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


Techno

Drum MachineAlmost all human music is made by cyborgs – from the pipes and drums of the Stone Age to electronic music today, the compositions we are engaging with are facilitated, created, and distributed through technological networks. Techno was among the first genres of music to arise specifically from digital computer technology, and as with most twentieth century innovations in music, it grew out of Black urban culture. The Belleville Three pioneered a new Detroit sound that they described as “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk were stuck in an elevator.” Along with the house and electro styles it inspired, techno spread thanks to the inexpensive music robots like the the Roland TR-808 programmable drum machine that opened the door to a more intimate relationship between musician and machine.

Techno and its brethren grew in power in part because the British rave scene, fuelled by widespread availability of the illegal drug Ecstasy, made it the centre of their culture. As a teenager in the 1980s, I loathed the roughshod electronic dance music that seemed inescapable on the club scene that I felt honour bound to attend each week. But nostalgia wins you over eventually, and now I remember fondly what was once an audio ordeal, no doubt helped by an ever growing love for electronic music that began with The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds and never ended. Like my love for electronica, Techno never went away: it is now so ubiquitous on the Balearic island of Ibiza that people complain about the scene having been diluted to the point of being “over-exposed.”

To ask about the cybervirtue of Techno is to enquire about the positive and negative effects of the network of beings and things it connects. And what a network! Detroit musicians, a Japanese electronics company, British ravers, illegal European drugs labs, radio stations (both legitimate and pirate), media corporations, privately owned clubs, DJ’s with lifelong careers and vast collections of vinyl records... Techno has fostered a global network that successfully brings communities together. If those groups of people are less tightly knit than churches in preceding centuries, they still share with these older communities a striving for authentic communal experience and a desire for transcendence.

There are dark corners, too – deaths from misused or mismanufactured Ecstasy, brains burned out on too much of a good thing, people reduced to ‘living for the weekender’ – yet compared to any other cybernetic network of this scale, the negative impact is rather less than tabloid sensationalism would have you believe. The Techno cyborgs created something that has lasted because the good outweighs the bad, and the music ultimately means more than the drug-taking it attracted. Considering my teenage animosity for this bastard child of Parliament-Funkadelic and kosmiche (itself born of the musician-computer cyborg), I find today I hold Techno in great respect for what it achieved outside of the strictures of governments and corporations.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #35


The Black Library

file-sharingIf a ‘black market’ is anywhere goods and services are exchanged illegally for money, a ‘black library’ is where they are exchanged for free. Although some illicit copyright infringement did happen in bricks and mortar library buildings – music CDs copied, for instance – there was nothing like what I call the Black Library before internet connectivity opened the door to filesharing piracy. Any media that can be stored electronically – films, TV, music, books, pictures – is now shared via the BitTorrent protocol thanks to the vast digital infrastructure of the internet, the availability of computers able to connect to it, and a widespread willingness to break the law.

The Black Library fascinates me. From its contents, it is clear that is primarily operated by a ragtag conglomeration of nerds, especially (but not exclusively) in the US. Yet despite the illegality of copyright infringement, this disparate community maintains its own sense of virtue. Those who persistently maintain files in the Black Library are ‘seeds’; those that take and don’t give back are ‘leeches’; there is a strong ethos of aiming for at least a 1.5 ratio of data downloaded to uploaded – that is, the pirates of the Black Library are encouraged to ensure not only that they pass on what they take to another cyborg, but to another ‘half’ a cyborg too. You will find few other places in the media economy with such virtuous ideals.

Unless, of course, it’s your work being pirated – then the cry of ‘theft!’ will be upon your lips. Except filesharing is not much like stealing and much more like forgery: you don’t take something away, you duplicate it without legal right to do so. But then, so did everyone who videotaped a television show and kept the recording, or made a bootleg recording of a rock concert (now considered valuable cultural artefacts). Here lies the strange world of intertwined virtue and vice that is the Black Library: because we cannot help but notice that it is the media corporations who suffer the greatest losses from piracy, with creators largely only suffering significant loss if their sales are at superstar volumes (like long-time filesharing enemy Madonna), it is rare for pirates to feel any remorse for what they do.

Personally, I see the moral weakness of the Black Library not in terms of copyright infringement but in the absence of thought it encourages with respect to the complex network of media creators whose work is (potentially) disrespected as it is parasitically copied. Yet I place great stock in libraries of all kinds; the litmus test of a civilisation is the state of its libraries. I cannot in good conscience condemn a someone for operating a library, even when doing so is breaking the law – and there are far more scurrilous and despicable cyborgs in our world today than these outlaw librarians.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #34


Venture Capital Funds

Venture CapitalOf all the strange things that money does to humans, one of the most arcane is the venture capital fund. These networks of investors and businesses are geared towards the willing exploitation of start up companies who happen to have business models that could succeed on global scales solely through the addition of vast sums of money. In other words, venture capital is there as a means to scale up operations of either already successful companies, or newcomers that might have the ‘next big thing’. There is something of a Faustian pact involved: venture capitalists (VC) want a stake in the company, and like any capitalists they care little about anything but the numbers. If you wanted to build a company for keeping people in your community in work, VC is roughly the diametric pole, being focussed primarily on heading for a share offer (an initial public offering or IPO) to cash out with.

Yet venture capital cyborgs behave weirdly... I have frequently noticed how companies successfully pursuing VC almost invariably raise much more money than they could realistically use. When pioneering social games company Zynga pursued VC money in 2007, it made a lot of sense for them – they had a hot property in FarmVille, which turned successful Japanese designs like Harvest Moon into a form tailored for the mass market. They needed money to expand. But how much did they really need for this? They ended up pursuing an astonishing nine rounds of funding raising $866 million. Valued at $7 billion, the IPO was ‘only’ valued at €1 billion – which when you consider how much was put in was a damp squib. The story ends with a lawsuit alleging a fraudulent concealment of the true state of their business after the IPO. Not entirely surprising... given the amount invested, Zynga would have needed to clone planet Earth to have a large enough audience to justify those investments.

I previously discussed how lottery tickets are intimately associated with poverty. Well, venture capital funds are the lottery tickets of the ultra-wealthy, and the returns (unsurprising) are far better. Only one in five VC bets pays off... but those that do are billion dollar jackpots. Of course, Zynga shows that even winning a billion isn’t always enough. They pursued nine rounds of funding because they could – the money was being waved in their faces. Venture capital funds have a time limit, and it's ‘better’ for VC to invest and lose than to have failed to invest – so when one VC finds a good bet, the pack isn’t far behind. Capital – the vast accumulation of money beyond any human need – is a game of chasing tails, and venture capital funds are the apex lottery; good odds, but proportionally smaller returns than lotteries for the poor – albeit at billion dollar scales. This self-perpetuation of circumstances is perhaps the defining feature of a world whose most influential cybernetic network is money.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #33


Free Parking

ANPRWe should not confuse ‘free parking’ with the ability to park without cost. The latter is a capacity created by the absence of any parking arrangement, although not in the absence of technology since we are always dealing with roads, paving, street markings, lights and so forth whatever the rules of parking might be. No, free parking these days is something more sinister... it is the urban angler fish, a vehicular Venus fly trap to catch unwary drivers.

Not that long ago, the business model for parking lots was based on paid tickets. You parked, purchased a ticket to cover the time you’d be there, displayed it in your car, and that was that. If you exceeded the time you paid for (and were caught doing so) you paid a ‘fine’ (although this was often merely a civil payment under contract law, depending on the local legislature). You paid for the time you were using parking facilities, and you were told that this is what you were doing. Whatever you think about this arrangement, it was not obviously predatory.

Now enter the Automatic Number Plate Recognition robot... It can tell when you arrive and leave a car park and thus radically cuts the on going costs of running car parks by eliminating or reducing the number of humans required. These new devices, used by nefarious companies like Parking Eye in the UK, allow operators to advertise ‘free parking’ and make their money solely from the enforcing of the strictest letter of the agreement. Motorists will be fined for exceeding the time limits, spanning bays, or any other infractions that the robots detect – after which car ownership data is used to issue parking charges that look like legal penalty notices but are in fact merely invoices for money claimed over the contractual terms posted in the car park. Victims of this scam are pressured into quick payment, often in situations where the ‘fine’ is not in fact justified.

Like the angler fish and Venus fly trap, the scurrilous aspect of ‘free parking’ is rooted in misdirection... pretending to be something you are not. Companies like Parking Eye offer free parking as a lure to make revenue from fake ‘fines’ where they masquerade as having a legal power that is entirely fabricated. They want victims to think they have been fined for breaking the law – but nothing of the kind has happened. Indeed, the invoices passed off as ‘fines’ operate under contract law – if anything illegal happens here, it is the parking operators who could be accused of criminal behaviour by violating advertising standards or similar laws. This is a business model that makes the worst free-to-play, microtransaction-driven videogame seem almost innocent by comparison. Beware the parking predators of the urban jungle...

A Hundred Cyborgs, #32


Cinema

IMAX RobotsWhat a strange and sprawling cybernetic network the contemporary cinema possesses! Writers work with computers to produce scripts to sign with production companies; acting talent perform those scripts in highly-technologised locations rife with complex lighting, mikes, rigging, and cameras; dozens of special effects companies work with further computers, each making a few seconds of spectacle to add to the footage; editors splice it all together with yet more computers; and at the end of the line, robot projectionists screen movies for an audience warned not to use their pocket robots to record what they see under penalty of bringing the law enforcement network into play.

Considering how much of this process is now mediated by computers of various kinds, it is sobering to remember that this entire field of human existence was in operation prior to the existence of silicon chips. That older network had additional elements, such as the manufacturing of celluloid film, and the developing of the resulting reels in a lab. Within my lifetime, digital methods have supplanted almost every step of the production process – even sets and the presented bodies of those acting are frequently produced electronically... only their voices remain exempt from robotic replacement. It is not even hard to imagine an AI for writing a (bad) action movie, even if drama and comedy scripts would prove tougher, perhaps impossible, to computerise effectively.

These changes in the cinema network seem to constitute improvements – certainly if our only criteria is the maximum efficiency of production. Yet at almost every stage of the process, there are casualties of skill, a reduction of the opportunities for excellence thanks to the lure of the convenience of computers. Ian McKellan reduced to tears by the isolation of the greenscreen; editors lamenting the loss of craft associated with flatbed film editing; and while we may never know why director Tony Scott chose to commit suicide, I cannot shake the suspicion that his painstaking commitment to resisting the cheap theatrics of digitally-generated special effects was a key factor in his depression.

Of all the aspects of the cinema network to have been absorbed into computers, the one that saddens me most is the robot projectionist. The art and skill – and also, admittedly, the stress and frustration – of the projectionist is truly a lost art. There is no triumph of a perfect screening now, only pushing a button to start. Whether though lazy design or a simple lack of care, multiplexes now seem unable to execute an elegant close down (prose lights on, curtains to finish, then gently raise the house lights). Often, screenings end with everything just stopping, the clear sign of the total vacancy of the proj box. Feeling this absence is more than mere wistfulness – it is a sign of lost skills, of something barely noticed coming to a certain end. A projectionist was a cyborg with their own excellences; the robots who have replaced them are truly ‘just machines’.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #31