Water

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


Abattoirs

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


Quality Forms

Red TapeAh, the ubiquitous bureaucratic form, not at all descended from the Latin 'pro forma' (for the sake of the form) as its common usage in UK Higher Education might make it seem. Indeed, this Latin phrase is an adjective and not a noun... we seem to have gained this new meaning out of some strange desire to evoke the mystic power of Latin to make ourselves sound grandiose, a power the Catholic church was accused of wielding when Latin was the language of mass. Through its own vacuous, secular rituals, contemporary form-filling bureaucracy has shown itself to be an excellent producer of irritable yet docile cyborgs throughout society, and especially in the British university.

What might be called the Cult of Quality lies at the heart of the way form-filling is used in Higher Education in the UK, an all together different approach to the way the same practices are used in government to evoke an anti-pay wall. The dogma of Quality asserts that our practices will be enhanced if in addition to whatever it is we're supposed to be doing, we also document it in standardised paperwork. There is in fact one practice which does improve as a result of quality paperwork: our capacity to complete quality paperwork. But convincing evidence is never provided (nor likely to be found) that quality paperwork improves teaching or research practice, which the bureaucracy inevitably makes harder by whittling away both time and patience.

If it is to be objected that the paperwork is necessary, it must seriously be asked: for what purpose? For neither teaching nor research are adequately summarised by standard forms, and the practices of neither are transferable willy nilly across disciplines. The way we engage in chemistry, or philosophy, or theatre, or game creation have little in common - certainly nothing worth enshrining in a kind of paperwork for tracking quality, nor in a mythic 'best practice' that would transcend circumstances, a critique brilliantly pursued by Frank Coffield and Sheila Edward in 2009.

Ironically, benefits can come from our becoming embedded within the cyborg networks of quality forms. They bind us to others in that network in ways that are superior to having no such ties to draw upon. But whenever the operation of those networks buys into the Cult of Quality, the result is not enhancement but mere stultification, and attempts at enhancing anything then flounder on the impossibility of translating achievements between radically distinct situations. The greatest success stories come not from any form-filling power trip, but simply from letting university staff watch each other at work. Alasdair MacIntyre warned of our metaphysical faith in management expertise - the quality form is the physical embodiment of that faith. Let they who have achieved perfection fill in the first form, the rest of us have better things to do with our time.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #65


Anti-paywalls

Denied-insurance-claimA paywall is a cybernetic system for ensuring that money is collected before some service is rendered. An anti-paywall, conversely, is a cybernetic system for preventing money from being given out by deferring service to the other side of a bureaucratic process. Anti-paywalls are used by governments, insurance companies and other organisations to both slow and reduce the amount of money they have to pay out. They provide no benefit to the victims of their labyrinths and traps since their purpose is precisely to slow and reduce the amount of money that might otherwise be paid out.

Government anti-paywalls are the most straightforward, consisting merely of a layer of form-filling, document-checking, and rubber-stamping. Social services of all kinds are guarded in this way from excessive claims. Ironically, the cost of administrating the anti-paywall then becomes one of the biggest expenses of such services. But fear of what might happen if the wall came tumbling down, and 'handouts' escalated, keeps the anti-paywall running. I will not claim such a system is necessary, but it certainly feels inevitable, given the current way nations are organised.

In insurance companies, anti-paywalls risk being far more pernicious. While most of my experiences of these kinds of organisations have been benign, I have encountered both vet and medical insurance companies willing and able to contort themselves to avoid paying out - and of course, both routinely 'exclude' coverage under circumstances that transform them from safety net to mere leech. Here, where insurance companies betray the trust that is placed in them, the anti-paywall is just as likely to be a phone maze as a form, but the purposes remain aligned even as the methods change: as little as possible should be paid out, regardless of what impression was given to those who supported the company by regularly paying their premiums. 

The cyborg we become when facing the anti-paywall is either demotivated or angered, but either way the anti-paywall serves its purpose by thwarting yours. Even if your rage keeps you pursuing matters, the longer you are kept from payment, the more money is 'saved' by the organisation keeping you outside. There is nothing humane in this mistreatment of our fellow humans, it is just the petty evil of contemporary bureaucracy that has become so familiar to us we barely even notice. Not all insurance companies are guilty of this... but we have seen enough abuse of our trust to know that when we hit the anti-paywall, we are in one of the dark corners of contemporary existence.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #64


Phone Mazes

Phone Maze"If you want to listen to short loops of popular music interspersed with insincere reassurance that you call is important to us, press 1." Of all the uses we put our robots too, perhaps the most banal is the phone maze. It serves one purpose: to prevent you from talking to a human if at all possible, and - all to frequently - to ensure that if you do, it will be someone far from any kind of influence inside the organisation. The phone maze is a Chinese Wall intended to keep you out.

Now it might be objected that the phone maze is necessitated by the volume on of calls corporations have to deal with... in other words, the phone maze is necessary because corporations are necessary. This is effectively an admission that we have created the circumstances where wealth and power can accumulate, and thus that we live in an effectively feudal arrangement where our fealty to large organisations need not be affirmed because it is always assumed. It is always at the very least possible, however, that organisations could be more widely distributed, that instead of shareholder profit, superior wealth distribution could be pursued. If this is accepted, the phone maze is not some dismal inevitability but rather a cost-saving mechanism that allows fewer or cheaper systems to substitute for the more expensive alternative: more humans and fewer robots.

Alas, this is not even the most tragic aspect of the phone maze, for in a great many cases (especially those involving international outsourcing) even the humans are forced to be robots. The use of programmed flowcharts and pre-scripted messages makes even the human cheese at the centre of the phone maze robotic in its function, robbing workers of their autonomy and reducing them to mere cogs in a grand machine meant to keep the outside world disconnected from anything an organisation is doing. Even if we do not want to distribute wealth less inequitably, we can scarcely claim to hold humanity in respect when we are complicit in inflicting terrible working conditions upon strangers - and in this regard, working in a phone maze is not even the worst form of wage slavery being inflicted.

In terms of its effects upon humans, the phone maze has the same behavioural influence we encounter in so much bureaucracy - it installs either irritable anger or bored submission. The only plausible defence for these labyrinths of tedium is to argue for their inevitability, a rhetoric I reject as lacking in imagination. If corporations genuinely respect their customers, as they all publicly claim to do, they must learn how to treat them with respect. That might begin by treating those condemned to work inside the phone maze as the human beings they are.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #63


Phone Upgrades

Smartphones"I have to upgrade my phone" is something we hear a lot these days. A telephone, strictly speaking, only needed upgrading once or twice over the entire century of their operation: to get a standardised connector, and to add touch tone noises. But the phones we talk about upgrading now are not just devices for communicating at a distance, they are the robots that convey the greatest volume of cyborg capacities upon us, for the link us into a vast global network of computers - the internet, and with it 'the cloud', myriad banks of computers offering remote computing and data storage capacities.

If we pause to ask about the moral and behavioural effects of upgrading, we are likely to be misled with shallow claims of utility. New phones are 'better', we assume - an assessment based entirely upon our personal desire for power and convenience. They are certainly not better for the environment... in their manufacture, in the construction of the radio tower infrastructure required to support them, in the ever-growing power requirements of the servers working behind the scenes to make each upgrade effective, each upgrade does more and more damage to our planet, all quietly unnoticed as we goggle at so-called Live Pictures (merely 3 second videos that increase our data usage further) or radar gesture controls. New technology is impressive when viewed through the eyes of its marketing story, and horrific if we look instead at the environmental impact of acquiring the lithium that makes claims like 'longest ever battery life' possible.

And we are habituated to upgrades, we view them as at the very least inevitable, if not also highly desirable. Any concept of maintaining our smartphones to keep them in service is off the table. I am writing this on an iPhone I have managed to keep in service for about seven years, despite Apple's best efforts to force me into replacing it... but it's dying. Its charging port barely functions and it is close to senile as the ever-rising expectations for computing power mean it can barely display 'upgraded' webpages on its antiquated operating system. My Twitter app still uses the 140 character limit, and can no longer show the threads of conversation. A great many other apps have stopped working entirely. But it is still my phone, my responsibility, and I will not abandon it prematurely. I already have a replacement, a hand-me-down handset I hope to keep going for many more years, but I will hold off making the exchange as long as I can. I feel a duty to my pocket robots, not because they're alive but because my decision to adopt them affects everything that is alive.

When we meet someone who has just 'upgraded' their phone, we might idly remark "that's a good phone", meaning it has ever-more capabilities, while ignoring the ever-growing costs entailed. Frankly, I do not think we have any conception yet of what a 'good smartphone' might be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #62


Surrogate Knowledge

Zelda 1926.croppedWe live in a world of cyborgs, combinations of beings and things with capacities augmented by those partnerships. You and your smartphone or computer form a cyborg with amazing capabilities, so much so, that you could easily miss how your robot companion not only enhances your powers and abilities, it also risks reducing your capabilities as well. Such is the risk posed by treating the internet phenomenon that we might call surrogate knowledge.

To possess knowledge of something entails more than being able to cite trivia. Your robot can look up the release date of any film ever released, but it has no knowledge or understanding of what a movie is, nor a release date. It is more akin to a cross between an idiot savant and a parrot: it has the power to repeat what others have recorded. When we tap into this ability, we have surrogate knowledge, which is to say, we lack any actual knowledge and instead have the capacity to look up what others who may-or-may-now know have claimed.

The trouble with surrogate knowledge is that it gives us the feeling of 'knowing the answer' while robbing us of any actual competency. Worse, we can never be sure that what we are given is correct unless we already possess some knowledge of the subject and are merely 'brushing up' an answer. My iPhone has told me that The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was released in 1926, fifty years before home computers, and that Tom Cruise is five feet tall (he's 5' 7") - these raised a chuckle with me because I was aware they were errors. How many smartphone cyborgs have simply swallowed nonsense that was thrown at them from random corners of the internet?

Surrogate knowledge is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. If you are merely repeating an assertion, you cannot claim to possess knowledge. Indeed, the crisis about what it means to know is the essence of our contemporary cultural catastrophe - a morass of misunderstandings now glossed under 'fake news' and 'post-truth' that marks the culmination of a disaster expertly foreshadowed by Nietzsche centuries before its impact was felt. We are cyborgs who, even now, trust in cybernetic networks to deliver answers they lack the knowledge to interpret, and still feel, undeservedly, that we know more than people in earlier eras, as if knowing more was akin to collecting stamps.

If Newton was able to truthfully claim that he had seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants, we now risk seeing nothing for we have asked the blind to see for us. Although even this is unfair of blind people, who perceive the world with an understanding born of the struggles inherent to authentic knowledge. Our robots on the other hand are unknowing, unfeeling, and unseeing. It is only my becoming a cyborg with us that they become capable of being in a world. And even this is only a kind of surrogate knowledge.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #61


Multiplayer

Gauntlet Four PlayerGauntlet changed the arcade forever, and the moral implications of this shift has both positive and negative implications. From the early forays into co-operative play brought about by player two, the arcade began to discover a whole new realm of play: multiplayer. It meant more money for arcade operators – and indeed, was designed for that very purpose. But it also meant greater emphasis on co-operation, and most of the great commercial successes in the waning years of the arcade's heyday were four player co-op like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons.

It was not the first four player cabinet – Atari had a four player version of Warlords in 1980, for instance – but it was the first game to have co-operation baked into the design. Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (via John Palevich's Dandy, which had been distributed on the Atari Program Exchange), the game was designed exclusively for players to work together. Yet a lingering competitiveness remained: there was not enough food to keep four players going (after all, for the coins to flow, players must die) so even in a game expressly designed for players to work together, a tension remained.

As such, the moral effects of multiplayer were a distorted Prisoner's Dilemma where no matter how much players wanted to work together, there was always an ever-present temptation to defect. Yet this clouds the core behavioural effect of Gauntlet, one shared by Sega's novel spin on it, Quartet: it made players actively want to play together like nothing before. If pinball always felt co-operative to me, multiplayer co-op removed the metaphor. We sought out new friends to join us in the game – nothing else broke the introverted ice of the early arcade quite as effectively, or as extensively. If there was a commercial motive behind this from the point of view of Atari and the arcade, it did not change the positive impact it had in the lives of those who came together because of its.

Yet even the commercial aspect of Gauntlet's success is arguably more laudable in the context of the arcade multiplayer than online multiplayer today. For Atari's Gauntlet kept alive multiple small businesses (the arcades themselves), providing shared spaces for players to meet and engage socially. Whatever might be said of League of Legends and its ilk today, they are not a socially co-operative endeavour that shares wealth with tens of thousands of local partners, and creates new spaces for play and friendship, but merely a digital funnel leading to yet another giant corporate maw...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #60, the final part of a ten part mini-serial on Arcade Cyborgs.