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!


Pubs

Peveril of the PeakIf the church was the centre of the village community in Middle Ages and early modern Britain, the pub has gradually taken over that role today. The local pub, or just ‘the local’, serves a direct role in maintaining community at a time when all notions of communal life are being gradually eroded. The churches are still there, although they are seldom full except for weddings and funerals, and they are joined these days by Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, and Buddhist Meditation Centres, most of which are having more success anchoring their communities than the Anglican church.

Of course, despite the central role for alcohol in both church and pub, the two buildings make for very different kinds of cyborg. The church-human cyborg is engaged in practices of ritual worship and moral representation, as well as charitable acts. But then, the pub-human cyborg is involved in the ritual worship of sporting teams (and accidental libations to Bacchus, although he is seldom named when people spill a pint). Moral representation frequently occurs between friends out for a drink just as much as between priest and parishioner. Charitable donations and fund raisers occur in pubs almost as often as in churches. Perhaps these two cybernetic communities are not as far apart as it first seemed...?

I have great love for all places of worship and religious practice, and the pub for me is one with a special place in my heart. Even if the conventional view of drinking establishments is entirely secular, at least one of my religions recognises a sacred role for intoxication, and I perform a sanctification ritual at every bar I visit that helps remind me that fellowship – whether in the context of the sacred or the profane – is a blessing. So too alcoholic beverages. Consider Benjamin Franklin’s comments in this regard:

Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.

Of course, it is possible to overindulge with alcohol, and to become terribly addicted. But the same risk accompanies many forms of religious practice. It is certainly not a direct consequence of the pub itself, which is far more likely to encourage moderation than an individual drinking alone.

If the pub previously seemed like an unlikely site of cybervirtue, I hope the perspective I have presented here is at least intriguing (if not persuasive) of the merits of the public house. Socialising with friends over drinks not only helps us work off our stresses, it can help us morally reflect on our behaviour in a way that always has the potential to aid the development of our virtues. Compared to drinking alone, it is an infinite improvement, compared to sobriety... well, let each of us make our own peace with our habits.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #45

Only a Game returns in the Gregorian New Year.


Palm Oil

Palm FruitOur imagined vision of a cyborg is sleek steel merging into perfect flesh, an insultingly naive perspective for those with genuine need of prosthetic limbs and a misleading fantasy at best. If a cyborg is a blend of technology and biology, then we are all cyborgs, complex cybernetic networks of beings and things so vast and unfathomable that we routinely fail to notice even the local clusterings that facilitate our lives, let alone the global dimensions.

For instance, how many of us appreciate that our daily shower rituals are an end node of a network that commences with vast deforestation in countries such as Indonesia? Shampoo is a gelatinous liquid we’ve used to wash our hair since 1927. For the last two decades, all of the giant corporate distributors of shampoo have been using palm oil as an ingredient – ironically to restore the natural oils you biological produce but that are stripped away by washing with shampoo. Hence we become palm oil cyborgs – we grease our hair with it, consume it in everything from ice cream to tortilla chips, and turn it in to biofuel to dilute the petroleum used to power our most popular and deadliest prosthetic, the automobile.

These kind of giant cybernetic networks are what I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘cybergs’, in reference to the way we can only see the surface of an iceberg while the bulk of the ice is below the surface, invisible. For the palm oil cyberg, we may notice our shiny hair, but we do not notice the rapidly diminishing populations of orang-utan, the vast releases of greenhouse gases, or the devastation of rainforests cleared to grow palm trees in order to meet the vast  global demand for cheap vegetable oils.

With our imagined shiny cyborgs, we vainly fantasise about the power and elegance of make-believe metal-flesh. Yet we do not contemplate the environmental impact of producing all this circuitry and steel, we do not consider how wishing for a cybernetic arm is to fantasise about amputation, how much more troublesome it would be to have limbs that require powering and repairing next to flesh that we fuel by eating and that possesses a near miraculous capacity to repair itself. We twenty-first century cyborgs sleepwalk towards catastrophe while dreaming about grotesque scenarios that we delude ourselves into thinking are desirable.

If I may paraphrase Martin Niemöller: first we drove the Sumatran tiger to extinction, but we didn’t care because our hair was glossy. Then we drove the orang-utan to extinction, but we didn't care because we can't get enough Doritos. Then we cleared out the rainforests, but we didn't care because we were driving our cars. Then, we drove ourselves to extinction, and nobody was the least surprised. There is no need for this degree of fatalism: we may not control our cybergs, but we can influence them. Perhaps it is time to stop dreaming about shiny metal cyborgs and start becoming good cyborgs instead.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #44


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