Pubs

Peveril of the PeakIf the church was the centre of the village community in Middle Ages and early modern Britain, the pub has gradually taken over that role today. The local pub, or just ‘the local’, serves a direct role in maintaining community at a time when all notions of communal life are being gradually eroded. The churches are still there, although they are seldom full except for weddings and funerals, and they are joined these days by Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, and Buddhist Meditation Centres, most of which are having more success anchoring their communities than the Anglican church.

Of course, despite the central role for alcohol in both church and pub, the two buildings make for very different kinds of cyborg. The church-human cyborg is engaged in practices of ritual worship and moral representation, as well as charitable acts. But then, the pub-human cyborg is involved in the ritual worship of sporting teams (and accidental libations to Bacchus, although he is seldom named when people spill a pint). Moral representation frequently occurs between friends out for a drink just as much as between priest and parishioner. Charitable donations and fund raisers occur in pubs almost as often as in churches. Perhaps these two cybernetic communities are not as far apart as it first seemed...?

I have great love for all places of worship and religious practice, and the pub for me is one with a special place in my heart. Even if the conventional view of drinking establishments is entirely secular, at least one of my religions recognises a sacred role for intoxication, and I perform a sanctification ritual at every bar I visit that helps remind me that fellowship – whether in the context of the sacred or the profane – is a blessing. So too alcoholic beverages. Consider Benjamin Franklin’s comments in this regard:

Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.

Of course, it is possible to overindulge with alcohol, and to become terribly addicted. But the same risk accompanies many forms of religious practice. It is certainly not a direct consequence of the pub itself, which is far more likely to encourage moderation than an individual drinking alone.

If the pub previously seemed like an unlikely site of cybervirtue, I hope the perspective I have presented here is at least intriguing (if not persuasive) of the merits of the public house. Socialising with friends over drinks not only helps us work off our stresses, it can help us morally reflect on our behaviour in a way that always has the potential to aid the development of our virtues. Compared to drinking alone, it is an infinite improvement, compared to sobriety... well, let each of us make our own peace with our habits.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #45

Only a Game returns in the Gregorian New Year.


Palm Oil

Palm FruitOur imagined vision of a cyborg is sleek steel merging into perfect flesh, an insultingly naive perspective for those with genuine need of prosthetic limbs and a misleading fantasy at best. If a cyborg is a blend of technology and biology, then we are all cyborgs, complex cybernetic networks of beings and things so vast and unfathomable that we routinely fail to notice even the local clusterings that facilitate our lives, let alone the global dimensions.

For instance, how many of us appreciate that our daily shower rituals are an end node of a network that commences with vast deforestation in countries such as Indonesia? Shampoo is a gelatinous liquid we’ve used to wash our hair since 1927. For the last two decades, all of the giant corporate distributors of shampoo have been using palm oil as an ingredient – ironically to restore the natural oils you biological produce but that are stripped away by washing with shampoo. Hence we become palm oil cyborgs – we grease our hair with it, consume it in everything from ice cream to tortilla chips, and turn it in to biofuel to dilute the petroleum used to power our most popular and deadliest prosthetic, the automobile.

These kind of giant cybernetic networks are what I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘cybergs’, in reference to the way we can only see the surface of an iceberg while the bulk of the ice is below the surface, invisible. For the palm oil cyberg, we may notice our shiny hair, but we do not notice the rapidly diminishing populations of orang-utan, the vast releases of greenhouse gases, or the devastation of rainforests cleared to grow palm trees in order to meet the vast  global demand for cheap vegetable oils.

With our imagined shiny cyborgs, we vainly fantasise about the power and elegance of make-believe metal-flesh. Yet we do not contemplate the environmental impact of producing all this circuitry and steel, we do not consider how wishing for a cybernetic arm is to fantasise about amputation, how much more troublesome it would be to have limbs that require powering and repairing next to flesh that we fuel by eating and that possesses a near miraculous capacity to repair itself. We twenty-first century cyborgs sleepwalk towards catastrophe while dreaming about grotesque scenarios that we delude ourselves into thinking are desirable.

If I may paraphrase Martin Niemöller: first we drove the Sumatran tiger to extinction, but we didn’t care because our hair was glossy. Then we drove the orang-utan to extinction, but we didn't care because we can't get enough Doritos. Then we cleared out the rainforests, but we didn't care because we were driving our cars. Then, we drove ourselves to extinction, and nobody was the least surprised. There is no need for this degree of fatalism: we may not control our cybergs, but we can influence them. Perhaps it is time to stop dreaming about shiny metal cyborgs and start becoming good cyborgs instead.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #44


Genetically-engineered Babies

DNANews recently broke that a team of researchers in China have used a new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to modify the DNA of a dozen embryos, two of which became twin girls. Lulu and Nana will apparently be HIV-resistant, but the incident has already created a stir since no consensus (or, really, tangible discussion) about the ethics of ‘designer babies’ has taken place.

In fact, we’ve had ‘designer babies’ for a while now, since researchers developed techniques to plan the gender of an embryo, not to mention test for Down syndrome... We are long past any first step now and deeply into the territory often marked by the pejorative phrase ‘playing God.’ I should like to explore the cybervirtue of genetically-engineered babies (that is, the positive and negative behavioural implications of this technology) by engaging with this rather odd phrase.

Let’s start with those who can find no viable concept of ‘God’. Here, ‘playing God’ is either an invitation to some kind of self-defeating nihilism or, more plausibly and more commonly, an opportunity to say that in the absence of a divine source of morality we should establish our own standards. However, we then rapidly collide with the immense disagreements about how to ground any moral consensus. In the absence of God we are invited to play the vacant role but find the casting call rather phenomenally oversubscribed...

A starkly contrasting position is that of a theist for who all of creation is the expression of a divine will, and for whom ‘playing God’ implies a kind of hubris, the certainty of some unforeseen disaster. For those who take it that creation was rapid, it might make sense to oppose genetic-engineering as active interference in God’s plan. I don’t share that viewpoint, but I can respect it as long as it does not lead to grotesque absurdities like bombing abortion clinics in the name of Jesus.

More interesting to me is the position of theists who contend God’s creation unfolded across billions of years of evolutionary time. Here, ‘playing God’ is precisely what gene-hackers are not doing. There is no hint of the impossibly slow unfolding of divine providence here – rather what is being proposed is ‘playing man’ (with all the gendered overtones that implies) – acting with impatience, forcing things a certain way, no matter what a wise course of action might be.

Perhaps this is the skeleton key for understanding the cybervirtue of genetic-tinkering: poor impulse control, the researcher unable to wait for ethical agreement before diving in where the glory of a ‘first’ can be won. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the Manhattan Project: new discoveries are catnip to those who think themselves scientists. And this weakness of character ultimately risks hindering the important work done in the sciences. ‘Because we can’ is rapidly losing its appeal as a justification as we struggle to catch up with the implications of all the technologies we ‘could’ and so ‘did’...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #43


Wages

PaypacketMeet the cyborgs in the money game! The Capital Cyborg with so much money that they no longer have to think about day-to-day living expenses and can focus instead upon plans to make more capital from, say, replacing an entire class of jobs with robots. The Welfare Cyborg whose income from the State is never enough to live on, forcing them almost universally into breaking the rules and supplementing their meagre allowance with often grim, cash-in-hand labour. The Entrepreneur Cyborg, whose fortunes are bound together with a specific set of companies whose dividends they live off. And, most common of all, the Wage Cyborg, who works as part of a company owned by Entrepreneurs or Capital Cyborgs (often both) in return for a fixed dollop of money each month.

Now this is by no means the only way of organizing the cybernetic network that distributes resources, labour, and power. Nor is the only alternative a State takeover of industry so that Capital Cyborgs can be replaced with Communists. But we don't spend much time thinking about how this game could be hacked to produce better outcomes. It does not, as Robert Nozick warned, seem plausible to ensure the kind of monetary equality that John Rawls dreamt about in his Kant-inspired political vision. There will always be differences in wealth and earnings. But it is still perfectly plausible (and potentially possible) to radically reduce the disproportionate distribution of money we currently endure.

What stops this most effectively is that both left and right, whichever country you might be in, argue about which is the best way to entrench the wage system. The view from the right is that giving more power to Entrepreneur Cyborgs will ‘make more jobs’, and thus improve things. This plan is great news for Capital Cyborgs, who spend billions to support it. The view from the left is that more money should be paid out to women, or ethnic minorities, or in some cases all Wage Cyborgs, in order that the financial cybernetic network be made ‘fairer’. But note that even from the left, the Wage Cyborg is enshrined as necessary and essential. When unions strike, it is nearly always about getting a bigger share of the money for wage-earners.

I agree with Nozick that uneven monetary arrangements can’t be eliminated (at least, not from our current position). Trade is fundamental to our human experience now that there are only a few hundred self-sufficient tribespeople left on our planet. But the Wage Cyborg is not axiomatic. Companies can divide their money in other ways than individually priced work agreements, a situation far more valuable to Entrepreneurs and Capital Cyborgs than anyone else. But I rather suspect the main reason we sustain the commercial system we have is not just the influence of those on the top, but the weariness of those on the bottom, who haven’t the strength left after working to make a stand. And so the game rolls on...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #42


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


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


Halloween

JackolanternIf the spooky festivities of Halloween do not strike us as having any corresponding cyborg, it can only be because we habitually fail to see the technological networks we are embedded within, and thus the vast webs of machines and organisms we are living within. Take Halloween candy as just one simple dimension: cocoa plants in equatorial countries are harvested by humans and shipped by giant container vessels to factories in industrial nations. There, spherical moulds used to make chocolate snowballs for sale in December will instead make chocolate Jack-o’-lanterns, and humanoid moulds make ghosts and vampires before they turn to making Santas, and soon after anthropomorphic rabbits. Then off by giant freighter once again to supermarkets where they are bought to hand over to young children at the doorsteps of millions of houses on one single night of the year.

As already explored, our calendar is inherited from Christianity. Christian festivals were influenced by older pagan festivities – such as Ostara (Easter) in Spring, Yule (Christmas) in Winter, and Samhain (Halloween). Whatever ancient Celts may have done at this time of year, contemporary pagans celebrate Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-wun’) as a time to honour the dead, and the Day of the Dead on November 2nd that is celebrated in Mexico and elsewhere is directly parallel. In the Christian calendar, All Hallows’ Eve (from which Halloween takes its name) is not even the significant date: it is merely the night before All Hallows Day, which is the day before All Souls Day – which is the aforementioned Day of the Dead. All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day, is for honouring the beatified dead prior to offering prayers for everyone else the day after. This aspect of these festivities is all but lost in the vast commercial cybernetic network these religious practices have spawned.

If we ask about the cybervirtue of Halloween, we’re enquiring into the positive and negative behavioural effects of this odd cybernetic network. Buying candy does not seem to offer much sign of virtue, although giving it away for free is ostensibly generous, if it is not done out of fear of reprisals in the form of egging and the like. Strip away the commercial veneer of neutered monsters and mandatory candy, however, and focus upon the surviving Christian and pagan rites of remembrance and it is easier to have something positive to say. Even without invoking anything supernatural, the world around us is a living echo of those who came before, and we are as much the cybernetic production of the souls of the dead as of our trade distribution networks (also set in motion by those now gone). The cyber-respectful honouring of the dead wrought by calendars and mementos off the departed is far less entertaining than the circus that is commercial Halloween, but it also might be worth far more to the humans involved, who may yet gain a clearer vision of their future through reflection upon the past.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #38


President of the United States

Contains ideas some people may find offensive.

Presidential SealWhat a fascinating cyborg the President of the United States has become! Heads of state always had their vast networks of beings and things – “all the king's horses and all the king’s men” which, then as now, couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. But the US President, or ‘POTUS’, as the internet has crowned him, is the boy with the most toys. The White House, the secret service, Air Force One, the Presidential Emergency Operations Centre bunker, not to mention all the military hardware connected through his role as ‘Commander in Chief’, which includes – for the last three Presidents – an army of killer robots that can assassinate anyone deemed worth killing in complete disregard for international law.

Now a lot of ink has been spilled, or rather, pixels enflamed, over just who carries the title ‘President of the United States’. And to be sure, this is a highly influential position, quite possibly living up to the sobriquet ‘most powerful man in the world’ (and for now, at least, it appears this role does require a penis). But there is something highly misleading about treating the vast cybernetic network surrounding the Oval Office as crystallising in the absolute power of the one individual. For it rather seems as if, with the state of, well, the States, the President is more akin to a rodeo clown clinging to a careening bronco, more engaged in clinging on than having the capacity to steer this lumbering behemoth of a nation in any specific direction.

The murderous drone fleet is a dead give away in this regard. It began under Bush Jr., escalated under Obama, and continues to do so under Trump. Now if we understand the President as being ‘in charge’, what are we to think? That all three men held in common a reckless disregard for human rights agreements the US had been instrumental in drafting? Or perhaps a strong desire to encourage terrorist recruitment and the entrenchment of ‘America’s enemies’? No, I doubt this is what we’re dealing with here. It seems vastly more likely that the institutions of state in the US, and the vast cybernetic network surrounding them, are beyond the direct influence of any elected official and that it is either impossible or at the very least tremendously challenging for any individual to steer it in new directions.

I love the United States, I love the ideals it was built upon, and I love its citizens, both liberal and conservative – I even married one. But I cannot buy into this story that the occupancy of the White House is the root problem with this once-great nation. I fear that POTUS is secretly IMPOTUS, and that the entrenched battle over who can sit in the top seat obfuscates a far more troubling crisis of communication and citizenship identity, and the horrifying absence of any honourable disagreement that might allow a politics that is something other than endless figurative and literal war.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #37


Suits

Lars JuhlOur contemporary mythology is rife with associations between clothing and power – every superhero and supervillain testifies to the importance of sartorial influence, every queen and king has their crown. How would you know a superhero without their costume? How would you know an executive without their suit?

The suit-human cyborg is something we encounter so regularly that we seldom notice. Here, amidst us, walk a class of humans who through their symbiotic relationship with their tailored clothing transcend conventional notions of equality and warrant disproportionate pay scales. The suit communicates something very specific: we are management. We are more important than you, we are worth more than you, we can give less and take more. Be careful not to mistake ‘middle management’ for the real deal: a white collar is still just a minion. And don’t think for a moment that simply wearing a tailored suit is enough. You could spend a grand on these garments, or even five times that much for a suit from Saville Row in London, but you would only be an impostor if you did not also both earn more that the other people in your organisation, and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that this situation was justified. The suit manifests a superpower: superiority, power, control.

The tailored suit was and is a tool of Empire, specifically the British Empire. From roots in the wardrobe of Charles II in the seventeenth century, we arrived at a style of dress required essentially as a uniform for the British gentlemen, and for anyone from elsewhere in the world that wished to emulate them. Then as now, the suit paraded your opulence, displaying to all around that you possess influence, money, or both. The idea that class became a thing of the past in the twentieth century is a quaint conceit – what happened was that blood became less important than money in determining who deserved a bigger share of the pie. This particular gentlemen’s club now admits ladies... but even they must be able to use a suit if they are to be a true executive. It is the cost of admission to a institution that upends all sense of fiscal proportion.

Alasdair MacIntyre drew attention to what he called ‘the moral fiction of managerial effectiveness’, which is to say, the idea that elite managers are so much better at making decisions that they not only warrant greater institutional power but also disproportionate remuneration for their talents. It is perhaps the defining deceit of our time, and the tailored suit serves to elegantly reinforce it, to allow those humans who have become complicit in the corruption of the ideals of equality to reassure themselves: “I'm worth it.”

A Hundred Cyborgs, #36