Whenever I call a customer service line and have to sit through a torturous series of non-human interactions — “If you are calling x, press y,” “sorry I didn’t understand you,” “return to the main menu,” “this number doesn’t work,” “enter the number again” — I think of the island of Laputa. Those of you who grew up in an age when children still read books, might remember the floating island Gulliver visited during his travels. The island’s highly educated population was obsessed with mathematics and geometric figures. Everything its inhabitants created, how they communicated, the way they saw the world, even the language they spoke had to be expressed in mathematical forms — lines, rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, etc. Even music had to be mathematical for the inhabitants of the island had their ears adapted to hear “the music of the spheres, which always played at certain periods…”
I am afraid that our algorithmic world, in which everything we do, every object, every interaction is translated into a piece of data and automatically collected, stored, analyzed and processed to filter what we see, how we shop, whom we date, and what tasks we get, is making us all into citizens of Laputa. Like the Laputians, we have to adapt to the world of measurements and data, and this often not only doesn’t make our lives better but actually makes them less human, less comfortable, and more awkward. When I am on the line interacting with automated help, I have to sound like an automaton. I have to try hard to eliminate what is unique about me — traces of my accent, my phrasing, any unusual linguistic flourishes. I have to sound not like me but like someone else.
With its obsession with numbers and figures, Swift’s Laputa was hardly a utopia, far from it. And its dysfunction and anti-humanism should serve as a warning to us. The island, with all its learned mathematicians and musical instruments experts (mathematical musicians) was one of the most uncomfortable and miserable places Gulliver had visited throughout his travels. In fact, he couldn’t wait to escape it, as did many of Laputa’s own inhabitants. For nothing one touched, ate, wore, or lived in was fit for human comfort. Rather it had to suit the oppressive demands of numbers, lines, and geometric figures. The first meal Gulliver tasted consisted of the shoulder of mutton cut into equilateral triangles, a piece of beef cut into rhomboides, and a pudding made in the form of a cycloid. Servants cut bread into cones, cylinders, parallelograms, and other mathematical shapes. The houses were badly built, without one right angle in any apartment, because practical geometry was considered vulgar and mechanistic. The clothes were poorly made and ill-fitting. When the tailor came in to take measurements for a new suit of clothes so that Gulliver could be presented to Laputa’s ruler, he measured Gulliver’s “altitude by a quadrant and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines” of Gulliver’s whole body, dutifully noting everything on a piece of paper. Six days later, the very badly made and quite misshapen clothes arrived.
Gulliver was not the only one feeling miserable in the mathematical land. “Although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behavior of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people…” Gulliver reports. “These people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minute’s peace of mind; and their disturbances proceed from causes which very little affect the rest of mortals.” Wives and daughters can’t wait to escape the island but can’t do so without a particular license from the king, which is not easily obtained (how prescient of Swift to foresee women’s status in some Middle East countries today). One court lady, who was married to the prime minister, the richest subject in the kingdom, escaped to the land underneath the island, populated by non-mathematical plebeians, and happily lived there in rags until she was forcefully returned to Laputa, only to escape later and never to be heard from again.
We should take Swift’s forewarning seriously as we let our own algorithmic elites and their financial backers re-make every aspect of our lives. Our supermarkets are already replete with tomatoes, apples, and many fruits and vegetables that do not have much nutritional value or taste but are grown to fit into well quantified containers for long distance transportation. Maybe in the future they will come in the shape of triangles or rhombuses for greater efficiency? After all, we already have a new generation of automated food delivery trucks and fast food establishments, where you can get a perfectly shaped circular burger, a perfectly straight-line fry, and a perfectly ovoid, uniform pickle. We dream of smart cities that are built for driverless cars and can be managed efficiently and productively. But we rarely look at the social efficiencies of the highly structured environments we are creating and the costs we might be paying in terms of human spontaneity, novelty, and yes, joy. We don’t stop to think that maybe our “dumb cities” in which we don’t collect so much data on citizens are more conducive to wellbeing and are less vulnerable to cyberattacks. We are taking people out of retail spaces, substituting them with cashless checkout machines, in the process removing human contact from this and many other daily encounters. In the meantime, we are suffering from an epidemic of social isolation, with experts increasingly seeing loneliness and lack of social connectedness as grave health hazards, comparable to obesity or smoking.
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have to be Luddites. I am just as excited as anyone about all the innovation and the potential of new technologies to improve our lives. But we are not asking enough tough questions of our tech elites driving such innovation. Innovation for what purposes? Who will benefit? What will we be losing in the process? What are the potential unintended consequences? What worries me is that these are not choices made in any democratic, deliberative, and considered way. They are made by those enchanted with huge data stores, opaque mathematical codes and equations, and the money these generate, i.e. tech entrepreneurs and their financial backers. For unlike Swift’s absent-minded and mathematically obsessed Laputians, whose only satisfaction from obscure scientific activities was their standing among their colleagues, our upper crust Laputians are razor focused on generating massive financial returns on their investments rather than improving the lives of many of our citizens. If latter were the case, we would have more Wikipedias, more public media and non-profit journalism rather than more automated delivery apps. And this merits another warning from Laputa.
The island was kept afloat by a magnetic force dependent on the minerals located underneath it in the land of Balnibarbi, a part of the Laputian king’s domain. While the Laputians were focused on such important inventions as extracting sunlight from cucumbers and reformulating human excrement back into food, they did nothing to improve the lives of low lying people in the colony of Balnibarbi over which they floated. How could they? They lived high above the regular people and could not possibly understand the needs and the daily struggles of those beneath them. Same can be said about our tech and financial elites today — they increasingly live in enclaves with private security, private schools, concierge health, and even private fire services, in islands of wealth where they never have to mix with the underclasses of regular people. No wonder they come up with a Bodega startup whose purpose is to replace a bodega on the corner with an unmanned robo-pantry in offices’ and apartment buildings’ lobbies. How would you come up with that idea if you actually lived in the neighborhood and understood the role real bodegas play in the life of the community? Why would you want to destroy corner bodegas along with the lives of so many low-income people for whom it’s the only means of subsistence?
While the mighty Laputians were floating above their impoverished dominion, their ability to stay afloat high above ground was made possible by the existence of minerals contained in the grounds of Balnibarbi. These minerals fed the magnetic mechanism that enabled Laputa to stay up in the clouds. The floating island could not move beyond the extent of the dominions below or rise above a height of four miles, ultimately tethering it to the low-lying underclass. When the people below rebelled, Laputa’s tyrannical king would threaten to cover rebel regions with the island’s shadow, thus blocking sunlight and rain, or would throw rocks at rebellious surface cities, or in extreme cases, the island could be lowered onto the cities below to crush them. However, doing so would be extremely risky because the bottom of the Laputa island was fragile. Crushing the Balnibarbians would destroy the Laputians themselves, so the king never dared to do so.
Here is a lesson for our high and mighty Laputians: you can’t survive without taking care of the foundation. You can’t be floating on an island dreaming up sensational new inventions without understanding the needs, challenges, and daily realities of life on the ground. For better and worse, the top and the bottom are connected, one cannot survive without the other. To stay afloat you need the provide for the people below. And you better start doing so soon before you make everyone’s lives as miserable, uncomfortable, and anxious as the lives of the Laputians.