Putting people back in the picture.

We don’t know why, twenty thousand years ago, our predecessors painted cave walls. It was a global phenomenon, and there are many theories but no real consensus. 

What was painted was clearly important to our ancestors, but why? The paintings are not of what we believe they ate, nor are there any detailed paintings of people, so what was in their minds as they painted them? 

Roll forward twenty thousand years from today, and whoever is around then might wonder the same about our relationship with money and data. They have a similarly detached relationship with people, who, like the ancient ones on paintings, exist only in outline at the edge of the picture. 

We know, but like to forget, that the money we use to represent stored value is a mutually agreed fiction with no substance other than the stories we tell ourselves about it. Yet, there it is, centre stage in today’s expensively built shiny caves. Whenever we have a problem, in the NHS, or Education or something else involving people, the stock answer is that “we’re spending umpty million pounds addressing it”. There is usually no reference as to what this money will do, where it will come from, or whether it’s remotely enough. A temporary spotlight usually accompanies the announcement on the sacrifice of those involved until the crisis disappears from the headlines. At this time, the normal relationship between money and people is restored.

Data has a similar, ephemeral quality. By 2025, we are forecast to have 180 zettabytes of it (that will need an enormous cave), compared to just two zettabytes in 2010. We each generate 1.7Mb of it every second. I find myself wondering just what, like money, this data is for. It’s up there on the cave wall, probably now in brighter colours than money, and I can imagine those artificially intelligent anthropologists in twenty thousand years sitting down in their meeting room (I suspect meetings will be eternal) going whatever the equivalent is then, of WTF?

I am reminded of a story Christian Mihal related in April on his blog

One day, the French philosopher Denis Diderot came into possession of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. He spent a long and silent time admiring its splendour. 

And the more he analyzed the fabric, the more he understood that all his other possessions paled in comparison to this new dressing gown. This feeling became so uncomfortable that Diderot soon replaced all his furniture with more expensive options. He bought a new golden clock, a bronze sculpture, a console table, and more art pieces. 

Crippled by debt, Diderot understood that he had forfeited his soul to an object of worship he couldn’t properly understand, “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.” 

As we slowly recover from this pandemic and fumble our way into the next self-inflicted challenge, perhaps it’s time to stand back and look at our latter-day digital cave paintings and ask ourselves. “where are the people”?

We have incredible technology and a vast stock of very creative, unique human beings. 

Surely we can find something better to paint on the walls?

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