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100Cyborgs: 41-50

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 ten posts from 41 to 50:

    41. Noise-cancelling Headphones
    42. Wages
    43. Genetically-engineered babies
    44. Palm Oil
    45. Pubs
    46. Radio DJs
    47. Weather Forecasts
    48. Captain
    49. Team Captain
    50. Skateboards 

As usual, there's a mix of line blurring pieces and more straightforward cyborgs. Among the line blurring pieces are #42 Wages, #45 Pubs, and #48 and #49 dealing with Captains in two different senses. The other pieces are more conventional, although I have a particular love of #50 Skateboards, which takes something very familiar and offers an unusual point of view upon it. 

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!

New Cyborgs coming in the Gregorian New Year!


PauseIt was with the advent of tape recording that the ability to pause became possible. Records had to keep spinning, but the reel to reel tape deck could be frozen instantly. This capacity was inherited by all tape cassette technology, and thus we discovered for the first time we could pause recorded television, and then with digital video recorders, pause live TV. The pause function is now so standard as to constitute an expectation rather than a novel new power: the media world will wait until we say it is time to continue.

What are the moral effects of the power to pause? There are perhaps two tacks we can take here. Firstly, the negative: the accusation that we expect to be in control of our media environment, and indeed can become irritable when we are not. But the capacity to pause is only a small part of that desire for control, and not the pivotal element when compared with the world of near-infinite choices unleashed by digital media distribution. On the positive: being able to pause allows us to interrupt our media to pay attention to the humans around us - although I must say my sons require quite a forceful command to pause the videogame they are playing and break out of its imaginary world!

What strikes me most about our capacity to pause is the contrast with those situations where pausing is neither possible nor conceivable: the movie that runs whether we are watching or not, the stage play that strives to be immune to the audience's presence, and even those multiplayer videogame where pausing is not a viable option. In such cases, we take upon a more intense focus upon our activity: we give a film, or a play, or a game our undivided attention and may even become flustered when required to make a break perhaps in part because we cannot pause. However, the auditorium provides a venue where we do this together, and there is something about this which renders the experience respectful. In an online multiplayer game, by contrast, we play alone together: respect is never a given, and the basic psychological foundation for online play might even be a thick skin to survive the intermittent abuses of those players who have forgotten how to behave respectfully.

Pause allows us to break out of an experience. Its absence commands a more intense experience - when we share that experience in person, this can give us a more congenial relationship to both the media and its audience. It is only when we engage in our media alone that pause and its absence seems to feed our more selfish tendencies.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #70


People are CorporationsDepending on your political stance, corporations are either the architects of a higher quality of life for everyone, or a pernicious monopolising power that has devastated our planet and widened the gap between the rich and the poor to an unfathomable degree. These stories are supposedly opposed to one another, yet both are correct, and neither captures the essential truth at the heart of the corporate world - that we ourselves are the lifeblood of the corporations, and we can no more overthrow them than we can defeat our right hand with our left.

The story of the little person against the giant, unjust organisation has been a stock plot ever since the industrial revolution, when what has become the corporation came into existence. Don’t be fooled by stories like Robin Hood that seem to throw these themes further back in time: this mythos chiefly emerges in the nineteenth century, admittedly with roots in folklore. We like to link tales of overthrowing tyrants to the science fiction and courtroom drama theme of beating the corporation but the vast difference between these scenarios is that the former involves the defeat of a person, while the latter entails the overcoming of an intimate network of beings and things. Only the emotional overtones connect here; David and Goliath is about two men of vastly different strengths, it has nothing to do with the ways we now project this theme onto anti-corporate propaganda.

Anti-corporate propaganda, moreover, that is primarily made by corporations, as the vast majority of our media necessarily is. There’s no deceitful double handedness involved here: Disney can sell us noble tales of underdogs defeating evil empires without a trace of irony, because to Disney corporate executives - indeed, to a great many executives in all manner of corporations - there is a sure and certain confidence that they are acting towards good ends. Thus, there is no perceived conflict in depicting the downfall of evil organisations that are clearly someone else... Disney, like Google, like Facebook, like Apple, are certain they are striving for a better world. The problem is always somewhere else.

And so it is for us, too, we corporate cyborgs who cannot go an hour without making use of the products of scores of corporations, usually without a moment’s thought. The problem is always somewhere else. Yet if it is true, as I suggested at the start, that the corporations are destroying our planet, then it is us, the corporate-empowered cyborgs, who are doing it. The trouble with the valid claim that corporations have raised our quality of life is that this inflation in comfort was paid for in environmental devastation; we have failed and continue to fail to account for the terrible costs of the conveniences we unthinkingly enjoy. This is not a story than ends with us overthrowing corporations: it can only end with either our commitment to change ourselves, or by resigning ourselves and the world we are part of to eventual and inevitable oblivion.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #69


Tap WaterYou are a water cyborg - you cannot hope to live without the vast hydrological network that purifies drinking water, delivers it to every tap in your house, then takes the waste water away to repeat the cycle again and again, ad infinitum. We seldom think about this aspect of our existence, despite the fact that if it were to catastrophically fail, we would all be dead in just three days. Even if you live in some remote location where you are off the grid, your clean drinking water and your waste water are handled by technological apparatus that are an intimate part of your cyborg existence.

Intimate, and unthought. Few aspects of contemporary existence have such a vast discrepancy between the extent of our dependence and our capacity for near total ignorance. The internet commands a great deal of thought, and yet is certainly not essential for life. Food is at least thought about by vegans, fans of organic food, and anyone opposed to genetically modified crops. Air is even more intimately connected with our capacity to be alive, but for all but a very few of us, needs no prosthetic intervention. Water occupies this unique situation in being the technology we are most dependent upon yet think the least about.

If I ask what the behavioural effects of our being water cyborgs might be, though, what can I say? It certainly doesn’t cultivate our gratitude towards the people who maintain these fluid networks: when a problem breaks the supply of water to our homes, we are much more likely to rage at those responsible for supplying water than to appreciate the incredible challenges they face daily. (Contrary to the way we typically think about this, it is not that our water pipes don’t leak, merely that water suppliers set a threshold for how much they are willing to lose to the inevitable and unavoidable leakage that occurs.)

A time traveller from a previous millennia who discovered the immense power and convenience we have accepted in the context of water would be in awe of the powers we possess to produce drinking water, while also being unable to appreciate the incredible blessing our plumbed-in disposal of waste water offers in terms of personal and public health. Technology is not just the name for the shiny and new, it is also the name of the invisible and omnipresent infrastructure that makes being a citizen of any so-called developed nation such a gift and a privilege. If only we were able to truly count our blessings, we would surely have to count running water as one of the greatest.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #68


Vegan AdThe slaughterhouse is perhaps the ultimate symbol of contemporary farming, a factory that turns animals into meat, while insulating meat-eaters from the brutal world of mechanised killing inside - a black box for carving flesh. The vegan asserts the moral superiority of refusing to form any kind of cyborg with such barbarous technology... but it’s far from clear that the political vegan community has plans for a better life for farm animals. Rather, it seems as if the logical extension of vegan opposition to the abattoir might risk extinction for farm animals.

Recently, a political vegan organisation ran a series of ads depicting sheep or pigs and vouching that veganism was thinking about the animal as a being and not a thing. This struck me as a poor way to argue for a vegan diet: considering the growing value being placed on environmental impact, this tack would seem to make a more compelling case against eating meat. But the biggest problem in the rhetoric being offered in these ads seems to be: what is the endgame for these animals? If we all turned vegan, where do they go? I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this, and what I've been offered varies from utopian visions about turning farmland back into open pasture to apocalyptic arguments that suggest that because we have bred these animals to be dependent upon us, they should simply become extinct once meat farming ceases. There’s certainly no consensus among vegans on this, but the fact that extinction is even a possibility draws doubts upon the idea that the abattoir necessarily represents the worst fate a farm animal might encounter.

The challenge I’m making here is not about the vegan diet, which strikes me as virtuous in important ways, particularly in terms of the prudence of taking only what you need to live. Yet the question of whether the abattoir cyborg or the vegan offers a better life for farm animals appears to be open for a debate that in fact never happens. It doesn’t happen in part because of our habitual shallow thinking on food, and in part because of prejudice against vegans, who (like Marxists and Christians) are all too often presumed to be irrationally militant (alas, more confirmation bias in action...). There is as much an appetite for publicly debating vegan philosophy as there is for engaging Christians in debate on abortion metaphysics, and for similar reasons: few believe the discussion is even possible, let alone desirable.

The late Mary Midgley remarked that she was much less concerned with stopping people from eating meat than in ensuring that animals were well-treated while they were alive. I share this view. Even as someone who avoids eating meat, I still would not hope for the elimination of the abattoir, fearing that this might lead to the ultimate extinction of all farm animals. Rather, I would hope for us all to strive for deeper views of the impact of our choices.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #67

Media Libraries

Media LibrariesYour media libraries are alive through your engagement with them. Your media libraries link you to myriad unseen other people, about whom you have no awareness at all. Music libraries, streaming video libraries, photo libraries, ebook libraries, libraries of social media transactions... your media libraries are an intimate part of your everyday existence. And they are not yours at all.

Before the nineteenth century, there was only one kind of media library: a library. These were the possessions of the wealthy; visit a stately home and you will find at least one room packed with books on all manner of subjects, often including sheet music and theatrical plays. When paper was the storage medium, libraries were made of books and sorted both by subject and alphabetically. Now that digital bits are the storage medium, libraries are comprised of files and tags (properties assigned to a file such as its name, the attributed author, subject or genre and so forth). With digital file formats for all kinds of data, we have outsourced the act of maintaining a library to corporations, and left to us is merely the scant act of creating an additional index, such as a list of favourites... and even this belongs to the corporation, who is under no obligation to permit you to take a copy of that data.

As a media library cyborg - a composite entity made of a human and a vast computational data network - you have become the marketer's dream. For every media library you use compiles data on you and your media habits that enable it to offer you ‘more of the same’, an attribution constructed from drawing patterns out of the tags and other data that have been derived from your actions. The illusion that you are in complete control of this situation comes from the choices being offered to you at every stage... We sometimes like to tell ourselves we are not swayed by the popular, but we don’t need to be... the media library cyborg has digital slaves working behind the scenes who dutifully position the popular so we might choose it.

In the twentieth century, media libraries in the so-called developed world were uniquely personal. Not the province of the wealthy, everyone had some kind of media library - vinyl records, VHS cassettes, game cartridges, DVDs, photo albums... we were all librarians, and we learned (albeit in differing degrees) the skills and excellences of the library. A vinyl collector has more than a pile of objects: they have a library of creative work that they curated, organised, and can use to ‘travel through time’, to the human context that gives each record its personal meaning. A Netflix or Spotify cyborg outsources much of this to robots, who know exactly when and how often we have watched or listened. It is a perfectly convenient arrangement. But I question whether any aspect of it is virtuous.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #66