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Data, information, knowledge, wisdom: Let’s treasure wisdom in a data-besotted world

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James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

With you and me and our time being the commodity in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) market, what might be the 5IR commodity? Will we be the slaves to humanoids and hubots? Will the commodity escalate from just our time, to our beings – our very souls – being sold to the highest-bidding machine? Is this the future we desire? And what happened to wisdom?

It is hot, very hot. The thorns of the sickle bush and the blackthorn relentlessly grasp hold of human flesh. In complete oblivion to the external world, not disturbed by either sweat or pain, the hunter is at work. Quietly, diligently, with calculated precision, crawling over rocks on hands and knees with senses tuned to razor-sharp mode. The hunt is on. The impala is being stalked.

Equally, with great precision, the hunt for our time – and our most precious attention – is on. It is firmly in the scope of the deadly accurate cyberalgorithm, and it has a name: 4IR. The hunter becoming the hunted.

None of us alive today knows anyone from the first industrial revolution (the late 1700s to early 1800s) – the revolution dealing with the invention of steam and waterpower and subsequent innovations. Not so with respect to all the succeeding industrial revolutions. The second industrial revolution, the technological revolution, is associated with the period during which all my grandparents were born (the late 1800s to early 1900s). The third industrial revolution, the digital revolution (1960s/early 1970s), covers the period during which my parents were young, and I learnt how to walk and run and do mischief.

While we had to wait millennia for the first revolution, a couple of centuries for the second and a handful of decades for the third, a mere few years later it was the dawn of the fourth: the cyber-revolution – the invention of this millennium. In conjunction with the 4IR, almost overrunning it, we have the ill-defined 5th revolution, which deals with the co-habitation between the machine and its human maker. Never in human history has a single generation experienced four such epoch-like technological shifts. 

The exponential acceleration in the speed these revolutions have taken to develop, to the point of even overtaking each other, has caught us, the impala, off-guard. While we were happily grazing enjoying the morning sunlight, we turned from being grazer, the predator of grass, to the prey. No wonder society is in a state of leaderless confusion enveloped in a mixture of honest and fake news, half-baked truths and downright lies with limited capacity and capability to discern which is which.

With the number of cyberinduced e-connections rising, the web of society-wide relationships increased exponentially. The ever-increasing number of e-relationships and e-dependence has led to an increase in social fragmentation or atomisation. The reason is that with each newly connected person, the number of e-relationships expands multifold, and this leads to the breakdown of local cohesion in exchange for global connectivity.

It is like a teacup falling on the floor, shattering into pieces, allowing for an untold number of possible connections, yet its functionality destroyed. Performing work in the virtual marketplace, performing social distancing, building a pixelated e-community, but no hand to shake, no shoulder to cry on. Connectivity implies neither integration nor social cohesion; on the contrary rather. 

It leads to fragmentation and polarisation as each person’s ability of self-expression increases combined with the right, with strongly asserted entitlement, thereto. A world of decentralised decisions but with rapidly weakening influence and power. We are integrated into a digital soup, clinical by its very nature – a soup without emotion, feeling, devoid of compassion.

On face value the first four industrial revolutions all dealt with enhanced efficiency. Wrong! While it could be argued that that might be the case for the first three, it is not so with respect to the fourth. The target of the improved efficacy and productivity of the first three was the utilisation and manipulation of natural resources. The scope of the fourth has rested on us – the two-legged impala. Data is captured, stored and traded, but not for data’s sake, rather to buy our attention – our time is the sought-after, highly prized commodity.

To that effect, algorithms designed to aid machine learning are developed to increase the predictive power of the machine on how better to capture our time and manipulate our moods while extracting the maximum amount of dopamine – and then sell that precious time and attention and manipulated mood to a buyer. That is how e-marketing in the digital age is working. It is a relentless pursuit to increase the number of hits and likes, and then to sell that to a prospective buyer in the hunt for even more hits and likes through improved AI. Thus, the buying and selling of our preferences and behavioural patterns as reflected through our keyboard strokes to the next buyer to capture more and more of our time is ongoing in a seemingly endless race to an uncertain destiny.

With you and me and our time being the commodity in the 4IR market, what might be the 5IR commodity? Will we be the slaves to humanoids and hubots? Will the commodity escalate from just our time, to our beings – our very souls – being sold to the highest-bidding machine? 

Will machines decide where you and I may go, what we may buy, what we may eat? Will machines decide, based on a programmed yet self-learning algorithm, who are considered a threat to society and who not? Such a future, while incomprehensible, is plausible. Some, tragically, might even argue desirable. It does, however, force us to stand back for a moment, take a deep breath, take an introspective look and ask: is this the future we desire?

What is data anyhow but strings of zeros and ones? Lots of such strings combine to form information. Traditionally, we added human intelligence to birth knowledge. Recently, we also added artificial intelligence giving rise to machine learning. Knowledge, in the right hands, matures to wisdom. Wisdom joins hands with knowledge and human intelligence to influence behaviour in various ways – all embedded in a system with several layers of feedback loops reinforcing patterns embedded in the data pertaining to our understanding of reality. 

In the end, however, machine learning can neither be equated to human knowledge, nor can it mature into wisdom.

Data, information, knowledge, wisdom: the degrees of comparison for data. Long live wisdom.

Crafting a future wherein people are neither traded commodities nor the serfs of machines requires wisdom. Let us turn to wisdom – wisdom that should be treasured in a data-besotted world. DM

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  • The internet was supposed to enhance our freedom and connect us to anyone else on the planet with a modem. Instead, we have lost our freedom to algorithms designed to manipulate us and have been disconnected from one another via the cesspool known as social media. Wisdom is one factor we are not known for, in spite of being designated as homo sapiens sapiens. Let’s hope we find wisdom, the sooner the better.