Back to the Future with E. B. White

They seemed so innocent at first: a way for us lonely human beings, adrift in a strange, new world, to break through our isolation and connect to one another. But now the truth has been sniffed out. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Finally, the pundits of the world, like a pack of hound dogs snoozing by the woodstove, have been roused into action by the smell of a predator who, somehow, sauntered unchallenged into our homes.

I am talking about the algorithms used by social media behemoths like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. Algorithms are mathematical models used by these companies to manage, and take advantage of, the “big data” now collected on all of us from cradle to grave.

Sure, these algorithms influence what we buy, but, beyond that, they are shaping our very future; they are at work everywhere: scoring teachers and students, sorting resumes, granting (or denying) loans, evaluating workers, targeting voters, setting parole, and monitoring our health.

We have been lulled into compliancy, thinking because algorithms are mathematically based, they must be unbiased. But that is far from the truth.

It is now coming to light that these alleged scientific equations are saturated in the moral and cultural assumptions of the power elite — mainly conservative white men. Rather than being impartial, they reinforce the existing status quo.

These algorithms fail to take into account socio-economic and poverty-related issues, like for instance, low test scores in poor school districts, or the predictive-policing software used to allocate police resources in poor neighborhoods. They privilege large global companies that can take advantage of ‘big data’ to increase market share against local businesses who can’t — or won’t.

We are now entering a brave new world where algorithms are starting to mold the content of what we think and who we think we are.

Depressed by the dysfunctions of our modern world, I decided to re-read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, one of my favorite authors. The first essay I came across was written in 1938. Reading it made me realize the evils of social media go back further than I had realized.

White writes about how recently he had attended an early demonstration of a new-fangled invention, still in the beginning stages of development. Though at this point, television was only a gleam in some mogul’s eye, White was amazingly prescient about where this would lead.

He predicts that together with radio, magazines and the movies (that’s without him having an inkling about emails, tweets, and Facebook) we would forget the in-the-flesh reality we embody in favor of the secondary and the remote.

Media sights and sounds, he says, will become more familiar than the original:

“A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light — these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe…”[1]

White attributes his remarkable clear sightedness to the decision he had recently made to reinvent himself by radically downsizing: moving from his desk job in the heart of Manhattan to working a saltwater farm in rural Maine.

As he explains it, “once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”

We already have a long pedigree of people moving to NH to do just that: downsize and return to the land. The last wave was the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s. I say it is high time to redouble our efforts toward that end:

Ditch the digital devices for face-to-face encounters with our neighbors, dig gardens in the dirt, cut firewood, buy locally, raise barns and Cain together while we still have time.

We need to hurry before social media mammoths like Facebook and Amazon hoodwink us with beguiling algorithms, while bribing our politicians to pass laws mandating we buy everything: all our necessities, our gadgets, our love and companionship from the dancing pixels of our new internet god.

If this comes to pass, we will have sold our souls to the devil.

xxx

[1] One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. Tilbury House Publishers: Gardiner, Maine. 1938, page3

Originally published at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com on February 8, 2018.

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Jean Stimmell

Jean Stimmell

psychotherapist, photographer, wonderer…a barnacle clinging to Earth Mother’s toe