Saturday, January 16

Stop the clock

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Let me start by retelling an old myth. The Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong (he of the ‘A journey to the West’ fame) was forever having to defend his realm, the Flower and Fruit Mountain, against his covetous neighbours. One day, when he returned from a long trip he found his followers in distress.

“Why did you leave us for so long. In your absence we were bullied by the neighbouring demon king. Many of us paid dearly, some with their lives.” They cried.

When he heard that the Monkey King was in a rage, sparks shot out of his eyes, smoke from his ears and all his hairs stood on ends.

“Bring me my weapon, the iron staff,” he said, “I will deal with this disturber of peace”.

Such was the ferocity of their fight that it was a like a cyclone, hurricane and whirlwind rolled into one. From far it looked like a column of dust and flying rocks reaching up to the sky. Eventually the Demon King lay vanquished. As Sun Wu Kong was about to bury his cudgel into the head of his enemy he gazed into his eyes, the reflection played out the past life of the Demon King. It showed that though he was born a demon, he had for millennia tried to live a life of religion and meditation, in the hope that he would be reborn to a higher order and reach enlightenment.

The Monkey King said, “I can see that you have lived a life of religion but unfortunately you have succumbed to the vice of greed. In your years of meditation, you have acquired some wisdom. If you are to share this with man perhaps the Divine will have mercy on you”.

“I can foresee thousands of years from now mankind will face a great danger that could lead to their destruction. Share with them this pearl of wisdom that will help them to avert the calamity.” He then whispered weakly in the ear of Sun Wu Kong and exclaimed “… STOP the Clock!” All the little monkeys around were scratching their heads and wondering what was the pearl of wisdom that he shared and what was the clock.

Now zoom forward to thousands of years. The Clock the Demon King referred is the ‘Doomsday Clock’. It is a symbol that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. It is maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientists were so freaked out by the destructive power of their invention that they created the concept of the Doomsday Clock, a metaphor for threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technical advances. The Clock represents the hypothetical global catastrophe as ‘midnight’ and the Bulletin’s opinion on how close the world is to a global catastrophe as ‘minutes’ or ‘seconds’ to midnight, assessed in January of each year. The main factors influencing the Clock are nuclear risk and global warming. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board also monitors new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity.

The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. It has been set backward and forward 24 times since then, the largest-ever number of minutes (the safest) to midnight being 17 minutes in 1991. In January 2018 it went down to two minutes to midnight and left unchanged in 2019. However, on January 23, 2020, it was moved forward to 100 seconds (1 minute 40 seconds) before midnight. This is the most dangerous and nearest to a global apocalypse – the end of the world.

What factor brought this drastic change? It is cyber disinformation; this could be a harbinger of the end of the world. Disinformation driven by swarms of computer bots and emerging technology such as deepfakes are sowing rancour across the world and arguably this is harder to deal with than existential threats such as nuclear war and climate change.

It was Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandist, who said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Yes, information, whether false or true, shapes our belief and our belief drives our action. This was what 6 million Jews found out. Disinformation by itself is lethal and it is made even more lethal by speed of light that is the internet.

A quote popularly ascribed to Mark Twain reads ‘a lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.’

Actually, it is not just a matter of transmission; it is more of the matter of acceptance. It is so much easier to uncritically and blindly believe any piece of information than having to independently check if it is true.

Donald Trump and his team recognise the power of the above two sayings, hence he spent thousands of hours spewing out outlandish allegations on the internet, and it worked! There is a sizeable percentage of Americans who want to give this mad man the key to the nuclear arsenal that can wipe out the world. In these last few days, we witnessed tens of thousands of so-called ‘American patriots’ defiling the very tenet of their democratic constitution in support of Trump.

So, let us go back to the question of the pearls of wisdom given from the dept of history that can save the earth. The Demon King whispered weakly into the ear of Sun Wu Kong:

1. The phone is not your soulmate. Your family and friends are.

2. Your virtual friends are just what they are, virtual. They are not real.

3. Do not believe everything you read on the internet.

“How do we determine what is true and what is false” you might ask. Well, the Demon King predicted that question and so offered this advice.

“The Divine has given man the gift of reasoning and critical thinking. Use it! Don’t spurn the gift”.