AI is not the real enemy of artists

Artificial intelligence is threatening to put countless artists out of work. But the greatest threat to artists is not AI, it’s capitalism. And AI could be the remedy.

“Socrates taking a selfie, Instagram, shot outside the Parthenon, wearing a white toga, white beard, white hair, sunlit.” That’s all the AI image generator Stable Diffusion needed to create the cover image for this article. 

But instead of using artificial intelligence, I could have hired a photographer or purchased an image from a stock library to adorn this article. In doing so, I would have funnelled money to a human, who might have spent it on something else created by another human. Instead, I used AI, and no money left my pocket to flow through the economy. 

And therein lies the threat posed by artificial intelligence to artists: when AI can produce nearly endless creative works at near zero marginal cost, what will this mean for people who make a living via their artistic talents? 

While people have lamented the prospect of AI destroying jobs for years, the discussion has remained largely theoretical. Until now. With the advent of generative AI tools that are readily available to the public, like Stable Diffusion, DALL-E and ChatGPT, the prospect of massive job losses in creative industries is rapidly becoming a reality. Not surprisingly, many creative workers – including artists, illustrators, photographers and copywriters – are fearful for their livelihoods, and not without reason.  

If we believe that creative expression is inherently meaningful, and the works it produces are intrinsically valuable, then this assault on artists’ jobs would be a net loss for humanity. It’s one thing for machines to replace labourers on farms; it’s another thing entirely for AI to empty studios of artists. 

But despite all the lamentations about the impact of AI on art, when I dug deeper, I realised that it’s not really AI that poses the greatest threat to art. It’s capitalism. And instead of AI accelerating the decline of art, it could actually be the key that unshackles us from our current form of scarcity capitalism and allows art to genuinely flourish. 

The alienation of art

As soon as art is brought into the market, it changes. Instead of a work’s value being defined in terms of its meaning or cultural significance, it becomes defined in terms of how much someone else is willing to pay for it. Art effectively becomes a product to be bought and sold. 

Given the cost of producing art – and by “art” I mean all modes of creative expression, including music, dance, poetry, fiction, etc. – and the necessity of earning money to exchange for other goods, then art necessarily becomes professionalised.  

This creates distinctions between different categories of artist. One is between those who create art for fun, so-called ‘amateurs’ (from the Latin amare, meaning “one who loves”), and those who create art for money, whom we can call ‘professionals’. The latter group, and society in general, tend to look down upon amateurs as engaging in art only frivolously or lacking the talent to make it in the competitive market.  

The other distinction is among professionals, and is between those who work as commercial illustrators, designers, photographers, musicians, copywriters, etc., and the very small subset of their number, whom we might call ‘purists’, who are skilled or lucky enough to be able to produce the art they want, and can make a living out of it, either through selling to enthusiasts or collectors, or by securing grants. The purists, in turn, tend to look down on professionals as being sell-outs, or lacking the talent to make it in the rarefied art world.  

The capitalist dynamic that produces these distinctions has the unfortunate consequence that many people choose not to create art at all, either because they don’t believe they are skilled enough to compete in the market, as if that were the only standard by which one might be measured, or they consider amateur art to be less than worthy. As a result of the commercialisation of art, there are likely many fewer painters, dancers, musicians and poets, than there might otherwise be. 

Who’s under threat?

It’s important to recognise that when it comes to AI, it’s primarily the professionals who are at risk. These are the artists who produce the kinds of products that AI is increasingly able to create at lower cost.  

AI doesn’t appear to present much of threat to purists, given that grant-givers and collectors are often spending based on the name in the corner as much as the other marks on the canvas, as it were. Purists can also do something that AI can’t: translate their personal experiences into creative expression. Amateurs are also not much at risk from AI because they don’t, for the most part, seek to derive an income from their works.  

If we focus on professionals, we can see something else that the commodification and professionalisation of art have done: alienate the artist from their work.

Professionals often work to a brief defined by another person. Their art is often a means to a commercial end, such as capturing a prospective customer’s attention with a graphic or jingle, or by gussing up the interior of a restaurant. Some of this work can be deeply meaningful and rewarding, but much of it is far removed from what the artist would otherwise create were they not in dire need of money to pay the bills.  

As one commenter on YouTube remarked: “As an artist I’m constantly conflicted with needing to make art that has ‘market value’ and can be sold to someone to financially support myself, and just making art for art’s sake because I want to make something that I like, and to express myself through the power of creativity.” 

This alienation of the artist from the work they genuinely wish to produce has been discussed at length as far back as by Karl Marx. It’s also the reason why Pablo Picasso joined the Community Party. 

It means that much of the art produced by professionals is, by its commercial nature, also helping to reinforce the very commercial system that binds it. This undermines one of the core social functions of art, which is to be a form of political expression, often employed to highlight and challenge the power structures that stifle and oppress humanity.

From this perspective, I saw that capitalism has already made the world hostile to art. AI is just worsening the situation of those have chosen to make a career out of their artistic talents.

AI acceleration

I can see two bad responses to this situation. The first is to attempt to stuff the AI genie back in the bottle. Some are attempting to do that right now, primarily through a series of court cases against some of the major generative AI companies under the pretence of copyright violation.  

The outcome of these cases (assuming they are not settled or dismissed) will likely have a tremendous impact on the future of generative AI. However, it’s far from clear that US copyright law, where the cases are being held, will find that generative AI has done anything illegal. At best, the courts might require that artists are able to opt-in or opt-out of the datasets used to train AI. But even that seems unlikely. 

The second bad response is to let AI run unfettered within the current economic paradigm, where it could destroy more jobs than it creates, put millions of professional artists out of work, and concentrate wealth and exacerbate inequality to an unprecedented degree. Should that happen, it’d create a genuine dystopia, and not just for artists. 

The good news is that I can see at least one good solution. This is to leverage the power of AI to dramatically boost productivity and lower costs, and use that new wealth to improve everyone’s lives through a mechanism such as a universal basic income, greater subsidies or public funding, a shorter working week or a combination of them all.  

I’m not alone in endorsing this idea about transforming capitalism. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, which created ChatGPT and DALL-E, has argued something very similar in an essay called Moore’s Law for Everything. In it, he states that “we need to design a system that embraces this technological future and taxes the assets that will make up most of the value in that world – companies and land – in order to fairly distribute some of the coming wealth. Doing so can make the society of the future much less divisive and enable everyone to participate in its gains.” 

This would likely be a multi-decadal project, but it would set us on a course that would decouple the work that we do from the income that we earn. This could release artists from the shackles of capitalism, as they’ll be increasingly able to produce the art that is meaningful for them without requiring that it be saleable in a competitive market.  

It’d also free up more time for amateurs to explore their creative potential, possibly resulting in an explosion of art. Imagine how many people would pick up a paintbrush, pen or piano if they had the time and financial security to do so. 

Much of that creative output will be low quality, but that’s not the point. If we believe that the creative act is inherently valuable, then it’s worth it. Plus, there are likely many people of startling artistic talent who are currently otherwise occupied earning a living to be able to explore and develop their abilities. 

The decoupling of art from the market could also help liberate its political power, enabling more artists to question, challenge and offer solutions to society’s many problems without having their livelihood threatened.

The big question is how do we get from a world where AI is stripping people of their livelihoods to one where AI is freeing them from toil? There are no easy answers to that question. But it’s crucial to focus our attention on the root cause of the problem that artists face today, and that’s not AI, it’s capitalism.

Age of the machines: Do algorithms spell doom for humanity?

The world’s biggest social media platform’s slide into a cesspit of fake news, clickbait and shouty trolling was no accident.  

“Facebook gives the most reach to the most extreme ideas. They didn’t set out to do it, but they made a whole bunch of individual choices for business reasons,” Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said. 

In her Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk Unmasking Facebook, data engineer Haugen explained that back in Facebook’s halcyon days of 2008, when it actually was about your family and friends, your personal circle wasn’t making enough content to keep you regularly engaged on the platform. To encourage more screentime, Facebook introduced Pages and Groups and started pushing them on its users, even adding people automatically if they interacted with content. Naturally, the more out-there groups became the more popular ones – in 2016, 65% of people who joined neo-Nazi groups in Germany joined because Facebook suggested them.  

By 2019 (if not earlier), 60% of all content that people saw on Facebook was from their Groups, pushing out legitimate news sources, bi-partisan political parties, non-profits, small businesses and other pages that didn’t pay to promote their posts. Haugen estimates content from Groups is now 85% of Facebook. 

I was working for an online publisher between 2013 and 2016, and our traffic was entirely at the will of the Facebook algorithm. Some weeks we’d be prominent in people’s feeds and get great traffic, other weeks it would change without warning and our traffic and revenue would drop to nothing. By 2016, the situation had gotten so bad that I was made redundant and in 2018 the website folded entirely and disappeared from the internet. 

Personal grievances aside, Facebook has also had sinister implications for democracy and impacts on genocide, as Haugen reminds us. The 2016 Trump election exposed serious privacy deficits at Facebook when 87 million users had their data leaked to Cambridge Analytica for targeted pro-Trump political advertising. Enterprising Macedonian fake news writers exploited the carousel recommended link function to make US$40 million pumping out insane – and highly clickable – alt-right conspiracy theories that undoubtedly played a part in helping Trump into the White House – along with the hackers spreading anti-Clinton hate from the Glavset in St Petersburg. 

Worse, the Myanmar government sent military officials to Russia to learn to use online propaganda techniques for their genocide of the Muslim Rohingya from 2016 onwards, flooding Facebook with vitriolic anti-Rohingya misinformation and inciting violence against them. As The Guardian reported, around that time Facebook had only two Burmese-speaking content moderators. Facebook has also been blamed for “supercharging hate speech and inciting ethnic violence” (Vice) in Ethiopia over the past two years, with engagement-based ranking pushing the most extreme content to the top and English-first content moderation systems being no match for linguistically diverse environments where Facebook is the internet.  

There are design tools that can drive down the spread of misinformation, like forcing people to click on an article before they blindly share it and putting up a barrier between fourth person plus sharers, so they must copy and paste content before they can share or react to it. These have the same efficacy at preventing misinformation spread as third-party fact-checkers and work multi-lingually, Haugen said, and we can mobilise as nations and customers to put pressure on companies to implement them.  

But the best thing we can do is insist on having humans involved in the decision-making process about where to focus our attention, because AI and computers will always automatically opt for the most extreme content that gets the most clicks and eyeballs. 

For technology writer Kevin Roose, though, in his talk Caught in a Web, we are already surrounded by artificial intelligence and algorithms, and they’re only going to get smarter, more sophisticated, and more deeply entrenched. 

70% of our time on YouTube is now spent watching videos suggested by recommendation engines, and 30% of Amazon page views are from recommendations. We let Netflix preference shows for us, Spotify curate radio for us, Google Maps tell us which way to drive or walk, and with the Internet of Things, smart fridges even order milk and eggs for us before we know we need them. 

A commercialised tool one AI researcher told Roose about called pedestrian reidentification can identify you from multiple CCTV feeds, put that together with your phone’s location data and bank transactions and figure out to serve you an ad for banana bread as you’re getting off the train and walking towards your favourite café.   

And in news that will horrify but not surprise journalists, Roose said we’re entering a new age of ubiquitous synthetic media, in which articles written by machines will be hyper personalised at point of click for each reader by crawling your social media profiles.

After 125 years of the reign of ‘all the news that’s fit to print’, we’re now entering the era of “all the news that’s dynamically generated and personalised by machines to achieve business objectives.” 

How can we fight back and resist this seemingly inevitable drift towards automation, surveillance and passivity? Roose highlights three things to do:  

Quoting Socrates, Know Thyself. Know your own preferences and whether you’re choosing something because you like it or because the algorithm suggested it to you.

Resist Machine Drift – this is where we unconsciously hand over more and more of our decisions to machines, and “it’s the first step in losing our autonomy.” He recommends “preference mapping” – writing down a list of all your choices in a day, from what you ate or listened to, to what route you took to work. Did you make the decisions, or did an app help you?

Invest in Humanity. By this he means investing time in improving our deeply human skills that computers aren’t good at, like moral courage, empathy and divergent, creative thinking. 

Roose is optimistic in this regard – as AI gets better at understanding us and insinuating its way into our lives, he thinks we’re going to see a renewed reverence for humanism and the things machines can’t do. That means more appreciation for the ‘soft’ skills of health care workers, teachers, therapists, and even an artisanal journalism movement written by humans. 

I can’t be quite as optimistic as Roose – these soft skills have never been highly valued in capitalism and I can’t see it changing (I really hope I’m wrong), but I do agree with him that each new generation of social media app (e.g. Tik Tok and BeReal), in the global West at least, will be less toxic than the one before it, driven by the demands of Millennials and Generation Z, and those to come. 

Eventually, this generational movement away from the legacy social media platforms, which have become infected with toxicity, will cause them to either collapse or completely reshape their business model to be like newer apps if they’re going to keep operating in fragile countries and emerging economies.  

And that’s one reason to not let the machines win. 


Visit FODI on demand for more provocative ideas, articles, podcasts and videos.

Big tech knows too much about us. Here’s why Australia is in the perfect position to change that

Consumer Rights Data will bring an era of “commercial morality”, experts say.

Who are you? The question springs to mind a list of identity pillars – gender, job title, city, political leaning or perhaps a zany descriptor like “caffeine enthusiast!”. But who does big tech think you are?

Most of the time, we live in digital ignorance of the depth of data being scraped from everything from our Google searches to our Apple Pay purchases. Occasionally, however, we become only too aware of our own surveillance – looking at cute dog videos, for instance, and suddenly seeing ads for designer dog leashes in our Facebook feed.

It gets darker. In the wake of the US rolling back abortion law Roe v Wade, American women were discouraged from tracking their periods using an app on their smartphones. Big tech, pundits warn, could know when you’re pregnant – or more chillingly, whether you remained so.

In July, a report from Australian-US cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 found popular youth-focused social media app TikTok could see user contact lists, access calendars, scan hard drives (including external ones) and geolocate our phones – and therefore us – on an hourly basis.

It’s “overly intrusive” data harvesting, the report found, considering “the application can and will run successfully without any of this data being gathered”.

Android users are far more exposed than Apple users because iOS significantly limits what information an app can gather. Apple has what is known as a “justification system”, meaning if an app developer wants access to something, it has to justify the requirement before Apple will permit it.

Should we be worried about TikTok’s access to our inner lives? With simmering geotensions between Australia and China – perhaps. The app is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet company, and the report found that “Chinese authorities can actually access device data”.

Professor of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Uri Gal writes that “TikTok’s data can also be used to compile detailed user profiles of Australians at scale”.

“Given its large and young Australian user base, it is quite likely that our country’s future prime minister and cabinet members are being surveilled and profiled by China,” he warned.

Australia is in a strong position to take action on the better protection of consumer data. Our world-leading Consumer Data Right (CDR) is being rolled out across Australia’s banking, energy and telecommunication sectors, placing the right to know about us back into our own hands.

Could our consumer rights expand beyond privacy rights to include specific economic rights too? Almost certainly, under CDR.

For instance, energy consumers would no longer have to wade through confusing fine print to work out whether they’re getting the best (and cheapest) electricity deal – with a click of a button they’d have their energy usage data sent to a new potential supplier, and the supplier would come back with a comparison.

That means no endless forms of information required upfront by a new provider, no lengthy phone calls spent cancelling one’s current provider, and crucially, no last-minute left-field discounts from a provider to keep you as a customer.

“Within five years, it should have transformed commerce, promoted competition in many sectors, and simplified daily life,” according to The University of NSW’s Ross P Buckley and Natalia Jevglevskaja.

“Thirty years ago, most Australian businesses thought charging current customers more than new customers was unfair and the law reflected this – such differential pricing was illegal,” the pair continued.

“Today those standards of behaviour seem to have fallen away and this is reflected in more relaxed consumer laws. In many contexts, CDR should reinstitute a commercial morality, a basic fairness, that modern business practices have set aside.”

A rethink of what it means to operate with transparency is what motivates fintech Flare, which aims at transforming the way Australians earn and engage in the workplace with superannuation, banking, and HR services.

Flare’s Head of Strategy Harry Godber was actually one of the original architects of CDR’s launch, which took place during his time in government as a former senior government advisor to Liberal prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

“[CDR] is designed to get rid of those barriers, get rid of the information asymmetry and allow you to have as much information about your banking products as someone else in the market as your bank has about you,” Godber said.

It’s a great equaliser, he continues, in that data will no longer separate the “haves and the have-nots” in the consumer world – essentially, financial literacy won’t ensure a consumer gets a better deal on products.

“That is a huge step forward when it comes to distributing financial products in an ethical way,” he continued.

“Because essentially it means if all data is equal, if everybody has access to every financial institution’s open product data and knows exactly how they will be treated then acquiring a customer suddenly becomes a matter of having good products, and very little else.”

5 things we learnt from The Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2022

Crime, culture, contempt and change – this year our Festival of Dangerous Ideas speakers covered some of the dangerous issues, dilemmas and ideas of our time. 

Here are 5 things we learnt from FODI22:

1. Humans are key to combating misinformation

 Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen says the world’s biggest social media platform’s slide into a cesspit of fake news, clickbait and shouty trolling was no accident – “Facebook gives the most reach to the most extreme ideas – and we got here through a series of individual decisions made for business reasons.”  

While there are design tools that will drive down the spread of misinformation and we can mobilise as customers to put pressure on the companies to implement them, Haugen says the best thing we can do is have humans involved in the decision-making process about where to focus our attention, as AI and computers will automatically opt for the most extreme content that gets the most clicks and eyeballs.

2. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable

In an impassioned love letter “to the man who bashed me”, poet and gender non-conforming artist, Alok teaches us the power of vulnerability, empathy and telling our own stories. “What’s missing in this world is a grief ritual – we carry so much pain inside of us, and we have nowhere to put the pain so we put it in each other.”  

The more specific our words are the more universally we resonate, Alok says, “what we’re looking for as a people is permission – permission not just to tell our stories, but also to exist.” 

3. We have to know ourselves better than machines do

Tech columnist and podcaster, Kevin Roose says “we are all different now as a result of our encounters with the internet.” From ‘recommended for you’ pages to personalisation algorithms, every time we pick up our phones, listen to music, watch Netflix, these persuasive features are sitting on the other side of our screens, attempting to change who we are and what we do. Roose says we must push back on handing all control to AI, even if it’s time consuming or makes us feel uncomfortable. 

“We need a deeper understanding of the forces that try to manipulate us online – how they work, and how to engage wisely with them is the key not only to maintaining our independence and our sense of selves, but also to our survival as a species.” 

4. We can use shame to change behaviour

Described by writer Jess Hill as “the worst feeling a human can possibly have”, the World Without Rape the panel discuss the universal theme of shame when it comes to sexual violence and its use as a method of control.  

Instead of it being a weight for victims to bear, historian Joanna Bourke talks about shame as a tool to change perpetrator behaviour. “Rapists have extremely high levels of alcohol abuse and drug addictions because they actually do feel shame… if we have feminists affirming that you ought to feel shame then we can use that to change behaviour.” 

5. Reason, science and humanism are the key to human progress

Steven Pinker believes in progress, arguing that the Enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism have transformed the world for the better, liberating billions of people from poverty, toil and conflict and producing a world of unprecedented prosperity, health and safety.  

But that doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable. We still face major problems like climate change and nuclear war, as well as the lure of competing belief systems that reject reason, science and humanism. If we remain committed to Enlightenment values, we can solve these problems too. “Progress can continue if we remain committed to reason, science and humanism. But if we don’t, it may not.” 


Catch up on select FODI22 sessions, streaming on demand for a limited time only.

Photography by Ken Leanfore

Finance businesses need to start using AI. But it must be done ethically

Banking and finance businesses can’t afford to ignore the streamlining and cost reduction benefits offered by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Your business can’t effectively beat the competition marketing any product in the 21st century without using big data and AI. Given the immense amount of consumer data available – and the number of channels, segments and competitors – marketers need to use AI and algorithms to operate successfully in the online environment.

But AI must be used prudently. Business managers must be meticulous in setting up rules for the algorithms’ decision making to prevent AI, which lacks a human’s inherent moral and ethical guiding force, from targeting ads towards unsuitable or vulnerable customers, or making decisions that exacerbate entrenched racial, gender, age, socio-economic, or other disparities and prejudices.

The Banking and Finance Oath’s 2021 Young Ambassadors recognised a gap in the research and delivered report: AI driven marketing in financial services: ethical risks and opportunities. It unravels the complexities of AI’s impact across the financial services industry and government, and establishes a framework that can be applied to other contexts.

In a marketing environment, AI can be used to streamline processes by generating personalised content for customers or targeting them with individual offers; leveraging customers’ data to personalise web and app pages based on their interests; enhancing customer service with chatbots; and supporting a seamless purchasing journey from phone to PC to in-person at a storefront.

Machine learning algorithms draw from immense data pools, such as customers’ credit card transactions and social media click-throughs to predict the likelihood of customers being interested in a product, whether to show them an ad and what ad to show them. But there are ethical risks to navigate at every step – from the quality of the data used to how well the developers and business managers understand the business objectives.

Using AI for marketing in financial services comes with two significant risks. The first is the potential for organisations to be seen as preying on people in vulnerable circumstances.

AI has no moral oversight or human awareness – it simply crunches the numbers and makes the most advantageous and profitable decision to lead to a sales conversion.

And if that decision is to target home loan ads at people going through a divorce or a loved one’s funeral, or to target credit card ads at people who are unemployed or living with addiction, without proper oversight, there’s nothing to stop it.

The other risk is the potential for data misuse and threats to privacy. Customers have a right to their own data and to know how it’s being used – and what demographics they’re being placed in. If your data’s out of date or inaccurate, or missing in sections, you’ll be targeting the wrong people.

All demographics – including racial background, socio-economic status, and individual psychological profile – have the potential to be misused by AI to reinforce gender, racial, age, economic and other disparities and prejudices.

Most ethical failings in AI-driven marketing campaigns can be traced back to issues with governance – poor management of data and lack of communication between developers and business managers. These data governance issues include: siloed databases that don’t share definitions; datasets that don’t refresh quickly enough and become outdated; customer flags that are incorrect or missing; and too many people being designated as data owners, resulting in the deferral of responsibility.

In human driven decision making, there’s a clear line of command, from the Board, to management, to the frontline team. But in AI-driven decision making, the frontline team is replaced by two teams – the AI developers and the team of machines.

Communication gaps emerge where management may not be familiar with instructing AI developers and the field’s highly technical nature, and the developers may not be familiar with the jargon of the business. Training across the business can act to fill these gaps.

Before any business begins to integrate AI into its marketing (and overall) strategy, it’s crucial that it adopt a set of basic ethical principles, these being:

  • Beneficence (or do good): personalise products to improve the customer’s experience and improve their financial literacy by delivering targeted advice.
  • Non-maleficence (or do no harm): ensure your AI marketing doesn’t target customers in inappropriate or harmful ways.
  • Justice: ensure your data doesn’t discriminate based on demographics and exacerbate racial, gender, age, socio-economic or other disparities or stereotypes.
  • Explicability: you need to be able to explain how your AI system makes the decisions it does and the relation between its inputs and outputs. Experts should be able to understand its results, predictions, recommendations and classifications.
  • Autonomy: at the company level, governance processes should keep humans informed of what’s happening; and at a customer level, responsible decision making should be supported through personalisation and recommendation tools.

The reality is that no business can afford to ignore the benefits AI offers, but the risks are very real. By acknowledging the ethical issues, businesses can seize the opportunities while mitigating the risks, benefiting themselves and their customers.

Download a copy of the report here.

Who does work make you? Severance and the etiquette of labour

There are certain things that some of us choose and do not choose, to tell those who we work with.

You come in on a Monday, and you stand around the coffee machine (the modern-day equivalent of the water cooler), and somebody asks you: “so, what did you get up to this weekend?”  

Then you have a choice. If you fought with your partner, do you tell your colleague that? If you had sex, do you tell them that? If your mother is sick, or you’re dealing with a stress that society has broadly considered “intimate” to reveal, do you say something? And if you do, do you change the nature of the work relationship? Do you, in a phrase, “freak people out?” 

These social conditions – norms, established and maintained by systems – are not specific to work, of course. Most spaces that we enter into and share with other people have an implicit code of conduct. We learn these codes as children – usually by breaking the rules of the codes, and then being corrected. And then, for the rest of our lives, we maintain these codes, often without explicitly realising what we are doing. 

There are things you don’t say at church. There are things you do say in a therapist’s office. This is a version of what is called, in the world of politics, the “Overton Window”, a term used to describe the range of ideas that are considered “normal” or “acceptable” to be discussed publicly. 

These social conditions are formed by us, and are entirely contingent – we could collectively decide to change them if we wanted to. But usually – at most workplaces, importantly not all – we don’t. Moreover, these conditions go past certain other considerations, about, say honesty. It doesn’t matter that some of us spend more time around our colleagues than those we call our partners. This decision about what to withhold in the office is frequently described as a choice about “professionalism”, which is usually a code word for “politeness.”  

Severance, the new Apple television show which has been met with broad critical acclaim, takes the way that these concepts of professionalism and politeness shape us to its natural endpoint. The sci-fi show depicts an office, Lumon Industries, where employees are implanted with a chip that creates “innie” and “outie” selves.  

Their innie self is their work self – the one who moves through the office building, and engages in the shadowy and disreputable jobs required by their employer. Their outie self is who they are when they leave the office doors. These two selves do not have any contact with, or knowledge of each other. They could be, for all intents and purposes, strangers, even though they are – on at least one reading – the “same person.” 

The chip is thus a signifier for a contingent code of social practices. It takes something that is implicit in most workplaces, and makes it explicit. We might not consider it a “big deal” when we don’t tell Roy from accounts that, moments before we walked in the front door of the office, we had a massive blow-up over the phone with our partner. Which may help Roy understand why we are so ‘tetchy’ this morning. But it is, in some ways, a practice that shapes who we are.  

Image by Apple TV+

According to the social practices of most businesses, it is “professional” – as in “polite” – not to, say, sob openly at one’s desk. But what if we want to sob? When we choose not to, we are being shaped into a very particular kind of thing, by a very particular form of etiquette which is tied explicitly to labor.  

And because these forms of etiquette shape who we are, they also shapes what we know. This is the line pushed by Miranda Fricker, the leading feminist philosopher and pioneer in the field of social epistemology – the study of how we are constructed socially, and how that feeds into how we understand and process the world.  

For Fricker, social forces alter the knowledge that we have access to. Fricker is thinking, in particular, about how being a woman, or a man, or a non-binary person, changes the words we have access to in order to explain ourselves, and thus how we understand things. That access is shaped by how we are socially built, and when we are blocked from access, we develop epistemic blindspots that we are often not even aware that we have. 

In Severance, these social forces that bar access are the forces of capitalism. And these forces make the lives of the characters swamped with blindspots. Mark, the show’s hero, has two sides – his innie, and his outie. Things that the innie Mark does hurt and frustrate the desires of the outie Mark.  

Both versions of him have such significant blindspots, that these “separate” characters are actively at odds. Much of the show’s first few episodes see these two separate versions of the same person having to fight, and challenge one another, with Mark striving for victory over outie Mark. 

Image by Apple TV+

The forces of etiquette are always for the benefit of those in power. We, the workers at certain organisations, might maintain them, but their end result is that they meaningfully commodify us – make us into streamlined, more effective and efficient workers.   

So many of us have worked a job that has asked us to sacrifice, or shape and change certain parts of ourselves, so as to be more “professional”. Which is a way of saying that these jobs have turned us into vessels for labour – emphasised the parts of us that increase productivity, and snipped off the parts that do not. 

The employees of Lumon live sad, confused lives full of pain, riddled with hallucinations. The benefit of the code of etiquette is never to them. They get paid, sure. But they spend their time hurting each other, or attempting suicide, or losing their minds. Their titular severance helps the company, never them. 

This is what the theorist Mark Fisher refers to when he writes about the work of Franz Kafka, one of our greatest writers when it comes to the way that politeness is weaponised against the vulnerable and the marginalized. As Fisher points out, Kafka’s work examines a world in which the powerful can manipulate those that they rule and control through the establishment of social conduct; polite and impolite; nice and not nice.  

Thus, when the worker does something that fights back against their having become a vessel for labour, the worker can be “shamed”, the structure of etiquette used against them. This happens all the time in the world of Severance. As the season progresses, and the characters get involved in complex plots that involve both their innie and outie selves, the threat is always that the code of conduct will be weaponised against them, in a way that further strips down their personality; turns them into more of a vessel. 

And, as Fisher again points out, because these systems of etiquette are for the benefit of the powerful, the powerful are “unembarrassable.” Because they are powerful – because they are the employer – whatever they do is “right” and “correct” and “polite.” Again, the rules of the game are contingent, which means that they are flexible. This is what makes them so dangerous. They can be rewritten underneath our feet, to the benefit of those in charge. 

Moreover, in the world of the show, the characters “choose” to strip themselves of agency and autonomy, because of the dangling carrot of profit. This sharpens the satirical edge of Severance. It’s not just that the snaking rules of the game that we talk about when we talk about “good manners” make them different people. It’s that the characters of the show submit to these rules. They themselves maintain them.  

Nobody’s being “forced”, in the traditional sense of that word, into becoming vessels for labour. This is not the picture of worker in chains. They are “choosing” to take the chip, and to work for Lumon. But are they truly free? What is the other alternative? Poverty? And what, actually, makes Lumon so different? A swathe of companies have these rules of etiquette. Which means a swathe of companies do precisely the same thing. 

This is a depressing thought. But the freedom from this punishment lies, as it usually does, in the concept of contingency. Etiquette enforces itself; it punishes, through social isolation and exclusion, those who break its rules.  

But these rules are not written on a stone tablet. And the people who are maintaining them are, in fact, all of us. Which means that we can change them. We can be “unprofessional.” We can be “impolite”. We can ignore the person who wants to alter our behaviour by telling us that we are “being rude.” And in doing so, we can fight back against the forces that want to make us one kind of vessel. And we can become whatever we’d like to be. 

We are being saturated by knowledge. How much is too much?

We’re hurtling into a new age where the notion of evidence and knowledge has become muddied and distorted. So which rabbit hole is the right one to click through?

Our world is deeply divided, and we have found ourselves in a unique moment in history where the idea of rational thought seems to have been dissolved. It’s no longer as clear cut what is right and just to believe….So what does it mean to truly know something anymore?

According to Emerson, the number one AI chat bot in the world, “rational thought is the process of forming judgements based on evidence” which sounds simple enough. It’s easy to form judgements based on evidence when the object of judgement is tangible — this cheese pizza is delicious, a cat playing a keyboard wearing glasses is funny. These are ideas on which people from all sides of the political spectrum can come to some form of agreement (with a little friendly debate).

But what happens when the ideas become a little more lofty? It’s human nature to believe that our one’s ideas are rational, well reasoned, and based on evidence. But what constitutes evidence in these information rich times?

We’re hurtling into a new age where even the notion of “evidence” has become muddied and distorted.

So where do we even begin — which news is the real news and what’s the responsible way to respond to the news that someone as intelligent as you, in possession of as much evidence as you, believes a different conclusion?

Philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith suggests, “There are many, many circumstances in which we decline to avail ourselves of certain beliefs or certain candidate truths because we’re being very Cartesionally responsible and we’re declining to encounter the possibility of doubt. And meanwhile, those of us who are sort of warriors for the enlightenment of being very epistemically polite and trying to only believe those things that we’re allowed to do so on. The conspiracy theorists, meanwhile, consider themselves a veil of knowledge, which then they deploy in a very different way.”

Who gets to be smart?

Before the Enlightenment, the common man had no real business in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge was very fiercely guarded by the Church and the Crown. But once it dawned on those honest folk that they could in fact have knowledge, it almost became a moral imperative to seize it, regardless of the obstacles.

Nowadays avoiding knowledge is an impossibility impossible. Access to information has been wholly democratised, if you’ve got a smart phone handy, any Google search will result in billions of possible pages and answers. It’s now your choice to determine which rabbit hole is the right one to click. To the untrained eye, there’s no differentiating between information that is thoroughly researched and fact checked and fake news. And according to Eleanor Gordon-Smith it is this saturation of knowledge has come to define our generation. So much so that the value of knowledge “has been subject to a kind of inflation”.

She asks, “how do you restore the emancipatory potential of knowledge that the Enlightenment founders saw? How do you get back the kind of bravery, the self development, the political resistance, the independence in the act of knowing in this particular moment…is there a way to restore the bravery and the value of knowledge in an environment where it’s so cheap and so readily available?”

It is this saturation of knowledge has come to define our generation. So much so that the value of knowledge “has been subject to a kind of inflation”.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that perhaps our mistake is putting the Englightment on a pedestal, that those involved in the Enlightment’s pursuit of knowledge mischaracterised those who came before them as naive idiots. “Modernity is not just knowledge. It’s also on the other side, a certain regression to primitivity. The first lesson of good enlightenment is don’t simply fight your opponent. And that’s what’s happening today.”

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss

In the age of disinformation, misinformation and everything in between, admitting you don’t know something almost feels like an act of rebellion. American philosopher Stanley Cavell, boldly asked “how do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowledge” (it’s worth noting that this line of questioning saw his publications banned from a number of American university libraries).

Sometimes it is better to be ignorant because, “true knowledge hurts. Basically, we don’t want to know too much. If we get to know too much about it, we will objectivise ourselves, we will lose our personal dignity, so to retain our freedom it’s better not to know too much.” – Žižek

Žižek however admits that we are in a the middle of the fight. We are not at the end of the story. We cannot afford ourselves this retroactive view in the sense of: who cares what is done is already done? “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, we have to change it. We tried to change the world too quickly without really adequately interpreting it. And my motto would have been that 20th century leftists were just trying to change the world. The time is also to interpret it differently. That’s the challenge.”

When the AI chat bot Emerson is asked, “how can you know if something is true” it responds, “truth is a matter of opinion” and given these tumultuous and divided times we are living through, there is perhaps no truer statement.

To delve deeper into the speakers and themes discussed in this article, tune into FODI: The In-Between The Age of Doubt, Reason and Conspiracy.

Big Thinker: Matthew Liao

Matthew Liao (1972 – present) is a contemporary philosopher and bioethicist. Having published on a wide range of topics, including moral decision making, artificial intelligence, human rights, and personal identity, Liao is best known for his work on the topic of human engineering.

At New York University, Liao is an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Director of the Center for Bioethics, and holds the Arthur Zitrin Chair of Bioethics. He is also the creator of Ethics Etc, a blog dedicated to the discussion of contemporary ethical issues.

A Controversial Solution to Climate Change

As the climate crisis worsens, a growing number of scientists have started considering geo-engineering solutions, which involves large-scale manipulations of the environment to curb the effect of climate change. While many scientists believe that geo-engineering is our best option when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, these solutions do come with significant risks.

Liao, however, believes that there might be a better option: human engineering.

Human engineering involves biomedically modifying or enhancing human beings so they can more effectively mitigate climate change or adapt to it.

For example, reducing the consumption of animal products would have a significant impact on climate change since livestock farming is responsible for approximately 60% of global food production emissions. But many people lack either the motivation or the will power to stop eating meat and dairy products.

According to Liao, human engineering could help. By artificially inducing mild intolerance to animal products, “we could create an aversion to eating eco-unfriendly food.”

This could be achieved through “meat patches” (think nicotine patches but for animal products), worn on the arm whenever a person goes grocery shopping or out to dinner. With these patches, reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products would no longer be a matter of will power, but rather one of science.

Alternatively, Liao believes that human engineering could help us reduce the amount of food and other resources we consume overall. Since larger people typically consume more resources than smaller people, reducing the height and weight of human beings would also reduce their ecological footprint.

“Being small is environmentally friendly.”

According to Liao, this could be achieved several ways for example, using technology typically used to screen embryos for genetic abnormalities to instead screen for height, or using hormone treatment typically used to stunt the growth or excessively tall children to instead stunt the growth of children of average height.


When Liao presented these ideas at the 2013 Ted Conference in New York, many audience members found the notion of wearing meat patches and making future generations smaller to be amusing. However, not everyone found these ideas humorous.

In response to a journal article Liao co-authored on this topic, philosopher Greg Bognar wrote that the authors were doing themselves and their profession a disservice by not adequately considering the feasibility or real cost of human engineering.

Although making future generations smaller would reduce their ecological footprint, it would take a long time for the benefits of this reduction in average height and weight to accrue. In comparison, the cost of making future generations smaller would be borne now.

As Bognar argues, current generations would need to devote significant resources to this effort. For example, if future generations were going to be 15-20cm shorter than current generations, we would need to begin redesigning infrastructure. Homes, workplaces and vehicles would need to be smaller too.

Liao and his colleagues do, however, recognise that devoting time, money, and brain power to pursuing human engineering means that we will have fewer resources to devote to other solutions.

But they argue that “examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience, and that failing to do so could result in our missing out on opportunities to address important, often urgent issues.”

While current generations may resent having to bear the cost of making future generations more environmentally friendly, perhaps it is a cost that we must bear.

Liao says, “We are the cause of climate change. Perhaps we are also the solution to it.”

Hype and hypocrisy: The high ethical cost of NFTs

When you hear news of a collage fetching US$69.3 million (AUD$92.1 m) at a Christie’s auction or a pixelated punk selling for US$23.7 million (AUD$31.5 m), you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a new and exciting art market on the rise.

But the multi-million dollar sales and media buzz around non-fungible tokens (NFTs) mask a more complex and troubling picture of a technology that is plagued by a host of ethical problems. These include rampant scams, exacerbating wealth inequality, a staggering environmental impact and, not least, the exploitation of the artists NFTs were supposed to enrich.

It’s ironic that NFTs were originally conceived of as an ethical correction to an art market that often failed to reward artists for their effort.

One of the first NFTs was created in response to the rampant copying and sharing of digital artworks on the internet, often without attribution or compensation offered to the original artists.

The idea was to create a special kind of digital token that represented ownership of a particular artwork, similar to a digital receipt or the deed to a block of land. Artists could sell the tokens associated with their work in order to derive an income. It would also track who owned a particular artwork at any point in time, showing provenance all the way back to the original artist.

It was hoped NFTs would give artists more control over their work and create a thriving and lucrative market for them to make an income.

The blockchain seemed to be the ideal technology for creating just such a token, with it being a long ledger of transactions that is maintained by a decentralised network of computers. The most popular tokens on blockchains are cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin or Ether, but other kinds of tokens exist as well.

The big difference between a cryptocurrency token and an NFT is that the former are fungible, in the sense that any individual Bitcoin is functionally identical and worth the same amount as any other Bitcoin. In contrast, NFTs are non-fungible, so every one is unique and they might be worth very different amounts. Some NFTs also embed code that enable the artist to take a cut of all subsequent sales of that token, which could be a lucrative form of revenue if their art appreciates in value over time and is sold to new buyers.

What have I bought?

Since 2014, NFTs have evolved and become more sophisticated, many moving to the Ethereum blockchain. Most NFTs are essentially a record of ownership of a particular digital asset, like an image or video. It is important to note that the asset itself is not stored on the blockchain – it might be stored on one or more servers somewhere on the internet or offline – the NFT only contains a link or pointer to where the asset is stored.

In terms of moral rights, NFTs don’t give the owner control of the intellectual property, such as copyright, which usually remains with the artist. Owning one also doesn’t prevent the asset from being viewed, copied or downloaded by others; someone might have paid US$23.7 million for that digital punk but you can copy it to your heart’s content. Unlike traditional property, an NFT doesn’t give the owner a right to exclude others from using or benefiting from what they own.

All an NFT allows the owner to do is sell that NFT to someone else. It’s like buying the deed to a plot of land, except you’re not able to fence it off, and you can’t even prevent others from creating a second (or third, or fourth…) deed for the same plot of land.

So what does an NFT owner really own? It’s not the artwork, nor is it the right to prevent others from accessing it. What they own is the NFT. This has led some people to suggest that buying an NFT only offers “bragging rights” over a particular piece of art.

Even so, some clearly see value in that right to brag – sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars – but those bragging rights can come at a cost to many of the artists that NFTs were supposed to benefit.

Crypto patrons

One of the main selling points of NFTs is that they are a way to support artists. And there’s no doubt that some artists have done extremely well by selling NFTs. However, the promise of opening up new markets and new buyers to smaller and emerging artists has, so far, failed to materialise.

Like with conventional art, a majority of the revenue from NFT sales has flowed to a small minority of popular artists, with a tiny proportion of NFTs and buyers accounting for a vast majority of purchases and sales.

Thus, to date, NFTs have served to concentrate wealth among a few artists and investors rather than spread it around. And as new artists have entered the NFT sphere, it has only further crowded the space, lending greater advantage to those with the name recognition or resources to advertise their work.

There have been initiatives to encourage artists to create NFTs of their work in an attempt to tap into what appears to be a lucrative market, such as venture capitalist Mark Carnegie working with artists from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. However, in order to create an NFT on the Ethereum network, the artist must pay blockchain processing fees, which could cost hundreds of dollars per transaction. If the artwork doesn’t sell and they don’t have financial backing, they might end up out of pocket.

Shark infested

NFTs have also stung many artists in other ways, particularly through plagiarisation, where someone else creates an NFT of their artwork and sells it without their knowing about it or receiving any revenue from it. This has forced some artists, like DC Comics artist Liam Sharp, off platforms like DeviantArt, where they previously displayed their work. The problem got so bad that in January 2022 one of the main platforms for trading in NFTs announced that over 80% of the NFTs created for free on its platform were “plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.”

NFTs are also vulnerable to fraud. One popular scam is called wash trading, where one or more traders buy and sell NFTs amongst themselves, thereby inflating the price before selling them on to some unsuspecting buyer.

Another common scam is a rug pull. This is where someone generates buzz by announcing a new and exciting NFT project with big promises of future features. But after the creators sell the first tranche of NFTs, they close the project, take the money and run. Sometimes they have even locked the NFTs from being traded, preventing buyers from recouping any of their money by selling the NFTs on the open market.

Another example of NFT fraud includes classic social engineering, where scammers pretend to be official representatives of NFT marketplaces, thus gaining access to victims’ crypto wallets, enabling them to transfer cryptocurrency or NFTs into their own wallets.

All of these scams represent a deeper ethical problem than just a few miscreant operators exploiting rare loopholes. They’re due to fundamental problems with the NFT system itself because it contains few protections against these kinds of exploits.

If a commercial business opened an auction house that had no protections against people selling things they didn’t own, or failed to follow through on delivering promised goods, or that didn’t have robust policies to protect against social engineering scams, it would likely be closed down by regulators.

Decentralised means unregulated

One of the claimed merits of the blockchain is its unregulated nature. The network of technologies, financial tools, cryptocurrencies and NFTs is sometimes proudly referred to as decentralised finance (DeFi) by enthusiasts.

The deregulated nature of DeFi also means that users are not reliant on banks or other conventional institutions to handle transactions, so they are also not covered by the same regulations and protections that people enjoy when using a bank.

This has led some commentators, including prominent technology journalist Cory Doctorow, to refer to DeFi as “shadow banking 2.0”. This is a reference to the first generation of “shadow banking,” which included all the highly obscure and largely unregulated financial instruments that contributed to the global financial crisis in 2008.

Compounding the problem is the inclusion of “smart contracts” in many NFTs. These are small bits of code that trigger under particular circumstances, like allowing an artist to receive a future cut of sales. But smart contracts have also been used for nefarious purposes, such as directly stealing money from people who own NFTs.

Hot air

Every time you make a transaction on the Ethereum network, such as buying or selling an NFT, you burn through roughly 229 kilowatt hours (kWh) of power, generating 128 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). That’s about the same amount of energy consumed by a typical NSW home over two whole weeks. Ethereum, the most popular platform for NFTs, burns nearly 100 terawatt hours each year, which is comparable to the energy consumption of Ghana, emitting over 54 million tonnes of CO2e.

This is because blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum use vast amounts of computing power, distributed over countless individual computers around the world, in order to continually validate and cross-validate each new transaction. The cost is not only in terms of energy prices but also their impact on the planet.

While many other products label their carbon emissions, and many offer consumers low carbon options or carbon offsets, no such options are available for NFTs. In fact, if you were to offset the emissions of a single transaction at current Australian carbon credit prices of around $30 per tonne of CO2e, it would cost you about $4. And if you tried to offset the total emissions of the entire Ethereum network, it would cost $1.6 billion dollars – not that there’d likely be enough offsets to cover that carbon debt.

Is it ethical to buy NFTs?

Even if you care about artists deriving an income from their work and you want to open up new markets to smaller and emerging artists, then it’s difficult to justify NFTs on these grounds alone.

If you believe that an ethical marketplace ought to have basic consumer protections to prevent scams and fraud, then it’s difficult to endorse NFTs given their deregulated nature, complexity and the many loopholes that are vulnerable to abuse.

And if you consider yourself ethically responsible for the emissions that you produce, particularly those related to discretionary expenses, then it is difficult to justify the emissions required to make even a single NFT transaction.

All of this is entirely separate to considerations of whether NFTs are a good financial investment, whether they’re a virtual asset bubble, or even if NFTs represent something that carries meaningful property rights.

If you want to support artists, buy their art. Thankfully, there are many ways of doing so that don’t involve the blockchain, cryptocurrencies, DeFi or NFTs.

Artwork by Yuga Labs, Bored Ape Yacht Club, 2021

Periods and vaccines: Teaching women to listen to their bodies

Most people probably know more about the cycle on a washing machine than the one that got us all here. I’m talking about the menstrual cycle (again).

It’s true that we’ve made major gains in shedding some of the menstrual stigma in recent years but there is still a lack of awareness and interest in the cyclical lives of 26% of all people on Earth. There are real consequences to this.

For a start, menstrual education is still reduced to two things: the management of a period and how to control our capacity to reproduce. No one explained that the hormones of the menstrual cycle weren’t just for making babies and that my cycle hormones shape who and how I am. I didn’t know, that far from being an unpredictable rollercoaster (that I would internalise as constant feelings of being too much or not enough), that there was a pattern to the emotional landscape of my month, that there were predictable phases to the cycle that could be harnessed. That it was ok to feel differently from week to week.

At a tender age, I learnt that my body was a problem to be fixed, with pads, tampons and soon enough with the pill. I believed I was safest while my cycle was disarmed. Until I was ready for a baby, what was the point in having one at all or so I thought? The truth is, without ovulation, we have no hormones and therefore no cycle at all. I wonder, would I have been so eager to reject ovulation in favor of the pill during my teens and twenties had I known of this?

I didn’t know that there were short and long-term protective health benefits to ovulation that taking the pill would eliminate. I didn’t know it was common to feel depressed and flat while taking it. I felt crazy. Instead of cultivating care and curiosity for my young body and what it could do, I leant not to trust it.

This disregard for menstrual cycles extended to the scientific community such that until the 90’s, clinical trials for new drugs weren’t required to include women at all.

Because menstrual cycles were seen as too complicated, men were considered the biological norm.

It seems that even amid a growing movement of awareness and appreciation for menstrual cycles, this default male setting still persists.

When thousands and thousands of women and menstruators reported changes to their cycle after taking the Covid vaccine, their concerns were initially dismissed by the medical fraternity. Women were waved away and stress was cited as the probable culprit for the mostly temporary changes.

It is true that stress can wreak havoc on a cycle — and who hasn’t felt stressed in new ways since the arrival of the pandemic? But the real kicker, was that there was no proof to speak of; important early clinical trials investigating the side effects of the Covid vaccine failed to consider the impacts on women’s menstrual cycles. This glaring omission at such a critical juncture is menstrual stigma still in action. That women were dismissed before being asked about their experiences after the vaccine is an indictment into how far we haven’t come.

Women were dismissed before being asked about their experiences after the vaccine is an indictment into how far we haven’t come.

In the absence of due diligence, people worried and concerns for post vaccination fertility also proliferated, risking confidence in the vaccine unnecessarily.

Vaccines work by creating an immune response which can cause the body stress. It stands to reason that there might be side effects to our cycles when our immune system is triggered. The latest research was funded by the NIH and published in Obstetrics and Gynecology. It was confirmed that while changes were (on average) minor and temporary, it was true: there was an impact. After looking at three cycles before and after vaccination, on average, the impact on cycle length following vaccination was just under a day.

For people who had both shots within one cycle, the average cycle length extension was 2 days and of these people, there were 10% who experienced cycle delays of 8 days or more. All of these changes were reported to have been resolved within two subsequent cycles and there was no effect found on the length of the bleed itself. Obviously within all of the experiences that create averages, the range for individuals could be considerable but with variations of up to 8 days considered to be within the realm of a normal cycle, these results are generally reassuring. Furthermore, in another study with more than 2000 couples there was no difference found in fertility when comparing unvaccinated and vaccinated couples. Conversely, a Covid infection was associated with a temporary decline in male fertility. So far so good.

Research like this is a positive step after a bungled start and authors of the menstrual study have called for more investigation into how the Covid-19 vaccination could affect other aspects of menstruation such as pain and changes to the bleeding itself. Going forward, bigger sample sizes that also include menstruators with more varied experiences are important.

With access to information and the stains of stigma beginning to fade, women and menstruators are learning to listen to their bodies and to speak up about their experiences. To be wary of doctors who prescribe the pill to fix a period when it merely masks underlying issues. To demand better than the average wait time of eight years to receive an endometriosis diagnosis and subsequent treatments. Weary of being disregarded when it comes to our health, we are finally beginning to trust ourselves. As Lisa Hendrickson-Jack explains in ‘The Fifth Vital Sign’, the menstrual cycle gives us important insights and is a critical marker of our overall health, just like heart rate or body temperature. Understanding your menstrual cycle is basic body literacy that is crucial to wellness.

The changes to menstrual cycles may be no more significant than a sore arm, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to know about them. Small changes can still be significant to people hoping to plan or avoid a pregnancy, for instance. We need vaccines to combat Covid but we also need to be informed.

If there are any silver linings to be had during Covid it’s that we know that the old ‘normal’ wasn’t working for many of us.

Women’s health has long been overlooked, under-researched and under reported and now perhaps the new normal is to consider women’s health from the outset.

Hopefully it will be for the future we are carrying.

Normalise asking people about their cycles whether you are a researcher, a doctor, a partner or even a friend. Normalise noticing your own cycle and how you feel throughout the month. Normalise expecting better.

Lucy Peach, day 28 and vaccinated.