The coronavirus crisis posed serious threats to the global stock markets. The much anticipated economic downturn was stopped by "a narrow bull" in the global financial market that was mainly powered by the big-tech surge of FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) along with Microsoft and Apple and the Chinese BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent). On May 1, Financial Times reported, "the five biggest constituents of the S&P 500—Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google's parent Alphabet and Facebook—now account for a fifth of the entire index's market capitalisation. That is a modern-day record in terms of concentration".
Experts are divided in their opinion on the shelf life of this tech-reliant market stability and buoyancy. For now at least, it is evident that the overwhelming trends of massive applications of online tools and services for crisis management have earned the trust of investors in the tech stocks. Meanwhile, most of the other financial sectors are deeply affected by the pandemic, and are estimated to require 3-10 years for their recovery to pre-Covid-19 GDP. Many small businesses are not going to recover at all. In a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" model, where mutability decides the natural selection, these firms are likely to be extinct. And the humans involved with those firms are likely to be sacrificed too. Are they the necessary sacrifices required for the creation of Human 2.0?
Even as a student of culture and humanities, who has little or no understanding of finance, this concentration of the capital worries me. I am worried by the dehumanisation of the system in which traditional manufacturers and labour are fast becoming redundant. Jute is out, Zoom is in. The buzzwords of "contactless service" or "contactless currency" symbolise a new form of alienation. They rob us off our essential human identities and responsibilities in social, biological and economic spheres. In the name of health and safety, social distancing has become the new self-regulatory mantra. We don't shake hands, show our faces, or sit together. We stigmatise the sick and the dead. Our human norms are changing: either we are going back to a prehistoric time where animal rules prevailed or we are leapfrogging to a non-human future. The thermal images and readings of machines determine who can access human facilities, and who cannot. Apps are tracing our mobility. The machine is deciding for us. Our union with the machine is consensual. We have become willing slaves to the machine. Our herd mentality is controlled by some artificial intelligence where we are nothing but dots in a curve. We seem to be characters in a dystopian novel where the microorganisms are acting as hunter-beaters to lead us like elephants into a khedda (the stockade trap).
The overt use of animal imagery in the Financial Times report (i.e. bull, BAT, FANG) led me to pursue these unnecessary thoughts. It made me think how these constructed animal figures are putting humanity in crisis. They combine pre-human animal instincts and post-human rationality to make sure that many of us become redundant, and a new version of us is made available. The disease is already culling those who are physically weak and binning those who are living on extra-time. Humanity as we know it is being sacrificed.
The illusory bubble of tech-driven comfort during this pandemic is punctured by the emerging monopoly of fin-tech. Cooped at home watching Netflix, maintaining a semblance of social life on Facebook, ordering essentials online, and working from home, I thought I had finally found a red-pill-blue-pill moment to enter The Matrix and experience a second life in the virtual world. But unlike Neo, who fought the systemic agents, most of us do not even realise that these gadgets have made us stop being human. We have become a cog in the machine where we are nothing but its content makers; all our activities are feeding the FANG and BAT with data and the little bit of earnings that we have. The machine is creating its own myth of sustainability.
For instance, not too many people talk about the carbon footprints of online cloud storage. We are never told of the grams of carbon we have to burn for a simple Google search or sending of an email. Cloud storage causes massive carbon emissions of which we are both consumers and producers. By the same token, each of us is converted into some big data as our phones spy on us 24/7. They are the kiraman katibins, the honourable angels who sit on our shoulders and record all our deeds. Instead of such records being used for the after-life, our scribe in hand targets consumer or products in this world.
In my day job, I teach my students theories and ideas to enable them to sift appearances from reality. Our seamless flight into the literary and cultural world has suddenly hit an air pocket. The pilot in me warns about the bumpy ride as we pass through the clouds of financial bubble, the simulacra of a convenient life and the apparently eco-friendly immobile lifestyle. I reflect on the many tools and ideas that I adopted and adapted in the last few months. Prior to the current crisis, this cyber vocabulary sounded like Greek to me.
Why am I not surprised that the term "crisis" comes from the Greek noun krisis (choice, decision, judgment), originating from the Greek verb krinein (to decide). In Greek mythology, the King of Mycene united Greece against Troy (present day Turkey) following the abduction of Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. After an initial success in which Agamemnon's army raided Apollo's temple, he captured the daughter of the priest Chryses as war booty. The father tried to free his daughter Chryseis (Astynome) by paying appropriate ransom, which was denied by Agamemnon. Chryses prayed to Apollo, and the god sent a plague sweeping through the Greek armies to defend the honour of his priest. Agamemnon was thereby forced to give Chryseis back in order to end the epidemic. Agamemnon had a choice to gain financially, but his poor judgement ensued the health crisis. Please note that any resemblance between this Greek myth and today's crisis is purely coincidental.
Historically, the idea of crisis involved a primary medical connotation as it was seen as a possible turning point of diseases in which the infirm would either recover or die. For civilisations that have withstood many pandemics, this link between crisis and disease is understandable. A crisis is seen as "a moment of decisive intervention... of thorough-going transformation." In Western popular culture, this is often expressed through the Chinese term for crisis, Weiji, that combines both "danger" and "opportunity". In Chinese, however, while the first character wei means dangerous, the second character ji does not necessarily mean "opportunity"; ji rather implies a "change point".
Our present crisis has brought us to a similar changing point. We are facing a threat of an epic proportion: our lives and livelihoods are in danger. We are also being forced to change. Indeed, such a change is inevitable, but calling it an opportunity will be a misnomer. We have reached the crossroads of history, and like Oedipus who had to decide during a plague to inflict punishments on himself, we too will have to decide.
Call me a pessimist. Five months into the pandemic, I see even hope flying away from the Pandora's Box. Guided by the wills of FANG-BAT (oh, I am so tempted to bring in a vampire analogy here), we are making many investments to create a resilient and sustainable online system without considering the sacrifices that these initiatives would entail. Gone will be the life that we once lived. And the new narrative will present it as a necessary sacrifice.
Each epoch changing crisis demanded such necessary sacrifices, collateral damages. This is an archetypal motif that is coded into the blueprints of humanity. Our grand narratives highlight those sacrifices.
In order for man to have his proper glory, Iblish was sacrificed. In order for Achilles to have his promised fame, Patroclus had to be sacrificed. When Achilles decided to withdraw himself from the Trojan War after Agamemnon had claimed his trophy woman, Patroclus stepped in. He got killed in the battle to make Achilles vow for revenge and win the war for the Greek. In Gilgamesh, the legendary king of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, sacrificed his wild-man friend Enkidu to complete his quest. In Mahbharata,Karna had to be sacrificed to protect Arjuna's fame. In different junctures of history, there have been different moments of crisis. And in every such moment of crisis, we had to decide what necessary sacrifices we will have to make to change our lives. Economy over lives, or lives over economy. Lives or livelihoods! Time a' changing! What collateral damage are we going to have? What necessary sacrifices are we going to make?
The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org