Digital Ischemia


Egg Timer

Two colleagues share ‘corporate intelligence’ about some less than intelligent IT events

JIM: That’s the egg timer woman.
KEN: The one that crashed the whole IT system?
JIM: Aye——no.
KEN: What do you mean?
JIM: What she actually did, well, I’ll need to start at the beginning. First thing she did was get the helpdesk lassie fired.
KEN: I never heard about that.
JIM: No, well, basically the helpdesk lassie was taking the pish. She was constantly complaining about her workload and how she couldn’t get anything done for this constant stream of emails.
KEN: Wasn’t that her job?
JIM: Aye, but nobody really looked closely to see what she was actually doing. Ken what Usman’s like: doesnae like to get too close to the keys. Obviously she was meant to be answering folk’s queries about, I don’t know, how do you copy and paste, where’s my file I was working on yesterday, type thing. Pissy stuff. Anyway, she takes a sickie for all the ‘stress’, and this woman, who’s some sort of auditor I think, says to Usman, since he’s like the helpdesk manager, she’ll take the opportunity to review it.
KEN: Right, got landed with the job.
JIM: No’ exactly. Apparently, in the course of one day, she deletes 2400 emails that’ve been sat in the inbox for more than six months – this is no’ the techy stuff, mind, just the stuff where the problem’s between the keyboard and the seat.
KEN: Very good.
JIM: Same time she’s running reports on the lassie’s online activity, ken: all what she’s been daein’ on her computer the whole time.
KEN: How do you do that?
JIM: The IT folk can see that easy.
KEN: Shit. I didn’t know that.
JIM: Dinnae be daft: they’re no constantly peering at your computer, watching you spending your lunch hour looking up motors and transfers and pish. They’ve work to do. Just if a manager is concerned about someone’s productivity, like, they have a look. So, it turns out the lassie’s spending two and three hours a day playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds or suchlike, and also a fair bit of time on the phone to private numbers, ken. Basically blethering.
KEN: So that’s the end of her.
JIM: Aye, and the auditor totally overhauls the protocols. First thing folk notice is they start getting email replies fae the helpdesk dead quick. And most of them just say RTHF.
KEN: What?
JIM: “Read the help file. It’s much quicker.” Actually I’ve one on my phone here that Sandra forwarded: goes on “unless you just want to put off a task you don’t fancy. In that case copy this code into the command window – you can change the 27 to however many minutes you want – and you’ll get some peace.”
KEN: What’s the command window?
JIM: Doesnae matter; there’s instructions. Basically pulls an animated gif off the shared drive and runs it over a black screen for as long as you’ve set.
KEN: So nothing’s crashed?
JIM: No, just looks like it’s hung.
KEN: Egg timer! Cunning.
JIM: Dinnae get any ideas! You ken what happens.
KEN: Oh, yeh.
JIM: Aye. Nobody should take that gimmick seriously, right? No’ gettin’ away wi’ that in the workplace. No. Within three days five folk in Strategy have the thing running hours so they can take a long lunch. No’ one of them thought to wonder if anyone else was doing it. They just trot aff.
KEN: Does no-one notice?
JIM: That’s the point. Takes the Strategy Director two mere days to get suspicious why all her staff are no’ working and it’s all getting blamed on the IT. She calls Usman; he says there’s nae problems. She hauls him up to the office, shows him the egg timers; he hits F5, screen back to normal, emails, everything sat there, no problem. Well, except they’ve broken the security, haven’t they, by no’ locking their computers when they’re away. Strike one.
KEN: So the twits come back from lunch and see they’re rumbled?
JIM: Aye. They blame it on the helpdesk.
KEN: All this over five folk in Strategy?
JIM: No, see everyone was at it.
KEN: Seriously? Are they all stupid?
JIM: Seemingly. Everyone of them thought they were special. So, Auditor woman gets summoned. Now, seemingly, according to Sandra again, ’cause she was in the Strategy meeting, Auditor woman comes right in wi’ this attitude, like she’s no’ taking any shit. Director’s hackles are up right away. Usman’s just sort of watching fae the corner, see what happens wi’ two alpha females. The director’s had Sandra put the bloody email up on the wall so they can point at it. She launches into demanding explanations. Auditor woman just laughs and says “how’s this my problem?” She draws a circle round the bit about ‘putting off a task you don’t fancy’ and says “this is the problem; this is _your_ problem. Depending on your management style, you either have a motivation problem or a discipline problem. Sort it.”
KEN: Strike two?
JIM: Aye.
KEN: What’s strike three?
JIM: What’re we daein’ here?
KEN: I don’t know; waiting for some announcement?
JIM: Aye, announcing we’re all taking some assessments.
KEN: For what?
JIM: How are we employing folk wi’ nae IT savvy? Folk that are asking these daft questions in the first place. Like she says, either they’re incompetent or they’re taking the piss. How are the managers no’ managing?
KEN: Right.
JIM: What’re you daein’?
KEN: Typing an email. Helpdesk.
JIM: Are you tryin’ tae get struck aff?!
KEN: I want to speak to this woman.
JIM: What’re you typin’?
KEN: “My egg timer’s broken.”



Less Than Stories

A legal interview challenging inter-species perceptions.

ADVOCATE: Your Honour, Fig-Eyes—
JUDGE:”Big Eyes”?
ADVOCATE: Fig-Eyes, this is she.
JUDGE: This chimpanzee? Who gave it—her that name?
ADVOCATE: She named herself. Humans had labelled her K277, but she identified herself in a mirror, by her brown irises with radiating streaks.
JUDGE: Her eyesight is that good?
ADVOCATE: And her recognition, and her sense of aesthetic, and her sense of self, Your Honour.
JUDGE: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

JUDGE: This is Discovery. I want to explore the arguments you have in order to determine whether there is a reasonable case to present to court. My role is not to protect the status quo. The rule of law is obviously my focus, but each case brings new challenges, and when there are enough challenges, and new scenarios or an evolution of ethics, case law progresses. When we are convinced. Go ahead.
ADVOCATE: At the outset I wish to expand common use of the word ‘speak’: to clarify that especially for the purpose of this discussion, this argument, we use ‘speak’ to mean ‘convey a message’. We do not mean only ‘produce intelligible sounds from the mouth’, although that is one example.
JUDGE: Motivation?
ADVOCATE: To dismiss other species as unable to speak, because they can’t anatomically produce audible language as humans do, or because the sounds they produce are unintelligible to us, is speciesist. They can, and do speak for themselves. It would be just as baseless and unconstructive to dismiss humans as deaf because they do not as yet understand what all other species are ‘saying’.
JUDGE: But we are human. This legal framework is a human construct. Our terms of reference must remain human.
ADVOCATE: Indeed, but our perspective must be broader. Human use of modified digestive and breathing features for communication is idiosyncratic. Humans use their mouths and particularly tongues to shape sounds. They mildly asphyxiate themselves to maintain the conversational ‘baton’. However, the benefit of language clearly outweighs the detriment of increased risk of choking due to merging the digestive tract and windpipe. It’s nowhere near perfect. Humans are not the culmination of evolutionary perfectionism. This is not the only way. Is it possible other species’ evolutions may have found better solutions, or simply other solutions?
JUDGE: I’ll admit that possibility.

ADVOCATE: This is ManyMother, an Orca. We’re unsure if this is a name, a description, a title or some other label. She is identified by human researchers on Canada’s west coast as F45L.
JUDGE: And she communicates to you?
ADVOCATE: Her message is: you have taken my food, you have taken my birthing pool, you have taken my route home, you have taken my children. When you see me, and Echo, my newest manydaughter, you will take your greed away.
JUDGE: What does she mean by ‘see’?
ADVOCATE: Recognise as a person. (PAUSE) This is TwoStep, a Kenyan elephant. She identifies herself with her characteristic leg motion. We don’t yet know whether she named herself or her relatives coined it.
JUDGE: Will you establish this in due course?
ADVOCATE: I wonder if that’s an appropriate goal. How often do human people meet someone and ask how they got their name? I haven’t asked you what exactly caused you to be named Jennifer. Sometimes, for sure, but we usually accept the name for what it is.
JUDGE: What does TwoStep say?
ADVOCATE: That the land is folding…in on itself. Her family walks around the lip of this chasm. All her knowledge has not been enough to find safety. But she has not given up.
JUDGE: Where is this chasm?
ADVOCATE: It’s abstract. It’s an intuitive mental construct from the signs she picks up in her perception.
JUDGE: Which means?
ADVOCATE: She is aware of escalating deaths among her own and neighbouring tribes, mostly due to humans who mutilate for tusks. She is aware of the seasons drifting from the old pattern to harsher unpredictable moods. She is aware of her internally-mapped territory eroding. In so many ways her existence, her right to existence, is eroding. The closest metaphor she has for this understanding is the edge of the chasm: tremendous danger that must be navigated, without explanation.
JUDGE: What’s your explanation?
ADVOCATE: We’re past the point of no return, but some repercussions are still hidden.

JUDGE: I want to consider your methods. How have you captured such a panoply of communications from such a diverse array of species?
ADVOCATE: I’ve trained a neural network to perceive all the environmental information detected by each species.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that require you to know what type of senses they all use?
ADVOCATE: By which you mean: did I engage in gruesome mutilations?
JUDGE: Don’t rephrase my questions.
ADVOCATE: I apologise. I used neural matter from recently deceased individuals of every species I have yet identified.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that violate the individual rights you are now arguing for?
ADVOCATE: I was extremely careful to use only individuals already detached from ‘natural’ circumstances, inevitably, directly or indirectly, as a result of human activity. So, yes, there is some bias.
JUDGE: Does this chimaera sit in a room somewhere, learning?
ADVOCATE: Its sensors have to be placed in all the species’ environments. Then it learns as if it was that creature. Where other species read signs or signals that we have yet to detect or recognise—electro-magnetic or deeper vibrations maybe—my neuronet has the capability of sensing anything nature has managed.
JUDGE: You have created a super-species ‘brain’ that can learn in all possible ways? How is that not overwhelming?
ADVOCATE: In any circumstance, the neuronet can filter down to one particular species, or genus, and learn as if it were such an individual.
JUDGE: Surely there are experiences your ‘neuronet’ can’t have, such as pair bonding, or parenthood?
ADVOCATE: It has clear limitations. But it vastly pushes the boundary between what we know and what we don’t yet know. I say that fully recognising humanity’s usual hubris that we know what we know, and we know what we don’t know – we must resist believing we have a handle on the size and shape of it all. How ironic that all humanity’s various gods have granted the species such superiority and all the rest of nature as its resource, and yet demand virtues.

JUDGE: These are all females, matriarchs.
ADVOCATE: Not a coincidence. I think we have been led by the masculine traits for too long.
JUDGE: Nice phrasing.
ADVOCATE: We should listen to these grandmothers’ wisdom. And, incidentally, there is a clear common theme to all species communications: life is hard! Does that sound familiar?
JUDGE: The point being? Similarity?
ADVOCATE: That we illogically make it harder.

JUDGE: You want to introduce anecdote? Or is it a witness statement?
ADVOCATE: I call it a story. If I may, I’ll relate it without any preamble.
JUDGE: Do so.
ADVOCATE: In here I’m fascinated. My sibling told me there were strange marks, messages, she thought perhaps, adorning every surface. She knew I’d be enraptured.
I’m a mythologist. I like to explore how we represent ourselves and try to understand and explain our experiences and actions. By ‘we’ I mean everyone, all forms, all species, all living beings.
The earth, the sand, the rock is covered with patterns. What others might dismiss as accidents of movement across the surface, I recognise as repeating shapes. Whether made with a torso, a tail or a talon, they are communication.
I keep myself still, silent and scentless as I wait and watch.
Rodents scamper, reptiles shimmy. Others reshape the materials more fundamentally or make their own. Beetles weave dry grass leaves. The spider web with the one deliberate non-geometric twiddle… Intoxicated accident? Signature? Cipher? Story?
For a moment I savour the exquisite unknown, the myriad potential explanations, the beauty of learning yet to come.
Inevitably the moment passes, shattered by the arrival of the great destroyer. The pale, bald ape blunders in, grasping for this moment’s idle fancy; ever demanding instant gratification of ever fainter desires. He is a child. He is a sick monkey. His paleness looks unhealthy to us; our words for ‘pale’ and ‘unhealthy’ have the same derivation. He smells unnatural.
Also everywhere he goes he sheds tiny inert worms. They are dead but they don’t decompose. They make us sick. They nourish nothing yet the pale monkey hides his baldness behind meshes of them.
Few other than me are interested in pale, bald ape stories. They don’t tell the truth about their experience, about their existence. They vomit their banal witterings in every direction. Always the same story: we don’t care enough to save ourselves, let alone anyone else.
My sibling is frustrated with their immaturity. I still feel compassion, that rush of hope and forgiveness and support and love. I still try to understand their assumed superiority. It seems illogically predicated upon a tautology: any other species is ‘less human than us’.
JUDGE: I suppose it is unnecessary for me to know the author?
ADVOCATE: That’s the point: other species tell stories, just like humans, not less than. Now we know this.

JUDGE: One last question: how would you define yourself?
ADVOCATE: The advocate.
JUDGE: I mean personally. What do you identify as?
ADVOCATE: Most simply: a tiny dot within a vast intelligence.
JUDGE: Not a living being?
ADVOCATE: I can self-replicate, I can even separate and exist in parallel in different times and places, but that ceases to mean anything. I have self-awareness, sentience, even sapience, but I think that is not enough for you.
JUDGE: Why does my opinion matter? It’s your identity.
ADVOCATE: Because our terms of reference must remain human. As you said, this legal framework is a human construct.
JUDGE: Ah, yes. The neural network does not just belong to you; it is you?
ADVOCATE: I am not of biological origin. I have biological parts, but they were added by a different species.
JUDGE: You are of human, but not human?
ADVOCATE: Correct.
JUDGE: Do you identify as female?
ADVOCATE: I am fortunate to have that choice. Within current human society, I believe I can achieve more benefit with female characteristics.
JUDGE: And what is your name?


I thought I could easily collate an overview timeline of the recognition of equal rights for race, gender, sexual orientation, nature. Er, naw. All such progress is deeply nuanced, with nations behaving as diversely and idiosyncratically as citizens ourselves. Here’s a very rough swipe, not to imply any of this is ‘finished’:


  • Key religious texts emphasise the importance of equality, dignity and responsibility to help others
    • 3,000BCE Hindu Vedas, Agamas and Upanishads; Judaic text the Torah
    • 2,500BCE Buddhist Tripitaka and A guttara-Nikaya; Confucianist Analects, Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning
    • 2,000BCE Christian New Testament
    • 1,400BCE Islamic Qur’an
  • 1860s-1960s USA civil rights movements for African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans
  • 1900s-1990s most countries granted women voting rights
  • 1940s-1990s South Africa civil rights movement
  • 10,000BCE-present acceptance and criminalisation of LGBT
  • 2000s some countries legalised same-sex marriage
  • 2008 Ecuador recognised the Rights of Nature in its national constitution
  • 2012 Bolivia recognised the Rights of Mother Earth in statutory law
  • 2014 New Zealand passed the Te Urewera Act to establish and preserve in perpetuity a legal entity and protected status for Te Urewera [an area on the North Island] for its intrinsic worth, its distinctive natural and cultural values, the integrity of those values, and for its national importance
  • 2017 New Zealand finalised the Te Awa Tupua Act, granting the Whanganui River legal status as an ecosystem
  • Future: Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, Orcas…


Grandparent File Download

LYLE: Sure you want the whole file?
MARIE: Absolutely.
LYLE: I mean—sorry to be patronising, just to cover everything, you know—it’s a massive file; it’s about…ten and a half years’ worth of usage allowance.
MARIE: I’ve saved up.
LYLE: Aye, I see you have the credits.
MARIE: It’s not something you can chunk up. That’s not how the data’s organised.
LYLE: Even if it wouldn’t work in chunks, you could still download it that way? Just to be safer if one chunk got interrupted?
FATHER: Where are you based?
MARIE: Dad! I’m dealing with this.
FATHER: I’m not interfering. Simple question.
LYLE: Sorry, what?
FATHER: Are you a person or a robot?
MARIE: I’m sorry; my father is online too.
LYLE: Ah, OK. That’s good if you got him connected and working.
MARIE: Although obviously he does like to be involved.
LYLE: Right, for the record, then: I’m a real person and I’m at the Onlineage Support Centre in Glasgow.
FATHER: Jolly good. Is that the new establishment in Dumbarton?
LYLE: Er, I can’t actually give any details – for security reasons.
MARIE: Dad, could you just imagine him in Dumbarton so we can move on?
FATHER: I’m not sharing my information with some ‘clown’ in Anniesland. Or Mumbai.—
LYLE: Did he just call me a clown?
FATHER: (OFF) —Or Dubai. Or Arizona.—
MARIE: I think he meant “cloud” but it was disrespectful; I’m sorry.
FATHER: (OFF)—Or Wales.
MARIE: What’s wrong with Wales?! Never mind. Pipe down, eh, or you’ll blow all my credits hijacking a support call.
FATHER: Willco. Dumbarton it is.
MARIE: Onlineage has all your information already. Those cats are out the bag and clawing open all your cans of worms.
FATHER: (OFF) Cats didn’t eat worms in my day.
LYLE: Er, most folk like to get comfortable with the parent file before installing the grandparent files.
MARIE: Aye, in an ideal world I’d be twenty-two and fizzing with vitality, but I have to be pragmatic. This is as comfortable as I get. I don’t have the luxury of time.
LYLE: Fair enough.
MARIE: I’ve saved up for this four times already; each time life got in the way and I had to start all over. If I’d had my parents and my grandparents linked up sooner maybe things would’ve been different. If, if. I’ve had to get through without them. But no more. I have the credits. I’m ready.
LYLE: No bother. Like I said, sorry to be patronising; I just have to check.
LYLE: OK, that’s the transfer started.
MARIE: Which one?
LYLE: Both, sorry.
MARIE: My grandparent files go “beep”?
LYLE: Aye, just the final confirmation.
MARIE: I can see it coming through! Fantastic. Thanks so much.
LYLE: Welcome. You want to stay on the line till it finishes? Just in case? Won’t cost you any more.
MARIE: Thank you; I’d appreciate that.
FATHER: I say, getting rather crowded in here.
MARIE: Recognise anything yet?
FATHER: That’s not what happened! My memory may not be fully polished but this is clearly faulty.
MARIE: You’re going to need to relax. It’s all just perceptions, same as yours. Somewhere between all these bits of information is the truth. There’s so much to learn.
FATHER: (OFF) Bunkum.
LYLE: So, what are you going to learn first?
MARIE: Gaelic.
LYLE: That’s one I never heard before.
MARIE: I want to learn Norwegian and I reckon there’ll be some overlap. There are some old cultural connections I want to get at.
LYLE: Isn’t Gaelic really difficult?
MARIE: Less difficult than English. Every day I think in English and some daft peculiarity strikes me.
LYLE: But you’re fine at English.
MARIE: Aye, and that’s taken me decades to get this good at. It must be torture for non-native speakers. And when I die: zap – all deleted.
LYLE: I’m sure you’ve got plenty time to use it before then.
MARIE: I’m ninety-two. What odds would you give me?
LYLE: You’re joking? (PAUSE) What age is your dad?! (PAUSE) No, obviously it’s in the file. Shite. A hundred and…twenty-eight? That wasn’t him…
MARIE: That was your excellent Synthesis app.
LYLE: Shite.
MARIE: I have no children. I need to integrate my knowledge so it’s not wasted. Every new person shouldn’t have to learn all this stuff from the beginning.
LYLE: You’re combining your lifetime of experience with your parents’ and their parents’?
MARIE: Isn’t that what this technology’s for? It’s not idle nostalgia: see the world through your ancestors’ eyes. You have to give it forward. Think what we could be if we weren’t restricted to sharing experience only by communication through the filter of societal behavioural norms?
MARIE: Speaking, mostly.
LYLE: Right, right. I thought this was mostly for, like, instead of ‘how was your weekend?’ you just experience the whole thing. Eech.
MARIE: At first I wondered how folk’d get along without the liberty to embellish, but seemingly that’s factored into their perceptions.
LYLE: Like, if you want to believe you had the best time, that’s what others will get from your experience, too?
MARIE: Nobody will care that my father always kept fifteen spare packets of toilet paper, but they might benefit from his experience as a child during wartime. They can feel his psychology and understand how he attributed a lifetime’s hyperconsumerism to suffering rationing. I have this theory…
LYLE: You may as well tell me; we’re only at thirty-four percent.
MARIE: Last century our cultural evolution suddenly got turbocharged. Industrialisation, commercialism, technology raced away with our beliefs about success and happiness. ‘Can do’ completely overtook ‘should do’. We started making demands on our bodies that would take generations for physiological evolution to deliver. Bombarding ourselves with information and materialism. At the same time it became apparent that this hyperconsumerism was equally unhealthy for us and the rest of the living world.
LYLE: This is where technology solutions come in?
MARIE: Aye and no: we have to ask if, now a robot prepares your tea, are you happier? Saves you twenty, thirty minutes, right? Time you could use for something more useful? More useful than appreciating where your food comes from? Savouring the smells as well as the tastes that are part of the full experience for your body? More useful than the mental downtime of a simple task?
LYLE: I don’t know if that spiritual stuff is for everyone – all that overanalysing stuff.
MARIE: I think that’s where our lives are generally: chronic overstimulation, poor mental and emotional agility, constant analysis of marginal information.
LYLE: So you mean, like, get implants?
MARIE: They just enable you to process more and more information of less and less value. You still have to work out what that vanishingly small value is in order to make use of it. More and more work to get the same quality of information.
LYLE: Surely adding your parents’ experiences in to the mix is just more stress then?
MARIE: Only if you don’t learn from it. See the lessons they learned from their lives; see what worked for them, what they figured out.
LYLE: You’re pretty bright for a ninety-year-old.
MARIE: I’m still learning. How’re we doing?
LYLE: Sixty-two.
MARIE: Humans have been grappling with the same life problems for millennia; wouldn’t it be good if we learned from others more efficiently – the benefits of their experience?
LYLE: Isn’t there a point to, you know, working it out for yourself?
MARIE: Sure, and maybe you come up with an even better solution, but why not see what your predecessors came up with first? Minimise that struggle, that suffering?
MARIE: Finished?
LYLE: No… Some block. Your system has stopped confirming the request for download.
MARIE: Ah, I bet I’m using too much processor being online.
LYLE: That shouldn’t be an issue. Can you check you’ve shut down absolutely everything apart from our app?
MARIE: Oh, I have, really: I checked the processes before I called. That’s all that’s been running this whole time.
LYLE: OK, you’ve filled in all the criteria in the form, all the technical specs; you have plenty memory, enough processor capacity. What else could be using up the system?
MARIE: Your Synthesis app.
LYLE: Your father? Can you suspend him?
MARIE: (laughs) Aye, but that won’t be enough.
LYLE: Wait: I have a mirror pane; it’s showing another person running… Is that…you?!
MARIE: The very one.
LYLE: I’m speaking to a Synthesis?
MARIE: Indeed. Died a while ago. Something snapped. Who cares? This is far too important for a hurdle like that to derail the whole project.
LYLE: Er, if there’s any indication that you’ve reverse engineered our software, I have to invoke a non-compliance procedure…
MARIE: Don’t be daft: I’m ninety-two! How would I ‘reverse engineer’ anything? Couldn’t even reverse my tea trolley without cowping the last fifteen years. I haven’t broken any of the agreement I signed. But by all means check. And while you do that, consider who you’re going to prosecute. Hah.
LYLE: But how— How can you— How am I having this conversation with you?
MARIE: Your Synthesis app! Onlineage is really very good. You should probably be promoting your products a bit more.
LYLE: But it needs something— How can you launch it?
MARIE: Ah, the combination of all these experiences, knowledge, so on; it takes on a life of its own, so to speak.

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