Houses

For SaleHouses are a defining feature of the world we live in, yet it is by no means inevitable that we would live this way: nomadic tribes, even today, live with tents and animals instead of inside a permanent dwelling. We take for granted something that seems the epitome of a comfortable life – a roof over our heads – to the extent that the extremes of poverty are marked by ‘homelessness’ (the absence of this comfort) and ‘refugees’ (increasingly glossed as ‘migrants’, as if such people were merely travelling to look for jobs rather than fleeing the total devastation of their homes).

Even as house cyborgs, there is a world of difference between the renter and the owner, and different countries put different stresses on these two situations. In the United Kingdom where I currently live, the prevailing desire is to own a house, achieved almost universally by borrowing money from a bank. The cyborg network for people such as myself who choose to ‘buy’ a house includes therefore not just the building and its infrastructure networks – electricity, gas, telecommunications, water, sewage – but the entire network of some financial institution like a bank or building society, an insurance company, and more besides. Yet if owning a house is a dream when you do not yet have one, it can steadily grow into a nightmare once you are responsible for the near-endless stream of maintenance chores that inevitably grow out of adopting a pile of bricks.

Other nations have different approaches… Germany and France still prefer renting to owning. The German government subsidises rents and German banks are reluctant to offer mortgages, whereas in French cities like Paris and Lyon, the cost of property is so high that renting is the only practical alternative. The situation in the US is similar, and the number of renters there is at the highest points since 1965. The rented house cyborg avoids dealing with banks but instead must deal with a landlord whose power and influence is sometimes felt all too keenly… The blurred lines in such a situation can be as much of a nightmare as taking upon the sole responsibility for maintaining a property through ownership.

When I contrasted the house cyborg to the tent-animal nomad, our impression is that it is the nomad who is rootless. Yet the strange thing about the house-human cyborg is that they move. Whether renting or owning, few people stay in the same house for more than a dozen years or so, and many move much more frequently… the illusion of permanency that comes with these stone buildings conceals a life more like the hermit crab, sloughing off one shell to take another, abandoning one local situation for another. The nomad, on the other hand, sleeps in different places but remains a part of the same community for the entirety of their life. Are we really so sure that we are not secretly ‘migrants’ ourselves...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #30


Lotteries

Lottery ScratchcardsIt is exceptionally common to hear lotteries being accused of being “a tax on stupidity” or “the poor person’s tax” but I have found it very difficult to accept this conclusion uncritically. It rests on treating the lottery not as the game that is clearly being played by its participants, but in comparison to investments. But these days, even over a lifetime, the cost of a single lottery ticket does not generate enough interest to buy even another lottery ticket, whereas a person who actively enjoys lotteries purchases not only the excitement of the possibility of winning but the invitation to fantasise about winning, a reverie that in some cases is the last bulwark against the crushing hopelessness of poverty. The moment it ceases to provide these enjoyments, the lottery becomes worthless – but for as long as it works, it provides a dream of escaping unbearable circumstances that is far more plausible than investing, no matter how remote the chance of winning.

I don’t play lotteries, unless you count political elections, not because they are ‘bad investments’ (a can of coke would be a much worse investment, as Joe Weisenthal attests), but because the game doesn’t interest me – I have nothing worthwhile to win. A million is not enough to fix anything that is wrong with the world, but it is enough to ruin a person’s life. In this respect, the low odds of winning are far more of a blessing than a curse, since the fantasy is frequently much more idyllic than the reality. The lottery-cyborg imagines a better future that is far from guaranteed to result from the actual win. A great deal of the millionaires I have encountered inadvertently cut themselves off from friendship and walled themselves away from the world in a manner oddly reminiscent of the way that Tolkien’s Smaug metaphorically addresses the soul-crushing isolation of greed through the ‘dragon-sickness’ that afflicts Thorin when he comes into contact with the fire-drake’s horde. 

But despite all this, there is little good to say about lotteries in terms of cybervirtue. Especially these days, a modest weekly lottery is supplemented by lottery scratchcards  that are cyber-compulsive in a way that, sadly, many contemporary videogames are committed to emulating. It is one thing to fantasise about a big win with a modestly-priced weekly ticket, and quite another to fritter away all your disposable income in the desperate hope of rescue from poverty. The expanded arsenal of retail gambling is a stark reminder of how little hope for a better world is left on our streets, and how much our dreams are conditioned by the power and undeserved allure of money. Money, it is truly said, cannot buy happiness. For most of the millionaires I have met, it brought solely misery. But the absence of money brings a certain desperation and, as Roger Caillois observed back in 1958, it is precisely as a salve to this despair that lotteries find their niche.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #29


Twitter

TwitterAs someone who is faintly terrified by Facebook, I was not entirely convinced about joining Twitter. I did so because it was recommended to me by games industry friends while I was visiting Seattle for a speaking gig. The justification was purely based upon utility: I would be able to promote my books more effectively. Years later, I remain conflicted about my engagement with Twitter. It too often feels as if the primary purpose the network serves is as a pressure valve for unloading excess anger and hatred – and what an incredible surplus there is to behold!

Amongst all the moral dimensions of Twitter, one that particularly intrigues me is the taboo about subtweeting, that is, writing negative remarks about someone but not addressing it to them. It’s not the done thing, Twitter cyborgs (known as ‘tweeps’) seem to insist. Witness Selena Larson’s report on research regarding subtweeting, which from the very title begins with the understanding that this is an inherently negative activity – odd, considering saying nasty things at all would seem to be the core issue. The accusation amounts to the claim that Twitter (or indeed any individualised social broadcast system) are cyber-disdainful – even cyber-cruel i.e. they encourage disdain and cruelty – an accusation I take seriously in the book, The Virtuous Cyborg, that this series is inspired by.

Yet I have difficulty with the idea that it is subtweeting that epitomises this moral failing as such, for this seems to insist upon a need to address our disdain and dislike directly at its intended targets, and it surely cannot be better to provoke confrontation in all cases – this exacerbates the problem of cyber-disdain and can do nothing to encourage respect. Precisely the problem I am confronted with every day on Twitter is an absence of respect, an abject failure to engage in disagreements productively. Whether it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, Jews vs. Labour, or Trans activists vs. Lesbian feminists, conversation is instantly blocked by the wall of anger thrown up by our moral horror of what they are saying. At least the subtweet redirects that anger as a digital muttering in the corner. Demanding all criticism is loosed like an arrow is a call for warfare – one we see heeded on a daily basis.

From Douglas Adams, to C.S. Lewis, to Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is a staple theme of science fiction and fantasy that telepathy invites misery. Yet by asking us to write and display our current frame of mind in a few hundred characters, Twitter afflicts us all with the curse of digital telepathy. Others read our inner thoughts as the medium makes them public. Subtweeting is not the root of this problem: it is our abject failure to appreciate the consequences of projecting our personal emotional landscape into a public forum. How can we direct our outrage productively when it is dissipated in the fractious fireworks of a thousand meaningless clashes of words?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #28


Contactless Payments

ContactlessOne of the most common values that consumer-facing corporations have been pimping in recent decades is convenience... This was readily apparent in the earlier discussion of the appeal of Amazon, a company built upon leveraging convenience through economies of scale. It is also clear that contactless payments have taken off precisely because of the immense amenity of paying by simply tapping plastic against a small payment robot. No longer does it take a whole thirty seconds to enter your pin and dial up, now you just tap and go. Who could possibly complain?

Well, the most vocal objections to contactless payments have been raised in connection with their magnificent potential for fraud. The BBC reported £7 million of fraudulent payments within the UK in 2016, up from £2.8 million in 2015. There is a clear sense of this technology being cyber-insecure, since anyone who steals or acquires a suitable card can use it freely to pay for anything. Even at a cap of £30, large spends can be racked up in days, and the possibility of ‘skimming’ (cloning the radio frequency ID) is occasionally used to scare up panic, although at a required range of about ten centimetres this particular scenario seems somewhat fanciful, and the fraud department I spoke to about this didn’t even consider it a possibility. Besides, in all these cases of petty fraud, the banking organisations behind the cards cover these loses and can easily afford to do so, with the risk to the consumer largely resting in their not checking their transaction list for items they did not authorize.

This year, the media coverage of contactless has focussed less upon fraud and more upon who is now accepting payment this way, which now includes the Churches of England and Scotland, London buskers, and even a vendor of ‘homeless’ magazine The Big Issue. But the prevalence of the payment system – which has overtaken cash in popularity – conceals another concern about its behavioural effects, one no-one is discussing: contactless payments risk being cyber-thriftless, they encourage people to spend more freely, and think less about what they are spending. To be sure, the move away from cash in favour of payment cards already created these conditions for profligate spending by divorcing transactions from the immediate capacity to track your personal money that cash provides. This is offset by easier accounting for those who choose to investigate later – but it’s not clear how many people this applies to.

Say what you will about coins and notes, when you have to get your money in advance by transacting with a bank (these days, mostly indirectly via ATM robots, as discussed in the previous piece), you are aware of how much money you have, and how much you have spent. The contactless cyborg gives up the immediate awareness of what you are doing with your money in return for greater convenience. I suppose at this point, we can hardly be surprised.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #27


Cash Machines

ATMFor the majority of people reading, the cash machine has been the primary dispenser of money for their entire lifetime. I am old enough to remember when my parents had to plan to go to the bank to get cash, and a musician I used to work with recalled having to plan weekly and monthly finances around the need to turn a pay cheque into currency. Indeed, the decline of the cybernetic network that issued and endorsed cheques precisely aligns with the rise of the cash machine – although as will become clear in the sequel to this piece later this week, the venerable ‘hole in the wall’ is now also facing a near-inevitable decline.

The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is a remarkably honest name for a robot: it makes it immediately clear whose job is being replaced and by what. The rise of the ATM as the primary provisioner of currency has been as much due to the relative compactness of the units as anything else: a bank branch requires floor space, significant security arrangements, and pesky human staff who require paying at regular intervals. The cash-dispensing robot just requires the construction of a miniature vault, robotic ‘fingers’ to count the notes, and all the computer hardware and software required to make it work with the already-extensive cybernetic banking network. As is so often the case, the appeal of the robot as a solution to a problem is that you only have to pay once to buy it, while the on-going costs (such as security guards to deliver money) are the same or less than the alternative arrangement. As usual, economic benefit wins.

What can we say of the cybervirtue or otherwise of the cash machine cyborg, the human dependent upon these robots for hard cash? It is not immediately that clear there is an upside here beyond ‘convenience’ – compared to the alternative, cash machines are the epitome of availability. Unlike banks, robots are up all night – which has been a boon for cash strapped humans, not to mention muggers. In removing human contact from the acquisition of currency, the ATM embodies our increasing reliance upon networks of robots to manage our affairs. After all, even if you did go to your bank branch, the human teller would engage with a robot of some kind that would talk to other robots in the process of arranging your withdrawal. Yet there may yet be a positive side to the cash machine, if we contrast the kind of personal economy it enables against the one that is currently replacing it – one centred upon contactless payments that eliminate currency entirely. It is these cyborgs that the next piece considers.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #26


Calculators

CalculatorAlong with digital watches, electronic calculators were the first digital robots to enjoy widespread ownership – our first robot slaves, if you will. Since then, calculators have been dogged by the complaint that reliance upon these machines for mathematical calculations dulls people's ability to perform mental arithmetic – in cybervirtue terms, that the human-calculator cyborg risks cyber-innumeracy, to draw on John Allen Paulos’ 1988 term. There is some truth to this accusation... but it’s far from the whole story.

In my own life, it is clear what had the greatest negative impact upon my once-proficient skills with mental arithmetic: algebra. By the time I could differentiate and integrate, I could no longer add and subtract with anywhere near the competence I once had. My grappling with so-called ‘higher’ mathematics reduced my competence with basic arithmetic, presumably from little more than erosion of practice. But I note: I never lost my ability to perform arithmetic operations on paper, a fact I have recently verified as my eldest son begins to learn his techniques with numbers. And I note that I seldom turn to a calculator for anything less than four figure operations, trigonometry, or exponentials. But this too is not the whole story, for my work as a game designer almost daily has me playing with mathematical equations, for which I tend to use a spreadsheet as a gigantic programmable calculator.

The truth in the cyber-innumerate accusation is that those who never mastered mental arithmetic feel excused from any obligation to do so since the calculator seemingly removes the need. What’s not clear here is whether what is lost in individual effectiveness is compensated for by what is gained in cyborg competence. It seems to me, for instance, that the biggest culprit here in terms of lost skill is not the calculator but the robot cash register, the intractability of which frequently renders shopkeepers the servant of their robots. The old registers – even and especially their mechanical forebears – were calculators that aided the competences of shopkeepers by streamlining billing. The same can categorically not be claimed of those retail robots that require shopkeepers to scan through pages of buttons to find the exact preset item for sale. These devices also rob staff of the ability to improvise transactions when needed; they are cyber-stultifying to a rather horrific degree when compared to their simpler forebears.

For myself, as a human-calculator cyborg, I have continued to maintain and develop my competences with numbers and equations – indeed, I earn part of my livelihood from it. If I can no longer add and subtract quite as rapidly as when I was younger, I’m inclined to confess that my greater skill with calculators and other mathematics robots (up to the grandmistress of mathbots, MathCAD) is an excellence that computerised calculators have assisted me in developing.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #25, requested by Rowan Fortune (@RT_Editing)


100Cyborgs: 11-20

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 second ten posts:

    11. Universities
    12. Robot Bathrooms
    13. Divorce
    14. Autodialling Ambulance Chasers
    15. Traffic Lights
    16. Dwarf Planets
    17.  Electric Kettles
    18. Reddit
    19. Painkillers
    20. Deck of Cards 

#13 and #16 are ‘line blurring’ pieces – they take ‘technology’ in a wider sense than most people are comfortable with, but #16 Dwarf Planets is one of my favourites, along with #20 Deck of Cards, which is a much more straightforward piece.

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!

More cyborgs next week.


Euthanasia

EuthanasiaAnyone can kill themselves, but it takes specific judicial technology to do so legally, and such processes need to be designed and medically implemented. If this does not seem like a technological issue, it is only because we are so habituated to thinking of technology as shiny metal and plastic... the ‘high tech’ becomes the sole tech we notice. But chairs, reading glasses, and books remain technological long after we cease to be interested in them as such. Euthanasia is no different in this regard: a tool for ending a life.

In discussions of virtue, assisted suicide runs up against the problem that a dead person displays no virtue as such. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the debate over euthanasia has largely been a clash between outcome-focussed ethics, which are generally in support, and rights-focussed ethics, which generally invoke slippery slope and duty of care arguments to oppose. The arguments are quite sound on both sides; if they weren’t, we would not have any nations providing assisted suicide, or conversely all nations would provide it. It is precisely because there are good arguments on all sides that this technology is contentious.

Cybervirtue offers another way of coming at the problem, by asking what the behavioural effects of the network of beings and things involved in euthanasia might be. We can translate the arguments from other ethical viewpoints into claims about cybervirtue, and this is another way of thinking about the issues. For example, much of the opposition to assisted suicide focusses on the possibility of it being used to dispose of a human who has become inconvenient, that is, that euthanasia could be cyber-callous. But since the opposing arguments stress how denying access to assisted suicide are essentially cyber-cruel – often by analogy with putting an animal ‘to sleep’ when its pain has become unbearable – it’s not clear this objection is as compelling as its proponents suggest.

Conversely, when opponents raise concerns that euthanasia promotes a fatalistic attitude towards severe depression – that assisted suicide risks cyber-carelessness, if you will – the argument has more force. Yet it is notable that one who ends their life in this way is able to share a final encounter with their loved ones – that this conclusion to a life can be cyber-congenial. Contrasting this to the sick relative wasting away in a hospital far from their family and friends ought to give us pause… are we really so sure this ‘natural’ alternative bookend to a life is not just as apt to encourage a lack of care? Perhaps what euthanasia brings to light is a wider problem: the offloading of the terminally ill to a medical system that offers ‘care’ by successfully insulating the living from the inconvenient realities of dying.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #24, requested by Joel Goodwin (@ElectronDance)


Robot Recommendations

Robot RecommendationsMy wife frequently accepts a playlist generated algorithmically by Spotify’s robots based on a stepping point of her choosing. I rarely do this myself... it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I much prefer listening to a playlist hand-picked by Don Letts or Justin Robertson, or indeed any other human whose musical knowledge I trust. It is not that I fear that I could be manipulated by such algorithmic selections (although clearly, that can and does happen in certain cases) it’s that knowing that tracks are related by a common pool of listeners inevitably favours the popular over the obscure irrespective of the reason for that popularity... I ideally want to share in someone else’s experience of music, to find new things – or old things I didn’t previously know about. The robot has no knowledge that it can share, only a capacity to blindly surf information derived from vast oceans of collected data via prescriptive algorithms.

The enthusiasm with which we have taken to accepting all manner of guidance from our robots – who pragmatically can have absolutely no understanding of what they are doing or recommending – is staggering. My son likes to watch YouTube videos of friendly people playing Minecraft, or kids unboxing rather expensive-looking Lego playsets. He discovered most of these interests because YouTube’s robots recommended them to him on the basis of what he'd already watched... which they also recommended. It doesn't bother him one whit, but I am far more troubled by the whole thing. The whole concept of automated recommendations seems to run on the assumption that the input data will have originally been a result of voluntary choice – in my son’s case, it has been machine-curated from the very outset.

Yet whatever my concerns here, it is worth reflecting upon the way the robots are merely doing programmatically what humans already do voluntarily: constructing intellectual and aesthetic echo chambers. One of my many complaints about closed academic peer review is precisely the way it serves so effectively to cultivate a community of narrow vision – precisely the opposite of what we would hope for from our universities, if only we cared. Similarly, news media attract their audiences by sharing their political bias, which also allows their owners to influence the audience’s opinions rather effectively. Next to these kinds of intellectual prisons, algorithmic recommendations seem positively innocent!

Nonetheless, the cyborg we make with these recommendation robots are cyber-blinkered – they risk a narrowness of vision that can range from the innocently circular to the disturbingly self-affirming. It’s hard not to wonder sometimes if certain extreme views of the world have proliferated on the internet precisely because of the ease with which any perspective can find validation simply by entering the appropriate keywords into a search engine. That’s where the trouble began, in algorithms for effective indexing... but it certainly won’t be where any of this will end.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #23, requested by Tom Gerbicz (@YungGilbu)


Vintage Collectibles

AcroyearAlthough I own many Star Wars collectibles from the 1970s and 80s, some slightly older Star Trek memorabilia, and far too many classic comics, the pride of my collectibles for me are my Micronauts toys. They’re not especially valuable, but they tap into the warmest feelings of my childhood – both the toys themselves and the Bill Mantlo penned Marvel comics licensed from them have a special place in my heart. That feeling is the locus of a contemporary commercial phenomena that did not and could not exist at any other time in human history.

The vintage collectible technology network is a weird and sometimes wonderful thing that quite literally trades in nostalgia. Don’t confuse it for the different (but related) marketplace for antiques... people largely buy antiques because of the assurance that they will only gain in value (although also for aesthetic reasons) but rarely if ever because the items draw against fond memories. Of course, vintage collectibles shade into antiques over time – nobody buys a 1938 Action Comics #1 because of nostalgia. But catch a middle aged nerd with the toys from their childhood, and you are ready to make money from them.

Before the internet, vintage collectibles were sustained by a diffuse set of shops and intermittent comic marts and the like. Now, eBay dominates the commercial engagement with nostalgia, taking advantage of the funnel the online world facilitates in a subtly different way to a conventional retailer like Amazon. Both, however, are participating in what Theodor Adorno called the culture industry – the manufacturing of shared cultural experience for which Hollywood is emblematic. The movie business has been the driving force behind commercialized nostalgia... although YouTube has rapidly become a key player in its own right.

Asking if there is any cybervirtue in vintage collectibles is to explore whether the network of people and things it sustains has any positive qualities – and it does. It successfully sustains communities (albeit in rather thin ways), and within those communities there are a few people eking out a living from the nostalgia trade. Yet there is also a troubling side to the way our fond memories are deployed by media corporations through the application of ‘branding’ and intellectual property. Whatever small earnings are possible for individuals from the exchange of vintage collectibles is dwarfed by the culture industry’s billion dollar nostalgia racket that does not always pay royalties to the creative staff responsible for the original work.

Bill Mantlo gets nothing for the work that he did which gives Micronauts toys their value to me, and I don’t even know the names of any of the Japanese toy designers at Mego. But at least a recent deal with Marvel over the rights to Mantlo’s characters (including Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket Raccoon) allowed him to move out of a nursing home after being trapped there for twenty five years. I can but hope this situation is improving.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #22, requested by Chris Billows (@Doc_Surge)