100Cyborgs: 61-70

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 61 to 70:

    61. Surrogate Knowledge
    62. Phone Upgrades
    63. Phone Mazes
    64. Anti-paywalls
    65. Quality Forms 
    66. Media Libraries
    67. Abbatoirs
    68. Water
    69. Corporations
    70. Pause

There was a three month gap between the last block (#51-60) and these, but it was an even bigger gap for me as I wrote the Arcade Cyborgs during my 2019 trip to GDC, and had not written any for some time afterwards (because I was busy completing my tribute to Mike Singleton, Silk). That's why the first piece, #61 Surrogate Knowledge, is a kind of 'revision' of the themes of the serial as a whole. I was trying to put it back into its context.

I think the first one that I wrote in this block was actually #65 Quality Forms, which expresses my ongoing dissatisfaction with the way that mid-sized bureaucracies substitute paperwork that records minutiae for any attempt at good practices. I encounter this mostly in the university, which this piece has in its cross-hairs, but the problem is far wider. This set me off on a bureaucracy riff that led to the related pieces on #63 Phone Mazes and #64 Anti-paywalls, different ways for organisations to avoid dealing with people.

#67 Abbatoirs is my rebuttal to vegan advertising, which I feel is letting vegans down, and risks reducing a valid ethical choice to yet another BS marketing bullet point. As for #68 Water, I actually planned to write an entire block of ten pieces on water cyborgs - which would have been easy to do - but in the end didn't feel like it would add more than a single piece would. #69 Corporations is another of those pieces that reminds us that our desire to offload blame onto anything but ourselves is a key part of the mess we have created, while #70 Pause brought this block to a thematic end.

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!

The final Cyborgs are coming this Summer!


Roads

Road NetworkThe car-human cyborg remains the deadliest creature on the planet except for the alliance between malaria and mosquitoes. It’s also the cause of death we simply can’t be bothered to care about. I first made this point in Chaos Ethics, and have reiterated them ever since - including back in cyborg #5. As tragic as the quarter of a million deaths attributed to Coronavirus might be, road accidents cause over a million undiscussed deaths every year - yet it is unthinkable that we would trigger a lockdown to stop this steel-framed pandemic, even though it is quite possible when the lockdown ends we will have saved more lives by taking our cars off the road than by blunting the impact of the virus.

After the deaths, the roads are the other casualty of vehicle use we just don’t like to think about. For motor vehicles wreak tremendous violence upon our road surfaces - just as motorists cause the traffic they complain about, motorised vehicles are the cause of the potholes that drivers detest. A network of cycle routes would last many years without needing more than basic maintenance... motorised transport not only burns up resources making the vehicles and fuelling them, it uses even more resources building and repairing the infrastructure that makes the car inevitable, and thus scares people away from cycling. People are afraid to cycle because they are afraid the cars will kill them - and they’re right to be afraid, it’s just they are not safer in a car. The car itself is the very problem, and we are oh so experienced at ignoring it, especially when we get behind the wheel.

Roads as we currently operate them do offer a few opportunities for cybervirtue, such as building the excellences of navigation. So of course, we add robot navigators to destroy that possibility as well. And really, we are reaching absurdly as we try to find the positives in our nomadic “normal” life of endless motorised travel, as if it wasn’t the number one threat to life outside of the tropics, the biggest environmental health risk we face, and a major contributor to the collapse of land use diversity that is steadily driving our fellow species to extinction.

Yet we will not question the roads. We must not, for we have engaged in an endless double-or-nothing bet on this way of organising human life, and just as the gambler pursuing the Martingale strategy in a casino must eventually hit the house limit and go bankrupt, so will we. I encourage you to use the lockdown to reflect upon the way we take roads and travel for granted and imagine a future of lighter, slower, safer, friendlier vehicles that could make their roads last longer, and kill fewer people. We have a golden opportunity for making changes right now - let’s not waste this chance to imagine what a good transport network might be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #90

The final ten cyborgs begin soon.


Supermarkets

SupermarketsWe are supermarket cyborgs - if it were not for the cybernetic network of fields, harvesters, farms, mines, foundries, factories, ships, docks, cranes, trucks, and finally, supermarkets  you would die. You and I are as dependent upon supermarkets and wholesalers (“supermarkets for shops”) as we are on air and water. Buy from a smaller shop? They go to a wholesaler. Only eat out at restaurants? Where do you think they get their food...?

There’s something especially eerie about queuing to enter the supermarket under the lockdown restrictions that makes me feel our dependence all the more acutely. Empty shelves stick in the mind more than business as usual. But the supermarket is merely the end point in the food distribution network we are inescapably caught within. There are still a few million people within the shorter, older network of farms and markets, and even a few thousand fed in even older ways - hunting, gathering, and farming for yourself. For the most part, however, food is now a cybernetic service ensuring our utter dependence upon a network we barely comprehend. I touched upon this before in the context of palm oil, and that was a mere fraction of a percent of the vast complexities we supermarket cyborgs are embroiled within.

To ask about the moral and behavioural effects of supermarkets is to face the general condition of the contemporary cyborg - a kind of accidental ignorance I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘shallow-sightedness’. We are unable (and unwilling) to attempt a full picture of the inconceivable vastness of our cybernetic networks. We fill a trolley unaware that we are sustaining the poverty of sugar farmers, funding sweat shops, or keeping animals in dire conditions. Perhaps we suspect our impact, but ease our consciences by not thinking about it, or try to navigate the minefield via notions of ‘fair trade’ or ‘ethical shopping’ that flatten the wide view of the network into something that feels more manageable. Mostly, out of sight is out of mind.

Humanity is blessed with the intelligence to solve great technical problems and implement systems on a scale of complexity that rivals the intricacies of the natural world. Yet we cyborgs are cursed with a lack of wisdom that springs at its heart from our elevation of the individual in a way that allows us to equate liberty with the freedom to choose from the shelves of the supermarket, emancipated to enrich the wealthy and exploit the planet. When the philosophers of the Enlightenment argued for our self-determination and liberty, I feel quite sure this servitude to the checkout was not quite what they had in mind.

Wisdom was always a collective knowledge, a skill exercised by communities. When the scale of the systems required to feed us exceeds our mental grasp, the possibility of making wise decisions is shorn from possibility. Is there a wisdom of supermarkets beyond the shallow bribery of discounting and spurious offers? What could it possibly be?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #89

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Schools

Empty ClassroomIt is a curious time to be reflecting upon the cybernetic networks of our schools, given that they are effectively closed at the moment. But the absence of something can help bring it into sharper focus - and in the case of schools, their vanishing leaves me with three small children to teach myself. This immediately gave me a sense of awed respect for the teachers who somehow manage to keep everyone’s attention for six hours, for at home even one hour is a struggle, especially when dealing with kids of wildly different ages and attention spans.

My ‘home schooling’ turned a corner when I abandoned any pretence of following the official curriculum and simply taught what I knew well enough to teach confidently and what my kids showed aptitude or interest in learning. This has led to a dramatic improvement: I’ve largely eliminated the cryptic deciphering of exercises that come from a nebulous source and instead made teaching and learning an agreement between two individuals, in the manner advocated by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster. And isn’t this, in fact, what all education amounts to, if we take it as a purposeful activity and not a striving to check boxes?

Comparing my situation to the curriculum makes me question the entire guiding principle of school curriculum, at least as they are usually understood: as the proscribed template for subdividing learning. The necessity of the curriculum is to ensure that everyone advances slowly enough that everyone learns. This, it seems to me, still doesn’t work. Going slowly doesn’t magically get everyone’s attention, doesn’t guarantee an environment where students will commit to the active process of learning. Teaching is not like spraying crops, you can just lay it down thinly and hope it’s enough. Teaching is irrelevant until the student chooses to learn. The curriculum does nothing to address this problem - it merely provides a cybernetic brake on the rate of possible learning.

I don’t know what primary school teachers make of the curriculum - maybe they’re glad of a framework that regulates what they are doing. But it seems to me that the curriculum is a tool intended to absorb many students, and not a tool for facilitating teaching and learning. Maybe that is indeed what’s needed to deal with the conditions in the schools as they currently operate. But for the time being, I am content to pass what skills I have to my kids, and I hope that other parents are doing the same. I’m using pen and paper game designs to teach maths and English because I’m a game designer. I would be delighted to know other parents had taught plumbing, or sewing, or word processors, or carpentry, or indeed any skill at all, regardless of what the curriculum says. Learning is something that happens when people want to learn. Why do we attempt to force this opportunity to take a specific shape...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #88

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Vaccines

Black DeathPeople walking around with masks over their faces, many unable to leave their homes. Millions dying. Between 1348 and 1351, a third of the population of Europe died as a result of the Black Death. Not only was there no vaccine against it, there was not even the concept of a vaccine. Yet there was one other vital difference between those alive in the Middle Ages and those of us alive today: they were prepared to die. They were just as afraid of dying as we are, but as Ivan Illich has stressed, prior to industrialisation everyone accepted the inevitability of death as the unavoidable fate awaiting everyone ‘when their time came’.

Vaccines were only a part of the transformation of our approach to life and health in the nineteenth century, but they marked a seismic shift in our response to infectious diseases. Suddenly, miraculously, it was possible to prevent illness by beating it to the punch, becoming mildly sick in order to develop an immunity that would prevent the worst ravages of a micro-organism. Disease, it suddenly seemed, could be defeated. And along with vaccines, there came surgeries, antibiotics, myriad drugs - so many amazing medical techniques... so many, in fact, that rather than everyone accepting that they must eventually face their own time to die, now people are willing to sue doctors for not putting their 90 year-old relative on a ventilator. We now behave, insanely, as if we could live forever if we just get the right treatments, as if we are merely machines in need of intermittent repair.

Until recently, vaccines were a focus of attention because of opposition to vaccination. Much of this resistance springs from misunderstandings: yes, the vaccine will make you sick. But that’s precisely the point: build immunity to a mild infection to protect against a worse one. But we don’t like to admit that, despite the obvious blunders, anti-vaxxers might not be mistaken when it comes to distrusting medical corporations to have our best interests at heart. The market for vaccines is worth $35 billion - and that’s less than 5% of what pharmaceutical companies make overall. With this much money up for grabs, what kind of corporation is going to pause and impartially consider where the limits of medicine ought to lie...?

Vaccines can ‘defeat’ a disease - yet disease and death remain the inescapable cost of living. Being a vaccine cyborg is sold to us in the terms of warfare - “the fight against coronavirus”, “eradicating the disease”, “help us defeat the virus”. I can imagine the landowners of the Middle Ages making similar claims about the protection they were affording in return for taxes, albeit in literal terms of invasion and rapine. Yet of course, that ‘protection money’ was used to instigate literal war - in the centuries preceding the Black Death, the Crusades were funded, ultimately, by taxation. Sooner or later, you have to look a little deeper into the arguments and actions of those we are paying for protection.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #87

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Notes

Note CardsGuest post by Matt Mower.

Arguably the most sophisticated form of note-taking is the Zettelkasten system developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in the 1950s.

Zettelkasten means "box of notes" and is designed to reliably produce good new ideas and make final deliverables (essays, articles, and so on) painless to create.

Key to the Zettelkasten method is the use of cards to store individual thoughts which are uniquely identified and linked together by tags. Cross-referencing with tags eliminates the problem of where to put a note and allow related ideas to intertwingle and structure to emerge organically rather than having to be imposed.

Indeed, Luhmann's career output (some 70 books and 400 articles) suggests that such a system of note-taking can be a powerful tool.

However, while note-taking itself is already a crucial part of our cyborg heritage, digital note-taking opens up exciting possibilities for what a note-system can do for us.

If nothing else the scale of information a digital system can manage dwarfs any physical system of notes. Further, once data is digital, it is possible to create new connections, to re-arrange, and to transform it in ways difficult to imagine in the physical realm.

At its simplest, a digital note is an analogue of a paper note, i.e. a stream of text, perhaps formatted. There is an explosion of applications today for organising this kind of note. The most popular of which is probably Evernote which is like a "digital file box".

However, the use of folders for structure creates a "Where do I put it?" problem since a note can, typically, only exist in one folder. It is a problem common to such applications and, a problem that's worsened the more information you store.

By breaking the limitations of folder structure, digital notes truly become a system for interconnected thoughts and, as such, eminently suitable for creating a digital-Zettelkasten. Tools such as Roam and TheBrain follow this approach and consequently emphasise the creation of a fine-grained web of thoughts.

By breaking the limitation of note-as-stream-of-text, digital notes become structured such that they can be processed with software and more easily combined and remixed into new forms. Applications such as Tinderbox and Mentat allow notes to be processed by software agents to solve more complex problems.

For example, to know a note represents a question and to look among notes which are facts for possible answers. Perhaps even to self-organise views of such information.

While we are in still in the relative infancy of digital note-taking, it is a time of great promise and tools are emerging to help us build databases of what we know that the writer Tiago Forte calls a "second brain". If what you know, or could know, is essential to you, there is no better time to pick a tool and get started building yours.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #86 by Matt Mower, a part of All-Comers April.

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Last Orders

Last OrdersWe're in the final week of April - but you still have time to submit a piece for the A Hundred Cyborgs special All Comers April event. All you have to do is let me know that you want to do it, and write a piece reflecting upon technology in 500 words or less (which admittedly is harder than it sounds, but it's also easier than you fear it is!).

Not read The Virtuous Cyborg? You don't need to have read it to take part. (Although if you haven't, maybe you should take a look...?)

Not a philosopher? Neither is anyone who has submitted this month. Not to mention everyone does philosophy... it's merely a name we give to our toolset for thinking, and our philosophical tools are embedded into the sciences, journalism, ethics, criticism, and so much more besides. If you can think, you can do philosophy, and if you're reading this it's a safe bet you can think.

Afraid of 'performing' in public? If you ever use social media, you're already performing, and the endless scroll of the internet washes it all away before anyone notices. It's normal to be nervous about putting yourself out there - but really, we should be afraid of never putting ourselves out there, as a life hiding in the shadows is no life at all.

Want to submit a piece? Message me at @SpiralChris on Twitter, or use the contact email at ihobo.com. Everyone's welcome, and all topics are fair game as long as it has a title that doesn't match the others and is about an object, a thing (even a name you invent for something) - see the full list of cyborgs for everything so far.

Go on - share your thoughts on technology with us! We'd love to know what you think.

The final pieces will run into early May, if necessary. Then, after a short break, we'll move into the endgame.


Drones

Commercial DroneGuest post by Jed Pressgrove.

The very look of a commercial drone suggests toy, tool, and pest. We cyborgs are as curious about the machine’s various utilities as we are reluctant to fill up our precious air space with little helpers.

Sure, these unmanned aerial vehicles (what an unsexy phrase!) could potentially deliver supplies to our homes, identify hotspots on trees in danger of erupting into flames, examine the scene of an emergency, provide internet connectivity to remote areas, and, perhaps down the line, walk our dogs for us.

But we cyborgs have also calculated that a slow roll-out is best for these flyers, as they require a slew of parts, many of them external, to work as they’re intended to: pilots (that’s us), batteries (which don’t last for much more than an hour), GPS signal (a lost drone is a sad drone), government waivers (the more forms, the better), and so on.

With all of these factors in play, we must be careful. If there’s anything cartoons have uploaded into our individual databases, it’s that the last thing we want is something to fall on our heads when we least expect it.

There’s also that hang-up about data related to our … oh, what is it called … privacy. Drones can take pictures and videos of us from above.

Admittedly, our fear of drones doesn’t outweigh our fear of COVID-19. If you live in certain places in China, Spain, Kuwait, the U.K., or even the U.S. of A., you might one day decide to take a walk because you’re about to go haywire staying inside all the time, and if you happen upon a particularly crowded public area, you might hear a recorded voice in the sky, proclaiming: “Please maintain social distancing, please disperse, please go back home, please, let’s beat COVID-19, thank you for your cooperation. Don’t make us come for you, boys and girls.”

That last part will be more implied than outright stated. Today, we are merely in the “public service announcement” era of drone messages delivered via loudspeakers. But give us another global health and safety crisis within the next decade, and we could enter the “reading you your rights” era of drone messages delivered via loudspeakers.

Until that exciting day, many of us can enter a nearby mall and find a fellow cyborg—who’s usually in the middle of the main walking path, perhaps trying to attract our attention as we envision what new brands we want to advertise on our clothes—who can sell us a toy version of the drone that we can take to the park on a Saturday afternoon.

The drone can be a kite that doesn’t need wind, a firefighter’s best friend, or a war enemy’s undignified end. The drone is the ultimate wild card, so it’s here to stay.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #85 by Jed Pressgrove, a part of All-Comers April.

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Glasses

GlassesGuest post by Chris Billows.

When we think about being a cyborg, we think about computers, robotics, and cybernetics. This imagery is prominent thanks to sci-fi writing and movies. We have become so dependent on technology in modern society, we are more cyborg than non-cyborg. It becomes hard to see how we could get along without technology.

But what about needing technology to actually see? When I think about my own circumstances, I am completely dependent on technology to see distances. I am profoundly short-sighted and have required glasses for distance vision since I was 12 years old. With aging, the prescriptions have become stronger and my dependence on corrective lenses is even greater. Even the language emphasizes how my vision is incorrect without technology. You're not viewing correctly so here is some shaped plastic/glass to fix it.

Yet are glasses/corrective lenses technology? Glasses are typically plastic that has been shaped and layered in such a way to correct issues with distance, reading, and astigmatism. They don't require batteries or need to be rebooted. You place them on your face and away you go. Sure, they need cleaning but every cyborg extension we have is an enemy of dust and grime.

Making glasses in today's age is pretty high-tech but using them isn't. I've always wondered how I would have survived in older times with such terrible vision. Surely I would have been eaten by some hungry beast that I stumbled into thinking it was a rock. Glasses allow me to survive and thrive.

I'm not alone. The prevalence of glasses appears to be a condition of human behaviour. We need glasses because we are doing activities like reading and looking closely at things such as our phone, tablet, computer screen, etc. The irony is that it is these other technologies that leads us to require glasses technology in order to function! Reading a book for extended periods means that we now need glasses to compensate for weakened eyes. The cyborg experience is virulent and all-consuming.

Talking about vision and sight has given me insight into an unstated cybernetic law. Using technology leads to dependence on additional technology to mitigate the side-effects of the first technology. Reading gives us information and knowledge but also poorer vision prompting the cybernetic compensation of reading glasses.

That's a conclusion that I didn't see coming. Now excuse my while I go clean my glasses.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #84 by Chris Billows, a part of All-Comers April.

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Meditation Apps

Meditation AppsGuest post by Victor Navarro Remesal.

I keep getting ads from HeadSpace, promising to teach me how to cope with the stress of daily life, “decompress my body and mind”, or even to sleep better. By signing in on it or other similar meditation apps, I could get programs for just about anything, from pregnancy (Expectful, $9.99 a month) to orgasm anxiety (Sanity & Self, $4.99 a month). The science (there’s always “the science”) backs it: “it's been shown that just 30 days of Headspace resulted in a 32% decrease in stress”.

Meditation apps arise from several trends of our techno-fetishist societies: first, “the marketplace of attention” described by James G. Webster; second, our commodification of experiences and self-care; third, our over-reliance on smartphones; and last, our attempt to deal with SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”) modes of spirituality. If brands have to fight for our attention, what better product to sell than attention itself? And what better way to do it than to make this experience as dependent on technology as possible?

Meditation apps and gadgets attempt to reconcile our fascination with technological salvation (“technology will save us!”) with our suspicions of the digital (“we need to go back to the time before technology!”). Muse S, a “research-grade EEG device” (i.e. a headband) “passively senses your brain activity and translates it into the guiding sounds of weather to help you stay calm & focused”. By wearing it, you can become an enlightened cyborg in touch with nature - it can’t be artificial if it has sounds of weather.

The official site of Muse S has a section for “corporate wellness”, bringing us to Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Purser’s book argues that traditional mindfulness practices have been co-opted by capitalism to make employees self-monitor their inner lives and hold them accountable for their own well-being. And to do so, they have removed the whole ethical system behind these practices and reduced them to tools of psychopolitics.

The kind of mindfulness put forward by platform companies is frequently sold as a technique for the self, as “Buddhist practice without Buddhism”, but this sectioning doesn’t hold up: Buddhist meditation is always connected to ethical precepts and virtues such as compassion, equanimity, wisdom, or proper conduct. One can meditate without Buddhism, but without ethics? Without cultivating virtues needed in an interconnected reality? Eihei Dôgen, the founder of the Sôtô school of Zen, talked about the “dropping off of body and mind”, which sounds like the opposite of the focus on the self at the heart of “appified” mindfulness - or at least, the opposite to the “brain orgasm in just 3 mins!” promised by the app Mesmerize.

I don’t think meditation needs to be anti-technological, but it surely doesn’t need apps. One way to describe zazen in Zen Buddhism is “shikantaza” (只管打坐), which means “nothing but sitting”. A cushion, loose clothes, and any kind of timer are more than enough to do it. And it surely can be practiced by virtuous cyborgs.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #83 by Victor Navarro Remesal, a part of All-Comers April.

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