Ten Arcade Cyborgs

Classic Arcade Coin-opsStarting in May, A Hundred Cyborgs looks at a series of ten human-machine interactions from the amusement arcades. You’ve probably never wondered about the moral impact of joysticks, change machines, and the option to continue, but this next part of the cybervirtue serial will encourage you to consider how even the smallest elements of our increasingly cybernetic world have significant effects upon us, and how even our games are part of the moral experience of our lives.

Ten Arcade Cyborgs commences soon.


SkateboardWalking in the morning to San Francisco's Moscone centre whilst at GDC with the other pedestrians earlier this year, I could never suppress my smile at seeing some fellow upon a skateboard making full use of the roads, unabashed and unafraid of automobiles, quietly and confidently using their physical prowess to negotiate the streets of San Francisco swiftly and with style. When someone squeaked past me on the sidewalk on some disk-based robot vehicle, I could not help but snicker, watching money and electrical power substituting for skill.

I could never master the skateboard. Never mind standing up upon it, just sitting on one and trying to roll safely down our childhood driveway was a challenge at the peak of my ability. I did eventually manage to stand up upon a surfboard: never upon a skateboard. I think, in part, my fear of falling held me back. Perhaps more significantly, I had mastered hand-eye coordination as a child but did not learn to balance until I became a commuter, balanced precariously amidst the ever-shifting inertial shifts of bus and train. Perhaps this is the root of my admiration for skateboarders: I had no resentment for my failures, only admiration for other people's commitment.

The human-skateboard cyborg amazes me. I do not mean in the extent of the skill in display in sporting competitions with half pipes and precision moves. All sports are amazing in that way. It is rather the manner that this proud and self-sufficient cyborg comports itself, entering the streets of a city inimical to their presence and tackling it with casual aplomb. Others might read arrogance there, I perceive only confidence and assuredness, the self-worth of a skill earned, I can only assume, the hard way. While it is by no means the only vehicle to display cybervirtues of mastery, and thus to encourage persistence and resistance to minor adversity, it stands out in the urban landscape as emblematic of a willingness to prevail that is at odds in many respects with the assumptions of contemporary life. How many falls and failures precede a successful journey down a city street? 

That is what I should truly like the opportunity to observe: not the expertise of the well-rehearsed athlete but the faltering steps of the novice who fails, falls, and falters but does not give up, despite repeated injury. There is a virtue here worth emulating, and if perhaps it is pride that drives them forward in their inexperienced persistence then, well, how can I begrudge anyone who can take their vice and make of it a virtue of another kind? Would that we all could say the same.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #50

Team Captain

Nick FolesThe captain in a sporting team is, quite clearly, a variation on the military captain, even if the name is not always the same – the quarterback being one clear variation. The parallels between these two conceits of captaincy run deep, yet the degree of discipline and co-ordination that serves to make a military unit the metaphorical 'well-oiled machine' does not necessarily apply to sportspeople, who remain individuals working together for all that the captain may attempt to push them past this.

There is, perhaps, the added complication that it is the coach – the general on this 'battlefield' – who possesses genuine authority and despite the name, the captain possesses more of the metaphorical rank of sergeant than anything else. Here, as in the managerial power structure of corporate businesses, there are lines of control and communication (which is the cybernetic dimension of captaincy) but they are looser. The individuals do not share that common framework for acting that empowers a soldier, despite the common dependency on drills (practice) to embed habits.

Unlike the military Captain previously discussed, the positive qualities of the team captain cyborg are harder to grasp. Captaincy appears more of a reward for an exceptional player than a conduit for loyalty and discipline, but perhaps here an issue is that we do not see into the circumstances where the cybervirtue of a team captain might be observed. I certainly leave open the possibility that there are virtues at work in the team captains relationship with their team that I simply have no experience with.

It seems, however, that the positive ascriptions we can make in the context of the military Captain cyborg are inherent in the social technology that creates that very network of roles. For the sporting team captain, it seems rather that if the sportsperson in that role has the virtues to lead, then positive qualities come about. But if those qualities do not flow from the technology itself (the structuring of roles in this case), this is not an instance of cybervirtue as I have described it in The Virtuous Cyborg.

Perhaps the key difference here is that the military Captain cyborg is conditioned by the life and death circumstances it was created to address, while the sportsperson risks nothing but their pride and thus is more inclined to indulge their personal lust for glory. I suspect, but cannot know, that curbing this aggrandising instinct for personal victory over that of the team is precisely the challenge the team captain has to overcome, but that the coach in fact has to address. Perhaps the sportsperson, by virtue of their temperament, is ill suited to leadership as-such, perhaps it is simply rarer that it can be expressed. Whatever the reason, we can admire the performance of a team that can act in unison but we do not accredit this success to the role of captain. There is something significant in this difference.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #49


Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech KossakThe military rank of captain, much like the corporate rank of manager that partially descends from it, is an ancient cybernetic invention. It is different from the power structure of the chieftain over a tribe, and indeed, harsher, since the chieftain listens to the tribe before making the important decision – the captain does not, and the manager typically will not, for all that they could.

If it seems strange to talk of the Captain as a cyborg remember that cybernetics is concerned with communication and control: this is the essence of the role of Captain. Those with a higher military rank give orders that cannot be questioned, those beneath the Captain in rank respond to their orders in kind. The Captain cyborg is thus a conduit of communication and control: they execute the orders given to them by using their own experience and creative intelligence to determine how their squad will act.

When it comes to the cybervirtue of the Captain, the question is: does this technology (in this case, social technology) encourage positive qualities in those who participate in it? And here, we must answer in the affirmative in so much that both the Captain and their squad display loyalty, discipline, efficiency, camaraderie, and many more virtues beside. We may resist admitting it if our tendency is to be suspicious or denunciative of the military machine – but it is not coincidental that those with a military background frequently become respected members of the communities they return to after serving.

There is probably an argument that the Captain cyborg (of whom the squad are also participants) encourages negative qualities too, such as a restriction of judgement, and further risks of abusive consequence but I am reluctant to stress this aspect too hastily. The abusiveness that can flow from command is also a risk in its absence, something anarchists are loathe to admit, and the restriction in judgement that comes from the unflinching willingness to respond to perceived duty is not much different from the consequence of any speciality, which necessarily reconfigures your horizons of perception.

One of the reasons I have always respected honourable military service is because I have a sense of the virtue of the Captain cyborg. My issues with the military, especially the imperialistic actions of Western nations including my own, stem from problems higher in the chain of command, where virtue is lost and Consequentialism – one of the moral disasters of the twentieth century as I argue in The Virtuous Cyborg – gradually dominate and corrupt. It is hard, sometimes, to retain the respect of the captain and the squad when the mission they have been assigned is scurrilous and ill-advised. But I cannot, even as a near-pacifist, do anything but respect those whose allegiance to one another is the basis of something unique and admirable. I wish the same could be said more often of the manager...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #48

The opening image is Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech Kossak, and depicts a general rather than a captain.