100Cyborgs: 11-20
Cash Machines


CalculatorAlong with digital watches, electronic calculators were the first digital robots to enjoy widespread ownership – our first robot slaves, if you will. Since then, calculators have been dogged by the complaint that reliance upon these machines for mathematical calculations dulls people's ability to perform mental arithmetic – in cybervirtue terms, that the human-calculator cyborg risks cyber-innumeracy, to draw on John Allen Paulos’ 1988 term. There is some truth to this accusation... but it’s far from the whole story.

In my own life, it is clear what had the greatest negative impact upon my once-proficient skills with mental arithmetic: algebra. By the time I could differentiate and integrate, I could no longer add and subtract with anywhere near the competence I once had. My grappling with so-called ‘higher’ mathematics reduced my competence with basic arithmetic, presumably from little more than erosion of practice. But I note: I never lost my ability to perform arithmetic operations on paper, a fact I have recently verified as my eldest son begins to learn his techniques with numbers. And I note that I seldom turn to a calculator for anything less than four figure operations, trigonometry, or exponentials. But this too is not the whole story, for my work as a game designer almost daily has me playing with mathematical equations, for which I tend to use a spreadsheet as a gigantic programmable calculator.

The truth in the cyber-innumerate accusation is that those who never mastered mental arithmetic feel excused from any obligation to do so since the calculator seemingly removes the need. What’s not clear here is whether what is lost in individual effectiveness is compensated for by what is gained in cyborg competence. It seems to me, for instance, that the biggest culprit here in terms of lost skill is not the calculator but the robot cash register, the intractability of which frequently renders shopkeepers the servant of their robots. The old registers – even and especially their mechanical forebears – were calculators that aided the competences of shopkeepers by streamlining billing. The same can categorically not be claimed of those retail robots that require shopkeepers to scan through pages of buttons to find the exact preset item for sale. These devices also rob staff of the ability to improvise transactions when needed; they are cyber-stultifying to a rather horrific degree when compared to their simpler forebears.

For myself, as a human-calculator cyborg, I have continued to maintain and develop my competences with numbers and equations – indeed, I earn part of my livelihood from it. If I can no longer add and subtract quite as rapidly as when I was younger, I’m inclined to confess that my greater skill with calculators and other mathematics robots (up to the grandmistress of mathbots, MathCAD) is an excellence that computerised calculators have assisted me in developing.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #25, requested by Rowan Fortune (@RT_Editing)


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more worrying to me is that the smoother the user interface the less aware of the behind the scenes/screen engineering there is and the ways in which they frame things/behaviors users are (the other side if you will of Heidegger's broken tools), this comes up in many places but I became most aware of it with social-science students who were using apps in their grad projects that performed calculations of statistics that the students couldn't grasp and therefore had no sense of what was being fore/back-grounded and why and how this did or didn't match their reported results which made claims about the actual world. of course the bigger worry is all of the baked in prejudices in algorithms but these two feed each other as engineers app-ly soc-sci based nudges.
I recommended you for the virtual futures salon so hopefully you will hear from them.

Hey dmf,
The comparison to Heidegger's broken tools here is an interesting one: our smartphones are ready-to-hand in a way that transcends the hammer he used as an example, and are seldom present-at-hand i.e. open to scrutiny as objects. That's part of what I'm doing with these investigations into cybervirtue, of course: to try and step back from accepting all this as everyday and to try to expose how far from any traditional concept of 'good' contemporary technology has become.

The example of students using statistical calculations via a robot and not understanding them is particularly relevant, of course, because statistics are used today as a hermeneutic while at the same time the entire concept of hermeneutics is denied as having any continuing relevance (a point successfully explored by Babette Babich). It is a stark reminder of the difference between having robots complement and augment our skills, and merely handing off competences to the robots. We have tended to assume the former is inevitable... it now seems more plausible that the latter risk is inherent and cannot be ignored.

Many thanks for recommending me to the salon, and for the link to the Nolen Gertz interview. I'm still trying to see if Nolen and I can end up in the same city at some point. :)

Finally, thanks for your continued engagement and support. It is most welcome.

All the best,


my pleasure thank you for the willingness to chat, not many folks really taken with these issues, I think we might hype up for rhetorical purposes the maker/hacker claim that if you can't open it you don't own it, to if you can't open it it owns you.
I find the invocation of nihilism to be misleading as we aren't lacking meanings just lacking thinking/reflexivity, too much reliance on heuristics of an if-then sort, too much faith the powers of calculation, etc, I think that individuals might come to such recognitions but that they can't get scaled-up/institutionalized without themselves coming to embody/instrumentalize such tyrannies of the means.
Rorty (pace Heidegger) was probably right that there is no solution (no means of conservation) to this other than to try and keep a place open for making/hearing/adopting truly new assemblages but easier said than done...

Hey dmf,
This adage you suggest, "if you can't open it, it owns you" is a fascinating twist on the problems of contemporary technology. It flags more a risk than an inevitability, and yet the risk is undoubtedly there.

Regarding the 'invocation of nihilism', I agree that the contemporary problem is not an absence of meanings, it is rather a surplus of meanings and an absence of means to negotiate them. I find people turn to the claim of nihilism when they have a tacit commitment to some strong construal of truth, and when they can't make that go through, they treat the outcome as if all meaning was impossible. It's kind of 'the sky is falling' of philosophy right now... I dig deeply into this problem in Chaos Ethics and began to fashion a possible solution in Wikipedia Knows Nothing.

Do you have a text reference for that Rorty you mentioned? I agree that new assemblages (new communities...) is what's needed, and also that achieving this (as you allude) is easier said than done.

Thanks for continuing our discussions,


WKN is on my reading list (thanks again for making it public) don't have a page/reference for you (it's been a while) but I think it comes up in:
also google Rorty bosses oligarchs (more than one link and I often end up in the comment trash pile).
The sorting out of meanings/possibilities is key part of why the relationship between experts and democracies are key, too much info and complexity out there to really be an "informed" citizen and so we are dependent on institutions t create and vet experts and therein lies one of our fundamental vulnerabilities as there aren't enough people who can manage actual 'critical' thinking to meet the personnel demands, things have to be routinized and then enter the machines, round and round we go...

Hey dmf,
Thanks for the info re: Rorty! The issues you raise here about experts and democracy are key points in WKN, where I draw against Latour and especially Isabelle Stengers (who influenced Latour) to try and address some of these questions. I'll be really interested to see what you make of my approach - it will certainly invite objections, but as a first stab at a positive solution to contemporary epistemology, I'm rather proud of it. I'll be very interested in your impressions, when you get around to it (although I too know all-too-well what it means to have a 'reading list' rather than just 'a book' to read. :D).

Thanks again,


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