The children’s TV series Rainbow was an integral part of my childhood. But what would it have been like with more raw meat? And what if George, Bungle and Zippy had spun out of control to the sound of discordant violins, before using felt letters to spell out the word “Death”?
In 2011, these questions were answered by a video called Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. It was an entertaining way to spend three and a half minutes, and deservedly went viral.
On one level, DHMIS1 was just a simple joke about a brightly coloured kid’s TV show containing adult themes. But at the same time, the video was an interesting look at creativity and the way it gets packaged up and sold back to us.
DHMIS1 also explored the idea that certain kinds of creativity are unacceptable; that there’s a right and a wrong way to be creative. The most memorable part of the whole thing is where the singing notepad chastises one of the characters by saying “Green is not a creative colour”. This is funny because it’s – well, it’s just bizarre – but also because it skewers those who try to place arbitrary lines between what’s creative and what isn’t.
I’m going to gloss over those two for now, because there’s a new DHMIS video out, and it deals with technology.
The video starts with our three heroes sitting round a table playing a board game. The red guy picks a card with the question “What’s the biggest thing in the world?”
How do you answer such a question? In previous episodes, the characters are helped in their musings by a notepad, a clock or a butterfly. In this episode, we see them turn to a globe. Just as the globe spins around to show its face, it is interrupted by the harsh auto-tuned voice of a computer.
“I’m very clever,” says the computer. The gang turn away from the globe somewhat reluctantly, and decide to let the clever computer help them with their query.
What’s going on here? First, we should notice that there’s no simple response to “What’s the biggest thing in the world?” It’s more like a zen koan than something with a right or wrong answer. If we take “world” to mean “universe”, the biggest thing in the world might be the star UY Scuti (hey, thanks Wikipedia). But is a galaxy a thing? If so, it’s clearly bigger than a star. What about the world itself? Is that a thing? Is the world the biggest thing in the world?
One thing we can be sure of is that a computer isn’t going to be able to answer philosophical questions like this. And if it can, it won’t be much use anyway, like when computers tell us that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42.
Nevertheless, the computer in DHMIS4 is supremely confident. By reducing the world to numbers and code, it believes it can solve any problem. This anthropomorphic computer is filled with our overinflated expectations, like some obnoxiously precocious child. Even though the computer’s confidence in itself is misplaced, the three characters are taken in. “I’d like to be as smart as a computer,” says the yellow one. They decide not to look at the globe (ie the world itself) to help them answer the question.
This is all horribly familiar. We’ve become too dependent on the reality described to us by computers. A couple of examples:
- You take a route given by the GPS instead of the one you actually know is right.
- The stock market is basically controlled by computers, if Adam Curtis is right
- A journalist in Bloomberg this week praised the Apple Watch for keeping him informed about his activity levels. But how accurate does this information really need to be to make it benefit your health?
After a short meditation on the sometimes confusing interaction between digital avatars and personal identity, DHMIS4 turns our attention towards the emptiness that lurks behind the digital world. Lost inside the computer, the characters open doors that show what that world has to offer. They find a range of graphs, “digital style” and “digital dancing”, all repeated pointlessly.
In other words, numbers, fashion and dancing. Soon, opening the door which previously revealed the graphs shows what’s there when the data runs out.
In computerland, data is all that there is. If you break anything digital apart far enough, you reach the digital atoms of zeroes and ones. Beyond that, a void.
In the analogue world, the gradations between things are infinite, fractal. This means that few things in the analogue world are numerically identical. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain, and the same could be said of analogue things. Computers tend towards the opposite. Computers are excellent at duplicating data.
Endless duplication and the ensuing lack of new things leads to monotony, which in turn leads to alienation and despair (see Murray, B. 1994, Groundhog Day).
DHMIS4 overstates this perhaps, but I think they’re on to something. It can sometimes feel like there’s an emptiness lurking behind the on-off binaries that make up the digital world. Automated quizzes tell you you’re either right or wrong. Facebook lets us friend or unfriend someone. Computers can feel like quite crude instruments when we use them to reflect analogue and multidimensional things like the correctness of an answer, or the relationships we have with each other.