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DivorceOf all the technological inventions of the nineteenth century, divorce is one of the most subtle. The power it grants is that of reneging on a promise, and that in itself is quite a capacity to want to invent, let alone implement in law, as the British parliament did in 1857. Of course, divorces did happen prior to this point, but only a few hundred between Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ (the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and the Matrimonial Causes Act. It may be noted that earlier cultures had divorces – the Romans frequently rearranged their political marriages – but these marriages were not founded upon an exchange of vows, as because the custom within Christianity. It was precisely because the Christian conception of marriage was based on oath-taking that it was necessary to develop new (legal) technology to permit open access to divorce.

I have to take care arguing against the cybervirtue of divorce… I should not want to be misconstrued as claiming we would be better without divorce law. It seems readily apparent that a great many disastrous situations were terminated by a divorce and that it would be cruel to suggest that, say, a wife being physically abused by her husband should not have the opportunity to end their disastrous marriage. But the question of cybervirtue is always about the cybernetic effects of a technological network – and in the case of divorce, there are some serious debilities to take into account.

Perhaps the greatest concern that I have in this regard is that too many people today don’t take seriously the implications of marriage vows precisely because in the back of their minds is the thought ‘if it goes wrong, I can just get a divorce’. But while the ongoing legal union is terminated by divorce proceedings, it would be a complete misunderstanding of both marriage and divorce to think that the possibility of divorce removed the need to take care in committing to marriage. The fact of the matter is, when two people enter into marriage, they’re lives are irrevocably changed by those events and divorce cannot undo that – it cannot magically unravel the emotional impact of trying to form a life together, and even less so can it simply hand-wave away any children.

Although none of my families have been involved in divorce, I have witnessed some ugly ones amongst my friends, and my country is currently engaged in a nasty ‘divorce’ from the commitments it made to the European Union, and quite possibly with Scotland too. In so much as the possibility of divorce may encourage people to take less care in committing to a vows in the first place, divorce could be accused of cyber-trivialising matrimony or (more generally) oath-taking. This is not to suggest that ‘divorce is wrong’, but it is to acknowledge that divorce is seldom good. It is typically awful. And this is also true when nations get ‘divorced’.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #13

Robot Bathrooms

WashstationsI sometimes wonder if it is only me who cannot get robot taps to work. Automated bathroom facilities of various kinds have become more and more common, and as they have I have had more and more problems with that most basic of daily activities: washing my hands. My problems have been legion. Firstly, there’s the kind of tap that has an infrared sensor, and that is supposed to come on when you place your hands in position. More often as not, they will not trigger for me. Similarly, every kind of automatic hand dryer (except, for some reason, a Dyson Airblade) will not trigger for me without a series of arcane gestures that make me look like I am conducting a summoning ritual. But worst of all, the most daunting of bathrooms to encounter, is a fully automated, all-in-one system such as the Automatic Washstation (pictured above).

If you have not encountered this WashBot before, allow me to describe my experience of attempting my ablutions with it. Firstly, you put your hands in and it dispenses soap. You had better hope your hands were in the right place, or the soap plops harmlessly onto the bottom of the cavity and you will then have to wait for the robot to complete the entire washing cycle before you can try again to get soap. (Need I mention that if you aren’t using your soap, there’s not a great deal of point in washing your hands at all?) Then, the water comes on and runs for a set length of time. If you succeeded in getting soap the first time, you had better be efficient about washing it off during Round 2, because the water will stop when it decides, irrespective of your own circumstances. Finally, a burst of warm air to dry your soapy hands. If your hands aren’t where you want them to be at the end, you can always trigger the monstrosity again.

The Automatic Washstation is less a case of a failure of cybervirtue than it is terrible design. The team that put it together made choices about issues such as how long everything should run for that completely fails to take into account the pragmatic aspects of using the device. That it is advertised to potential purchasers as ‘using the latest technology’ is a stark reminder of the difference between recently development technology and good technology. The failure of cybervirtue in the case of the Automatic Washstation is the inevitable risk of complete counter productivity, of discouraging someone who has fought with the WashBot in the past to even bother to wash their hands after using the bathroom. We have in this case a robot designed for hygiene that risks being cyber-unsanitary.

The purported benefits of all automated bathroom fixtures are minimising water usage and so forth. But all such systems fail to be cybervirtuous if they do not permit their humans to be in control their own hand washing.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #12

The Journey Towards Trans Liberty

An open letter replying to Branwen at as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Obaid.Traces of LibertyDear Branwen,

I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.

A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.

A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.

As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.

The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.

In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.

It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.  

You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.

I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.

When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.

We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).

I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.

I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.

The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:

…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?

It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.

This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.

You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.

With unlimited love,


The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Aberdeen UniversityGiven the historical relationship between universities and books, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the printing press was a key moment in the development of the university. But as Ivan Illich traced, it was the new writing techniques that emerged in the twelfth century (several centuries before printing) that transformed texts from an oral tool – something to be read aloud or indeed, sung – to an optical tool that can be engaged with a page at a time, rather than a letter at a time. The university, the community of scholars, grew up around this new form of text, and the content of each text was understood as a communication from and (in a sense) with the original author.

By the nineteenth century, the situation had changed considerably, but there was still a central role for communities of scholars engaging with specific texts. Writing in 1852, John Henry Newman presented a snapshot of the concept of a university at a time when the contemporary research university was unthinkable. Newman considered research a task for different kinds of institutions altogether, and alleged that intensive specialisation and narrowly construed focus – while effective at advancing a field – deformed the character of the person in question. In effect, Newman accused what we now call a university of being cyber-restrictive, of having negative consequences on the excellences of the individual who engages with knowledge in this way.

What I have witnessed in my time is the transformation of the research university Newman failed to foresee into a mere extension of the school system (something Illich also had cause to criticise). University students in the UK, US, Europe and elsewhere proceed to university education as a next step in their schooling and, increasingly, as a form of training for eventual employment. Any sense that attending a university might be cybervirtuous in itself is lost in this arrangement – the merit of university education becomes purely instrumental. This situation is echoed in the payment system in the UK and US whereby students themselves tender substantial fees in order to improve their chances of employment in a specific sector.

A cybervirtuous university must be more than a provider of job training, and far more than an institution justifying itself via the economic benefits it provides for industrial benefactors. For a university to instil positive characteristics upon those who engage with it all but requires an escape from thinking in terms of measured outcomes at all – and make no mistake, it is these bureaucratic agendas that shape university life today. To encourage the best qualities of its students, a university must begin by being able to encourage the best qualities in its faculty. This has traditionally meant to foster their autonomy and their sense of community, to allow them to explore their own academic paths in the support and fellowship of their peers. If this idea of a university is not already dead, it is certainly endangered.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #11


BitcoinTo talk about the cybervirtue of cryptocurrencies, we have to start by thinking about how humans relate to value, and as usual I have a game example that is nicely illustrative.

I remember back in the mid-nineties, when Magic: The Gathering was just gathering steam, that a good friend of mine refused to assess his cards for the game in terms of the market prices for selling them. Another friend and I were deeply into the meta-game of trading up for value, and so always knew what the cash equivalents for the cards were. For him, it was simply inconceivable that he should think of these tiny pieces of cardboard in terms of their resale value and not simply in terms of the enjoyment he could get from them. In some respects, he eventually won me over. It may amuse me that my Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale can now be sold for upwards of $2,000 – but I don’t want to sell it, and I don’t let its exchange value stop me from playing with my old decks once a year when I break them out to play with students.

Of course, it is a short step from disbelieving in the exchange value of Magic cards to disbelieving the exchange value of currency. And the trouble is, value is precisely a quality that is sustained by the imaginative collusion of communities – whether of Magic: The Gathering players, citizens spending national currency, or cryptocurrency miners investing in huge blocks of computers to run calculations that ultimately end up with exchange value. All these examples would be equally insane, except for the fact that they are all equally and trivially normal.

Now we’re in a position to ask whether Bitcoin (or indeed another cryptocurrency) could be cybervirtuous, and perhaps the simplest answer is to observe that money itself has not proved a good encouragement of virtue, and every alternative medium of exchange is essentially just another form of money. That said, it counts against Bitcoin specifically that the energy being expended powering its exchanges is an ever-growing, ever more wasteful human activity – and indeed alternative cryptocurrencies are beginning to sell themselves on their superior environmental implications. If I might be tempted to call Bitcoin cyber-naive, however, I would have to recognise here the all too familiar shallow sightedness we humans have with all our technology networks.

Some advocates for Bitcoin were particularly keen upon it for reasons aligning with Libertarian values, that is, they didn’t like the way their currency was dependent upon a central government and thus loved the apparent freedom that the peer-to-peer ledger systems enabled by blockchain software made possible. Even investors are now won over by cryptocurrency because they are not prone to the fluctuations brought on by credit risk. I have to wonder sometimes whether we might be overestimating the power and control of government, and underestimating the degree to which our money is ‘in charge’…

A Hundred Cyborgs, #10

Best of E3: Shadows

shadows-awakening-bannerAt this year’s E3 in Los Angeles, one of International Hobo’s RPG projects received two Best of E3 nominations, one from RPG Fan and one from WorthPlaying. The game, Shadows: Awakening – the latest instalment in the cult Heretic Kingdoms franchise that began in 2004 – is developed by long-time ihobo client Games Farm. Featuring an original narrative design and script by International Hobo’s founder, Chris Bateman, the game features characters voiced by Tom Baker, Sally Knyvette, Robert Ashby, Joanna Wake, Ramon Tikaram, Marc Silk and many other talented actors and actresses.

Due for release later this year by publisher Kalypso, Shadows: Awakening is an action RPG set in a dark sword and sorcery world. The player controls a Devourer, a kind of demon that can swallow the souls of the dead and manifest them as puppets. But who is really pulling the strings? Find out later this year!

Cross-posted from


FirearmsThe rhetoric on either side of the gun debate in the United States is astonishingly weak. On the one hand, those in support of firearm ownership like to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, unwittingly drawing against two centuries of moral philosophy that divide mind from matter, and morality from ‘inanimate objects’. Even if we to try to assign all the blame in a single shooting incident to humans, we couldn’t plausibly place all culpability in the hands of the shooter: there is also the distributed responsibility of those who made and sold the gun and bullets, the organisations who campaigned to ensure easy-access to such weaponry, and many other humans involved in the culture of firearms – including but not restricted to those who make films and videogames that valorise guns and pay license fees to their manufacturers. We might justifiably challenge: why do you want to be one of those people who helps people kill people?

Yet the opposing rhetoric is equally misguided. I frequently challenge those who are vehemently against firearms to explain why we should be focussing our attention on guns and not cars, which kill more people. The near unanimous reply is that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, and this is then used to make a moral argument for why that technology is not permissible. In other words, opponents to firearms allege that guns are cyber-murderous: that this very technology creates the conditions that encourage people to kill. However, if you talk to responsible gun owners in the US you will not find murder very high on the agenda. Indeed, by far the most common motive is defence: a desire to have the capacity protect oneself, which in a culture with widespread gun ownership all but requires a gun. There is sometimes also a delight in the power of the weapon – but this is equally the case with cars, which are far deadlier.

The kinds of weapons we have exalted in action movies and certain videogames are not cybervirtuous, because they do not inspire good behaviour. But neither are the guns themselves solely responsible for the terrible things that are done with them. It’s not that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, it is that guns, bullets, shops, lobbying groups, military institutions, media corporations, and many more elements besides contribute to every disastrous outcome that begins with firearms being both glorified and too readily available. Every responsible gun owner keeps their weaponry in locked cabinets or safes, yet nothing about the design of firearms encourages this behaviour. It is rather the mark of the responsible owner that they possess the virtue of prudence in respect of their weaponry.

It is an open question whether guns might be designed in a way that encourages such care, that is, whether a cybervirtuous firearm is even conceivable. Might this possibility be worth exploring?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #9

Why Players Love Stories

Shadows AwakeningOver at the blog for Develop: Brighton today, I discuss the weird double standard that game developers sometimes express about the importance of narrative to videogames. Here’s an extract:

What I’ve come to realise over the last fifty videogame projects I’ve worked on, and particularly as a result of my research into how and why humans enjoy games (I’m presenting my latest findings on this at Develop:Brighton next month), is that “it’s the gameplay that matters” misunderstands the relationship between games and stories. It’s a mistake that scholars in game studies repeatedly make as well – they assume that the ‘game’ is the crunchy designed systems, and the ‘story’ is this kind of wrapping paper that you dress up the mechanics in. There might be a recognition of the importance of that ‘wrapper’ in getting players interested in playing the game, but sooner or later, everyone comes down to the importance of those game systems and the lesser role of narrative.

Trouble is, that doesn’t describe how people play games, much less why we enjoy them.

You can read the entirety of Why Players Love Stories over at the Develop: Brighton blog.


Amazon shoppingRemember that video that went viral where somebody started with an empty room and then filled it with furniture and decorations without ever leaving? What a glorious demonstration of the way our insatiable lust for convenience has successfully isolated us from each other and euthanised any kind of economy not grounded in corporate-operated, internet-enabled marketplaces.

I don’t feel good about being an Amazon cyborg, but I don't stop either. For all that I am always looking for new options for buying books, I have not been able to shake off the world’s largest ‘bookstore’. Equally worrying are the number of times I order some other kind of item via Amazon, either because I looked in the bricks-and-mortar stores around me and couldn’t find it, or because I don’t have time to make it out to the shops and convenience becomes impulse becomes purchase.

Setting aside various allegations about the work environment for employees of Amazon, and the shockingly low national taxes being paid by the internet giant, the trouble with being an Amazon cyborg is on the one hand the cyber-impulsiveness it encourages, and on the other the ignorance about what we are doing when our buying process is simply a search and a click. People are quite frequently purchasing from Amazon without any concept of whom they just purchased from... perhaps for many people this doesn’t even matter – but it’s rather difficult to see any virtue in this wholesale disregard for context.

To be fair to Amazon, the situation we are now facing is an entirely logical extension of the aggregation of retail revenue that has taken place over the last century. Chain stores in the 1920s, supermarkets in the 30s and 40s, shopping malls in the 50s and 60s, warehouse stores in the 70s and 80s, megastores and big box retailers in the 90s and 2000s, followed by the logical extreme: online marketplaces backed by a vast warehousing and distribution infrastructure. All Amazon has done is extend the trend of taking retail out of individual hands by exploiting ever-growing economies of scale and capitalising on the possibilities of the internet to take this yet one step farther.

The thing about the Amazon cyborgs’ cyber-impulsiveness is that it doesn’t even register as a debility of any significance and is all too easily dismissed by invoking the consumer’s ultimate moral values: convenience and price. The attempt to stack up any other kind of perspective against this becomes largely untenable if we have already accepted this rather strange logic that places ease of action and lowest cost above any other means of assessment. Thus we end up in this peculiar predicament where we Amazon cyborgs are sustaining the online retailer and any qualms we might have are swiftly swept away by the sheer comfortable ease of our ongoing relationship. I might pause to express some anxiety about what’s happening... but within a week, I’ll have ordered something else from Amazon.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #8


ChlorophyllIndulge me while I blur a few lines...

We don’t think of biology as technology, except when humans have tampered with it. Even if we’re not comfortable with interpreting the incredible achievements of organisms in terms of technology, we can understand the connection by analogy. The gap here, the difficulty, is that we view technology as something planned and designed, and don’t want to share this feat with other animals, even now when it’s clear that tools are something we share with other mammals, birds, fish, and more than one kind of octopus.

DNA is the original technology, or proto-technology if you prefer, a means for combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus into amino acids and forming those into proteins, from which all organisms are founded. Now intriguingly, other atoms are used in biology but solely because of the creation of proteins that happen to fold in such a way as to bond to some specific atom or ion like a key fitting a lock. Magnesium, for instance, sits squarely in the centre of a molecular ring ‘designed’ to make use of it in chlorophyll. It’s a clever piece of molecular engineering, and one that animals would later reuse for haemoglobin, which has the same basic structure but with iron in the centre. For chlorophyll, the magnesium forms a chemical photocell capable of absorbing certain wavelengths of light from our sun and turning it into energy. All plant and indeed animal life on our planet depends upon this specific chemical that algae developed and which later gave rise to plants.

Now if we take the entities built of DNA and its five elemental building blocks as ‘organisms’, chlorophyll can be seen as a magnesium-based photocell technology, and plants can be thought of as a proto-cyborg (accepting this blurring between organism and technology for the purpose of thinking this through). That allows us to ask: what are the cybervirtues of chlorophyll?

Precisely because of their intimate relationship with chlorophyll, plants are punctual and tenacious (proto-)cyborgs that show a potentially admirable commitment to soaking up the sun. Yet they also developed diverse responses to sharing space with one another: while some plants compete to tower above and collect the most light, others settle into spaces below the canopy and content themselves with living in shade. Indeed, they become so comfortable in such places that too much sunlight would be fatal. Still, they remain resolutely committed to collecting sunlight. We can admire the cyber-tenacity of the chlorophyll cyborgs, even without thinking that there is no conscious choice involved in them behaving this way.

If this is a fanciful way of thinking about plants – as photocell cyborgs – it at least offers a way of thinking about contemporary biotechnology that isn’t just about configuring organisms for human profit. Cyborgs or not, plants have their own excellences. We ought to consider that when we decide to tamper with the nature of their being.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #7