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Digitization, Effectivization and Lies

by Chiranjit Basu

Digitization. The Holy Grail of our times.

So it would appear, seeing as how companies and governments crave it, consultants hawk it and “wise” people from think tanks foresee doom and disaster and severely lowered sex appeal for anyone who does not have it.

Billions are being thrown at it in the hope that some day it will magically appear and life will be fulfilled or in the worst (best?) case it will just go away and stop bothering us.

But, what is it? The name suggests something to do with digits. Fingers? In a sense, yes. It refers back to numbers – specifically zeroes and ones – the programming language of computers. Why then this frenzy? What is causing it to become the quest and mission of the millennia? Why is it digitize or die?

To try to unravel that we need to take a few steps back…perhaps quite a few steps…to a time before the machines of ones and zeroes quite took over our lives.

We need to step back and talk a bit about what is culture.

Culture, in its simplest description is how a society conducts its life. For some old enough to have experienced it, work was / is the series of steps and people and paper forms we navigated to deal with institutions and each other. It was the conversations, records, reports and correspondence required to file a return, apply for a job, announce a wedding, teach a course, arrange a funeral or any other such mundane acts, the sum total of which described that particular society. It was, quite simply, how a people did things to conduct their lives from birth to death. It was how they wrote music, passed on a recipe, wrote a novel, scripted a play, passed on orders, fought a court case or proposed to someone to marry you.

It was (and in many ways, still is) the series of actions and artifacts that takes one from a beginning to an end and a hopefully successful conclusion.

Bureaucracies, in some sense, epitomized a large part of this culture, this collection of activities that kept societies alive.

This developed over millennia. It changed, adapted, morphed, was discarded, re-invented, made byzantine or just simpler, but at a pace that human conversations could encompass it. People talked, thought about things, talked some more and eventually agreed to make some change. Sometimes they fought over it – on horseback or on foot. Sometimes they signed in solemn blood and shook hands and the culture nudged a little and moved on.

Then came the zero-one machine.

It had / has two qualities. It is exceptionally stupid. It is incapable of asking a single question on its own (as Picasso famously observed). It had / has no curiosity. And it is capable of doing the same thing over and over again exceptionally fast and never getting bored, nor asking for a raise (at least not yet), or questioning what it is doing.

People, being people, taught it to do some things over and over again and in doing so, inadvertently, taught it do work. Work that was / is a facsimile of the work that they themselves would normally do.

Without quite thinking about it they made it an actor and a repository in their culture.

There was / is however one issue with this that no one has quite paid attention to. The fact that it could not ask questions resulted in the fact that the machines could not ask whose errands they were running. Whose interests it was serving.

Humans, because they are able to and are (or at least were) compelled to ask questions, can ask whether the work they were doing was something they agreed with, disagreed with, wanted changed, eliminated, expanded or were simply compelled to do because someone else stood over them with a sword.

One other difference is that humans reproduce themselves. Evolution taught them to attach (in the best of circumstances) a considerable degree of pleasure with the act and so most have not rebelled at the obligation.

The machine however is a different story. Resources are needed to make them and they have therefore not fallen under the pleasure principles referred to in the last paragraph but instead under the golden rule – which states, “he who has the gold makes the rules”.

And that is where the problem with digitization starts. Because the machines are made and funded by certain groups in society, they are assumed to first and foremost do the bidding of their creators. The owners decide the algorithms that the machines process. The algorithms are the rules according to which they want the work done. As a result they end up deciding what out culture should be.

Their creators have funded their creation because they want the work that the machines do to serve their interests. Make them more powerful, richer, self-evidently dominant and a priori superior.

Digitization, under the euphemistic rubric of effectivization and efficiency, is nothing but an instrument of power.

It makes work that is in the interest of the owners seemingly simpler, faster, cheaper and (more dubiously) apparently better.

The work of the disempowered is discarded as being not conducive to the betterment of society. The touchstone of that decision is the concept of profit, which is more often than not concealed under the seeming objectivity of the word – efficiency.

Digitization, in the usurpation of work, has become the usurper of culture. What used to be the large, messy, evolution of how societies did things, has become in the digitized world, a narrow monoculture of how the ever-shrinking top of the pyramid of society wants to be served.

Digitization is the death of culture by asphyxiation.  Asphyxiation by a monoculture of efficiency.

This leads us to the last question about digitization – efficient for whom and to what effect? Efficient as per what and who’s criteria? Who creates and controls the algorithm that determines what is efficient and what is not.

Well, it is pretty obvious that it is efficient for the powers that be as it enhances their control over the culture and also enables them to gain greater control over the assets of that culture.

But the effect?

Look out of the window (if you are lucky enough to have one). Nature confounds you. It is, by all prevailing definitions of efficiency completely inefficient. It is filled with redundancies and it rests on a rock-bed of communication and collaboration. The exact opposite of the efficient effectiveness that seems to be the wet dream of the digizati.  

Millennia of evolution have proven that redundancy is a successful survival strategy. It is a clinical test that has lasted longer and had a sample size way larger than anything we have dreamed up.

As Nassim Taleb describes it so thoroughly in his book Antifragile – nature and evolution invented anti-fragility. We, and all living things, gain from disorder. No, not the toxic disorder/stress caused by fear, domination and anxiety but stress of pushing ourselves over the next horizon. And some of the most important characteristics of that antifragility are, diversity (not monocultures), redundancies (not minimalization), and the embrace of reasonable risk, randomness and unpredictability (not the elimination of.), and the unexpected.

Digitization cannot handle that quite simply because it is based on machines that do not know how to ask a question. And because it cannot ask questions, it is a deathtrap in a globalized world. It is a death trap because it makes culture fragile. Since it cannot ask questions and therefore be skeptic, it makes the culture believe that its assumptions are sacrosanct, unchangeable and unchallengeable. It disguises digitization as a technocratic engineering invention, when it is in fact a cultural artifact being used as a political and ideological weapon.  It confounds humanity’s cognitive map into believing that monoculture is culture. And this fragilized monoculture today encompasses the entire globalized world. And as we know from other examples, scale kills. Scale compounds hidden risk like no other parameter. (Think industrialized agriculture, palm oil forests etc,) But monoculture is not culture. The one is dictatorial, the other democratic. Digitization as currently owned is the handmaiden of the dictator.

The struggle for human liberation must therefore now also include the liberation of digitization. Digitization (aka Software) is a cultural seedbed. A monoculture plantation will eventually kill both the seed and the soil. But mixing it in with the rain forest of all other living things will enhance both.

The choice is ours to make.