I have been having a bit of trouble processing the amount of information which has been flooding my screen lately. At the core of my inner turmoil are the contradictory emotions I have been feeling, some of which have been simple knee-jerk reactions to external visual stimuli, while others have been slow-burning deep repressed feelings I didn’t know I had. These big emotions have made me extremely uncomfortable because I have found no place for them or any logical explanation and justification for their existence.
As with millions of people around the world, I have had to do many new things for the first time in the last couple of months not only due to the Coronavirus pandemic but also because of significant changes in my personal life circumstances. Most of these new things have been positive developments for me personally which under “normal” circumstances would have been a cause for much celebration.
However I have had to ‘mute’ my enthusiasm and joy in deference to hundreds and thousands of people who are currently enduring a lot of suffering, stress and pain as a result of Covid-19 and it’s associated restrictions and implications. This I have done not because it will make the pain of those suffering any less, but because it feels rather crass to celebrate while people are dying.
My victories and breakthroughs which came after a tough season for my family and I, felt like an anti-climax. The unintended consequences of my “good intentions” and supposed consideration for other people’s pain has left me in a kind of bottomless hole where all my suffering and triumphs until now, have been completely stripped of all meaning. Making my life and everything that’s happened before; pointless, haphazard, indiscriminate, accidents of history.
Leaving me untethered
Even though I have made a concerted effort to remain sanguine, it has proven to be rather difficult. A fact which has only served to increase my frustration.
The belief systems which have been my anchors such as universal love, faith in God and humanity have weakened to the extent that I began to think of myself as nothing more than random 0s and 1s: mere bits of information.
The more I paid close attention to my datasets online, the worse I felt. Not only are my numbers across platforms below the minimum 1k threshold. Not being famous or having enough followers means that who I am and what I am doing is of no relevance to the public. Public interest is the most important factor which social media platforms use to verify online profiles. Public interest is measured by the number of followers a person has( ability to access or pay for verification).
Being verified comes with a host of benefits from higher trustworthiness, increased brand awareness to a potential to trade data (followers) for an income/capital. Having none of the above means that I, myself as an individual have no (social) influence/capital or significance in my industry or among my peers. Which also means that I am of no material, economic or social value to the current system.
A New World Order & The New God: Data
Public intellectual, historian, philosopher and author of Sapiens, A brief History of Human Kind Yuval Noah Harari says people need a much deeper justification and explanation for the circumstances in their lives rather than just mere accidents of history, in order to survive. And so, he says, they invent all kinds of stories; of racial superiority, religious justification, gender, social hierarchies, capitalism, economic growth and consumerism including a strong belief in the power of money which have been key narratives organising societies throughout history.
In a 2015 Intelligence Squared interview Yuval Harari said the next big story or myth will come out of Silicone valley.
“First people believed in God, and humans were important simply because God created them, and gave them special privileges. And then you had the Humanist revolution, people stopped believing in God and started to believe in themselves.
Human beings became sacred, sacred in their own right as humans, this is the faith in Human Rights that homo-sapiens were sacred, just because. We are the most important thing in the universe; we are the source of all meaning, of authority.
As we have moved from a Deus centric to a homo centric mythology. We will move from homo centric to a data centric viewpoint. The basic myth which is starting to emerge from Silicon valley is that the entire universe is a flow of data, everything in the universe is just different patterns of data flow, all organisms are algorithms. All organisms, Giraffes, Tomatoes, humans and flu viruses are just different data processing systems. Up until now the most successful, the most advanced algorithms in the universe were humans which is why there was always a good reason to sanctify humans. They were the best data processing systems in the world.
But we are now creating better data systems than humans. And humans will move aside and the future will belong to completely different kinds of algorithms. This is where I believe we are heading to in the 21st and 22nd centuries where data will be replacing humanism as the central myth of history.”
Today the Coronavirus pandemic has speeded up the 4th industrial revolution and algorithms increasingly decide how we live our lives. Being able to collect, analyse and process large amounts of data quickly and efficiently is fast becoming the world’s new Superpower.
I began to realise that I was becoming a new (albeit reluctant) believer in what Harari said is the next big story or myth of human history.
The world is kneeling and bowing at the feet of the God of information. Not having access to datasets or information portals through the internet is making humans existing offline “obsolete”. A person’s “humanity” is being determined by their presence online and their value is being measured by the level of influence they have on these platforms.
Thinking of myself in these terms has gotten me thoroughly depressed and has made me feel as though there is no justice in history at all and that perhaps any attempts to pursue it in the present moment might also be equally futile.
Perhaps the only saving grace of our new reality is that humans – who are no longer the most advanced algorithms in the universe according to Harari, are still the ones creating the newer more advanced data processing systems and so can, at any moment change or alter the algorithms or tell new stories.
Coming Back To the Earth
What is becoming more apparent with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic is that our online lives which we increasingly value above everything else at the moment will be short-lived if we continue to pay scant attention on the ways they affect our global natural environment.
The side effects of our reckless, extravagant and poor use of natural resources to sustain our lives both online and offline are now so pervasive as to threaten our futures and no less than that of biological diversity itself. They are causing so much damage to the world, it is becoming fatal to breathe.
What has been a long tradition in western culture and philosophy of separating humans and nature is no longer sustainable. Drawing a sharp line between the human and natural realms serves no purpose when our imprint is as ancient as it is pervasive.
While it might seem exciting to go to space and live in a capsule – I know now, today that it’s not a life I want to live. It is not the life I wish for myself or for my sister’s children.
Big Data or information which we are producing faster than we can process or analyse does not end-up in the “cloud” or on thin air as most tech companies will have us believe, it ends up on earth, including all its attended hardware. These servers are built on the ground and are increasingly taking up large amounts of land. To run, they need enormous amounts of energy or electricity which is generated by finite natural resources such as coal, solar, wind and hydropower and nuclear energy. The future viability of all these energy sources either depend on or contribute to changes in climate or global warming.
As users of everyday technology, even by doing something as innocuous as a social media posts of our breakfast in the morning including this blog I am writing collectively have a potentially negative impact on the future of (human) life on the planet. There is no separation between technology and our environment. Everything we do depends on maintaining healthy and functional ecological systems.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that we can live with much less of everything than we have become used to. We can survive and work in one outfit.
We can no longer afford to move fast and break things and more is not always better. Continuing on this path, of pillage and greed at the expense of the environment is essentially a choice to commit, collective suicide.
“The main reason to study history is to free ourselves from the past. The past controls us through all of these stories (myths) and institutions. The past controls our hopes, our thoughts, our dreams, our fears and shapes them and this really limits the horizon of possibilities which we can see before us” Yuval Harari.