Has there ever been a global emergency communicated with this much data? The numbers are vital for leaders making agonising decisions, and useful for the rest of us as we modify our behaviour. But most of us are drowning in a sea of deadening graphs, charts and figures. Data is not designed to engage our emotions or our senses, so it can have a numbing, even anaesthetic effect.
With prescient timing, a new album has reminded me that one antidote to this anaesthetic is aesthetic; we need art, beauty, creativity to also help us process what is happening. This week, the BBC released ‘Isolation, In your words,’ a song cycle, commissioned as part of the Culture in Quarantine series.
Based on interviews recorded in the first national lockdown — spanning a wide cross-section of the public, from children to cancer patients, medics to furloughed workers — it draws on jazz, rap, a cappella and musical theatre to create a lush and effecting soundscape of the UK’s 2020 experience.
In one episode, a child speaks about wanting the world to turn back into 3D because “2D isn’t as good. You can’t touch anything”. In another, there are meditations on technology that illustrates how digital devices have been a saviour for many older people, yet an addiction for an aimless younger generation, one of whom raps: “I am consumed by the things I consume”.
Elsewhere, a doctor fights to get her colleagues to take her breathlessness seriously, but is told it’s just anxiety, while a regular NHS service user, cut off from his trips to the wellbeing centre, says: “I won’t starve, so to speak, but you can starve in other ways”.
Turbulent times require more than numbers to navigate. Reason, data and evidence are all necessary but not sufficient. And an over-zealous focus on them can numb us to what we are really living through.
In the West we still live in the long shadow of Kant’s conception of reason and the rational life. As Terry Eagleton comments:
This time around, I want to make sure I am drawing on all my senses, as well as the numbers, to get through.