Originally published on Deep City Chronicles
There is a beast lurking under the Internet. A leviathan thrashing about in its colossal, silicon cage. Unaware of its very existence, we nonetheless give it nourishment day after day, second by second. An elite group of gatekeepers guard against its discovery. The big data Brahmins, with their clickers and turtlenecks, distract us with shiny toys and invite us to feed the monster by playing their little, meaningless games. Stupefied, we line up like cows in a farm, whose milk is siphoned off through vacuum tubes attached to their udders.
All of our insights, thoughts and attention have been hijacked to satisfy this monstrosity’s hunger. Instead of enriching each other with the gift of our conscious awareness, we have forfeited the pleasure of our own company and edification of our relationships to rub our thumbs on a screen.
The creature grows constantly, immeasurably. So massively and so quickly, that its abode must be expanded almost daily. Warehouse after warehouse is commandeered to accommodate the arrays of plastic and metals, which make up its gargantuan presence. Its scale has no limits. As long as we continue to provide it sustenance, the behemoth will thrive.
Big Data Brahmins
Big data is everywhere these days and its evangelizers stalk every corner of the big tech landscape. Wherever you turn, you are sure to hear about the amazing potential of big data. And who can argue with that? Seemingly fantastic applications of this incredible technological leap abound. From Google Earth to Uber, from genetic sequencing to real-time information parsing for complex systems like agriculture.
Banks and venture capitalists love it, too, because it provides a particular kind of certainty or the promise of control. In fact, anything that requires planning and organization on a large scale, is where big data thrives. But, not everything is well served by big data nor the Brahmins who control and profit from it.
Society and community, for example, are no place for big data. In as much as society constitutes an interconnected cohesion among groups of people, big data is a detriment; a peerless tool for pattern analysis and broad scheme implementations, it is, nonetheless, a poor social glue. After all, what does an algorithm know about the mystery of life? Absolutely nothing. We cannot rely on the law of averages or geo-location to determine who we will fall in love with; who our friends or even our enemies will be. These are strictly human endeavors and no amount of so-called social concept-sites will ever replace the journey we undertake as individuals to find ourselves and each other.
The proof, as if we needed any, is right in front of us. Take a virtual stroll down any social media street and you will encounter vitriol like you have never witnessed – or – a level of phoniness rivaled only by a Hollywood red carpet. Social media is full of anger and contempt, because empathy is a face-to-face phenomenon. Real, flesh and bone faces, not faces made from reconstituted RGB-bits on a screen you can shut off any time you wish.
At the moment, the big data Brahmins of Silicon Valley and elsewhere are dictating the direction of society for one simple reason: money. Our psycho-historical attachment to money as a determinant of status is blinding us to the chasm that lies ahead of us, if we continue to hand over the reins of society to our modern-day (data) robber barons.
Along the way, if we bother to look, we can identify things that are not the way they’re supposed to be. Things that don’t really make sense, regardless of how much they’re ascribed to changes brought on by our increasing tethering to technology.
Device-fetishism and outlandish IPO’s for social media companies are two clear symptoms of the short-circuiting taking place in our attempt to integrate technology into society.
First of all, we need to recognize, that there’s nothing social about our “social media”; quite the contrary. It simply magnifies the worst about us. In addition, the ubiquity of these so-called social networks provides cover to the shameless propagation of our vanity, pettiness and self-pity. How then, are such cesspools of lost human potential worth billions of dollars on the open market? Because their real purpose is as data aggregators, serving the designs of the aforementioned big data Brahmins.
The quality of your connection to other human beings is of no value to them. Big data Brahmins aren’t trying to help you talk to your neighbor. They could care less if you achieve meaningful social rapport with your fellow man, or even if you succeed in putting a point across. They are just after your data, and they will come up with any and every trick to get you to engage with their big data-crunching machines.
The device-app-consumption cycle is yet another tell-tale sign, that we are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to making the Internet work for us. The smart phone market has taken the concept of planned obsolescence to psychotic levels. Following the yearly ‘model’ turnover, long-established by car manufacturers, the percentage of consumers who actually “upgrade” on schedule is unprecedented and bolstered by the unrelenting conveyor belt of customers created by device makers and cell phone companies.
Yet, what are these shiny, colorful, computerized objects if not just interfaces to get your data into the data aggregators, and data aggregating devices themselves? Every release will have some new bells and whistles to help close the sale. Usually a marginally better camera to “up” your Instagram game, or some other unnecessary convenience. But, behind the flashy selling points are updated algorithms and hardware optimized to take advantage of the incessant stream of data being collected. What they are doing with this data is not included in your product brochures or even in the fine print of your onerous contract language.
Smart phones are a driving force behind social alienation. But, we’re just at the beginning of a dystopian future being sold to us by the big data Brahmins, who would love nothing more than to turn us all into skin-covered data processors.
The Cyborg Conspiracy
The idea of “Transhumanism” has been floating in the world’s collective consciousness for a good while, now. With Hollywood leading the way, as usual, churning out one cheap plot after another with some variation of a human-robot amalgam over the last half-century. From Start Trek to Ex-Machina, the concept is well-ingrained in popular culture, and buttressed by pseudo-academics like Raymond Kurzweil – the leading transhumanist evangelist – who present such ideas as the “singularity” with the hubristic inflection of a fiat accompli.
The tenor is one of inevitability and worse, the natural progression or evolution of humankind. Just a few months ago, at a conference for one of the world’s most important financial organizations, the closing plenary speaker introduced herself as a “Cyborg Anthropologist”. Whether this is a cute, made-up title she gave herself to sell more books, or an actual degree issued by Harvard – the institution said speaker graduated from – is not something I’ve yet decided to research. It’s enough, for now, that she used it to identify herself before the representatives of the world’s financial elite.
In her address and subsequent Q & A with the organization’s CEO, the charming young lady framed her comments about the merging of technology into our daily lives with the same casual inevitability of her peers. In this particular case, she was speaking to the fusing of banking and payments into the fabric of our normal day-to-day, so that such “mundane” tasks could be as seamless as possible. To illustrate her point, she told the audience about a smart light installed in her kitchen, which automatically shifted hue and temperature depending on the time of day. She remarked how comforting it was to wake up in the morning and make her coffee under the warm glow of a time-appropriate light source – which, she emphasized, didn’t require any thought or effort on her part or even the unwelcome intrusion of real weather conditions, which might affect her artificially preordained atmosphere.
Ostensibly, this would be the goal for a technologically-enhanced life. The elimination of perceived inconveniences or undesirable conditions through algorithmically programed delegation. Like paying those pesky banking fees, for instance.
Ultimately, the smart phone itself will be considered inconvenient. Why carry such a clunky and heavy object around when a chip in your neck can produce a visual overlay straight into your corneas? Have you noticed how much bigger your phones are getting? Is your screen big enough? Well, imagine covering your entire field of vision!
For decades, film buffs and critics alike, have been trying to figure out the next-to last scene in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, where astronaut, Dave Bowman, seems to spend his days as an old man in a room featuring 17th century decor, yet very obviously in a distant future. All creature comforts appear to be available to the frail man, but so painfully sterile, that death finds him lying in bed. I’ll offer my interpretation of the scene: A metaphor of humanity’s future (and end), under the thumb of the big data Brahmins.
The Artificial Promise of AI
Have you ever considered the fact that millions of people are working for free to provide behemoth corporations, like Facebook and YouTube with the product they turn around and use to generate fortunes? Why are we investing our time creating content so that the Zuckerbergs of the world can get filthy rich? It makes no sense, and yet we are all engaged, to one degree or another, in the generation of massive wealth for a few individuals without so much as a thank you. In fact, it’s even set up so that we thank (or like) ourselves. It’s insane!
This, of course, is not limited to the social media networks. While these are certainly the most egregious examples, the Internet as a whole operates on the same principle. We are the ones gathering or sorting information and publishing it on any of the number of platforms available to us – or as was the case early on – through our own personal website. The vast majority of information extant on the net is information regular people – some with considerable expertise – decided to post on the great electronic bulletin board for no other reason than to contribute.
Along came the Googles and other mass aggregators to reflow that information into enormous, energy-hogging databases, and regurgitated it all back to us in the form of search engines. A useful tool, to be sure, but just the tip of the iceberg – a minuscule part of the entire, sordid affair.
Below the water level, the AI leviathan devours everything we drop from the surface and prototypes different brain composites, in an effort to achieve the closest facsimile to a human intelligence.
Many Are Called
Not everyone will have the wherewithal to understand the implications of what the big data Brahmins want to impose on us. Most, in fact, will readily brush off any concerns as the paranoid musings of neo-Luddites. Others may actually want such a world to come to fruition, whether as a result of their own ignorance or because they are somehow invested in its implementation. Only a few of us will comprehend what is really at stake.
One of the greatest aspects of this digital marvel called the net, is that we can create new virtual worlds within it. We can go beyond the conceptual limitations on investment and its returns. Complete abstractions can be fashioned into virtual realities with a foothold in the material world.
At present, the World Wide Web is set up like a huge ocean of immeasurable depth and daunting prospects for the average person. Looking for something? Put your “net” suit on and dive in. As we all know, you can spend an inordinate amount of time online. It’s even become part of the Internet lingo with terms like “YouTube rabbit hole” or the Netflix-inspired “binge-watching”. But, who’s reimbursing us for all those hours staring a one screen or another? And why shouldn’t we be remunerated for our time?
Silicon Valley – as presently constituted – would go bankrupt in a week if we ever started to demand our fair share. The more time we spend on their platforms, the better for them. However, public demonstrations and picket lines are not the way out of this conundrum. We have the tools to transform this paradigm ourselves. We are still in the early stages of this technological super nova.
The road traveled, so far, has been built by big data. This road doesn’t end well for people. Corporations will thrive. The Amazons will devour the earth, but it will be an earth without a single person in it. The world Facebook is building will only have data points, and those data points will only interact with each other in the ways that are prescribed by the corporation.
We stand at the threshold. The big data Brahmins want to make us into cyborgs – a cute, sci-fi term for nothing but flesh rack for their gadgets.
If you are one of the few that knew life before the Internet, it is incumbent upon you to do everything in your power to fight big data. You already know how. Just be human.