On the night of 5 May 2018, I was engrossed in watching Kiwi screenwriter, producer, and director Andrew Niccol’s latest dystopian /noir sci-fi thriller, Anon the principal characters being played by Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried. Owen plays a certain Sal Frieland, “detective in a world with no privacy, ignorance, or anonymity; where everyone’s lives are transparent, traceable, and recorded by the authorities; where crime almost ceases to exist.” Seyfried, on the other hand, plays a certain anonymous girl – outside the prying eyes of the algorithmic dictatorship, of course till she’s briefly de-anonymized. Hence, the name The Girl and Anon in the IRC chatroom.
The everyday lives of the inhabitants of this fictional republic of ubiquitous algorithm, comparable to Orwell’s omnipresent and all-pervasive and intrusive, Big Brother, is dominated by excessive, an almost complete reliance on Big Data, a quotidian aggregate of metadata or in the form of metatrails, a set of of metadata fragments left here and there as well as consumed to a certain end. In this age, every hunch, every speculation, every articulation and every decisions on a backdrop of certain sets of beliefs is dictated by an Augmented Reality, a parallax reality that combines the evolutionary reality we used to know and a massive analytical power of a centralized Artificial Intelligence (AI), that is controlled by the human brain using the eyes as the interface through which Big Data is aggregated, visualized and shared. Policemen, rather the detectives, of the likes of Sal Frieland, are not the everyday bobbies we used to know but sleuths with an advanced know-how of cybernetics, a skill-set they use to predict and to analyze crimes.To some extent, Frieland resembles the philosophical policemen we stumble upon G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday:
One distinction that strikes us in Anon, is the prevalence of a basic contradiction – a bitter enmity – between those who would like to impose Algorithmic Dictatorship, granting the denizens with a legally sanctioned digital existence and those who refuse to be part of the algorithmic nightmare, the Anons, with their provocative motto DFE – Delete Fucking Everything – thereby evading an army cyber stalkers – euphemistically, Tech Specialists or technically, Hackers.
In Anon, one theme stands out most – as has previously been postulated by Yuval Noah Harari in his Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow as his public lectures and keynote addresses – that in the foreseeable future with modest certainty of course, “Who Controls the Data, Controls The Future!”, which points to a future where “human decision-making processes, accountability, empathy, trust and even consciousness be impacted by the technological revolution and the rise of artificial intelligence?”. The emotional and cognitive processes of homo sapiens will be determined by the availability or the scarcity there of AI aided data aggregation, analysis and interpretation and as well as who controls the data. Class struggle for the control, distribution and manipulation of data and the perceptions, belief systems and decision making processes of the human race are part of this futuristic society. The boundary between what is real and what is counterfeit, what is tangible and what is intangible is determined not by the age-old notion of empiricism, that “all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses”, rather by the dogmatic belief – elevated to the status of an authoritarian ideology, that seems to stay with us till the proverbial kingdom come – that all knowledge, all experience is predicated on the data collected through the artificially enhanced, susceptible to corruption (through hacking) bionic optical sensors that supplant the biological eye that we used to know.
The overall crises in the inability to establish causality human intelligence, especially in the area of the most debatable of human proclivities, that is privacy – as in the right to descent anonymity is best encapsulated by the ending scene in the movie, between The Girl and Frieland:
A recurring theme in the privacy debate, that Niccol has succinctly stated in his recent interview with Thrillist mag:
“That’s the false choice we’re always given: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
In conclusion, despite all this thought experiment not making sense to the vast majority of the people in parts of the world where Digital Subsistence Farming – a la Subsistence Farming – is a perennial fact in tandem with the religious adherence the more often than not imprecise forecasts of so many scientists, as depressing as it sounds or is, the looming threat of albeit gloomy world of AI-ruled regimes will finally come. Of course, all this depends on whether one is closely following – heeding to the clarion calls of the mavens – who at times, tend to deliver their cautionary tales in the most jovial of terms.