Drones

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!


Glasses

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!


Defendants

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!


Mathematics

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!


Achievements

Achievement UnlockedA Peter Gabriel song, subtitled "Milgram’s 37", laments that “we do what we’re told, told to do”. The inspiration for this song was Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments about conformity to authority, where 37 of 40 participants were willing to hurt or even kill others as long as someone told them to do so. Nowhere is this tendency towards blind obedience clearer than in videogame achievements.

By ‘achievement’, I mean goals at a meta-level to the game world, such as PlayStation Trophies or Fortnite Challenges. Sometimes unlockable content is tied to completing the goals; sometimes it is attaining the goal itself that is the reward; other times (as with Xbox) a score accumulates as these achievements are completed. It really doesn’t matter how it operates - because whatever it might be, we do what we’re told, told to do.

The vast majority of players are in support of achievements - they like having more things to do in their games... For me, achievements are symbolic of ‘the gamification of games’, a ubiquitous layering of tasks over a play that is otherwise free. We gleefully cede the unadulterated freedom of play for clear instructions of what we should be doing, and what we should be doing is what we are told to do.

Back in 2011, I argued that commercial game development was dominated by guns and goals, and that artgames would need to either avoid or subvert these ‘props’. But I did not anticipate that this unholy alliance might further intensify, with publishers finding ways to sell them to younger players, and extend the scope of goal-completion indefinitely, creating infinite treadmills. Meanwhile, the closest artgames have come to subverting goals is light comedy, like The Stanley Parable or Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker. Maybe goals are resistant to subversion precisely because we do what we’re told, told to do...?

This perhaps seems not worth worrying about, just some harmless fun. But how harmless it might be depends upon what is being excluded by this monomaniacal focus upon completing tasks devoid of meaning. True, creativity has not been extinguished; Minecraft and other games channelling Lego have successfully kept some space for self-expression - even Fortnite offers a level editor entirely outside of its Challenges. Yet when entire generations of players are being inculcated into blind subservience to arbitrary goals, should we not allow ourselves at least a scintilla of fear that the Enlightenment dream of self-governing humans is being traded away for entertainment?

We do what we’re told, told to do. We’re told to complete the tasks, conditioned to tick all the boxes. Our desires and motivations are being accidentally subverted, absorbed into the virtual and deflected away from the actual. It’s not done maliciously... but that doesn’t mean there are no risks entailed. Why strive for anything worthwhile when you can get the fictional satisfaction of a job well done just by doing what the game tells you to do...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #80, the final part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Cinematics

Yuna.Final Fantasy XOkay, you’re thinking, now I’ve surely gone too far in suggesting there are moral and behavioural effects to movie-like cut scenes in games. But precisely the nub of this serial, A Hundred Cyborgs, and the book The Virtuous Cyborg that inspired it, is that if we take seriously the cybernetic aspect of technology, everything is amenable to an analysis of its effects upon us, and that we are deceived when we dismiss this exploration out of hand as having nothing to tell us.

The CD-ROM opened the door to the cinematic, by massively expanding the available storage space. This in turn had at least two significant effects with moral implications. Firstly, it allowed games to develop stories that were closer in form to movies, thus reneging on the potential of the player as an active moral agent in game worlds. Movies and books work as centres of moral reflection precisely because the outcomes of their events cannot be changed. Yet the more a game uncritically echoes this form, the less an effective form of moral reflection it can be, because rather than witness the tragic mistakes of others play out in calamity we must be tricked or tram-lined into making them ourselves, or avoid moral reflection upon our mistakes entirely. Even attempts at branching narratives in games do not assuage this problem - they simply escalate the development costs while providing pre-proscribed choices to help conceal the problem. How often do we encounter a narrative choice in games where all outcomes are equally satisfying? Branching story writers all too frequently have to implement the weaker dramatic choices as well as the good ones.

Which brings us to the other cost of cinematics: that of implementation. Movie studios apparently manage to mostly avoid grotesquely abusing their staff, but game developers do not. Everything that raises the scope of game development tightens a noose around the employees of game developers who have to deal with the complexity of a medium that cannot simply be broken down into ‘shots’ and accurately costed. How many of the fans of The Last of Us, a game dependent upon vast linear sequences of cinematics interspersed with that amoral videogame chestnut ’necessary murder’, paused to reflect upon the working conditions of those who made that material possible...?

Ironically, games are more than capable of enhancing our moral reflection when they engage with player agency. But the presence of pre-scripted cinematics - the dependence upon the narrative language of action movies that also trade in ‘necessary murder’ - invariably contests player freedom and thus the opportunities for reflection upon our actions in the game world. But perhaps that's not the main issue with cinematics. The mythos of ‘technological progress’ is so very effective at concealing the concomitant moral regression that follows inexorably (if not inevitably) from escalating the resources required to bankroll that ‘progress’. The cinematic indexes this phenomena in the videogames industry. And we eat it up, because we desire the fruits of these vines even as they strangle us.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #79, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


All-comers April

The Virtuous Cyborg.2by1As we come to the end of the ten-part Gamer Cyborgs, there are just twenty instalments left in A Hundred CyborgsBefore we finish, I want to throw open the floor for the second time (the first being "All-request August", back in 2018, when we were just twenty cyborgs in). So it gives me great pleasure to announce All-comers April, our last special event of the serial, in which I'm inviting guest writers to reflect upon our relationship with technology. I've asked some good friends of either the book, The Virtuous Cyborg, or this serial, or both, if they'd like to submit pieces, but even if every one of them accepts my invitation there are still a few slots left.

Which brings us to you.

Would you like to write your own #100Cyborgs piece? The only restrictions are the one I've been working with - it has to be 500 words or fewer, and it has to be themed around a 'cyborg', meaning any combination of beings and things, and of course, it has to have a title different to those I've already used (full list of cyborgs here). The idea is to reflect upon the moral and behavioural effects of technology in our lives. It doesn't has to be in terms of cybervirtue and cyberdebility (the positive and negative influences technology has on our behaviour, discussed in the book), it just has to reflect upon our human condition as beings engulfed in technological relations. Other than that, the sky's the limit!

The new pieces will start running straight after Game Cyborgs finishes. Stay tuned!

If you'd like one of the remaining slots, please contact me via Twitter (@SpiralChris) or the contact link at ihobo.com.


Remote Play

Remote PlayFor a while now, remote play has been a buzzword in investment circles around videogames. It is effectively the ‘Netflix of games’ that is held out as a carrot - it’s why Sony bought Gaikai in 2012 for building into the PS4... but this service, dubbed PlayStation Now, passed by almost unnoticed. To play games in a server-client arrangement, with all the heavy lifting on the server-side, requires enormous internet bandwidth. Except in a few cities, that infrastructure just isn’t there yet. But in the grand spirit of ‘Jam Tomorrow’, remote play remains steadfastly attached to the agenda. Why?

The answer is that remote play is a subscription business model, and if there’s one thing that media corporations are into right now it’s building (and guarding) a big silo of content that makes money in convenient monthly installments. As I said before, everyone wants to be ‘the Netflix of games’... of course, with Disney getting dragon sickness over Netflix making so much money off of their Marvel content, it’s not clear that even Netflix is going to be the Netflix of video going forward. Because make no mistake: this is a battle for monopolies, and us little folks are not invited except as paying customers.

Such are my political qualms about remote play: it is deeply and systemically anti-equality. But then, what isn’t these days? If we ask instead about the moral and behavioural effects of remote play, it may seem rather neutral. After all, what’s the difference between playing a big corporate-funded game on your own console and streaming it to some other device?

Two aspects leap out at me as causes for concern. Firstly, that the move towards services in games that Steam spearheaded undermines ownership and thus all efforts to run historical archives. As someone who takes the history of games very seriously, the idea that whole periods of play could be impossible to archive troubles me, even though I have faith that workarounds might yet be found. Besides, the endless updating of software services (Fortnite is different almost every week, for instance) is a much bigger problem in this regard.

What is more troubling is that our unlimited willingness to embrace cloud-based arrangements, like remote play, for their apparent convenience is driving up the power usage and thus the environmental impact of play. It is hard to make direct comparisons between the different ways of supporting videogame play, and rather troubling that we are not in a position to make informed decisions in this regard. Just in terms of obfuscating environmental costs, remote play strikes me as morally suspect, and in pushing us further towards that bright future where Disney owns everything and we own nothing... well, the undertow is dragging us over the waterfall - decide for yourself whether our screams are those of excitement or of fear.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #78, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Online Play

Online MultiplayerThe world of online play is the collision of more strangers than anywhere else today - even social media requires a tenuous chain of connectivity between the people the messages are shared between. In a contemporary online game, the only criteria for encountering another player is that they happened to want to play the same game at the same time as you.

If you judge the advent of online play in strictly utilitarian terms, it appears entirely beneficial, ‘useful’, as we say. But precisely the nature of the pieces in A Hundred Cyborgs is to doubt that utility is an adequate sole assessment of value. Once we start considering the moral and behavioural aspects of online play in detail the situation becomes hugely complex - and resistant to any simplification beyond the criticism remarked in #60 Multiplayer that online play serves to funnel more money to fewer participating organisations.

When I reflect upon my own experiences in online games, I have on one hand the endless accusation of being a “faggot” in Killing Floor because of the apparently shocking transgression of wanting to win by smart strategy instead of (as apparently was considered mandatory) wildly running in together to die. And yet playing Fortnite, I have encountered a tremendous willingness between players to help despite the underlying play activities being extremely similar to Killing Floor (move to the next point; shoot everything not on your side). I don’t know if the difference here is the ages of the players (Fortnite skews much younger), or the volume of players in the community - the more dedicated players of Killing Floor, perhaps, were more set in their ways, and not willing to allow for deviation from their expectations. But Fortnite, I’ll admit, surprised me and overturned my largely negative expectations.

The diversity and complexity of online play is such that it resists analysis except at the level of the bluntest critiques. So against this, I would like to share a single anecdote that may not be common or typical, but its very possibility speaks of a potential unlocked by online encounters. Someone I know had fallen into the dark well of depression, and had become effectively trapped inside his own home as a result. Yet he struck up an unlikely friendship with a fellow with learning disabilities who played online. By helping his new ally to play games online, my friend ameliorated the worst ravages of his own dark thoughts, while his fellow player received aid and companionship. This would not have happened without the neutral ground of online play to make it happen. A depressed person does not seek out ways to act for the benefit of anyone, least of all themselves. Yet through the mechanics of online encounter, something doubly worthwhile was brought about. That very possibility is, in itself, part of the positive moral potential of online play.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #77, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!