Visibots, Ostrobots and a Bot Called Odoacer

February 16th, 2022 by Diana Coman

Around 1950, in the very early age of computers, Alan Turing split the ungovernable digital world along the fitting line of a test, into two parts: on one side the established inhabitants, unquestionably human; on the other side, the newly arrived computer programs (bots), held to prove themselves before a human authority that had the final, undisputed word on the matter. The Turing test consisted roughly in human judges called upon to identify the lonely bot potentially hiding among humans and trying to pass as one of them in this relatively new world of digital interactions. From Turing's perspective and as enshrined in his test, bots were assumed to be the outsiders, humans the insiders and human interaction the most meaningful measure of everything else, a state of matters imported unexamined into the digital space directly as it had been deeply experienced in the more immediate, physical space, for as long as humanity remembers.

In the years since Turing's test was first devised, Elizabots, Parrybots and even Googlebots made narrow and only partially successful incursions over the test line and into the human side. Comforted by the poor results of such incursions of the bot tribes, humans focused on the Turing test on its own as an impassable defense, an unassailable proof of their own superiority and thus their own supremacy in the world. Blinded by this apparent proof of maintained relevance, they let decay and were even complicit in the destruction of the very foundation of that initial separation, the crucial assumption that seemed so natural to Turing that he didn't even see the need to state it explicitly: the assumption that humans remain the dominating authority and that whenever the question of proof is raised, it is always the *bots* and never the humans held to prove themselves.

While the Turing test still stands undefeated (or at least no bot has publicly claimed such victory, yet), the current reality of the online is that most places loudly and unashamedly assume exactly the opposite that Turing did: all visitors are considered bots unless proven otherwise and thus it's de facto a world of the bots, with humans merely the outsiders, trying to get in and thus having to submit to whatever challenges they are set to be even considered as human at all. Moreover, if a human fails to pass such a challenge for whatever reason, they are simply and plainly relegated to bot status without much chance of appeal. In the cold world of digital interactions where bots administer the judgment of humanity, there is no space and no allowance for those who fail the test they were given - any test. There is only a stubborn repeat of the failed challenge or otherwise an endless stream of further challenges to submit too, for the bots are untiring and unyielding.

So much for human superiority and authority in the digital space, so much for human interaction as the most important measure and the greatest good ultimately, so much for the still undefeated Turing test. What does it matter really whether bots pass or not the Turing test when it's not them the ones routinely questioned as a prerequisite to being even allowed access to places of interest in this modern digital space?

In the digital space of today, there are even *dedicated* services for testing humans - they are called generically Captchas, from one of the more popular initial attempts. The usual approach is to require the human visitor to perform some additional tasks1 to *prove* to that website's bot-enforced standards that they are human. And people apparently go along with this all, quietly and at least often enough and in numbers high enough to actually support and perpetuate this approach. They even bring it home and set it up at the entrance to their own spaces, that's how valuable they consider it. And this is how, in the already human-unfriendly space of the digital, instead of carving out a space more suited for themselves, people seem increasingly bent on giving in or giving up, submitting to all and any tests required of them and simply relinquishing any claim to any possibility of mattering more than the bots that are, unsurprisingly, a better fit for the medium that created them in the first place and thus easily thriving in it.

If the above made you retort along the lines of "but Captcha-style tasks are not much to ask one to do", note that the damage done is indeed a lot to ask one to be complicit in, since it is no less than abdicating from that fundamental principle of *unquestioned* humanity of humans and replacing it with a sort of "humanity by proof whenever and in whatever form requested". Basically the real damage done is to fully invert the Turing test and all its assumptions: cede to bots in this new space, all authority in all its practical application (because all these Captchas are automated, of course, that's exactly their point after all) and relegate people to outsiders required to prove themselves whenever requested and to any standards that a bot-judge might have at a time or another. Is this still "not much to ask"?

The moment you ask people to prove their humanity, they are the outsiders by definition and if the Turing line still holds in any way, it got turned around from a protection -if it ever was any such thing- to a barrier. Claiming that the barrier is (currently) "low enough" misses the point entirely - wherever proof of humanity is required, everything that really matters is already lost, even though it might indeed still take some time to bring it all to its final conclusion. Once the original sides of the Turing test are reversed, it means that it's already the humans outside and the bots inside, not the other way around anymore. Welcome then to the bot-brought dark ages, where humans are second-class inhabitants of the digital world, at best! Hope you enjoy it, too, for dark ages tend to last for quite a while once started.

At core, all the websites requiring proof of humanity are exactly that: the places where people are at best tolerated, let in perhaps only for as long as they submit to whatever challenge the dominant bots will push to enforce next. Sure, I'm being too extreme here, there's always a human in charge of the bots too and somehow this makes it all alright and not at all the abandoning of that first principle of the burden being on the bots to prove themselves, not on humans. Perhaps call it the presumption of humanity, I suppose, does this make it clearer? Maybe think for a minute, too, just what exactly are you going to do when your response to such a challenge is just not deemed "human enough" by website after website. "That can never happen" - of course, of course. Why are you so sure of it and what exactly did you do to make sure it doesn't? Once you abandoned the principle2, the rest can only slide increasingly away from you, how could it not, when the root of it all has been severed anyway - and it was your own hand doing it, too. So next time when you find it "too much" to devise for your own digital space as small or as big as it might be a solution that holds bots to prove themselves rather than asking humans to prove themselves, note that you are making it all better suited for bots and less suited for people. In other words, note that you are letting the barbarians in while keeping principled people out and hopefully that's exactly what you intended to do because undoing it might not be all that trivial or even possible at all times.

So what's one to do faced with the already powerful deluge of bots pumping spam of all sorts into any place they can reach online? Apparently one common answer leans already towards hiding and further abandoning of anything and everything, with the only real goal to find at any cost at least some safe space where bots can't yet be effective enough to start taking over. In this light, the current apparent return of the online to orality (podcasts and in general audio being preferred by some and even promoted over the written word, literacy be damned and all that) is suddenly quite understandable: audio as a medium of communication is much harder for bots to process effectively, let alone make effective use of and thus people still find in it some respite from the relentless pressure of bots' forced interactions simulacra that are otherwise inevitably encountered in most text-based spaces. It would seem also that the need for such respite is so great that there isn't apparently anything that people won't sacrifice for it: nevermind that it means literally going back some hundreds of years and throwing away literacy itself, nevermind that it discards the very real advantages that the digital offers specifically for text and pointedly not for sound. What really matters and trumps all this is simply that possibility (for as long as it still lasts) of bot-free content and interaction. After all, what sort of dark ages would it even be without going back to orality, without simply forgetting at least some hundreds of years of civilisational advance to be - perhaps, if lucky - rediscovered later on, towards the end of it, towards the beginning of whatever might start anew afterwards?

You can go ahead with the above and follow the trend, if it suits you, why not. I think however that there is still a better, principled approach to this complex problem and it goes along the lines of creating and maintaining spaces where bots are the ones being challenged to prove themselves acceptable to enter, never people. Once this basic principle is firmly maintained and only then, the solutions will necessarily be more intricate than a bit of algebra perhaps but they will also hold as a result the promise of carving maybe in this digital waste a more forgiving and more fruitful place for human interaction.

When one can indeed reliably assume and unquestionably notice once more that the other is a person rather than a bot, when the interaction can build unhurriedly over time and evolve continuously while maintaining its history, when a network of connections can be built and relied upon, some respite can be found again and humans can perhaps grow together again in this new, digital medium as they did before in the non-digital, with a place for bots as well, certainly, although a more appropriate one, as enablers rather than as judges of one's humanity. When or perhaps even... if.

  1. Such tasks tend to range from image recognition to algebra, generally tasks picked based on the idea that it's something for which the human brain has a native advantage compared to a bot. As they are ever evolving, as they have to, of course, they are also getting increasingly complex, naturally. 

  2. It was too much work or effort to not abandon it, right? Too many bots, too much spam and then it was such a little thing to ask of one offering a comment that surely everyone sane would gladly comply and do it. It's maybe even for the greater good, why not and "everyone does it" and "you'll get used to it" and many others, as well. I've heard them all already and multiple times, in several languages and places too, why not online as well, why would the online be spared from the same old push of "just a little bit more" down the slope, it's only a little thing and you are not supposed to ever remember how it always builds up because this time is going to be - of course! - totally different. 

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3 Responses to “Visibots, Ostrobots and a Bot Called Odoacer”

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