Limited Service

SunriseMy Autumnal Social Media break has been such a relief that I don't quite want to come back... but still, I must write, so I cannot hide forever! I am making good progress on the Rethinking Intellectual Property serial, but it is frequently becoming complicated as I work through the specific issues, so I can't quite see this reaching a climax any earlier than Spring 2021. In the meantime, I have some philosophy of science pieces for January, since it seems that we are desperately in need of debugging our hopelessly broken relationships with our research communities, and I obviously can't simply keep my mouth shut when there are philosophical confusions abroad that are bringing about dire unintended consequences.

However, as the title says, it's only a 'limited service' this December. I shall be available on the blogs for the next two weeks - and I already have two blog-letters to reply to, which should keep me very busy during that time! I will also be replying to any comments on the blogs (as usual) but I shall not be having any significant engagement with Twitter or anything of the kind until January 2021 at the earliest. I will probably turn on the robot for ihobo, though, and Typepad will echo blog posts and comments onto Twitter too, so if you see activity there it will be a robot rather than me personally. Please accept my apologies for not replying on Twitter while I am elsewhere.

Anyway, I'm still here, and you can still reach me for virtuous discourse. It's just that other kind of 'communication' I'm not ready to attempt yet...

More soon!


Write To Me

May contain ideas some people might find offensive or distressing.

Quill and parchmentAs I head into my annual Autumnal Social Media Break, I've already resolved to once again use December for blog letters as I did back in 2017. The last two years I was so heavily into the A Hundred Cyborgs project I didn't manage it - but it's a great way to spend the run up to the Winter Festivals. I will gladly reply to anyone, on any topic they choose to discuss with me, without reservation or restriction. Some subjects are harder than others to talk about - some, as this year has shown, can be rendered impossible to talk about. So it is vital that there are a few souls who are willing and able to talk freely on even the difficult subjects. But you don't have to write to me about something weighty and ponderous - I will quite happily talk to you all about anything.

I'm kicking off this year's Social Media Break two weeks early... this is largely because my attempts to patiently unravel a difficult research topic have been met with a near constant stream of derision and abuse on Twitter, bringing on my worst bout of insomnia for several years. I'm not blaming anyone - I should know better than to think philosophy of science would be welcome in a time of international panic, and especially in the grotesque arena of knee-jerk hatred that is Twitter! Still, I can only be myself, and I've never been good at staying quiet when I see people being hurt by the petty evils of bureaucracy, nor when good scientific practices are being ignored or, worse, suppressed.

After about 120 hours of reading papers and listening to those in the relevant medical discourses, I appear to have all the answers that are going to be possible at this time. I set out with the suggestion that if we were going to deploy medical interventions with potential risks, we were obligated to do the research to verify that these measures actually help as expected and do not also cause unanticipated harms. In return, I have been told the most astonishing and bizarre things - that we should do the research later, that there is no need for further research, that "science has spoken!" and how dare I oppose it, or just that I should stop complaining. It is strange indeed to demand "the stakes are so high, we must not investigate further!"

No-one can claim to be a friend of the sciences while they tacitly suppress the disagreements that all research fields depend upon to refine their understandings. No matter how preposterous the arguments you've heard on these issues might be, it won't change the fact that I'm not arguing those things. My story in this regard is quite simple. I witnessed the discourse in the medical community in the UK collapse at a time when good scientific practice was needed more than ever. I have vainly tried to repair that rift by studying the disputed topics and continuing to ask that we conduct the further research required. I have become horrified that the necessary research is not happening, and even more so when good people try to argue in all sincerity "where's your evidence more evidence is required...?"

Here in the UK, the argument for the measures deployed in this country was made on weak evidence by the very admission of those who asked for it. To not then conduct further research to verify the impact of these unprecedented courses of action would be criminally negligent. In the medical sciences, we expect strong evidence (e,g. randomised trials) for all medical interventions, so when we don't have that evidence we are obligated to pursue it. This is a view many clear-sighted medical folks in the UK share with me, and it is summarised with great clarity by Dr Margaret McCartney in her piece for the BMJ, We Need Better Evidence About Non-Drug Interventions against COVID-19. People in the UK - almost all of them poor and many now at the brink of destitution - are being fined for their non-compliance with medical interventions that the government has refused to check to see if they are working as hoped. That is a civil rights failure as well as a scientific failure.

I apologise without reservation for any distress I have inadvertently caused in my pursuit of this issue. I never write with the intent of hurting other people, and mental health issues are extremely important to me. But you cannot ask me to be complicit in unreasonable, unethical, unscientific inaction because you are either too furious or too terrified to think clearly. I'm asking for further research on matters where lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. How can you in good conscience oppose this request? There is no point trying to shout me down, demanding that I stop, because I cannot possibly put this aside until the circumstances that allowed scientific practices to become politicised, circumvented, and even censored have been addressed. And I rather doubt this will happen in my lifetime.

Speaking of my lifetime... I'm getting rather long in the tooth. I'm turning 49 on January 1st, and my lifestyle choices in my 20s have probably taken a decade or two off my life expectancy. I'm not afraid of my own death (it's one of the reasons I had to make a pact with myself never to commit suicide, no matter how depressed I might become), but there are things I would like to do in my remaining years. In particular, I should like to give talks in some of the places that I have friends but that I have either never visited (like New York state), have so far visited solely for business (like Poland), or have already said I'd be glad to visit when I can (like Rio). I know most of you view in-person events as unthinkable right now... but by Spring 2021, I have hope that we'll be starting to look at everything quite differently for various reasons not worth elucidating here. So if you have the courage or recklessness or chutzpah to begin planning a currently hypothetical in-person speaking event, anywhere in the world, with me as a part of it - please do get in touch! There's a contact link at ihobo.com if you don't already have my email address.

In the meantime, please try to be good to one another. Whatever the outcome of the US election, our situation will not improve without the efforts of everyone to move beyond the disastrous political impasse we reached in the last decade, but which has been building for far, far longer. Listen to pre-Disney Master Yoda's advice about fear, anger, and hatred; it's very wise, and just as relevant now as it was forty years ago. And if you're capable of writing a letter, and willing to share letters publicly - then please write a blog-letter to me! I am looking for correspondents from the Republic of Bloggers (i.e. anyone) whom I can write to this December, and as always I will talk to just about anyone about just about anything. Virtuous discourse matters and I need your help to encourage it.

With unlimited love,

Dr Chris Bateman
PhD, MSc, BSc, OΦM.

Only a Game will resume in December.


Game Dissonance (3): Elegant Narrative Design

Over on ihobo today, the final part of the Game Dissonance serial. Here's an extract:

Remember that dissonance will manifest whenever any part of the game fails to align with the player's experience and expectations; this means the game systems themselves need to avoid clashing with each other, and also with the story materials. For instance, if you have a fantasy game in which an ancient sword of great power is a key plot device in the story, players will experience dissonance (or at least grumpiness) when acquiring the sword does not give them a new weapon! Avoid this, where necessary, either by making the plot device something the player can carry but not use (e.g. an orb only a sorcerer can use, but the player character is a warrior), or by adding a limitation to the weapon such that despite its power, the player can use it only sparingly (for instance, because it drains their life force while they are wielding it).

You can read the entirety of Elegant Narrative Design over on ihobo.com.


Game Dissonance (2): The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames

Over on ihobo today, part two of the serial on Game Dissonance. Here's an extract:

We generally fail to recognise that our engagement with most game systems is in itself a story-generating activity, because all game systems are representative i.e. they ask that we imagine some specific arrangement. It is precisely because games are inherently representative that we make the mistake of thinking there is an unavoidable clash between stories and games - but we mean by 'story' here 'a story in the style of a movie or TV show' i.e. a screenplay. The problem is not and never has been an insuperable gap between games and stories, it is that the stories created by screenplays diverge dramatically from the stories that game systems produce on their own. Sometimes this tension is felt as rupture (the imagined experience collapses), sometimes as inelegance (Hocking's complaint about Bioshock is more of this kind), but in all cases it is game dissonance.

You can read the entirety of The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames over on ihobo.com


Game Dissonance (1): What is Game Dissonance?

Over on ihobo today, the start of a brand new three-part serial about cognitive dissonance, narrative design, and the aesthetic flaws of videogames. Here's an extract from the first part:

In suggesting that an aspect of what went wrong in Bioshock was that the player lacked a choice, Hocking reveals a likely cause of his dissonance: the assumption that player choice is an essential missing link in bridging the gap between a game story and the game systems. This, I would suggest, is what might be called the scriptwriter's fallacy - that the power of a videogame story lies in the choices that are not available to a screenwriter in other media. I would counter this claim the same way I did in my blog-letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke, Beyond Choice in Game Narrative: that screenwriters perpetually overestimate the importance of choices, and as a consequence all too frequently offer meaningless choices that the writer has effectively pre-empted, instead of engaging with the turbulent depth of game's capacity for narrative where the player can take the story where the developer cannot hope to anticipate.

You can read the entirety of What is Game Dissonance? over at ihobo.com.


Please Wait...Shuffling the Deck

Tarot CardsJust a short post to say that new material is coming, but I have some fraught weeks working on the page proofs for the second edition of  Game Writing and wrangling tasks for clients. I am still puttering around with blog material in the gaps of my time - there are just fewer gaps! First out of the gate is looking likely to be an ihobo serial called Game Dissonance, but a philosophical interrupt here is always a possibility too, assuming I can get my head out of the nonsense (there's a lot around at the moment). Should be posting before the end of the month, chaos willing.

Also worth saying that with #100Cyborgs completed I am open for blog-letters of all kinds, to which I always reply, one way or another! (Of course, I was never closed for these, but I am specifically inviting them over the next year.) Never written a blog-letter? It's a great time to start! No blog of your own? It's never too late to start one!

To everyone who has supported my blogging over the years, my infinite and unlimited gratitude, love and support.


Return to the Green Room

Green RoomThe epic two year adventure that was A Hundred Cyborgs is now concluded, with just the final block of revisits concluding last week. What a great time to return to the Green Room and have a chat about our adventures together!

It's been over a decade since we last ended up in the Green Room, at the end of the Ethics Campaign that would lead more than five years later to Chaos Ethics. By long standing tradition, I talk about Only a Game as a 'non-fiction role-playing game', and so when we pursue a long-term project it's a 'campaign' (the name given to a continuous string of adventures in a tabletop RPG). #100Cyborgs feels very different from the original two campaigns (Metaphysics and Ethics), not least of all because blogs no longer maintain the regular conversations they used to. Yet on Twitter, if not here, there has been a lot of discussion around various pieces, although certainly less than half of them. Also, the 500 word structure is rather unique, and led to a very different pacing... I learned a lot from working in this form; you can fit much more into 500 words than it first seems!

I would be very grateful, if you enjoyed or were challenged by even one of these one hundred pieces, if you would leave a comment here 'in the Green Room' to let me know. I write because I have to, but it is being read that makes writing worthwhile.

The game begins anew soon.


100Cyborgs: 91-100

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 final ten posts from 91 to 100:

    91. GoogleApple
    92. Deplatforming
    93. Drugs
    94. Make-up
    95. The Digital Downstairs (Routers)
    96. Disney Tax
    97. Lockdown
    98. Citizens
    99. Libraries
    100. Philosophy Books

It was not easy to choose a final ten cyborgs... all through the serial I maintained a list of ideas for what I could talk about, and at the end there were still some forty or so that I hadn't discussed. I had avoided dealing with smartphones directly until this final block, but #91 GoogleApple puts a fair perspective on the matter, and #95 The Digital Downstairs provides a different viewpoint on our relationship with our robots, one that is worth bearing in mind. There were several pieces that I wasn't sure how controversial they'd be - #93 Drugs sank without notice, while #92 Deplatforming provoked an absolute storm of vehement objections, although nothing that swayed me from my position. #97 Lockdown and #98 Citizens go together as twin diagnoses to our current crises - the one we inflicted upon ourselves out of fear, and the one we urgently need to fix before hatred destroys us. The pacing of this final block allowed for a dramatic pause after that pairing, leading to the final two. I always wanted to end on a positive note, and I could find no better example of cybervirtue than #99 Libraries, which led perfectly into #100 Philosophy Books, allowing me to end the serial by connecting it to its reason for existence - The Virtuous Cyborg.

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!

Enjoyed any of the pieces in #100Cyborgs? Join me in the Green Room and let me know.


Philosophy Books

Leatherbound BooksWhy read a book like The Virtuous Cyborg? One answer is that reading philosophy books is a way of encouraging your own virtues; your curiosity, your flexibility, your moral judgement, and your reasoning - all can be sharpened by forming a cyborg with a book that will expand your capacities - just as your smartphone expands your capacities as a cyborg, albeit by signing over part of your autonomy to GoogleApple.

Not every book written by a philosopher is a ‘philosophy book’ in the sense I mean, and some books written by journalists, scientists, and theologians are also philosophy books in the relevant sense. Many novels are too. They are so if they put your mind and the world it lives within into contact with another mind and world in a way that opens you up to new ways of thinking. That capacity - to think anew - is what makes philosophy such a unique set of practices. Alas, the vogue for an academia of specialisms is anathema to philosophy books, since in such a system there are only problems to solve and no people to meet.

Through my cyborg encounters with philosophy books I have talked with Descartes, Aristotle, and Chuang Tzu, but not alas with Hypatia, whose books have not survived. I have encountered people like Mary Midgley who I went on to correspond with, and Immanuel Kant or Mary Wollstonecraft, who I could not. And each encounter has expanded the range of ways I can think about myself and my world, and clarified the connectivity between our thinking today and two millennia of written works, many of which have bequeathed to us our tools for thinking, held so unconsciously we might almost mistake them as the only possible way of thinking.

Yet philosophy books are endangered. Professional philosophers aren’t expected to learn how to share minds as a human-book cyborg, as universities are expunged of the practices of philology and so-called ‘continental’ philosophy, both of which make this cyborg possible. Books too are endangered, although ebooks provide a surrogate if you do not mind your reading habits being fed to advertising robots. The smartphone-human cyborg encourages bite-sized thinking, watching over reading, monotone over monographs. The book is an anchor to an older way of thinking - indeed, to every older way of thinking that survives in books. That’s why libraries are so vital - they are a kind of time machine that is not purely imaginary!

Why read a philosophy book? To experiment in thinking with somebody else, to share in the experience of human thought in ways that are new to you. It is not something that everyone can do with ease - but if you can, you owe it to yourself to provoke your own thought. Philosophy books can do that. But you have to be prepared to commit to something more than utility; to find value in discourse and disagreement. Are you up to that challenge?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #100


Libraries

Duke Humfreys Library OxfordThroughout A Hundred Cyborgs, I’ve tried to find at least a few examples of technology that encourages virtue - and I can find no greater exemplar than libraries. These astonishing cybernetic networks consist of one or more humans curating dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of books and other publications, arranged within some system to aid recovering specific texts. Not a single aspect of the technology involved is remarkable - there is nothing of the chrome-tinted goggles at work inside any library building - it is solely that the cyborg we form with a library is encouraged to develop their virtues in so many different ways, and those who facilitate this near-miraculous arrangement also cultivate the distinctive excellences of the librarian in the process.

Through the agreement to remain silent, the library cyborg learns respect for others and an awareness of personal space; through the signage upon shelves, the breadth and depth of human knowledge and experience is foreshadowed, and curiosity fostered; the time limit upon lending teaches both responsibility and time-keeping. And all this is without beginning to delve into the cybervirtue of the books themselves, which can teach concentration, imagination, empathy, patience, commitment and so much more besides.

Yet none of this matters in the eyes of most humans, since the internet is far more convenient and endlessly entertaining. Have a question? The internet robots will get you an answer instantly, while obfuscating your ability to know how that answer was constructed, or what commercial forces distorted your enquiry. Want to while away some time? An infinite river of shallow amusements awaits at scores of websites, offering chewing gum fun in a variety of vacuous flavours. Who would want to learn from books when a video will show you exactly how to do something, and with none of the time-consuming reading or thinking to get in the way? We call it the World Wide Web, and aptly so, for it is indeed a subtle, sticky trap that once you enter you can never leave. Convenience is a value that conditions us to impatience - why discover and master your own excellences when the robots of the digital downstairs are standing by to service your every whim...?

As long as we judge solely by the shallow ethical calculus of the twentieth century, libraries seem inferior to the internet. That’s because utility is a disastrous value to build civilisation upon - it fools us into thinking we ought to make everything, because technology is ‘neutral’, so we should stockpile as much of it as possible. But technology is never neutral. It ranges from the calamitous to the beneficent - and the library is a sterling example of cybernetic networks that not only foster human flourishing, they have been able to incorporate computers into their practices without jeopardising their own distinctive excellences. An advanced civilisation is not the one with the most toys, but the one that cultivates civility. Understood in the way, libraries are the apex of human civilisation.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #99