The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Genetically-engineered Babies

DNANews recently broke that a team of researchers in China have used a new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to modify the DNA of a dozen embryos, two of which became twin girls. Lulu and Nana will apparently be HIV-resistant, but the incident has already created a stir since no consensus (or, really, tangible discussion) about the ethics of ‘designer babies’ has taken place.

In fact, we’ve had ‘designer babies’ for a while now, since researchers developed techniques to plan the gender of an embryo, not to mention test for Down syndrome... We are long past any first step now and deeply into the territory often marked by the pejorative phrase ‘playing God.’ I should like to explore the cybervirtue of genetically-engineered babies (that is, the positive and negative behavioural implications of this technology) by engaging with this rather odd phrase.

Let’s start with those who can find no viable concept of ‘God’. Here, ‘playing God’ is either an invitation to some kind of self-defeating nihilism or, more plausibly and more commonly, an opportunity to say that in the absence of a divine source of morality we should establish our own standards. However, we then rapidly collide with the immense disagreements about how to ground any moral consensus. In the absence of God we are invited to play the vacant role but find the casting call rather phenomenally oversubscribed...

A starkly contrasting position is that of a theist for who all of creation is the expression of a divine will, and for whom ‘playing God’ implies a kind of hubris, the certainty of some unforeseen disaster. For those who take it that creation was rapid, it might make sense to oppose genetic-engineering as active interference in God’s plan. I don’t share that viewpoint, but I can respect it as long as it does not lead to grotesque absurdities like bombing abortion clinics in the name of Jesus.

More interesting to me is the position of theists who contend God’s creation unfolded across billions of years of evolutionary time. Here, ‘playing God’ is precisely what gene-hackers are not doing. There is no hint of the impossibly slow unfolding of divine providence here – rather what is being proposed is ‘playing man’ (with all the gendered overtones that implies) – acting with impatience, forcing things a certain way, no matter what a wise course of action might be.

Perhaps this is the skeleton key for understanding the cybervirtue of genetic-tinkering: poor impulse control, the researcher unable to wait for ethical agreement before diving in where the glory of a ‘first’ can be won. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the Manhattan Project: new discoveries are catnip to those who think themselves scientists. And this weakness of character ultimately risks hindering the important work done in the sciences. ‘Because we can’ is rapidly losing its appeal as a justification as we struggle to catch up with the implications of all the technologies we ‘could’ and so ‘did’...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #43


Wages

PaypacketMeet the cyborgs in the money game! The Capital Cyborg with so much money that they no longer have to think about day-to-day living expenses and can focus instead upon plans to make more capital from, say, replacing an entire class of jobs with robots. The Welfare Cyborg whose income from the State is never enough to live on, forcing them almost universally into breaking the rules and supplementing their meagre allowance with often grim, cash-in-hand labour. The Entrepreneur Cyborg, whose fortunes are bound together with a specific set of companies whose dividends they live off. And, most common of all, the Wage Cyborg, who works as part of a company owned by Entrepreneurs or Capital Cyborgs (often both) in return for a fixed dollop of money each month.

Now this is by no means the only way of organizing the cybernetic network that distributes resources, labour, and power. Nor is the only alternative a State takeover of industry so that Capital Cyborgs can be replaced with Communists. But we don't spend much time thinking about how this game could be hacked to produce better outcomes. It does not, as Robert Nozick warned, seem plausible to ensure the kind of monetary equality that John Rawls dreamt about in his Kant-inspired political vision. There will always be differences in wealth and earnings. But it is still perfectly plausible (and potentially possible) to radically reduce the disproportionate distribution of money we currently endure.

What stops this most effectively is that both left and right, whichever country you might be in, argue about which is the best way to entrench the wage system. The view from the right is that giving more power to Entrepreneur Cyborgs will ‘make more jobs’, and thus improve things. This plan is great news for Capital Cyborgs, who spend billions to support it. The view from the left is that more money should be paid out to women, or ethnic minorities, or in some cases all Wage Cyborgs, in order that the financial cybernetic network be made ‘fairer’. But note that even from the left, the Wage Cyborg is enshrined as necessary and essential. When unions strike, it is nearly always about getting a bigger share of the money for wage-earners.

I agree with Nozick that uneven monetary arrangements can’t be eliminated (at least, not from our current position). Trade is fundamental to our human experience now that there are only a few hundred self-sufficient tribespeople left on our planet. But the Wage Cyborg is not axiomatic. Companies can divide their money in other ways than individually priced work agreements, a situation far more valuable to Entrepreneurs and Capital Cyborgs than anyone else. But I rather suspect the main reason we sustain the commercial system we have is not just the influence of those on the top, but the weariness of those on the bottom, who haven’t the strength left after working to make a stand. And so the game rolls on...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #42


Autumnal Intermission

Taking my usual break from social media for a few weeks this November. I will be hiding from the socially mediated world from Sunday November 11th until Monday 26th November at the earliest. A Hundred Cyborgs will continue soon afterwards.

Back soon!


Noise-cancelling Headphones

Noise-cancelling headphonesIt’s amazing to think that just a whisker over a century ago, there were no headphones of any kind. Since 1910, this technology has not only advanced it has proliferated. Most people reading this see people with headphones (or ear buds, or something similar) every day – many will use them daily, either for listening to music, or for communication software like Discord, Skype, and Zoom. They have outsold mice to become the most widespread computer accessory in the world, with a $10 billion market.

Noise-cancelling headphones are the most high tech option available at the moment. Sound propagates as waves, and all waves can be manipulated by the addition of other patterns of waveforms. Noise-cancelling tech uses a microphone to detect ambient noise, inverts the waveform, then adds the 180 degree inverse wave to the soundwaves being played. This almost completely neutralises the sound of the outside world, isolating the user in a audio world of their own. Fantastic news... unless you are trying to cross the road, then you have rendered yourself deaf and thus in far greater danger! I won’t dwell too much on this particular risk, but it is still worth bearing it in mind.

Noise-cancelling headphones use almost identical components to the earpieces considered on Tuesday, with a diametrically opposite effect. If earpieces bind us together into co-operative cyborg collectives, noise-cancelling headphones shut out the outside world and isolate us. Setting aside the practical problems of combining these kinds of headphones with motorised vehicles, this is not necessarily a situation provoking any kind of moral debility. Everyone needs their alone time, and being able to focus precisely upon sounds is especially useful for sound engineers and other people who work closely with audio data. But the noise-cancelling headphone is emblematic of a world of consumers invited and tempted to revel in private solipsism. Shutting out the people around us is a natural instinct for humans – as Kant suggested, we are a species who primary collective experience is one of ‘sociable unsociability.’ We paradoxically want and need to be around other humans, even though we can’t always bear to do so, and tend to sabotage our social bonds through petty competitiveness.

It is certainly not a sign of moral debility to want to use noise-cancelling headphones. But the fact that this invention gives rise to this device and not others might give us pause. After all, the same technology could also be used to cancel out the tinny racket made by the person on the bus or train who has turned their volume up to tinnitus-inducing levels. But there is simply no motive in a purely individualist culture to care about the noise pollution we are causing around us, much less pay to stop it. This is a sign of a far bigger problem, one merely papered over by the consumerist hymn to individualism: our disempowerment in the face of technological corporate interests is presented to us as our personal freedom.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #41