The Philistine

The Devil in the Details

Would you sell your soul to the Devil in exchange for all the knowledge in the world? I asked my eight-year-old nephew the classic Faustian question, and he thought about it for a few minutes before confidently answering “Yes”. He reasoned that if he knew everything in the world, he would know how to get his soul back. Smart kid.

Salvatore Babones’ The Philistine appears in every Quadrant.
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Smartass. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus had a dozen chances to get his soul back, but he refused to take them. Here’s some good advice: when magic Latin words appear on your arm telling you “Man, flee!” it’s time to get the hell out of Hell. Goethe’s alchemist, Faust, actually was saved from damnation by Gretchen’s prayers, which he surely didn’t deserve. God moves in mysterious ways, and girls even more so.

Folklorists tell us that the Faust legend of an ill-advised deal with the Devil is a relatively recent Christian innovation, while my nephew’s version is the oldest folk tale in the Indo-European languages. It existed in the ancestors of the Romance, Germanic, Slavic and Baltic languages, as well as in ancient Greek and Sanskrit. The original tale is thought to date from 3000 BC and to reflect what must have been seen at the time as the most amazing feat of alchemy ever performed: the invention of bronze.

Bronze was humanity’s big break. Before bronze, cutting tools were made of wood, bone, shells or stone. Humans had discovered precious metals like gold and silver, but they weren’t very useful for making axe heads or saw blades. The discovery (invention?) of bronze changed all that. Mix seven parts copper to one part tin, heat until fluid, then cool to set. Goodbye, Stone Age; hello, bronze armour, spears, helmets and swords.

Copper and tin, the ingredients for bronze, are both relatively soft, but if you blend them in just the right proportion, you get a metal hard enough to chop down trees, line wagon wheels, shoe your horses, and decimate your foes. As the first transmutation of metals ever discovered, bronze was present at the birth of alchemy. The secret of its manufacture could only have come from the gods, and the intense heat of the forges from which it emerged made it easy to tell which gods those were.

So it is that in the Western world’s oldest story, “The Smith and the Devil”, it’s Old Scratch himself who teaches our ur-Faust the recipe for bronze—in exchange, of course, for his eternal soul. Considering that Heaven hadn’t been invented (discovered?) yet, that might not have been such a bad deal. In those days, the best anyone could hope for after death was a pale, blood-drained afterlife of eternal melancholy. Still, why take any chances? The smith used his newfound metallurgical skills to forge the world’s first shackles, and when the Devil came to claim his marker, the wily smith used them to clap him in irons—well, bronzes. The smith kept him locked up until the Devil annulled their contract.

Smartass. Still, when the Devil asks for your soul, it’s probably best to think twice, especially if the terms are a bit vague. But the Bronze Age is long gone, and these days the Devil tends to be more modest in his demands. Instead of your soul, it might be your data, or your privacy, or even just your IP address he wants. In exchange, he (or Google, which is much the same thing) will still give you access to all the knowledge in the world. That may not be such a bad offer. In fact, it may be quite a steal.

The Devil Google and his sexy demons Siri, Alexa and Cortana offer all of us the opportunity to know just about everything there is to know. All they want in return is marketing information of sufficient sophistication to allow them to anticipate our desires, and even to shape them. What they want, in essence, is access to our brains. If we accept, they won’t make us any wiser (omniscience certainly didn’t do much to improve Faust’s judgment), but they will make us smarter. Like my nephew, we can even ask Google how to prevent Google from skimming our information. The answer is simple: for $10 a month, you can do all your online browsing via a virtual private network, or VPN.

When you use a VPN, you are effectively browsing the internet through a secure connection to someone else’s computer, which acts as an agent negotiating with websites on your behalf. The VPN puts a thick firewall between you and the organisations who want to know everything about you. If you’re a citizen-journalist revealing the secrets of a corrupt regime, a VPN could save your life. And if you want to watch television shows that are blocked in your country, you can log into Netflix through a VPN with a better geography. But if you use a VPN for all your online activity, you’ll find the internet a blander, duller place.

Internet privacy sounds great, until you try it. We all value our privacy, but we still expect the internet to know who and where we are. We want our browsers to properly autofill forms, our news feeds to tell us about local events, and our search results to reflect our most idiosyncratic informational desires. When I search for “Luther”, I want to see the rebellious monk pop up on my screen, not a load of links to a television series I’ve never heard of (score—Bing 1, Google 0). And I would much rather Google learn about Luther by monitoring your searches than by messing up mine. Search algorithms are subject to the free rider problem, and although I value my own privacy, I certainly don’t value yours. If I use a VPN, my internet experience is still improved by your data openness, but if everyone hides behind a VPN, all our experiences are degraded.

Australians seems eager to stick it to the Devil by passing tough new internet privacy and pricing laws, but they may regret it. To see why, look to Europe. In Germany, residents can request that pictures of their homes be scrubbed from the internet. As a result, Google Street View is unavailable in most of the country. In Spain, the government imposed a universal copyright fee of five cents per day on the use of news snippets by websites like Google, Facebook and Twitter. The devils simply removed news snippets from their sites, and now you can’t find the news in Spain. Multiple studies have confirmed what every Faustian intellect knew all along: in a truly free market, news organisations would be paying Google to feature their snippets, not the other way around. Heedless, France followed Spain into news oblivion last year.

Meanwhile all across Europe the dreaded General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protects ordinary citizens by forcing them to click “OK” every time they visit a website. Everyone clicks “OK”. If you don’t, you can’t even access government services, never mind buy a train ticket or order a meal. Exactly what are Europeans okaying? Who knows. Who cares. If all the angels can offer is “click or be damned”, we might as well deal with the Devil. Many non-European websites actually ban themselves in Europe, because allowing access isn’t worth the cost of complying with the GDPR. If you want to see them, get a VPN.

The truth is that our data really isn’t worth very much to anyone, least of all to ourselves. If you think your data is valuable, try selling it. Google will give you total knowledge for your data, but it wouldn’t give you a penny. Knowledge is, after all a public good. In the aggregate it is expensive to produce, organise and maintain, but the marginal cost of making it available to one more person is essentially zero. So Google will give you knowledge that has no marginal value for them in exchange for data that has no marginal value for you, making a few pennies along the way. That seems reasonable, but reasonable or not, it’s the only deal on the table.

In the twenty-first century, we all have access to truly Faustian levels of knowledge, and if knowledge is power, absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely. So maybe we shouldn’t get too carried away with our Faustian desires to know who won the 1942 Academy Award for best actor (James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy) or how many pints make a peck (sixteen); they may be corrupting us more than we know. Then again, maybe absolute corruption doesn’t sound so bad. Hey Google—call Mephistopheles. I’m ready to sign.

6 thoughts on “The Devil in the Details

  • glenda ellis says:

    I checked the comment regarding Luther. 100% correct; a whole page of sites discussing the TV series. Unbelievable. Well, not actually.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Correction please! We have access to truly Faustian levels of information, not knowledge. And then we can note that most of the information is false.
    In many places today, for example, governments are testing for COVID-19 using a PCR test, and publishing the results daily as “cases”. That is information. However the fact is that the entire enterprise of PCR testing is meaningless. I won’t bore you with details. Michael Mina has the answers (YouTube).
    What in the end is knowledge? To me knowledge implies more than just an assemblage of “facts” in an encyclopedia on my shelf. It would be much better for Victoria if the over-informed public servants and parliamentarians actually had the mental framework necessary to turn that fire-hose of information into knowledge. The lockdowns would then cease tomorrow, because in truth they achieve nothing. What we see is vast quantities of information – data, percentages, graphs – the significance of none of it understood by the recipients. Lockdowns would cease because of Sweden. That’s knowledge.

  • ianl says:

    >”The discovery (invention?) of bronze …”

    An old but interesting question. Applicable to many developments.

    Most likely it was the result of an accident, or a deliberate what-if, with unexpected but acutely observed consequences followed by trial and error. No intuition could tell that combining tin and copper would make a fantastic new metal nor that a 1:7 ratio was the magic number for it. The acuity in grasping where the unexpected consequences of a mistake or accident may lead to is quite a startling characteristic of homo sapiens.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    PCR [DNA/RNA] amplification and detection was invented in 1985, and I supplied it from that time onwards. It is fast – hours – and if not contaminated in a slack lab, accurate. It detects both live and dead virus. It requires the doctor to name the virus he wants looked for.
    CULTURE detects live virus only. It is slow – days – and expensive. Culture for viruses was invented by Pasteur. Pasteur was forced to use whole animals – dogs and rabbits – to grow his Rabies vaccine.
    Pasteur discovered that a bite from a rabid animal resulted in death in 1/3 of cases; 2/3 became immune. Pasteur successfully embargoed this fact for 100 years; it made him look like a genius who had produced a 100% cure rate, and helped with sales from his private lab. About 1% of cases actually died from the vaccine, but the bite was blamed.
    I wasted 5 minutes skipping through YouTube Michael Mina; I could have wasted 42 minutes. I learned nothing from Mina.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    PCR and all other tests – what matters is the quality of the lab doing the tests.
    Queensland Government “Scientific Services” recently produced two major panics in not only Rockhampton but also Blackwater, with totally wrong PCR tests for Wuflu.
    This socialist lab used to be called the “John Tonge Lab”. Us chaps in the trade used call it the “Gone Wrong Lab”. After a decade or so word leaked back to the comrades and the name was changed to another oxymoron “Scientific Services”.
    That kind of lab gets science a bad name; the quality of service also degrades the real meaning of service. It was always so.
    When I started my private lab half a century ago, John Tonge was the director of the State Health lab. I sent my specimens for tuberculosis, Q fever, brucellosis etc to State Health, just like all the other pathologists in Queensland. Dr Tonge returned my specimens and refused to test them. So, in 14 days I had all these tests up and running. I sent my notifications to a good friend in the Commonwealth Health department in Canberra. For the next 20 years Queensland Government statistics showed that no-one in Central Queensland ever got sick. One day the comrades woke up and passed a law requiring me to notify Queensland Health. But there is more.
    In 1986, Queensland Health tried to remove my tuberculosis license. The hearing was frightfully embarrassing for Queensland Health. We shared two patients that year. [1] An aboriginal lady AK: I received one specimen and diagnosed tuberculosis – State Health received six specimens and reported them all negative. [2] A european man GS: I received a swab from an eye doctor from a corneal ulcer, and within 30 minutes had diagnosed Mycobacterium chelonii and organized his correct antibiotic treatment plus a transfer to Prof Hirst for excision. State Health got their antibiotic diagnosis wrong, changed my treatment, and the patient relapsed. I had to repeat the salvage again 3 weeks after my original diagnosis. Thanks to me the patient ended up with 6/6 vision. I kept my TB licence. The director of the State TB lab went into early retirement.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    I would like to say one more thing about tuberculosis bacteria in 1986.
    In 1986 a patient in the Royal Perth Hospital Eye Clinic went blind.
    A month later there was a shout of “Eureka” from the lab.
    We know why that patient went blind.
    He had Mycobacterium chelonii in his eye.
    When it comes to a dangerous disease 30 minutes is life/sight saving.
    30 days is OK for the death certificate.
    There are three kinds of labs [1] ones like Pasteur who make things happen [2] ones like Royal Perth who figure out what did happen [3] ones like Queenland Health who have no idea what happened.

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