AI Of The Beholder!

Can machines produce art?  Or is art an exclusively human endeavour?

These heavily debated and unresolved questions are of profound importance.   They reach into the very roots of what our future will look like as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning advances.    Before reading on, ask yourself, do you believe machines can learn to produce art?  What is your intuition?  Yes or no?

Now meet “AIVA” (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist).


Using deep neural networks AIVA has analysed over 30,000 musical scores from the likes of Mozart and Beethoven and it has been able to identify patterns within scores, in order to produce algorithms which can infer from those patterns what notes should come next when composing its own music.

To learn more, you can spend 9 minutes listening to this short TED Talk by Pierre Barreau, available at this link:

AIVA TED Talk – Pierre Barreau

Listening to the music, it is beautiful, and to my subjective ear is indiscernible from music created by a renowned human composer.   But is this art?

As somebody who likes digital photography and tinkers with RAW files in Adobe Lightroom, I’m reminded of the ability to retrospectively apply colour profiles onto pictures based upon templates.  I.e. Canon has used data analytics from thousands of users to optimised the best “Landscape” profile.   70% of the time I feel it slightly improves my landscape picture, 30% of the time I feel it fall’s short of Adobe’s “Standard” profile.    The Canon template is based upon what it “thinks” most would prefer based upon an analysis of data.   The concept is analogous to AIVA, but to my mind, no where near as sophisticated or impressive.


My example, to me, does not constitute art.  It’s just data manipulation.   But what about AIVA?   It too can be described as data manipulation, but in doing so it crosses typical boundaries of what we deem to be art?    So what exactly is art?  Here are some renowned opinions:

Oscar Wilde introduction to “Dorian Gray” famously describes art as a mirror to truth.   It reflects life, and not just what life was (as does History), but what life could be (Art).

Immanuel Kant once described art as “purposive without purpose”.  I like this one, it has a certain profundity to it, that I think gets close to the mark.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the German proto-existentialist, famous for his hatred of Hegel and his overall morbidity, believed art to be a distraction from the otherwise irresistible “will of nature”.   This “will” is a treadmill of desire, mild and short-lived satisfaction at slaking of desire, followed again by desire, longing, desperation, frustration until desire fulfilled, and then repeat until the sweet annihilation of death.   Art, and only art, had the power to break this cycle (will), and allow a stepping off this treadmill, momentarily anyway.    Not the best company on a stag do!

So we have “Truth”, “Purposiveness”, and “Distraction” in the mix so far.  There is also beauty.  Surely we all agree that art should be beautiful?  At least subjectively for many if not for all?


Taken from the Hishhorn Museum of Modern Art, Washington DC, 2018. Ron Mueck “Big Man”, 2000

Is this piece beautiful?

(I took this myself as I was fascinated by the piece.  No idea why.)

No its not beautiful, but it is art.

Or maybe, somebody believes that it is beautiful?  It’s fair to say that producing this piece would involve skill, imagination, and craftsmanship.    To me this conforms to Kant’s definition, i.e. its creation involved purpose but once produced that purpose seems somehow divorced from reality, and in the Schopenhaueran sense it could therefore distract from the “will of nature”.   After all, I was thinking of nothing else while I admired this piece.   But does this reflect some “truth”, present a mirror to the world, or attempt to communicate some message?  If it does, I cannot tell you what it is.

Others suggest the art is dubbed as art, by those within the art community.   This may seem probable given how there are many art experts and critics in the world who study various works in detail.   They know more than we do surely?  How does one pass into this elite club though?  What qualifies?  If I signed a urinal and called it “fountain” as Marcel Dechamp did in 1917 (cover picture), I am sure nobody would call it art!   If Andy Warhol did it though, would it be dubbed art by the “institution”?   What I’ve described here is “the problem with seriously weird stuff”, and it is actually dated to 1917 when Dechamp produced said “Fountain”.

The last one I’ll note to round off the point, and one probably more workable as a concept is the “Family Resemblance” view posited by Ludwig Wittgenstein.    There are words that can evade precise definition.   If you view a picture, say from a wedding, and recognise someone as from a particular family, not through any specific feature, but through a collection of combined subtle features, its hard to put your finger on why you believe them to be of family X, but you are sure by their “look” that they are.    Wittgenstein used the word “Game” as an example.   The instances of the concept ‘game’ form a vague network of overlapping similarities: as a result, there is no one thing that every game must have in common with every other game in order to count as a game, and there is no clear dividing line between things that are games and things that are not games.  Games can be cricket, hopscotch, Monopoly, Sudoku, throwing a ball against a wall and other things like them.  Some you can win, some have no competitive element, some have rules, some don’t etc etc.  Art, like game, is a family resemblance concept.


Family Resemblance Concepts

I’m not sure we’ve got anywhere here though, when it comes to AIVA, and to the crucial question of can machines produce art?   Let’s try this:

How many of these attempts to define art, does AIVA hit upon?

Is it beautiful? yes, having heard the music it produces I would say so.

Does it reflect a truth?   No.   Oh well, maybe, kind of, its a reflection of Mozart/Beethoven et al’s truth!

Does it have purpose?  No.  Well its creator had a purpose, but that is not the same purpose as the music AIVA produces.

Does it involve skill, imagination, and craftsmanship?  No.  The human creation of it did, but AIVA itself involves data and maths.  (I’m struggling with my pronouns here!)

Does AIVA distract from the daily grind?  Yes, in the same way as music does in the general sense.

Does it therefore hold family resemblance characteristics to the various theories of arts definition?   Yes.

But does it hold enough of these to belong in the art family?  Enough to fall into the art paradigm or framework?  Crucially, I don’t know, because these has never been successfully defined from what I can tell.

I’m left pondering, with a big question mark.

On this subject in particular, I would be extremely interested in your opinions..



The Observer Effect

The thoughts and musings herein are of a more personal nature than the usual content, as they relate to my current state of mind.    However to begin, and also to explain the reason for the title I will start a little quantum mechanically.

I’ve been fascinated by the concepts of quantum mechanics for sometime now.   For instance, how can something be one thing and another thing simultaneously (i.e. a supra-position), yet subjectively viewed its state renders into one thing or the other, determined by the very act of observation, i.e. the Observer Effect?   It seems like magic because its counter-intuitive to all we understand about the natural laws on our macro level.

In quantum computing for instance the immense compute potential is derived from harnessing the probabilistic power of qubits, which are both 0 and 1 (and everything in between) simultaneously.  Don’t ask questions here. Not to me anyway!


The most famous explanation of this probabilistic phenomenon employed in quantum computing is found in the “Double-split” experiment.   Lazily (I acknowledge), but also for reasons of practicality i defer here to the Wikipedia page as it appears to do this some justice, albeit it contains the danger of sending you down a rabbit hole.   For that reason I provide the link rather than some clumsy and therefore inadequate explanation:

So to conclude, at sub-atomic levels, something can be one thing and another thing at the same time!  It’s state is determined (rendered) through an act of observation.

That very loosely explained, I return to issues of personal psychology.     Having recently returned to work having had 3 out of the 4 weeks of August off for holidays, I have to admit a degree of ennui has set in as I settle back into the grind.    As the week wore on, my feelings of detachment and listlessness improved to a degree, probably boosted by a the tea-total nights (and therefore lack of any alcoholic depressant) of a typical working week.  However whilst walking my dog (Socrates) this morning I mused upon these mood swings somewhat in an effort to “snap out” of them.

It occurred to me that I had all the capacity to reflect on my present circumstances in such a way as to  induce blissful gratefulness and contentment, and equally descend morbidly into an anxious or frustrated state of mind.   My external circumstances could be constructed into a narrative to support either state; on the one hand I had everything to be thankful for and look forward to, on the other hand there are a queue of problems just waiting to escalate, confound, and frustrate my plans and aspirations.   How I feel about these circumstances is purely dictated by how I choose to reflect, and has little to do these external life circumstances themselves.   Indeed I can choose which “train of thought” to catch.

It could be said therefore that my mood oscillates in a quantum supra-position, and the observer that will effect the state rendered is purely “me”.

Philosophically I can be stoical, or Epicurean about life if I wish.   Indeed I can choose from a buffet of positive philosophy to drift through life happy and content with my external circumstances.  Equally I can feel crushed by notions of existentialism, of conversely attain a sense of liberation through a kind of mindful phenomenological meditation.  It really is up to me, I have the power to view circumstances (whatever they are) wherever they reside on a positive-negative spectrum.   On a cheerfulness scale. So, shall I observe my mood as a 0 or a 1 today?


Footnote – The notion of a “me”, an ego, and a sense of “self” in general is vigorously debated, and therefore remains controversial and unresolved.   I deliberately assume agency and free will in all the above whether I actually believe in it or not.  I just allows the above to make some sense…to “me” anyway!

Literally augmented virtual reality

We come equipped with just 5 senses.   We perceive reality by processing the data collected from those 5 senses alone.  Our brains act as meat computers predisposed to recognise, and discern patterns through top-down processing of data collected through those 5 senses.  Bayesian inference works with this sense data, augmenting it with experience (both evolved and learned) to produce a near-time (there is a lag!) construction of a reality.   It simultaneously remembers and anticipates, whilst combining the sense data to construct a picture that we can use.

bayesian inference

Bayesian inference working with sense data to construct reality

This constructed reality is something we can safely navigate to survive long enough to procreate (in most cases) as evolution demands.  What we perceive as a result of these processes constitutes our “Umwelt”, a German word roughly translated as “Tunnel of Reality”.

We are different from other animals.   Dogs for instance have one less visual cone than humans, and if they were to look to a rainbow, they’d just see blue, green and some of the yellow.   They lack the magenta cone that we possess.   A butterfly has more than us, so they’d see a concerto of colour compared to our small band of colour.   A mantis shrimp on the other hand is off the scale with 16 cones to our 3!  We simply cannot imagine what the world is like for these creatures.   We cannot perceive the colours  (and the intensity of those colours) that they would see.   It would be impossible.

I’ve stolen this description from an excellent RadioLab report which uses a choir to illustrate the ranges of colour different animals will perceive as they process protons through their respective light sensors if they were to stare at the same rainbow.    I attach a link here, which is well worth 15 minutes of your time, a perfect way of illustrating this concept.

RadioLab – Rippin the rainbow a new one!

Of course, this just relates to vision.   What about the senses that animals have that we don’t have at all?   Some birds for instance sense the magnetic poles in order to navigate.   Bats are known to sense their world, their “umwelt”, by using echolocation.   Philosopher Thomas Nagal produced a highly influential essay illustrating how we don’t have the apparatus to even understand what “it is like” to be a bat, because we have no conception of a bats sensory apparatus.  We cannot access this bat qualia, we just cannot know what a bat perceives in order to understand it’s subjective experience!


Thomas Nagel

But we do now create sensors that sense data that we simply cannot perceive through our own biology.   Back in recent history we began borrowing sensors from the animal kingdom, like the canary that we took into the coalmine, or the hounds we took out hunting.   Today though, we’d stick an IP address on a virtual canary to sense for poison gas and no animals would be harmed.   IoT is what we now call our world of sensors.   Imagine what Skynet or Colossus would sense through its umwelt if hooked up to all the world’s IoT!?

Our mobile phones also ship with a host of sensors that we humans don’t have.   As an example, did you know your smart phone probably has a barometer?   Going beyond weather forecasting a highly localised app “Dark Sky” will tell you if it will rain in your street in the next half hour using your phone barometer!

Dark sky

Dark Sky Local Weather Predictions!

But what if we could use IoT and the development of new sensors to hack our umwelt?

What if we can manufacture new sensors that could be integrated with human senses?    (Though I’m not sure I want to see dead people!)

What if we could use Virtual Reality, with new peripherals to present topologies and scenarios that can enhance the affect of these new senses!?

I was impressed by this TED Talk by David Eagleman (which this blog is ostensibly a long winded introduction to) because in neatly summarises the opportunities we have to augment, or create new senses.    Its also a great non-technical summary of the complicated world of perception.

David’s work began with sensory replacement, i.e. creating new or developing existing senses for those deprived of sight or hearing for example.    This lead to development of bracelets and vests to be worn to trigger responses to stimuli to help the disabled interact with the world better, and diminish the affect of their disabilities.

In the safety market, sensors can be worn to detect radiation, or for other potentially hazardous signals.   You can also imagine how such sensors can be used in a future military context.  In the VR market, peripherals can be worn to provide an immersive experience that may even go beyond our current corporeal realities.   The mind boggles!  (No prizes for guessing which market segment might add impetus to developing new VR peripherals!).

VR peripherals

I cannot blog it justice, so I will now stop trying and simply direct you to David Eagleman’s excellent TED Talk!

Can we create new senses for humans? David Eagleman

The future may be bright, it may be dark, but it will certainly be interesting..


Children Of The Corn

What if the future many fear is already here?   What if our focus on killer robots is  just a dangerous distraction?  A red herring?   What if we are about to be overthrown by a hypnotised Generation Z, using a globally co-ordinated attack instigated via Minecraft?  Let’s face it, adults don’t get Minecraft, so it would be the perfect vector to start a modern version of the opening scene from Children Of The Corn.


We seem to spend a great deal of  attention on the notion of runaway super-intelligent robots.   This is on a scale between “they’ll steal all our jobs” up to full blown Terminator/Matrix style dystopian science fiction.    I’ve been guilty of the same on here to a certain extent, albeit a little tongue in cheek.

Many are not so worried, and cite concepts like the “Frame Problem” (coined by Daniel Dennett) as reasons to be sceptical of the notion of “AGI” (Artificial General Intelligence).  I recently witnessed a compelling example of the “Frame Problem” illustrated in a video.  It featured a 12 year old girl walking with her family on a beach in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004.   She noticed that the sea began foaming and making a strange fizzing sound, and recalled years earlier a geography lesson at school where a favoured, charismatic, and therefore memorable teacher had explained that such phenomena was a typical precursor to a Tsunami.  Recalling that particular memory, applying it to her current sensory experience, using her uneasy “feeling”, her intuition, perfectly timed with an injection of adrenaline, resulted in an act that saved the lives of around 100 people!   She basically evacuated the entire beach, and just in time!

It’s hard to imagine a machine, robot or otherwise, embedded and embodied in the environment to such an extent as to be able to join those dots in that human manner and act accordingly with the correct order of priorities and incentives aligned within its programming.    How do we mimic millions of years of largely mysterious human evolution?  Should we even try to?

After-all, even Google’s vaunted Deepmind program “AlphaGo”, that can defeat the very best human at the most complicated of human games, “Go!”, is completely and utterly crap at Chess!   It is still just “Narrow AI”.  Powerful.  Exciting.  But still narrowly focused only on a clear single task.


Moravec’s paradox (articulated by Hans Moravec in the 1980’s) dictates that there is an inversion in the computational power requirements of what takes significant human effort (data analysis, critical thinking, complex decision making, etc.) to that of mundane, nugatory, sub-conscious human tasks (walking, picking things up, tactile interaction with objects and environment, etc).   The later is far harder and more expensive to achieve than the former – which through breakthroughs in Data Analytics and Machine Learning – computers have become far more adept.


That all said, the “ATLAS” robot (below) may have just back-flipped it’s way over Moravec’s paradox?   Scary stuff!

atlas rise

Either way, what we fear from runaway AGI may be a little far off.   Elon Musk, and others may not necessarily agree with me on this, and I am sure I could be convinced otherwise..

Does all the above take our eye’s a little off the ball though?    For instance, I’ve blogged before (twice) on the nefarious byproducts inherent in Social Media with its apparently attendant “Surveillance Capitalism” business model (targeted, human psychology-aware digital advertising) here:

Sugar & Salt

Time *well* spent

What’s happening to us now though?   Should we fear runaway sentient Robots or should we fear runaway consumerisation Algorithms?   It’s probably healthy to show respect for both, but which of the two are the most likely to cause our species immediate harm?    As our children gaze into the iPad, what damage can Social Media addiction and the machine learning “click bait” do to their psychology?  Indeed, what impact has it had on our society?  Our institutions?  Our politics?   Our Governments?   How will it change us? And what can we do about it?


For instance, a friend of mine recently explained to me that he was unable to visit an older relative (which required an overnight stay) with his teenagers for the simple reason that there was no WiFi there!   They, quite literally, refused to do without it for any sustained period.    This sounds like an addiction to me, and I can imagine it to be pretty common-place with teenagers.   Or so I have been warned anyway.


I have 2 younger children, with iPad’s, and for now have successfully managed to ration their use and prevent my children from using Social Media (apart from benign videos on YouTube).   This means that, for now until they are older, they’re not exposed to the worst aspects.   But they are only 9 and 7 and they don’t have the password!   I worry for the teenager years now more than ever before.

Devices will provide constant distraction, unless you turn off notifications and focus on self discipline.  I have (for the most part), and have noted a significant improvement, but can we expect our children to protect themselves in similar ways?   We must surely help them for the sake of their own mental well-being?

My hope is for a two-pronged attack through an increase in awareness both on the user side, and a teleological tweak from the developer side.   We’re in live Game Theory territory, but we also live at a time were we can alter the program to perhaps achieve similar objectives, but by much less harmful means.  After all, I am not making the case that evil internet companies are plotting our destruction though advertising, far from it, just that the human impact of their methods have not been completely thought through.  Cock-up theory trumps conspiracy theory most of the time.    But we do have the opportunity to both educate, and reconfigure these tools before they run amok with their methods and modes of distraction.

For example, the attached link describes a click-bait system the self generates its own news, automatically analysing its success to refine and improve it’s use of language for the next cycle, and so on, and so on:

Auto-Generating Click-bait With Recurrent Neural Networks

I am heartened to see that these subjects have been given more real media attention recently, and I hope that this attention will result in initiatives that address this slide into this growing digital trance.   As well as, of course, educate the guardians of the immediate future (i.e. Minecraft illiterate parents) on how to support the next generation in order to protect their freedom and autonomy, and to get them to look up from the device once in a while!       Here is a BBC article from this morning for instance:

Teenagers and Social Media addiction

Not many people read this blog, but hopefully those that do will look into this a little further and do what you can to protect those nearest..

Happy New Year by the way!!



Sugar & Salt

As a species humans have evolved a heightened appetite for sugar and salt. Primates found more energy from ripened (sugar rich) fruit for instance, whereas salt is an essential compound for basic body function.   In the primordial era, these resources were also very scarce.  This is why we gravitate to, and enjoy more, the food the contains significant doses of either or both of these substances.  Up until very recently in our relative history, evolution has selected for this craving feature as a survival advantage.

Social Media on the other hand has evolved into a commercial model underpinned by the burgeoning phenomenon of Surveillance Capitalism.   Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning power the harvesting of information of our personalities, through an increasing array of data points.   Buying patterns are reasonably obvious, but our political inclinations, our level of religiosity, our relationships, what we like, what makes us angry, our age, location, health status, and physical appearance, are picked up and then churned through increasingly complex and sophisticated algorithms in order to profile us with exponentially increasing levels of accuracy.

The Machine knows that the overweight, and the self-loathing are far more likely to buy the cosmetics..

Through these tools advertisers now target us with growing precision.   Their marketing machine is now far more affective, allowing the Social Media platforms to command a premium for access to their services.   There is nothing necessarily nefarious going on here (as long as you’re ideologically at ease with capitalism), but the incentives are aligned in such a way as to treat us punters like grazing cattle to be lured into the trough of their platforms.

Ex Google and Facebook designer/architect Tristan Harris describes a system of Social Media platforms trading in the “Attention Real-estate”.  This is not the amount of visitors per se, but the combined time that visitors spend engaged in a site that is what is most keenly valued.  Looking, commenting, liking, getting angry, and crucially sharing and propagating…is what is sold to the advertisers.   This is what the advertisers pay most for.

But how can Social Media platforms lure us in for more?  Back to Sugar and Salt…

To illustrate, lets take Facebook for example:

Alongside the usual soft psychological tricks in respect to notification mission creep (e.g. Birthday reminders – come in a say happy birthday!, share some memories from last year, reminders of an event near you!), Facebook has its own sprinkling of sugar and salt to keep your nose snuffling in its pasture.

The Sugar = Lad Bible, Daily Mash, The Poke and their ilk, spreading cheerful humour and delight.   Those funny YouTube videos of forklift mishaps, the cute and heartwarming pet rescue stories, and lets not forget those life affirming, inspirational quotes set on a sunny beach background.   All these things raise a smile, and we like, laugh, and even share if we feel particularly taken with the content.   Let’s brighten up my friends day in the process of browsing!   Why not?   

The Salt = Outrage Porn!   A new term, but that is essentially the Salt.  Share if you agree!  Political and religious outrage, terrorism or tales of human rights abuses, very often from sites that feature a flag of some description as its profile picture.   You’re amazed at just how right-wing some of your friends are.  You think “what, exactly, is going on here!?”.

Outrage, disgust, and indignation are extremely powerful human emotions.   We are triggered into action by these emotions more often than we are by all the other positive emotions.   In Facebook parlance action = sharing.   You share that which you find most offensive or disagreeable, or you feel compelled to correct some stranger, whom you’ve never even met, who has got something “wrong” on the internet!   

When you engage you become part of the story, part of some little unfolding drama.   Your circle of friends may even “Like” (or even “Love”) your comment, proclaimation, or shared article of rage.    This interaction then becomes a self-reinforcing, and then a propagating, feedback loop.  It validates you as a voice and contributor to the drama, and gives you, in the process, those warm, glowy, happy feelings.  It massages your ego.

Have you noticed that there is a lot of the Sugar and the Salt, but not much in between??   I mean where’s that nourishing protein here? That’s because the potency is in the Sugar and Salt.  That’s what makes you interact.  That’s what makes you stay longer.   That is what increases that array of data points.  That’s what feeds the AI.  And, that’s what profiles us into nice little bundles ready for the advertisers!

As always, our only form of defence is through knowledge and promoting awareness.   Understand what is going on, so that we can engage these highly useful platforms upon our own terms again.   Work hard to self-police and resist those knee-jerk reflexes triggered by those powerful human emotions.   Perhaps disengage, spend less time, and have a break from them in general.    That at least, is my plan.

Now, like a massive hypocrite, I will widely share this blog on several Social Media platforms!

Time *well* spent

I’m in the midst on an experiment.   I encourage you all to join in.   The experiment is designed to highlight just how distracted I was by my mobile phone, and highlight how effective app designers were at diverting my attention.

Tristan Harris is an ex software designer at Google and Facebook.  I won’t opine here about his work on the philosophy of  App Design and our overall well-being in engaging with technology, because you can access it better via his excellent TEDTalk here:

Tristan Harris – TED Talk

Or, if you have more time (and I advise this), spend a car journey listening to this podcast:

What technology is doing to us.. Sam Harris interviews Tristan Harris

What I want to recommend you do here is to follow a few basic steps to stop your mobile phone distracting you.  In doing so you can get back control, be more focused on what matters, and be much more productive.

Apparently (according to Tristan) a phone notification, designed to lure you into an App (e.g. Facebook) will distract you for an average of 23 minutes!     Here are the crucial steps designed to vastly improve your time, and prevent this from happening:

  1. Go into settings, then notifications, and turn off all notifications relating to machine updates.  Keep on those relating to people.   E.g. turn off Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (all social media), App updates, News updates etc, but keep on Texts, WhatsApp, Email, Calendar etc.   Remember you can go into these things and check when you have time and your focus on something else will not be harmed.
  2. Move all Social Media and non-essential Apps from your Home Screen.   Put them in folders in the 2nd screen, and reserve your home screen for Tools only (Camera, Maps, Calculator etc).
  3. To enter an App pull down and use the search facility.  This means you are making a conscious choice and won’t be distracted by an adjacent App.  For iOS users, turn off Siri Search suggestions as well.
  4. Periodically shuffle around the order of your Apps and App folders.   That way muscle memory won’t sub-consciously take you into certain, commonly used Apps, you’ll have to reacquaint yourself with their location.  Again a crucial step to enforce your conscious agency.
  5. Notification vibrations and noises induce stress.  To minimise the pre-identification uncertainty associated with these pings and buzzes customise these signals to differentiate from home and work for example.   Give certain regular contacts their own unique signals.

It’s working for me already, yet what has disturbed me (as someone that hopes to possess the zen of a budding philosopher) is just how bad I must have been before!   Those silly (but hilarious) accidents on YouTube, those sodding likes and re-tweets on Twitter, and those irresistible “someone has tagged you” messages on Facebook.   Who knows how much time I have wasted down these attention sapping rabbit holes!?

These steps won’t affect your general conscious and premeditated use of these Apps and Sites.  They won’t stop you missing out on anything, as you can go in when you like on your own terms (I must admit I was worried that I’d miss the latest newsflash, but lets face it, if WW3 breaks out someone in the office is bound to tell me!).    These steps will mean that your sub-consciousness won’t be cunningly manipulated by psychologically advanced tricks and traps designed to grab the maximum “attention real-estate” for site owners in order to make money from a queue of eager to exploit advertisers.

Give it a try, I am pretty confident you won’t regret it.

phone time


In moral philosophy, specifically in respect to virtue ethics, you’ll find Plato’s Republic and its classic thought experiment, “The Ring of Gyges”.

As Socrates debates the nature of moral virtue with Glaucon, the myth of the ring is brought to bear in defence of Claucon’s argument that we do what’s moral only to protect ourselves from any social and legal consequences.   If these were taken away from us, then pretty soon we would begin to break the societal moral standards for the sake of our own interests.

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where he was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, he discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which he took for himself. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. He then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself.


Although Socrates (or Plato using Socrates as cipher for his own thoughts) famously offers a less depressing alternative view, in that there is more at play in satisfying the higher and more benevolent pleasures versus the base pleasures of our desires, and indeed through his tripartite theory of the soul, man has rationality and spirit, as well as desire through which he acts upon, it nevertheless brought into my mind one thing.  One phenomenon.


To a certain extent you can become Gyges on Twitter.  It removes your identity, and offers anonymity.   A twist of the ring and you can become invisible.

Does this (partial at least) invisibility encourage less ethical behaviour?    The concept of internet “Trolls” certainly points in that direction.    As a result of social media we have this addition to our lexicon.

I’m reminds me of an amusing story that appeared on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 talk show about 3 or 4 years ago:

A Twitter “Troll” started sending 140 character episodes of abuse at a boxer who had recently lost a fight.   At first mocking his defeat, the abuse went on to become nasty, even going so far as to threaten the boxer’s family.  The harassed and insulted boxer became very angry and anxious no doubt, and retweeted all this abuse to his own connections, pleading for them to help him identify the perpetrator of these abusive tweets.     His connections obliged, as the boxer happened, by chance, to know someone who knew the perpetrators handle.   He identified him, and the boxer then used the internet to work out where the troll actually lived!

In his act of revenge, the boxer tweeted the troll street view pictures of where he (the boxer) was located as he gradually descended upon the troll’s physical location.    The troll’s prior bravado instantly evaporated!   He apologised.  He begged.  He pleaded. He apologised again.  He asked for forgiveness.  He cried.


What happened next was pretty amazing.   When the boxer met the troll on his doorstep in person, following the initial exchange, things became civil.    The boxer accepted the apology, forgave the troll, and went so far as to quite like the guy.   For the trolls part he explained that he somehow lost a sense of what he was doing, became bored, and for some reason not even considered the harm he was causing.   He believed he’d acted completely out of character, not even really recognising his own actions.


Both characters in this story retold it on the Radio, and took questions on the exchange and subsequent encounter with reality from listeners.

Another thought experiment related to moral dilemmas, that the Ring of Gyges reminded me of,  is commonly referred to as the “Trolley Problem”, and it goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?


Most people when asked this question elect option 2, killing the 1 person as opposed to the 5 tied up on the track.

However, when the same problem is posed a different way:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

A far fewer number would elect to proceed here from the same set as those who would have chosen option 2 above.

But why, when the results are the same?

Because you are removed from the machinery.   You are making the physical contact yourself.  It is more visceral.   Your agency is more direct, and therefore you naturally feel a far greater degree of responsibility.

Assume then that the internet is the machinery.   Technology offers layers and layers of anonymity removing you as the operator from the results of your actions.

Technology allows you to bomb strategic locations in faraway lands from the comfort of a desk in the same conditions under which you’d play a computer game.    Only unseen by you, its a real Reaper drone, real missiles, real villagers, and real limbs.


Technology allows you to generate and perpetuate fake news and conspiracy theories, empowering many with a degree of influence they would otherwise never have in the real world.


Technology allows you to throw insults and threats at strangers, groups, or communities without any real threat of punishment or social stigma.


Of course most people act responsibly and ethically, and many that don’t are suffering from psychological issues that cause them to act in these less than ethical ways.

Back to Plato, these people are responding immediately to their desires and the rational component is not acting properly as the controlling mechanism.


I think in many respects Twitter is the digital equivalent to the Ring of Gyges.   I’m not sure we can seduce the queen, kill the king, and take his throne…. But it’s certainly possible to achieve unethical results without suffering the social or legal consequences of the analog world.

Maybe we should always visualise the whites of that boxers eyes before committing those thoughts to that keyboard.     Assume that whatever you commit to the ether can be said aloud and within striking distance of the recipient.   Assume that when twisting the ring of Gyges, that a vengeful karma demon may see you.

After all, trust in an invisibility ring didn’t work out too well for Isildur!