Peter Lyle, contributing editor at Tank, is bored with “big data” and tired of the tyranny of the hyper-rational. With the help of thinkers from Giambattista Vico to Philip K. Dick, he weaves the case for a fundamental link between classification and crisis.
If all our accumulated data – all the words, sounds, images, logged movements, genetic sequences, medical records, consumer and civic choices – really is going to change our world for the better, it’s not going to do it by itself. Before the algorithms do their objective mathematical magic, people are going to have to decide on the ideas that give those numbers meaning, choose the stats that matter and the ones that don’t, define what is and isn’t a desirable outcome, what constitutes progress and what signifies failure.
But if you only listened to the most bombastic champions of the better tomorrow scientific data is guiding us towards, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that. Google’s executive chairman and spokesman Eric Schmidt has lectured and written a great deal about how the big data boom will transform education, health, crime – the whole of society – in positive ways. He evokes a technocratic fantasia where neutral processes remake our irrational, wasteful, destructive behaviour. “Our goal is to make the world better,” Schmidt said in April. “We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.”
As I read it, that means: “We’ll take the criticism – but then again, all criticism of us is based on mental error.” This from the same Eric Schmidt who once explained Google’s code of conduct – “Don’t be evil” – to Wired magazine by deferring to the company’s founder, Sergey Brin: “Evil,” he said, “is what Sergey says is evil.” (Naturally, with the increasing press scrutiny of Google’s accounting and data-handling practices, that statement has since proved a gift to critics on all sides.) You have to love the uncomplicated self-assurance of the data champions, whose words mean just what they choose them to mean, and who can categorically resolve any moral quandary in a trice. Given that the entire history of western philosophy has been a never-ending struggle with the relationship of words to things and acts, of physical matter to intellectual abstraction, it’s intriguing that our leading hyper-rationalists ignore that history even as they repeat some of western philosophy’s oldest occultisms through the “revolutionary” new ways in which they organise, divide and label the world.
In fact, it seems to me however new and highly evolved any given master plan for classification is, the impulse behind it is an old, animal one. That the satisfactions of solving problems in the virtual world have long been behind western man’s drive to taxonomise and catalogue the real one, for centuries before the advent of computers; that the bold new breakthroughs we are educated to regard as landmarks in the evolution of thought and society – as moments of mastery – are also expressions of primal fear.
Whenever somebody claims to have made an exhaustive new system for cataloguing (and thus conquering) reality, it’s as likely to create new contradictions as it is to resolve existing ones. And however shiny and progressive it is, any such system always seems to exclude the same old unclassifiable, unacceptable fears – the anxieties it cannot cope with. Walter Benjamin wrote that “the struggle against dispersion is the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects”, and that idea echoes in some famous accounts of the makings of our modern world. When you start looking at it this way, you can’t ignore the fact that within western thought, from the Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions through the Enlightenment and onwards, there has been a not-so-secret history of critique of our faith in our systems, one that – though scattered across centuries, disciplines and continents – begins to sound like a thesis.
In the late 1970s, Angela Carter published her exploration of the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. For her, de Sade began as a “man of the Age of Reason”, troubled by his society’s religious and cultural authorities, by their insistence on classifying women according to reproductive usefulness. (Sexuality has, of course, always been a glaring problem for social and theoretical systems predicated on rational order and neatly individuated identities.) Through his writing, he set out to challenge the ideas they imposed, making the case for women’s autonomy and integrity as human beings capable of wielding power. But during the 13 years de Sade spent in prison, he became a “prophet of dissolution”, “the last bleak voice of the Enlightenment”. Locked in a cell, writing alone, he went from obsessively opposing a totalising system to creating one of his own. Carter calls The 120 Days of Sodom – the story of four rich young libertines who decide to spend four months ticking off an exhaustive list of cruel sexual perversions – “that immense taxonomy of all the inhumane functions of the sexuality of… ‘the immortal child within us’”. She says de Sade’s obsession with transgression (like all such obsessions) ultimately became a form of worship of the system transgressed against: “Only a true believer can see the pure glamour of the blasphemy.” For Carter, de Sade’s lonely years in prison helped build the grammar of modern pornography: he went from seeing sex between two people as a disruption of fixed gender roles to constructing a semi-mathematical grid that made the isolated self (and its often brutally selfish desires) the sole route to satisfaction.
A hundred years after de Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom, Louis Pascal developed his vaccine against rabies. The Harvard historian Jill Lepore has chronicled this discovery as the beginning of a new taxonomy of illness:
In The Conquest of Disease (1927), Thurman B. Rice, a professor of sanitary science, predicted the eradication of sickness itself. Meanwhile, ordinary people learned to blame germs, not God, for catastrophes like the pandemic of 1918… Germ theory, which secularised infectious disease, had a side effect: it sacralised epidemiology.
Lepore sets America’s new cult of hygiene in the 1920s alongside the contemporary appearance of its first science-fiction magazines, which told parallel stories of invasions that threatened civilisation itself. She explores its curious development through the example of the “parrot flu” outbreak of 1930. A group of scientists were waiting for a viral outbreak that would let them test their new methods and bolster their case for state funding for scientific research. They were initially laughed off as scaremongers when they hit upon psittacosis, not least because the disease could only be transmitted to a human by an infected parrot. However, the scientists were so keen that they injected themselves with the virus in a facility called the Hygienic Laboratory, where procedures were in fact dangerously unhygienic. Three of them died. Another survived after the laboratory’s director injected him with blood from a parrot owner who had recovered from the disease. When more scientists became ill soon afterwards, the director ordered the building to be evacuated, destroyed all the animals in it, burned their bodies, then had the entire facility sprayed with cyanide. Out of the ashes of this frenzy came a new expansion and codification of the idea of good hygiene: “Two months later, on May 26, 1930, Congress rewarded the Hygienic Laboratory by expanding it and granting it a new name: the National Institute of Health.”
The slaughter and subsequent cremation of the innocents doesn’t exactly detract from the sense of ritual around Lepore’s grisly scientific creation story. And in our own time, it isn’t just the obvious avian flu panics that echo the story’s confusion of science and superstition. We are perennially good at adopting new scientific languages, then using them to voice age-old mammalian howls of fear and desire. While writing this, I was struck by something I heard on the radio: the anonymous father of a 12-year-old girl who had suffered and almost died from anorexia. He explained how he dealt with his difficult feelings in language equal parts contemporary therapy speak and atavistic symbolism: “There’s this very powerful inner voice in the anorexic person, like a dark cloak that’s been put over them, [so] they can’t function or think properly. It’s like some entity’s clutching her shoulders and standing there all the time… there’s your child, as you knew your child, and the goodness of your child, and there’s the eating disorder. It’s not your daughter that’s bad, it’s the eating disorder, it’s the disease that’s done that. And if you can in a way rationalise it that way as a parent, it’s a good way of keeping yourself sane.”
To “rationalise” the condition, then, is to conceive of it as a demonic possession. An interesting choice of language (especially here, since anorexics might see themselves not as surrendering their identities to dark forces, but as making a rational protest – as what Maud Ellmann calls “hunger strikers in disguise”). They’re the words of a terrified parent, of course. But perhaps they also evoke the urge to taxonomise as a technique to manage psychological crisis, to reassure ourselves that we’ve exorcised troubling spirits.
In Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names, an alphabet-loving group of terrorists go to Greece, birthplace of western thought, to mock the system’s faith in itself by making a cruel but radically coherent death system of their own. “They mock our need to structure and classify,” says a doctor caught up in their campaign, “to build a system against the terror in our souls. They make the system equal to the terror.” Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” takes this sense of system-as-violence further still, describing a machine for the perfect administration of justice. The Harrow stamps the name of his crime into the flesh of the convicted man over and over again, enacting the sentence as it names it. Language is literalised in the service of a system that aims to stamp out ambiguity: the result is brutal incoherence and death. In the 1950s, French-Algerian writer and psychotherapist Franz Fanon characterised the western world view as neurotic, stressing the way a thought system that claimed to be rational and unprejudiced had engendered systematic subjugation in the colonial world – Enlightenment humanism culminating in barbarity.
The Italian historian Giambattista Vico, born in 1668, is usually cited as a key figure in the Enlightenment, yet his kind of humanism was suspicious of some of its most famous tenets, like the idea that western man was a rational entity, or western history a continuum of linear progress. He said that structuring life by “geometrical method… is like trying to go mad with the rules of reason”, since human affairs are actually “ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity and chance”. He saw human history as subject to cycles, beginning in animal savagery, evolving into a kind of unity through a love of poetry, myths and religions, then falling into “the barbarism of reflection”, where individuals become so self-involved and arrogant that they mistake their world view and their words for objective reality, and thus sow the seeds of their society’s dissolution.
When he gave the 1950 Reith Lectures, the influential British biologist John Zachary Young took a strikingly similar view. His profession required him to study man as a physical creature, Young said, one whose ideas were a function of his need to survive. Whether gods, God, the Cartesian “I”, or the latest scientific paradigm, human beings always needed a central symbol concept to live by. Our symbolic systems had become more numerous and sophisticated, and so they allowed us to do more. But that didn’t make them more “true” – it just made them better tools. “I do beg you to remember that – at best – what we are producing is a system of the universe as conceived by man, the talking animal. Our brains work like this and we cannot help it… One great mistake of modern man is to bother too much about his means of living – his models and his comparisons.”
Marshall McLuhan, the prophet of the information age, is often quoted by evangelists for digital decision-making, because his decades-old observations and aphorisms always seem to be borne out by new technologies. His recurring theme was that new media, theoretical schemas and communications gadgets are all “extensions of man” – tools to which we outsource our stressed psyches in an age of information overload. McLuhan said western man is very good at devising such tools, because he’s very good at obsessively working away at something in isolation, but this is also why he’s bad at seeing the wood for the trees: he forgets that his tools are just tools – that when he marvels at them, he’s only admiring his own reflection.
What links McLuhan to Vico and the other system sceptics is his interest in mythology as a way of making sense of our strange species. (Which is only a species because Carl Linnaeus, when devising the 18th-century taxonomy that still shapes our sense of the animal world, was bullied into inventing the category homo sapiens. He wanted to stick us with the other primates, but was persuaded out of it to prevent controversy.) Mythology has often allowed writers to tap into the real currents of power and desire operating under the official systems we nominally adhere to. It is striking how many of these critiques of hyper-rationalism touch on the ideas explored in Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud’s 1913 study of ancient rites and mythologies.
In that book, Freud argues that ambivalence is a – perhaps the – fundamental human sense. We feel it about the people closest to us from earliest childhood, because the same parents who fulfil our needs and desires often thwart them. In the first societies, ambivalence was especially evident around death: when somebody from your community died, you were not only grief-stricken, but also conflicted over bad thoughts you may have had about the person while they were alive. Meanwhile the body that remained, now possibly a carrier of life-threatening disease, became a forbidden thing. Respectful mourning could only take place after a period dominated by dread and resentment – fear of the threat the body might still pose; anger at the person’s sudden departure. The names of the dead also became taboo, as if they might wield magical powers over the living. To help explain the transformation of loved ones into inanimate objects, the ancients developed the first supernatural beliefs, in evil demons who possessed people and things. Modern phrases such as “don’t speak ill of the dead” originate in these mixed feelings and the lingering sense that words can directly transform reality.
The universal fear of death, combined with a preference for the clarity of daytime over the unknowable dangers of the night, formed the basis of the western cosmologies that underlie our thought systems today. Both Judaeo-Christian theology and classical metaphysics privileged light over dark, fixed ideals over the mess of embodied things. Our residual sense of the occult power of names stems from those ideas – in Genesis, God gives the world spatial reality by naming it: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. / And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.”
Still, whatever our attachment to naming’s godlike powers, words have always retained their irrepressible ambiguities. So the ancient Greek word for “medicine” is the same as that for “poison”; the English word for “law” has the same root as “lie”. On closer inspection, even the words we think stand in opposition to such treacherous double meanings, superstitions or human interference don’t quite manage to do so. Consider “datum”, the singular of data – that conceptual key to a future enhanced by unbiased taxonomical technologies. “Datum” originally meant something that was either known or assumed: “a given, a fixed point of reference”. Not an objective fact, then, so much as a culturally agreed common ground.
Once again, we’re back on the provisional, negotiated terrain that the decisions-by-data lobby seem to think they’re about to eliminate. We have to concede that we are not higher authorities with unique access to unambiguous meaning – just children fantasising about a world of certainty, of safety. Maybe that’s why another Enlightenment hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote: “’Tis not criminality we are most unwilling to divulge; ’tis what is most ridiculous and shameful.”
Rousseau’s phrase about feeling “torn… from the order of things” gave Michel Foucault the title for the most famous of his studies of the secret power moves behind western taxonomies. The project itself, though, was inspired by a famous list by Jorge Luis Borges. The list appears in Borges’s discussion of the 17th-century Englishman John Wilkins, who was told by the Bishop of Salisbury that mankind could never communicate our shared “good” qualities and convictions until the tainted medium of language was fixed: it was hopeless to depend on a “Dictionary of Words, according to some particular language, without any reference to the Nature of things, wherein man does agree”. In response, Wilkins valiantly attempted to concoct a neutral, logical, universal language system. He failed, of course; as Borges writes: “It is clear that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures.” Borges reinforces the point with his own list, supposedly an ancient taxonomy of Chinese animals, but almost certainly fabricated by the great man himself. It is a celebrated exercise in demonstrating – by doing the opposite – how any normal classification system must artificially combine many different kinds of thing into a single plane of meaning.
The animals are:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
The list charmingly exemplifies a possible solution to the taxonomy complex: to keep looking carefully at reality, instead of resorting to schematic fantasies in an attempt to master it. It is the solution advocated by Benjamin, John Zachary Young and even Socrates, “the wisest man in Athens”, who walked the streets talking to people and claimed to know “nothing”, rather than sitting in his study, deciphering the meaning of the universe. After decades of thinking about the relationship between language and reality, Philip K. Dick, a writer now celebrated for his prescience, finally decided on the formulation: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.”
Sometimes words, which I’ve taken as central to taxonomy, seem a little beside the point these days. As Marshall McLuhan said it would, the information age has moved ever more towards the visual, making us hungrier for spectacle. Even the book-reading, policy-making types of today, the people who benefit most from the dominant taxonomies of work, education and the rest, seemingly prefer to muse on the workings of power and authority at a safe remove, in a succession of must-see premium soaps about men in exotic, high-stakes worlds (The Wire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones).
Is that necessarily a sign of our doom? It seems just possible that the internet meme, with its mutability, its unpredictable meanings, its combinations of image, text and motion, will evolve into a higher form that will do Vico and friends proud. Perhaps we’ll enter a new era of high-tech poetic savagery, in which we can use and celebrate our strange symbols – the ones that form in our minds and fend off our fears – without feeling obliged to pretend that we just found them, out there, in the real world. §