“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were
How’s that for an opening line? So begins one of the most prescient novels of the 20th century, George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, this book recently rose to #12 on the Amazon best seller list, in direct response to the recent disclosure that our Dear Uncle Sam is a voracious voyeur.
Orwell didn’t intend this book to be dystopian. He simply wanted to predict what the world could be like if the trends that existed at the time were carried to their possible conclusions.
The main character in the book, Winston Smith, rebels against the constant propaganda dealt out by Big Brother. This daily infusion of News-speak keeps the population docile and obedient, because they believe Big Brother is their only source of security in an atmosphere of constant external threat.
Two contemporary and controversial non-fiction writers have written books with warnings no less dire, but their tone is much more optimstic.
The first is Jaron Lanier. a Silicon Valley pioneer and originator of the term “Virtual Reality.” His two books, You Are Not A Gadget, and Who Owns the Future read a bit like what you’d expect Dr, Frankenstein to write after he discovered that his monster had escaped the castle and was wreaking havoc in the village.
Though Lanier firmly believes that the Web is a great thing, he decries the direction its evolution is taking. His main concern is the developent of the “Hive Mind”, a vast anonymous organism that generates a powerful pack mentality. Eventually the individual contributors become subservient to the hive, mere drones whose sole reasons for existence is its survival. This leads to the loss of the individual dignity and humanity of the participants.
Lanier says, “Online culture is filled to the brim about what the true path to a better world might be, and these days it is strongly biased toward an anti-human way of thinking.” He opposes the idealistic vision of the net as a benevolent organism. This makes sense when you consider that we humans are highly susceptible to “groupthink” (A term evolved from Orwell’s “doublethink” in 1984) which we readily accept out of a desire for safety.
In “Who Owns the Future”, Lanier says the the temptations of supposedly free stuff from the web have lured us into a bad trade. Every time we use the web, we surrender infomation about ourselves. “Dossiers on private lives collected over digital networks are packaged into a new form of elite money. Few people realize the degree to which they are being spied upon” (p108)
He warns that we are now altering our lives to conform to the needs of technology. Our tools are slowly becoming our masters. But Jaron Lanier is nothing if not an optimist. He’s sure we’ll eventually realize the high price our tools are exacting, and regain control.
Another controversial writer is Nassim Taleb, a guy who manages to piss off almost everybody, including the people who agree with him. He’s a Lebanese-American theorist and former options trader who loudly predicted the collapse of the financial system, was scorned for it, then hated for his accuracy. When the collapse came, he made a fortune shorting bank stocks, tossed his necktie in a Manhattan trash can, and retired to his study to theorize.
Now that’s what I call a sweet revenge!
His latest book, Antifragile, is as controversial as his previous best seller, The Black Swan. He invented the term “Antifragile” to describe organisms or systems that thrive on stress and chaos. He says humans are antifragile. We’re built for struggle, and if we don’t get it, we weaken.
Problem is, struggle and strife are laborious and dangerous, and nobody dislikes them more than Taleb. But in our efforts to obtain our security, we are doing things that put us, ultimately, at greater risk.
As explanation, he raises three major points.
First, he says that we humans do not live our lives according to facts. We live according to “Narratives”, stories we inherit from our background and that are reinforced by our culture. This works okay, as long as there is some correlation between our narrative and the facts. But the world is a random place, and the facts are always changing. An example of a current narrative that caused many of us grief would be, “Housing prices never collapse.”
His second point is, that in order to deal with the chaos of life, and ensure the relevance of our chosen narratives, we develop elaborate control systems and attach them to almost every aspect of life. These systems are supposed to insure our safety, but they are becoming so entertwined, complex, and massive in scale that nobody really understands them, and a small breakdown in any element of the system produces a major collapse. To relieve this, we create ever more complicated controls, making these systems even more fragile. To Taleb, small and uncomplicated is beautiful.
His final point is that these systems are operated by people who have no “skin in the game”, meaning, no matter what the outcome, they don’t have to pay for their mistakes. Some examples are the financiers who orchestrated the economic collapse of ’08, most of whom ended up even richer, though their actions cost the rest of us a lot of money. Another example is the men in gray suits who instigated the Iraq war. They’re all ensconced in cozy retirements, while the rest of us will be paying for that war for generations.
Taleb doesn’t use any Orwellian terms to describe the nonsense told to us by economists, politicians or academics. He lumps it all into one concise term, “BULLSHIT”, and he refers to all the above as bullshit slingers. This has made him a lot of enemies, forcing him to take up a rigorous program of weightlifting, to better fend off the people he insults, since he has no compunction about delivering these insults face to face, in public.
But Taleb is also an optimist. He believes that of all the elements in the universe, the one thing that is most fragile, that is always doomed to colapse upon itself, is BULLSHIT.
At the conclusion of Orwell’s book, poor Winston Smith gives in to the unrelenting pressure of Big Brother. He betrays his beloved, who also betrays him. He has insured his safety, but that safety has cost him his humanity. The final sentence reads, “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Orwell didn’t get to see the collapse of the Soviet Union. If he had, he might have been as optimistic as Lanier and Taleb. But even so, it’s not hard to imagine him wagging a finger at us, saying “Pay attention! Do not swallow uncritically the daily ration of bullshit fed to you by the powers that be, no matter what side they are on.”
For those of us with our skins in the game, this vigilant skepticism may be the only way to avoid the coming of that day when, engrossed in our glowing computer screens, we fail to notice that the clocks are striking thirteen.
Sources: Annalisa Quinn, Booklinks, NPR, 6/11/13
You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier, Alfred A Knopf, 2010
Who owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Antifragile. Hassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House, 2012
1984, George Orwell, Harcourt Inc, 1949