An Unexamined Life Worth Living

Cross-posted from https://currion.net/2021/04/an-unexamined-life-worth-living/

The data-driven world is an affront to human dignity because submitting to these regimes means feeding them pieces of ourselves; which they reconstruct into other versions of ourselves; and these versions are then fed back to us, or fed to other entities. These other versions make a claim to authenticity if not completeness, but they are inauthentic because they are incomplete; it is doubtful if they can ever be complete, and so the world of algorithms is a world of funhouse mirrors.

Because we have incomplete knowledge of ourselves to begin with, we easily mistake the incomplete versions we are shown as our true selves. We believe what the mirrors tell us, and in doing so they become self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course we have no true selves, we are endless changing patterns of self; but we forget this, and instead distort ourselves to fit the shape the mirror shows us, and if it becomes increasingly painful, the fault must be with us, not with the mirror; after all, the mirror is just showing us what we are really like.

Of course the mirrors last forever while we do not; those endless changing patterns of self change endlessly, after all, but while we are under the spell we are likely to believe that our changing selves are an insult to the mirror. The more reflections we are fed of ourselves, the more we will operate on our changing self just to live up to the promise that the mirror shows us. The pain the mirror-self must experience, seeing us fail to live up to its expectations, must be far greater than the pain we feel trying to live up to those expectations.

We see other people doing the same, which reassures us that our own operations are not just valid but necessary, because we are social animals and we live in a society which is staring at itself in the mirror. When the mirror is wrong in some way — when the polls fail to reflect us accurately, for example — it is a cause of great alarm, as if something has failed in the foundations and the whole edifice might fall down. The solution is always more data to fix the mirror, and never to question whether the mirror is the right place to look for the answers.

As individuals we can also see the reflections of other individuals in the same mirrors — one of the most important innovations of social media — and equally we mistake their reflections for themselves. When we try to communicate with them, we are in fact talking to their reflections, and not really with them at all; while we might fall in love with their reflection, or turn to hate their reflection, we might then be surprised, disappointed, mystified when we discover that those reflections are not them after all.

Most dangerously we might compare ourselves to their reflection. Why can’t we be as perfect and put-together, or as dangerous and dirty, or as hale and hard-working as them? We might try to operate on ourselves to reach their impossible standards, or we might take the easy route and try to polish our mirror long and hard enough that our own reflection starts to look more like theirs. Either of these approaches damages us, in different ways: the first by setting us up to fail, the second by forcing us into the same lie as them.

Difficult as it might be to believe, there is yet more danger. As individuals we can see each other directly, but our reflections are the only way in which the state can see us. In fact it can be claimed that these reflections were created first by the state in order to see us, and only recently has the technique been adopted by private corporations; seeing like a database is the only way they can see us, and it serves their interests better if we fit neatly into the database field which we are assigned.

How to make people fit into the database field which they have been assigned? Institutions create incentive structures which reward us for fitting as neatly as possible into our place, and since we measure that fit against the reflection they provide us with, it becomes an infinite loop in which we realise that the reflection is not accurate, but instead of accepting that we struggle all the more to make the reflection accurate. If we are successful, we are rewarded, even though the rewards are meagre.

Trying to freeze the patterns that are our selves in this way is a kind of self-mutilation — we clip our own wings for no reason other than the mirror made us do it — and yet most of us submit anyway. In submitting we give up the opportunity for real growth, for real change, for real life, and the question is: why? What is it about the mediated world that causes us to give up on ourselves — and this is not a new phenomenon, as Narcissus would tell you if he could — in favour of the frozen world of our reflections?

One cluse is that this truth holds for any reflection of ourselves that we are presented with. Even the simple photograph plays this trick on us, pretending that the people who are looking at the photos are the same people who are captured in the photo, when they are not. Those people are gone, if they ever existed at all, and we feel the pain of loss when we look at them again because we know that, and we wish to pretend that we are them because we wish to pretend that they are not gone, that they are still in the world.

So we come to the reason for all this: we are afraid. Our reflection tells us that there is a better world before us, if only we work hard enough to become that reflection, and the only other choice we are given is to continue to live in this world, the world in which we disappear as soon as we are seen. Immortality is what we are promised, if only we keep feeding pieces of ourselves to the gods of the machine, so that they may rebuild us in eternal perfection. It is a lie of course; the reflections that they build live their own lives, leaving us to die.

Narcissus by Caravaggio