Intermittent Immuration

Autumn SunsetAs usual, I shall be taking a break from blogging and social media in November. I'll be away for at least two weeks... I hope to write some blog letters in December, but as usual it's dependent upon how much spare time I have. Any comments left during my absence will get answered when I return, as usual.

Only a Game will return in a few weeks.

Quality Forms

Red TapeAh, the ubiquitous bureaucratic form, not at all descended from the Latin 'pro forma' (for the sake of the form) as its common usage in UK Higher Education might make it seem. Indeed, this Latin phrase is an adjective and not a noun... we seem to have gained this new meaning out of some strange desire to evoke the mystic power of Latin to make ourselves sound grandiose, a power the Catholic church was accused of wielding when Latin was the language of mass. Through its own vacuous, secular rituals, contemporary form-filling bureaucracy has shown itself to be an excellent producer of irritable yet docile cyborgs throughout society, and especially in the British university.

What might be called the Cult of Quality lies at the heart of the way form-filling is used in Higher Education in the UK, an all together different approach to the way the same practices are used in government to evoke an anti-pay wall. The dogma of Quality asserts that our practices will be enhanced if in addition to whatever it is we're supposed to be doing, we also document it in standardised paperwork. There is in fact one practice which does improve as a result of quality paperwork: our capacity to complete quality paperwork. But convincing evidence is never provided (nor likely to be found) that quality paperwork improves teaching or research practice, which the bureaucracy inevitably makes harder by whittling away both time and patience.

If it is to be objected that the paperwork is necessary, it must seriously be asked: for what purpose? For neither teaching nor research are adequately summarised by standard forms, and the practices of neither are transferable willy nilly across disciplines. The way we engage in chemistry, or philosophy, or theatre, or game creation have little in common - certainly nothing worth enshrining in a kind of paperwork for tracking quality, nor in a mythic 'best practice' that would transcend circumstances, a critique brilliantly pursued by Frank Coffield and Sheila Edward in 2009.

Ironically, benefits can come from our becoming embedded within the cyborg networks of quality forms. They bind us to others in that network in ways that are superior to having no such ties to draw upon. But whenever the operation of those networks buys into the Cult of Quality, the result is not enhancement but mere stultification, and attempts at enhancing anything then flounder on the impossibility of translating achievements between radically distinct situations. The greatest success stories come not from any form-filling power trip, but simply from letting university staff watch each other at work. Alasdair MacIntyre warned of our metaphysical faith in management expertise - the quality form is the physical embodiment of that faith. Let they who have achieved perfection fill in the first form, the rest of us have better things to do with our time.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #65


Denied-insurance-claimA paywall is a cybernetic system for ensuring that money is collected before some service is rendered. An anti-paywall, conversely, is a cybernetic system for preventing money from being given out by deferring service to the other side of a bureaucratic process. Anti-paywalls are used by governments, insurance companies and other organisations to both slow and reduce the amount of money they have to pay out. They provide no benefit to the victims of their labyrinths and traps since their purpose is precisely to slow and reduce the amount of money that might otherwise be paid out.

Government anti-paywalls are the most straightforward, consisting merely of a layer of form-filling, document-checking, and rubber-stamping. Social services of all kinds are guarded in this way from excessive claims. Ironically, the cost of administrating the anti-paywall then becomes one of the biggest expenses of such services. But fear of what might happen if the wall came tumbling down, and 'handouts' escalated, keeps the anti-paywall running. I will not claim such a system is necessary, but it certainly feels inevitable, given the current way nations are organised.

In insurance companies, anti-paywalls risk being far more pernicious. While most of my experiences of these kinds of organisations have been benign, I have encountered both vet and medical insurance companies willing and able to contort themselves to avoid paying out - and of course, both routinely 'exclude' coverage under circumstances that transform them from safety net to mere leech. Here, where insurance companies betray the trust that is placed in them, the anti-paywall is just as likely to be a phone maze as a form, but the purposes remain aligned even as the methods change: as little as possible should be paid out, regardless of what impression was given to those who supported the company by regularly paying their premiums. 

The cyborg we become when facing the anti-paywall is either demotivated or angered, but either way the anti-paywall serves its purpose by thwarting yours. Even if your rage keeps you pursuing matters, the longer you are kept from payment, the more money is 'saved' by the organisation keeping you outside. There is nothing humane in this mistreatment of our fellow humans, it is just the petty evil of contemporary bureaucracy that has become so familiar to us we barely even notice. Not all insurance companies are guilty of this... but we have seen enough abuse of our trust to know that when we hit the anti-paywall, we are in one of the dark corners of contemporary existence.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #64

Phone Mazes

Phone Maze"If you want to listen to short loops of popular music interspersed with insincere reassurance that you call is important to us, press 1." Of all the uses we put our robots too, perhaps the most banal is the phone maze. It serves one purpose: to prevent you from talking to a human if at all possible, and - all to frequently - to ensure that if you do, it will be someone far from any kind of influence inside the organisation. The phone maze is a Chinese Wall intended to keep you out.

Now it might be objected that the phone maze is necessitated by the volume on of calls corporations have to deal with... in other words, the phone maze is necessary because corporations are necessary. This is effectively an admission that we have created the circumstances where wealth and power can accumulate, and thus that we live in an effectively feudal arrangement where our fealty to large organisations need not be affirmed because it is always assumed. It is always at the very least possible, however, that organisations could be more widely distributed, that instead of shareholder profit, superior wealth distribution could be pursued. If this is accepted, the phone maze is not some dismal inevitability but rather a cost-saving mechanism that allows fewer or cheaper systems to substitute for the more expensive alternative: more humans and fewer robots.

Alas, this is not even the most tragic aspect of the phone maze, for in a great many cases (especially those involving international outsourcing) even the humans are forced to be robots. The use of programmed flowcharts and pre-scripted messages makes even the human cheese at the centre of the phone maze robotic in its function, robbing workers of their autonomy and reducing them to mere cogs in a grand machine meant to keep the outside world disconnected from anything an organisation is doing. Even if we do not want to distribute wealth less inequitably, we can scarcely claim to hold humanity in respect when we are complicit in inflicting terrible working conditions upon strangers - and in this regard, working in a phone maze is not even the worst form of wage slavery being inflicted.

In terms of its effects upon humans, the phone maze has the same behavioural influence we encounter in so much bureaucracy - it installs either irritable anger or bored submission. The only plausible defence for these labyrinths of tedium is to argue for their inevitability, a rhetoric I reject as lacking in imagination. If corporations genuinely respect their customers, as they all publicly claim to do, they must learn how to treat them with respect. That might begin by treating those condemned to work inside the phone maze as the human beings they are.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #63

Phone Upgrades

Smartphones"I have to upgrade my phone" is something we hear a lot these days. A telephone, strictly speaking, only needed upgrading once or twice over the entire century of their operation: to get a standardised connector, and to add touch tone noises. But the phones we talk about upgrading now are not just devices for communicating at a distance, they are the robots that convey the greatest volume of cyborg capacities upon us, for the link us into a vast global network of computers - the internet, and with it 'the cloud', myriad banks of computers offering remote computing and data storage capacities.

If we pause to ask about the moral and behavioural effects of upgrading, we are likely to be misled with shallow claims of utility. New phones are 'better', we assume - an assessment based entirely upon our personal desire for power and convenience. They are certainly not better for the environment... in their manufacture, in the construction of the radio tower infrastructure required to support them, in the ever-growing power requirements of the servers working behind the scenes to make each upgrade effective, each upgrade does more and more damage to our planet, all quietly unnoticed as we goggle at so-called Live Pictures (merely 3 second videos that increase our data usage further) or radar gesture controls. New technology is impressive when viewed through the eyes of its marketing story, and horrific if we look instead at the environmental impact of acquiring the lithium that makes claims like 'longest ever battery life' possible.

And we are habituated to upgrades, we view them as at the very least inevitable, if not also highly desirable. Any concept of maintaining our smartphones to keep them in service is off the table. I am writing this on an iPhone I have managed to keep in service for about seven years, despite Apple's best efforts to force me into replacing it... but it's dying. Its charging port barely functions and it is close to senile as the ever-rising expectations for computing power mean it can barely display 'upgraded' webpages on its antiquated operating system. My Twitter app still uses the 140 character limit, and can no longer show the threads of conversation. A great many other apps have stopped working entirely. But it is still my phone, my responsibility, and I will not abandon it prematurely. I already have a replacement, a hand-me-down handset I hope to keep going for many more years, but I will hold off making the exchange as long as I can. I feel a duty to my pocket robots, not because they're alive but because my decision to adopt them affects everything that is alive.

When we meet someone who has just 'upgraded' their phone, we might idly remark "that's a good phone", meaning it has ever-more capabilities, while ignoring the ever-growing costs entailed. Frankly, I do not think we have any conception yet of what a 'good smartphone' might be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #62