Society as a Potemkin Village

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Why 2020 won,  and 2021 is likely to be worse


If I were to create a word cloud of the thoughts I had this past year, a big (and recurring) phrase would be Potemkin Village or at least Potemkin.

I tried throwing the phrase or name into Twitter to see what comes up and the results were far too many and sprawling to be of much use. Although this could also be a reflection of the algorithm’s inability to grasp the significance of the phrase.

When I step back and try to reflect and synthesize on the larger, or meta impact of the pandemic, I’m left with the image of the Potemkin village. That our society is and was a façade or illusion designed to make us believe it had substance when instead it was and is alarmingly shallow.

What the pandemic has done and is still in the process of doing, is helping to dispel the illusions created by our Potemkin society. The illusion that we’re all in this together. The illusion that our institutions are responsive or even functional. The illusion that we have a functional health care system.

It is the latter that frustrates me the most, and is a belief I’ve held long before the pandemic blew up.

Many people, such as myself, who have chronic illnesses or conditions, long ago recognized or experienced the overwhelming dysfunction of contemporary and industrialized medicine. The cure is often more damaging than the disease, and the overall dehumanization of the patient experience is genuinely traumatic.

While I can recognize the need in a pandemic to reallocate and mobilize limited health resources towards emergency and pandemic related care, the larger shift that is underway deeply disturbs and depresses me.

This is a shift that is mirrored in all areas of society. It represents a shift from an industrial construction of identity to an algorithmic construction of identity, that promises individualization, but only as an illusion.

For example industrial health treats patients as meat, to be poked and prodded, and treated with medicines, whose side effects we barely understand. However algorithmic health is not that different, it just presents the industrial practices with a veneer of precision, informing the patient they’re an individual, but not actually treating them as such.

Which ironically helps expose the health system as a Potemkin village. It is an illusion, created by and for the healthy, that is designed to foster the false confidence that if you get sick, you will be taken care of.

Yet those of us who are sick know that this is a lie. There is no health care, only health dependence and dysfunction. For many this has always been the case, yet the combination of the pandemic and algorithmic medicine is only making this worse.

Individual health practitioners and staff used to have certain liberties and leeway to do their jobs as they see fit. To make human decisions that bend to the needs of human patients and integrate the knowledge and wisdom they accumulate through their experiences on the job.

Such individual agency among health professionals is rapidly being replaced by algorithmic authority and automated decision making models that cannot take into consideration the individual needs or knowledge coming from the patient.

Health care increasingly resembles the criminal justice system, in that neither are focused or interested in remedies, and instead profit from containing problems that are otherwise flourishing.

We lock up our elderly and our aging and keep them contained rather than exploring what it means to live with an illness or what a better means of integrated aging could look like.

Headed into 2021 I’m inclined to suggest that you should not be sick and you should not be poor, cause if you are, you’re facing a really challenging immediate future.

Given that I’ll always be sick, I’m preparing myself for that challenge. From a mental health perspective, that’s partly why I like living with animals, and why I plan to increase the animal content we put into the world.

However it’s also why I feel a moral commitment to be arguing that the emperor is naked and that our Potemkin village needs to be replaced.

To a certain extent this is already happening. The global village is not a Potemkin village, but it’s also something that many ignore or cannot see due to their focus on the old and obsolete narratives.

Similarly the global village is no utopia, no city on the hill, but rather a complicated place that requires more attention, work, and better governance.

That may be a source of optimism for me, as I feel that a positive aspect of 2020 was our growing critical perspective of technology and the industrial complex that drives it. Almost as if the tech world was a kind of Lord of the Flies that can start to change as more adults accept their responsibilities to oversee the Peter Pans of Silicon Valley.

If we fail to do so, then we will have to acknowledge that not only is the global village rapidly becoming a dystopia, but that it was (and still is) preventable.

This century the vaunted American middle class has bottomed out and the place has started to look more like the ‘developing’ world, with a definite underclass. However, lacking generations of feudal tradition and clinging to the myth of being a classless society, Americans couldn’t just bring servants into their homes. So venture capitalists did it for them.

Uber and Postmates and DoorDash and all of these ‘gig’ economy companies simply created a giant pool of servants that you could call on demand. That’s all they really do. The gig economy is just a giant collection of servants.

The pandemic is rapidly expanding the precariat in North America. The precariat is a social class of people without predictability or security, resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety. They become even more vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.

It’s worth noting that the article above was from early 2019. These trends we saw before the pandemic are accelerating rapidly as a result of it.

The obvious ones like remote work and e-commerce hold our attention, but there are less obvious ones that we should be concerned about.

Like the expansion of an underclass to perform essential services and help further depress the valour of labour.

Our cultural industries have become Potemkin villages. They can barely support the vast majority of creators, and yet the reality of accessibility is distorted by the myth of meritocracy and the idea that you can make it if you work hard enough.

Yet hard work means nothing in a kleptocracy where an attention economy encourages corruption even if it is as innocuous as product placement.

The TikTok users distrust the algorithm, decry shadow bans, yet do not dare to stop dancing, as their hustle is all in the hopes of attaining future fame.

Perhaps that’s why we tolerate the Potemkin village that is our society. We think it’s harmless, and like Santa Claus, a white lie worth perpetuating.

However I think if we bring it back to health, the fraud is brought into focus. The consequences of the con start to become clear. Especially as we contemplate what algorithmic health care entails.

Artificial intelligence often scares us. If you think going for a ride in a self-driving car requires a leap of faith, try having your life depend on an autonomous pancreas hitched to your belt whose algorithms are, for you, the difference between life and death.

I have Type 1 diabetes, so my pancreas does not produce the life-essential insulin that a normal pancreas secretes. Instead, I carry on my belt a medical device — in effect, an artificial pancreas — whose brain interacts on its own with continuously updated data transmitted to it by a glucose monitor with implanted sensors.

These data are uploaded in the cloud where they can be seen by my doctor, the pump and monitor manufacturers, and I don’t know who else. As long as the pump keeps working correctly, I receive just the amount of insulin I need to survive. If it crashes or is hacked, I could die.

Late in life, I find myself enmeshed in a technological revolution that raises profound questions about what once was known as human being. Where does my body begin? Where does it end? What is natural? What is artificial? Who owns my pancreas and its data?

I’m increasingly seeing 2020 as a transition year. That the pandemic has smashed our society into shards and like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, are not going to be able to put the Potemkin village back together again.

Which leaves us in this global village, a/k/a the Internet. Presently a kind of lord of the flies narrative, that desperately needs someone, anyone, to take responsibility, and help us build the new society, albeit in the shell of this Potemkin façade.

Our fear should be that this will come in the form of automated authoritarianism. Our focus should be on how we can use digital tools to create new publics and democracies. Plural and with multiplicity.

The battle for the future is upon us. The illusions of the past are falling, and fast. As those illusions fade, so too does the legitimacy of the institutions that depended upon the Potemkin culture.

2021 is going to be a crucial year for the issues we cover and analyze here at Metaviews. Our plan is to organize more events, produce more media, and engage more people in the debates and discussions we feel are crucial.

Join and subscribe if you haven’t already. If you have, invite your friends and colleagues. Post more comments. Engage more of your fellow members. Help us build this network so that we’re not only poised for the future, but in a position to help shape it.

Like rabbits, our ideas will go forth and multiply! 😉 #metaviews

One thought on “Society as a Potemkin Village

  1. Yours is an accurate assessment of our current situation, one that I agree with. I also agree that kindred minds should join together to work on bypassing algorithmic authorities and form real time and space communities based on trust, love and respect.
    My understanding of the Internet it’s a physical network of hardware allowing hypertext language of codes/software to communicate between parties. As a community of kindred spirits we should not waste our time and our energy to fight existing corrupt systems, but should instead work on creating an alter-net, parallel hypertext language to bypass the tyrannical powers of the world wide spying web…

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