2010s >> 2018 >> no-1366-june-2018

Pathfinders: The opposite of binary oppositions

What are you ‘worth’ as a human being? How much does an emotion cost? What is the quantised value of a sunset? What is the binary code for love?

What these apparently silly questions illustrate is a binary opposition – itself an illustration of the phenomenon – that lies at the heart of human culture and observable nature, the incongruity yet universality of the analogue and digital modes of existence.

Look around you and the world is quite obviously analogue in every sense, in the wind you feel on your face, the sounds that you hear, the colours you see, the emotions you feel, the memories you treasure. The analogue world is a world of smooth continuity and variation, error-tolerant, dynamically energetic and weak, a fuzzy world of imprecision and ball-park thinking. The digital world takes reality and cuts up or quantises it into separate, discrete blocks, like drawing a grid onto a piece of paper, so that its smooth continuous flow becomes a series of discontinuous granular steps. If the steps are small enough, the quantisation effect is not obvious and may even be invisible. Watch a modern TV screen and you do not notice the individual pixels in it. Listen to a CD and you think of the music as analogue. Zoom far enough out of any digital system and it looks analogue. But, paradoxically, zoom in close enough on any analogue system and it starts to look digital. A famous dispute in evolutionary theory, between so-called continuous evolution and punctuated, or step-like evolution, was arguably nothing but a difference in zoom-level perception. Beneath the organic stuff of life is the particulate discreteness of the atomic. In the quantum physical world there is a theory called digital physics which argues that all reality is digital, and that even space-time itself is quantised.

Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, there is an ongoing debate among scientists about whether reality is truly digital or analogue. Legendary physics luminaries like Freeman Dyson, Lawrence Krauss and others have continued to battle each other for decades over the question (see www.edge.org/conversation/freeman_dyson-is-life-analog-or-digital).

What is the point of this in the real world? The digitisation of existence, driven by the exponential Moore’s Law increase in computing power, has given humans a technological capability unimaginable just fifty years ago. Yet there is a political and economic analogue to this process that has been in operation for around two hundred years or so, and it is called capitalism.

What capitalism does is digitise reality as part of its process of commodification. When it turns a physical or abstract property or activity into a commodity, it quantises it into a unitary composite called value. The unit of value is expressed as money. Capitalism must do this because it cannot account for any phenomenon except by its monetary value. Beauty is meaningless. Love is meaningless. Everything is meaningless unless it can be quantised into money. So capitalism is a digital system where everything is reduced to numbers. Indeed, whatever aspects of reality not so-far digitised in this way have been virtually ‘medicalised’ as problem areas which need urgent attention. Take for instance the very obvious case of pollution. Because the accounting books of industries traditionally only included costs that the industry itself was required to bear, pollution output was never quantified or accounted for, leading to a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario where every industry polluted but nobody was held liable, and society and the environment suffered accordingly.

Once accepting the digital mode of capitalism, the logic insists that everything must be equally digitised. So now we bandy about terms like ‘natural capital’, which attempts to enter environmental features like trees, rivers, mountains and so on as quantised numbers into the capitalist accounting sheet. Equally, ‘social capital’ is your attempt to digitise your own soft skills, for example interpersonal skills or winning personality, into a number system that capitalism can understand and compute. A recent article in New Scientist (12 May) enthuses about ‘Treeconomics’ which is, you guessed it, a way to view trees in dollars and cents in order to incorporate them into the capitalist accounting landscape.

Perhaps a question arises at this point. Are we suffering from runaway ‘digital brain syndrome’? Have we become so obsessed with capitalism’s granular, monetary view of reality that we have started to see this world view as the only one of any real meaning? In turning even our own bodies and minds into forms of computable capital, have we become the very definition of those cynics who know the price of everything and the value of nothing?

The problem and the flaw at the heart of all this is that we are using subjective means – our own concepts of aesthetics, of emotional and functional worth, and so on – to convert these properties into monetary form, and these subjective means are analogue. We are analogue beings pretending to be digital, and pretending to see the world and enumerate it as digital, just so that we can fit in with our incongruous accounting system which doesn’t see the world the way we do. The treeconomics article offers two, mutually-exclusive algorithms for computing the value of a tree, so tree experts tend to use both, but in reality, any such algorithm is based on arbitrary, analogue assumptions. In quantising our world for the bean-counters, we are doing nothing but deluding ourselves.

A classic example of digital brain syndrome is a time-honoured objection to socialist theory known as the economic calculation argument (ECA). In this view, socialism can’t work because you need money to evaluate everything for accounting purposes. This is a recursive argument which assumes what it sets out to prove. There are two possible refutations to this, one accepting the digital assumption and the other ignoring it. In the former, resource-allocation systems after the manner of Zeitgeist could indeed quantise all labour and resources in discrete units for internal computation purposes, but that by no means implies that society would then be obliged to use those units as a form of money exchange. When you look at a Monet or Van Gogh you don’t need to know the numerical pixel values contained in its digitised form. The other approach is to revert to an analogue mode of operation and not worry too much about calculation to the nth decimal place. If a town needs a new bridge to be built, what does the population care about the need to calculate the marginal utility of building a new bus depot instead? If an old and well-loved tree is in the way of a proposed new road, does it matter what the tree is worth in computational units? Isn’t it more important that locals express their preference in a democratic vote?

Nobody can say, today, how exactly socialism will make its local, regional or global decisions, or by what process the information is collected and formulated to make those decisions. But it may well decide that turning everything into quantised data is not the way to go. After all, humans cannot live by numbers alone.