‘Water of madness‘ can act as a cautionary tale. A timeless tale to wake us up, so as not to lose ourselves totally in this increasingly loud and outlandish world of social media and big data algorithms.
First, here is the old tale of Water of Madness :
Water of Madness*
Once upon a time, a wise old man who had a vision of what was about to happen, gathered all the people of his village and explained that soon all the water in the world would disappear and would be renewed with different water. “The new water will drive you mad,” he told the people. “To save yourselves, you must hoard all the water here on Earth. Save it, and you will be saved.”
But only one person listened to the wise old man’s advice. This man began right away to collect all the water he could. He went to rivers and streams, lakes and waterfalls, and ponds and pools. Using jars and bottles, barrels and buckets, and pots and pans, he collected water. He stored the water in a secret cave. He told no one about his cave, and no one ever knew where it was.
And then one day, just as the wise old man had warned, the streams stopped flowing. The lakes and wells and waterfalls dried up. Soon every riverbed was dust, and no matter where people turned, there was no water.
The person who had listened to the wise old man secretly crept off to his hiding place. He was careful to make sure no one saw him, and then he sat inside and drank his hoarded water. From his dark, quiet cave he watched the sky, waiting for the new water to fall.
Sure enough, before long the new water came, and the lakes and rivers and wells were once again flowing. Waterfalls tumbled riotously over the rocks. Everywhere there once had been water, there was water again. The people were overjoyed, and they began to drink and drink.
The man in the cave, confident that everything was fine again, walked outside to return to his people. When he saw them drinking heartily from great buckets drawn from their wells, he approached and called, “Hello.”
But no one responded.
Very soon the man discovered that his people had gone mad. They spoke an entirely different language from the language they had once spoken. They had no memory of the time before. No one knew anything of the way the world had been before the new water. They seemed to recall no warning from the wise old man, to know nothing of the days of the past. The man tried to tell them, but when he talked, no one could understand him.
And there was something worse he saw: They thought that he was the one who had gone mad!
He tried to argue with them. “You see that lake there? It was a desert. And that riverbed was only rocks and dust. Your well was dry.”
They only stared. “What is he saying?” they asked, but they asked this in a language he did not understand, and so he had no idea what they were saying.
But he did understand their faces. They looked at him as if he were the one who was mad. They shook their fists. They shouted. Before long he was afraid. He could see they would never understand what he was trying to say. They would never remember the world as it had once been. And so he ran away, back to the safety of his cave and back to his secret water. He refused to drink this new water that drove everyone mad. No, he would stay in the safety of his world, with his own water.
But as time passed, he became more and more lonely. He had no family. He had no friends. He had no one to talk to. Sometimes, late at night, he crept out of his cave and stole to the village and wandered the streets; when he heard people talking together and laughing, his heart ached. He wished he could join them in their madness.
At long last he made a decision. He would drink this new water and become like all the others. He too would be mad.
That very day, he walked to the well that had once been his, and he drew up a bucket of water. Thirsty for friendship, he drank. In just one moment he understood the language the others were speaking, and when his old friends passed by, he joined them, and he forgot all about the past. He forgot his cave and his water.
His friends embraced him and cried, “You were mad, but you have been restored to sanity!”
And because he no longer remembered, he did not argue.
Is the world going mad again?
Despite many good stories still happening, it feels like that people around the world are increasingly going mad again. I say “again” because humanity has gone mad many times before and this is probably just a new version of the old story.
Tribalism may or may not be on the rise, but the tribalists are certainly louder than the rest of us. According to the UNHCR report, a record number of 70.8 million people were displaced at the end of 2018. Protests are becoming more violent with the expansion of both extreme right and left contaminating rightful demands of ordinary people (1). Asking to be respectful is ridiculed as political correctness gone mad. Religions are becoming more divisive; and nations more insular. Our so called leaders cannot get their act together on climate change after over four decades (2). Dictatorships and democracies alike, are finding clever new ways to either subjugate people further, or lull them into deeper consumerism sleep. And some powerful corporations are their strange bedfellows in developing and exploiting these ‘clever new ways’ while making billions out of our private data(3).
What are some of these clever new ways then? Well, they include the major social media platforms. The IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as smart home gadgets like your Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod. Plus the Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms behind them, in some cases interlinked with mind boggling biotechnological advancements which are beginning to make us ‘hackable’, as best-selling author Yuval Harari puts it.(4)
This cyber-world has become so outrageously loud that to be heard, one needs to shout ever more loudly into one’s social media megaphone, and to act ever more outlandishly. Call me old-fashioned, but I rather save my sanity and some money too, than having a “smart home”. I prefer whatever is left of my privacy over having Alexa dim the lights, feed the cat, or make me happy when I ask “Alexa … what drink goes with ramen?“
Despite a solid background and reasonable interest in the high tech industry, I am beginning to feel more alienated from this new world and the language of its inhabitants. Perhaps resistance is futile and those of us hoping to maintain our sanity will sooner or later feel so left out and lonely that we will have no choice but to assimilate; just like the man in the tale of Water of Madness.
To answer my own question. No, social media is not the water of madness. Technologies on themselves are inherently neutral; it is how we use them that makes the difference. Like a knife which can be used both for cooking and construction, but also for killing and violence.
So, don’t get me wrong, these technologies are awesome in the sense that they connect and integrate people. For the first time in human history we all have the possibility of becoming one in our diversity. These technologies have great potential and many wonderful applications that I also benefit from. I am just saying we better be seriously more cautious where we are heading. At least, let us not be early adopters of these newfangled clever technologies. Let us hold on and try to stay a bit more natural as long as possible. Let our collective wisdom and our legislation have the chance to catch up. Let us convert only when safe and really necessary.
- See for example Business Insider’s report which is already a bit outdated being only a couple of months old: ‘A world on fire: Here are all the major protests happening around the globe right now‘. Or Peaceful vs. Non-peaceful protest Which is more effective?
- See UN report ‘From Stockholm to Kyoto: A Brief History of Climate Change‘. It states: “Held in Stockholm, Sweden from 5 to 16 June 1972, the UN Scientific Conference, also known as the First Earth Summit, adopted a declaration that set out principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment, and an action plan containing recommendations for international environmental action. In a section on the identification and control of pollutants of broad international significance, the Declaration raised the issue of climate change for the first time, warning Governments to be mindful of activities that could lead to climate change and evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of climatic effects.“
- See for example Shoshana Zuboff and her new book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power“. https://shoshanazuboff.com/. Her book has been welcomed as a 2019 NYTimes Notable Book of the Year, Time Magazine 100 Must-Read Books of 2019, The Guardian’s Best Science, Nature, and Ideas Book, The Sunday Times Best Business Book of the Year, and New Statesman Book of the Year.
- For example check Yuval Harari’s books ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century‘. Google him for heaps of useful interviews and videos. Or if time-deprived, here is a book summary of 21 lessons which takes less than half an hour to read.
* Adapted from the original Sufi tale ‘Water of Madness‘.