A potted lemon tree can be bought for a few tens of dollars at discount garden centres. I suspect that these are not really trees, but rather discarded branches that have been pruned off, placed into pots and allowed to root. In any case, there is a chain of financial transaction that connects the grove to the balcony. On one end, we have the migrant worker who has traversed worldly hell for the privilege to toil twelve hours a day, and who lives with five others in a makeshift shelter. He gets about a half dollar for each plant processed. At the receiving end, we have a too-clever office manager who, during a farewell dinner for his departing boss, presents the tree using it as a prop for his speech about his colleague’s ability to make “juice out of lemons.” Ha ha ha! By the end of the speech, the half dozen middlemen in the chain of financial transaction will have received negotiated value for money, and the potted lemon tree has already become an asset written off, worth exactly nothing.
The European Union has recently required Google to enact a concept that protects people’s “right to be forgotten.” This was the subject of a session at the 2014 SpotOn conference that just ended in London.
Kenneth Cukier, a data scientist at the Economist, made the excellent comment that the right to be forgotten is really a phenomenon of data degradation. What is a normal process in the “natural” domain (loss of memory, erosion of integrity) is being maladroitly translated to the digital domain. He suggested that the problem could be more elegantly resolved by moving to a regime of a “ubiquity of data.”
The case that is typically mentioned in this context is that of a young man falsely accused of selling drugs and subsequently required to live out his life under the damaging influence of the newspaper articles that were initially written about his arrest, as selected in Google searches. He should not have to suffer consequences because an algorithm puts this information at the top of every list of search results. The algorithm needs to be “degraded”, as animal memory degrades, in order to render the digital processes more humane. Removing mention of the article neatly fits with our instinctive notions of justice.
However, I was startled by Cukier’s concept of “ubiquity of data” as a answer to the problem. The question I posed concerned a slightly different scenario – one for which the young man was actually guilty. Is it still reasonable, or humane, to maintain the publication of his run-in with the criminal justice system forever; does he “deserve” it?
Many would say “yes” – we are all confronted with the consequences of our actions. This outcome is one repercussion of many. There were people at the conference who suggested that when all activity – from crass to noble – is ubiquitously registered, indexed and made publicly available, a better sense of – and sensitivity towards – human nature will emerge. Youthful transgressions will no longer be judged by hypocrites who simply had the influence to keep their own actions “off-line.” The ubiquitousness of data will force us to be more compassionate with one another.
I fear that this vision neglects our fundamental condition as human beings. Our well-being is anchored more in perception and subjective opinions and concerns than in any objective reality. Story telling, lying, exaggerating, forgetting, and – critically – rationalising are all required for the sake of maintaining an operable self image and, thus, sanity. I have doubts about any vision of the future that relies on a fundamental change in human nature, and the one described above would require the sacrifice of a central component of what we call human.
This is a dystopic view on several levels: there will be no justice, because the powerful will always be able to avoid the traps; and there will be social destruction, because it will divide our youth into “good” and “bad” with such ruthless efficiency that mental mechanisms of subjective self protection are denied.
Here is the lying-friend scenario: He is lying, I know he is lying, and he knows that I almost certainly know that he is lying, but we are both pretending that maybe I do not know after all, and this sustains the quality of his subjective self-image. It is a fundamentally human game, a game that is undermined by “too much data.”
Might this be a judeo-christian implementation of technology? Walking back to the hotel after the conference, I see the video cameras here in London, nearly ubiquitous, and I remember the horrible nights of my youth when I thought that my every act was being registered – complete with nefarious intention – by our judge in the sky. Getting out from under the bell jar of faith gave me an exhilarating sense of freedom. The concept of ubiquitous data rubs too close to that of omniscience and leaves me with the impression that some entity wants us back under the jar. God is a purely subjective concept; as a culture, perhaps we are so ill at ease with ourselves that we cannot resist the opportunity to go out and build one ourselves now that the technology has presented itself.
While in Boston about two weeks ago. I took the time to ride the T. Amazing how little this has changed in 25 years. I rode out to Harvard Square twice, got off out from under Out of Town News, trying to remember how the station looked before the renovation, back in the era of Mug ‘n Muffin. And I made it a point to go through Park station a couple of times; over the years, I have had a recurring dream about the Green Line platform; with the noise, the grungy stench, and the look of the lost tourists who see the train they need to take, but are uninitiated in the secret of transfer. It was all perfectly reassuring to the neural circuits. There was even a group of drug addicts around a young lady, prostrate, going through a tough hour, as if to remind me.
In Boston, I emerged as an adult, and the influence of the place runs deep.
I made it back to the Boston area for a conference about two weeks ago. It is a strange feeling when the old points of reference kick back in. With age, one wonders why certain aspects did not provoke wonder. Above are two pictures taken from my hotel window.
Cleaning out the atelier is a job for archeologists. The game is to infer the person by the traces left behind.
Pain and pleasure confer mass to our existence, as our sense of being is heightened as it rubs up against some field. There are intellectual pursuits that draw us toward other fields, but the interaction is cooler. The visceral connects better than the cerebral.
We all are aware of this, to varying conscious degrees. We have no patience for people who bring malheur unto themselves, because the nerves in our gut understand the physics of suffering, all by themselves without lessons. By becoming massive, her pain pulls us in, too.
Is joy any better?
A highly publicized event was held close to my office last week. Pundits from all aspects of culture were to talk about their fields of expertise in short, clever presentations that leave the public amazed and confident that our future is held in able hands. A stage to hype.
I had only to navigate through the audience, on my way to the bus stop, to see the class of people that believe in (or invest in) this shiniest of futures. In my sample, the ladies were almost all blond with perfect shoes, talking a bit too loudly in fashionable international languages, gesticulating with smartphone in hand; the men were darkly dressed and vaguely unshaven.
And then an idea popped out, that hype is reverse nostalgia. It is a longing for a future that will never exist, an image idealized to shiny perfection. It must come from the same part of the brain that reassures other segments of the population about a past that was in every way better than the twisted present. And then a Lennon song came to mind…
Recently replied to lhautier.org about objectivity and action:
People are inherently subjective and probably even genetically tribal, and, for most of us, the search for truth cannot compete with the desire to belong to a group. For membership we will suspend objectivity.
And we are caught between truths — how many people on Earth are capable of validating the detection of Higg’s boson? Less than one out of a million. Since human progress in understanding our universe has become so essentially esoteric it is hard – maybe even wrong? – to condemn those who “shop” for their personal truth. When this truth comes with a friend, or a group of friends, then the part of our subconscious that developed over tens of thousands of generations of tribal life, and that is hard-wired into our mental frame, strongly encourages, confirms and soothes about the rightness of choice.
For those who are concerned about the improbability and horrible brevity of our existence, there is a real personal drive to seek out context, objectively. But our expectations might be a bit too high if we think we are going to drag more than a few like-minded comrades into the adventure!
For which I received the accusation of being démissionaire.
I am not entirely happy with the wording, but I stand by the basic message. The only path to enlightenment (or at least towards some more objective understanding of our condition) is through a collective sense of reassurance that society is far from being able to provide. As long as this is the case, superstition and mysticism will remain deeply and ineradicably rooted in the society’s psychic landscape.