Citizens

Raphael.The School of AthensThe technology of citizenship was one of the most revolutionary transformations in human history. It offered, for the first time, the chance for people to participate in a political body as equals - a concept invented in ancient Greece, expanded in the Roman Republic, and then lost for millennia as the relationship of sovereign to subject became the dominant political regime once more.

We inherited the revival of this citizenship technology, bequeathed to us by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Immanuel Kant and Mary Wollstonecraft. This shiny new model was founded upon the dignity of our free will as rational beings. Kant ‘hacked’ citizenship into monarchies without losing the role of the monarch (a necessary compromise for this change to have been permitted!), while Wollstonecraft thought through its consequences leading inexorably to a citizenship that was available for the first time to women as well as men. Eventually, without any further hacking required, the concept of citizenship extended to all humans belonging to a nation, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Yet now we have hit a crisis in our concept of citizenship, a technological breakdown caused in large but unnoticed part by our wilfully forgetting where we came from. Thus while the fundamental laws concerning citizenship haven’t significantly shifted (except to expressly include those who, philosophically speaking, should always have been included) most of us seem to have rejected the option to be a citizen at all.

We reject leaders whom others elected, and will not follow them.

We reject other people whose political views offend us, and try to rob them of their right to free speech.

And we reject the sovereignty of other countries, and use force of arms to alter their political course even though we are not (and do not desire to be) citizens of those nations.

In short, we reject our opportunity to be citizens at all, and offer in its place nothing but excuses for why our values, our judgements, and our chosen leaders are the only ones that matter.

A person who truly practices citizenship, rather than abusing their entitlements and excluding voices from political consideration, forms a cyborg network with all other citizens within the same nation. I would love to say something trenchant about the moral and behavioural effects of citizenship, but first I would have to find some citizens to observe, and apparently there are none left. We continue to try to reap the benefits of this social technology even while we fatally undermine the radical equality it depends upon. Liberals are just as guilty of this corruption of the technology of citizenship as conservatives, since few liberals care about their nation as such, seeking instead to assert their power everywhere while undermining both free speech and the concepts of nationality that citizenship depends upon.

For the first time in my life, I find myself interested in learning how to be a citizen... but alas, there is nobody left for me to be a citizen with.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #98


Lockdown

LockdownThe lockdowns triggered in response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus are the most extensive attempt to manually reconfigure our cybernetic networks since World War II. In both cases, changes were justified in order to ‘save lives’ (an emotive but oft misleading slogan), and in the case of the lockdowns, it now seems that everyone treats the regularly reported fatalities attributable to the virus either as proof of the emergency or evidence of government negligence. The sole thing held up as a counterweight are economic numbers, as if only numbers could oppose other numbers, as if deaths and money were directly comparable measures.

The catalogue of damage caused by lockdowns, meanwhile, are inadmissible because they are unquantifiable. Thus while it is forbidden (rather than, say, grossly insensitive) to observe that most of the casualties in this pandemic have been vulnerable elderly folk who had survived several consecutive mild flu seasons, the harm caused by withdrawal of medical services, the severe mental health impact, suicides, or the myriad other negative consequences of lockdown disruptions can be simply ignored and dismissed, just as we routinely ignore and dismiss the million annual automobile deaths that are entirely preventable yet not worth discussing. The one thing we can say with confidence about these lockdowns are that their full impact upon human flourishing is entirely unknown and cannot possibly be calculated, such that every blowhard mouthing off one way or the other about what everyone else got wrong reveals themselves as, well, simply human and not in fact possessed of any great insight upon this partially self-inflicted calamity. Beyond all the other examples of shallow-sightedness I’ve discussed, the lockdowns seem truly beyond our capacity to fully comprehend.

What of the moral and behavioural effects of lockdowns? Here is a strange case where positive and negative aspects flow into and around each other. Some families have been brought closer together, yet some couples have been torn apart. Neighbours in the UK have forged solidarity through ritual clapping, whilst also making pariahs out of those who are “letting the street down” by not participating. Likewise, mask-wearing (despite unresolved disputes among epidemiologists that it is verboten to acknowledge), has on the one hand demonstrated the universal love some profess for all others - and then utterly undermined that through the vehement scorn directed at all those who question masks, regardless of their reasons.

It is said that the spirit of the Blitz brought out the best of Londoners. Lockdown has seemingly brought out both the best and the worst in everyone. It has also disconfirmed Alan Moore’s hypothesis in Watchmen that humanity could be united by a common threat. COVID-19, like the fake alien attack on New York in that comic, is a monster provoking stage-managed fearfulness - stay at home or suffer the consequences! Yet we are not united, except in our blundering compliance to these lockdowns, within which we continue to squabble like we are not brothers and sisters, but rather our own worst enemies.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #97


Disney Tax

Disney Infinity GauntletHave you paid your Disney tax? Chances are you have at some point, and it’s quite likely you do so every year, to an ever-increasing degree. Every time you pay to watch a Disney or Pixar movie, every time your kids get Spider-man underpants, whenever you watch The Mandalorian or Family Guy... one way or another, Disney gets its cut.

We talk of ‘tax’ in a situation where we contribute money to an organisation (usually a government) to contribute to the cost of providing public goods, and where force may be used against us if we refuse to pay. Paying Disney, directly or indirectly, for entertainment doesn’t look like a tax, in that it seems like we could opt out of paying by refusing to watch (or buy branded merchandise from them). But when you participate with anything from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar, Aliens/Predator, The Muppets, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie the Pooh, or Grey’s Anatomy, guess what... directly (via cinema ticket, home media, or merchandise purchase) or indirectly (via streaming subscription fee or advertising revenue) you paid your Disney Tax.

Two objections to characterising your contributions to Disney’s revenue streams as a ‘tax’ are worth discussing. Firstly, entertainment is not usually considered a public good, that is, something we all benefit from. But government taxation also pays for things that are not public goods (like murdering civilians with drones, or politician’s pensions) or that have debatable status as public goods (arts funding, for instance - which not everybody values like I do). Secondly, that Disney is not able to bring the force of law against you for refusing to pay your Disney Tax. Yet if you participate in Disney’s vast IP catalogue without paying the tax - perhaps by copying files from the Black Library, or marketing a knock-off DVD, they can indeed bring charges against you. Even so, I freely acknowledge that this is a ‘tax’ primarily by analogy to government tax - it’s just this particular analogy does not have very far to travel.

It is not my intention to defame the work that the Disney corporation performs in the entertainment space. But here is another case of the shallow-sightedness I discuss in The.Virtuous Cyborg, our widespread ignorance of the networks we are enclosed within. And in this case, our continued involvement in paying the Disney Tax permits Disney to do the other thing it does so well: buy yet more intellectual property, to ensure a greater Disney Tax next year. Try going a year without Disney getting a cut of your entertainment time; if you have kids, try going three months. The fact that the tax analogy is barely a strain on our imagination is a sign that Disney’s commercial presence in our lives approaches comparability to a lesser form of taxation. This is not a monopoly in the conventional sense of the term... merely an inescapable competitive advantage that grows greater and greater with every passing year.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #96


The Digital Downstairs

RoutersAt the start of the twentieth century, there were just a few autonomous devices on our planet, and they were all mechanical rather than electronic. But two decades into the twenty first century and we are surrounded by electrically-powered robots in a dizzying array of kinds, many of them serving us from the ‘digital downstairs’. We don’t often call these electronic servants ‘robots’ unless they have either ‘hands’ or ‘feet’; we call them ‘computers’ or ‘devices’. Mostly, we barely notice them at all - and nowhere is this more true than with the butler of the internet, the router.

Routers are a kind of robot essential to internet access. Every time you visit a website or use an internet-enabled app, a minimum of two routers are involved. One takes the signals from whatever you are using (a smartphone, a computer, a car with a built-in navigation computer) and directs it - or routes it, hence the name - into the communication network that is the backbone of the internet. The other does the same at the receiving end of the connection, directing your packets of data to the computer tasked with talking to the outside world (that is to say: you). Some of the time, more than two routers will be involved, but it can never be fewer than two. In other words, every time anyone uses the internet, more routers than humans are entailed in the transaction - and if we count all the robots, it is a minimum of four robots per human taking action.

Thus if, like me, it is a rare day that you do not use the internet for some purpose or another, you are constantly and invisibly served by routers and other robots, working behind the scenes to our purposes. (If we add in the advertising and spying going on, the staff of robot servants responding to our demands grows further and further...).

At the start of the twentieth century, the wealthy few were served by a staff of servants ‘downstairs’ catering for their whims ‘upstairs’. Two decades into the twentieth century, all of us who live amidst the greed and squander of the ‘developed’ world are served by the robots of the ‘digital downstairs’. It is another example of what I call in The.Virtuous Cyborg our shallow-sightedness - our obliviousness to the vast technological networks we are living inside. If it seems like progress that we have switched human servants for robots, this might be in large part because we are shallow-sighted about power usage per capita, the environmental costs of electronics manufacture, and our increasing psychological dependence upon our robot servants. We cyborgs of the digital ‘upstairs’ can no longer live without our computerised lackeys to service us. And if we smile and suggest that at least this arrangement is not one that solely benefits the rich, we have only to look to the reigning corporate aristocracy to realise who are the greatest benefactors from robot servitude.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #95


100Cyborgs: 71-80

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outWhat behavioural effects do videogames have upon their players? For these ten instalments of A Hundred Cyborgs, the focus was on the moral dimensions of contemporary videogames. This Gamer Cyborgs mini-serial followed on from the examination of early coin-op videogames in the Arcade Cyborgs mini-serial). Here are the ten posts from 71 to 80:

    71. Free to Play
    72. Loot Boxes
    73. VR
    74. Motion Controls
    75. Game Wikis
    76. Let's Play Videos
    77. Online Play
    78. Remote Play
    79. Cinematics
    80. Achievements

This part of the serial comes in pairs - the first two look at how we pay for games, defending the Free to Play model and pointing a finger (unsurprisingly) at Loot Boxes (#71-72). VR and Motion Controls (#73-74) go together since, as is not often recognised, the Wii Remote was the first step into third generation VR. (As someone with little interest in VR, it was interesting to defend it for once!) Game Wikis and Let's Play Videos (#75-76) consider how the ways we help people to play videogames have changed, and mostly for the better, then Online Play and Remote Play (#77=78) offer contrasting views of the moral effects of the internet on games.

Finally, Cinematics and Achievements take a more critical stance in the way games have gone in the decades since the heyday of the arcades. Of the set, #79 Cinematics is probably my favourite... it can hardly be taken for granted that there is a moral dimension to the use of movie-style cut scenes in videogames, but when it comes to cybervirtue and cyberdebility, we have to take into account the entire network around each cyborg - and videogames with cinematics have significant and unnoticed moral effects on the videogames industry as a whole. 

I am always interested in discussion, so feel free to raise comments either here (ideal for longer debates) or on Twitter (perfect for quick exchanges). And if you’ve enjoyed any of these pieces, please buy a copy of the paperback or new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg and support my research into cybervirtue!

Next week, the final block of ten continues!


Make-Up

Make-upWe would be hard pressed to find a more diverse industrial network than that which manufactures make-up: plant oils, the crushed bodies of insects, mineral dust, ground up herring scales... the make-up cyborgs wear upon their faces a macabre concoction worthy of the most fantastical fairy tale witches brew.

I don’t have that much personal experience with make-up... my wife doesn’t use it, and although I’ve used a little on stage or for fancy dress parties and the like, it’s a small part of my life. Yet I have not failed to notice the number of people who ritualistically ‘put on their face’ in the morning and then, just as laboriously, remove it at night. Next to this practice, the obligations of Islamic prayer (salat) or a Christian monk’s canonical hours seem almost tame!

It would be easy to take a judgemental stance here: why do you need to cover your beauty with paint? Why get anxious to show the face underneath? Yet there is something to the rituals of make-up that people draw strength from - and this is nowhere near as gendered as it may first appear. American football players may not spend as much time crafting their faces, but they still put on ‘warpaint’ before they hit the field! What’s more, unlike that conspicuous prosthesis of the wealthy elites, the suit (cyborg #36), which must be expensive to serve its role, make-up is an affordable option for the majority of people on our planet. Compared to designer clothes and shoes, grotesquely overpowered cars, or jewellery, make-up provides a way to project a persona that is not merely aping the conspicuous excess of the commercial aristocracy. In the simple act of painting a face lies a tool for self-confidence that allows for its own excellences.

Yet I am mindful of Baz Luhrmann‘s admonition: “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.” There is truth in this claim, a tyranny of image maintained by elites for their own benefit, and one that bulldozes the inherent beauty of ethnicity with conventions rooted in whiteness. Beyoncé straightened her beautiful hair to conform to the norms of white beauty. Make-up is primarily made for lighter skin tones... those with a darker complexion not only struggle to find suitable make-up (should they wish to use it), they are repeatedly and systematically sidelined in the image industry, reinforcing a set of stereotypes of beauty all at heart celebrating a pre-prescribed image of whiteness.

As make-up cyborgs, your excellences lie in how you choose to present your face to the world. But this act is also a form of subjugation in so much as the cybernetic network distributing images of ‘beauty’ provides the dogma upon which each face finds its normative foundation. In this way, our faces become not our own possessions, but a means of possession by demons beyond our individual control, doubts and anxieties. The cybernetic network of all faces carries the baffling risks of every labyrinth.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #94


Drugs

DrugsWe tend to think about legal vs illegal drugs - forgetting, it seems, the harms caused by (legal) medication, alcohol, or tobacco, and the good that unexpectedly comes from (illegal) intoxicants. One sensible constraint applies to all drugs, medicinal or recreational - moderation. Those drugs that cannot be used in moderation, such as heroin, crack cocaine, or meth, set the interpretive pattern that tars illegal drugs with the same brush. Yet it is legal drugs - paracetamol (acetaminophen) and alcohol - that cause the majority of fatal health problems, mainly via liver damage, and tobacco is not far behind.

Because ‘drugs’ are so broad a category, it can be hard to make general moral or behavioural claims about the many different kinds of drug cyborgs. But as my earlier discussion of pubs (cyborg #45) suggested, the unseen benefits to drugs lie far more in the community they foster and support than in their individual effects - at the level of the individual, we can say nothing more than ‘stick to small doses’ or abstain entirely (again, regardless of whether the drugs in question are legal or illegal). But what interests me about the cybernetic networks surrounding drugs of all kinds is the potential for them to develop into communities of care.

As a small example, in the UK, US, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands I have encountered networks of people bound together by their sharing of modest amounts of marijuana. Sometimes this occurs illegally, as a friendly distribution network, but at the level of those at the bottom of the network there are none of the movie-style organised crime cliches (although gritty stories occasionally drift down the supply chains...). Sometimes, as with Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, it occurs in a legal grey area, with the residents not only providing hash or bud that is illegal by law but also fairly-priced food and accommodation for about a thousand residents in an ‘anarchist commune’. In the US and the Netherlands I have also seen it from inside the law, with cafes (coffee shops) and retail establishments providing the point of supply, and once again a community of support maintained, although often less intimately than when the community is bound together by the need for a certain discretion in their activities.

No such community of care exists, however, when (legal) drugs are purchased from a supermarket. Rather, a small health warning label on alcohol, tobacco, or painkillers - and in the latter case, warnings rarely or never read, despite widespread negative health effects (in terms of liver damage) dwarfing those of all illegal drugs taken together. I am forced to suggest not only that we should avoid being distracted by the legal histories in the case of the various (legal and illegal) drugs when we wish to assess their moral and behavioural influence, but further to ask whether what we have declared legal is in any way the innocent side of the fence it is so often assumed to be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #93


Deplatforming

DeplatformingA basic pillar of contemporary social justice campaigning is deplatforming, which entails collectively piling complaints, economic pressure, or threats of non-violent reprisal against a venue that is hosting a speaker whom an interest group opposes. It’s effective, because venues depend upon punters for their livelihood.

Each deplatforming cyborg is a network of concerned individuals brought together to engage in a power struggle against another cyborg - the venue (it’s staff, building, and technology) and an individual, who is being deplatformed. In this match up, the deplatforming cyborg network has the insurmountable advantage on the political battlefield. A brave university official might just stand up for free speech and resist the pressure being mounted; a commercial venue will almost always fold. Deplatforming is thus a powerful tool for silencing individuals we disagree with. Perhaps the question ought to be: should we be silencing those we disagree with?

I have called ‘cybervirtue’ those positive qualities we possess when we become part of a technological network. Alas, the deplatforming cyborg is not and cannot be cybervirtuous (which is not the same as claiming that this course of action is not permitted). The behaviour deplatforming encourages is ‘not listening’ i.e. censorship, and the only reason this even appears just to proponents of deplatforming is that the people being censored are those whose ideas are deemed so offensive that censoring them is judged the only acceptable course of action. The argument in favour of deplatforming is therefore the necessity of halting evil, not that doing it will make us good people. In other words, the ends justify the means - and we ought to be very careful about anything that relies upon this principle, since the goodness of ends cannot justify the immorality of means.

The term ‘fascist’ is bandied about far too liberally these days - pun intended - but few regimes today are as brutal and oppressive as Mussolini’s fascists. A key part of the fascist ideology, however, was the forcible suppression of opposing ideas. It should cause us at least some pause when we realise that deplatforming is in no way guaranteed to be used for causes we deem just, and indeed is tailor-made for the kind of fascism-light that is popular today in the nations that once stood for liberty. I have already witnessed from afar figures from all corners of the political spectrum being deplatformed by those on both the left and the right. If tolerance is a virtue we value, we cannot foster it by deplatforming. We must allow those we disagree with to speak, else how can we challenge those ideas we wish to overcome, such as the ideologies of the bigot in myriad forms, both liberal and conservative? I fear deplatforming has empowered bigotry far more than it has done good in the world, and even if you do not cherish freedom of speech as much as I do, I encourage you to reflect upon whether a world where no outrageous suggestions may be voiced is a good world.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #92


GoogleApple

GoogleAppleA GoogleApple cyborg is a cybernetic organism consisting of a human coupled with either an Android smartphone or an iPhone. The human feels like it is the most significant part of this network, which is odd considering that GoogleApple adds in thousands of robots and humans in order to make this cyborg work. In fact, even though the humans forming GoogleApple cyborgs are by far more numerous than the humans working directly or indirectly for Google or Apple, they are still less numerous than GoogleApple’s robots - there’s at least one of their smartphones per human, plus the rest of their cybernetic network behind them. In other words, as GoogleApple cyborgs, we are a minority component in a vast cybernetic network.

We tend to focus on the choice - do I buy an iPhone or an Android smartphone? - and thus miss the more salient point that it makes very little difference what we choose in this regard. Either way we’re becoming a GoogleApple cyborg, a being that can in seconds transact with the internet and will indeed do so frequently. The smartphone permits us instantaneous escape - and impels us to do so recurrently. The GoogleApple cyborg is thus one of the most distracted creatures that ever lived, although exceeded in this regard by various other combinations of beings and things, such as the heroin needle cyborg.

It is not fashionable to talk of ‘duties’ these days yet it is extremely fashionable to assert random wished for concepts as rights. But rights come from agreements, not emotional whims, and rights are inherently duties. To have a right is to say that everyone has a duty. But in the context of a smartphone you have no rights and consequently GoogleApple has no duties towards you - even if you die because you were distracted by your smartphone, legal responsibility for your death largely falls to you. That’s because you have moral duties towards yourself that are not rights because they do not spring from agreements.

Both Aristotle and Kant suggested that one of our duties towards ourselves is to pursue our own excellences. A smartphone can help with this - I write almost all my philosophy on my pocket robot, runners use theirs to monitor their performance, and dieters track calories to bring their eating under control. But to GoogleApple, activities that pursue your excellences are entirely interchangeable with those that squander your time and intelligence. Algorithms that curate suggestions ‘for you’ are more fairly described as curating ‘for them’ - propagating the money-making apps, the distracting apps.

I don’t imagine we’re heading into a future world without smartphones, but I do fantasise about escaping life as a GoogleApple cyborg. I dream of a cybervirtuous smartphone, a robot that brings out the best in those that partner with it. But I am sceptical that such a thing could come from GoogleApple. I have to wonder: would every cybernetic network that might replace this one fall inevitably into the same traps...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #91


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!