or train seats assigned to me do not happen to have power outlets. Not yet, so we say. The design solution might be not the environment, but self-charging robots (and the Matrix scenario returns…). Yet even this, even apart from dystopic robots, the problem is not necessarily thereby resolved as even if one could design a robot that would, of itself, plug itself in, clean itself, there would remain — this is the robot 2.0 problem as I see it, it is the robot Don Juanism of the tech junkie — the next model with its own set of different challenges and perhaps different power technologies – even if we don’t need to envision a Blade Runner like uprising among the now autonomous and (already or soon to be) outdated models. Valley of the ‘plastic friends’…

CB: Aye, I was struck by a journalist interviewing a man who had queued overnight to get a new model iPhone. They asked him why he had done it, what the new phone could do for him. And he didn’t know; that had never even entered into his mind.

BB: It is one of technology’s enduring mythologies that it pretends or supposes a solution either on hand or else (this is most common) “soon” to be deployed, like jam tomorrow, but never jam today: I call that cargo cult technology, our new millenarianism. The mischief is that we believe in this. We are, in Thoreau’s phrase, the tools of our tools.

More from Babich and Bateman later in the year.

Faith in What?

Banksy.Girl with BalloonLast week, I outlined the way high technology has crippled the virtue of fidelity by ensuring that is only ever practiced as the thoughtless failure to recognise how little freedom we possess with respect to the technological traditions we are enmeshed within. It is still necessary to understand why fidelity is a virtue, why loyalty to people, practices, and ideals serves a vital purpose in human life, without which our capacity for judgement is impaired. But this requires first a change in our understanding of faith.

The place to start is marriage, but not because everyone accepts the merits of this institution. Indeed, before same-sex marriage managed to put this practice back on the agenda in a significant and hopefully lasting way, I feared matrimony was to be the latest casualty of the homogenisation of contemporary life. While there is a host of feminist (and more recently, male-advocacy) arguments against marriage, I do not intend to engage with these because they have little day-to-day force. Besides, if a feminist or anti-feminist eschews marriage on principle I see this as merely a new form of monastic commitment, one founded on political rather than religious grounds. You are not bound to adhere to what any gender advocate thinks, which is not the same as saying their arguments don’t matter.

The people around me in long-term relationships who did not wed are what I only half-jokingly call unmarried, in a parallel manner to talking about ‘undead’ for imaginary beings that are neither dead nor alive. These unhusbands and unwives tell me more-or-less the same thing: we don’t need the government to validate our relationship; a ring on our fingers changes nothing; what would a wedding ceremony do except cost a lot of money… All these objections miss the core purpose of marriage in a society of equals: to make, as equals, a public commitment to building a life together. The act of promising is the key to matrimony, because it is, in a very real sense, the marriage. It is both the act of committing, which forms a particular kind of relationship between individuals and their futures, and the witnessing of this act, that constitutes  the wedding, thus founding the marriage. You don’t necessarily need to get married in front of your families – but if you cannot present your future spouse to those with whom you have prior long-term relationships, how serious about your promise are you?

The promise, whether public or private, is the basis of fidelity. It is not coincidental that having extramarital sex is called ‘infidelity’; it is a breaking of vows, of faith in the other – hence also ‘unfaithful’. The very word comes to us as faith, fides in Latin. We have come to associate this term with religion thanks to the Protestant doctrine of sola fide, but this need not concern us here. The important point is that faith, as a trust that cannot be unequivocally vindicated, is an essential aspect of human experience, and we lose sight of this if we buy into the mythos of ‘faith versus reason’, which stages a battle between faith in tradition and faith in the sciences that is spectacularly unhelpful for understanding either.

Thinking that continued scientific research will only make the world better is having blind faith in the sciences; it is neither testable, nor at this time even entirely plausible, that this is the case. But we have faith in the sciences because we contrast what we have to what our ancestors had and judge it better, and by this isolated measure we seem to be vindicated. The equivalent blind faith in tradition occurs when faith, which is a disposition towards uncertainty, becomes equated with unjustified certainty, all too often with disastrous results. In almost any situation, blind faith is a debility since it substitutes rigid conviction for the balance of faith and critical thinking required to negotiate the difficulties of future uncertainties. In matrimony, this blind faith can be seen when one partner ceases to be actively engaged in the endless negotiation of a shared life and merely assumes that the marriage will continue. This is not having faith in your partner at all, but rather the painful path towards divorce.

It is because the future is always uncertain that faith is an unavoidable aspect of human life. Rather than recognising this, we find ways to hide from it by highlighting things that feel beyond doubt and pretending that faith is a character flaw of others. The moral disaster of consequentialism, reducing all judgements to questions of utility, is a crucial example of this since it obscures manifest problems by setting them entirely outside of consideration (as discussed last week). How useful various tools might be will prove irrelevant to a species that has destroyed its environment to the point of risking its own extinction.

Yet if this catastrophe comes too keenly into our attention, it becomes depressing, it robs us of our will to act, because our apparent powerlessness against the most serious problems of our time diminishes our sense of autonomy, and thus our willingness to even attempt to act. Against this paralysing impotence, the only possible bulwark is faith – and in this context it almost doesn’t matter what that faith is vested in, as long as it bolsters our capacity for effective action rather than merely comforting or entertaining us into accepting the status quo. Levi Bryant recently argued for an outcome-focussed ethics concerned with the fragility of the future of ‘bodies’ (organisms, organisations, nations…); these futures are the ones we construct for ourselves out of what we deem they ought to be – and to be able to imagine such futures requires a faith in what could be.

Yet faith in this sense is not fidelity, but merely the background required to understand it. Returning to the example of marriage, fidelity does not necessarily mean abstaining from sex with others besides your spouse – depending upon the vows that were taken even this is not necessarily excluded from fidelity, for all that it might be generally safer to do so. Fidelity means keeping the faith of the vow that was taken, which in the memorable phrasing of the Christian ceremony means to keep the faith against all adversity “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Thus fidelity marks the sustaining of faith against the ever-changing turbulence of life. Aristotle suggested that for every virtue there was a debility caused by lack of it, and another for having too much – for fidelity, blind faith is the debility of excess, and faithlessness its absence.

There is another sense of fidelity that is important here. A recording is said to be ‘high fidelity’ (from which we get ‘hi-fi’) when it accurately reproduces the audio quality of the original music. We then call the resulting recording a ‘faithful reproduction’ of the original event. Fidelity in this sense is a relationship between past, present, and future – what happened in the past is reproduced in the present, and reproducible in the future. And this is also the sense in which fidelity applies in all other cases too, if perhaps with a less draconian standard of exactitude to qualify as ‘faithful’. For the spouse who does not cheat upon their partner avoids infidelity and this means that there is a fidelity between the past – the vow – and the present and future that follow from it. Fidelity is thus continuity, constancy, loyalty. It is take a leap of faith about the future and then remain true to the meaning of that prior event.

Now there is an important challenge here: how do you know what you should be giving your fidelity to? Alain Badiou, a philosopher for whom fidelity to an event of truth is the very essence of morality, is keen to stress the disasters that will occur if we pledge ourselves to something which is not true. This, to his critics, makes him no better than the Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who challenged us to be true to ourselves in the face of the absurd, the infinite, God. The twentieth century existentialists, shaking God out of the equation, shook free any standard that might allow us to know with any confidence what was true, and thus took the equalities of the Enlightenment and inadvertently collapsed them into the disaster of individualism. Like the existentialists, Badiou denies God – albeit by a bizarre recourse to mathematics (‘the one is not’) – yet wants to hold on to Kierkegaard’s divine truth all the same. Can he?

Between Kierkegaard’s solution and Badiou’s lies a range of encounters with events that might invite people to exercise fidelity. The question of how we know whether something is deserving of our faith is, surprisingly, not as important as it seems, for having faith and falling into blind faith are not the same thing. It is tragic that practitioners of religion confuse the two, and ironic that opponents of tradition can make the same kinds of mistake. Faith and certainty are opposing concepts, even though they come from essentially the same source, differing primarily in degree. It would not be a leap of faith if we could be certain about something, and the future is the one thing that could not, could never be certain. It is always fragile. It is precisely that fragility that can only be combated by fidelity.

The opening image is by Banksy. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by Banksy, which seems unlikely.

Next week: The Dependent World

Babich and Bateman: Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With

Following on from last week’s discussion of hands and robots, this final part sees philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman discuss living with robots.

MarvinsBabette Babich: I think that such robot “friends” [mentioned last week] are coming soon, if I also expect to be underwhelmed by them, just as I was underwhelmed by the realism of most realist game designs (I am mindful that you have worked out an aesthetic for this and as an informed aesthetic can make all the difference, according to no one less than Adorno, I am hoping to learn enough to have this either resolve or else to help me deal with my disappointment).

Chris Bateman: Well at the risk of deflating your opinion here, I’m not sure if I do have an aesthetic for realism in videogames. I describe Imaginary Games as my game-aesthetic grundlegung [groundwork], in a nod to Kant, and I don’t think my book gets that much farther into its chosen territory than Kant’s own moral grundlegung did (which was, of course, still significant). The trouble with realism in games is much like the trouble with realism in life – what are we choosing to highlight as real, and what are we obscuring by doing so? Realism is invoked in both contexts primarily as a means of asserting bias, and in videogames this manifests in enhancing a player’s enjoyment of a particular kind of pornography (in Joyce’s sense of desire-invoking) – gun porn, car porn, gore porn, dictatorship porn, capitalist porn, even straight up sex porn... and when videogames are not indulging in these distractions, we get realism in the didactic sense of alignment with the science megatext (what gets called ‘hard sci fi’), thus drawing our attention away from the relevant questions. Thus, for instance, ‘realistic space travel’, which is very nearly an oxymoron, is supposedly ‘real’ in a certain sense of alignment with contemporary theory, and that particular sense draws attention away from the impossibility that humanity will get to explore space if it doesn’t learn to live on Earth first.

BB: This is a huge issue, on several counts, given the listing of porn varieties as you mention these, in Joyce’s sense.  There is in the context of gaming the disputed question of Gamergate – and although this is usually parsed in feminist terms it was the complex sense of realism as you express these complexities that elicited what was by far the most intense debate among my students last term at Juilliard.  One half of the class was aligned with feminist concerns, the other half with a kind of truth in advertising kind of realism.

CB: Gamergate is such a spectacular example of our current fault lines in thought and our worrying inability to communicate... I have chastised both ‘camps’ publicly, for what little it means, and I so wish that the videogame civil war had led to a productive discourse instead of this divisive hate-fest that failed to achieve anything positive. Microcosms everywhere, I suppose, of the larger problems.

BB: Given the current hyperbolic politics of the unreal (and there are elements of the unreal in Brexit and in Trump , and the more standard journalistic language of ‘fake news’ and post-truth) a great many of the standard conventions or givens, the “supposedly ‘real’,” may be up for grabs. The talk of post-truth is complicated and emotions run high. When Steve Fuller made the very modestly intentioned (so I read his) observation in The Guardian at the end of 2016, “Science Has Always Been a Bit ‘Post-Truth’ ”, reaction on social media was both uncomprehending and antagonistic.

CB: He draws against Kuhn, which I have also liked to do at times (or Foucault, as the mood takes me, as I am one of these people who likes to draw the parallel lines there). But I think Latour’s critique here has a few additional teeth: Boyle’s vacuum pump and Hobbes’ Leviathan mark an epic moment where the split into subject and object, which I like to link up with Descartes and Kant as well, creates the ‘modern constitution’ and the assignment of authority to the State for subjects and the sciences for objects... and precisely what is revealed by ‘post truth’ is that the cracks in this problematic division have become so wide that it is no longer just the academics who are having to face that there is a crisis with what we mean by truth, a catastrophe for which Nietzsche was especially prophetic. It’s suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, drawn my own philosophy into dealing with epistemology, which is what Wikipedia Knows Nothing was all about.

BB: Part of the problem may be the durability of barefoot empiricism as the philosophical greybeards of my youth used, very condescendingly, to say, but another part of the problem is the brute difference between social realities and references to the supposed real world, just to stick to the reference to the ‘real’ dimensionality of the real world where being able to go barefoot and not being able to do so, for whatever reason – think of Socrates’ idyllic example in the Republic – makes all the difference in the way we talk politics of climate change, people present and unpresent at presidential inaugurations, all of which is window dressing when it comes to questions of reality and real world practice. Thus the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was massively protested, and which seemed to have been successful, is indeed proceeding apace: as of today, the protest camp has been ordered dismantled and ABC news is confident enough to tweet that it will be finished “and ready to flow oil in as soon as two weeks”. Beyond the ongoing business of mainstream media and “fake news”, to me, it is the disconnect with real world ‘reality’ that matters and the same people who frack and plan disastrous pipelines and hedge fishing models to permit greater quotas also tend to be people who do not live adjacent to fracking fields or alongside said pipelines.

CB: The NIMBY problem: ‘not in my back yard’.

BB: This means that one can talk about ‘real’ space travel and ‘real’ space exploration but ignore the more paltry results of the same real science. China lands a rover on the moon in December 2013 and we see and hear about it for how long and under conditions scientists name ‘mysterious’? We have wonderful images of the outer planets, but NASA enhances each and every one of them. Will a later generation manage the rendering of the same data differently, ‘enhanced’ in different ways? But your point is a powerful aesthetic-moral one, deserving a separate discussion. What should count as realistic? I once wondered in print about the realism, so-called, of Myst, and the realism, so-called, of Avatar, My own conviction is that this realism, here I am in accord with your observations, depends entirely on a selective focus. In art, supposedly ‘realistic’ styles present considerable variation over the centuries and not less across cultures. This is also the question when it comes to supposedly realistic robots.

CB: ‘Realistic’ here standing for the ease of imagining it is something that it is not.

Sex-robot-in-vertical-sectionBB: Hence sex robots are very realistic, from a certain perspective which tends to depend upon a certain level of inattention and conventionality. Both seem to correspond to a fairly general male heterosexual convention. By contrast, male robots currently on offer are literally built out of versions of the female ground plan, mouths designed as receptacles (o, joy), and so on. Most significantly the male robots qua based on the female robots are the same size. On the one hand this is a ‘good thing’ given that sex robots must be dragged about manually inasmuch as they are exactly not automata à la Descartes. They could not be mistaken for a human being wandering in the street because there is no wandering that they do.

CB: Aye, the sci fi movies taught us to expect ambulatory androids… thus we failed to recognise how ubiquitous robots became in a relatively short space of time. You mentioned that you expected to be underwhelmed by ‘robot friends’?

BB: I expect to be underwhelmed by them because the test of the Turing test tends to have absurdly low standards to begin with: we credit others with having minds, this is the good old problem of ‘other minds’ after all, but as Nietzsche points out we are quite capable of retracting that credit at any time, especially when we think back on things and when it comes to interaction, a certain amount of our engagement with a friend and a great deal of our engagement with a lover involves reflection on and reconstruction of motivation and intention.

CB: It seems to me quite clear since the very first bot, Eliza, which was created in the mid-60s, that all something needs for us to inject consciousness upon it is a willingness to let ourselves talk at it. Eliza’s trick was picking up keywords in what the human typed and turning it into a question – you say “I’m angry at your mother”, and Eliza says “Tell me about your Joseph Weizenbaummother.” Which is a clever trick, when you think about it, and one that therapists also like to deploy. Personally, it seems to me that Joseph Weizenbaum should be the patron saint of contemporary social media bots, because his Eliza paved the way for them (although, as a Jew who fled Nazi Germany, ‘patron saint’ is probably a bad choice of wording). As someone who studied AI at a Masters level, though, my main takeaway was that we have no viable way of making a robot that is a being we could be friends with, even though we can certainly make bots capable of interaction. But then, a cactus can interact with you...

BB: That thing-interaction was Schopenhauer's presentative point regarding the world, though I am fairly sure he was not thinking of cacti. Regarding the diffusing of bot interaction, which has its own set of codes, of course, it may be that the Turing test has a certain bit of trivial play left in it.  It can happen that one can mistake one kind of bot for another kind of bot.  And proof of the Turing test is the thrill kill one can experience on Twitter upon discovering that a bot one takes to be a not is not a bot after all. I used to play with Latourbot, for the fun of it, talking to Latourbot as if he were Pepé le Pew, a cartoon skunk dating back from years before my time, until Latour himself yelled at me (if one can yell and of course one can) not to pay any attention to the Latourbot as it was only a troll. Only. A. Troll. I was crushed. Maybe it wasn’t Latour who did the take down, what else was unreal, blue pill or red pill?  What could I do? And so I unfollowed what I had taken to be an automated account, a robot account and just because, as it turned out, it was not a robot account. The Latourbot was not a bot. Had it been a random algo, a tweet generator as I had supposed it to have been, it would have been better, if it is also true that I needed it to have been an Aramis-style automated joke designed at Latour’s behest. At the same time, inasmuch as I had been pretending to myself that the algorithm (again, I never took it to be Latour) was a cartoon skunk, I was also rather relieved. As one of many fake-twitter accounts, some of which but not all include ‘fake’ in the name, like the Twertzog account, tweeted by William Pannapacker pretending to be Werner Herzog, the dissonance of an accent (Hertzog’s German and Latour’s French) became an element not of charm but disquiet. This is one of the problems of projected intentionality as even this animates mechanism.

CB: Aye, nothing is truly autonomous, is it? The networks of connectivity bear upon agency in so many ways, and not just in questions of interpretation and meaning, since the practices we learn can’t be dismissed as entirely subjective, even if what those practices mean to us, or to others, is always somewhat negotiable. How quickly we learned to put on a mask and present ourselves in the digital public spaces – and how slowly we realised the costs of that anonymity.

The dialogue concludes next week: Techdolls

High Tech, Low Fidelity

Untitled BanksyThe virtue of fidelity is perhaps the hardest idea for anyone to appreciate in this age of robots. The concept of faithfulness and loyalty to a person, cause, or ideal feels like a relic from a time before our own, and attempts to espouse the merits of this otherwise simple concept flounder on the twin moral calamities we face. Understanding why fidelity is something valuable – indeed, invaluable – means defending against both of the catastrophic corruptions of ethical life that have afflicted our time, and showing how both are rooted in an abandoning of fidelity for something lesser. Yet before it can be argued that fidelity is worthwhile, we must recognise that we currently lack it, and appreciate how this came about.

A brief warning is required. When we enter the fault lines of our ways of thinking, it can be difficult to remain open to new perspectives. Moral horror, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, makes it hard to even listen to a new perspective that strikes us as beyond belief. Thus to talk about fidelity and freedom in the paradoxical way I am about too is likely to set in motion all manner of resistances. Objections will loom large and make it easy to miss the point I am trying to make. By all means consider the arguments against what I am presenting; I would expect no less. But always leave open the possibility that no matter what I may have got wrong, there might be an essential truth at the heart of my argument worth grasping.

To understand the subtle problem I wish to outline, we must be able to appreciate the cybernetic networks (or cybergs) that we are enmeshed within, and how they relate to the moral catastrophes of our time. Consider first the disaster of individualism that tells us that we only have to be loyal to ourselves, and celebrates breaking free of tradition as a triumph of the individual will. There are indeed situations worth celebrating here, and movies like Footloose and Bend It Like Beckham rely upon this for their drama: parents enforcing religious standards bar their children from behaving in certain ways. Yet these stories serve to re-illuminate Christian and Sikh practices; Footloose is as much a lesson for Christians as it is a celebration of individual freedom, and while Sikh traditions are a smaller part of Bend It Like Beckham, the same general point remains.

Conversely, individualist doctrine serves to valorise any exit from religious traditions as a victory for freedom. Yet this escape is of the most fragmentary kind: those who make a clean break from their family and its locally-social network merely transfer from one small cyberg into the dispersed gigacybergs that absorb us all. Without ties to other practices, those founded upon people, the result is a chimerical existence as a free individual, one whose freedom consists solely in the choices of consumption being placed before us. This is the disaster of individualism at its core: we say we value individuality, yet foster a way of living that sacrifices any more substantial  freedom in favour of merely pre-prescribed market decisions.

We have misunderstood liberty as individual choice, and in so doing have lost any grasp over authentic freedom. This mistake is so subtly concealed from view that our typical understanding of our situation is the inverse of what a closer examination reveals. For we think that breaking free of the traditions and practices of our parents or extended family is the mark of freedom because we remove from our lives an influence that seems to impede our autonomy. Yet the core practices of both individual and group remain the same after this alleged ‘split’: we are still embedded within the cybernetic networks of money, digital media, medicine, cars, and transportation – the spaces where we are assured of our individuality through participation with a common culture of movies, games, scientific discovery, news and so forth that tells us we are free because we can change job and move to a new city – that we are free, in other words, because we are nomads, unbound from tradition.

Except, of course, for the traditions of money, media, medicine, technology, and transportation, which are (in the case of money) as old as the religious traditions that it is supposedly an expression of freedom to break with. The point being that we have equated our capacity for infidelity as freedom because we do not see any expression of liberty in the possibility of disentangling ourselves from the various cybergs that enclose us. Moreover, we do not even see that possibility at all. It is entirely beyond our thought.

Within the cybernetic networks that enfold us we possess only the minimum freedom of choice within a closed market, never the mark of authentic freedom that would come from the liberty to disengage from the cyberg itself. The car makes this clear: please, choose which motorized vehicle you wish to use to participate in transportation... you must do so if you are not to be radically disadvantaged by being unable to move around in the ways required by our planetary infrastructure. It is, paradoxically, only the human who lives outside the road network who possesses an authentic freedom of movement – the physical nomadism of the Tuareg shows a genuine personal freedom when measured against the cultural nomadism of the city-dweller, who claims their infidelity as freedom, while having no choice but to engage in transportation, money, and so forth.

Yet this is done willingly; it does not seem like a lack of choice because accepting all of these enmeshing networks is clearly desirable to us all, since the values by which we gauge our decisions to participate are taken to be beyond question. This is the moral disaster of consequentialism: we know unequivocally that outcomes matter (this is beyond doubt), and thus utility – the capacity to bring about desired outcomes – is the yardstick of all choices. Who could doubt that better technology is more useful than the tools remaining the same, or that living longer is better than dying young, or that getting between two points faster is better than doing so slower, or that superior entertainment beats boredom? Who could doubt that more money is better than less?

We weigh outcomes and think that this is the measure that cannot be doubted. But when this is the only way we evaluate things, we are being shallow sighted. Yes, once we level transportation down to mere time between points, its a relatively simple question of what is better. Yet this hides the way roads replace other, more egalitarian spaces; how pedestrians and cyclists must choose between going further or gambling with their lives; how both the cost and the impact of living is raised by mandatory car ownership. Do we want to give up cars? Probably not. But we ought to look at them more closely than measuring them by expense, fuel consumption, and speed. You don’t just buy a car, you buy into the automotive infrastructure that the car requires to work. You buy into the car’s cyberg and all that entails, every submerged aspect that is buried beneath the imagined ideal of faster travel and the fantasy of driving conveyed by automobile commercials. A higher top speed won’t get you to your destination any sooner when you spend most of your journey stuck in traffic, as cities are learning far too slowly.

So too medicine: no-one can look at the frequency that women died in childbirth just a century or so ago, nor the number of children that perished as mere babes, and not feel compelled to speak out against those who, for instance, opt out of vaccinations that benefit everyone. But again, we are shallow sighted about medicine. The medical establishment causes almost as many problems as it cures, not least of which because this view of life – as permanently extensible as long as we have the right tools – sets us up for certain failure. Unlimited health care asks that we identify every problem as a disease, to research a cure, and to administer all cures to all people. Yet this is an ever-growing task, becoming more and more expensive and either distributing the best health care only to the wealthy, or gradually bankrupting nations that attempt to pay for everything for everyone. Do we want to give up medicine? Absolutely not. But still, we shall all eventually die, whatever we do, and medicine does not help us deal with that inevitability – it is rather our most effective way of hiding from it.

Money is the subtlest trap of them all, because the idea that more money is better is so effective at concealing the radical unimportance of money to well being. That is not the same as saying poverty is great – by definition, those living in poverty don’t have enough. But what standard do we aim for? The moment you are living inside the car cyberg, your cost of living just skyrocketed because transportation is taken as expected for each individual instead, as humans once took for granted, as a community good. So you no longer need just food and shelter, now you need a car too. And the more money you have, the worse it becomes... second houses, sports cars, private jets – expense rises to match income, ensuring dissatisfaction. Worse still, the large accumulations of money become cybergs all of their own: capital chases its tail in a game of perpetual commercial deployment that has little benefit to anyone but the venture capitalists playing with the networks of extreme wealth.

Now the point here is not the critique of these specific cybergs – although there are dozens of unthought, undiscussed problems and crises hidden just beneath the surface. It is that our supposed expressions of individualism – breaking from tradition, leaving the family business, moving to another city or country – do not adequately represent personal freedom since whether we stay within or break away from our childhood culture, we remain inside all the gigacyberg networks of our time. This is not even a new critique: Ivan Illich already outlined these problems (albeit from a different perspective) in the 1970’s: we are beset by radical monopolies, dominating systems that replace freedom with choices set upon their own rigid terms. 

Christian, Hindu, atheist, Sikh, Buddist, pagan, Muslim... all are taking part in the same practices – technology and all it’s messy fruits. The decision to break with your parent’s practices is at the same time the utter continuation of the medical, transportational, commercial practices that you acquired from your parents. So individualism is a crisis not because it is wrong to want to be free, but because we say we are free merely because we can vary the minutiae of our lives and beliefs and do not recognise how the common basis of evaluation remains unchanged. Individualism destroys fidelity because ultimately it is unbreakably allied to consequentialism in its narrow guise of utility.

High technology, low fidelity. We always go for the better, the new, the taste of the future over loyalty to the past. We do so because we are cultural nomads, and we have all chosen to live in essentially the same ways – not out of loyalty, but out of a bitter necessity borne of our dependence upon the cybergs towards which we cannot even claim fidelity. For how can we be faithful to something that we cannot even imagine the possibility of leaving?

The opening image is by Banksy. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by Banksy, which seems unlikely.

Next week: Faith in What?

Babich and Bateman: Touching Robots

Last week, the tyrannosaur’s hands. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman talk about hands upon computers and the illusions of interaction.

IMG_7514Babette Babich: The German name for cell phone is ‘Handy,’ which seems to be because having hands means we like to have things at hand, and we like to do things with our hands – pretty much all the time.  And this is ubiquitous: here I include a photo of the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas, taken in Athens at the last World Philosophy Congress, consulting with his cell phone.

Chris Bateman: I recall how uncomfortable I became thinking about whether my hands were or were not in my pockets... bringing this to my conscious attention as a late-teen made me ask questions about what I was doing with my hands, and why.

BB: Once upon a time, part of growing up was learning what to do with one’s hands: meaning nothing whatever. There were pockets but one wasn’t meant to have one’s hands in one’s pockets. Briefcases and handbags but one also was not meant to be rummaging around in them. And books, but then, in the company of others, except among strangers on a train of course, and so on, or in school, but in a meeting, during conversation, one was to use one’s hands to hold the book, without fidgeting and without reading it.

CB: The book, more than anything in my childhood, was the primary thing my hand was holding. Now, although I still read a great deal of books, the thing more often being held in my hand is a smartphone, or as I like to call it a ‘pocket robot’. And there’s a strong parallel here, because I used to read books as I walked down the street to work (a skill requiring considerable practice, and requiring strong peripheral vision if you are not to step in something untoward!)... for some reason, walking with the smartphone in my hand bothers me more than the book did – and I don’t really know if this is because of differences in the experiences of book versus robot, or because I have changed in the almost twenty years between. In both cases, for me, the item is an escape for me, out of perceptual reality and into the theatre of my mind – and in this, as Graeme Kirkpatrick pointed out in respect of videogame players and their controllers, my hands are out-of-mind. The smartphone, perhaps, makes it harder to ignore our hands than the book did.

BB: Pocket robot! I love this expression, because this personal robotic dimension is very surely part of the reason we are addicted to our phones! And the peripheral vision challenge is part of the allure of Pokémon Go, I think we will see more enhancements to come beyond Pokémon reality ‘skins’: imagine, and I know you are better at this than I could ever be as a game designer, but if one could outfit the world around one at will, say, dressing people on the streets in medieval garb?  What fun!  A personal holodeck to be configured at will. At the very least it could improve a blind date experience, maybe best without the other person knowing about it.  Augmented reality, Miniver Cheever style! I defer to your judgment, but I can’t help wondering if the controller is not also a technological extension of the hand, just as we manage to use our keyboards that way, have for years… and I will bracket the comparison to Athanasius Kircher à la Siegfried Zielinski just to get back to analytic philosophy’s own preoccupation with hands, think Peter Godfrey-Smith and his octopus mind.

ControllersCB: You absolutely correct, the game controller functions as a prosthetic hand extension, indeed, I should say, game controllers, as these too went through something of a Cambrian Explosion in the early arcade – trackballs, the myriad buttons of Defender, toy guns, joysticks from lollipops to aircraft yokes – before steady commercial pressure stabilised the twin stick controller that is the standard form for most game-literate players today. As VR comes in now, the pressure of the channel dug by this comfortable design now becomes a problem, for players have learned that their right hand adjusts their view (and most players are not conscious of this while doing so because it is habitual), but with a headset to dump you into the visual field now the neck must be used instead. The result is both confusion, because the hand has learned and doesn’t rapidly unlearn, and disorientation, even nausea. I think of Wittgenstein’s ‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’, and think this might apply to our own hands.

BB: The Wittgenstein connection (although I also make the case with reference to Merleau-Ponty) is central – think of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Our hands are part of the way we communicate to others.  The genius of the single, so-called gesture-enhanced or multi-touch modes, is that the desire to use our hands plays into this, and is part of what can count as ‘intuitive’ design. Think of dating apps, swipe left (or right). In each case, with or without the app, our smartphones and tablets let us touch, worse yet, they require us to do so, in order to use them optimally, not that all of us do. But, and this is the phenomenological take away, owing to our hand involvement, we cannot but interact with our devices: we are not merely using them to talk to others, we are talking to them, and they are talking back. One of my students at Juilliard (you will recall that they were all ‘kind enough’ to make some comments on the last blog, ‘required’ as you pointed out that these comments were), wrote a term paper on the phenomenon of autofill (and the point appears in one of the comments). This is the talking back that is autocorrect, the autofill completion, not necessarily qua response as much as an opting in to a replacement, whereby autofill speaks on our behalf. This is clearly the future and at the same time we have been opting in to allowing our machines to speak for us ever since we started using typewriters (this is a Kittleresque argument, who in turn borrows from Nietzsche and other early adoptors) and answering machines, allowing the machine to intercede for us, to take messages as a secretary would in our absence and not less in our presence, screening calls on our behalf.

CB: Absolutely, we are talking to our machines and we are simultaneously ignoring them, just as it was once (and not all that long ago) acceptable to instruct black servants without ever thinking of that as conversation, or even in many cases to think of them as people. This righty shocks our sensibilities now that the issues of race are almost painfully and embarrassingly in focus, and while I am highly doubtful of a similar revolution in moral perspective happening with respect of computerised devices (which are nowhere near sentience, contra the late Justin Leiber), the time will come that they too will come into view. One of my principal philosophical interests at the moment is our relationships with our robots, and the ways that we dismiss the significance of this. Because, to give a simple example, when our robot summons us with a chime, we take it in hand and respond to its summons (Hegel’s Herrschaft und Knechtschaft [master and servant] again...). But this chimed summons will interrupt our engagement with others around us; it takes us out of our social space in a way that feels very different to the people who watch it happen. I have found, since first having this come to my attention, that it is an oddly shocking situation that those absent-and-distant people, when mediated by a robot, are perceived to deserve more respect than those present with us.

BB: Telephone obedience, quite Pavlovian, corresponds to the compulsion we feel to respond to a ringing phone, chime, or beep. The mischief is, the problem is thinking that we are really interacting. Thus if someone designs a really excellent sex robot, and it meets the Turing test that we have yet to devise, call this the Pinocchio test: a cartoon or a fairy tale that tells us that if there is a difference (more Leibniz) that makes no difference, we have attained godlike powers or what is just as good, an ideal companion, Galatea (and of course Galatea is Pygmalion’s male artist’s ideal of an ideal woman). But note that just that ideal would, for some folk, be an ideal friend: this would be, and now we can go back to Aristotle, someone who is everything we wish them to be, who responds as we would like, when we like, just as long as we would like.  This could be an ideal chess partner or, if we can multiply players, the perfect rugby match. Maybe we can get a real-life version of Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Football. Or, beyond a gaming partner, and this seems to get the lion’s share of attention, for obvious reasons, there was an entire conference at Goldsmith’s just before Christmas, just a month ago now, on robot sex – I wrote a small essay for the occasion on ‘teledildonics’ – or to be vanilla about it, and Hollywood has already gotten there first with the film Robot and Frank, just a companion for one’s elderly relatives in need of a caretaker.

Robot and Frank

CB: That we would happily mistake a robot for a person at least strikes me as a superior mistake than to mistake a person for a robot or, as sprang mischievously from Descartes view of animals as clockwork automata, to fail to see an animal for a being. And here is an ironic end to a story that spans four centuries, because from mistaking animals as automata we now come to mistaking automata as people – a situation not entirely helped, in my estimation, by reducing everything to objects or (which amounts to much the same thing) telling people they are only an illusion. If I pretend that we can reduce all things to one kind – call it object, or unit, or body, or whatever – it only brings into clearer relief for me the differences between beings and things, which helps demonstrate how the idea of subjects and objects that descends from Descartes through Kant holds such force, even today. Yet the smartphone and other robots are the things that feel most like beings, because of their capacity for independent function. A robot, quite unlike a watch, is fun to be with.

The dialogue continues next week: Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With

Should Your Laptop Say Please?

Please insert a disk into drivePoliteness is not merely an arcane code of conduct, it serves to smooth over the rough edges of human interaction by making requests more tactful, and thus less irritating. Yet as cyborgs we are not good at displaying tact towards one another, and if our robots could exhibit cyber-tact, does this mean your laptop should start saying ‘please’?

One of the unexpected side-effects of linking most of the human race together in a cybernetic communication and data retrieval network has been throwing everyone, regardless of background or circumstances, into random contact. Because the internet was conceived primarily as an institutional tool for combining computational capacities i.e. for networking robots and not humans, the collision of people it has facilitated can only be considered unanticipated. We are still far from prepared for the consequences.

When a cyborg understands others and acts considerately towards them they display tact. This is a virtue that can mean many different things in many different situations, but the core habit behind them all is an attentiveness to the emotional impact of speech and behaviour. Politeness can be seen as an aspect of tactful behaviour – indeed, the easiest part of tact to master, since it is so formulaic. But politeness is a fairly narrow virtue while tact is broad and versatile, having the beneficial quality of helping both those who master it and those it is displayed towards. The corresponding debilities are bluntness, which marks a disregard for courtesy or an inflexible obsession with truth, and tactlessness, which manifests through a failure to correctly anticipate the interests of other cyborgs. Tact need not entail lying; honesty is not at task here, but rather awareness of the effects of language and action upon others.

The internet has made tact far harder to master. When you deal solely with the people from your local culture you usually appreciate what you can or can’t get away with saying without causing offence. In our digital public spaces, however, someone from New York or Paris can collide with someone from rural Georgia or a remote part of Micronesia. This inherent culture clash is concealed by the indirectness of online connections (the vagueness of the digital other), and leads to substantially worse bluntness than happens in face-to-face interactions. The mask of anonymity here, as with kindness and respect, only makes the situation worse.

Tact manifests both in what is said and what remains unspoken or untyped. There is substantial overlap in this regard with respect and cyber-respect, but while respect is probably a requirement for tact, it is possible to respect another cyborg without displaying tact. Furthermore, attempts to enforce tact tend to end in a lack of respect. Thus while providing suitable warnings is a thoughtful expression of tact, it can never be entirely ethical to forcibly demand such warnings mandatorily. To do so is demand respect by denying respect, a peculiar contemporary moral blindness that comes from practicing the rules-focussed ethics of ‘rights talk’ in a complete absence of appreciation for the ethical traditions that lead to rights claims (that is, to fall prey of the moral disaster of individualism).

Robots display personal cyber-tact when they act considerately towards their humans in terms of the triggering of information and do not pursue unwanted displays of media or information. Pop-ups are a classic example of cyber-tactlessness, as are embedded videos that play when accidentally touched while scrolling through text (the BBC news website is especially bad for this). Our robots are inherently cyber-blunt (although they needn’t be): when was the last time your laptop said ‘please’ when it wanted to download and install an update? Not that long ago, computers said ‘please’ when you had to insert a disc into a drive (see the image above): now, they just bully you into updating whether you want to or not.

Cyber-tact can also hypothetically manifest socially, when a robot encourages its human to behave with tact. It is far from clear that this ever happens in practice, and all the problems of maintaining respect against the mask of anonymity apply with tact. The root problem here is that concepts such as politeness, consideration, or toleration require a social imagination, something that beings of various kinds are capable of, but well beyond the programmatic capabilities of robots. This means any viable form of social cyber-tact must leverage human capabilities in order to work.

Designing robot systems to augment tact presents a significant challenge. Suppose a social network were to attempt to train its humans in tact by adding a policing system, such that tactless or blunt remarks were flagged by the community as such. The net result of this would rapidly devolve into carnage, since humans in digital public spaces will always abuse systems that are capable of causing harm. Of course, not everyone does so – but it only takes a small proportion of people to make a minor design flaw into a disaster.

A classic example occurred in the design of The Sims Online game. In the early version of this, players could declare other players ‘trustworthy’ or ‘untrustworthy’. However, a group of players calling themselves the ‘Sims Mafia’ realised they could use this feature to shakedown new players – threatening to blackball them as ‘untrustworthy’ if they didn’t give them all their in-game money. The design of ‘public karma’ systems (as they are known) has avoided dealing with negative scores for precisely this reason, not to mention that humans will abandon tainted account credentials if necessary in what has been called ‘karma bankruptcy’.

Now it may seem that this is irrelevant to the question of cyber-tact: couldn’t you just have the robot provide a positive tact score? Yes, this would be the minimal case for cyber-tact. A positive tact system records when people report that others have been tactful, but necessarily such humans must be already capable of tact. The robot has displayed cybervirtue, but merely through tracking human virtue and thus encouraging the use of tact that a human already possessed. But precisely our problem is that the kind of tact we now need exceeds our prior experience. What is most needed in terms of cyber-tact is a way for a robot to teach its human how to act tactfully in the cultural collision of the internet. It is far from clear this design question is actually soluble.

Whereas designing for social cyber-respect may be a matter of giving up the mask of anonymity, social cyber-tact seems to be more challenging. In both cases, however, the design of robots can at least aim at personal cybervirtue, by (for example) affording their humans adequate control over what they see or read, defending against unwanted displays of media, and supplicating when requesting an inconvenience (instead of demanding, as is far more common). If we think of our robots as ‘neutral tools’, the idea that virtue could be applied to their function is lost on us. Yet we do not use a computer like a hammer (except when we are especially irate!) and we are more entitled than it may seem to expect it to say ‘please’ when it wants to do something that we do not.

More cybervirtues next week.

Babich and Bateman: The Tyrannosaur's Hands

Last week, the self-satisfying qualities of social media. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman talk about dinosaur hands.

Vollbildaufzeichnung 22.12.2015 170053Babette Babich: To say just one thing about this bodying forth [introduced last week] along with slow ways to pour coffee, it is worth pointing out that we can, indeed, point things out. We can do that in rather a good many ways, nod with our chins or noses, raise eyebrows (do let us think of the late Alan Rickman, because of what he could do with an eyebrow, and he himself gave the palm to Dame Maggie Smith in the same regard), or nudge something with an elbow (to be Gilbert and Sullivan about it) or for a Manchester reference, with a knee and so on, but usually we point a digit, a finger, sometimes in the Facebook iconography, that somebody, should someday think of tracing back to its patently imperialist association with the Roman Empire: a thumb.

I recently tweeted about Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet, “with wings,” as Jarrell wrote about his little misfit bat poet (and here I develop a response nascent in the reply offered by one member of the twitterati to my tweet), suggesting that there might be an answer to Thomas Nagel avant la lettre. Where bats have wings, these are their hands, so the comparative anatomy would have it, and it makes a difference to think here of the sheer having of hands.

Chris Bateman: The pointing out interests me as a capacity because, for instance, dogs are perfectly capable of understanding us when we point, yet they lack hands. When they need to gesture in a direction, they must use their whole body – a faculty that gives the Pointer breed its name. Our capacity to point with our hands goes beyond a simple compass reading; gesture is a whole other language of its own (and sign language thus essentially a development of that). Yet it strikes me that neither pointing nor gesturing actually require fingers...

BB: What is at issue is not the number of digits and such, not as in pop anthropology and physiology, the having of opposable thumbs and all that that is meant to have brought us, to wit various and sundry connections with comprehension and apprehension and the having of things in the palm of one’s hand, as it were.

When I was studying biology at university, way back in the last three decades of the last century, in the mid-1970s, professors teaching earth science still insisted to us in lectures that plate tectonics was an unproven theory, dismissing Wegener’s continental drift as had been done to his frustration throughout his life.  In courses in Comparative Anatomy and in Ornithology I read beyond classroom lectures to discover the then-speculative connection between dinosaurs and birds – including the economic arguments that larger dinosaurs could not have been, simply given that they moved at all, poikilothermic, cold-blooded. What convinced me concerning warm-blooded dinosaurs was the fossil record, not at all of the well-known archaeopteryx but rather of a find in Russia (as Russians like to name things), Sordes pilosus (hairy filth, hairy devil as it was then translated), the Latin gives us the Rickmanian resonance once again. But if a pterodactyl has fur or fur-like feathers that will serve, as in the comparative and cognate case of a bat's wings to be sure, to protect core body heat that can be lost in the surface area of wingspan, much else follows. I used to run around campus tweeting the way one tweeted before there was Twitter, imitating Tyrannosaurus rex, tweet, tweet, tweet, in a very deep voice: I did this with friends as part of a game, my boyfriend, who was much taller, was better at tweeting like T. rex. What follows for science is all about everything we cannot know as we have no trace of it, nothing of integument, little of feathers, little of fur, no reptilian scales, nothing of colouring, all things lost to the fossil record, apart from sheerly, literally glorious finds (like the recent amber discovery of a tail, complete, to be sure with fur, or as most reports describe it, with feathers, and other more recondite surface finds like Sordes pilosus).

CB: This image of you and your friends playing at tweeting tyrannosaur is not going to leave me very quickly! As an avid junior palaeontologist myself (admittedly, my ‘field work’ as a nine year old merely accumulated a veritable treasury of ammonites…), what struck me was the rapid manner in which the status of fossils changed. I remember, for instance, a brief period in the 1980s when archaeopteryx was a hoax owing, I think in part, to the excellent British astronomer Fred Hoyle. Stephen Jay Gould, at the end of that decade, put the Burgess Shale into the spotlight – probably the only time a rock strata has been famous! – as a panoply of oddities and the Simon Conway Morris (who I spoke to briefly for The Mythology of Evolution) disputed this interpretation. Soon after the book was closed on the bird-dinosaur connection you refer to, which seemed to go from heresy to orthodoxy in record time! Every dinosaur instantly went from crocodile-kin to bird-ancestor almost overnight (although, of course, those two are not mutually exclusive…)

imageBB: Brilliant! And we are probably still ensconced in that orthodox trend! But there are other questions: how did T.rex actually eat? After solving the energetic problems of getting up from sleep, and and having the energy to run at all, never mind the tweeting, T. rex, and paleoanatomists debated this at some length in the literature, would have had trouble putting anything in its mouth – and its feet don't seem, like a raptor's feet to be for grasping....meaning that it would have had to use its hands. But how it  consume its prey?  What else are we missing? I am thus fond of imagining that T. rex did not merely have little hands but perhaps the little hands are just what remains of a variation on wings, like the baleen of a whale’s jaws, or as a bird is a better analogue than a cetacean, as complement to jaws that would allow them to function like a pelican's beak. But it could also involve other anatomical extensions, like the cockscomb of a rooster or the flaring ruff of a desert lizard, there would, so I thought, there could well have been extra bits. All we see are the bones for little vestigial hands, as we suppose the appendix to be vestigial (what we are learning about the gut and its associated flora is likely to make that attribution as wrong-headed as our views on continental drift), still where would Japanese monster movies be without Godzilla’s little hands? But these ‘hands’ could also be differently articulated, and might be quite enough as basis for cartilage and other extensions, or some other adaptation related to the thermodynamic eating demands of being a large land animal, from which could grow what were the effective ‘wings’ of the thunder lizard, not used for flight but gathering prey. In addition to his bass tweet, tyrannosaurus might have run through the forest canopy or along the veldt, sweeping everything in its path into a great drag net of feathered, curved wings: gathered and scooped into those huge jaws. 

Think pac-man with feet.

For human beings, our having hands as we do probably gets in the way of imagining T. rex at all (we find it hard to understand that a bat’s wings are, to a great extent, the bat’s ‘hands’). But above all, beyond flights of fanciful palaeontology, the German name for cell phone is ‘Handy,’ which seems to be because having hands means we like to have things at hand, and we like to do things with our hands – pretty much all the time.

The dialogue continues next week: Touching Robots

Top Ten Cybergs

Purple Cybernetic FlightEvery purposeful network of beings and things forms a cyberg, where (like an iceberg) we only see a fraction of the entailed network and the rest lurks beyond our awareness most of the time. The complete inventory of beings and things entailed within each of these cybernetic networks would be challenging to enumerate, but we can approximate the scale of each cyberg by counting just the number of one kind of entity within it e.g. the number of humans, the number of computers.

To qualify as a cyberg at all, we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential. A nation is a good example: not every citizen knows every other citizen yet they are linked by a shared bureaucracy that integrates them all into one functional network. It is not enough for there to have been a common network of production – no matter how many people own a penknife, penknife-wielders do not have any ongoing relationship. Conversely, the exchange of media effectively links television stations and thus viewers such that while individual TV stations are modestly sized cybergs by contemporary standards, they aggregate into something far more substantial. (Religions are something of a borderline case in this regard, but I shall set these aside for now.)

In the list that follows, cybergs are listed in order of the size of a single indexed entity, either humans or devices. Everything listed is a gigacyberg, with no fewer than a billion entities embroiled in its network. This list is not intended to be definitive but merely indicative – it points to the general situation today from a perspective we would not normally consider.

Runners Up

A number of megacybergs narrowly missed the top ten, including the European Union (743 million), movies (about 800 million), and guns (875 million). More than 360,000 people die each year as a result of the gun cyberg, but this is by no means the most fatal of our cybernetic networks. If this list included religions, Christianity would be the number three gigacyberg (2.3 billion), Islam would be ranked jointly with Microsoft (1.5 billion), and the Hindu traditions would be a close runner up (900 million).

Joint 9th: Tencent and Google (1 billion)

Chinese internet giant Tencent and search colossus Google both have about a billion humans in their cyberg. Whereas Tencent does not lead Chinese search (that honour goes to Baidu) it has a tremendously diverse network of internet services, including the wildly successful competitive game service League of Legends. Google dominates search globally – but even this only allows it to squeak into the world’s biggest cybergs if we take its quoted figures as accurately gauging its scale. Pragmatically, the reach of the Google cyberg is probably greater than this conservative estimate – but it feels somehow fitting to show this young upstart beginning its climb towards the top of the heap...

8th: Cars (1.2 billion)

It is possible to drive completely around the world thanks to the extent that the car-human cyborg has emerged as the dominant lifeform on our planet. We have completely changed the ecology of almost every ecological biome by installing the infrastructure required to make cars a viable form of transportation. This is the world’s deadliest cyberg, taking more that 1.25 million human lives annually, and that figure does not include war deaths some would attribute to the oil industry that feeds this network.

7th and 6th: India and China (1.3 and 1.4 billion)

The only nations to qualify for this top ten list, India and China each have more than four times the population of the United States, and nearly twice the population of the European Union. China is the wealthier cyberg, with an economy four times the size of India’s, but both wield significant destructive power via their hundreds of nuclear weapons. However, they have less than 2.5% of the world’s nuclear stockpile, since the US and the Russian Federation hold 45% and 48% of the world’s nuclear weapons, a quantity far beyond any rational consideration.

5th: Microsoft (1.5 billion)

Despite no longer being the centre of attention in technology circles, Microsoft’s cyberg is 50% bigger than the certifiable size of Google’s, thanks to the continuing dominance of Windows, which has a 90% market share in desktops and laptops. That said, these are now only 20% of the robot market, which is dominated by smartphones (where Google enjoys 87% of the market). Microsoft is a cyberg in decline, unable to adequately break into the pocket robot marketplace, but jealously guarding its hold over other industrial cybergs.

4th: Television (1.6 billion)

That television enjoys only a marginal numerical advantage over Microsoft is a sign of how completely the computer has has positioned itself as the cybernetic successor to the notorious boob tube. Yet there is another lesson here: the television is not ubiquitous, being a cyberg that extends through only 20% of the planet’s population.

3rd: Facebook (2 billion)

Here again we get a sense of the power of the digital cybergs... it has taken a little over a decade for Facebook to become the first definitive 2 billion human cyberg owned by one corporate entity. By leveraging human social instincts – and largely by accident, for it was not originally designed to operate as a surrogate for relationships – Facebook has aggregated more humans into one walled garden than anything else.

2nd: The Internet (3.5 billion)

It is distributed, beyond outright control (but certainly open to influence) and is the largest electronic cyberg on our planet. The internet... so significant, most dictionaries think it deserves a capital letter, like a nation. But this is a cyberg on a scale beyond national bureaucracies, a network that links half the planet’s humans to almost all the planet’s computers. Cisco claims there were 8.7 billion devices connected to the internet in 2012. As cybergs go, this one is the most spectacular in scale and potential. Yet it is still arguably outstripped by at least one larger cyberg...

1st: Money (7.3 billion)

This was the first cybernetic network, the first technical system to spread around our planet as both practice and tacit relations. As humans have grown more populous, so too has money spread with us – including into the virtual spaces of the internet, where this cyberg now lives as much or more than it does in the pockets of its humans. It seems positively simplistic next to the other gigacybergs, yet it engulfs almost every human; I have estimated that only 1-2% of the population of our planet are not caught up in the commercial cybernetic system. The sheer ubiquity of money as a concept is so complete that politics hinges more around budgetary numbers than about questions of how to live. This is one of our first technologies, as old as civilisation – and it remains our most successful.

More cybervirtue next week.