On the Space Between Quantity and Quality
The problem on my mind right now is hard to quantify—in fact, it’s about quantification itself. I recall attending a talk by DJ Spooky way back in 2020 showcasing his work around the notion of “Quantopia,” which looks at trends through the lens of a half century living with the internet. Yes, the first internet-type message was sent in 1969, from a computer at UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute; the architects of this feat had built the ARPANET for sending messages digitally, and had intended to send the word “LOG” and then receive the response “IN” to complete the loop. Instead, the first attempt cut off as it was being received—meaning that the first-ever use of the internet was simply the word “LO.” This carries many implications, but the one I keep coming back to is that “AND BEHOLD” was implied.
And so this got me thinking about what has transpired in the past few decades. Almost every sphere of our lives is quantified and digitized, sorted and collated, packaged and ordered. We exist in corporeal form but our “data doubles” (the ghostly aftershadows of the digital footprints we leave in our wake, which can be compiled into a robust digital profile of each of us) hold more sway when it comes to our credit ratings, admissions applications, job prospects, relationship appeal, and much more. Our minds themselves, plastic as they are in their best adaptive sense, have been altered by the rapid digital immersion of modern life. For instance, when we need to navigate somewhere we use an app rather than recalling landmarks; instead of remembering narratives or instructions or presentation data, we just need to know where to find these online. The digital world shapes us as much as we shape it.
Now, to be clear, identifying this as a problem isn’t meant to imply that it’s only problematic. Indeed, the digital realm has opened up a pantheon of creative and communitarian uses, from content generation to the convening of new networks of social and political affiliation. It has enabled those in remote places to participate afar, and has generated numerous economic and cultural opportunities for entrepreneurs and organizers at all scales. It has helped us diagnose and discuss our profound environmental crises, conveying images and information in real time that have helped alter behaviors and even save lives. It has opened up our imaginations and connected people across time and space. (Insert additional brochure language here about access and democratization and empowerment, etc.)
Yeah, I can almost hear the dominant narrative about tech in my own mind, providing the words that one says without believing when in polite company. No sense shouting about the dangers of smoking when sitting in the smoking section, you know? Still, the problems are palpable, as Naomi Klein wrote in the essay “On Fire” in the volume All We Can Save (pp.47-48): “And techno-utopianism, which imagined a frictionless future of limitless connection and community, has morphed into addiction to algorithms of envy, relentless corporate surveillance, and spiraling online misogyny and White supremacy.” In the foreword to the collection of “loanwords” An Ecotopian Lexicon, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson noted how the genre often yields new words to describe new technologies (and concomitant new ideas), yet how this “dizzying time” of “high danger” can be turned into possible “good futures.”
So I can’t shake the feeling that all is not well. Maybe it’s my Gen X memories of a bygone day still working in the background, or maybe it’s the “old soul” urges of wanting to get “back to the garden” that defined so much of the Woodstock generation. Maybe it’s being a parent and seeing the impacts of unfettered digital immersion on young peoples’ minds and health. Whatever the cause, I have concerns about the direction this high-tech moment is heading (which I’ve shared on blast over the years). At the same time, the usual “solution matrix” (from the personal to the political) looks remarkably old-fashioned in contrast to our everyday miasma of technology: the “digital detox,” “Faraday bags” for shielding signals, setting up an auto-responder, “letting go” of overreliance on devices, and more. Where the internet began with an attempt to log in, we can respond with the simple act of logging out.
Of course, that leaves the awkward question of what to do when logged out. (Picture people waiting for a train and not staring at their phones on the platform, trying to figure out what to look at or how to talk to the person next to them.) Or perhaps even more to the point, what are we tapping back into when we step back from the digital abyss? I want to suggest that the act of unplugging can help open a vista toward reinvigorating a time-tested and essential human impetus toward sociality and a penchant for noticing connections and beauty. Daydreaming a bit, letting the mind wander, remembering to breathe, thinking of a loved one, recalling time in nature, listening to sounds—building blocks within our minds. Detaching ourselves from linearized, quantified frames can rekindle a sense of imagination and purpose, akin to the debate about putting a dollar value on nature versus the creative spark of experiencing it.
Such small moments of longing, remembrance, and emotive rekindling can be powerful precursors (as opposed to blinking cursors). Mustering our embodied awareness in a world that often feels increasingly dehumanizing can help us imagine other pathways. As Alexa Weik von Mossner writes in her 2017 book Affective Ecologies, stories are an essential way for “making sense of the world” (p. 7), fostering tools of empathy and capacity for “making the connection to [our] own existence and even to the future of all of humanity” (p. 9). What will that future hold as the course of escalating quantification continues apace? Is there a way of (still) being in the world that leverages the tools of the technological age (e.g., energy, communication, innovation) and unites it with the foundational ways of living in closer harmony with the world and one another? Sometimes I can almost see this prelude to a better day in my mind’s eye:
People work for sustenance and pleasure; education and labor are intertwined lifelong pursuits; children are reared collectively and joyfully; wealth is measured in relationships and one’s willingness to share. The basics of food, water, and energy are firmly entrenched as the collective assets of humankind, and in even more enlightened terms are no longer seen as resources to be consumed but rather as blessings for which to be grateful. Tools replace technologies, actual people supplant abstract politics, conflicts are welcomed as “teachable moments,” and the virtues of meaning supersede the value of money. The planet’s inherent regenerative processes are celebrated as mechanistic thinking falls into disrepute. Humans willingly take their place among the vast web of life, not in relegation but in celebration. Violence in any manner is an extreme aberration, and is treated restoratively so as not to beget more. The rhythms of life change to align with the natural world, as people reclaim a sense of lost humanity.
My daydream of a world based on connections rather than connectivity and the quality of values rather than the quantity of value reminds me a little of the journey depicted in Octavia Butler’s compelling 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower. In that book, a near-future US (it begins in 2024) is gripped by extreme societal decay and the ravages of a deteriorating environment, yet the main character insists on holding a vision (called “Earthseed”) for something better despite all evidence to the contrary. The image of “seeds” is palpable in the book: seeds of imagination, seeds for planting, the people themselves…
In the end, maybe the “solution” to the problem of quantification is located within our imaginations, as we strive to meet the world where it is and help it go where it needs to in order to continue the journey. There’s no blueprint for this process, no algorithm to crunch the possibilities, no app to drive the result. It comes down to old-school wisdom, still en vogue today: “Free your mind, and the rest will follow…” This is the surest path to a more sustainable, even livable world, or at least the critical first step. If we can suspend our disbelief and engage our full selves, we can draw upon good data without becoming it.
NOTE: I wrote the original version of this in early 2020, just as a course I was teaching on “ecotopian visions” was interrupted by the pandemic/quarantine; we were never able to reconvene as a group in person again after that, but I did have an opportunity to teach the course again in the past year in two very different contexts and revised the essay accordingly–essentially, this is my “paper” in response to the prompt I asked the students to address. Probably a B+ paper 🙂