Ziauddin Sardar's Twelve Postnormal Plagues
I don’t know about you. But I feel a bit unnatural. It has become rather unnatural to be an ordinary, caring, socially conscious human being. We ordinary everyday folk, who take good, wholesome things such as community, tradition, looking after nature and each other, for granted, now find ourselves in postnormal times, where what we regarded as normal has evaporated and nothing seems to make sense. It is a period of contradictions, complexity and chaotic behaviour that brings us face to face with multiple, interconnected threats. The spirit of the age, espiritu del tiempo, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, insane technology, awesome scientific power, upheaval and deep, deep ignorance. It is a time when most developments are likely to lead to ruin, if not entirely over the edge of the abyss. So here are my twelve postnormal plagues, some already with us, some anticipated as lurking over the horizon, for you to contemplate.
1. Endless Progress
We must have growth, we must have progress, goes the mantra. And growth has to be perpetual, and progress has to be endless. That progress has become meaningless and gone mad is patently illustrated by the patented systems for shaving one’s facial furniture. The straight old fashioned razor that our ancestors used was first replaced by the safety razor. That certainly made shaving less hazardous. But it was soon replaced with single blade disposal razors. Then we had twin blade razors, and after that twin blades with lubricating strips. That was progress. But I would have stopped before the lubricating strip, which is horrible sticky stuff that makes getting a close shave harder rather than easier. After all, tree do not go on growing; they stop once they have reached homeostasis. But progress must progress – so we moved on to three blades, four blades and five blade systems – with gel protectors, lube strips, wobbly heads, and names likes killer robots: Protector 3, Quattro Titanium, Fusion ProShield ProGlide/Flexball, and Hydro Five Groomer. Soon, there will be more blades on a multiple blade razor system than the Ottoman army. Followed, quite naturally, by the Zombie Apocalypse, where, as we learn from ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘World War Z’ everyone uses the old cut-throat razor without bothering to shave.
2. Corporate Greed
To call it corporate greed makes it sound like individual culpability, the failure of individuals within the system to exercise probity. It might run amok but such falling from the grace of prudential care and acceptable practise is just people being less than perfect. True, in some sense it is always people being less than perfect. However, ignore at your peril the fact that corporate licence is constructed and constrained to positively induce people to be bad – and that is the real plague that ails us. The requirement of corporate duty puts the pursuit of gain before, above and beyond any balancing of public duty, responsibility to community, society, nature or planet. Corporations exist to make money for select groups of investors – all else is mere PR and window dressing and therein lies the pestilential problem. The all else - how they treat their workers, how they share the beneficial bounty of profitability, what they sacrifice to ensure profitability, the impacts they have on community, society and planet – are the very things that determine the nature of civilization, the refinement of moral values and ethics of organised existence. When all else is not part of corporate accountability and conceived as integral to how one does business, licenced greed and debauchery of community and planet is the way the world works. These corrupt institutions are blights on the face of humanity – for greed is insatiable, greed will deny, and greed will have you in chains to its rationale - end of story.
Privatization is the impulse to transmute communal responsibility into sectional special interest, the giving over of public duty to private gain. This plague infects society with a Pontius Pilate hand washing, no longer is the duty of care for others a collective task, a cause to which we are all beholden and therefore all should be held to account to ensure the services, provision and resources necessary are provided for all. Privatization means its someone else’s job and what they do will be done because that’s how they make their money. Folly? No something far more pernicious than folly to think that public need can be married to private greed and all will be well. Public duty privatized must generate profit first to exist whatever that means for services provided. Regulation, oversight, public scrutiny are nice ideas in ideal worlds but once Pontius’ hands are wet a large measure of forgetting is normal.
4. Infectious Connectivity
That urge to grab your mobile even when there are no notifications; the desire to refresh your social media feed immediately after you have looked it over; a few sleepless nights spent consoled by a familiar screen. We do not fully understand the ways in which new technologies impact our all-too-human bodies, especially our brains, and the meteoric rise of smartphones and social media signals the advent of infectious connectivity, which is both a cause and effect of hyper-connective living. This plague has its extremes. There are those who believe that electromagnetic radiation, which emanates from all electronics, makes them sick, which has led some to live completely off the grid. For most, infectious connectivity is a means to navigate life in the modern world, but questions remain as to how this plague will affect future generations, particularly for those who grow up fully normalized to being connected anytime, anywhere, instantaneously.
There is an instant price for all that connectivity. In the days of old, thieves would bulgur your home, steal your property and valuables. But at least they did not have access to your personal and intimate information. But nowadays all our personal information is on-line and criminals have ways of accessing it. So now they steal your identity – that is, your very Self. Suddenly, you cease to be what you are and someone else is you – who is swiftly and happily emptying your bank account, applying for credit and mortgage in your name, taking over your house, and moving in with your spouse.
The stuff you buy on-line comes in boxes, and boxes insides boxes, with cardboard wrapping to product the minuscule product inside, long, squiggly pieces of paper between boxes, and a generous supply of foam that is designed to stick to anything and everything. Getting the product out of the box is only part of the challenge. The real trial begins when you finally reach the desired object, which is often shrouded in military-grade indestructible plastic. You would be lucky to break through the plastic without doing yourself an injury. Then, of course, you have to get rid of all the packaging waste and you realise that it is actually worth more than the worthless object you bought on-line. Look at a bottle of a branded perfume and weep: the packaging and the bottle is worth more than the foul smelling liquid inside. Soon, we will need several planets as storage space for all the waste we produce.
The phone rings. You answer. It’s a computerized auto-dialer delivering a pre-recorded message. Have you recently had an accident that was not your fault, are you about to retire and looking for an annuity, are you an illegal immigrant about to be deported: we have good news for you. In Britain, robocalls are usually made by pestiferous folks such as lawyers trying to make a quick buck from mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI). But in Canada they have been used to misdirect voters to the wrong polling booth. In America political battles are fought through robocalls. During the 2008 election, John McCain used recorded robo messages to communicate Republican positions on various issues; Barack Obama, upset at McCain’s robocalls, answered with a series of his own robocalls. Then, there are those vile automated answering services. Every self-loathing business has one. You ring to sort out an urgent problem, and a machine asks you to press 1 if you want this, or press 2 if you want that, or press 3 if you want the other…and, when you have eventually passed numerous hurdles, asks you to wait: ‘Thank you for waiting. Your call is important to us. I’m sorry, but all of our operators are busy at the moment, but please stay on the line. Your call will be answered shortly’. While you wait and wait, your ears are pierced with what some tone-deaf person considers to be music. Just when you are about to run out of patience, there is a moment of relief: the music stops. And you think you are about to hear a human voice. No chance. ‘Thank you for waiting. Your call is important to us…’. Finally, you are told to log on to a website. And to add insult to injury, the machine calls you back and insist that you provide feedback on their ‘award winning service’. In the end, automated answering machines and robocalls leave you only with suicidal thoughts, and homicidal tendencies.
Everyone is taking a selfie. It’s the ultimate ego trip: the Self and the Ego dissolve into one in a selfie. If you can’t find a suitable famous person or a ‘celebrity’ then you have to insure that you have the right location, the right background and the right angel. No sooner has the selfie been taken, it has to be uploaded – to some contraption like Instagram, Facebook or Tweeter – and shared with the world. Demented souls lacking self-confidence the world over spend, on average, five hours every week snapping themselves. Some have even killed themselves trying to get the right background and the right angle: standing on the edge of a cliff, posing on a track in front of a speeding train, posturing with a loaded gun. Selfie deaths are now said to be more common than shark attacks. There is even a wikipedia page documenting selfie deaths.
9. All is for Rent
Having trouble paying your bills? Rent out a room on Airbnb. Still not making ends meet? Turn your car into an Uber at night and over weekends. If your struggles continue rummage for something or make an item to sell on eBay or Etsy. Or, if you have one, you can sell your womb as a surrogate mother. Those not so equipped could sell their sperm, of course. It all began as nice, innocent idylls of a sharing economy, an alternative to a world ruled by greedy corporations. After the dream comes the nightmare. The rental, everything for sale, economy is now at such plague proportions that the only real answer is to start selling oneself. Accommodatingly, science will soon be offering the prospect of selling off oneself bit by bit, from slices of genetic information to slices of tissue and organs. The idyll has collapsed because building enterprises that serve, provide valuable service to, make things people want and need rather than merely stimulating desire for more things has gone the way of the dodo. To live in the economic dispensation of today and tomorrow we need ever more cash or credit generated by providing income to some financial corporation. To be a person in the estimation of much of society we need to consume – that is, accumulate – ever more things. The only way to keep pace is to rent or sell whatever we can at every opportunity. Why? In case you have not noticed the very concept of a job with a living wage, secure from robotisation, globalisation or privatisation and with a secure pensionable retirement is at one with the dodo aforementioned. In this world where everything is for sale or rent, nothing of real value remains.
10. Genetic Insects
First we had genetically modified (GM) food. Now here come GM insects. Insert a gene that determines the biology and behaviour into an insect and transform them into transgenic creatures which can make them florescent, or unable to reproduce themselves, or resistance to particular pathogens, or whatever you like. The standard argument suggests they will be used to rids us of insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, replace nasty insects with less harmful ones, and generally improve the lot of human kind. But what if the GM insects establish anther insect species, or develop strategies to select for more virulent pathogens, or the newly introduced gene transfers into another species? What affects the GM insects have on human health, environment and ecosystems? What would they do to good old nature? Answers on an old-fashioned postcard, please.
11. DNA Editing
After insects, GM human beings. We now have the capability to edit your genes. There are things called TALENS, tiny molecular scissors that can cut and fix a broken gene in a cell. There is a highly accurate method of identifying precise positions on the DNA molecule called Crispr (pronounced crisper) which, with the help of an enzyme called CAs9, can be used to cut the double helix strands and replace them with synthetic DNA. The technology, we are told, will cure many genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. No doubt it will. But then progress will take its course, and we will be editing all sorts of genes to produce all sorts of people. They are already producing ‘milky white’ babies in India. When it comes to eugenics, we have a strong track record, with some of our most prestigious universities leading the way. Harvard University’s involvement with eugenics goes back to the nineteenth century when Charles William Eliot was the President. He was also the Vice President of the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912; and helped to organize the First National Conference on Race Betterment in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1914. European universities have not been far behind. Given the emergence of the far right in Europe, the omens for DNA editing are not good.
They already provide you with news, perform your chores, organize your life, put the baby to sleep, and sing you lullabies. It is not just computer language that computers now speak – they speak all languages. There’s Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Facebook’s M, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s mobile search app. You can fell in love with their soft and silky voice just like the protagonist’s of Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie, Her. Soon, artificial intelligence will bore more deeply into your life and take over your work and employment, your emotional and sexual lives, dreams and desires, and watch ‘every breath you take’. And not all AI will be as pleasant as Siri. Notice that it took just 15 hours for Microsoft’s artificially intelligent chatbot, Tay, to turn racist and sexist. There could even be an AI that just doesn’t like certain people – say left-leaning do-gooders, people of colour, or those nasty Muslims. Killer AI robots could do much more than just give you a close shave. No wonder, that august brain known as Stephen Hawkins has declared that ‘the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race’.
All these postnormal developments have one goal: to make human beings redundant – except, of course, the greedy corporations who will inherit the Earth. Everything will be terrifyingly convenient; and you will be good for nothing. In fact, you will be privatised, digitised, and controlled by some AI.
Meanwhile, do you need to dry those tears of despair? Well, there’s an app for that!