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IMAX RobotsWhat a strange and sprawling cybernetic network the contemporary cinema possesses! Writers work with computers to produce scripts to sign with production companies; acting talent perform those scripts in highly-technologised locations rife with complex lighting, mikes, rigging, and cameras; dozens of special effects companies work with further computers, each making a few seconds of spectacle to add to the footage; editors splice it all together with yet more computers; and at the end of the line, robot projectionists screen movies for an audience warned not to use their pocket robots to record what they see under penalty of bringing the law enforcement network into play.

Considering how much of this process is now mediated by computers of various kinds, it is sobering to remember that this entire field of human existence was in operation prior to the existence of silicon chips. That older network had additional elements, such as the manufacturing of celluloid film, and the developing of the resulting reels in a lab. Within my lifetime, digital methods have supplanted almost every step of the production process – even sets and the presented bodies of those acting are frequently produced electronically... only their voices remain exempt from robotic replacement. It is not even hard to imagine an AI for writing a (bad) action movie, even if drama and comedy scripts would prove tougher, perhaps impossible, to computerise effectively.

These changes in the cinema network seem to constitute improvements – certainly if our only criteria is the maximum efficiency of production. Yet at almost every stage of the process, there are casualties of skill, a reduction of the opportunities for excellence thanks to the lure of the convenience of computers. Ian McKellan reduced to tears by the isolation of the greenscreen; editors lamenting the loss of craft associated with flatbed film editing; and while we may never know why director Tony Scott chose to commit suicide, I cannot shake the suspicion that his painstaking commitment to resisting the cheap theatrics of digitally-generated special effects was a key factor in his depression.

Of all the aspects of the cinema network to have been absorbed into computers, the one that saddens me most is the robot projectionist. The art and skill – and also, admittedly, the stress and frustration – of the projectionist is truly a lost art. There is no triumph of a perfect screening now, only pushing a button to start. Whether though lazy design or a simple lack of care, multiplexes now seem unable to execute an elegant close down (prose lights on, curtains to finish, then gently raise the house lights). Often, screenings end with everything just stopping, the clear sign of the total vacancy of the proj box. Feeling this absence is more than mere wistfulness – it is a sign of lost skills, of something barely noticed coming to a certain end. A projectionist was a cyborg with their own excellences; the robots who have replaced them are truly ‘just machines’.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #31


For SaleHouses are a defining feature of the world we live in, yet it is by no means inevitable that we would live this way: nomadic tribes, even today, live with tents and animals instead of inside a permanent dwelling. We take for granted something that seems the epitome of a comfortable life – a roof over our heads – to the extent that the extremes of poverty are marked by ‘homelessness’ (the absence of this comfort) and ‘refugees’ (increasingly glossed as ‘migrants’, as if such people were merely travelling to look for jobs rather than fleeing the total devastation of their homes).

Even as house cyborgs, there is a world of difference between the renter and the owner, and different countries put different stresses on these two situations. In the United Kingdom where I currently live, the prevailing desire is to own a house, achieved almost universally by borrowing money from a bank. The cyborg network for people such as myself who choose to ‘buy’ a house includes therefore not just the building and its infrastructure networks – electricity, gas, telecommunications, water, sewage – but the entire network of some financial institution like a bank or building society, an insurance company, and more besides. Yet if owning a house is a dream when you do not yet have one, it can steadily grow into a nightmare once you are responsible for the near-endless stream of maintenance chores that inevitably grow out of adopting a pile of bricks.

Other nations have different approaches… Germany and France still prefer renting to owning. The German government subsidises rents and German banks are reluctant to offer mortgages, whereas in French cities like Paris and Lyon, the cost of property is so high that renting is the only practical alternative. The situation in the US is similar, and the number of renters there is at the highest points since 1965. The rented house cyborg avoids dealing with banks but instead must deal with a landlord whose power and influence is sometimes felt all too keenly… The blurred lines in such a situation can be as much of a nightmare as taking upon the sole responsibility for maintaining a property through ownership.

When I contrasted the house cyborg to the tent-animal nomad, our impression is that it is the nomad who is rootless. Yet the strange thing about the house-human cyborg is that they move. Whether renting or owning, few people stay in the same house for more than a dozen years or so, and many move much more frequently… the illusion of permanency that comes with these stone buildings conceals a life more like the hermit crab, sloughing off one shell to take another, abandoning one local situation for another. The nomad, on the other hand, sleeps in different places but remains a part of the same community for the entirety of their life. Are we really so sure that we are not secretly ‘migrants’ ourselves...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #30


Lottery ScratchcardsIt is exceptionally common to hear lotteries being accused of being “a tax on stupidity” or “the poor person’s tax” but I have found it very difficult to accept this conclusion uncritically. It rests on treating the lottery not as the game that is clearly being played by its participants, but in comparison to investments. But these days, even over a lifetime, the cost of a single lottery ticket does not generate enough interest to buy even another lottery ticket, whereas a person who actively enjoys lotteries purchases not only the excitement of the possibility of winning but the invitation to fantasise about winning, a reverie that in some cases is the last bulwark against the crushing hopelessness of poverty. The moment it ceases to provide these enjoyments, the lottery becomes worthless – but for as long as it works, it provides a dream of escaping unbearable circumstances that is far more plausible than investing, no matter how remote the chance of winning.

I don’t play lotteries, unless you count political elections, not because they are ‘bad investments’ (a can of coke would be a much worse investment, as Joe Weisenthal attests), but because the game doesn’t interest me – I have nothing worthwhile to win. A million is not enough to fix anything that is wrong with the world, but it is enough to ruin a person’s life. In this respect, the low odds of winning are far more of a blessing than a curse, since the fantasy is frequently much more idyllic than the reality. The lottery-cyborg imagines a better future that is far from guaranteed to result from the actual win. A great deal of the millionaires I have encountered inadvertently cut themselves off from friendship and walled themselves away from the world in a manner oddly reminiscent of the way that Tolkien’s Smaug metaphorically addresses the soul-crushing isolation of greed through the ‘dragon-sickness’ that afflicts Thorin when he comes into contact with the fire-drake’s horde. 

But despite all this, there is little good to say about lotteries in terms of cybervirtue. Especially these days, a modest weekly lottery is supplemented by lottery scratchcards  that are cyber-compulsive in a way that, sadly, many contemporary videogames are committed to emulating. It is one thing to fantasise about a big win with a modestly-priced weekly ticket, and quite another to fritter away all your disposable income in the desperate hope of rescue from poverty. The expanded arsenal of retail gambling is a stark reminder of how little hope for a better world is left on our streets, and how much our dreams are conditioned by the power and undeserved allure of money. Money, it is truly said, cannot buy happiness. For most of the millionaires I have met, it brought solely misery. But the absence of money brings a certain desperation and, as Roger Caillois observed back in 1958, it is precisely as a salve to this despair that lotteries find their niche.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #29


TwitterAs someone who is faintly terrified by Facebook, I was not entirely convinced about joining Twitter. I did so because it was recommended to me by games industry friends while I was visiting Seattle for a speaking gig. The justification was purely based upon utility: I would be able to promote my books more effectively. Years later, I remain conflicted about my engagement with Twitter. It too often feels as if the primary purpose the network serves is as a pressure valve for unloading excess anger and hatred – and what an incredible surplus there is to behold!

Amongst all the moral dimensions of Twitter, one that particularly intrigues me is the taboo about subtweeting, that is, writing negative remarks about someone but not addressing it to them. It’s not the done thing, Twitter cyborgs (known as ‘tweeps’) seem to insist. Witness Selena Larson’s report on research regarding subtweeting, which from the very title begins with the understanding that this is an inherently negative activity – odd, considering saying nasty things at all would seem to be the core issue. The accusation amounts to the claim that Twitter (or indeed any individualised social broadcast system) are cyber-disdainful – even cyber-cruel i.e. they encourage disdain and cruelty – an accusation I take seriously in the book, The Virtuous Cyborg, that this series is inspired by.

Yet I have difficulty with the idea that it is subtweeting that epitomises this moral failing as such, for this seems to insist upon a need to address our disdain and dislike directly at its intended targets, and it surely cannot be better to provoke confrontation in all cases – this exacerbates the problem of cyber-disdain and can do nothing to encourage respect. Precisely the problem I am confronted with every day on Twitter is an absence of respect, an abject failure to engage in disagreements productively. Whether it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, Jews vs. Labour, or Trans activists vs. Lesbian feminists, conversation is instantly blocked by the wall of anger thrown up by our moral horror of what they are saying. At least the subtweet redirects that anger as a digital muttering in the corner. Demanding all criticism is loosed like an arrow is a call for warfare – one we see heeded on a daily basis.

From Douglas Adams, to C.S. Lewis, to Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is a staple theme of science fiction and fantasy that telepathy invites misery. Yet by asking us to write and display our current frame of mind in a few hundred characters, Twitter afflicts us all with the curse of digital telepathy. Others read our inner thoughts as the medium makes them public. Subtweeting is not the root of this problem: it is our abject failure to appreciate the consequences of projecting our personal emotional landscape into a public forum. How can we direct our outrage productively when it is dissipated in the fractious fireworks of a thousand meaningless clashes of words?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #28

Chris Billows on Nostalgia

Chris Billows (AKA Doc Surge) has replied to the earlier A Hundred Cyborgs piece on Vintage Collectibles with his own reflections on nostalgia. Here’s an extract:

Nostalgia is a chemical mixture that blends complimentary and contradictory ingredients. For it to work, it needs to be readily accessible or relatable, provide a sense of comfort, and provide a contradictory sense of fantasy. One cannot entertain adventure unless emotionally ready for it and it is readily available.

You can read the entirety of Nostalgia: The Chemicals Between Us over at From the Journals of Doc Surge.

Contactless Payments

ContactlessOne of the most common values that consumer-facing corporations have been pimping in recent decades is convenience... This was readily apparent in the earlier discussion of the appeal of Amazon, a company built upon leveraging convenience through economies of scale. It is also clear that contactless payments have taken off precisely because of the immense amenity of paying by simply tapping plastic against a small payment robot. No longer does it take a whole thirty seconds to enter your pin and dial up, now you just tap and go. Who could possibly complain?

Well, the most vocal objections to contactless payments have been raised in connection with their magnificent potential for fraud. The BBC reported £7 million of fraudulent payments within the UK in 2016, up from £2.8 million in 2015. There is a clear sense of this technology being cyber-insecure, since anyone who steals or acquires a suitable card can use it freely to pay for anything. Even at a cap of £30, large spends can be racked up in days, and the possibility of ‘skimming’ (cloning the radio frequency ID) is occasionally used to scare up panic, although at a required range of about ten centimetres this particular scenario seems somewhat fanciful, and the fraud department I spoke to about this didn’t even consider it a possibility. Besides, in all these cases of petty fraud, the banking organisations behind the cards cover these loses and can easily afford to do so, with the risk to the consumer largely resting in their not checking their transaction list for items they did not authorize.

This year, the media coverage of contactless has focussed less upon fraud and more upon who is now accepting payment this way, which now includes the Churches of England and Scotland, London buskers, and even a vendor of ‘homeless’ magazine The Big Issue. But the prevalence of the payment system – which has overtaken cash in popularity – conceals another concern about its behavioural effects, one no-one is discussing: contactless payments risk being cyber-thriftless, they encourage people to spend more freely, and think less about what they are spending. To be sure, the move away from cash in favour of payment cards already created these conditions for profligate spending by divorcing transactions from the immediate capacity to track your personal money that cash provides. This is offset by easier accounting for those who choose to investigate later – but it’s not clear how many people this applies to.

Say what you will about coins and notes, when you have to get your money in advance by transacting with a bank (these days, mostly indirectly via ATM robots, as discussed in the previous piece), you are aware of how much money you have, and how much you have spent. The contactless cyborg gives up the immediate awareness of what you are doing with your money in return for greater convenience. I suppose at this point, we can hardly be surprised.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #27

Cash Machines

ATMFor the majority of people reading, the cash machine has been the primary dispenser of money for their entire lifetime. I am old enough to remember when my parents had to plan to go to the bank to get cash, and a musician I used to work with recalled having to plan weekly and monthly finances around the need to turn a pay cheque into currency. Indeed, the decline of the cybernetic network that issued and endorsed cheques precisely aligns with the rise of the cash machine – although as will become clear in the sequel to this piece later this week, the venerable ‘hole in the wall’ is now also facing a near-inevitable decline.

The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is a remarkably honest name for a robot: it makes it immediately clear whose job is being replaced and by what. The rise of the ATM as the primary provisioner of currency has been as much due to the relative compactness of the units as anything else: a bank branch requires floor space, significant security arrangements, and pesky human staff who require paying at regular intervals. The cash-dispensing robot just requires the construction of a miniature vault, robotic ‘fingers’ to count the notes, and all the computer hardware and software required to make it work with the already-extensive cybernetic banking network. As is so often the case, the appeal of the robot as a solution to a problem is that you only have to pay once to buy it, while the on-going costs (such as security guards to deliver money) are the same or less than the alternative arrangement. As usual, economic benefit wins.

What can we say of the cybervirtue or otherwise of the cash machine cyborg, the human dependent upon these robots for hard cash? It is not immediately that clear there is an upside here beyond ‘convenience’ – compared to the alternative, cash machines are the epitome of availability. Unlike banks, robots are up all night – which has been a boon for cash strapped humans, not to mention muggers. In removing human contact from the acquisition of currency, the ATM embodies our increasing reliance upon networks of robots to manage our affairs. After all, even if you did go to your bank branch, the human teller would engage with a robot of some kind that would talk to other robots in the process of arranging your withdrawal. Yet there may yet be a positive side to the cash machine, if we contrast the kind of personal economy it enables against the one that is currently replacing it – one centred upon contactless payments that eliminate currency entirely. It is these cyborgs that the next piece considers.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #26