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Diogenes and the Tyrants of Data

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by John Kendall Hawkins

"A million faces at my feet / and all I see are dark eyes." - Bob Dylan, "Dark Eyes", Empire Burlesque

I'm a Socrates man myself; like his giddy-gaddy style, his 'show me the money' approach to belief; and I think maybe I understand his hemlock manoeuvre all too well. 'After all, democracy's not for everyone, right?'

But Diogenes! Now there's a man who'd a-handled this digital age rather effortlessly. Don't get me wrong: Socrates and his relentless deconstructions were a hoot, but Diogenes had gumption and attitude.

Debasing his Daddy's dollars; strutting around with his daytime lamp looking for an honest man; homeless and sleeping in a ceramic jar (I once spent a winter's night in a Goodwill box reading the Portable Nietzsche and nursing a bottle of Gallo--long story); and generally reveling in his counter-culture ribaldry; he was a jester with a gesture the Romans later called digitus impudicus.

O, one wakes up smiling at his antics and wanting to crow, "Up yours, too, Diogenes!" Brothers in arms, as it were.

While Socrates found democracy a little too Orwellian for his tastes and fell into a doubt pout, Diogenes goosed the rooster. He'd have been perfect for an age of Big Data and its appeal to pseudo-scientific analysis (for political purposes, of course) and the way people eat it up like manna, believing in the magic of its authorial voice.

Indeed, we are fat with over-trusting authority - call it our collective obeis-ity. Too many people seem to accept that with Big Data we have reached the point of Singularity, where humans and machines may merge in a digital stream that makes dialectical materialism obsolete and ushers in the Final Paradigm of humanity.

As Diogenes would say (and here I'm translating), "I got your paradigm. I got your paradigm right here," followed by his own digital stream into the River Heraclitus.

He'd have known that what we're witnessing with Big Data is just the latest gimmick for exploiting human desire that is so infused--even after millennia of civilizing influences--with fear and insecurity.

We are witnessing the rise of global totalitarianism on the back of Big Data and its delivery system, the Internet--a central information system we plug into together that replaces our central nervous system. But it won't matter.

Men will always play with the latest flint hammer and will still buy more beer if you sex up the suds. Women will struggle with being in the world--with and without the need for men. Little will change for the masses, with their not-so-quiet desperation, and the eggheads who thought it all up will crack into omelettes at the first sign of 'research' cash and/or ego octane boosting. We may be a-dicted to da 'rithm, but Big Data is just one more system that will fail us for a number of reasons.

First, 'data' is not God, or, rather, it is. Powerful in its stim and absence of certainty, an absence necessitating oracles, gatekeepers and messiahs to fathom for us (see Voltaire). Data itself is meaningless without interpretation; and every system is built around an agenda that serves to constrain the interpretation.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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