Safe, Smart, Special – the three pillars of our doublespeak. ‘Safe’ endangers your life; ‘Smart’ degrades your faculties; ‘Special’ makes you normal.
‘Safe’ would seem to mean the avoidance of harm. What it means now is the avoidance of possibility.
To be safe is to be removed from the world so that only a scripted range of options remains, too narrow to realise the most modest potential and therefore inducive of the spiritual malaise that comes of a life with little involvement and that is the bedrock of so many of today’s real and imagined illnesses.
Moreover, as the long association of ‘Health and Safety’ has grown ever closer, health is now the dominant field in which we stay safe.
‘Safe’ thus implies not only an over-solicitous negotiation of the world we move about in but a mode of relation to posited biochemical threats that has little to do with our own carefulness, relying almost wholly upon the intervention of designated technical expertise.
The effect of this conflation of safety and health, and of the attendant mass submission to technical solutions to identified health threats, is that our wellbeing is nurtured at the level of cohorts and not of individuals. When any one of us stays safe we increasingly acquiesce in the sacrifice of our individual welfare at the altar of one or other computer modelled universal benefit, of which we can at best merely partake but which is fundamentally indifferent to our flourishing.
A radio advertisement for a stop-smoking programme features a woman claiming to have suffered from cancer of the larynx as a result of her habit. ‘Smoking tried to take my life and my health,’ she says. A curious script that was prepared for her, as if it is possible to take someone’s life without taking their health, certainly as if the two are mutually independent.
Are they mutually independent according to the algorithms that determine what it is for us to stay safe? Is the avoidance of health risks prised apart not only from the quality of individual lives but from individual lives themselves?
The World Health Organisation claims that health is a human right. The fusion of health and safety prepares us to accept this; we expect now to go out in the world and not grow tumours or suffer anxiety as fully as we expect to go out in the world and not be hit by a falling ladder.
Health – defined according to measurements of abstract objects constituted in medical research laboratories and interpreted by experts and their instruments – has become sacrosanct.
It follows, however, that the absence of health has become an outrage. An infringement. Too objectionable to be borne. So long as you’re battling – that is, submitting to technical solutions that do not prioritise your individual endurance but are justified by macro scientific analyses of micro scientific objects – you’re a new kind of hero. But once it is determined that there’s no battle left to fight, you find yourself now outside the pale.
Unable to stay safe, you do not (or should not) exist. This explains the proliferation of end-of-life pathways now supported by state healthcare in the UK at least, Anorexia Nervosa being one of the illnesses recently considered as meriting a palliative approach.
That health is now a human right and yet separated from the continued existence of any one person – that my health is independent of my survival – positions health as a kind of salvation that is to be pursued and won on a plane of virtue higher than mere human persistence.
This is the sinister truth of the ‘In This Together’ slogans that have festooned our institutions of health in recent years: the redefining of health as safety, so that our health is indifferent to my life.
‘Smart’ is the portal through which opportunities advertised as inherent in the development of artificial intelligence are installed as a self-evident broadening of the horizons of human existence.
‘Smart’ is in fact an assault on human intelligence, premised upon the degradation of human faculties by an actively erosive educational system so that we cease to be capable of our higher functions and are reframed as purely calculative beings. Consigned to operating in such narrow remits that our powers are exceeded by computer programmes.
Imagining, remembering, speculating, grasping, judging, feeling – truly understanding – are not threatened directly by artificial intelligence, which can never approximate such essentially corporeal achievements. They are effaced indirectly by the systematic failure to nurture these achievements that is the defining success of our educational (and other) institutions and that has readied us to experience the limited capabilities of robotic calculation as an advance on mere human aptitude.
The UK’s National Health Service offers us its ‘care responders,’ who you can call for free and who will interact with you in a caring manner, ask if you’ve managed to get out for your walk today or if your son remembered to pick up your prescription – it’s good to have someone to chat to. But a society in which such artificial interaction is possible, and possible under the aegis of care, is a society in which the imminent move to smart care is already prepared for, a society in which we will hardly notice when the responder is a robot.
Smart is the degradation of human thought and feeling, premised upon its demise and further hastening its demise…
…and all the while co-opting us to the most large-scale enclosure in human history, mining every nano amount of data that is to be had, even from the crevices of our bodies, even from the recesses of our minds, making us reliant on digital systems for which we are constantly unwittingly at work.
If the industrial age made us at once docile and useful, obedient and productive – the more docile, the more useful; the more useful, the more docile – the smart society makes us at once personally passive and digitally active, dumb and smart – the more dumb, the more smart; the more smart, the more dumb.
We stand on our smart bathroom scales, and stare vacantly at the cluster of information on its display, and submit to the infantile pride or disappointment expressed by its robot persona, and accept the truth implied by its graphic depiction of the fluctuations in our visceral fat, and forget altogether that it is possible to see and to feel the mass of our own body and to eat less and move more, and fail to notice that the data points generated by our mindless supplication to the measurements of our devices, meaningful only in their mass aggregation and therefore essentially nonsense to any one of us, are another brick in the digital wall being built around us.
The more we apply to these devices, the more out of practice we get at consulting our own faculties of reason, judgment and feeling; the more out of practice we get, the more we apply to these devices. The terrible symbiosis of smart and stupid.
‘Special’ works to iron out human singularity by grafting a hysteria of normalizing categories and strategies onto a narrative of individual uniqueness. ‘Special’ achieves this by neutralizing the cultural horizons within which people establish themselves in the world in characteristic ways, consigning people to a set of options that are not native to any culture but are transcultural, generic, subject to arbitrary suspension or alteration and accessible only via approved portals.
How does ‘special’ achieve this? By its silent partner. To be special is to have special needs. ‘Special’ wins us over by its apparent championing of those weakest among us, those who we pity and wish to help; by presenting these vulnerable souls as having additional needs, ‘special’ covertly manufactures an unspoken consensus that everybody has needs.
But this notion, that everybody has needs, a notion that is everywhere unchallenged, profoundly scrambles the coordinates of human life so that we are determined by scarcity rather than shaped by whatever plenitude constitutes our culture. As creatures of need, we are plucked from the fulsomeness of human horizons of possibility and pegged to a smorgasbord of basic and universal benefits that trump and therefore disarm the force of ways of life.
People in living cultures are not in need: the limits of what is possible are defined by what is possible, so it is, by definition, impossible to need. If the crop fails, the people may die, but they die of the collapse of their way of life and not of unrequited needs that define existence once ways of life have been dismantled.
That there are those among us, increasingly many, with special needs is the mechanism by which human life is reframed as lived at a trough of identified benefits, subject to infinite alteration by highly centralised organisations and their corporate strategies and advertising campaigns; the extra supports at that trough which those with special needs are deemed to merit obscure the outrage of a life lived in competition for scarce and changing goods rather than defined by the meaningful possibilities that shape human beings in human settings.
Inevitably, as our so-called needs are defined increasingly explicitly in the service of distant interests of elite organisations that are supra-cultural in their vision and reach, more and more of us feel alienated by our needs – for social interaction that is ever more distanced, for health that is ever more abstract, for education that is shaped by an artificial curriculum, for food that is without nourishment and sleep that is cut through by virtual interruption.
Hence the current pile-in to special needs as demand increases for more and more supports to access needs that are ever emptier and more hostile to human happiness.
Desperately dissatisfied with our lives, yet ignorant of the cause of our dissatisfaction, we trust ourselves to the latest of our institutions’ labels and to ever proliferating strategies designed to bring about our inclusion. And all the while the chance of establishing ourselves, of forming our character and shaping our culture, retreats before the march of the global normal.
The mechanism of these three pillars of doublespeak is each time the same: erase our experience of limits.
This is the kernel of truth that lies inversely in all the talk about how we can do anything we choose to do, and be anything we choose to be, and think what we like and feel what we feel – in all the braying about there being no limits.
There are limits, of course there are; in fact, the limits of what we can do and be and think and feel are proliferating and petrifying at an alarming pace. The kernel of truth is not that there are no limits, but that we feel as if there are no limits. The experience of our limits recedes.
As the growing virtue of staying safe sweeps the world of its every challenge, translating all that we had learnt the hard way through trial and error into abstract lessons comprised of infantile words and pictures; and as the smart devices which furnish our smoothed-out world multiply around us and inside us, recasting difficult judgements about what to do and think as a matter only of counting – how many steps, how many points, how many calories, how many likes; and as our disengagement, inattention, anxiety and depression are reassessed as a kind of specialness, which gently removes us to an ever leveller playing field – the killing field of invention and ambition – on which there are no opinions in case they trigger and no obstacles in case they trip: we grow every day more unused to the experience of our limits.
Yet it is the experience of our limits which gives shape to our lives, revealing what it is possible for us to do and be, what we are for. In fact, life is only really lived as the experience of our limits, being a dance of admitting and denying the challenges we meet, of submitting to them or overcoming them or some combination of both. Only from this does our life derive purpose. Only from this does our life derive meaning.
Naturally, there are limits even in our world of Safe, Smart, and Special, many more than there used to be or should be. We can’t log in. We suffer pain. We are excluded. But these limits are so alien, so utterly beyond our abilities to negotiate with or learn from, that they are almost entirely meaningless and hardly furnish us with an experience at all.
It’s a glitch in the system. An anomaly. A failure of the institution, buried deep in its bureaucracy and begetting only another smooth corporate apology that comes from no one and goes nowhere and must be accepted implicitly.
When all is Safe, Smart and Special, the limits of our lives offer us no purchase and sit shamelessly alongside the ubiquitous rhetoric of infinite possibility, personal attention, bespoke treatment, endless choice.
Limits present themselves as just bad luck, before which we can only remain speechless and prone: so you lost this time; play again, and you might win.
Gaming replaces involvement in our world of Safe, Smart and Special; chance replaces purpose.
Every which way we turn, winning and losing masquerade as meaning – at school, points are given for good behaviour and food items from the canteen are offered as prizes, as the last vestiges of moral authority sap from our classrooms; in the supermarket, loyalty and healthy choices are rewarded with price reductions and free produce, as the prospect of real nourishment departs the building.
Like hamsters on a hopeless wheel, we keep on keeping on in the inert expectation that You Could Be Next, or It Could Be You.
Unable to hope or to dream, outside of the crass simulation of hoping and dreaming in accordance with whatever debt-riddled prize we are nudged to set our sights upon, the horizons of our lives contract to the dimensions of a small cage for one, in which we are distracted from our growing ennui, by some busy corporate solution to the newest mortal danger, or latest technical device to measure out our lives, or quasi-scientific label to salve that niggling sense that all is not quite as it should be.
Sinéad Murphy is author of Effective History (2010), The Art Kettle (2012), and Zombie University (2017), and co-editor of Pandemic Response and the Cost of Lockdowns (2022).
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