Cybervirtues: The Three Treasures
January 31, 2017
Exploring cybervirtue involves taking traditional concepts of virtue and considering how they relate to our relationship with our robots and with the other cyborgs we live with. I wish to begin this process by experimenting with certain Chinese concepts. In the Taoist traditions, three particular virtues are highlighted by the ‘Old Master’ Lao Tzu (or laotsi) as the greatest and most important. Writing in the Tao Te Ching, chapter 67 he states in Arthur Waley’s popular translation:
Here are my three treasures. Guard and keep them! The first is pity; the second, frugality; the third, refusal to be ‘foremost of all things under heaven’.
For only he that pities is truly able to be brave;
Only he that is frugal is able to be profuse.
Only he that refuses to be foremost of all things
Is truly able to become chief of all Ministers.
While pity (or compassion) is something that many people today still recognise as a virtue, frugality (or simplicity) receives at best lip service as a desirable trait, and humility (refusal to be foremost) seems to have disappeared in a time of self-aggrandisement and digital vanity. Nonetheless, I set myself the task of working these Taoist virtues into cybervirtues, not as an attempt to embody Toaist virtue, as such – all translation is betrayal, as the Italian saying goes – but rather to explore cybervirtue by taking Lao Tzu as a stepping point.
The idea of simplicity or frugality strikes a chord with me as the virtue of restraint, that habit of being which is required to attain such a state. In a time of compulsive software and hardware dependency, the question of cyber-restraint is an important one. For humility, I substitute the related virtue of respect, which as descendants of the Enlightenment we are perhaps more open to valuing. To be humble is to avoid placing oneself above others, after all, and Kant’s mutual respect entails this – although what cyber-respect would entail requires some thought. Lastly, for compassion I favour kindness, since simply feeling pity lacks any active principle, and asking how we would illicit cyber-kindness strikes me as an important question for all of us cyborgs.
To refrain from acting for good reasons, when there is a standing desire to act is to show restraint. A lack of restraint in the context of our robots means putting the robot in charge and settling for being a mere digital slave. We do not like to admit our debility here, although we will spot it more easily in others. We always have a reason for burying our heads in our phones, even to the exclusion of those around us whom we are supposedly present with. (Commuters, who are physically co-present but not expected to be mentally co-present, are perhaps a different case, although even here a moral argument might be made for restraint.)
Correspondingly, a robot displays cyber-restraint when it's functioning encourages restraint in its cyborg. This cybervirtue is almost exclusively internal; a robot's influence on its human either encourages restraint towards it or otherwise. Almost without fail, however, contemporary robots are designed to do the exact opposite of this: to make their humans pay more attention to them, to return again and again to the habitual activities that have been designed to get and keep attention. This may seem more a matter of software and content than hardware, yet when an iPhone offers to squeak and plink to get its human’s attention, it certainly not displaying cyber-restraint.
A robot is engaged in cyber-itch when it encourages impulsive engagement and thus makes its human merely semi-present in their own world, as all ‘smart phones’ are designed to do. This divided state will not usually trouble the human, who is often delighted to be distracted from their situation. (This is, as I have said elsewhere, the age of distraction.) Yet to yield to cyber-itch constitutes a debility when this semi-present state draws a human away from their life in an inopportune fashion, for instance, a mother not listening to her son because she is thinking about Words With Friends, or a teenager substituting the gratification of Facebook likes for the artful task of cultivating friendships.
Software-makers engender cyber-itch because it is the path to money; in so much as we participate in these commercial practices, we endorse their actions. Yet who among us can do otherwise? We are perpetually drawn into semi-presence, and defend our digital slavery with post-hoc justifications as to why it doesn’t matter or, even more absurdly, how it is positive and beneficial. In suggesting a cybervirtue of restraint, I invite us all to reassess our dependency upon our robots, and the partial engagement in our worlds this engenders.
To treat other cyborgs as equally worthwhile beings is to display respect. It is not enough to think or say that you respect others: respect is shown by actions (including speech), it is not some subterranean quality to be measured in secret. This virtue facilitates other virtues; to possess respect for others is to open up to other kinds of honourable behaviour. While it is (in principle) not hard to respect cyborgs that you like, maintaining respect for those you do not like is an especial moral challenge everyone of us faces, and few of us master – or even desire to do so.
A robot shows cyber-respect when it helps its cyborg act respectfully (which is rare), or acts with respect towards its human (which is merely uncommon). A key sign of external cyber-respect, i.e. respect encouraged between cyborgs, is facilitating consent and thus allowing each cyborg to make up its own mind about what it engages with. Software for sending spam, for instance, is a de facto case of the exact opposite since it expressly sets out to circumvent any attempt at consent. I will not claim this is unacceptable behaviour, but it is clearly not virtuous.
This corresponding debility, cyber-disdain, is extremely common. Robots frequently display cyber-disdain for their humans by forcing unwanted behaviour upon them. Mandatory downloads of operating systems, for example, are a notable violation of cyber-respect, especially when declining once has no effect upon the continuation of this behaviour (as with Apple’s iPhone’s remorseless downloading of iOS updates). This should not be confused with situations where the human’s expectations are not met, resulting in anger – this is a debility of the human, and an all too common one at that, not a debilitating quality of the robot.
Cyber-disdain in the internal sense occurs solely when the the network of cyborgs that crafted the robot curtail the opportunity for consent to its actions, as with the example of mandatory, space-eating downloads. In the external sense, disrespectful behaviours are encouraged between cyborgs. This is so shockingly common that it must now count as a debility in software-makers that they have not better defended against this possibility. Indeed, it has recently become apparent that search engine algorithms dip into cyber-disdain by indiscriminately aggregating content by links, as Carol Cadwalladr’s article attests. Here, the debility might appear tangential, but responsibility still belongs with the robots and their makers.
Indeed, our robots all too frequently encourage disdain in their humans - especially when anonymity is provided in digital public spaces. The mask provided invites actions unthinkable in a face-to-face interaction (as critiqued in Wikipedia Knows Nothing). This goes far beyond mere circumventing of consent, and into outright aggression and abuse. This is perhaps the most serious case of cyber-disdain facing us today, and moves our discussion into the dark territory of cyber-cruelty.
Kindness shows in actions that provide support for another cyborg, including strangers. Forgiveness, generosity, helpfulness, and peace-making are all acts of kindness, and can be effortless manifested in cyborgs that express this virtue. To act with kindness is not the same as acting with respect – you can respect someone and decline to treat them kindly, or you can be kind towards someone you don’t actually respect (although this, perhaps, is rarer). Through kindness, we show compassion, and this is separate from allowing for consent and free choice, which are hallmarks of respect.
Cyber-kindness manifests in robots that either encourage compassionate thinking in their cyborg, or that offer kindness towards their human. The former is relatively rare, while the latter often backfires – as when robotic ‘helpfulness’ is anything of the kind. The most familiar kind of cyber-kindness is when a robot confirms that its human genuinely wanted to delete something. As irritating as confirmation boxes might be to some of us, in defending against accidental loss they manifest this cybervirtue. Similarly, the recycling bin that appears in the interface for many operating systems is a display of cyber-kindness, protecting against potentially distressing mistakes.
The opposite, cyber-cruelty, is markedly more common, and as with cyber-disdain is particularly likely when the robot facilitates the anonymity of its human in digital public spaces. Here, the very decision to permit anonymous presence could be judged an act of cyber-cruelty on behalf of the network creating the robots in question. Thus Twitter is a cyber-cruel digital public space, a virtual world where abuse proliferates under the mask of anonymity. Yet even public identities do not appear to avoid this cyber-debility, since Facebook also frequently descends into abusive behaviour. In distancing presence from human relations, our robots are paradigmatically cyber-cruel.
This, then, reinforces the concerns of cyber-itch outlined before: our robots lure us into semi-presence, and invite disdain for others by cloaking us in anonymity. Once removed from human relations this way the temptation to cruelty lurks, resisted by many, perhaps, but ever-present in the shadows of our digital public spaces, where we shall find so little cybervirtue and blame this, dishonestly, on everyone else. But we have made this dark half-world together – and we can, if we only care to, replace it with something better.
The opening image is Bamboo Branches, by the 14th century poet Ni Zan, part of the collection at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
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