On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.
The right to be forgotten case, concerning one man trying to move on from a distant property deal, ripples out into the great lake of human wisdom. Knowledge refuses to fade, to age, and denies time its due. Conflicting knowledge achieves an equivalence, mediated through the machine, undermining attempts to record a common truth. All knowledge is contemporary; no facts are old. As the old joke about reputation goes, you can be a Nobel-prize-winning Olympic medalist, but you shag one sheep, and that’s what people will remember you for. Remembrance is selective, sensual, emotional; remembrance is human.
It is not just that what is known cannot be forgotten, whether it is known to a small or a large group. Big data and automation reveal things about our nature that were never meant to be revealed, that are personal. I may never actually tell people that I am a conservative, but machines may be able to discern such inclinations based on passive observation. Man has become a document, a measurable thing of indexes and fractions, of absolute and elementary construction. Therein we see the neoliberal position, a nihilist vision of rejected value in favour of pure mathematics. Identity is a sum. (Sum, ergo sum, perhaps) Hayek’s vision of all of society as a market – Stephen Metcalf wrote brilliantly on the subject in the Guardian last August – was predicated on a rejection of non-economic spheres. There are no values, only prices. All values are relativist, anti-scientific claptrap. Supply and demand reflect rational desires and needs, and everything can be added, subtracted, and rationalised. Man is isolated, individualised, afforded a kind of absolutism and presumed equivalence in the world to all other men. Relative identity, relative capability, relativism is not permitted in this new world.
This is perhaps a return to Hobbes’ brutish man in his natural state; it is also an inversion of Galadriel’s ‘And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.’ Everything is remembered that should have been forgotten; myths and legends are become history! Our manufactured context, our human spirited social constructions that are the world in which we live, are itemised, priced, and sorted. Only observed physical and chemical interactions are recorded and known. Inspirational architecture, transcendent art, soaring passions are reduced to brick, paint and sweat. ‘Oh Captain, My Captain!’ cried Robin Williams, quoting Walt Whitman in Dead Poet’s Society. ‘Carpé Diem!’ Seize the day, seize the moment, because that is all you can be sure of. Beyond now, there is nothing. In the past, there is nothing. There is only now. Such a dystopian mantra, delivered in exultation!
To quote Walter Sobchek, on the dangers of nihilism, ‘say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos!’ What will it take to wake us from the ecological nightmare?