Previous month:
July 2018
Next month:
September 2018


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)

100Cyborgs: 11-20

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 second ten posts:

    11. Universities
    12. Robot Bathrooms
    13. Divorce
    14. Autodialling Ambulance Chasers
    15. Traffic Lights
    16. Dwarf Planets
    17.  Electric Kettles
    18. Reddit
    19. Painkillers
    20. Deck of Cards 

#13 and #16 are ‘line blurring’ pieces – they take ‘technology’ in a wider sense than most people are comfortable with, but #16 Dwarf Planets is one of my favourites, along with #20 Deck of Cards, which is a much more straightforward piece.

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!

More cyborgs next week.

Gamescom 2018

Gamescom stepsAt Gamescom again this year, but unusually I have client projects to offer to publishers – and really interesting ones too! Looking forward to finding out what the dev community makes of these games. Still interested in meeting with anyone who needs game design, narrative design, or script services, and also with game writers with experience in narrative design, so let me know if you want to meet up in Cologne.

Cross-posted from No new A Hundred Cyborgs pieces while I'm away, but we have two more this month to complete All Request August. Watch this space!


EuthanasiaAnyone can kill themselves, but it takes specific judicial technology to do so legally, and such processes need to be designed and medically implemented. If this does not seem like a technological issue, it is only because we are so habituated to thinking of technology as shiny metal and plastic... the ‘high tech’ becomes the sole tech we notice. But chairs, reading glasses, and books remain technological long after we cease to be interested in them as such. Euthanasia is no different in this regard: a tool for ending a life.

In discussions of virtue, assisted suicide runs up against the problem that a dead person displays no virtue as such. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the debate over euthanasia has largely been a clash between outcome-focussed ethics, which are generally in support, and rights-focussed ethics, which generally invoke slippery slope and duty of care arguments to oppose. The arguments are quite sound on both sides; if they weren’t, we would not have any nations providing assisted suicide, or conversely all nations would provide it. It is precisely because there are good arguments on all sides that this technology is contentious.

Cybervirtue offers another way of coming at the problem, by asking what the behavioural effects of the network of beings and things involved in euthanasia might be. We can translate the arguments from other ethical viewpoints into claims about cybervirtue, and this is another way of thinking about the issues. For example, much of the opposition to assisted suicide focusses on the possibility of it being used to dispose of a human who has become inconvenient, that is, that euthanasia could be cyber-callous. But since the opposing arguments stress how denying access to assisted suicide are essentially cyber-cruel – often by analogy with putting an animal ‘to sleep’ when its pain has become unbearable – it’s not clear this objection is as compelling as its proponents suggest.

Conversely, when opponents raise concerns that euthanasia promotes a fatalistic attitude towards severe depression – that assisted suicide risks cyber-carelessness, if you will – the argument has more force. Yet it is notable that one who ends their life in this way is able to share a final encounter with their loved ones – that this conclusion to a life can be cyber-congenial. Contrasting this to the sick relative wasting away in a hospital far from their family and friends ought to give us pause… are we really so sure this ‘natural’ alternative bookend to a life is not just as apt to encourage a lack of care? Perhaps what euthanasia brings to light is a wider problem: the offloading of the terminally ill to a medical system that offers ‘care’ by successfully insulating the living from the inconvenient realities of dying.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #24, requested by Joel Goodwin (@ElectronDance)

Robot Recommendations

Robot RecommendationsMy wife frequently accepts a playlist generated algorithmically by Spotify’s robots based on a stepping point of her choosing. I rarely do this myself... it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I much prefer listening to a playlist hand-picked by Don Letts or Justin Robertson, or indeed any other human whose musical knowledge I trust. It is not that I fear that I could be manipulated by such algorithmic selections (although clearly, that can and does happen in certain cases) it’s that knowing that tracks are related by a common pool of listeners inevitably favours the popular over the obscure irrespective of the reason for that popularity... I ideally want to share in someone else’s experience of music, to find new things – or old things I didn’t previously know about. The robot has no knowledge that it can share, only a capacity to blindly surf information derived from vast oceans of collected data via prescriptive algorithms.

The enthusiasm with which we have taken to accepting all manner of guidance from our robots – who pragmatically can have absolutely no understanding of what they are doing or recommending – is staggering. My son likes to watch YouTube videos of friendly people playing Minecraft, or kids unboxing rather expensive-looking Lego playsets. He discovered most of these interests because YouTube’s robots recommended them to him on the basis of what he'd already watched... which they also recommended. It doesn't bother him one whit, but I am far more troubled by the whole thing. The whole concept of automated recommendations seems to run on the assumption that the input data will have originally been a result of voluntary choice – in my son’s case, it has been machine-curated from the very outset.

Yet whatever my concerns here, it is worth reflecting upon the way the robots are merely doing programmatically what humans already do voluntarily: constructing intellectual and aesthetic echo chambers. One of my many complaints about closed academic peer review is precisely the way it serves so effectively to cultivate a community of narrow vision – precisely the opposite of what we would hope for from our universities, if only we cared. Similarly, news media attract their audiences by sharing their political bias, which also allows their owners to influence the audience’s opinions rather effectively. Next to these kinds of intellectual prisons, algorithmic recommendations seem positively innocent!

Nonetheless, the cyborg we make with these recommendation robots are cyber-blinkered – they risk a narrowness of vision that can range from the innocently circular to the disturbingly self-affirming. It’s hard not to wonder sometimes if certain extreme views of the world have proliferated on the internet precisely because of the ease with which any perspective can find validation simply by entering the appropriate keywords into a search engine. That’s where the trouble began, in algorithms for effective indexing... but it certainly won’t be where any of this will end.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #23, requested by Tom Gerbicz (@YungGilbu)

Vintage Collectibles

AcroyearAlthough I own many Star Wars collectibles from the 1970s and 80s, some slightly older Star Trek memorabilia, and far too many classic comics, the pride of my collectibles for me are my Micronauts toys. They’re not especially valuable, but they tap into the warmest feelings of my childhood – both the toys themselves and the Bill Mantlo penned Marvel comics licensed from them have a special place in my heart. That feeling is the locus of a contemporary commercial phenomena that did not and could not exist at any other time in human history.

The vintage collectible technology network is a weird and sometimes wonderful thing that quite literally trades in nostalgia. Don’t confuse it for the different (but related) marketplace for antiques... people largely buy antiques because of the assurance that they will only gain in value (although also for aesthetic reasons) but rarely if ever because the items draw against fond memories. Of course, vintage collectibles shade into antiques over time – nobody buys a 1938 Action Comics #1 because of nostalgia. But catch a middle aged nerd with the toys from their childhood, and you are ready to make money from them.

Before the internet, vintage collectibles were sustained by a diffuse set of shops and intermittent comic marts and the like. Now, eBay dominates the commercial engagement with nostalgia, taking advantage of the funnel the online world facilitates in a subtly different way to a conventional retailer like Amazon. Both, however, are participating in what Theodor Adorno called the culture industry – the manufacturing of shared cultural experience for which Hollywood is emblematic. The movie business has been the driving force behind commercialized nostalgia... although YouTube has rapidly become a key player in its own right.

Asking if there is any cybervirtue in vintage collectibles is to explore whether the network of people and things it sustains has any positive qualities – and it does. It successfully sustains communities (albeit in rather thin ways), and within those communities there are a few people eking out a living from the nostalgia trade. Yet there is also a troubling side to the way our fond memories are deployed by media corporations through the application of ‘branding’ and intellectual property. Whatever small earnings are possible for individuals from the exchange of vintage collectibles is dwarfed by the culture industry’s billion dollar nostalgia racket that does not always pay royalties to the creative staff responsible for the original work.

Bill Mantlo gets nothing for the work that he did which gives Micronauts toys their value to me, and I don’t even know the names of any of the Japanese toy designers at Mego. But at least a recent deal with Marvel over the rights to Mantlo’s characters (including Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Raccoon) allowed him to move out of a nursing home after being trapped there for twenty five years. I can but hope this situation is improving.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #22, requested by Chris Billows (@Doc_Surge)


TreeWhen we think of biotechnology, the image it conjures up is typically of lab coats and test tubes and tinkering with DNA. But of course, humans have been tinkering with plant DNA for millennia as part of agriculture, even though genetics was not understood until Gregor Mendel's 19th century work on pea plants. The plants were at it long before we got involved: I already explored how chlorophyll, upon which the existence of plants is predicated, can be poetically seen as allowing plants to become some of the first ever cyborgs.

Flowering plants formed cybernetic systems with insects in the Triassic, and we are the inheritors of those plant-animal relationships today. Thinking of ‘biotechnology’ focuses our thoughts narrowly upon the human capacity to shape plants to our purposes – and this for both good and ill. Against such achievements as pest-resistant plants and increased crop yields ought to be weighed those cases of agricultural corporations bioengineering seeds that were cursed with cyber-despair, contributing to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. But there is more to our cybernetic relationship with plants than this purposeful interference – especially when we consider trees.

At the start of the Bronze Age, the British Isles were completely covered with wildwoods. By the end of the iron age, these were cleared back to about 20% coverage, making room for agricultural fields. Yet despite this arboreal apocalypse, the human-tree cyborgs of this time were cyber-prudent; land was cleared, but woodland was protected from intrusion by grazing animals since trees were highly valued as a source of wood – for both building and for fuel – and venerated as a sacred part of the world. Ironically, despite knowing far more about trees than ever before, we have a worse relationship with them today than at any prior moment in time. There are very few human-tree cyborgs left: mostly, wood appears in our lives as a mere raw material for making furniture, although we have at least started caring about ‘sustainable’ sources of timber.

When humans lived intimately with trees, the situation was beneficial for both species. Today, we prefer to use building materials like concrete and steel that are far less conducive to our long term survival as a species, and fuels that are order of magnitudes worse than burning wood – although with solar power, at least, we seek to emulate the ‘chlorophyll cyborgs’ in their sustainable life practices. For all the talk about striving for a ‘circular economy’ today, where nothing is ‘waste’, it seems we have completely forgotten the cyber-efficient, cyber-prudent world of the tree-human cyborg, who for millennia were able to work together for mutual benefit. Yet tree breeding (which has only been going on for about fifty years) isn’t just about increasing fruit yield, but also about helping trees survive the environmental impact of our species. Perhaps our relationship with trees still leads to a future worth hoping for.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #21, requested by Patrick Davis (@PatrionDigital)

100Cyborgs: All-Request August!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWith twenty cyborgs under my belt, it’s time to open up the floor for requests! So throughout August, the posts I’ll be writing for A Hundred Cyborgs will be based on suggestions from anyone and everyone. What technology do you want to see considered in terms of cybervirtue and debility? What tools do you think most inspire positive behaviour? Which devices have the most heinous consequences?

Let me know what you want me to write about in the comments here, or by responding to any relevant tweet in Twitter.