Skateboard

SkateboardWalking in the morning to San Francisco's Moscone centre whilst at GDC with the other pedestrians earlier this year, I could never suppress my smile at seeing some fellow upon a skateboard making full use of the roads, unabashed and unafraid of automobiles, quietly and confidently using their physical prowess to negotiate the streets of San Francisco swiftly and with style. When someone squeaked past me on the sidewalk on some disk-based robot vehicle, I could not help but snicker, watching money and electrical power substituting for skill.

I could never master the skateboard. Never mind standing up upon it, just sitting on one and trying to roll safely down our childhood driveway was a challenge at the peak of my ability. I did eventually manage to stand up upon a surfboard: never upon a skateboard. I think, in part, my fear of falling held me back. Perhaps more significantly, I had mastered hand-eye coordination as a child but did not learn to balance until I became a commuter, balanced precariously amidst the ever-shifting inertial shifts of bus and train. Perhaps this is the root of my admiration for skateboarders: I had no resentment for my failures, only admiration for other people's commitment.

The human-skateboard cyborg amazes me. I do not mean in the extent of the skill in display in sporting competitions with half pipes and precision moves. All sports are amazing in that way. It is rather the manner that this proud and self-sufficient cyborg comports itself, entering the streets of a city inimical to their presence and tackling it with casual aplomb. Others might read arrogance there, I perceive only confidence and assuredness, the self-worth of a skill earned, I can only assume, the hard way. While it is by no means the only vehicle to display cybervirtues of mastery, and thus to encourage persistence and resistance to minor adversity, it stands out in the urban landscape as emblematic of a willingness to prevail that is at odds in many respects with the assumptions of contemporary life. How many falls and failures precede a successful journey down a city street? 

That is what I should truly like the opportunity to observe: not the expertise of the well-rehearsed athlete but the faltering steps of the novice who fails, falls, and falters but does not give up, despite repeated injury. There is a virtue here worth emulating, and if perhaps it is pride that drives them forward in their inexperienced persistence then, well, how can I begrudge anyone who can take their vice and make of it a virtue of another kind? Would that we all could say the same.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #50


Team Captain

Nick FolesThe captain in a sporting team is, quite clearly, a variation on the military captain, even if the name is not always the same – the quarterback being one clear variation. The parallels between these two conceits of captaincy run deep, yet the degree of discipline and co-ordination that serves to make a military unit the metaphorical 'well-oiled machine' does not necessarily apply to sportspeople, who remain individuals working together for all that the captain may attempt to push them past this.

There is, perhaps, the added complication that it is the coach – the general on this 'battlefield' – who possesses genuine authority and despite the name, the captain possesses more of the metaphorical rank of sergeant than anything else. Here, as in the managerial power structure of corporate businesses, there are lines of control and communication (which is the cybernetic dimension of captaincy) but they are looser. The individuals do not share that common framework for acting that empowers a soldier, despite the common dependency on drills (practice) to embed habits.

Unlike the military Captain previously discussed, the positive qualities of the team captain cyborg are harder to grasp. Captaincy appears more of a reward for an exceptional player than a conduit for loyalty and discipline, but perhaps here an issue is that we do not see into the circumstances where the cybervirtue of a team captain might be observed. I certainly leave open the possibility that there are virtues at work in the team captains relationship with their team that I simply have no experience with.

It seems, however, that the positive ascriptions we can make in the context of the military Captain cyborg are inherent in the social technology that creates that very network of roles. For the sporting team captain, it seems rather that if the sportsperson in that role has the virtues to lead, then positive qualities come about. But if those qualities do not flow from the technology itself (the structuring of roles in this case), this is not an instance of cybervirtue as I have described it in The Virtuous Cyborg.

Perhaps the key difference here is that the military Captain cyborg is conditioned by the life and death circumstances it was created to address, while the sportsperson risks nothing but their pride and thus is more inclined to indulge their personal lust for glory. I suspect, but cannot know, that curbing this aggrandising instinct for personal victory over that of the team is precisely the challenge the team captain has to overcome, but that the coach in fact has to address. Perhaps the sportsperson, by virtue of their temperament, is ill suited to leadership as-such, perhaps it is simply rarer that it can be expressed. Whatever the reason, we can admire the performance of a team that can act in unison but we do not accredit this success to the role of captain. There is something significant in this difference.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #49


Captain

Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech KossakThe military rank of captain, much like the corporate rank of manager that partially descends from it, is an ancient cybernetic invention. It is different from the power structure of the chieftain over a tribe, and indeed, harsher, since the chieftain listens to the tribe before making the important decision – the captain does not, and the manager typically will not, for all that they could.

If it seems strange to talk of the Captain as a cyborg remember that cybernetics is concerned with communication and control: this is the essence of the role of Captain. Those with a higher military rank give orders that cannot be questioned, those beneath the Captain in rank respond to their orders in kind. The Captain cyborg is thus a conduit of communication and control: they execute the orders given to them by using their own experience and creative intelligence to determine how their squad will act.

When it comes to the cybervirtue of the Captain, the question is: does this technology (in this case, social technology) encourage positive qualities in those who participate in it? And here, we must answer in the affirmative in so much that both the Captain and their squad display loyalty, discipline, efficiency, camaraderie, and many more virtues beside. We may resist admitting it if our tendency is to be suspicious or denunciative of the military machine – but it is not coincidental that those with a military background frequently become respected members of the communities they return to after serving.

There is probably an argument that the Captain cyborg (of whom the squad are also participants) encourages negative qualities too, such as a restriction of judgement, and further risks of abusive consequence but I am reluctant to stress this aspect too hastily. The abusiveness that can flow from command is also a risk in its absence, something anarchists are loathe to admit, and the restriction in judgement that comes from the unflinching willingness to respond to perceived duty is not much different from the consequence of any speciality, which necessarily reconfigures your horizons of perception.

One of the reasons I have always respected honourable military service is because I have a sense of the virtue of the Captain cyborg. My issues with the military, especially the imperialistic actions of Western nations including my own, stem from problems higher in the chain of command, where virtue is lost and Consequentialism – one of the moral disasters of the twentieth century as I argue in The Virtuous Cyborg – gradually dominate and corrupt. It is hard, sometimes, to retain the respect of the captain and the squad when the mission they have been assigned is scurrilous and ill-advised. But I cannot, even as a near-pacifist, do anything but respect those whose allegiance to one another is the basis of something unique and admirable. I wish the same could be said more often of the manager...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #48

The opening image is Poland's Wedding to the Sea by Wojciech Kossak, and depicts a general rather than a captain.


Weather Forecasts

Synoptic Weather ChartIs there any greater emblem of the limits of technology than the weather forecast? Despite an astronomical increase in available resources – both theoretical and computational – the forecast is still frequently mistaken about what is about to happen. Indeed, internet weather allows you to see how swiftly predictions are supplanted by new attempts in the endless and thankless task of meteorological prognostication.

But when it comes to the cybervirtue of weather forecasts, the question isn't whether predictions are right or wrong, but whether our technological methods for anticipating rain and storm encourage any good qualities in us. I suppose it might be claimed that the daily forecast encourages prudence; we check to see if our plans might be scuppered by inclement weather, for instance – I am caught out by cold snaps far less often now that it is my daily ritual to load the Met Office app before getting dressed. I certainly feel that as a weather forecast cyborg I am better prepared.

There is a flipside to this, though: the eroding of our skills in reading the weather. When you do not have the cyberforecast to rely on, you develop powers of observation and intuition based upon what you see in the sky and feel on the wind. Although I know no rigorous research into this, anecdotal evidence abounds of people who developed uncanny skill at reading the skies and the seasons, particularly in contexts where the idea of checking a forecast is entirely alien.

Even if this were to prove illusory, there is another sense in which our weather skills are being weakened. In the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, newspapers and TV news shows presented forecasts in a code of symbols that allowed you to understand what was happening with the intersecting warm and cold fronts. It required more skill to read these synoptic forecasts than the icons and numbers we encounter now – but that greater proficiency also meant a deeper understanding of the weather patterns. You could tell, for instance, that it was a question of when and not if it would rain when the conditions were such. In this regard, I can level an accusation not at the meteorologists, who have continued to refine their craft, but the remorseless tendency to dumb down our cultural communications such that no-one need ever think again.

The moment technology giants realised that greater reach came hand in hand with less challenging information, we turned a corner in how we shared our knowledge of the world. Shared practices, skills of understanding, became less important than reaching down to the lowest common denominator. The meteorological consequences of this are a loss of skill at reading the atmospheric conditions. The wider impact of this increased dependence and reduced competence is something we shall have to weather together.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #47


Radio DJ

Radio DJ BoothDespite the decreasing importance of radio waves to their job, the radio DJ remains emblematic of the contemporary cyborg. This odd claims rests on the recognition that every radio DJ exists only through their relationship with technology, that anyone who encounters their work does so through technological means, and that behind and below their work lies a vast network of cyborgs dominated by corporate interests yet still in certain places resistant to that inevitability.

To ask about the cybervirtue of the radio DJ is not to ask whether DJs are virtuous people but to ask ourselves whether our engagement with these cyborgs is virtuous or can encourage the good in us. And the brutal truth of this is that I do not know what to think. I know I enjoy listening to the music championed by Radio 6 Music, and to the eclectic selections of Justin Robertson's Temple of Wonders on Soho Radio... But is my entertainment enough? I am increasingly sceptical of the pervasive logic that makes entertainment value our unchallenged core value, and nervous about jumping to the valorisations of the term 'art' as a defence, even though I do not doubt music's credentials in this regard, and rather suspect even the act of DJing might in itself qualify as an artform.

Perhaps I stumble around the way the radio DJ presents themselves as a distant friend. "A little bit of me, a little bit of you" is how one Radio 6 presenter advertises her show. But there is nothing of me there at all, except my time: the music chosen is almost all her, the monologue comes from one source. Less than 1% of listeners carve out even a mere minute of time in any given show. The disproportion of DJ to listener is evident... we buy into a relationship offered as reciprocal that is decidedly and necessarily one-sided. Even thinking about how this staves off the epidemic of loneliness for the lovelorn-many does not assuage my concerns.

Yet even if the technological construct we call the radio DJ were not cybervirtuous, even if no part of my participation with their work encouraged anything good from me, I would still defend the virtue, in its old fashioned sense, of those who advocate for musicians, whose work would be untenable without the acts of discovery and support that DJs on Radio 6 and other stations provide. If I quietly sneer at those presenters on commercial radio who exist almost solely to line the purses of ultra-rich recording industry nobility, it does not dint my admiration for those engaging on a daily basis with the cyborg artform par excellence: music. The DJ is not especially cybervirtuous for me, the listener. Yet in so many cases they might still be a site of cybervirtue all the same.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #46


100Cyborgs: 31-40

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 31 to 40:

    31. Cinema
    32. Free Parking
    33. Venture Capital Funds
    34. The Black Library (filesharing)
    35. Techno
    36. Suits
    37. President of the United States
    38. Halloween
    39. Spaceships
    40. Earpieces 

There's a lot of line blurring pieces in here, particularly #36 Suits, #37 President of the United States, #38 Halloween, and #39 SpaceshipsIf you only read one of these, #36 Suits is perhaps the most unusual application of the term 'cyborg' you're likely to encounter. The remaining posts are more straightforward concepts of cyborg existence, and I am particularly fond of #35 Techno, which makes a positive case for our relationship with technology. 

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 next week!


The Virtues of Cyborg Players

The Virtues of Cyborg PlayersPleased to announce that I will be presenting at LCAD's Big Bend campus on Monday 25th March, 5-7pm on The Virtues of Cyborg Players.

I'm a visiting professor at LCAD, which boasts one of the top ranking Masters courses in games development, and it's always a pleasure to visit the campus there, not to mention meet up with my students whom I normally only get to interact with via the internet - a classic example of cyborg relationships today!

Here's the blurb and the address:

We need to learn to be good cyborgs - and game designer and philosopher Dr Chris Bateman suggests one way to discover how is to learn from the cyborg players of videogames. For almost forty years, players have been tested by their cyborg relationships with digital games, and while there are certainly some cases where matters have gone awry - the Pokémon GO player who steps out into traffic, for instance - the world of videogames abounds with cases where videogame players show how we might learn to be good cyborgs.

Laguna College of Art + Design
Big Bend Campus, Studios 13+14 (BB13+14)
2825 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

If you're in or around California, I'd love to see you there!


Coming Soon: A Hundred Cyborgs Returns

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outThere's been a hiatus on A Hundred Cyborgs while I've been working on the Kickstarter and GDC trip for our new games developer, which has completely dominated the last few months. However, I hope to get back to the cyberethics serial in April or thereabouts. I already have a few pieces drafted, but I have not had the time to do any serious blogging this year as of yet. I'd like to reach #50 before Discordian New Year (5th May) and that should be an achievable goal.

Watch this space!


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