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October 2018

Autumnal Intermission

Taking my usual break from social media for a few weeks this November. I will be hiding from the socially mediated world from Sunday November 11th until Monday 26th November at the earliest. A Hundred Cyborgs will continue soon afterwards.

Back soon!


Noise-cancelling Headphones

Noise-cancelling headphonesIt’s amazing to think that just a whisker over a century ago, there were no headphones of any kind. Since 1910, this technology has not only advanced it has proliferated. Most people reading this see people with headphones (or ear buds, or something similar) every day – many will use them daily, either for listening to music, or for communication software like Discord, Skype, and Zoom. They have outsold mice to become the most widespread computer accessory in the world, with a $10 billion market.

Noise-cancelling headphones are the most high tech option available at the moment. Sound propagates as waves, and all waves can be manipulated by the addition of other patterns of waveforms. Noise-cancelling tech uses a microphone to detect ambient noise, inverts the waveform, then adds the 180 degree inverse wave to the soundwaves being played. This almost completely neutralises the sound of the outside world, isolating the user in a audio world of their own. Fantastic news... unless you are trying to cross the road, then you have rendered yourself deaf and thus in far greater danger! I won’t dwell too much on this particular risk, but it is still worth bearing it in mind.

Noise-cancelling headphones use almost identical components to the earpieces considered on Tuesday, with a diametrically opposite effect. If earpieces bind us together into co-operative cyborg collectives, noise-cancelling headphones shut out the outside world and isolate us. Setting aside the practical problems of combining these kinds of headphones with motorised vehicles, this is not necessarily a situation provoking any kind of moral debility. Everyone needs their alone time, and being able to focus precisely upon sounds is especially useful for sound engineers and other people who work closely with audio data. But the noise-cancelling headphone is emblematic of a world of consumers invited and tempted to revel in private solipsism. Shutting out the people around us is a natural instinct for humans – as Kant suggested, we are a species who primary collective experience is one of ‘sociable unsociability.’ We paradoxically want and need to be around other humans, even though we can’t always bear to do so, and tend to sabotage our social bonds through petty competitiveness.

It is certainly not a sign of moral debility to want to use noise-cancelling headphones. But the fact that this invention gives rise to this device and not others might give us pause. After all, the same technology could also be used to cancel out the tinny racket made by the person on the bus or train who has turned their volume up to tinnitus-inducing levels. But there is simply no motive in a purely individualist culture to care about the noise pollution we are causing around us, much less pay to stop it. This is a sign of a far bigger problem, one merely papered over by the consumerist hymn to individualism: our disempowerment in the face of technological corporate interests is presented to us as our personal freedom.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #41


The Secret of Game Narrative – Live

Adventurex-2018

This Saturday (10th November) at 12:15 pm GMT, ihobo’s founder Chris Bateman is giving a talk at AdventureX entitled The Secret of Game Narrative. The event is being streamed live on Twitch. We hope you’ll join us for this special talk about the unique ways that videogames create and subvert traditional narratives.

12:15 pm GMT, Saturday 10th November 2018. Cross posted from ihobo.com.


Earpieces

EarpieceFascinating cyborgs are made through the use of miniaturised speakers and a microphone in what is frequently called ‘an earpiece’, a term that also refers to the speakers of any telecommunication device held up to your ear. The earpiece joins two of more humans through a local cybernetic network allowing either two-way communication or just listening. The most famous uses for such a system is in bodyguarding or espionage, but the situation you are most likely to encounter earpieces is radio DJs and TV news anchors, whose producers provide constant steering directions direct to their ear.

The question of the cybervirtue of earpieces is that of the positive and negative behaviour it might bring about, and the earpiece encourages a kind of attentiveness that can be viewed as beneficial. Although there is a subtle and largely harmless element of subterfuge entailed in these arrangements – an invisible presence communicates covertly – the moral implications of this are largely innocent. For the most part, earpieces provide beneficial ways to bind co-workers into communicative groupings, and allow for new forms of co-operation that were strictly impossible before radio technology – although the famous scene in Cyrano de Bergerac is at least suggestive of earlier precedents, albeit with substantial poetic license and modestly nefarious intentions.

In science fiction games and stories, the earpiece is replaced with an aural splice – a digital device implanted directly into the ear. Here, the Bateman-Clarke Conjecture strikes again! This idea is solely appealing because we treat this cyberware body mod as if it were magic. In practical terms, given the inherent fallibility of all digital components, would it really be superior to require surgery to add or remove an earpiece when you could simply slip one on or off? There is the stink of what I have called cyberfetish about this fantasy – we oddly think cybernetic replacements for bodily functions are cool, and fail to notice that to wish for, say, cyberlegs, is to fantasise about being crippled on the grounds that replacement robot limbs must necessarily be an improvement. From The Six Million Dollar Man onwards, these escapist views of body modification have dominated sci-fi narratives. The paraplegic surely has reasons to wish for such technology – but it is perverse for anyone else to do so.

Even with just an aural splice, which does not involve amputation to make it work, are we so sure what we are wishing to get from body modification is not entirely deluded? Might it not be the case that a good pair of headphones already offers a perfectly reasonable way to put audio into our flesh-and-blood ears? Do not be fooled into thinking about technology as magic; every tool has its price, and this is doubly so for imaginary cyberware.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #40


Spaceships

EarthriseArthur C. Clarke’s Third Law famously proposed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But there is an subtle corollary to this... call it the Bateman-Clarke Conjecture: “Any entirely imagined technology is interchangeable with magic.” To put it another way, the only difference between science fiction and fantasy is that the former depends upon manipulating our scientific beliefs, whereas the latter can make up absolutely anything. Thus with a passing knowledge of contemporary theory, you can invent a sci-fi technology to do anything... plausibility disguises itself as possibility.

With this in mind, there are three essential kinds of spaceships: those we have built, those we can plan to build, and those we can only imagine.  The trouble is, those latter two kinds get mixed up all too easily. Is a Europa lander something we can plan to build, or merely something we imagine? What about a colony ship? A Dyson sphere? Not seeing a technical objection is not equivalent to possessing the capability to implement. Science fiction consistently deceives us in this way, and we let it because we are imaginative beings and while we are capable of debunking other people’s mythologies, we can never quite manage it for our own.

The NASA lunar missions, and the Russian orbital missions before them, served political roles that entailed crafting the way people imagined them. “First man...” is a logic that serves political goals – as with “First woman...” and “First black...” There are positive aspects to this mythos-crafting, and Joseph Campbell was keen to stress the way the first Earthrise photograph (pictured above) opened the door to a new perspective on our planetary existence. But this hoped-for shift in perspective did not spread very far (although it’s there in utopian visions like Gene Roddenberry’s). Rather than uniting the planet, the post-Earthrise planet is fragmented into different responses to the existential threat humans pose to themselves: the environmentalist rally for prioritising the Earth; the reactionary denial of any need to save the world; and the insane confluence of those positions in the ‘flee the planet’ mythos that proposes that rather than solving the problems of human life on Earth, we should escape our doom here and magically work out our problems on another planet. The Bateman-Clarke Conjecture strikes again!

Part of the moral problem of spaceships is that we deceive ourselves about them in the same way we do about cars. We imagine the autonomy of the Millennium Falcon and ignore the immense cybernetic network required to make any industrial vehicle tenable. Bruno Latour remarked that airplanes don’t fly, it is airlines that fly. Well, spaceships do not visit other planets, it is space agencies that do, whether public or privately owned – and at a considerable cost in resources. If the achievements of NASA in producing the Earthrise photograph are not understood as the product of immense and expensive co-operative endeavours, then all space travel scenarios dissolve into mere fantasy.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #39