Stupid responses to wicked problems, part [x]

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2011

Seems lots of people can see the potential long-term problems with the plans of Foxconn (and doubtless many others) to replace human manufacturing labour with robots. Sadly, that doesn’t preclude them coming up with the most myopic and reactionary response possible:

Despite my love of robots since childhood – as the high point of technology and for the technological challenges they present – we must remain vigilant about how they are helping us. If it turns out they are making our lives worse, I will be first in the luddite line with my sledgehammer.

Yes, Noel, yes! Because it’s the robots that are deciding the course of macroeconomics, isn’t it? Sneaky robots! Thank heavens for your vigilant sledgehammer; I shall sleep easier at night knowing you’re watching for that critical moment when a systemic drift manifests as an observable (if ill-defined) impact on our privileged Western lifestyles, ready and willing to destroy the tools of potential oppression, yet leaving the hands that would wield them unharmed!

Idiot. We cannot detach ourselves from our technologies; we are a cyborg species and always have been. Hairshirt back-to-basics primitivism is as unachievable and naive as Singularitarianism. Robots are tools, just like looms; why destroy a morally neutral tool when you could instead work on the systemic problems which make that tool into a vector of oppression?

Fight the fist, not the gauntlet.

Reasons not to commercialise space

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2010

1) Marx wouldn’t approve! And anyway, we can learn about our relationship to the wider cosmos just as effectively from the surface of the Earth:

So outer space technology can be used for tackling a number of immediate social and political issues. But these strategies do not add up to a philosophy toward outer space and the form humanization should take. Here again, the focus should be on the development of humanity as a whole, rather than sectional interests. First, outer space, its exploration and colonization, should be in the service of some general public good. Toward this end, the original intentions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty should be restored. Outer space should not be owned or controlled by any economic, social, and political vested interest. The cosmos should not, in other words, be treated as an extension of the global environment, one to be owned and exploited. We have seen enough of this attitude and its outcomes to know what the result would be. Spreading private ownership to outer space would only reproduce social and environmental crises on a cosmic scale.

I’d agree that space shouldn’t be owned or controlled by vested interests, but I rather suspect that it won’t be very amenable to such any control, by dint of its, well, space; territorial disputes are a function of limited room for expansion, and it’ll take us a long while to run out of lebensraum at the top of the gravity well. Why fight for territory when it’s less effort to strike out for an unclaimed patch? Indeed, I suspect conflicts in space are more likely to retain the ideological character of those currently popular on Earth’s surface… viz. Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, Sterling’s Schismatrix. Is that a reason to avoid going there? I’m not so sure; I don’t think we’re any more likely to solve those problems by simply staying put.

Frankly, I’m right behind George Dvorsky on this one, who says “… I couldn’t help but think that Marxist analyses are growing increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic […] Economic determinism ain’t what it used to be.” Marxism is a useful critical framework when used alongside others (especially in literature), but on its own it seems hopelessly idealistic, ignorant of (or uncaring for) post-modern networked global culture, and soundly lodged in the craw of Victorian industrialisation. Cue brickbats from my more radical left-wing readers… but the world has changed a lot since Marx, while Marxism hasn’t changed at all. YMMV. 🙂

2) We can’t survive out there! We’re designed to be planet-dwellers!

What is of greatest concern here is that, unlike muscle loss which levels off with time, bone loss seems to continue at a steady rate of 1 to 2 per cent for every month of weightlessness. During a three-year mission to Mars, space travellers could lose around 50 per cent of their bone material, which would make it extremely difficult to return to Earth and its gravitational forces. Bone loss during space travel certainly brings home the maxim “use it or lose it”.


The impossibility of an escape to space is just one of many examples of how our bodies, and those of our fellow organisms, are inseparable from the environments in which we live. In our futuristic ambitions we should not forget that our minds and bodies are connected to Earth as by an umbilical cord.

Well, yes, but umbilical cords can be cut and tied off; indeed, to extend the metaphor, cutting the cord is an essential step toward independence from one’s mother. And if our bodies are inseparable from our environments, we can hack one or both of them; if Human1.0 with default settings can’t live in space, we can upgrade her and her environmental surroundings. The biological status quo is not a cage, it’s a room with a door whose lock requires dexterous but doable picking.

There are concepts in development for spacecraft with artificial gravity, but nobody even knows what gravitational force is needed to avoid the problems.

Oh, I’d have guessed something approaching 10m/s² would do it… call it intuition. Anyway, Karl Schroeder’s done a better job than I can of deflating the long-standing “it’s too dangerous!” hand-wringing about space travel; of course there are challenges, but they’re far from insurmountable. Where there’s a will, and all that.

And as a wee bonus, here’s a new twist on an old fandom favourite:

So far, boneless creatures such as jellyfish are much more likely than people to be able to return safely to Earth after multi-year space trips.

Intelligent jellyfish in spaaaaaaaace… why should squid get all the glory, eh? 🙂

Implanted obsolescence

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

We privileged early-adopter types are increasingly accustomed to our technology becoming obsolete… but what happens when the technology in question is actually a physically-embedded part of you? Suddenly your upgrade path is a little trickier than hopping on a Boris-Bike and going to your nearest Apple store. Tim Maly points out the risky side of early-adopter human augmentation tech:

On the ground, the realities of the only brain-mounted interface I know of – cochlear implants – are brutal. Here’s a taste: You can’t hear music. For a sense of what that’s like, try these demos. The terrifying truth is that once you’ve signed up for one kind of enhancement (say, the 16 electrode surgery) it’s very hard to upgrade, even if Moore’s law ends up applying to electrode counts and the fidelity of hearing tech.

If you are an early adopter for this kind of thing, the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it’ll be slow and out of date very soon. Unless they find a way to make easily-reversible surgery, your best strategy is to wait for the interface that’s whatever the brain-linkage equivalent is to 300dpi, full colour, high refresh screens.


Medical advancements demand sacrifices. Someone needs to wear the interim devices. Desperation is one avenue for adoption. Artificial hearts are still incomplete and dicey-half measures, keeping people alive while they wait for a transplant or their heart heals. This is where advances in transplants and prosthetics find their volunteers and their motivation for progress. It’s difficult to envision a therapeutic brain implant – they are almost by definition augmentations.

An avenue to irreversible early adoption is arenas where short term enhancement is all that’s required. The military leaps to mind. With enlistment times measured in a few short years, rapid obsolescence of implants doesn’t matter as much; they can just pull virgin recruits and give them the newest, latest. If this seems unlikely, consider that with the right mix of rhetoric about duty and financial incentives, you can get people to do almost anything including join an organization where they will be professionally shot at.

Picture burnt-out veterans of the Af-Pak drone wars haunting the shells of long-deserted strip-malls, sporting rusty cranial jacks for which no one makes the proprietary plugs or software any longer… you can probably torrent some cracked warez that’ll run on your ageing wetware, but who knows what else is gonna be zipped into that self-installing .deb?

Meanwhile, Adam Rothstein brings a bit of Marxist critique to the same issue, and points out that the same problems apply to external augmentations:

It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?

Insert unevenly-distributed-future aphorism here.

Looking back on Cyborg Month

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2010

When Tim Maly invited me to contribute to the 50 Posts About Cyborgs project, I had a nagging suspicion that I’d have a run-in with impostor syndrome… and I was right. The nearly complete run of posts (49 of them linked from the Tumblr above as I type this) contains some of the smartest and most brain-expanding material I’ve read in a long, long time, from some incredibly erudite writers and thinkers. If you have any interest whatsoever in the post-modern human condition in a technology-saturated world, in where we came from as a species and where we’re going, or in what being (post?)human actually means, then there’ll be something there for you to enjoy – so go read.

And many thanks Tim for inviting me to take part; I’m one proud impostor. 🙂

One hundred years of cyborg solitude

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2010

21st September 2060; New Southsea, Disunited Kingdom

September is the old man’s favourite time of year. This morning New Southsea basks in the upper twenties as the summer sear fades out, and the high tides leave less silt in the streets. “Shorts weather, young lady,” he mumbles around his post-breakfast smoke, smiling in the sunlight as the post-grad girl clears away the crocks, boots up the base-unit for his ancient spex and helps him over to his scarred thriftwood desk. “Great day for an etymological celebration, I reckon.”

She can’t help but agree; he’s a grumpy old bastard a lot of the time, but his enthusiasm’s infectious when it takes him. Someone somewhere in New Southsea celebrates some marginal anniversary or festival every day of the year, but as obscure temporal landmarks go, today might take some sort of award. She’s surprised by how much she’s been looking forward to it… though again, she figures she’s just tuning into the old man’s vibes somehow. The reason seems inexplicably unimportant. Continue reading “One hundred years of cyborg solitude”

Next Page »