It was the kind of song that demands to erupt to life from the cacophony of battling frequencies that result when twisting the tuning nob of an old radio. That aural taste of the ‘old times’ even translates to the advanced digital music players of today.
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
Don McLean’s American Pie was the 1971 song that everyone knows, but few know all the lyrics to. Except for my dad, who knew every word. It’s a hell of a story laced with historical reference and colourful allusions. The only definitive bit we know is that the ‘day the music died’ was 3 February 1959 when a plane crash killed rock and roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and ‘The Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson. Beyond that, McLean refused to further elaborate on the song’s meaning and I’ll be damned if that isn’t the way of a true artist. That spirit tethers me to the song. Perhaps my father fancied him as the music-and-joy-delivering god-protagonist engaged in maintaining the dance that would save our mortal souls as he went toe to toe with the devil. Upon reflection the tune is at its heart a song about change. Ironically it has a feedback loop of nostalgia built into it, much as American popular culture seems to have the same specialisation. The song was written to memorialise the end of post-war America as the 60s and 70s rolled in, but really the song alludes to the new change just ahead, the uncertain (and probably dystopic) future that would come to be known as the 1980s. Yet, oddly enough change itself changes in this song. The end of post-war America was one event, the plane crash mentioned above, yet the death of the 70s was to be much slower. Drugs take a long time to clear the system. Free love dies hard. Charles Manson and his Helter Skelter race war failed, but had the Civil Rights movement succeeded? The move from Elvis to the Beatles is as traumatic as the move from the darkness of winter to the brightness of summer. This song was the epic poem of the death of my father’s childhood and the painful baptism of adulthood that constituted his 1980s. It was nostalgia that could prepare him to cope with change. And here I am thinking of how 9/11 was my adulting baptism and how that was only the beginning of what has only been the constant always-already change that we live today. With each succeeding crisis, I long for the pleasant bits of the last one. Sure it was terrible, but at least I could leave the house.
McLean’s song is a tragedy. I suppose nostalgia must always be. The song ends with a toast, a submissive last hurrah to the end of the age of music. Everything ages and all men must die. The whole thing is rather anticlimactic as the midpoint of the song gets so catchy and energetic, but the song ends the same way a good party ends, with awkward silence and no clue what to do next. But I feel the song begs the listener to stop listening, to go and carry on with their own life. It is fun to sing this song and recall the history it celebrates, but here is the chorus, now bugger off. As winter gives way to spring, this song doesn’t so much end as await the next verse, that which is to be written by us and subsequent generations.
As I sat down to write my father’s eulogy, I thought about the generational rift between him and me. I’ve noted it in previous writings, but it brought about a new notion that has been bubbling about in my head in the couple of months that have passed since his death. Before those gathered at his funeral, I made the comment that if I was to describe my father in one word, it was that he was authentic. I was both surprised and filled with a bit of joy as I received nods and positive reactions to the statement from the assembled mourners. Yet almost immediately following it and to this very moment I wonder what exactly that means.
I, along with many of you, have had a great deal of time to think on matters under the various movement restrictions that have sprung up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 leaves a special mark on this issue of Critical Muslim, it is the elephant in the room sitting on the couch that’s going to inform more than a lot of writing that will come in its wake. This particular issue is a snapshot of a time in history, half aware and half unaware of the global impact the virus would come to have. This particular introduction has the advantage of having been written from a place where reflection on the event can occur. Other pieces were written before things went viral, some as events unfolded in real time, so the way the virus is covered in this issue is particularly beautiful. Samia Rahman closes this issue with a thoughtful reflection from when the COVID-19 crisis unfolded through to when the UK went into total lockdown, even with the Prime Minister, a victim of the scourge himself. COVID-19 reveals and shines additional light on the postnormal state our world continues to rapidly descend into. Rahman, a sceptic of postnormal times, is faced with the reality of a world that will not be the same. Her scepticism is pushed to its limits as she resists the urge we all have for a return to normal as we are continually asked to #StayHome. She calls to mind the myriad issues we face that remain waiting on the horizon for us to resolve. She also grapples with the rest of us as the infrastructure provided by Silicon Valley rapidly moves into becoming essential in day-to-day life under Covidy times. E-commerce is the great enemy of small and independent business and the death of the working class. Yet it is the reason the global economy has not totally collapsed following this March and April of true discontent. The crisis has also nudged many of us to give unprecedented control to authority. We rely on vapid individualism to unite us in a communal effort to battle this plague. It would almost appear no one is innocent of having either bent or completely discarded our principles. Under these circumstances, how can we ever hope to be authentic?
The now infamous year 2016 was the scariest year in history, that is until 2017–2020 occurred. Donald Trump, Brexit, and the fake-news-industrial complex showed that democracy is just as susceptible to being hijacked or corrupted as any other system of governance or framework we choose to hang power on. John Sweeney writes from a world held hostage by COVID-19. Times of crisis, such as this pandemic, ‘make abundantly clear, there is certainly an opportunity to promote more engagements that critically and creatively focus on navigating uncertainty, rather than attempting to “manage” risk, at a variety of scales within and beyond government.’ He explores how in conjunction with the greater occurrence of postnormal times, the radical changes we are faced with in our day-to-day give us a chance to look deeper at the flaws in democracy and the way we approach AI. AI after all might be a key factor that contributes to our breaking through to the dawn after the COVID-19 crisis. Yet many issues need to be discussed, debated, and transcended before we run blindly into the futures, those that may fit our preferences and those, both knowingly and unknowingly, that may not fit what we truly desire. Even the desperate prayer for everything to go back to normal and return to business as usual should be taken with a more critical lens.
I think the quandary provoked by authenticity underlies the same discussion Rahman and Sweeney are having. As our world is brought to its knees before a microscopic element of the natural world, we find ourselves hiding in the increasingly artificial world we have created. Plugged-in, with apps and the internet of things maintaining a pseudo continuation of society we now see, upon the precipice, the loss of our natural world and even the loss of our authentic selves. Our social media feeds become the private confessional booths of the reality TV shows we always thought our interesting lives warranted being produced. Christopher Jones harkens back to an old-school (dare I say authentic) form of environmentalism that brought about the Gaia theory. Well within his rights to present a ‘hate to say it, but I told you so’ tone, Jones doesn’t waste time pointing fingers, but instead looks to the future and presents us with four scenarios. Each one set to a different degree of how artificial we can make this planet, looking for hope in increasingly hopeless times. That is the hidden spirit of postnormal times. For when Ziauddin Sardar first spoke of it, he left us with the ground work for a solution, which can be found in creative imagination.
We can tackle the issue of the artificial by placing it in the ring with its apparent opposite, authenticity. Interestingly, both of these concepts can be framed within the fear they promote. Why do we fear the artificial? Why do we fear that we may not be authentic? Exploring these polar ideas under the lens of fear works as a sort of check and balance. Fears are never simple. Often, they can become infinitely complex when studied. For fear may be of one particular thing. Consider a spider. But often fear comes with a history, or at least a pedigree. In lieu of a proper lineage, fear can also spawn from associated ignorance, or ignorance of where it comes from, even ignorance derived directly from the very thing itself. Fear of spiders can be fear of a spider’s potential abilities. But it may be a fear of something spiders represent from networks, to predatory behaviours, even to things that are just different. Unknown. Particularly in relation to two opposing fears, such as that of the artificial and that of the authentic, we may find them more intimately connected than we are comfortable with. As we investigate these two ideas, let us really test their flexibility to see if they might become something very different or even non-existent in postnormal times.
The contemporary world has no shortage of things that scare us to death, artificial and authentic play an interesting role in global anxiety. In parsing out their pedigree, we might just figure out what makes them so frightening. Right off the bat, a point of order needs to be made. The adjective ‘artificial’ in today’s context has us all pining to add ‘intelligence’ to the cold lonely word. While AI is an essential talking point, which is addressed at length in this issue, there is a deeper world to explore behind the idea of artificial. There’s more to it than homicidal robots. Ironically, this divisive term has some of its old roots in common with the idea of togetherness and harmony. Despite our notions of artificial being a relatively new, or even futuristic, notion, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas lays out an etymology that takes the word back to ancient times. He writes an impressively neutral journey through the branching of language that takes us to artificial intelligence, a term only coined in the 1950s, and its meaning today. Leave it to human history to take the simple concept of bringing two things together and see it out to a contemporary debate on masters and slaves. It is a strange origin for a horror story where humanity and the artificial go back and forth helping each other to be better together, until a fear is birthed that one might be better than the other. The existential problem arrives when we step back and see that the artificial and the human are both ‘created things’. Our beliefs, our histories, the assurances we give ourselves to get through the day drive us to believe the only way the fear of the artificial can be overcome is via the Thunderdome. Two constructs enter. One construct exits.
In these strange and anxious times, it is important to take stock of how our fears inform and construct the narratives and the stories we tell. Since narrative can have such a strong impact on the decisions and actions we take, it is imperative to reverse engineer this process. In doing this we can critically analyse our fears and give ourselves a more sophisticated lens to face what we are afraid of. At its root, it is just a simple exercise of knowledge building, but actually it is not just another volume of ‘what we know’, it is going through, clearing ignorance, and if not diminishing uncertainty, definitely making clear what it is that we know we don’t know.
If we don’t set these pieces up correctly, we risk walking into a minefield. Just as our brains notice we are watching the cliché horror film suspense build up prior to a jump-scare, we instinctively avert our gaze. The things that scare us, often scare us so much that we are driven to abandon rationality in the hope of a quick solution. So, let us turn on the lights, check under the bed, in the wardrobe, and confront the monster directly.
Why do we fear the artificial? I believe the answer to this question is, perhaps ironically, the reason we love the artificial. It might just be better. But how can better be bad? Leave it to the hyperbolic capitalism of today to turn everything into an advertisement. Ever notice how all marketing campaigns compare their product to the ‘other guys’? Our product does everything theirs does, but ours does it better, or faster, or for half the price. How might human beings look on an Amazon product comparison? Could artificial intelligence be better than human intelligence? What about cybernetic augmentation? And let’s not just limit this to bodies and information, artificial is practically a fad. Maybe you don’t fear the artificial, but do you fear a fake? Fake identities and fake ideologies carry half the baggage and make you fit in a crowd. Fake lives are so much easier to manage, no?
I would argue that the fear and love of the artificial is driven by a survival vestige that one might hope we would have been able to transcend by this point. This instinct derives from the primal fear of the loss of supremacy. Nobody wants to be left behind. This is why each period of human existence is thought to be the best it had ever been. This fear drives progress and pushes us to be better, which is not a bad thing. But as the tragedy of the commons goes, all good things can be abused. This same drive propels the myth of race, fundamentally the desire to be better than the Other. While we squabble over which geographical origin point, glorified god, or skin pigment concentration makes us better than them, a truly new entity sits on the horizon ready to upend the whole history. Unifying us all in our mutual obsolescence.
And the few who can see the torch in the cave for what it really is, what do they do? They construct more fake things. There’s the tragic flaw of the human race. We are master tool users and so what do we do when threatened? We build more tools of course. So, we find ourselves in a farce of building tools to subdue other tools. But really, colonialism and globalisation were perfect practice for this final asinine battle. But perhaps there are places where one most definitely could not fake it until they make it. Universal truths, such as religion. Yet, as Abdelwahab El-Affendi explains, religion becomes not only a great locus of mimicry, it also tends to be a place where the art of fakery is perfected. ‘Religion should be the last place fakery should thrive. After all, God knows everything. There is no place to hide from Him. If you fake it, He would know.’ But it is this very assumption which shakers and movers throughout history have hidden behind as they played out their nefarious games. Religion, often a unifying symbol of humanity and love is used to divide, spread hate, and even pit others against each other in never ending cycles of evil and destruction. In the realm of the artificial, it would appear nothing is sacred. When we realise the weapons we build can be used against us, we turn to thought. We construct narratives, fake histories, and propaganda to keep those endorphins flowing so we can sleep at night as we set the stage for our own Armageddon. Populism is cranked into hyperdrive and, fearing the robot overlord poised to overtake us, we double down on our own supremacy. We tell stories of how British was always British. We ask people to speak American. We say, if it’s European, it must be better. We ignore any skeletons we unearth when making the next luxury apartment complex. We cast any alternative as fake news. Even pitted against our own snuffing from existence, united in that truth, we cling to the differences because that story is how we keep the killer robots at bay. Unless we can use those killer robots to further racial supremacy over an Other. Even if a more multicultural and pluralistic world may, in fact, be better, we ignore it for fear of having lost that supremacy.
Spinning lies for survival, or at least the survival of supremacy, is all too familiar in the realm of scientific knowledge. James Brooks tracks the intoxication of science news by PR departments painting scientific insights as sexy propaganda. The resulting offspring are unrealistic expectations and bogus public promises. ‘Fake news starts with a lie and strives to make it credible; science PR takes a genuine event and extrapolates it to fantastical end-points.’ Perception and reality are torn asunder and no one can verify what is true. Myths are advanced, such as scientific progress is always good, alongside problematic realities, such as scientific progress both warns of and simultaneously creates climate change. Brooks rests his hope on this having to eventually reach a breaking point. But will it happen soon enough for us to change our ways?
Despite the fact that this fear can be taken to fanatical lengths and reveal motivation for some evil acts, it is not necessarily a shameful fear. Particularly coupled with the fact that most films about AI and robots in the future end with human subjugation or humans being such horribly flawed creatures that their annihilation is actually in their own moral self-interest. The seriousness of this fear resides in whether or not the stakes are the end of the human race, which, all other opinions aside, I think most agree would be at least tragic. The question we must ask is if coexistence is possible. And this question, to many is the defining question not just concerning the discussion of the artificial, but with application to various social ills.
As our mechanistic boogie man comes out from the shadows of nightmare into reality, instead of considering whether or not we might be able to cope with and live parallel to the artificial, we about face and turn to the mirror. In our reflection, we hope to find that one thing that separates us from the monster, the authentically human and definitely non-monster part of us. Heaven forbid we become the monster. Is that really the worst thing that could happen? And is authenticity all it’s cracked up to be?
When you really look at the conceptualisation behind the word authentic, it is incredibly problematic. But how? Well, it would appear at face value that everyone wants to be authentic. Right? Since nobody wants to be fake. Right? Well, putting authenticity up against artificial is a tough competition. While artificial dates back to ancient times. Authenticity is rather a new idea. Yet, they both have a pervasive nature that allows them to infect ideas before and after their indoctrination into popular parlance. Interestingly, authenticity is the estranged half-brother of individualism. As the entire history of Western philosophy is more or less a story of ‘how to deal with the Other’, artificial was there from the start. As early thought was largely characterised by common thought, the individual was not required for there to be someone outside of the tribe and thus different. It was not until we started asking ‘what am I?’ Suddenly, ‘what am I’ was accompanied by the fear that I may not be authentically what I ought to be. This was not the concern of a strictly communalist worldview as there is reinforcement from your network and any challenges from the outside must obviously be wrong or artificial. Once the Pandora’s box of individualism is open, you can’t help but see the I, even if you think communal worldviews are groovy. Because then you suddenly have such problematic thoughts as, am I being authentically a part of the greater whole. This sounds oddly familiar to fundamentalist arguments for the infallibility of capitalism. As long as we all act selfishly in our own self-interest, being unified in that objective, we magically, selfishly act in the common good. Let’s just hope we are all using the same moral glue to hold that flimsy argument together.
The concept of authenticity has continued to muck things up as we progress through human history. Jean Jacques-Rousseau got the ball rolling in speaking on authenticity as a realisation produced through introspection. A process where we discover our innermost motivations. These motivations come in conflict with external or public motivations. In public discourse we negotiate our inner motives with the motives outside of us in a process that appears to make us less authentic. So, in public we become artificial. Oh, what fun Rousseau would have had with social media! This equating of authenticity with, essentially, ‘human nature’ destines the concept to being eaten alive by the eighteenth and early nineteenth century thinkers. Kierkegaard brings the idea back into the light. Because of the tragedy of the commons, if we try to find authenticity in ourselves alone, we are doomed to despair as society runs rampant, forcing us into horrid inauthenticity. Keeping authenticity a relational matter, instead of it being a relation of ourselves into ourselves, he argues that we should see ourselves in relation to God to find authenticity. But bringing it to God wasn’t the easiest thing to swallow in the rapidly secularising Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Enter Martin Heidegger who gives us one of the better philosophical treatments of authenticity.
In his magnum opus Being and Time, Heidegger relates authentic being to time. The word authenticity actually comes from one of Heidegger’s many invented words, Eigentlichkeit. Roughly the word translates to something that is truly my own. This implies that authenticity is something that we have to take ownership over. Thus, authenticity requires action and the agency to go out and get it. The authentic, bringing it back to time, is the relation between where we are, which encompasses where we came from, and where we can potentially go. For Heidegger, the inauthentic is the default setting of the world. We, as being-in-the-world, act and so take ownership of our being, all of this is a sort of negotiation with the self, the world, and even Others. Both as a descriptor and normative base, we authenticate the world in our actions. Here we can unify our fear of being inauthentic and our fear of the artificial. By reflecting and acting in a shared world we authenticate, which is artificial as it is a construction, but if we see that as our human nature, sprinkle in some religion and ethics, maybe we can live together on this Earth without this fear of no longer being supreme? Yet, as it so happened, one of Heidegger’s first acts after publishing Being and Time was to join the Nazi Party. Oops, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.
Although the pursuit of authenticity seems thus far to be a pretty treacherous journey, I think seeing it as a negotiation might make it an important tool for navigating postnormal times. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that postnormal times are problematic times. And if we are to accept Heidegger’s examination of authenticity, it creates a serious predicament for our scrutinising artificial and authenticity. These two fear harbingers seem to collide, and in their derailment, lose their meaning. And the clean-up becomes a very confusing mess. Yet not entirely foreign under the purview of postnormal times. Recall complexity, chaos, and contradictions. These among the other tenets of postnormal times need to be accounted for as we go about authenticating the world. I believe contradictions are key here.
To be authentic does not mean to be free from contradiction. That may not be possible in the contemporary world. After all, it is brought to the forefront of our minds by the COVID-19 pandemic. We, as humans, are complex, and so simple solutions will not do. This is why we have to be weary of nostalgia. It can lead us towards a new type of romanticism that Liam Mayo warns us about in his scathing criticism of modernity. He notes how the modern period set in motion an artificialisation that does not turn back unmotivated. It replaces the old world in cold, calculated steel and drains essential elements of what it is to be human as modernity eats its own tale attempting to be authentic. The world rendered is unable to cope with change, let alone the changing change of postnormal times. This is the internal problem of Don McLean’s song. He sings of how America longs for ‘old time’ values yet partakes in the radical freedom of the 1970s. The simple slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’ carries on the American dream of having the cake and getting to eat it as well. This simplistic lens of historical investigation is doomed to fail on launch. As Heidegger suggests, the process of authenticating ourselves needs be a negotiation between the past and what may come. This will result in contradictions. It is in transcending these contradictions that we find the authenticity we so desire. And it’s a construct. It’s artificial, but it is something many have argued that only humans can do. The authentic is artificial. Kint is Söze.
In a touching tribute, Hassan Mahamdallie challenges us to see people beyond the pictures that remain after they have passed. Defining physical features, skin colour, hair, and even the expressions we flash all give us a snapshot of a reality. ‘In reality,’ Mahamdallie writes, ‘Maureen exists not in some narrow trickle of nativist exclusivity, but as a unique combine in a churning current of working-class identities, forever mixing, merging and transforming, often below the surface, mostly unremarked upon and unrecognised, but no less real for all that.’ It is an actuality that may have existed but upon reflection is now artificial as in the eye of the beholder, we lose sense of the great complexity that our fellow human beings are. Our lives are increasingly controlled by algorithms which simplify our complexity to ‘likes’ and other inputs. Blips of data. And with that they do a remarkable job of predicting our temporary nominal needs, but I think they will find themselves hard pressed to comprehend the complexity of humanity, let alone mimic or recreate it.
Yet we lean into this. In the same breath we buy our own artificialisation in the inauthentic of double lives and cry out protest against it. This comes in the form of our alter cyber egos or even the persons we find ourselves playing in public versus in private. And when we are motivated to reconsider it all, the two ideas, artificial and authentic are too contradictory to negotiate. And don’t the alternative sound so much nicer? This brings to mind the 1991 R.E.M. song ‘Shiny Happy People’. This song is one of the rare few that gains a great deal of depth through its music video. The song on its own is pretty indistinguishable from the general dissonance of the happy-go-lucky peace-time 1990s Western world. Although, maybe it’s just a bit too giddy. And you’d be wise to look into it. The music video seems to perpetuate your initial feelings on the song as the band R.E.M. sing ‘gold and silver shine!’, dancing in a deranged fashion in front of a sequence of hand-drawn landscapes. The over-the-top sincerity of the jovial jam is only made more ridiculous by the anarchy that was 90s Western fashion. But then, suddenly the song pauses, and the beat becomes sober and the video focuses on the background, which was always fake, but now all the more so as we are shown the sad looking old man, pedalling a bicycle device that is causing the landscapes to rotate. Happiness it would appear is the construct of efficient unhappy labour. Having taken in a huge gulp of reality, instantaneously the music speeds back up and the band is joined by a random and diverse crowd that dances with them for several stanzas making sure to keep the act up, no need to focus on the reality. We can all just be ‘shiny happy people holding hands’. Though in times of COVID-19, we may want to keep the hand holding to a strict minimum.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that such contradictions trade fear for comedy. After all, Karl Marx said we should agree with Hegel on the duplicate repetition of history, ‘the first time as tragedy, second as farce’. But which one are we on? Which one is the real one? Either way, these conflicts lack the attention they drastically need. And despite the fact that most people are walking contradictions, it seems to be a severe minority who embrace it and transcend the deference. Persons of contradiction are rarely appreciated, let alone understood. The world seems to demand too much structure and logic, but now as we wait in our isolations, we see all of that beginning to crumble.
What we need most is a change of perspective. We live multiple lives. Built realities and realised fantasies. Our constructs have become our crutch in the natural world. COVID-19 run rampant; we may try to see how we can continue on in our own negotiated authentic way through the new avenues provided by technology or even those brought about by embracing a new perspective or idea. The lines between what is authentic and what is artificial are blurring, so why not embrace this strange change. And whether you are reading this in confinement or the fresh, free air of public, we can take comfort as we are all writing the next verse of Don McLean’s song. Maybe the music can live again and we can move beyond the fake. And maybe for the first time, be something truly real.