We are used to borrowing metaphors from the physical world.

When we’re at sea, we think in terms of tides and wind; when on land, in terms of slope and cover. But if I ask for “leeway”, I am asking for buffer, not from the physical drift of a vessel in the direction of the wind, but for any hiccups that may arise. The nautical analogy is so apt, that it has come unmoored from its physical reference.

As our lives and interests migrate to a non-physical world, are digital metaphors emerging to keep pace with our evolving lives? Are we there yet?

Ours is a large family and it has been a source of guilt (thinly concealed by mirth) when either parent rattles off a sequence of names before getting a child’s name right. Unseemly as it may be, brute- forcing is the option of trying every option; inelegant in a resource- strapped physical world, but quite reliable in a digital one. With low digital search costs, scammers try their luck with entire populations and hackers throw entire dictionaries at password logins.

Have we begun to do the same, with tricky career or life choices? Brute-forcing and evaluating all possible options or matches—one right or left swipe at a time, perhaps? Are we seeing the economics of search and zero marginal costs displacing a commitment to build or groom?
E.g. She found her soulmate by brute-forcing dates with all 14 vegan, opera-watching, pomeranian-owning dentists in Shanghai.

Brute-forcing can also be performed maliciously. In response, we have to understand our ‘attack surfaces’, i.e., the universe of potential vulnerabilities that a brute-force attacker traverses in search of a way in. Have we begun enumerating our online presences and identities as a way to defend against such attacks? Do we audit our lives online for chinks in these digital narratives? How should we behave in a world in which every publicly available act of self-expression is a potential threat vector?
E.g. His compulsive commenting on social media vastly increased his attack surface—his advocacy of “crunchy rendang” was a matter of public record.

Pivoting is another ripe digital metaphor. Vast hyperlinked on-demand digital libraries enabled by search engines promise new knowledge, art, interests and communities. We discover them conveniently by pulling on digital threads, be they genre, artist, or topic.

Yet, if the family’s Spotify experience is anything to go by, we seem to have dug ourselves into a digital echo-chamber. Where is the multicultural liberation of taste that was meant to follow? Have we discovered the apotheosis of culture…and is it Korean? As we are algorithmically pivoted into profiles and connected into consumer trends, do we have the words to describe this contest for personal agency? Are our tastes being pandered to and groomed in unhelpful ways?
E.g. She had barely finished typing in her gynae appointment before her feeds pivoted her towards milk powder, diapers and early onset Chinese tuition.

OSINT or open source intelligence is pivoting relentlessly on a target of interest. Sweeping up publicly-available digital breadcrumbs, we can assemble them into individuals long before we meet. We are raising the knowledge baseline of the other; no one will truly be a stranger. With a few clicks, reverse image searches can produce a photographic tell- all of an individual’s life. What happens when we drop military-grade intelligence techniques into daily personal interactions? Would OSINT be a metaphor of hope or threat?
E.g. I OSINT-ed my prospective landlord and was intimidated by the fact that she was, variably: an acolyte of Marie Kondo; into oils; and a subscriber to goop.

Finally, virtualisation frees us from our bonds to the physical. If my hardware and environment can be controlled, coordinated or defined by software, this gives me boundless options to share and embellish them. When we are ‘there’, you can have my things, and perhaps more radically, my responses, my presence, my likes, on demand, as I scale myself virtually with avatars and AI, memes, stickers and GIFs. What do virtual parents, spouses and friends look and feel like? More to love? Or less to hold?
E.g. Always to be counted on for a ‘like’ to even the most inane posts, a rolling on the floor emoji for the lamest jokes, he was a virtual friend to thousands.

We may not be there yet, but we can build a vocabulary—and perhaps call out its reefs and shoals before we land upon its shores.

Clarence believes that security will allow digital technologies to achieve their full potential for life, love and happiness. In addition to getting the names of his children right, he has no problems recalling their IC numbers and birth dates for mass COVID-19 necessitated entry as required.

GovInsider and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 contributors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on where Singapore is today, where we came from, and where we might be going.