“Dizzy with déjà vu”—A meditation on the heatwave, edgelands, Summerfield Avenue & Big Data
|A small piece of edgeland in Buckinghamshire|
Inversnaid (1881) by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
(A glossary of the unusual words in this poem can be found at this link)
James Bridle talking about his new book, “New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future” (Verso Press, 2018)
There’s this idea that if we could just gather more and more information about the world we’d have this complete overview of it. That’s ultimately what Big Data is. It’s this view that you can get so much information that you have a total view. And you can produce a perfect model of the the world. Then, instead of looking at the world, you look at the model and it tells you everything. But actually the last 100 years of computation shows us that every time the model isn’t good enough. When we try to use it instead of the world it continues to fail, that Big Data is always, always insufficient. And it’s often overwhelming too, so, it feels like we have no control. So it both doesn’t work and it demoralises us. Conspiracy theories seems to be the most powerful narrative form of our time. I think that’s because the world has become so extraordinarily complex. It’s incredibly difficult now to write simple stories about the world which is what we all yearn to hear. That desire for simple stories lies behind the rise of conspiracy theories but also the rise of populist politics and fundamentalisms. Conspiracy theories are in a sense one of these symptoms of a new dark age where we constantly demand to be given single answers to these incredibly complex global problems. Until we figure out ways by which we can regard the world as something that’s ongoing, that’s a process of constant negotiation rather than the provision of computational solutions to every single problem, we’re continually going to run into these deep conflicts, debates and violent arguments. So we’re in this position where we’ve completely undermined any possible trust in traditional sources of authority, whether that’s politics or the media. But we’ve also spent the last fifty years undercutting our own understanding of the world by making technology and the systems around us ever more opaque. So we’re in this sudden position of having no authority but also no ability to make critical judgments ourselves. We’re at this absolutely critical moment where we need rapidly develop our tools of understanding and think the world in an entirely different way to make up for this shortfall of authority on the one hand, and a complete collapse of understanding on the other.
Summerfield Avenue by Chris Wood
From the CD Trespasser (2008)
After the war they built Summerfield Avenue,
We were one of the first houses in.
They had big back gardens and we laid the lawn,
There was a long hot summer with which to begin.
There was all the young mums and their cotton print dresses,
Each with their own silver cross, and her own living doll
with a baby boom birthday and hand me down everything
‘cause they knew what things cost.
From the back of the fridge an orange squash icicle, mum called me to dinner in vain. With the sun in the sky I'd set out on my bicycle to the end of the road I came. I stood at the spot where the tarmac stopped for this was the edge of my mind.
I spent the whole afternoon at the end of the road. I was having a wonderful time.
Well here I am now and I’ve learnt my place, and everything’s just as it seems, and the colour of wonder drains from my face, and the whole wide world’s up on screen, but I see no more than that little boy saw, I’ve certainly learnt nothing new.
The thinker stands on the brink of eureka, dizzy with déjà vu.
After the war they built Summerfield Avenue,
We were one of the first houses in.
“Dizzy with déjà vu”
A meditation on the heatwave, edgelands, Summerfield Avenue & Big Data
During the week I have noticed more than a few opinion pieces and news reports comparing and contrasting the current heatwave with that of 1976. They caused me to reflect upon my own memories of 1976 and, during the course of my remembrances I came across something that may, perhaps, usefully be shared with you.
In the summer of 1975, the year before the heatwave, my family moved from the town of Ware in Hertfordshire to a small, fairly isolated, Essex village on the east coast called Kirby-le-Soken very close to Walton-on-Naze, Frinton-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea. The summer of the following year — the year of the heatwave — was, therefore, my first proper summer in our new home.
My parents had bought a newly built detached house on a small but, as-yet, still unfinished housing estate called “Briarfields”. Our road, a cul-de-sac called “Crabtree”, had just been finished and, behind it, there was a still planned, but as yet unstarted, cul-de-sac to be built called “The Sparlings”.
As an eleven year old I remember being struck by the way ordered life came to an end, both at the end of the road and the end of our garden as it petered-out into a large belt of wild scrubland. Forty-two years on I can only imagine that this scrubland was the remnant of the briar fields after which our estate was named. It was a classic example of what is now called an edgeland, an unstructured borderland between organised town and organised country, part man-made, part natural.
After the confines of town-centre living it was an extraordinarily exciting and liberating place for a child suddenly to find themselves. Here, standing on the end of tarmac or the lawn, everything was characterised by the safe, daily order of my life — a life which, although it was gifting me many wonderful things for which I remain grateful in countless ways, I could already dimly sense was beginning to fetter me in ways I would, in time, choose to resist and break free from. However, over there, where the tarmac and the lawn ran out and before I came upon the tidy cornfield beyond, everything was (for me anyway) characterised by the unknown and even the unknowable — it was all possibility, openness and adventure. I strongly remember the thrill of moving from order into wilderness and to this day I instinctively attach this feeling with the intense brightness and heat of that long, hot summer of 1976.
This possibility, openness and adventure was, I quickly discovered, mirrored in the wider landscape too, because all the roads to the north of the village also petered out but, in this case, into coastal marshland and thence into muddy, samphire-bedecked creeks and rivers. This was the actual coastal landscape of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” found in the book “Secret Water” and it was there that I was fortunate enough to learn to sail.
All, in all, I think this liminal landscape of my childhood may explain a great deal about why I find liminal (and anarchic) theologies and philosophies so attractive and full of creative possibilities and this extended period of hot weather has brought this connection strongly back into my mind.
Many years later, in 2008, the English folk-singer and song-writer, Chris Wood, released an album called “Tresspasser”, the first song of which was Summerfield Avenue which you heard earlier on. Wood was writing about the situation in mid-1960s but the song still spoke powerfully to my experience ten years later in the mid 70s.
We, too, were one of the first houses in and also had a big back garden and laid a lawn. And then there was, of course, that long, hot summer of 1976 with which to begin. Hand-me-down everythings were also the order of the day for my family as my parents were acutely aware of what things cost and so there was a culture of saving up for everything and of making it last as long as it possibly could. And, yes, there were also home-made orange squash icicles! — although sometimes for a treat a Ribena icicle would be made — and what a cooling blessing they were. Again, like Woods, my mum could often have a hard time calling me in to dinner from my play.
Although I had a bicycle and cycled everywhere in the village and beyond, unlike Woods, I did not have to cycle to the end of the road because it was right there where our house stood but, just like him, I would sometimes stand “at the spot where the tarmac stopped for this was the end of my mind” and I, too, would spend “whole afternoon[s] at the end of the road” having a “wonderful time.”
And now, here I am, forty-two years later in another heatwave and wondering about the import of Wood’s final stanza in relation, not only to my own life, but that of our democratic culture — a culture that has over the past twenty years become increasingly obsessed with Big Data such that the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee has just concluded is now at great risk due to fake news and data misuse. As we are now beginning to see with disturbing clarity the campaign to leave the EU organised by Vote Leave and BeLeave deliberately used methods which knowingly involved (quote) the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour” (unquote) and the committee feel that this poses “a greater threat to democracy than more familiar forms of so-called fake news, raising particular concerns about the way online data could be manipulated to impact elections.”
The connection between the DCMS report and Wood’s concluding words of his song can be seen by recalling James Bridle’s words we heard earlier about Big Data, i.e. the pernicious and dangerous idea that if we could just gather more and more information about the world then we’d have some kind of complete overview of it and, therefore, we’d know more about it than we used to. It’s a belief which has developed into the idea that we need no longer be like Wood in thinking that, as adults, in truth we can see “no more than that little boy saw” and have “certainly learnt nothing new”. Now many people believe that Big Data can somehow help us to see and know everything.
In his song Wood isn’t denying that we never make (and should) gains in knowledge (that would be ridiculous), instead I take him to be saying in his own way that which Socrates came to realise, namely, that true wisdom is found in being able to say and mean: “I know that all I know is that I do not know anything” (cf. Plato: The Apology 21d).
Socrates, and all the great thinkers (whether philosophers, theologians and/or scientists) know that even with all the data we now have we always remain, like Wood’s younger self, standing “on the brink of eureka, dizzy with déjà vu.” It’s a constant state of affairs because life and the world (reality) is, itself, always-already unimaginably more complex than human data and data processing can comprehend.
But the alluring idea (to some) that we can best comprehend and know the world purely through data — i.e. information that has been translated into a form that is efficient for movement or processing — has encouraged too many people in recent years to turn away from the close and closest things in the world in which we actually live and ever more towards a wholly digital, data-driven virtual world. As Wood clearly intimates, huge sections of our culture have been duped into thinking “the whole wide world’s up on screen” and that true, complete, perfect knowledge is always available to us at the click of a mouse, 24/7.
But, we are now finding out that our new, data driven world is not “just as it seems” and that the places we thought we had learnt to be in in it are simply not there. To paraphrase Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, we have discovered that all that was solid has melted into data and wonder at the close and and closest things has slowly been drained from our culture’s face.
My basic point today is that Big Data alone has not given us a clearer, more accessible, comprehensible world but, instead a deep and increasingly confused and confusing one, and this unintended consequence is now being consciously, shamelessly and disturbingly exploited by some deeply problematic people and groups such as Trump, Putin, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Vote Leave and to name but a few.
We find ourselves in an environment in which there is neither centre nor edge and in which it has proved possible completely to undermine any meaningful and appropriate trust in traditional sources of authority (whether they be in politics, philosophy, religion, the sciences or the media). This, in turn, has contributed to the loss of our own ability to make meaningful critical judgments about many important things. Indeed, I’ve now lost count of the number of occasions over the past few years when I have had a conversation someone which has ended in a shrug of the shoulders and the words, “You know what, I don’t know who to trust or who to believe anymore.”
As Bridle notes this parlous situation has served to encourage the proliferation of conspiracy theories as more and more people feel a desperate need to satisfy their desire for simple, single given answers. Consequently, it should come as no surprise to us that, because they offer simple if, ultimately, false solutions to the complex data chaos in which we find ourselves, we are seeing a rise of both populist politics and fundamentalisms.
I think Bridle is right and that until we figure out ways by which our culture can viscerally reconnect with the close and closest things in the world and see that reality has always been something that’s ongoing and is itself, a process of constant negotiation rather than the provision of computational solutions to every single problem, then we’re going to run more and more into the deep conflicts, debates and violent arguments that are proliferating round us.
One pleasant and creative way to do this is to encourage in ourselves and others a remembrance of the moments in our own lives that are analogous to my, and Wood’s, childhood experiences at the end of our roads and lawns and at the edge of our minds. A remembrance (anamnesis) of such experiences can help us reconnect viscerally with two sacramental energies. Firstly, there is the hubris resisting energy which comes from knowing that we have always, and will always be, standing at the edge of our minds, at the very edge of human knowledge and before a profound mystery and, secondly, there is the transformative energy found whenever we have been able to live playfully and creatively in an edgeland state of affairs and have a wonderful time to boot, sometimes even accompanied by lovely, cooling orange and Ribena icicles. (You may remember in an address from a few months ago I noted that Keats called this “negative capability” in which “a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess [such as the] need to be clever, a determination to work everything out.”)
Anyway, in today’s climate it strikes me as vital to seek ways to remember, re-feel our earlier, childhood experiences of always being on the edge of our minds but on the brink of eureka and to let that remembrance make us dizzy with déjà vu, letting it encourage us to reconnect with the two aforementioned sacred energies. The summer holidays are an excellent time to do this and the recent extraordinary, long, hot (and politically fraught) spell of weather has helped me to remember the many briar fields of my own life, it’s many wild, exciting, creative, hope-inducing edgelands and to ask again the vital, rhetorical question once posed by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of weeds and of wildness? Let them be left.
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
At the very least it’s a reminder that, as Jesus suggested, it is often in such wildernesses, such edgelands (or interstices) that we have the best chance to begin to practise our negative capability and hear once again some prophetic, healing and salvific words.
I wish you all a splendid summer and look forward to seeing you again in the second week of September.