Note CardsGuest post by Matt Mower.

Arguably the most sophisticated form of note-taking is the Zettelkasten system developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in the 1950s.

Zettelkasten means "box of notes" and is designed to reliably produce good new ideas and make final deliverables (essays, articles, and so on) painless to create.

Key to the Zettelkasten method is the use of cards to store individual thoughts which are uniquely identified and linked together by tags. Cross-referencing with tags eliminates the problem of where to put a note and allow related ideas to intertwingle and structure to emerge organically rather than having to be imposed.

Indeed, Luhmann's career output (some 70 books and 400 articles) suggests that such a system of note-taking can be a powerful tool.

However, while note-taking itself is already a crucial part of our cyborg heritage, digital note-taking opens up exciting possibilities for what a note-system can do for us.

If nothing else the scale of information a digital system can manage dwarfs any physical system of notes. Further, once data is digital, it is possible to create new connections, to re-arrange, and to transform it in ways difficult to imagine in the physical realm.

At its simplest, a digital note is an analogue of a paper note, i.e. a stream of text, perhaps formatted. There is an explosion of applications today for organising this kind of note. The most popular of which is probably Evernote which is like a "digital file box".

However, the use of folders for structure creates a "Where do I put it?" problem since a note can, typically, only exist in one folder. It is a problem common to such applications and, a problem that's worsened the more information you store.

By breaking the limitations of folder structure, digital notes truly become a system for interconnected thoughts and, as such, eminently suitable for creating a digital-Zettelkasten. Tools such as Roam and TheBrain follow this approach and consequently emphasise the creation of a fine-grained web of thoughts.

By breaking the limitation of note-as-stream-of-text, digital notes become structured such that they can be processed with software and more easily combined and remixed into new forms. Applications such as Tinderbox and Mentat allow notes to be processed by software agents to solve more complex problems.

For example, to know a note represents a question and to look among notes which are facts for possible answers. Perhaps even to self-organise views of such information.

While we are in still in the relative infancy of digital note-taking, it is a time of great promise and tools are emerging to help us build databases of what we know that the writer Tiago Forte calls a "second brain". If what you know, or could know, is essential to you, there is no better time to pick a tool and get started building yours.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #86 by Matt Mower, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Commercial DroneGuest post by Jed Pressgrove.

The very look of a commercial drone suggests toy, tool, and pest. We cyborgs are as curious about the machine’s various utilities as we are reluctant to fill up our precious air space with little helpers.

Sure, these unmanned aerial vehicles (what an unsexy phrase!) could potentially deliver supplies to our homes, identify hotspots on trees in danger of erupting into flames, examine the scene of an emergency, provide internet connectivity to remote areas, and, perhaps down the line, walk our dogs for us.

But we cyborgs have also calculated that a slow roll-out is best for these flyers, as they require a slew of parts, many of them external, to work as they’re intended to: pilots (that’s us), batteries (which don’t last for much more than an hour), GPS signal (a lost drone is a sad drone), government waivers (the more forms, the better), and so on.

With all of these factors in play, we must be careful. If there’s anything cartoons have uploaded into our individual databases, it’s that the last thing we want is something to fall on our heads when we least expect it.

There’s also that hang-up about data related to our … oh, what is it called … privacy. Drones can take pictures and videos of us from above.

Admittedly, our fear of drones doesn’t outweigh our fear of COVID-19. If you live in certain places in China, Spain, Kuwait, the U.K., or even the U.S. of A., you might one day decide to take a walk because you’re about to go haywire staying inside all the time, and if you happen upon a particularly crowded public area, you might hear a recorded voice in the sky, proclaiming: “Please maintain social distancing, please disperse, please go back home, please, let’s beat COVID-19, thank you for your cooperation. Don’t make us come for you, boys and girls.”

That last part will be more implied than outright stated. Today, we are merely in the “public service announcement” era of drone messages delivered via loudspeakers. But give us another global health and safety crisis within the next decade, and we could enter the “reading you your rights” era of drone messages delivered via loudspeakers.

Until that exciting day, many of us can enter a nearby mall and find a fellow cyborg—who’s usually in the middle of the main walking path, perhaps trying to attract our attention as we envision what new brands we want to advertise on our clothes—who can sell us a toy version of the drone that we can take to the park on a Saturday afternoon.

The drone can be a kite that doesn’t need wind, a firefighter’s best friend, or a war enemy’s undignified end. The drone is the ultimate wild card, so it’s here to stay.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #85 by Jed Pressgrove, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


GlassesGuest post by Chris Billows.

When we think about being a cyborg, we think about computers, robotics, and cybernetics. This imagery is prominent thanks to sci-fi writing and movies. We have become so dependent on technology in modern society, we are more cyborg than non-cyborg. It becomes hard to see how we could get along without technology.

But what about needing technology to actually see? When I think about my own circumstances, I am completely dependent on technology to see distances. I am profoundly short-sighted and have required glasses for distance vision since I was 12 years old. With aging, the prescriptions have become stronger and my dependence on corrective lenses is even greater. Even the language emphasizes how my vision is incorrect without technology. You're not viewing correctly so here is some shaped plastic/glass to fix it.

Yet are glasses/corrective lenses technology? Glasses are typically plastic that has been shaped and layered in such a way to correct issues with distance, reading, and astigmatism. They don't require batteries or need to be rebooted. You place them on your face and away you go. Sure, they need cleaning but every cyborg extension we have is an enemy of dust and grime.

Making glasses in today's age is pretty high-tech but using them isn't. I've always wondered how I would have survived in older times with such terrible vision. Surely I would have been eaten by some hungry beast that I stumbled into thinking it was a rock. Glasses allow me to survive and thrive.

I'm not alone. The prevalence of glasses appears to be a condition of human behaviour. We need glasses because we are doing activities like reading and looking closely at things such as our phone, tablet, computer screen, etc. The irony is that it is these other technologies that leads us to require glasses technology in order to function! Reading a book for extended periods means that we now need glasses to compensate for weakened eyes. The cyborg experience is virulent and all-consuming.

Talking about vision and sight has given me insight into an unstated cybernetic law. Using technology leads to dependence on additional technology to mitigate the side-effects of the first technology. Reading gives us information and knowledge but also poorer vision prompting the cybernetic compensation of reading glasses.

That's a conclusion that I didn't see coming. Now excuse my while I go clean my glasses.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #84 by Chris Billows, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Meditation Apps

Meditation AppsGuest post by Victor Navarro Remesal.

I keep getting ads from HeadSpace, promising to teach me how to cope with the stress of daily life, “decompress my body and mind”, or even to sleep better. By signing in on it or other similar meditation apps, I could get programs for just about anything, from pregnancy (Expectful, $9.99 a month) to orgasm anxiety (Sanity & Self, $4.99 a month). The science (there’s always “the science”) backs it: “it's been shown that just 30 days of Headspace resulted in a 32% decrease in stress”.

Meditation apps arise from several trends of our techno-fetishist societies: first, “the marketplace of attention” described by James G. Webster; second, our commodification of experiences and self-care; third, our over-reliance on smartphones; and last, our attempt to deal with SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”) modes of spirituality. If brands have to fight for our attention, what better product to sell than attention itself? And what better way to do it than to make this experience as dependent on technology as possible?

Meditation apps and gadgets attempt to reconcile our fascination with technological salvation (“technology will save us!”) with our suspicions of the digital (“we need to go back to the time before technology!”). Muse S, a “research-grade EEG device” (i.e. a headband) “passively senses your brain activity and translates it into the guiding sounds of weather to help you stay calm & focused”. By wearing it, you can become an enlightened cyborg in touch with nature - it can’t be artificial if it has sounds of weather.

The official site of Muse S has a section for “corporate wellness”, bringing us to Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Purser’s book argues that traditional mindfulness practices have been co-opted by capitalism to make employees self-monitor their inner lives and hold them accountable for their own well-being. And to do so, they have removed the whole ethical system behind these practices and reduced them to tools of psychopolitics.

The kind of mindfulness put forward by platform companies is frequently sold as a technique for the self, as “Buddhist practice without Buddhism”, but this sectioning doesn’t hold up: Buddhist meditation is always connected to ethical precepts and virtues such as compassion, equanimity, wisdom, or proper conduct. One can meditate without Buddhism, but without ethics? Without cultivating virtues needed in an interconnected reality? Eihei Dôgen, the founder of the Sôtô school of Zen, talked about the “dropping off of body and mind”, which sounds like the opposite of the focus on the self at the heart of “appified” mindfulness - or at least, the opposite to the “brain orgasm in just 3 mins!” promised by the app Mesmerize.

I don’t think meditation needs to be anti-technological, but it surely doesn’t need apps. One way to describe zazen in Zen Buddhism is “shikantaza” (只管打坐), which means “nothing but sitting”. A cushion, loose clothes, and any kind of timer are more than enough to do it. And it surely can be practiced by virtuous cyborgs.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #83 by Victor Navarro Remesal, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Jogee-Isobel-WilliamsGuest post by Samuel Thomson.

Anyone considering Ihering’s adage that the Roman Empire conquered the world for the third time with law, after earlier military and religious victories , might notice that Christianity, like the Law, traditionally places responsibility for salvation on the individuated self. Far from being the only Empire to do so, this slave-society was functionally and narcissistically dependent on the separation of wealth from the work that created it, distributing power through a monopoly on individual and corporate identity, respectively, Civitas and Collegia.

Law has always been a post-human project, even before it was recognised as humanist. Animal, Earth, and Corporate rights attest to this, although it’s in libertarian relationships to law that some of the difficulties pertaining to the legal ramifications of cyborgs are most visibly being tested, concerning objectives such as self-determination, autonomy, privacy, consent, and even the intersubjectivity of experience.

Selfhood is still the normative unit of justice, particularly for the powerless. No individuals were convicted for the 2008 financial crisis, whereas consequently out-of-work mothers were given prison time for stealing food. To quote Leo Bersani, “The self is a practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethnical ideal, it is a sanction for violence” . Bersani was examining whether sexual submission had wrongly been devalued by Reaganite society due to its perceived relinquishment of self-determination, and whether America felt more threatened by gay plurality than homosexuality as such. The mutability of selfhood, from ancient Shreni guild systems, to Roman collegia, to modern Corporate Personhood, has long been stringently policed.

To distinguish “cyborg” from “body”, it might be possible to say that, while a body is composed of cells, any “cell” has to belong to more than one cyborg, before it is the cell of any cyborg at all. If the defendant is a body, then the law might expect total dominion over that body. But to conceptualise the defendant as a cyborg cell is to recognise that the law only ever holds a stake in the defendant, never full control. The total incarceration of a guilty “self” is an abomination because it removes that cell from every cyborg that it is part of, which all suffer as a result. Legal deliberation might attempt moderation, but the innocent family is still punished for the incarceration of a criminalised member.

Sarah Schulman has recently suggested a queering of conventional victim/perpetrator binaries in order to identify a specific kind of power abuse, where the powerful party masks their own abuses by claiming victimhood. As cyborgian split loyalties bring national law into conflict with corporate interests, legislatures may find their dominion over the defendant increasingly challenged, necessitating a wider view of the defendant as a being predicated on multiple cyborg structures.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #82 by Samuel Thomson, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Gauss QuoteGuest post by Joel Goodwin.

The German mathematician Carl Gauss called mathematics “the queen of the sciences” and Galileo called it the language of the universe – but could we call it a technology? A short, non-exhaustive Google search turned up a 1998 paper by Keiko Yasukawa who was primarily interested in the question from a numeracy standpoint. From her final paragraph:

Numeracy for a sustainable society has to be much more than maths in context, and criticism of other people’s maths. It must ultimately be about building numerate discourses across different [groups].

But this offers little perspective on how mathematics aids or hinders humanity as a technology.

For many people, mathematics is that thing you do with numbers. In reality, it is an enormous, constantly evolving subject from which new concepts spring every year, the applications of which are rarely obvious at first. The square root of -1, the “imaginary number”, turns up in electrical engineering. Group theory, which is essentially an analysis of addition, turns out to be important for encryption and crystallography. Who knew.

Without mathematics, there are no cars, no computers, no internet, no trips to the Moon and definitely no videogames. But mathematics is no unalloyed good.

The finely-balanced mathematics of nuclear fission can be harnessed to produce efficient energy... or a bomb to kill tens of thousands. Fluid dynamics helps us build better planes and safer harbours – but it also enables the military drone that performs messy, remote executions. Still, this is mathematics merely acting as an accomplice. If we’re looking for where the mathematics-human cyborg causes direct harm then we should turn to statistics.

Stock market “quants” concoct models to generate profit, but also follow them blindly into disaster – belief in a single, misapplied equation brought the financial industry to its knees in 2008. It turns out even “the smartest people in the room” will follow the herd.

Humans are not made for the subtleties of probability and while this makes for baffling conundrums like the Monty Hall Problem, it means those well-versed in statistical rites can use them against others. Consider the gambling industry. The relatively recent wave of gambling machines known as “fixed odds betting terminals” are particularly brutal, encouraging rapid betting while projecting an illusion of control. Their owners make a consistent profit while the gambler’s instinct tells them their losing streak will end soon. Spoilers: it rarely ends well for the gambler.

But if we look at the COVID-19 calculus, we see not just a problem of misunderstanding statistics, but trust. While first-affected countries warned about the impact of the coming pandemic on health services, others appeared to deal with these warnings as mere hypotheticals. And once authorities were forced to impose quarantines, every minor stumble in a rising case count is interpreted as a sign that maybe the crisis is over and we can all go out and enjoy the sun.

It seems Keiko Yasukawa’s paper was important after all. A society bound together by mathematical technology surely requires a decent understanding of it.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #81 by Joel Goodwin, a part of All-Comers April.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Open Like Software

Over on Google+, Jacek Wesołowski posted such a wonderful comment on my previous post, Open Minded? that I had to share it here.

Could we define open mindedness as a form of disciplined reasoning that acknowledges and accounts for one’s inherent and learned biases, i.e. non-evident tendencies and assumptions? That would make one's mind open in the same sense software can be “open”, that is: open to scrutiny. An open minded practice would then be one that actively seeks out assumptions and tendencies in one's own reasoning and revises them.

Another trait of open software is that it’s open to modification that wasn’t in the original specification. An open mind in this sense would assert the right to deviate from ideological tropes, for instance you could be for women's rights and against abortion-on-demand.

In practice, when I’m occasionally having the thought that “someone’s not being open minded”, it's usually because one of my adversaries has said something that can be understood in more than one way, and then one of my friends has jumped on it and interpreted it in the most discrediting manner they could think of. In this scenario, the friend is failing to be open minded, because they’re refusing to consider other, less convenient interpretations. Meanwhile, the adversary is merely failing to be clear.

An example from our field would be that one time when some Ubisoft exec said that adding a female character to a particular game would be difficult due to specific schedule considerations of that project, but the left-leaning public quickly morphed that statement into “women [in general] are too hard to animate”.

Open mindedness seems like one of those things where you cannot examine yourself, only others. The mistakes and failures in my own reasoning are either invisible to me, or something I won't or can't admit to. Otherwise, I would have already corrected them, or at least marked them for future consideration.