When my wife and I went to purchase a new electric kettle a few years back, the one we chose proudly claimed upon its packaging “Special 1 Cup Feature: Boil 1 cup of water and save up to 66% energy.” Imagine our amusement when it transpired to be nothing more than a green circle and ‘Plimsoll line’ showing how much water needed to be added to the kettle to boil just a single cup. The marketing department must have snickered to themselves as they were inflating this tiny modification to the basic design into a ‘special feature’ important enough to be emblazoned all over the packaging.
The kettle-human cyborg is a quintessentially British creature. While I lived in the United States, I was shocked that no-one I knew had a means of boiling water other than putting a pan on a hob. When I did eventually find an electric kettle, it was a nasty green plastic monstrosity that was technologically far behind the fancy glass and steel electric kettles selling in the UK these days. Of course, the trouble is that you want an electric kettle to make tea (the secular British sacrament), and the US is far more about its coffee. And to be fair, US coffee was so much better tasting than the drink that was ‘called’ coffee in the UK at the time (being a sludge of instant granules with an extremely vague relationship to coffee beans), it was hardly surprising that no-one needed a kettle – least of all to make British faux coffee. (Britain has since been invaded by coffee corporations who have forced good coffee upon us…)
Cybervirtue, which these A Hundred Cyborgs pieces discuss, is about the moral dimension of the network effects of technology; the way that a specific design for a tool affects human behaviour, positively and negatively. Earlier, I alluded to the Plimsoll line (also known as the International Load Line) – a feature of ships that shows how far they can be safely loaded. As long as you can see the relevant horizontal mark, there’s not too much cargo loaded aboard. The Plimsoll line is cyber-prudent – it helps ensure that vessels don’t leave harbour so heavily laden that they risk sinking. They save lives. The mark on our kettle just helps save energy, but it too is cyber-prudent in its own way. It is also a reminder that sometimes cybervirtue is as simple as drawing a line, and taking the time to explain what it means.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #17