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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Reduced to Numbers

Conceding our acts of being human to the facts of being digital

Written by Nishant Shah | New Delhi | Published: December 22, 2019 6:01:04 am
digital, cyberspace, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express, Indian Express news Our social media world view of metrics and counting is now clearly defining the way in which we live and understand our world. (Source: Getty/Thinkstock)

Late in the 1990s, when the computer was being democratised and produced for the mass market, there was a new word that was becoming the buzz — digital. What exactly is digital? What does it mean? How do we understand it in our everyday life? These were questions that were often asked, leading to the binaries of analogue-digital, real life — virtual reality, meatspace — cyberspace, etc. The intent and intensity of the digital has been much theorised since then, but the word that strikes right to its core is quantiphilia: The love of counting. If there is only one way of describing the digital, quantiphilia will be it.

In his novel Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson, while coining the term cyberspace, had offered it as a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…being taught mathematical concepts” because he knew that the promise of the digital is to be able to comprehend the entire world into knowable, measurable, discrete entities which can be neatly stored in databases that tend to infinity. It is no surprise to us that all our digital data is numbers in large mathematical streams. We are familiar now with the idea that our computers compute. They count. They count time, bodies, spaces, relationships, absences, movements in order to create large patterns that can be replicated and reconstructed.

Computers within neural networks turned the tedious task of counting into a seductive dance of predictions and speculation. And so successful has this dance been, that quantiphilia, once the domain of numbersmiths and math wizards, has now become our default way of looking at the world. We have shifted, in this way of looking, from intensity to scale, from possibility to probability, from experience of depth to expanse of a mathematical surface. While quantiphilia offers intriguing and fascinating futures of smartness predicated on collective memory and autonomous intelligence, it also shapes the world in a vocabulary that foregrounds the numbers.

Take a look at your social media feeds for the last few weeks. You will see two or three big fire items dominating with multiple people commenting on it. My own feed was trending — an algorithmic mathematical feature which has nothing to do with the emotional engagement of the hashtag — with people discoursing heatedly about the rape and murder of the doctor from Hyderabad, and the issuing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Both of these complex, shameful, and downright immoral phenomena naturally triggered people into speaking, commenting, debating, and invariably fighting about the legality and legacy of these decisions.

I find them reprehensible and find in them urgent patterns of holocaust histories which make me fearful. However, let’s leave our emotional and imaginative responses aside and look bat at these trending events. Ignore the political rhetoric, the hateful vitriol, and the emotional anguish that these conversations hold and look at them for numbers. See what happens when you start focusing on the counting and enumerating that people engage in. I must confess it took me blindsided that so many of the online conversations were almost entirely about counting and numbers.

The individual rape became a part of a larger statistical database. The media coverage was obsessed on time, location, number of perpetrators, distances, durations, as if the heinous act can be understood, analysed, taken to closure, if we could only capture all the data points. Conversations about the scale of sexual violence and abuse, that we seem to have naturalised in our hypermasculine nationality, seemed to be the focus area rather than the inhuman, shattering, fatal experience of these practices.

Similarly, with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which is literally an exercise of counting, and then miscounting and discounting of people’s right to live and belong, kept on focusing on similar questions. The number of migrants, the duration of immigration, the balance sheet of human lives vs resources, and the accountancy of who gets to live where, all focused on numbers. The complex idea of migration, dislocation, and oblivion got reduced to the cruel algebra of resource and border management. The questions of persecution, hatred, xenophobia, and misguided nationalism all got sidelined by a discussion of who gets counted and how many get affected, as if counting would show us how to live and who to become.

No matter which side of the argument/politics you might be on, there is no denying the fact that we have become number counters — conceded our acts of being human to the facts of being digital, and that our social media world view of metrics and counting is now clearly defining the way in which we live and understand our world. These are historical moments. And, a few decades from now, when future historians look at our current discourse in order to understand our existence and action, they will characterise us as people who primarily loved counting.

(Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru)

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