Friday, November 30, 2012

The Funny Thing Is, I Still Believe

Some of the best philosophical advice I ever got was an existential bitch-slap by a friend of mine, who recently suggested to me that my belief in God was a fairy tale. I bristled and took offence at the fact that he disrespected my world view, and put it down to him becoming a hard-line atheist a la Richard Dawkins (whom I respect, but who does sometimes freak me out.)

It took me a while to realise that, in fact, we were arguing the same thing: faith is, really, believing in a fairy tale, and that does not invalidate it. Attempting to prove God’s existence is futile, because logic will always triumph.

That is the point: faith is pointless if there is solid evidence. So, to use my friend’s words, he was merely disrespecting my faith as if it were a choice of food item on a menu. He never said the food item didn’t exist - at least as a concept, he just didn’t like it. (I hate coriander, for example, and would like to rid the world of its horrible soapy taste.)

Is faith a delusion, however, as Richard Dawkins suggests? I don’t think I am deluded, otherwise it behoves Mr Dawkins from removing me (and millions of other doctors) from my profession as you cannot have a psychotic person giving anaesthesia to babies, for example. Insight into possible delusions renders them illusions which invalidates psychosis, and would at worst suggest disorders of personality than loss of reality testing. (For example, a narcissist is under the illusion that they are more “special” than others and hence deserving of special treatment, but this does not mean they need to be on medication or admitted to an institution - much as I would love that.)

I have no beef with atheists. Many of them are my friends, and live more meaningful and moral lives than many “Christians” I know. My father - a deeply devout Catholic - said to me and my sisters that he would rather we be good atheists than bad Christians.

As you can see, I had a more benign experience of religion. Being brought up Catholic (with a Calvinist mother and a Jewish uncle in my case!) is to surf the edge of a wave of guilt and fear and confusion, while being offered one of the most beautiful views in the entire Universe. I am eternally grateful that my parents protected me from the nefarious positions the church has had on sexuality and sin. They instilled in me the idea that God is Love, nothing more and nothing less, and that love is what drives the Universe. Of course, they would have wanted me to accept Jesus as my saviour and infinite trust in the difficult concept of the Trinity (however, even this breaks down at the deepest level of Christianity - many theologians accept that God is unknowable but to Him/Her/Itself). 

It was harsh, then, meeting Catholics who told me my soul would burn in hell for the simple act of being a horny teenager. That abortion was murder (I still won’t anaesthetise for an elective abortion, but I do not judge women who terminate pregnancy - it is not my place) and that man was steeped in original sin, just a hairs breadth away from eternal damnation. If I thought that was bad, I was completely freaked out when I had my first contact with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Unfortunately most of my experiences with these people have been unpleasant. Most mean well, I guess, but I found them to be self-satisfied, sanctimonious and sometimes vicious: telling me I would be eternally lost if I weren’t born again, that my infant baptism was meaningless, and that my admiration and appreciation of science was complete anathema to the jealous and angry god they worshipped in the sky.

However strong my faith in God is, I just can’t understand why some people are obsessed with the crazy-ass garbage that is Young Earth Creationism. I don’t see how trying to prove that the planet is only a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs are the product of demon-possessed minds has anything to do with religion - I would posit that it detracts form the true purpose of faith, which is to meditate on something bigger than ourselves and to trust in the divine guidance of a loving being for moral and spiritual support.

Evolution is logical and makes sense, and I believe in it, it is one of the most validated and successful scientifc concepts we have come up with. The Genesis story is a creation myth, and in fact there are two accounts in that book which slightly contradict each other. This does not make the symbolism any less relevant - it is right that the very first words of the core text of Judaism and Christianity should talk about the lead role - the God of Israel. 

I also have a problem with literal interpretation of the Bible - this, I think, has caused humanity and the planet an incalculable amount of harm. The Bible is not a book, it is a library, and it was not written by God, but by human beings with faults and whims and fancies. There are clear political motives evident for some of the books being included (and other books being excised). Many so-called Christians conveniently ignore the 613 mitzvot of the Jewish Law because Jesus himself tells them there are now only two commandments (love the Lord with all thy heart and soul and mind, and love thy neighbour as thyself). But then they gleefully pick out choice bits of vitriol from Leviticus - such as homosexuality being punishable by death - to justify their bitter and isolationist world view. Jesus, of course, makes no mention of homosexuality - rather, he cautions against sexual immorality. In my mind, the Bible should be far more explicit about what I think is the most heinous crime in all of existence: child molestation (and, hot on its heels, rape and cruelty towards any living thing.)

To be sure, religion has caused an infinite amount of harm to society - from Catholicism the Spanish Inquisition leaps into my mind and makes me choke. Yet, mainstream Christianity and Judaism are at least moving on - they have to - today ithey are one of the few religions that will not blow up or threaten the lives of those who make fun of it. I don’t care if people make fun of God, God is powerful enough to deal with that. The point is, *I* don’t, and I believe God has a sense of humour. A gnat cannot really do much damage to a lion.

Another interesting paradox is the fact that the valuable and sophisticated insights modern atheism have given us (as well as the Scientific Enlightenment) are a direct consequence of the Judaeo-Christian influence on Western Civilization. Arguably the greatest contribution Judaism gave to mankind was the idea of there being only one God, and it formed the bedrock of a system of law and (ultimately) rational enquiry. There are the massacres, there are the oppressions, but there are also the great cathedrals and mosques and synagogues, the Masses, the Requiems, the frescoes and altar pieces and high beautiful poetry in some of the Scripture - it is a rich cultural heritage that no-one can ignore.

The atheist philosopher Alain de Botton captures this beautifully in his latest book, “Religion for Atheists”, which I urge everybody interested in faith or atheism to read. It is neither an attack on religion nor a defence of faith - rather, he examines the cultural contribution of all the major faiths to civilisation. We need our rituals, and religion cleverly makes use of this. Complete rejection of rites of passage would make atheism a very dull boy indeed. Like it or not, the Bible - especially the King James Version - has been one of the greatest influences on the development of the English Language, and we use phrases and words from it every day.

I don’t think Theism and Atheism need be enemies, for true adherents of either are tolerant, moral and good people who have realised that the idea of a vicious and angry old man up in the sky does nobody any favours. Both acknowledge free will and an ultimate amazement at the Universe (either the fantastic “design” present in it all as evidence of a Creator, or the stupendous mathematics of there being a planet Earth in the first place.)

And Science is not the enemy of religion, though religion can sometimes be the enemy of science. There is bad religion and there is bad science.

From all this, you might suppose that I am not a Christian. Perhaps I am a christian with a small c, a cafeteria christian, a cultural christian, and you are free to pray for my soul’s deliverance for being so arrogant to reject hateful dogma that I cannot accept.

I think sometimes God needs to grant us the strength to change the things we cannot accept just as we pray for strength to accept that which we cannot change.

But so much of the religious imagery, philosophy and music I was exposed to remains special to me, as are so many beautiful words in both the Old and New Testaments. Take the sheer humbling beauty Psalm 139 for example:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

It moves me to tears, just as lying back and looking at the night sky with the apparently infinite swirl of the Milky Way inflames my soul. I have written about how our tiny little spot in the Universe can either be source of fear or a source of comfort in this post and I would like you to read it and tell me what you think... even if we do not believe in God, realizing how utterly insignificant we are against the great sprawl of stuff out there does mean that there is Something bigger than us.

Some would say that I am a Deist, in that I believe there was a First Cause or Prime Mover who then left the universe alone to develop according to logical scientific principles. No, I am more of a Theist (perhaps a Panentheist, save my soul) in that I believe God to have a personality and that He/She/It loves us and wants the best for us. I believe that nothing is ultimately lost... and because of this, I am well aware it is my security blanket.

It may all be false.

It may just be a psychological defense mechanism.

But if it is something that gives me comfort, and helps me to be a better person, what harm is done?

I reject and abjure all evil that has been done in the name of religion (or any ideology for that matter). Atheism is entirely logical and I encourage it if it makes people happier. Bad religion does a lot of harm - at worst, it can destroy lives. Fundamentalism is not FUN by any means, people. Judge not - lest ye be judged, and who shall cast the first stone?!

But I hope that for those of us who quietly believe, and do not force our views on anybody else, we might not be seen as deluded sheep who are party to an evil conspiracy trying desperately to hold onto its power. Certainly, I am not party to anything as such; I know of no secret handshake.

My faith is a curious mixture of Pascal, the Psalms, the book of James, Camus, Saints Augustine, the words of Jesus, Francis and Anselm, even Hitchens and Dawkins, and a lot of Forster and Maugham and a sprinkling of CS Lewis. Atheist and theist forming a strange harmony - and not a dissonance. Perhaps I have Religious Multiple Personality Disorder.

So yes, I still believe - and I haven’t provided a full reason, I know, but I hope to explore that in my next post if you would like to know more.

Does God exist, and if he does, does it matter?

We shall never know.

We are, I think, actually, all agnostics now.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Life In False Colours

My city in the throes of winter
 It is an archetypal winter day in the city. The wind and rain are theatrical, hammering the peninsula so dramatically that it looks as if I'm watching a fake storm, conjured by invisible stage hands in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan production. I'm sitting in Primi Piatti at Cavendish on my day out of theatre - "Academic Time" is what it is officially called. I'm still reeling from my first few days in my junior consultant rotation in paediatric anaesthesia, and I feel horribly out of my depth. But more so, right now, I feel tragically, self-consciously hipsteresque trying out my new Bluetooth keyboard on Jarvis, my still-shiny iPad. (I have a tendency to name my devices.) Good Lord, I'm even wearing a beanie. But it's six years old and faded. I bought it at the Gap next to Canary Wharf tube station, so hopefully the fact that it came from a big un-cool mutinational corporation will neutralize any hipster pretensions I might have projected.

The Wye Valley at Symond's Yat, Herefordshire
 I've had moments that were even more precious than this. I recall the eight months I spent in Herefordshire as a locum senior house officer in anaesthesia, when I had a tendency to spend my post-call afternoons in the Pizza Express overlooking the great pink crumbly cliffs of Hereford Cathedral, sipping Sangiovese and freewriting in a Moleskine. All particularly affected, it may well sound, but it was my way of mental defragging. Sometimes, I would get into the ancient Audi I had bought for £700 and clunk my way along to Symond's Yat to be inspired. But I would be unable to write anything, so taken was I by the river and the rocks and the forest dissolving sadly into the winter fog. The ale at the riverside inn helped too.

 No Pulitzer or Nobel prizes will ever spring from that notebook; in fact, the most prescient observation I made was copying out the mournful refrain from The Veils' "Talk Down The Girl":

I miss my girl;
I miss my girl

For I was in love but didn't quite know it yet. It would strike me, later, on top of the Empire State Building, suddenly realizing that taking in the giddy sprawl of Manhattan meant nothing to me because I couldn't share it with the one person who was supposed to be by my side. Geographically, it was the furthest I'd ever been away from her, and some silent force was rousing itself from a slumber, conspiring to pull us together as powerfully if we were stars and God had decided to invert Hubble's Law.

Seven years later, we are married, living in a cosy (if cramped) little Edwardian that keeps on swallowing money, with our suburban checklist completed: two cats, dog (stray; rescued, complete with unplanned puppy blues), dog-walker, LED TV, irrigation system. We may well have kids soon, blithely adding to the world's glut of seven billion people. It's too much, and it messes up the prosody of the Katie Melua's "Nine Million Bicycles" when she insist there are only six billion of us. That's one person for approximately every 2 years the Universe has existed. Holy population, Batman!

Some cynics say that medicine only halts nature's process of trying to cut down on the burden of overpopulation, and cite HIV as an example of natural population control. The same people - if they're dyed in the wool right-wingers - balk when I put it to them that homosexuality is also a natural form of population control. If the statistics are to be believed, 10% of the population is either gay or teeters on the brink of it. It's always been my feeling that sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with parental skills, and we may well be shooting ourselves in the evolutionary foot as long as we let hysterical morality stifle what is probably a force for good. I've even heard a few homophobes admit that it is "much better" for willing and able gay couples to adopt children that would otherwise remain homeless and doomed to a life of poverty and disease. Not exactly an exhortation of complete equality, but better than nothing I suppose.

I'm a proud libertarian, with left-wing tendencies. It's jars with my Christian sensibilities sometimes - I don't believe homosexuality is a sin, for example, so this alone makes me a bad Catholic - and I know libertarianism is self-defeating when carried out to its logical extent. However much I believe in freedom I'm forced to defend people's right to their own private beliefs no matter how odious they are - as long as they do not pose a threat to my fellow man. To paraphrase Voltaire, I'll defend your right to believe in what you want passionately, even if I can't stomach it. It becomes murky when approaching ideological brainwashing - but then this is noxious private belief trespassing on the common good.

False Colour Spectrum of Sodium

Like Iris Murdoch, I believe in a common good. I have to, even if it may not exist. It feeds me, and my wife has articulated this beautifully by saying we have to be comfortable in our hypocrisy, else we will crumble when trying to take in all the misery of the world. We really need to see through a glass darkly, the more I think about it. Maybe we can even choose our filters for that glass, then, as long as we know that they are filters, for then we can accept that whatever false colours they project are but a suggestion of what lies out there.

 I don't see myself as superior to the exisentialists who have bravely surrendered their comfortable beliefs to the cold absurdity of being human in a void that probably doesn't care. But neither do I envy them. I just have to be grateful that the thin membrane of my own existence has lasted so long. Still, I can't help feeling it's been strengthened with something, rather like adding glycerine to liquid soap so the bubbles you blow for children last a few seconds longer. I've embraced my suburban blanket, knowing that any guilt it may have engendered doesn't do me any favours - Catholicism has stocked up a lifetime of psychotherapy with that already.

Having processed all that I'm now cold and breathlesss, and my bourgeois blanket seems fluffier than ever. I live in the City of Good Hope, after all. I'll have sweet dreams tonight, that much is certain. Will you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Virtues of Cynicism / Advice For Young Doctors To Be

Many of my readers have asked me why I don't write more medical stories. Certainly, I seem to get the most comments and feedback when I post the odd vignette from the saltmines. Quantum Surfer was never intended to be a medical blog. I admit there are some personal reasons for this: I mostly shy away from medical postings because it still feels my day job is intruding into my shadow life as an aspiring writer (self-indulgent I know.)

I hated medical school. Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to study the "noble profession" but it was never my passion, until I discovered anaesthesia and felt, for the first time, "at home". I'm also well aware that If I hadn't gone into medicine I wouldn't have met my soulmate either. But I was disillusioned early - my undergraduate years were drenched in a fair amount of humiliation by seniors. (See this postfor more details). All too often clinical teaching was traded in favour of working us to the bone and making us feel as if students were the lowest form of life. I also soon realized how medicine can take over a person's entire life, corroding their boundaries until their existence becomes a tragic exercise in masochism and self-aggrandizement (because nobody ever stopped to give them a kind word or appreciate the hard work they had put in over years and years.)

To be honest, I find most medical blogs trite and self-indulgent (á la "look! I'm a doctor! See how amazing I am! Especially with my fake navel-gazing philosophy and desperate attempt to show the world that I'm also a cooler-than-thou hipster with a terminal case of FOMO"...) Nee, fok.

Perhaps that's too bitchy. Medicine is a great job, but it's just a job, after all, and that mantra of humility keeps me sane. Patients get up to all kinds of shit, but then so do I. There is no point in assuming complete responsibility for other people's health - we can advise and treat, but only with consent, and it's everybody's right to stop taking their medication and flirt with disease all they want. (Of course, as an anaesthetist, I assume complete control of people's lives at times, but only for discrete periods.)

I've decided being a bit jaded is better than getting drunk on the potential power of being a "healer". Yet, the fascination remains, because doctors deal with the weirdly wonderful machinations of the human body, given almost God-like powers. The public gets intoxicated on the admittedly fantastical expertise of a surgeon's hands that keep death second-guessing itself (oh the nauseating horror of "Grey's Anatomy"...) but, ask yourself, what about the millions of pairs of unsung hands that keep planes in the air, nuclear reactors from meltdown and bridges from collapsing? Or the long-suffering, underpaid souls who educate the next generation, or (at least in some countries) keep the streets safe, or make sure that the medication the doctor has prescribed actually gets given to the patients?

You may think I have a big case of scalpel envy as an anaesthetist, but I love my job, thank you very much. I learnt very early that I was best placed on the other side of the surgical drapes staring at the disco lights of the monitors.

My revelation has been that the "war" between surgeons and anaesthetists seems to have been greatly exaggerated. It exists mostly as a friendly rivalry between us (where I work at least). Maybe I'm just lucky, and if so, I'm grateful. As an undergraduate I was under the impression that most surgeons are narcissist wankers with God-complexes. Then I realised it was just a symptom of the Calvinistic hangover I found myself in while at a particular medical school, plus a good deal of self-loathing on my part. Today I can summon withering comebacks when I feel I'm being patronized by a surgeon who thinks I'm just a technician who'd rather be doing a crossword. Some of my best moments have actually dropped the temperature in the theatre by a few degrees. I hate being patronized as much as the next person. In the cosmic scheme of things, though, I don't mind if the odd surgeon thinks I'm a protocol droid who only wants to do sudoku and cancel all the cases. It's his or her loss if they think I don't care, and so be it if the ego trip gives them enough energy to do the next case flawlessly. I have bigger existential fish to fry.

The anaesthetist is hardly ever remembered, let alone thanked. And sometimes all I need is a thank you. It's not a profession for those who have fragile egos. And I've come to learn that sometimes an offensive puffed-up ego is actually frighteningly delicate, a brittle facade behind which hides a terrible emptiness. Shame.

So here is my rather cynical advice for young doctors to be in ten jaded steps.

(1) There is no shame in deciding you don't want to be a doc. All too often kids who do well at school feel forced to study medicine due to parental and peer pressure. If you really are passionate about something, you will find your niche. But it may be a bumpy ride.

(2) It's perfectly normal to become disillusioned or even depressed. It's a hard, long slog during the best years of your life. So if you work hard, play hard. Passing with 50% and a trip through South-East Asia with friends is far better than getting 90% and a life-long case of regret that you never lived beyond your textbooks. There is no such thing as "MBChB (Wrote Twice)".

(3) Surround yourself with non-medical friends. The variety will keep you sane.

(4) Although you might have to put them on hold, don't let your other interests die. It's a rewarding path of rediscovery when you pick up a pen or paintbrush or electric guitar.

(5) Don't make up your mind too early about where you're going to end up. I hated anaesthesia as an undergraduate - then I specialised in it and loved it.

(6) Don't pay attention to people who say medicine is so hard and gruelling. It takes up a lot of time, and you have to develop firm butt muscles to sit down and soak up all the information, but it's not hard per se. It's just a shitload of facts. You can't get bogged down in detail.

(7)When you graduate you'll realise you're facing a delayed adolescence. Go with it, but with a modicum of common sense. An intern is a teenager with a credit card - I spent my entire first salary in a week and had to live on baked beans and tinned tuna for the rest of the month. You learn quickly. Waking up in your own vomit next to a person you don't know is only funny the first time, and then only to other people.

(8) Nurses can be your best friend or worst enemy. Most work hard and are fountains of advice. A little bit of courtesy and respect equals a smooth time in the wards.

(9) Don't bow to pressure to specialise if you don't want to actually be a consultant. Much better to try a specialty first by taking a medical officer post to see if you like it or not. You can do a postgrad six month diploma in many disciplines (paediatrics, psychiatry, anaesthesia, obstetrics etc.). Travel first. Registrar posts will open up even if you need to wait. Experience counts on a CV.

(10) Ignore sob stories of 36 hour calls with no break for food or water. The work will always be there no matter how fast you graft. What are you supposed to do, pee in your pants and die of dehydration? Keep yourself well fed and watered, and screw the diet when you're on-call. You're doing a patient a disservice if you're about to collapse from hypoglycaemia. You can actually say "I need a moment." I did, frequently, and the world didn't end when I took a five-minute time out.

So there.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Serendipity and Mixed Masala

I have crossed over. 

No, I have not become a Sith Lord, nor an ectoplasmic apparition. I'm just shouting to the world that I'm back at my alma mater... as a consultant. (Though, there are connotations that registrars are Jedi and consultants are Sith;  certainly, the apparition analogy may well be true because when I was a trainee some consultants would disappear into the ethers just at the moment you needed them, only to rematerialize silently behind your shoulder just as the physiologic shit was hitting the pathophysiological fan.)

Well, it's been one month into my new job and I can honestly say that I'm thrilled. For the first time since 2003 (when I spent a dreamy year in the Shire that is Maritzburg rediscovering myself, meeting my future wife and taking the first tentative steps into specialization) I'm actually excited to get up in the morning and come back at home cheerful enough to organise supper and entertainment in whatever room the wife deems worthy.

As a member of that endangered species that is the White South African Male, it was difficult to land the job, but I have no bitterness (in principle at least) towards the machinations of Employment Equity, and I'm not going to launch into a discourse about what is the best method to address the injustices of my country's past, because I have no answer. I'm grateful to have a job I enjoy and also chuffed that I got it based on merit, because my melanin-deprived skin certainly didn't win me any brownie points (see what I did there).

Historical map of Ceylon (Sri Lanka.) Note that North is left.

But wait. I could, theoretically, have argued the contrary. To my delight, I discovered recently that I do not come from supposedly pure WASPish stock (though I was raised Catholic). Far from it. It turns out a few of my paternal ancestors were, to all intents and purposes, Sinhalese. My paternal lineage comes from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon (it was still called that when my father was born there). Though my name is German, the ancestral Ernst left Bavaria for reasons unknown and joined the Dutch merchant navy as a ship's cooper.  He settled in Ceylon which was then a Dutch colony and under the iron rule of the Dutch East India Company. It had previously been Portuguese, and after the Napoleonic wars it passed from the Netherlands to Britain. He stumbled into a colourful history. I don't think it's an accident (even if the word means happy accident) that the old name for Ceylon was Serendipity. I love the old Dutch map alongside,  it's strangely Tolkienesque with it's unusual orientation. 

Strictly speaking, my father is a member of the Burgher People, who are a curious segment of Sri Lankan society, an ethnic group that formed during the colonization of Sri Lanka. As Wikipedia puts it, they "consist for the most part of male-line descendants of European colonists from the 16th to 20th centuries (mostly Portugues, Dutch, German and British) and local women." (I just love the patronizing colonial tang about "local women".)

So I am descended from Germans who assimilated into Dutch colonial culture (including language and religion) who then spoke English and intermarried with the Sinhalese, several of whom had Portuguese ancestry. I truly am a mixed masala. It is perhaps perversely fitting that my grandfather decided to relocate to the melting pot and racial tinderbox that was early 20th century South Africa. My grandfather, whose name I have, fought for the British in World War I, having been raised as a loyal subject of the King, even sojourning with Lawrence of Arabia during the more colourful days of the Mesopotamian Campaign. "Oupa", as I remember him, was wounded in the Battle of the Somme and decorated for bravery. It must have been such a betrayal when he, thoroughly British Colonial in upbringing (tea estates, English breakfasts, personal valet, C of E, a military surgeon) was placed in an internment camp during World War 2 for the sole crime of having a German name.

They thought he was a spy. He couldn't even speak German, never mind Afrikaans. Perhaps this is why, after the war, he denounced his British ties and identified strongly with the Afrikaners in his adopted land.
He left the Anglican church and joined the NG Kerk. Tragically, he absorbed the fearful culture of apartheid as well and obliterated any vestiges of the Church of England with the shadows of Knox and Calvin. (As a result, I have some family who live in the enclave of Orania.) Not that I have anything against the Reformation. I doubt my father would have raised us Catholic if that very necessary purging of excesses hadn't happened. (Oh, more colour, my father converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism after some existential soul-searching during the war. Such a mix. And my aunt married a Jew which certainly rocked the family boat - something that would end up enriching my life as I got to know the saint that was my uncle Edward.)

But back to Oupa Adalbert. He had first had contact with the Afrikaners back in Ceylon, where he met some prisoners-of-war from the Anglo-Boer conflict and was impressed and moved by their stolid reserve. Let's face it, the British "solution" of placing thousands of Boers in horrid concentration camps was an exercise in genocide that approached the Holocaust and the Ukrainian Holodomor. Forever let there shame hang upon Lords Milner and Kitchener. What touches me most is that my mother's family -
on my mother's side I am solid Afrikaner, with proud French Huguenot and Dutch roots -  never expressed any bitterness towards the English oppressors.

Sure, this was perhaps not the sentiment of most Afrikaners. Clinging to a newly-formed identity they desperately needed to survive a colonial onslaught, the white tribe of Africa might have avoided the whole sorry business of apartheid if they had approached their new citizenship of the Union of South Africa with the gentle decorum of my mother's forebears. My Afrikaner heritage, I am happy to say, consists far more of old Dutch stoicism (with all the cholesterol-laden cooking that comes with it) and French bonhomie, than fear of some imagined "other". I look at the spectrum of my cousins that range from right-wing to left-wing and can only smile and cling desperately to my libertarian world-view. It's all I can be, even if it's imperfect. I don't care what colour or religion or sexuality people are - I believe in universal human rights, but with that, universal human responsibility. I will fight to the death for your right to do whatever you want in your private life, as long as it hurts no-one, even if I abhor it personally. Such is the exhortation of the Nazarene, and all other great figures who have championed the Golden Rule.

So there, the unloading of my cultural multiple personality disorder. I am at once a proud Afrikaner, proud de facto Englishman, a happy white Anglo-Boer-African, an even prouder African, but - ultimately, humbly, and wholeheartedly, just an ordinary Earthling grateful to ponder the stars and be eternally moved.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The More You Know, The More You Might Not Know

Scripta menant; verba volant: What is written stays; what is spoken evaporates.

These are probably the only words I remember fondly from a professor at med school who was, to put it mildly, an inveterate narcissist. More frustratingly, these words are true. I am by no means a student of history, and only wish I had studied it more earnestly at school, when I had the opportunity to avoid becoming a doctor.

Setting aside the soberingly true cliché that history depends on whose point of view it is written, it is my opinion that a balanced world history starts to emerge only from the late 19th century, as media complementary to words and pictorial representations appeared: something had to complement the revolution that began when man first started representing language in symbols. And it is the rendering of information, of which history is an important - but not the only - example, that is worrying me.

I may very well be reinventing the wheel with all this. I have no doubt many historians, philosophers and historiographers have put what I am about to say far more eloquently.

First we have photography: for the first time, barring death masks and casts, we get a precise view of what the world and its inhabitants actually looked like, at a particular time and place. Following quickly we have the magnificent contribution of the Lumiere brothers: film, the moving picture. Now we get to see how the world actually reacts. Simultaneously, sound is recorded. Soon, all of this is transmitted, and the snowball of information culminates in the bewildering soup of media we now bob in, all too often like hapless bubbles forced to evaporate as it boils on and on.

Of course, any (humanly collected) record is only as true as the individual who wrote it, and this colours the now universal ability of our digital creations to measure cold facts. (GPS. Weather data. Chemical compositions. Et frightening cetera.) The imperfect human senses have to process it. More insidious machinations could be stockpiling it all as I write, gradually becoming sentient…

Now I have almost destroyed my argument as I realize that data has been collected by the Universe with dehumanizing precision since it was conjured into existence. Think fossils, geological strata, the growth rings in trees. These may constitute "found data" in as much as there is "found art", the former, of course, less subject to whimsy and quixotic jurors of the Turner Prize. (I still balk at Tracey Emin's entry of her unmade bed for the most prestigious accolade in the British art scene, but, ahem, I digress.) This "found data" is seemingly harmless, and "found art" can be wowed or booed. I am more concerned about data in the form of "found objects". From fossils to archeological artifacts, these can set off ramifications that are at best interesting and at worst, genocidal pseudoscience (the Nazi justification for the Holocaust, for example.) Let's not go into the fury that the discovery of fossils unleashed, among others creation "science" (waaahaaaa!) and evolution.

All information is biased in that there has to be interpretation by the messy human mind. That is a platitude. Even so, the massive weight of information bearing down on us might save us even as we decry the ability of the Googleverse to turn us into one-click automatons. (And turn us into … fossils.) And why might it save us?

Because information - and by extension, history, is now finally democratic. At the deployment of a "search" button, we can generate thousands - millions - different takes on a single quantum of information, do our research, and form our opinions. I am by no means suggesting that this access to information may end up useful (I will not say correct), nor will it ever be truly holistic: just think of the Great Firewall of China and the other, sadly successful, attempts of many regimes to regulate the Internet for onerous purposes. Neither am I suggesting that the sheer volume of the Internet's capacity for data makes it the Way, the Truth and the Life.

For me, an important lesson becomes apparent as we realize information is bewilderingly multi-faceted. (This applies equally to science as it does to history - quantum theory effectively rent so much of what we thought we knew about the universe to shreds.) As we discover more things, we get the sinking feeling that there is so much we don't know. My good friend Troy Thiel has beautifully articulated in his blog how owning up to this discovery can be our greatest virtue. As I like to quote a physicist at the end of my emails, "The larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference the unknown".

The democratization of information has two key virtues: precise rendering is possible, and it is universally accessible. In this respect it is a logical consequence of that great blow Gutenberg dealt to the intelligentsia of the Church when he invented his printing press. I'm amused that I am now echoing my longstanding guru, E.M. Forster, when he gave democracy only two cheers (and I will not carry on, as I have been quoting him so much that I am in danger of being an automaton myself.) Why do I not give our Information Superhighway (permanently and desperately in need of more lanes to carry its exponentially multiplying traffic) three cheers?

Consider this:

I will not be surprised that in a few years 3-D recording of actualities will be commonplace, and that we will be able to watch holograms à la Star Wars. Perhaps in less than a century information could be physically tangible. Could we digitize taste and smell too? (My father joked about Smellevision.) I worry. For then it will be a short slide to recreating reality, and all we will need to do is let ourselves be plugged into the Matrix.

(And of course, we may already well be.)