100Cyborgs: 81-90

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWhat are the behavioural effects of technological networks? What happens if we stop thinking about technology as shiny machines and start looking at other, subtler tools? Can we design technology to have better effects upon humans? These and other questions are what this blog project, A Hundred Cyborgs, are all about. Here are the ten posts from 81 to 90, including six submitted as part of 'All Comers April' by guest writers:

    81. Mathematics by Joel Goodwin
    82. Defendants by Samuel Thomson
    83. Meditation Apps by Victor Navarro Remesal
    84. Glasses by Chris Billows
    85. Drones by Jed Pressgrove
    86. Notes by Matt Mower
    87. Vaccines
    88. Schools
    89. Supermarkets
    90. Roads

I had been quite nervous about opening up for 'All Comers April', but in the end I was thrilled with the six pieces submitted - all thoughtful reflections upon our relationship with technology, and all radically different. I love the way they dance across the landscape of technology, ranging from the oft-unnoticed (#41 Mathematics and #44 Glasses), the impact of software (#43 Meditation apps and #46 Notes), a symbol of the double-edge of contemporary technology (#45 Drones), and reflections upon how technology might affect our legal concepts (#42 Defendants).

To round out the block, I posted four pieces reflecting upon the lockdown in radically different ways. Alas, #47 Vaccines did not provoke the discussion I had hoped for, but #48 Schools went down well in the UK and #49 Supermarkets struck a chord with readers in the US. I no longer expect people to engage with the tremendous threat to human life that automobiles represent, so #50 Roads lack of response was something I anticipated. Nonetheless, if the claim to care for human life that has so frequently been invoked in the context of COVID-19 were entirely honest, we would act on the designs of our cars and save far more lives every year than any of this year's lockdowns saved once. We do not. So we are either in a state of complete denial about transportation (highly likely) or our fear of disease unbalances our ability to accurately assess risks (also likely).

I am always interested in discussion, so feel free to raise comments either here (ideal for longer debates) or on Twitter (perfect for quick questions). And if you’ve enjoyed any of these pieces, please buy a copy of The Virtuous Cyborg and support my research into cybervirtue!

The final ten cyborgs resume next week.


Citizens

Raphael.The School of AthensThe technology of citizenship was one of the most revolutionary transformations in human history. It offered, for the first time, the chance for people to participate in a political body as equals - a concept invented in ancient Greece, expanded in the Roman Republic, and then lost for millennia as the relationship of sovereign to subject became the dominant political regime once more.

We inherited the revival of this citizenship technology, bequeathed to us by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Immanuel Kant and Mary Wollstonecraft. This shiny new model was founded upon the dignity of our free will as rational beings. Kant ‘hacked’ citizenship into monarchies without losing the role of the monarch (a necessary compromise for this change to have been permitted!), while Wollstonecraft thought through its consequences leading inexorably to a citizenship that was available for the first time to women as well as men. Eventually, without any further hacking required, the concept of citizenship extended to all humans belonging to a nation, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Yet now we have hit a crisis in our concept of citizenship, a technological breakdown caused in large but unnoticed part by our wilfully forgetting where we came from. Thus while the fundamental laws concerning citizenship haven’t significantly shifted (except to expressly include those who, philosophically speaking, should always have been included) most of us seem to have rejected the option to be a citizen at all.

We reject leaders whom others elected, and will not follow them.

We reject other people whose political views offend us, and try to rob them of their right to free speech.

And we reject the sovereignty of other countries, and use force of arms to alter their political course even though we are not (and do not desire to be) citizens of those nations.

In short, we reject our opportunity to be citizens at all, and offer in its place nothing but excuses for why our values, our judgements, and our chosen leaders are the only ones that matter.

A person who truly practices citizenship, rather than abusing their entitlements and excluding voices from political consideration, forms a cyborg network with all other citizens within the same nation. I would love to say something trenchant about the moral and behavioural effects of citizenship, but first I would have to find some citizens to observe, and apparently there are none left. We continue to try to reap the benefits of this social technology even while we fatally undermine the radical equality it depends upon. Liberals are just as guilty of this corruption of the technology of citizenship as conservatives, since few liberals care about their nation as such, seeking instead to assert their power everywhere while undermining both free speech and the concepts of nationality that citizenship depends upon.

For the first time in my life, I find myself interested in learning how to be a citizen... but alas, there is nobody left for me to be a citizen with.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #98


Lockdown

LockdownThe lockdowns triggered in response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus are the most extensive attempt to manually reconfigure our cybernetic networks since World War II. In both cases, changes were justified in order to ‘save lives’ (an emotive but oft misleading slogan), and in the case of the lockdowns, it now seems that everyone treats the regularly reported fatalities attributable to the virus either as proof of the emergency or evidence of government negligence. The sole thing held up as a counterweight are economic numbers, as if only numbers could oppose other numbers, as if deaths and money were directly comparable measures.

The catalogue of damage caused by lockdowns, meanwhile, are inadmissible because they are unquantifiable. Thus while it is forbidden (rather than, say, grossly insensitive) to observe that most of the casualties in this pandemic have been vulnerable elderly folk who had survived several consecutive mild flu seasons, the harm caused by withdrawal of medical services, the severe mental health impact, suicides, or the myriad other negative consequences of lockdown disruptions can be simply ignored and dismissed, just as we routinely ignore and dismiss the million annual automobile deaths that are entirely preventable yet not worth discussing. The one thing we can say with confidence about these lockdowns are that their full impact upon human flourishing is entirely unknown and cannot possibly be calculated, such that every blowhard mouthing off one way or the other about what everyone else got wrong reveals themselves as, well, simply human and not in fact possessed of any great insight upon this partially self-inflicted calamity. Beyond all the other examples of shallow-sightedness I’ve discussed, the lockdowns seem truly beyond our capacity to fully comprehend.

What of the moral and behavioural effects of lockdowns? Here is a strange case where positive and negative aspects flow into and around each other. Some families have been brought closer together, yet some couples have been torn apart. Neighbours in the UK have forged solidarity through ritual clapping, whilst also making pariahs out of those who are “letting the street down” by not participating. Likewise, mask-wearing (despite unresolved disputes among epidemiologists that it is verboten to acknowledge), has on the one hand demonstrated the universal love some profess for all others - and then utterly undermined that through the vehement scorn directed at all those who question masks, regardless of their reasons.

It is said that the spirit of the Blitz brought out the best of Londoners. Lockdown has seemingly brought out both the best and the worst in everyone. It has also disconfirmed Alan Moore’s hypothesis in Watchmen that humanity could be united by a common threat. COVID-19, like the fake alien attack on New York in that comic, is a monster provoking stage-managed fearfulness - stay at home or suffer the consequences! Yet we are not united, except in our blundering compliance to these lockdowns, within which we continue to squabble like we are not brothers and sisters, but rather our own worst enemies.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #97


Disney Tax

Disney Infinity GauntletHave you paid your Disney tax? Chances are you have at some point, and it’s quite likely you do so every year, to an ever-increasing degree. Every time you pay to watch a Disney or Pixar movie, every time your kids get Spider-man underpants, whenever you watch The Mandalorian or Family Guy... one way or another, Disney gets its cut.

We talk of ‘tax’ in a situation where we contribute money to an organisation (usually a government) to contribute to the cost of providing public goods, and where force may be used against us if we refuse to pay. Paying Disney, directly or indirectly, for entertainment doesn’t look like a tax, in that it seems like we could opt out of paying by refusing to watch (or buy branded merchandise from them). But when you participate with anything from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar, Aliens/Predator, The Muppets, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie the Pooh, or Grey’s Anatomy, guess what... directly (via cinema ticket, home media, or merchandise purchase) or indirectly (via streaming subscription fee or advertising revenue) you paid your Disney Tax.

Two objections to characterising your contributions to Disney’s revenue streams as a ‘tax’ are worth discussing. Firstly, entertainment is not usually considered a public good, that is, something we all benefit from. But government taxation also pays for things that are not public goods (like murdering civilians with drones, or politician’s pensions) or that have debatable status as public goods (arts funding, for instance - which not everybody values like I do). Secondly, that Disney is not able to bring the force of law against you for refusing to pay your Disney Tax. Yet if you participate in Disney’s vast IP catalogue without paying the tax - perhaps by copying files from the Black Library, or marketing a knock-off DVD, they can indeed bring charges against you. Even so, I freely acknowledge that this is a ‘tax’ primarily by analogy to government tax - it’s just this particular analogy does not have very far to travel.

It is not my intention to defame the work that the Disney corporation performs in the entertainment space. But here is another case of the shallow-sightedness I discuss in The.Virtuous Cyborg, our widespread ignorance of the networks we are enclosed within. And in this case, our continued involvement in paying the Disney Tax permits Disney to do the other thing it does so well: buy yet more intellectual property, to ensure a greater Disney Tax next year. Try going a year without Disney getting a cut of your entertainment time; if you have kids, try going three months. The fact that the tax analogy is barely a strain on our imagination is a sign that Disney’s commercial presence in our lives approaches comparability to a lesser form of taxation. This is not a monopoly in the conventional sense of the term... merely an inescapable competitive advantage that grows greater and greater with every passing year.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #96


The Digital Downstairs

RoutersAt the start of the twentieth century, there were just a few autonomous devices on our planet, and they were all mechanical rather than electronic. But two decades into the twenty first century and we are surrounded by electrically-powered robots in a dizzying array of kinds, many of them serving us from the ‘digital downstairs’. We don’t often call these electronic servants ‘robots’ unless they have either ‘hands’ or ‘feet’; we call them ‘computers’ or ‘devices’. Mostly, we barely notice them at all - and nowhere is this more true than with the butler of the internet, the router.

Routers are a kind of robot essential to internet access. Every time you visit a website or use an internet-enabled app, a minimum of two routers are involved. One takes the signals from whatever you are using (a smartphone, a computer, a car with a built-in navigation computer) and directs it - or routes it, hence the name - into the communication network that is the backbone of the internet. The other does the same at the receiving end of the connection, directing your packets of data to the computer tasked with talking to the outside world (that is to say: you). Some of the time, more than two routers will be involved, but it can never be fewer than two. In other words, every time anyone uses the internet, more routers than humans are entailed in the transaction - and if we count all the robots, it is a minimum of four robots per human taking action.

Thus if, like me, it is a rare day that you do not use the internet for some purpose or another, you are constantly and invisibly served by routers and other robots, working behind the scenes to our purposes. (If we add in the advertising and spying going on, the staff of robot servants responding to our demands grows further and further...).

At the start of the twentieth century, the wealthy few were served by a staff of servants ‘downstairs’ catering for their whims ‘upstairs’. Two decades into the twentieth century, all of us who live amidst the greed and squander of the ‘developed’ world are served by the robots of the ‘digital downstairs’. It is another example of what I call in The.Virtuous Cyborg our shallow-sightedness - our obliviousness to the vast technological networks we are living inside. If it seems like progress that we have switched human servants for robots, this might be in large part because we are shallow-sighted about power usage per capita, the environmental costs of electronics manufacture, and our increasing psychological dependence upon our robot servants. We cyborgs of the digital ‘upstairs’ can no longer live without our computerised lackeys to service us. And if we smile and suggest that at least this arrangement is not one that solely benefits the rich, we have only to look to the reigning corporate aristocracy to realise who are the greatest benefactors from robot servitude.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #95