The Aesthetic of Big Data (2)

In my last post on big data, I lamented the looming threat big data is posing on our dominion over the world, and suggested that something be done to  reassured our mastery position.

The trouble is, in a post-humanistic world, it is absurdly out of fashion to think that we are the only intelligent species on the planet that can single-handedly shape its future. The celebration of technology also ushers us into an era of post-human ideas, threatening our long-held beliefs of human nature – autonomous, rational, capable of free will – which unified in our being as the apex of existence. Post-human requires fluidity not only in human identity but physicality, turning the ultimate fantasies of sci-fi fictions into reality: artificial intelligence, bionic replacement, uploaded consciousness, cyborgs and all their cousins. But a closer look will reveal that by assuming a ‘shared sovereignty’ between human and technology, we are assuming a concession of power to our products.

Can we analogise our cyborg ambitions with Prometheus' creation of mankind with clay? Photo and work by Scott Eaton

Can we analogise our cyborg ambitions with Prometheus’ creation of mankind with clay? Photo and work by Scott Eaton

In deed, our love-hate relationship with technology is far more complicated than we think. We invented a game of playing god, and then we created creatures that overtake our power of creation and instead, generated another reality in which our existence is at their mercy. Much like God is a back-creation of human imagination. Our theology dictates what God’s properties are, how he manifests himself, his biographical details (at least partially), and also to a large extent, his scope of power. We decide what he can do and cannot do – at times of weakness we acknowledges his omnipotence, but most of the time, our power is all that there is to keep this world running. Particularly relevant to our present topic is how we, as rational beings capable of commanding the most basic logical reasoning, approach the topic of god throughout the history of man by assessing how well our propositional arguments match the outstanding problems regarding our creator, and adjusting according to it.

But this analogy of god-man transgression has its limitations in explaining man-tech symbiosis, or ‘transhumanism’. Part of the problem is the difficulty to predict our destination by simply studying how we have treated God. (a Big data approach will find it difficult, too, as analysts will be dealing with two highly asymmetrical sets of data) Inasmuch as we would like to believe in the absoluteness of him, we know his ‘identities’ change across time and space. It requires a leap of faith to logically resolve all this differences in order to come to an ontologically true God, but this act would hugely upset the likes of Richard Dawkins, who, a faithful follower of Darwinism, keeps a categorical distinction between homo sapien and other primates despite his satirical claim that ‘Apes have souls too’ – to which The Telegraph famously adds the words ‘says primate’.

Dawkins, of course, have no trouble with human’s ontological truth in relation with other animals. But does he believe in subjectivity and identity? Does he acknowledge the agency of individuals? From the cracks of his poorly masked human supremacism we can smell his strong belief of human ‘identity’.

Does identity mean anything to creatures without self-knowledge?

For years anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and literary critics have been debating what constitute identities. The classic answer – a quasi-scientific one coming from psychological studies (itself a quasi-scientific subject) – says that it is the ability to form a coherent cognitive affirmation of self in relation to the environs. In cognitive psychology, the term ‘identity’ refers to the capacity for self-reflection and the awareness of self. And what constitutes self? Here we come to the tricky dualism of body and soul, which in modern times has undergone doubts, disintegration, deconstruction or destruction over and over again, yet never cease to be the chief paradigm for such operations.

Now, here is where the analogy fails to work: humans may have assumed the role of God in many instances since the Enlightenment, but we never assumed that there is, or can be, a mingling of god and human identities, simply because God cannot form an identity of his own as he has no body. Unless we grant him the use of the totality of physical objects in the world to be the extension of his soul, in which case we become part of God’s object of self-awareness, and thus constitute his identity. So either we are God or there is no God.

It would be a rather scary thing to say if this applies to our relationship with technology. Imagine being told that you are nothing but a series of data; or that you actually do not exist but whatever you perceive to be part of your self it is in fact the construction of information. In deed, some people, namely the advocates of biological informatics, believe that human is nothing but physical and mental manifestations of genetic information stored in DNAs which determine every thing of our living life – from blood type to our intelligence to our emotional responses. Fortunately though, unlike God we do have a bodily existence and firmly grounded in it, so at least in our formation of a sense of self there are our hands and our feet to refer back to when in doubt. That much is reassuring.

Here is the nebulous part of artificial intelligence and the whole business of big data – that data, no matter how big, cannot simulate an identity. The BBC mini drama Black MirrorBe Right Back’ explored this issue with a poignant human touch. The death of her boyfriend has driven a woman to seek therapeutic solace from a service that produce digital identities of dead persons. The service recalls past incidents and simulates the eccentricities of the dead boyfriend by aggregating his social media personalities, or even private digital communications. These artificial memories are enhanced with an inbuilt learning software and are encased in a lifelike robotic shell so real that it can pass for a twin brother. In some respects, the robot is better than the real boyfriend: the sex is better (thanks for the wealth of porn data fed into it), it does not throw temper tantrums (not sissy or emotional), and you can insult it with the vilest of language and will not be talked back to (no sense of dignity is sometimes a good thing).

Big Data cannot capture the existential angst of mortality

This substitute could easily be any woman’s dream man. But precisely because it is so ‘perfect’ it is not mortal, for mortals are men. In the drama, the woman begins to question the authenticity of this simulated interaction masquerading as love. Her suspicion begins with a small fight, a glass broken – no resentment, no wounds – it gives no chance for healing, for a patching up that breeds stronger bonds. Then it emerges that the robot is not capable to pick any fights at all, not even fight for his own ground. It is perfectly content about the here and now. It has no expectation and therefore no disappointment. It is becoming impossible to have any sort of spiritual exchange with this piece of meat and chip for it has no imagination, no aspiration, no concept of this common realm outside of the physical realities that information is drawn from – a realm where possibilities overflow. Apart from information input the machine does not expect anything else. Standing gargoyle, utterly dumbfounded about the woman’s outburst, all the robot asks is ‘What would your boyfriend have done?’ ‘He would have fought back! Hit me! Hit me! Here!’ ‘Really?’ – what a downright anticlimax to any lovers’ fights that could end up in amazing makeup sex.

But the last straw of this trans-human affiliation – and in fact the ultimate problem with this idea of big data – is the inability to self-knowledge. Never would the robot ask ‘do I exist’, or ‘how do I know that I am who I think I am’. This very fundamental existential sense is perhaps what big data – be it on micro or macro level – falls short of covering. Like mentioned, mortal is man; and ‘with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death’.[1] In the story, the woman orders her robot boyfriend to jump off the cliff having suffered enough of this realistic absurdity. But the ultimate absurdity is that the robot fails to grasp the significance of that death warrant without a sense of identity as a being – living or dead. Having no record of being dead, the robot needs its mistress to verify the order.

In the end, it is the woman who cannot bear to kill it off. Although we may read her decision to keep this robot in the attic as a metaphor for human’s final mastery over technology, of overcoming her initial attachment or even addiction to it, there is another possibility of reading. The film does not tell us the cause of her leaping from cliff-bound technocide to the eventual domestication of the robot. If it was not for the memory of her boyfriend, would she care if that human impostor is destroyed or not?

In the next post, I will be dealing with the intricate relationship between memory, knowledge, identity and love.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Immortal’.

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