Lessons from the MUD

AccursedLandsAnonymity and technology mix badly. While you are required in most countries to pass a test of skill with cars, our most dangerous tool, and even the US licenses and records the identity of firearm owners, any fool can appear on Twitter or Facebook with a fictional or falsified identity and act abusively towards the cyborgs they encounter there. However, eliminating anonymity by forcing the use of public identities is a heavy-handed solution that would almost certainly prove insufficient for eliminating the problem, as Brian Green has carefully outlined. But there are lessons that can be learned from earlier digital public spaces that offered anonymity but had less of a problem with abuse, and this can put a different slant on these kinds of problems.

The Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, began as spaces for creative adventures, greatly conditioned by the play of the pivotal tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. These imaginary worlds were entirely made of databases of text, arranged to create the impression of connected rooms and spaces, within which players could move around and encounter one another. Players would join a MUD using network protocols from the early days of the internet, creating an account with a name that would become their identity in the shared space of the game world. The MUDs would go on to provide the basis for graphical games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft that would achieve tremendous commercial success.

A player coming to a MUD for the first time was likely to have been invited by someone else, and as such was not strictly alone. Nonetheless, players typically entered the text world as individuals, and since players would connect at different times they were often (if not always) alone. Starting players were always unknown to the existing players, so there was always an element of uncertainty about the arrival of someone new. Nonetheless, the community surrounding each MUD, which was typically a few hundred players or so, generally welcomed newcomers, and there was an air of hospitality extended in most MUD communities. Abusive players, then as with in the larger digital spaces today, were the minority, and would quickly come into conflict with the more responsible players who would report them to the administrators, typically entitled Wizards.

The Wizard system provided legislative, judicial, and executive power within the MUD. While the first Wizards would be those who set up the software and provided the hardware to run the game, many MUDs used a democratic system to elect additional Wizards, who worked as a collective to maintain order and community. Legislative acts concerned the code of conduct that applied, and thus set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – such matters were always resolved by the Wizards working together, and generally involved consulting the wider community of players as well. Judicial and executive power was expressed by taking action against troublemakers – in many MUDs, miscreants could be ‘toaded’, which reduced a character to a powerless amphibian. Wizards would hold tribunals in this regard to determine the justice of any such punishment meted out. Although I have heard of some instances of ‘corrupt Wizards’, my own experiences showed the Wizard system to be highly effective at minimising abuse in MUDs.

While on the surface, MUDs were play spaces, in practice the division between game and communication system blurred. This was especially so because MUDs provided the first networked text communication system that didn’t require manual delivery, like a telegram. As such, many attracted a community of ‘players’ using them solely as a chat interface. These were the original chatrooms, since players would typically congregate in a room of the MUD’s fictional world to engage in conversation. This occasionally caused tension with other members of the community who were using the game differently, but for the most part it was a fact of life in MUDs that some people were there solely to chat, and facilities to do so were expanded in the code for MUDs as the 1990s progressed.

The MUD was the direct precursor to Facebook and Twitter, which descend from earlier copies of the chatroom concept, such as AOL’s offering, which lacked the fictional world but kept the name. Yet abuse in MUDs was comparatively rare, and rapidly resolved by Wizards whenever it occurred. Anonymity may still have fostered abuse, but the systems were in place in MUDs both to guard against it, and to discourage it from happening in the first place. The most effective deterrent against online abuse is community – and the MUDs fostered this far more than the latest digital public spaces.

Thus while a new MUD player might arrive alone and unknown, they were never unguarded – both in the sense of protected from the abuse of others, and watched for signs of conducting abuse. Conversely, a ‘tweep’ (as a user of Twitter is colloquially termed) is alone, unknown, and essentially unguarded – and these are the optimal conditions for abuse to fester. Twitter has an abuse reporting system, but it is distant and bureaucratic, with no community to manage the warnings and reporting, and no community-engaged Wizards to act as magistrates.

Here we have three different senses of ‘anonymous’, all of which contribute to cyber-disdain, and thus a greater risk of cyber-cruelty. To be alone in a digital public space is to lack a community, and crucially ‘follows’ and ‘friends’ do not mark the authentic social bonds of a community relationship but merely an open communication channel. To be unknown is to be anonymous in the sense of having a concealed identity – a situation that fosters abuse if it is not offset by community relations. Lastly, unguarded marks an invisibility to the systems of justice within a digital public space – a situation worsened by being unknown, and by being alone.

Thus Facebook’s requirement to use conventional identities (to eliminate being unknown) is insufficient to stop abuse, both because its users are mostly alone and unguarded, and also because the size of its membership means that with random encounters, cyborgs are still effectively unknown to each other. This is the fertile soil in which abusive behaviour online grows: as the cybernetic networks increase in scale, community is unsustainable since humans can only sustain viable communities at a scale of hundreds and never at a scale of billions. Two Facebook users, even with public identities, are effectively unknowable to each other – and nothing much can solve this problem short of managing encounters in a way that most would find intolerable. Guarding against problematic behaviour is more tractable when there is a village-scale community to engage, respond, and react – while at planetary-scale even robot-assisted magistrates are rendered impotent by the sheer scope of the network.

Anonymity is the root of online abuse, but there are at least three senses of this term that matter. We tend to focus on unknown anonymity, and thus miss the importance of alone anonymity and unguarded anonymity. My emphasis on being alone may seem misplaced. For instance, in his discussion of the problems of anonymity, Brian reports that “people in groups are more likely to transgress.” I agree with this claim, even though this may seem to run counter to my suggestion that alone anonymity is a key part of the problem. However, Brian’s point concerns ‘mob mentality’, and a mob is not a community in any relevant sense. Indeed, precisely what makes a mob dangerous is that people are alone together when they are a part of it – and this anonymity of the crowd (which also operates fairly innocently in audiences for musicians and so forth) becomes dangerous when the people concerned are also unknown and unguarded, as happens all the time in our digital public spaces.

When Sherry Turkle raises concerns about the way we are alone together online, she is not talking about the mob as such, but her work also emphasises this same concern: the undermining of authentic community by the current design features of the new communication systems. Yet different designs will produce different results. It is notable that blogs, which assign executive power to the blog owner (and thus are close to unguarded), and are ambiguous on the question of being unknown (since it is the blog owner’s choice how they identify) still manage to be less of a locus of abuse than the large-scale digital public spaces since bloggers are never alone. Forums tolerate contributions that are alone and unknown because they are not unguarded, thanks to the presence of moderators who can work effectively because the scale of the network of contributors is manageable. When a moderator ‘knows that such-and-such is a troublemaker’, they mean that particular cyborg is not anonymous in the sense of being unguarded. Different solutions to fostering cyber-respect (and minimising cyber-cruelty) hinge upon the different senses of anonymity.

What does not work – indeed, cannot work – is expecting our robots to plug the gap caused by scaling networks beyond human capacity to form a viable community. Abuse will remain endemic on Facebook and Twitter for as long as their cyborg participants can be functionally alone, effectively unknown, and inadequately guarded. If there are solutions to this problem, and it is not clear that there are, the most important lessons to learn are those revealed by the stories of the MUDs, the pioneering digital public spaces, the first cyborg communities of their kind.

With grateful thanks to Peter Crowther, both for feedback on this piece, and for running UglyMUG, a game that changed both his life and my own. Also, my thanks to Brian Green for his outstanding summary of the relationship between privacy and anonymity, which this piece responds to.


Coming Soon: The Virtuous Cyborg

Neuron ChaosIt gives me great pleasure to formally announce my new book project, The Virtuous Cyborg, which builds upon the cybervirtue discussions going on here at Only a Game this year. A publisher has already invited me to place the book with them, but I will not announce who it is until later this year when we’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. I will just say for now that they are are a small independent press with a commitment to virtuous publishing and nurturing talent outside of the mainstream corporate system, and they feel like a great fit for my philosophy writing.

The new book will be another short form text like Wikipedia Knows Nothing, but will not have a free edition as I am committed to repaying the investment of both trust and money the publisher is making by publishing me, and their situation means they have to be practical about making ends meet. (ETC Press, as an academic publisher, had different priorities, and I’m very grateful to them for being there when WKN needed a home).

At this time, I am inviting pre-readers to read the draft manuscript, that will be ready some time in April. All you need to be as a pre-reader is someone I have already spoken to (in any medium) with an interest in my philosophy and the time to read a 30,000 word manuscript in April-May this year. I will need feedback in less than a month, so please make sure you have the time to help out.

Interested? Contact me through the usual channels, including comments here if you have no other option.

The opening image is a free texture from TextureX.com which I found here, used under their license and remaining under their copyright.


Tenacity and the Domination of Things

Anselm Kiefer (2013) Morgenthau Plan (detail)Our robots never tire, and always pursue what we have instructed them to do if nothing disrupts them along the way. Can their tenacity be made to work on us, to bring out our perseverance where we most need it? Or are we doomed to be dominated by the systems we have designed?

The question of when persistence and determination constitutes a virtue is parallel to the ambiguity that accompanies fidelity. Indeed, these are closely related virtues – one binds us to a ideal, a practice, or a community, the other to a course of action. Yet clearly not all activities are equal when it comes to tenacity: a heroin addict’s perseverance in their habit, and their dedication to acquiring money for it, do not count as any kind of virtuous tenacity.  The shift in our understanding of agency brought about by re-assessing the role of things in our decisions gives us a way of appreciating why: the heroin is in charge of that chain of events, and the human is reduced to its servant.

To construct a virtuous understanding of tenacity we need a viable understanding of what Enlightenment philosophers called ‘will’ – the resolve to take a certain path; to commit to an uncertain future and make it happen. This is distinct from impulses – I can hanker for a sandwich but I cannot will one, although I could will that I mastered the art of sandwich making, or baking bread, or that I would open a sandwich shop. But what does this distinction consist in? Is it a difference of kind, or merely one of degree?

The one surviving place in our language where the concept of will survives is in talk of ‘willpower’ – but our current understanding of biology renders this concept suspect. If there were a viable concept of willpower, it would distinguish between two kinds of people: ones that had it, and thus would show tenacity in all things, and those who lacked it and would thus be condemned to perpetual sloth. But this isn’t what happens in life. Although we do see differences in persistence both in terms of people and in terms of activities, a person who persists in all tasks does not seem ‘high in willpower’ so much as obsessive-compulsive, unable to stop themselves from attending to whatever happens to be in their attention. Both willpower (and the earlier concept of will it descends from) presume our capacity to assert agency in a selective fashion, such that we appear to be in charge of our own actions.

What we find in our biology wherever we look for persistence is habit. Take getting up in the morning. I recall a time in my life when I had been staying up late most nights, carousing with friends or playing games. At some point, I resolved to get my sleeping back in order – but was dismayed to discover that setting my alarm early made little difference to my routines. Barely awake, I would snooze or switch off any alarm before my half-conscious mind knew what was going on. Today, I get up at the same time every day and getting up is comparatively easy to do, even at 5:30 am, a time I had previously associated with calling it a night. This transformation has nothing to do with willpower but everything to do with habit. It was not enough to commit while awake to something that would happen before I would be fully conscious: I had to establish the habit. This, as it happens, is far easier when we act in the context of other people: exercise groups and dieting clubs establish successful habits more easily than people acting alone.

Here, then, is a way of tracing a boundary between will and impulse, tenacity and capriciousness. To will something entails founding and sustaining habits that are steps towards what is imagined. Our impulses, on the other hand, strike us on a moment-to-moment basis – and when these impulses become habits, as with heroin, we are sacrificing what we might will for forming circumstantial habits; we are enslaved to the will of other beings, or the inclinations brought on by things. While there are certainly debilities corresponding to an absence of diligence and determination (apathy, for instance) perhaps the more interesting contrast is this one between tenacity of the will, and submissiveness to impulse.

When it comes to thinking of cyber-tenacity, it may initially seem that we have a context where our robots might indeed foster enthusiasm and perseverance in their humans. We only have to look at videogames for endless examples of cyborgs persisting against rage, confusion, or boredom, or indeed establishing ostensibly positive habits such as walking, which Pokémon Go (for instance) makes essential to its play. If we are comparing tenacity to apathy, our robot-mediated games clearly come up trumps – if there is indeed a form of cyber-apathy I have yet to see it, and every commercially successful game encourages its players to come back for more.

But then, whose will is being served here? If the player is truly imagining a future and pursuing it, we might very well call the desire to keep playing the cyber-tenacity of the human-robot pairing. Yet when a videogame has us in its grip we are submissive to it: our desire to keep playing is often more like the heroin addict’s habit than the will to become a master baker. In particular, if we look at what the lazier exponents of what is called ‘gamification’ have recommended, this seems indistinguishable from the Behaviourist’s schedules of reinforcement – habit formation through repetition and reward... dog training for humans. This is submission, not tenacity.

As I have argued elsewhere, gamification is all too often stultification. Jacques Rancière makes the claim in The Ignorant Schoolmaster that education is counter-productive when teachers attempt to force upon students their understanding of a particular topic or skill, rather than encouraging the student to acquire their own competences. He calls the effect of an education that teaches a specific way of understanding (rather than encouraging learning without specifying a specific form of comprehension) stultifying. Learning avoids this when the teacher’s will is bound to the student’s solely in terms of committing to the learning being achieved; whenever the means that learning will proceed eclipses this binding of a common will, the outcome is stultification, and learning is hindered or entirely stifled.

Gamification risks stultification because the game developer (or behavioural engineer) is specifying what is being learned, and there is no engagement of the will of the player (or employee). Submission is the inevitable outcome of this failure to create a common vision. What’s more, through mandatory achievements and scoring systems like Xbox’s Gamerscore we have witnessed the gamification of games... an emphasis on cyber-submission over the more engaging alternatives. This state of affairs is now endemic in software design: what is Twitter and Facebook’s Follow counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality? Everywhere game-like scoring systems occur, there is a degradation of our judgement as we are drawn away from even asking what we will, and into submission to the designed system and its values – the ultimate manifestation of which is money itself, our greatest and most dominating cybernetic network.

Yet the cyber-submission of videogames is by no means the whole story. Videogames also demonstrate cyber-tenacity in the way humans form teams and co-operate towards goals together, and although competitive play often brings out the worst in people, there are virtuous communities of players in a great many situations where their will is being exercised, albeit within the limited context of the games in question. The player who commits to the pursuit of a digital sporting victory is not, perhaps, the paragon of tenacity – but they are not so far removed from the physical athlete, whose determination we justly admire. Add to this the exercise of imagination, in the narrative play of MMOs and elsewhere, or the creative projects realised in Minecraft, and the situation does not seem so resolutely submissive.

These examples occur in the context of play, which is always a negotiable, transient experience. But they point to ways that our robots can illicit cyber-tenacity in cyborgs. There are possibilities here worthy of exploration, but they must avoid the stultifying risks of cyber-submission and empower us to set our own wills in motion – and see matters through. Here is somewhere that our robots have a natural advantage, for they are automatically cyber-tenacious in the personal sense – they do not tire or flag, and keep progressing towards what we have willed unless prevented by inability or malfunction. If we can couple that indomitable spirit with our own wills, without being dragged down into submission along the way, there might be no limit to what we cyborgs might achieve.

The opening image is a detail from Anselm Kiefer’s Morgenthau Plain, which I found at the Royal Academy page for their Kiefer exhibition. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked. My thanks to seymourblogger (@abbeysbooks on Twitter) for the suggestion of this artist.


A Fabulous Planet to Die On

Delighted to report that Justin Robertson’s interview with me for Ransom Note went up today! Here’s an extract:

I trust my mechanic to fix my car when it’s broken – except when the manufacturer has made the car into a black box that people can’t actually acquire practical knowledge of. And I trust that my physicist friends can calculate how to adjust satellite data for distortions. All in all, I think there’s plenty of expertise around today. But you don’t ask a mechanic to decide on the base rate of the Bank of England or a physicist to bake a soufflé. Most of the problems with expertise happen because we’re failing to recognise who has knowledge of what.

Check out the entirety of A Fabulous Planet to Die On when you get a chance.


The Dependent World

Banksy.Robot BarcodeEither the dog is the paragon of fidelity, expressing boundless loyalty to their human, or dogs are incapable of fidelity. It comes down to whether the bond a dog forms with their pack leader counts as a promise, and there are good reasons to say that it doesn’t. Nonetheless, I come down on the other side of the argument and see dogs as practicing fidelity in their own unique and admirable ways. The counterpoint amounts to claiming a dog’s commitment is merely instinctual habit. This contrast – habit as against fidelity – is precisely the battleground upon which cyborgs are losing.

In Imaginary Games, I draw against Félix Ravaisson's remarkable 1838 conception of habit as what sets aside beings from things. Habit, for Ravaisson, has two sides – it is the foundation of all our skills and excellences, which only achieve anything through the repetition of training and application. Yet it is also the source of addiction, and it is not coincidental that phrases such as ‘habitual user’ and ‘habit-forming’ have attached to substances such as heroin. The virtue of fidelity that I have been carefully tracing is what allows our skills to achieve their excellence, for the artist, athlete, researcher and so on achieves their proficiency only through commitment to their chosen path. If my argument in Wikipedia Knows Nothing is accepted, this means all knowledge comes from fidelity, since if knowledge is understood as a practice, only fidelity to a practice attains it.

Yet there is something missing in this characterisation, a hidden aspect I tried to draw attention to last week by taking marriage as an exemplar of the relationship between faith and fidelity. Whenever we exercise fidelity, we form a bond with other people. This is most visible in marriage, but it can be found in all cases that fidelity occurs (even if it is sometimes a commitment to honour the dead in some way, rather than the living). The athlete’s fidelity to their sport binds them to their trainers and fellow competitors; the researcher’s fidelity to scientific methods binds them to their research community (for all that the empirical sciences sometimes foster a perverse obfuscation of their human dimension); the artist’s fidelity to their craft binds them not only to the lineages of art that inspire them, but to communities of appreciators without whom their work is incomplete. Fidelity, therefore, is both the root of knowledge and the wellspring of community and culture. To lack fidelity is to become, as traced at the beginning of this discussion, a cultural nomad, and this is not freedom but a kind of ephemeral prison.

As cyborgs, we are assaulted with habit-forming situations because commercial technology is designed, from the ground upwards, to be addictive, to form habits that turn to desire rather than fidelity, to addiction rather than knowledge. Take, as the smallest example, your relationship with your smartphone. By design, this robot is not intended to last, it is not meant for repair beyond trivial interventions (a broken screen, for instance). It is intended to habituate you to its action before being rendered obsolete by the escalating scales of computing power that drive hardware sales. The announcement of a new iPhone or Android phone is intended to push our buttons and draw us into ‘upgrading’, a euphemism for indulging an addiction to the new. This critique can certainly be challenged, but to do so on grounds of increasing utility is to fall prey to the moral disaster of consequentialism and thus be shallow sighted.

Although I am no fan of motor vehicles, I would like to compare the way cars were designed fifty years ago to the way they are designed now. For it is not a coincidence that classic cars are still in service: they were built to last, and designed for repair. A mechanic could express fidelity towards these machines and thus gain knowledge of them. Today, the core function of an automobile is barred to all but the wizards of manufacturing, and an onboard robot controls almost all functions thus reducing the role of mechanics to merely substituting faulty components when instructed. These are machines built for obsolescence that bar all practical knowledge of their workings except as proprietary trade secrets. In short, the design of contemporary machines aims at dependence, and this cyber-dependence is the first principle of commercial technology. It is not a coincidence that the clockwork torch (or flashlight) was designed for Africa and not the ‘developed’ world. ‘Developed’ here is a synonym for ‘dependent’.

Thus Facebook (or any other social media platform for that matter) is designed not for fidelity, nor for binding people together in practices that foster knowledge, but for dependence and addiction. Follows and shares are the motivating force by design, and this pursuit of metrics to measure ‘social success’ serves to substitute dependence for fidelity, addiction for community. That is not to say that fidelity cannot be expressed through these purportedly conversational media – merely that they are not designed to support it. They are created for cyber-dependence, and the utility of the communicative networks they create blinds us to this in yet another example of shallow sightedness. It is scarcely surprising that propaganda, ‘fake news’ as it had been dubbed, thrives in systems that discourage fidelity and thus minimise productive community. Knowledge requires fidelity to a practice; when it is reduced to repeating, we come adrift from our epistemic moorings, as the Wikipedia, that methodical aggregator of corporate artefacts, epitomises.

What would cyber-fidelity mean, and could we imagine technology built for it? Fidelity is founded on a promise, literal or figurative, a commitment to be part of something and thus to foster knowledge within that community (whether we are talking sports, research, art, or whatever). Cyber-fidelity would therefore apply whenever our robots aided our commitment and our communities without simultaneously engendering our dependency. At the moment, whatever fidelity is expressed via the internet does so against the prevailing winds of dependency. If you wish to learn about fidelity, you will find exemplars more easily in the so-called Third World than in the Dependent World we live in. Hence the suggestion that there is a pressing need to technologise the planet is another aspect of the moral disaster of consequentialism – the free ‘Third’ world does not need to learn our dependencies from us; colonial occupation already established dependencies that will not be resolved by adding technological addiction to economies that were optimised for colonial export and that always acted as cyber-dependencies, long before computers upped the ante.

What I am calling cyber-fidelity is another name for what Ivan Illich called convivial tools, technology that empowers individuals within their communities, rather than creating dependence and dividing or destroying community in the name of ‘progress’ (the consequentialist war-cry par excellence). The bicycle versus the car is just one example of cyber-fidelity versus cyber-dependence – and here it is not a mere footnote that the former fosters physical fitness and mechanical skill through maintenance, while the latter fosters ‘road rage’ and planned obsolescence. Note that both cars and bicycles are products of overlapping technological networks: tyres, gears, steering... but one empowers its human and community, and the other fosters dependencies, on manufacturing, oil, and infrastructures that are far from egalitarian.

In asking earlier if dogs could express fidelity, what was at stake was a distinction between habit and dependence, and now I can suggest another aspect of this question: the dog’s commitment to its pack is the evidence of its fidelity. The dog not only belongs to a community – and for domestic dogs, that means both the humans they live with and the neighbourhood dogs they fraternise with – but it has knowledge of that community. Indeed, it is the principal knowledge that any dog learns. The dog cares which other dogs have been in the park recently, and cannot wait to be reunited with members of its pack as they come back home. The dog, in other words, is a convivial being, as (in its own way) is the cat. The human too has this capacity; we are, as Donna Harraway suggested, a companion species to our dogs and cats, and rather less so in the context of our robots.  

Like cars, computers opened up a space that could be convivial or could fall into dependency – and at this point it seems clear which way they have gone. Nothing marks me out as a heretic quite as spectacularly as my suggestion in Chaos Ethics that we have more to learn from the traditional cultures of the Third World than they can benefit from moving uncritically towards the Dependent World we live in. If we wish to build computers that can foster cyber-fidelity, perhaps we should look to the clockwork torch and the way it was designed to be of use outside our enmeshing networks of technology. I do not know what a convivial computer might be, I do not know whether cyber-fidelity is even possible in a world of robots – but we have truly narrowed our horizons of possibility to mere technological addiction if we cannot even imagine trying to explore this uncharted and unimagined frontier.

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.

More cybervirtue next week.


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