Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea since 2011.
I have been reading The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (2018) and would like to share my thoughts about a couple of ideas raised in the book.
From the Trump White House to political systems in Thailand, Turkey, Russia, China, and the Philippines we have witnessed a shift to the strong leader model of governing along with a distrust of democracy, its institutions, its processes, and rules of succession. Does this mean we are observing a fundamental shift in attitudes of people living in democracies? Or are there other, better explanations?
The Elephant in the Brain argues that social status has been divided between two styles of leadership: one is based on domination and the other one is based on prestige.
The leader who uses domination reply on an arsenal of weapons: guns, prisons, re-education, exile, censorship, and intimidation. The Alpha male (they are mostly male) builds or co-opts a coalition which overwhelmingly benefits the ruling class socially and economically and the vast majority who aren’t part of the coalition either bend to the leaders will or suffer the unpleasant consequences in an oppressive system. The world is witness to this kind of domination-based, non-democratic, autocratic leader, who uses violence to keep people in line. North Korea is an extreme example where domination takes place by highly restricted access to the Internet and social media.
Prestige as Robert Mueller (the American special counsel who is investigating the Russian involvement in the US 2016 presidential election) shows the second way to leadership. Such a person doesn’t cause fear and a wishes to avoid (unless you are a target of his investigation). This style of leader evokes admiration and we wish to associate with him. We exercise our free will to join a coalition that supports him. We’d vote for someone like him. He doesn’t need to use the threat of force and violence in order to implement his policies or a gun to our head to influence our electoral choice. Such a person has a record showing expertise, contribution to community, self-sacrificing conduct, fairness, curiosity, and the inclusion of different points of view as a natural part of the decision-making process. A combination of these qualities are rarely found in a single individual. But there are such people who have them. Why aren’t more of such type of leaders? What is it about the political process that is biased against opting for prestige over domination, offering no or little choice alternative?
The Elephant in the Brain raises the importance of coalition building in the political process. Their analysis falters as it fails to take into account the significant difference between domination and prestige over the treatment toward the coalition formation process. A common thread through the domination of governance is that the coalition behind the leader is a minority of the overall population. If it were a majority, the Alpha dominant leader would be first to have open and fair elections. Democracy is messy because it allows for a more fluid formation process. The recent events surrounding the school shooting in Florida shows how quickly new and potentially powerful coalitions emerge from the private and public sectors. The new players can work together to create a counter agenda. The new policies threaten the vested interest of the old coalition of gun manufacturers, sellers and owners. The old coalition over time become rigid, brittle, fragile, and, when threatened, ruthless. It appears it is all for the benefit of the leader. But this is almost never the case.
The State uses all of its institutions and powers to reward its coalition partners and to exclude, threaten or intimidate those who signal an intention to form a new political coalition. In the domination style of the political process, a great deal of attention is devoted to exposing the beginnings of new coalitions as anyone of them might gain momentum and post a threat to the existing beneficiaries of the domination system. New coalitions as well as factions rising inside existing coalitions are both existential threat to a domination political system. This is a reason why they rarely have a smooth succession plan. No one trust whether another leader will realign the coalitional interest in a way that will be disadvantageous to some of the partners. The leader in this system comes from some faction of the coalition. They are allies. Everyone else is a potential enemy and a threat.
In the democratic system, the conflict as well as the stability comes from creating a coalition formation space. Most people aren’t political. They don’t follow the political developments on a daily basis. They go about their lives as if politics is happening in another universe that rarely intersects with their own. Yet despite the lack of interest and focus of the general populace, coalitions form to change laws on abortion, pot possession, discrimination and a number of other issues, and leaders who are admired for their leadership of such coalitions are elected to represent the emerging values and interest. If you want to know the true nature of a political system—to cut through the propaganda—examine the history on coalition formation and assess how it correlates with the history of political prisoners. You will find a correlation.
Whether democratic or autocratic, the coalitions that benefit from the power-sharing arrangement are unstable. Coalition partners fall out with each other. Or a new coalition replaces the old one. In the case of an autocratic state the collapse of the coalition usually results in the failure of the state itself. The state institutions reinforced with guns only dissolve or pull back to a small ring around the center of power. Syria is a good example of such a coalitional collapse. When the coalition in a parliamentary system fails, an election is usually called to provide a possibility of new coalitional partners to form and replace in part or whole the old ones, with the goal of bringing in the new members in order for stability and legitimacy to prevail. The lesson of history is political coalitions are not solid, permanent features; they are transitory and have an expiry date.
Democracy has been widely believed to be the best way to ensure that the prestige style of leadership trumped over the domination style. Until Trump came along. Look at who Trump admires. They are all dictators out of the domination mode. Turkey, Russia, China, Burma, the Philippines, and Thailand have leaders that are variations of Donald Trump. What The Elephant in the Brain doesn’t address is how those from the domination style have found with the Internet and social media a new and powerful set of weapons to their arsenal. The anti-democratic forces (there are exceptions such as North Korea) have discovered that digital domination is less bloody once you convince the people outside your coalition to self-suppress their feelings which are now directed against others.
Xenophobia and ultra-nationalist platforms have produced new coalition partners for dictators. Propaganda requires control of the media and exclusion of counter-media messages. It also requires wide penetration to the mass population. The propaganda can be micro-tailored in ways that make earlier propaganda crude and subject to ridicule. Social media—Twitter and Facebook—have become the best new communication channel for authoritarians. They have subverted ‘social’ and converted it into ‘social-political’ that drives emotions in the direction that reinforces authoritarian rule. It converts dictators into populists, and turns Nobel Peace Prize winners into handmaidens of dictators who enable and legitimize their violence. The social media companies are the second set of handmaidens who have equipped authoritarians with powerful emotional weapons of mass persuasion and mass misinformation.
The emotional fury of the Burmese directed at the Rohingya is a signal of how this new world of domination works. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled genocide to live in make-shift refugee camps along the Burmese and Bangladesh border. This ethnic minority in Burma was a convenient way to create super-majorities of Burmese who supported violence against men, women and children. Thousands were slaughtered and raped. Their homes pillaged, burned and bulldozed. The regime labeled this minority group as less than human and the majority Burmese agree. Authoritarians’ strong suit is violence.
As a visible minority group with a different religion, the Rohingya played into the hands of the Burmese government by providing a focal point, playing the emotional card to assemble and rally a large group who share the same fanatical sense of revulsion, hatred and fear. The American far-right embraces an anti-immigrant agenda as do most other countries with a domination style of leadership. In the Internet age, democracy has degenerated into sizeable coalitions based on communal hatred and fear of others.
The voters who elected Trump flipped to the domination, strong-man, and attack the non-believers, anti-ethnic and foreigner model. There is a lack of faith that their coalition would survive a fair, open and honest vote. It may be also why they have little interest in exposing the Russian involvement. The domination style takes allies from wherever they can find them if it means this is the way to power.
This tweet illustrates the domination political style:
The current political trend was featured in a speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban who earlier this month said ‘we do not want our colour… to be mixed in with others’.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22702&LangID=E
Few people thought there were enough such voters to elect such an American president. But there is growing evidence he had help from Putin whose interest is populating the world with Putin-like clones, or at least creating chaos that challenges the Western hegemony. Xi Jinping admires Putin. It has been suggested that Xi Jinping has modelled his own political fortunes along the Putin roadmap (a proposal to abolish term limitation is one evidence). Others have speculated on whether Xi’s leadership will not follow the Putin style of leadership. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/xi-jinping-may-be-president-for-life-what-will-happen-to-china What remains common is the failure to embrace a central feature of limitation: (1) that it is limited in duration; and (2) the measure of leadership success is succession policy, without a smooth transition of power to a new leader, the existing leader finds himself riding on the tiger’s back..
Trump is ill-suited to the democratic process as are the non-democratic leaders in a growing number of countries. These modern authoritarians hunger for prestige—which doesn’t come due to the lack of the leader’s merit, expertise or achievement—so they double down on repression of those who don’t admire them, make fun of them. Censorship, exile, murder or prison are useful tools to enforce submissions. In the digital coalition of hatemongers, the members are emotionally charged up and aim their discontent and bile not at their own regime but at immigrants, blacks, or Muslims as one unified class of dangerous, criminally active and less than human.
History suggests that those tools have not earned a leader prestige outside his narrow coalition of partners in extraction, corruption and other crimes. Their tools bring them dividend rich in loyalty and devotion from coalition members. The authoritarians and their coalition partners have discovered the Internet is the best coalition partner they could ever wish for. This partner has opened a vast platform where the participants believe they are making up their own minds. The hate, fear, and disgust except for their relatives, cronies, and corrupt associates, makes them fall in line with the rulers.
The result is traditional prestige and freedom to build alternative coalitions have been degraded. Norms, laws, and institutions in the United States are in an upheaval as the authoritarian model proves cunning and resourceful in marshalling the Internet and social media, giving them a renewal based on mass support that continues so long as the capacity for hatred and fear is not exhausted.
In the battle between the NRA and a group of 17-year-old high school students in Florida, the world watches to see if the hatemongers can ride out the challenge to their influence and power. If the hatemongers lose this battle, it gives hope that democracy still has the robustness and resilience to put the authoritarian genie back into the magic social media lamp.
Swimming pools of ink have been emptied in the
discussions of the intense verbal warfare in America about politics as the
president fires tweets like a machine-gunner at a wide range of enemies. In all
of these dramatic battles, there’s not been much discussion about a central
question that defines our humanity: have we loss our sense of empathy? Exactly
what makes empathy a desirable trait? I recently read an interview with Nick
Bostrom, Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and
Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, who writes about the danger of AI;
he is worried that mankind might suffer an existential crisis should AI lack
empathy. In an interview with Andy Fitch of the Los Angeles Review of
Books Bostrom draws what is, I
believe, a useful distinction between two different meanings of empathy.
In the first sense,
empathy is our ability to read the mind of others: their intentions, emotions,
and feelings. Our theory of mind is based on the words, gestures, posture, and
the context that provides enough information to make a reasonably good
prediction of what another person wants or is seeking to obtain from his or her
own actions. If you can predict with reasonable accuracy what someone is after,
this is a huge opportunity to take advantage of another’s
In the second sense,
empathy is using the theory of mind to dissect the wants, urges and desires of
others, and genuinely being interested in and caring about their intentions and
feelings. What makes us human is this innate sense of caring. It limits the kind
of actions we take as we want to avoid causing harm to the people we care about.
If we care only about the feeling we share a common cultural or religious
identity or does that caring scale to others who have different attitudes and
beliefs from us? Everyone needs to ask themselves how far the caring empathy
scales to people outside of their tight circle.
A psychopath may have an
overtly developed sense of empathy in the first sense, but a psychopath lacks
any ability to care about the people whose minds he or she can read. No one
existence inside a psychopath’s circle of people whose feelings he cares about
except himself. It’s that void we find frightening about a psychopath.The
psychopath may take it one step further and take pleasure and satisfaction in
harming, crippling or killing others. What Bostrom was concerned about was that
AI is a kind of psychopathic intelligence that may not necessarily set out to
harm us but has no human notion of what it means to care about how someone else
feeling come into play when making a decision or taking an action.
We are some way from
creating an AGI—Artificial General Intelligence. How far away is that time? No
one can predict the time frame. We live with that uncertainty and that risk. Our
more immediate problem is happening now. We are in an era of empathy reduction
of the second kind by us, homo sapiens who have become overtly
polarized. You can find ample evidence in the first year of Trump’s presidency.
The Democrats along with many on the left believe Trump has caused damage to the
democratic traditions and constitution system of the United States. Not to
mention he’s managed, in their view, to have destabilized international
treaties, alliances, and human rights. But Republicans and those on the right
believe Trump will save the United States from the heavy hand of big government
and overregulation, and protect US citizens from terrorists. The US electorate
is deeply polarized, and neither those on the left or the right are interested
in exploring a common political ground. But it has gone beyond politics. People
hate people they don’t know based on their political beliefs and affiliations.
Neither side cares about the feelings of the other. In other words, a large
number of Americans (and others around the world) are slipping into a group
psychopathic mental condition. Both camps have militarized their empathy in the
first sense, and, at the same time, have buried dug the grave for dumping the
second element of empathy: caring.
One row in the graveyard
of empathy (in the caring sense) is filled with the unread fiction. The best
novels celebrate our capacity for empathy and that is why these books have been
written, read, treasured, and handed down. People are buying fewer novels. They
are reading even fewer of the books they buy. I wouldn’t say people are reading
less. Many are reading more from their social media timelines. Is your timeline
a source of empathy for all sides? More likely, like my timeline, it is a
one-sided empathy landscape. Cheerleaders are working 24-hours a day feeding me
signals that remind me when to feel smug and self-righteous and when to feel
anger and outrage. My timelines on Facebook and Twitter allows me to feel
comfortable, right, engaged, part of a community or tribe of people who see the
world very much like me. This is an emotional trap and I’ve stepped in it.
Social media timelines are popular because of the clever way they work on
enhancing our empathy in the first sense of figuring out what someone is
thinking or feeling. It is remaking our vision of the world as one that is
occupied by psychopaths because we use this information to launch an attack.
Read any popular website like the New York Times comments sections on a
political story. It’s a humbling lesson when it comes to empathy. But this is
not how many of us wish to see ourselves. It’s hard to hold up the mirror when
what is reflected is not consistent with our self-image. The Trump
administration most dangerous accomplishment would be not to recognize what we
are seeing in the mirror as 2017 closes. It’s not him. It’s us. You. Me. In the
last year, ask yourself the cost we’ve all paid by concentrating on theory of
mind of others while ignoring caring, letting it atrophy like an unused muscle.
We find a movement to mock the idea of caring. Someone who cares about other’s
feelings are called ‘snowflakes’ as if empathy turns you into an emotional
puddle. Hold that thought for the day when AGI arrives and we are treated as 7.5
billion snowflakes which as far as AGI is concerned, how we feel is irrelevant
to it’s actions.
Fiction has another
purpose—to make you care about all the characters, the good, the bad, and
sometimes even the ugly ones. Characters are said to be thin, two-dimensional,
or shallow if absolutely nothing in their lives, plans, history that humanizes
them, and makes us care about them. We condemn the bad, for whom we withhold
redemption and forgiveness easily. But people and life are complex, often
contradictory, neither black nor white. Caring about the feelings of others
opens the door to a more complex, complicated, broken, and fragile world.
Nothing works the way it should, nothing is really fair or just, and everyone
dies in the end while meanwhile we try to get along with the least amount of
conflict as possible. In order to make an armistice we need load both barrels of
the empathy gun. I don’t see the will to that and that should worry
We have reached a stage of
anger, hate and polarization when we don’t care to consider anything that would
humanize a Donald Trump or a Hilary Clinton or their supporters. Even the best
of our commentators and pundits are drawn into the frontline battles where any
sign of caring is viewed as a betrayal. We cheer when someone on our side lands
a blow, although we should be reflecting and digging deeper. We don’t dig. We
stay firmly on the surface like good soldiers protecting his comrades at arms.
We are at war.
There is a term for what
we are avoiding in caring about something we have intense feelings of
dislike—it’s called cognitive dissonance. We hate and project that negative
emotion on people who don’t think like us. Part of the process is the inevitable
avoidance of facts or information that contradicts our belief about an idea, a
culture, or a person. In this simplistic, binary world of black and white, the
information is sort into one or the other category. You are on the white side;
those ‘morons’ are on the dark, ignorant side. No one cares about what a moron
thinks or feels. We call someone a moron or stupid so we can dismiss, diminish,
mock, or ridicule such people. We have never been so fully weaponized for social
and political battle. Our arsenal includes a mishmash of images, hashtags,
photographs, videos, comments, blogs, and gossips. As digital warriors we sit
before our screen poking the other side in the eye with a digital stiletto. As
they are blinded, it doesn’t hurt, right? Our side cheers. The other side
retaliates in kind. And so it goes like the trench warfare of World War
My New Years wish is that
we start 2018 with an intent to rediscover our second sense of empathy. We need
to remind ourselves, and to urge others, to care more about each other’s
feelings. It’s not enough to care about the feelings of people you like, those
on your side of this digital no man’s land. We need to also care about the
people on the other side and make room for their feelings. We have evidence from
the past where such a miracle happened.
In the history books it’s
called the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve and Day 1914, French, German and
British troops left their trenches on the Western Front and entered no man’s
land where they mingled, exchanged food, played football and sang carols.
Although the generals forced them back into the killing machine, for a moment in
time we were shown a glimmer of the best of our empathetic selves. The lesson is
when you hunt for the caring part of empathy, don’t look to the generals or
politicians or pundits, instead look to the common foot soldier for leadership
in caring. We have a chance to get out of the trenches and call a truce on
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
For a definition of
ethnocracy Wikipedia provides: “An ethnocracy is a type of
political structure in which the state apparatus is appropriated by a
dominant ethnic group (or groups) to further its
interests, power and resources. Ethnocratic regimes typically display a
combination of ‘thin’ democratic facade covering a more profound ethnic
structure, in which ethnicity (or race, or religion) – and not citizenship – is
the key to securing power and resources. An ethnocratic society facilitates the
ethnicization of the state by the dominant group, through the expansion of
control, often through conflict with minorities and neighboring
This definition of
ethnocracy also covers many countries in Southeast Asia. It also extends to
countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Trump’s election was a wakeup
call. We found that what we thought of as democracy was a public relations sham.
Unless, of course, you are part of the dominant ethnic group, then you are
celebrating a return to the way things should be. You’ve recovered your dignity
and respect and those outsiders have been pushed back.
Donald Trump’s election as
president in 2016 signified a major advancement of the concept of ethnocracy.
The current genocide of the Rohingya in Burma is another example of ethnocrats
‘cleansing’ their state of minority ethnic groups.
Demos is the
Greek word for the people. Democracy is a system where the consent of the
‘people’ is the basis of legitimacy for those who govern. The word ‘people’ is
in scare quotes because there lies the problem—how do you define ‘the people’?
The people’s (however you define that group) consent is conferred through an
election. With voter intimidation, suppression, rigging and gerrymandering, it
is possible for a dominant ethnic group to discourage ethnic minorities from
voting. The effect is a political system that has the outward appearance of a
‘demos’ consenting to the governing authorities but in fact this is a
The left and right,
republicans and democrats, nativist and globalist are united in their belief
that the other side is supporting a sham to suppress them. There are daily news
reports showing that the real split is between two social constructs of reality:
global/international and the native/ethnic. The two perspectives, which
determine how to allocate resources, extend security and protection, and set the
power and role of authority are in conflict. There is no middle ground. You see
people as the species or you see the people as a mythological ethnic group of
which you are a member.
An article in the Bangkok
Post reported a growing anti-tourism feeling in many countries. Foreigners are
no longer welcome. It’s not just tourism. Religious dogma has been used as
support for blood letting by nativist groups. In Burma, the genocide conducted
by the civilian and military government has been led with Buddhist monks in the
forefront of the call to eliminate the Rohingya. Trump made campaign promises to
build a long, expensive (an ultimately useless, symbolic) wall between the
Southern United States and Mexico. Bans of immigration and travel have followed.
Racial hatred against minority groups has been on the rise in many countries.
Police brutality is disproportionately applied against ethnic minorities.
Prisons are filled with ethnic minorities. But somehow we can bring ourselves to
see the pattern. One goal of an ethnocracy is to destroy the ability of the
dominant group to see such patterns. Willful blindness is a psychological
requirement for an ethnocracy to work. Women, particularly ethnic minorities, do
not fair well in terms of rights, education, security and protection in
ethnocracies. Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale won Emmy Awards
including Outstanding Drama Series for a dystopia where women had lost their
rights in a rigid, ethno culture.
Censorship has a new life
in the ethnocracy. Knowledge, expertise, and intelligence are devalued and
nativist propaganda bans studies, books, discussion and dissemination of
information that counters the ethnocratic version of reality. The
anti-intellectual fury against science and knowledge workers is understandable.
Unless that knowledge and the scientific method for examining reality is
shutdown or marginalized or dismissed, the results of the research might be used
by the global/international group to undermine the myths upon with an ethnocracy
is constructed. We’ve seen on YouTube ethnophiles who have had a DNA test
showing their mix ancestry and the cognitive dissonance that caused. There have
been, for example, a number of articles showing that historically there was no
ethnicity in the sense we use that term today. The great fear of ethnocrats is
their founding idea of race and ethnicity is true and real rather than a
construct of our minds. Evidence that it has no biological or evolutionary
support will never change the mind of an ethnocrat.
Science is distrusted by
ethnocrats for a couple of reasons. First, science cares nothing about ethnicity
as a membership requirement. Instead scientific method and process depends on
the quality of a mind, it’s openness, it’s curiosity, and it’s ability to
co-operate with others from different cultures. That makes science a global
force and a natural enemy of the ethnocrats who are anti-science in order to
secure their belief system. Second, science has the evidence and the means of
communication to demolish the concept of ethnicity. It is a man-made construct
and the racial hatred it encourages becomes the building blocks of an ethnocracy
and its culture. If you examine the budgets in an ethnocracy they are
surprisingly consistent: science is defunded, de-emphasized, and scientists
encouraged to work as engineers to build a strong ethnocracy.
The nativists are the core
of the ethnocratic dominant group. They will refuse to accept the science of
climate change and for a very good reason—the nativists have no solution climate
change. It can’t be problem if there is no solution. There is only a global
solution to deal with climate change and that is to go beyond ethnocratic
cultures and mindsets. The ethnocrats don’t see an impasse. They don’t find a
problem. You find the same approach with the concept of ‘freedom of expression’
or ‘human rights’. The Burmese rankle at the idea they are committing genocide
or engaging in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. This is, for the nativist,
not a ‘global’ issue, and there is no ‘global’ morality, only local, cultural
ways for the dominant ethnic group to deal with their minority populations. The
government officials don’t want NGOs, news correspondents, or other observers on
the scene to report what their security forces have done along with local
dominant group members. That is consistent for nativists; they believe they are
superior and in the right but when challenged become aggressive about their
rights as a sovereign nation/state and demand non-interference in their domestic
ethnocrats have support for their position in the seventeenth century the Treaty
of Westphalia. “State sovereignty is the principle of international law that
each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to
the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in
another country’s domestic affairs.”
We are no longer living in
the world of 1648 Europe. Nation, like the Greek word, People, has created a
tension as technology has encroached on state sovereignty, and the major
existential problems facing mankind as no longer ones local governments can
address on their own. The ethnocrats want 1648 treaty to be the model now and in
the future. That is understandable if your goal is to advance the interest of a
dominant ethnic group inside the boundaries of a state. Look around places like
the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and America and ask yourself how well the
17th century shoe fits the 21st century foot
The Rohingya genocide at
the hands of the Burmese is bibical in its full fury and brutality.
Unfortunately what is happening in Burma is not unique. Our species evolved as
members living in groups. Our self-identification, culture and group membership
maintains itself by the presence of outsiders. The non-group member is a threat,
the ‘bad’ the ‘evil’ the ‘criminal’ always someone who is less than human, a
demon to be put to the sword and house burnt down.
The implications arising
from the Rohingya ethnic cleansing are disturbing and disheartening for many
reasons. One implication is that we have another lesson of how difficult it is
for us to think in terms of species survivor–a condition for broad-based
co-operation required for climate change measures and human rights. Both are
based on us being part of a universal group. One species.
Peace prizes are awarded
to those few who call for universal human rights. Until the application of those
principles is required at home. Then Aung San Sui Kyi retreated to her native
ethnic, national group and that is a lesson not lost on others elsewhere in the
world. Trump leads the nationalist retreat in America. Around the world you find
leader after leader working the tribal drums against outsiders. You might say
these leaders have failed us. The other side, is more troubling, these leaders
reflect who we are and in shocking ways that are painful to accept.
The Rohingya are the
canary in the coal mine shaft. As more agricultural land become infertile,
temperature rise, extreme weather, and ocean acidification leads to mass
migrations, we will bear witness to tragedies like this on a on a global scale
and this will be a frequent feature of our lives. The cleansing of outsiders is
increasing a big political selling point to power in many countries.
In The Marriage
story revolved around the plight of Rohingya in Thailand. That Calvino novel was
published in 2014. Three years later, the Rohingya are receiving international
attention as the Burmese genocidal rulers sense no push back from America. We
have entered a time when leaders like Donald Trump asked for sympathy with the
side doing the murder, to see the matter through eyes. In which case, I say take
a close look at the photographs coming out of Burma. Ask yourself why you click
on a funny video of a dog streaming on your timeline and why scroll passed a
story about the Rohingya. We don’t want to look. We know but we don’t want to
Our group-think, group-act
psychology no longer works for 7.5 billion people and lays bear our emotional
wiring that is guiding us on a path toward extinction. If you could buy futures
in ‘hatred’ and ‘fear’ as commodities you stand to make a killing.
Most people have experienced enchantment. It’s a moment in time when you find a sense of wonder and beauty in something much larger than yourself, but includes you, and this enlargement of self gives us a subjective sense of bliss and joy. Given that payoff, you would think enchantment is sought after.
But when you look at a bar graph charting the use of the word ‘enchantment’ you discover a steady, long decline over the past 200 years. If it isn’t in the vocabulary, then enchantment is just another of those terms we no longer much think about. If you’d invested in enchantment shares in the stock market of modern life, you would have been a loser. The word still knocks around but has gained a bad reputation by its association with fairy tales. Not to worry; it has been repackaged for contemporary times. We live in a modern era where ‘enchantment’ like most other things have been commodified, packaged, and sold as mass produced experiences. What are the sources of the subjective feeling of being enchanted? Why, in modern times, do we feel disenchanted with life? The answers to these questions are not obvious or easy. What is more obvious is we are in an age of despair, an age of deepening disenchantment. How would be go about for the re-enchantment our world?
During the long period of hunter gatherers, nature with the wild flowers, rivers and streams, mountains, oceans and beaches, birds and animals would have provided a rich, diverse opportunity to feel the magic, bliss, joy, delight and charm that folds into our sense of enchantment. The point is, enchantment is about our subjective sense of how we feel about the world that surrounds us. Evolution would have taken care of eliminating the early bands of homo sapiens whose subjective sense was so whacky as to find bliss in riding a saber-tooth tiger.
Once we entered the agricultural period 10,000 years ago gradually our relationship with nature changed; we took to religion as the way to register enchantment. In the rituals, ceremonies, art, priesthood, angels and saints, we constructed enchantment from the tissue of beliefs that gave us new skin in the bliss and joy emotional space we had inherited from the hunter gatherers’ way of life. With religion, we learned to ride with a new set of communal mythical, celestial beings, holy, divine and enchanting.
The Enlightenment set a fire under the religion’s monopoly over truth-making for both the objective and subjective experiences of the world. Science gradually used observation and experiments and mathematics to provide objective explanations and descriptions that left religious doctrines stranded in misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition. Spinoza saw that religion had become a political enterprise “pandering to popular fears and illusions.” Prophets with ulterior motives have made history of many religions. In recent advances, science has given a biological and chemical explanation for our subjective experience. Consciousness, the so-called hard question, is being pursued and may soon be captured in a commercial or university lab.
To be satisfied with religious literal explanations about the world carried the stigma of ignorance. The educated populations found themselves excluded from the enchantment experience that had been in place for thousands of years. But in most places, even after 500 years, the Enlightenment has failed to substitute for enchantment that has the same appeal as nature had for our hunter gatherer ancestors and as religions had for the post-agricultural communities.
In the modern era of capitalism, enchantment has become a business. I recently listened to an Atlantic magazine podcast interview with Kurt Anderson talking about his new book FantasyLand. Two of the interviews gushed over their joy of visiting Disneyland with their children. There was no awareness that the ‘fake’ and ‘alternative’ reality of Disneyland is a modern enchantment enterprise that comes with tickets, long lines, popcorn and soda.
I may have been too harsh about the Atlantic interviewers lavishing praise of the Disneyland experience. Wikipedia delivers the facts: “Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average annual attendance of over 52 million. The resort is the flagship destination of Disney’s worldwide corporate enterprise, and has become a popular staple in American culture.”
Why are Disneyland and Disney World so popular and not just for Americans? There are Disneyland franchises in France, Japan and Hong Kong. The answer to popularity among diverse cultures is no doubt complex with lots of plausible ways—from mass marketing to alternative entertainment—to connect the dots. One of those answers is Disneyland is what capitalism has invented as a substitute for our desire to experience enchantment and share that joy with members of our family. Can that be so bad? It’s not a moral issue as much as it is an insight into how our modern world has been stripped of the magic of nature and the authority of religion, and in that void flies Tinker Bell over the Cinderella Castle and acts as our guide to the Magic Kingdom. Disney World with a payroll of 74,000 cast members is the largest single-site employer in the United States.
What is left out of the Disneyland enchantment option is the financial cost. While hunter gatherers had the great open spaces to experience enchantment, and the agriculturalist and industrialist age populations had churches available for the emotional uplift of joy, A family of four going to Disney World starts with a minimum budget of $2000 and runs up to $10,000. You reach for your wallet if you want to experience this artificial world of joy. The costs would exclude a lot of people who flock to the megachurches where ‘ministers’ preach sermons that act as a kind of Disneyland substitute for the poor where they are fleeced of their cash.
The problem is Disneyland, Disney World, megachurches are at times in competition and other times complicit with alternative radio, TV, and social media. These modern rivals for our unconscious mind and our subjective state of mind play out in the low-grade psychological wars one encounters on various timelines. Our modern enterprises in the enchantment business—and it is a commercial venture—either haven’t made a dent in the disenchantment of modern times or collaborate with these outlets in a joint effort to manufacture a safe subjective blissful reality. Religious fundamentalists, reality show personalities, and assorted specialized self-help gurus have filled a void. They have found a large unfulfilled bliss market among the discontented and disenchanted. Our subjective feelings are a marketplace where fortunes are made. The modern disenchanted are searching for reasons for why their lives lack bliss and joy. If you are disenchanted, that makes you vulnerable to emotions such as hate and fear. We have failed to re-enchant our world after science and philosophy cast a long shadow of doubt on the enchanters of the past. Knowledge provided the sword and we’ve been using it to chop off the head of enchanters. As most of these were charlatans, the misguided, or the outright grifters, to the scientific mind this was a good thing—to liberate humankind from ignorance is a noble goal.
Our collective enchantment deficiency is another explanation for the rise of someone like Donald Trump and other opportunists. Trump is the face of what a disenchanted person sounds and thinks like. Trump has channeled that absence of transcendent meaning for millions. He understood the world was no longer an enchanting one and could emotionally work up a crowd to support a way to claw back their loss of meaning, respect and purpose. It’s an old political gaming of the psychological desire to have feelings that put us in touch with our subjective need for irresistible charm and beauty that holds us in its spell. W.H. Auden once wrote, “A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.” Thus we must be cautious about spell casters and their magic over large numbers of people. We are easily tricked by the sleight of hand.
What lies ahead is the difficult mission to bring about a re-enchantment. We can’t go back to the hunter gatherers’ way of life, where nature dominated, or to religious explanations that no longer attract many. The experiments with Disneyland and Disney World have been highly profitable but ultimately required us to pay a high price for bogus and fake amusements only to discover the commercial enterprise was failure to re-enchant the world. The 1960s and New Age sought drugs as a way back to enchantment. Drugs became another avenue to furnish the chemicals required to kick start the altered state of mind needed for the enchantment experience. Huxley may have forecast our future back to enchantment—we drink our soma to supply the missing subjective experience we crave about being in the world.
The Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
If we can’t go back and what we have isn’t working, where does that leave us with our instinctive desire for enchantment and its return to our world? There has always been an element of fantasy in enchantments. Hunter gatherers would have read spirits, demons and omens into mountains, streams and forests. Any 11-year-old with a computer, smartphone or iPad can play games and enter virtual reality spaces where magic spells are plentiful. It may be easy to become lost in that world as our objective world is a messy, chaotic, confusing place filled with uncertainty. The allure of bliss and joy transports one beyond the walls of rational, objective reality. We’ve been unable to merge these realities any more than we’ve been able to merge quantum and classical worlds. We have an intuition that they are linked but we can’t discover it.
Everyone has their personal portal to enchantment. Might is Bach’s French Suite, the writings of Jorge Borges or John Berger, or the art of Max Ernst or M.C. Escher. Or just sitting quietly on our porch to watch the sunset at Eel Swamp.
Enchantment is unlocking the imagination and unearthing a sliver of joy, charm, and allure, uploading that feeling into my mind as the mental armor to protect me in the setbacks and disappointment that I surely will suffer in my brush with the unpredictability and uncertainty of my day. Meanwhile, there is no need to go to Paris because an exact replicate of the Eiffel Tower sits in Disney World in Orlando. Only the fake one is much smaller. In the minds of those who see the fake Eiffel Tower there is no difference in their experience as my experience in seeing a reproduction of M.C. Escher or Max Ernst paintings or drawings.
That should give us a hint that our subjective sense is not a reliable reporter of the objective world. But it never was. Enchantment has always been the willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world. The re-enchantment project is open to anyone. The ticket to buy is not at Disneyland, it is the retreat into the realm of imagination for the purpose to experience the bliss and joy that has long been absent in the post-enlightenment world. Ultimately it is this search for enchantment that will separate us from artificial intelligence who can do their work without connecting to a larger subjective sense of bliss and joy. But who can say what the future holds? Perhaps it is with the intermediary of machines will allows to re-enchant ourselves, to open up new pathways of imagination, beauty and grace that light our way back to lives saturated with enchantments. Who knows?
originates from a different perspective inside a patronage system. That seems
obvious but it needs to be made clear. One of the weaknesses of the patronage
system is the planning has undisclosed agendas. No one on the outside knows the
political physics inside that black hole.
There are two areas
where this shows up—procurement and operational procedures. When you purchase
services and goods for use in large system—for example, the military, police,
educators, forest management—planners assess specifications, policy goals,
performance, quality control, etc—all important to an overall evaluation as to
what is being fed into the existing system won’t cause problems of integration.
Say the spare parts aren’t reliable or durable, and when a machine breaks down
the system closes until the repair is made. If that is a transportation system,
then the shutdown affects other external systems—people, for example, can’t use
transportation to go to work. Matters such as training, maintenance, spare
parts, upgrades, and quality control require planning if the new service or
goods will be effective for the purposes purchased.
A number of crucial
public services such as airports, electricity generation, water management,
highways, ports, and waste deposal require a high degree of coordination,
technical skill and understanding and rely on independent experts. Planners
recommend what services and goods are optimal to the overall system directly
involved, and what possible consequences may arise to interconnected system.
Also planners take into account the chokepoints where public and private spheres
overlap. No man is an island, and no public system is one either. System
planning requires a high degree of co-operation and sharing of expertise across
public and private sectors, drawing upon information and knowledge about
operational procedures. Most large systems are networked and fragile. It doesn’t
take much of a sudden change to collapse a crucial, related part of an overall
system. Cut the electricity supply to Bangkok for 48-hours and see what happens
during that period. It wouldn’t be
Take for example,
international airports where airlines, pilots, service and maintenance staff,
immigration, customs, police, private vendors, and ground transportation require
an understanding of vulnerabilities that result if one part of the system
becomes overloaded. Recently, when four additional flights from Hong Kong,
Singapore and China were approved for landing at Don Mueang Airport, brought the
arrival of an additional 1200-passengers into the arrival hall already packed
with passenger from the existing flights that had already landed. Those
additional passengers overloaded the immigration desks and passengers reported a
four-hour delay in getting their passport stamped. One explanation is the
officials approving the additional inward flights didn’t communicate that
information to immigration and customs, or if it was communicated, it wasn’t
acted upon. Incidents such this one illustrates the role of contingency planning
in complex operations. Contingency planning means putting in procedures to deal
with the surprise, the unexpected event. If there was such a plan, it wasn’t
My theory is a
patronage system undermines the capacity for system planning and coordination.
Procurement and maintenance under a patronage system are often compromised
because of the tension of conflicting interest. The obvious conflict is that
patronage works to find ways to ensure a level of benefits flows into the
network of patrons who occupy the top positions in the organization. The part of
the planning for procurement is spent working out what is the best deal for the
patronage network and still will deliver a benefit for the publicly stated
reason for the procurement.
You can tell a
procurement system in a patronage system from the goods it procures—they are
usually from an eye-popping number of different manufacturers, middlemen, and
specifications. That’s the cost of patronage; the kind of diversity that has no
supports outside of the patronage class. Such systems are difficult from an
operational point of view in the same way that simultaneously playing Chess, Go,
and Checkers on the same board would cause problems. As mechanical and
operational breakdowns pile up, it may be too costly to do anything other than
junk the machine or system and procure another one. The point is that in a
patronage system at the operational level things can break down quickly and the
lack of planning for that breakdown is magnified as it works itself through a
complex system. Like a bowling ball rolled down a pool table to break the balls,
everyone realizes this is a different kind of
As the problems
accumulate, it becomes apparent that maintenance and planning issues are
resolved on an emergency basis, and everyone in the line of fire scrambles to
avoid blame and responsibility.
In Thailand, the
history is for governments to plan for the immediate issue, find ways to secure
an immediate play back, and they are less concerned about the knock on effect to
the system as a whole. When a patronage system is scaled up from a less
complicated agricultural based economy to a dynamic, high-tech driven
information economy, the most glaring problem is the lack of forward system
planning. That requires hard analytical skills that look for inefficiencies and
seek to eliminate or minimize them. In a patronage system, it’s exactly that
mindset which is a threat to how things actually work. It is conflict between
two contradictory values—the traditional patronage system (guaranteed stability
to agricultural communities) with an advance modern system that has broader
based tools and is more flexible. The modern system is better adapted to respond
to unstable, unpredictable events. In this clash of systems, authorities will
find it difficult to choose which model to use as a planning roadmap. The
default is the patronage system model. The problem is that model is incapable of
reacting quickly enough to 'surprise' events that can cause system collapse.
Next time you are caught in a
multi-hour airport queue at immigration, remember the system was designed to
serve patrons and not you. Don’t take it personally. It only means that you lack
the right connection inside this closed patronage system; otherwise, you
wouldn’t find yourself standing in the queue with the tired masses. Patrons, in
theory, look after their own circle but if you don’t have a patron, well, you
are on your own to deal with the sound and fury of dysfunction swirling outside
coupled with better techniques of carbon dating have pushed back the origins of
our species to nearly 300,000 years. The environment in which humans evolved
favoured family groups as a cohesive, cooperative unit for food gathering and
protection against predators. Complaining about your uncle, grandmother or
nephew being idle or incompetent wasn’t going to help. The whole group was
interconnected. They stuck together because they had no other choice. And
remember, for hundreds of thousands of years, hominids lived in family
arrangements far different from our own. The dye was cast.
The family has remained a
constant throughout our history. The first political institutions drew from the
‘family’ as a model to legitimize its authority. All of us have valued family.
The problem has been how far the family concept can scale to cultural and
political institutions involving millions of people. Only in the last few
hundred years has there been any widespread political movement based on notions
other than ideas and values drawn from the long road from kinship to clan to
tribe to nation state. Each step has scaled up our sense of family to include
more and more people that our pre-historic ancestors would have considered
Thailand’s culture largely
revolves around a modified kinship model. This is not unique. China is an
example of the kind of ancestor worship, paternal hierarchy, father/son set of
values that underlies the political system. Given the success of China
economically, and the ongoing decline of the United States in its international
leadership role, it is time to assess the conflict between kinship-based and
individual-based political systems.
One might argue that the
colonial and capitalistic nation-states were able to overcome the old
kinship-based civilization, which was the foundation of the scaled up
bureaucratic nation-state—an institution that used the cultural rhetoric of
kinship as the basis of legitimacy. When, in fact, the nation-state evolved into
a system of inclusion of elites. The political system was shaped by innovation,
a market system, and co-operation between the ruling class and
commercial-trade-innovative entrepreneurial class.
What was new from Europe
starting in the 15th century was the evolution of political and
economic system that wasn’t primarily kinship driven—or at the very least the
kin relationships weren’t used to oppress or suppress the commercial class in
order to protect a related class of elites. The co-operation gradually blurred
into political participation of a larger set of people. That participation may
have been illusory in many cases but it created a new notion—that people were
equal, with equal rights to liberty, justice and freedom, and opportunity. These
ideals were and are challenged by those who rely on the kinship system as the
political model. No one is equal to your father. You have no freedom to defy
your father, or challenge his opinions or worldview.
A stumbling point between
the kinship-based and individualistic systems is the role of authority and
whether there is a built-in respect for authority that limits the kind of
challenges that can be made to authority. In Thailand, elders, monks,
high-ranking officials, among others have traditionally been guaranteed a
high-level of unquestioning respect. But that respect has been chipped away over
the last twenty years accelerated by social media—whatever one’s view about
social media, most would agree it is not a force designed to advance ‘respect’
for authority. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to mean that
‘respect’ for authority is only valid so long as authority respects the wishes
of the majority.
In many countries if the
respect of those in power has collapsed because of bad policies and actions,
there is a remedy: the greedy, inefficient, incompetent or self-dealing
authorities aren’t shown respect—they are removed from power by the voters. Not
being elected is a signal the voters trust your opponent more than they trust
you. Appealing to the voters as your ‘father’ will likely fail to win the day in
Elections, it turns out,
became the ultimate weapon for the ordinary citizen to show his or her disdain
for the governors and to elect new people who promised better policies. An
election was a test of whether voters continued to respect the government and
leaders who were made accountable—at least in theory—for their action as
the price for their respect. The problem with the traditional kinship/respect
model was its rigidity. There was no social or political space where someone
could show disapproval without it being interpreted as disrespect. Respect means
submission to the judgment of someone the traditional members of society cloak
with the garment of respect.
Disrespect, in the
traditional sense, has always been viewed as highly personal. No one likes the
ordeal of mud being slung at them in public or before their peers. It was the
idea of the right to respect that men used to fight duels over. In the modern
political era, respect was earned. Performance, competence and expertise became
the new political currency, which has gradually reconfigured the conditions on
which respect was paid to someone. That’s a huge change. Respect went from
being unconditional to conditional. This is perhaps the major change politically
in the last 250 years, and with Trump it is looking like there is a movement to
return to the unconditional respect value system in the West.
The culture of youth
connected like a digital umbilical chord to social media has collapsed the
distance between people and ideas. The rapid transformation that has empowered
and encourage youth to freely ‘share’ their ideas and messages has resulted in a
pushback from those who continue to believe in the unconditional respect of the
past. Censorship of social media has been the official response in a number of
countries. But it is unclear how successful governments will be in
managing and controlling disrespectful content given there are 2 billion
Facebook readers. Not only in Thailand are authorities under pressure to enforce
conformity, worldwide the youth, who have grown up on digital information, roam
freely, exchanging views and ideas, images, gossip, likes and hates. Inside this
new chaotic, disrespectful technological space, the audience that supports
unconditional respect for authority will dwindle. Social media works as digital
democratization of culture creating a free zone to exchange views that may be
disrespectful. And this new cultural sandbox explains, in part, the huge
attraction to the young trying to find their own identity through their online
relationship with people and information.
An illustration of the
conflict between these two positions on the nature, right and scope linked to
public demonstration of ‘respect’ came to a head at a freshmen initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University in
Thailand last week. Every year there are stories, some outrage or another, about
initiation rituals at many Thai universities. In this case, the ritual required
freshmen to prostrate before the monument of King Chulalongkorn, who established
the university and who abolished slavery and prostration. Some students objected
to prostrating on the ground, saying they had a prior agreement with the
university to show respect by bowing instead. A small number walked out of the
A lecturer holds a student in a
headlock in an initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University on Thursday,
August 3, 2017. Source: Khaosod English
A photographer caught the
moment when a lecturer held one of the protesting students in a headlock,
dragging him away. Photographs and video were widely circulated on social media.
Both sides of the Thai political divide—tradition vs.
social media to offer their views on what had happened, why it happened, and who
was responsible. To enforce respect against the consent of those from whom it is
demanded requires a set of good arguments, or alternatively a
The role of respect
remains contested among factions in Thailand. There is little tolerance shown
toward students who were willing to show, in the view of faculty members,
disrespect. You are in deep waters once you are deemed disrespectful in
Thai culture. Bangkok Post columnist Kong Rithdee summarized the larger message sent
by the conduct at the initiation ceremony: “In Thai society, teenagers who speak
up, walk out and question what hasn’t been questioned for decades are viewed as
insolent, attention-seeking and all-around detestable.” Nonetheless the testing
of the boundaries of respect and disrespect continue.
There is a long history
connecting respect cultures with the right to use intimidation, force, or
violence to enforce that value. The essential difficulty with the
kinship/respect model is there isn’t a clear, efficient process to throw out the
incompetent family member or friend. Inefficiencies are absorbed as part of the
costs of keeping the family a happy place for all of its members. The
inconvenience, damage or loss that occurs and accumulates as a result of
protecting kinship-based cultural system isn’t a cause for challenging
authority. It might be the exact opposite—the high official who covers for his
incompetent niece or nephew is seen as reinforcing the importance of family. As
without a secure, protected family, so the story goes, no public good can
succeed and no peace secured.
What makes the Trump
presidency unusual is, by chance or design, his crude graft of the
kinship/respect culture onto the American democratic model. He’s brought his
family to the White House. His businesses flourish. There is no apparent
distinction between his personal ambitions and public duties. In Trump’s case,
unfortunately he lacks the Chinese respect for science and education. Trump’s
kinship model is closer to a Medieval European model than to a modern Chinese
one where kinship has drawn significant gain by advancing an engineering class
of technocrats to design and carry out the nuts and bolts of governance while
leaving respect to the elders and family as an important political pillar to the
The question is whether
the Chinese model will be the one that replaces the American model on which
political institutions are founded. Trump has put America in a headlock and is
dragging it off familiar turf and into a wholly different kind of game. This has
shocked and terrified people who took the American institution-based system for
granted. They never thought that America was that kind of political system. A
political system is its institutions, and its institutions are its people, and
the people have a cultural bias as to the role of authority and
China was a strong
civilization centuries before the rise of the West. In the long run, historians
may see Trump’s election as the beginning of the end of what was a failed
experiment to break with the kinship/respect model. Alternatively, with the
rapidly changing digital environment it may be the kinship/respect model is
already exhausted, and a new system, yet undefined, is emerging that is neither
Chinese nor American, neither Eastern nor Western.
We are always at some
crossroad of history. We’ve reached such a crossroad and it is unclear which
path we will follow as one leads to the headlock of respect while the other path
leads away from unquestioned, unchallenged respect in the same way we chose to
leave the path of slavery. We can do better as a species, and as people, once
the ideal of the family with the father/husband at the head is no longer the
metaphor used to mint licenses to exploiters.
Here is an invaluable guide for journalists covering controversial events or activities, or working in countries with media restrictions. You can download for free as an ebook A Guide for the Savvy Journalist in a World of Ever Decreasing Privacy. There is a great deal of useful practical advice on how to protect yourself and sources in a world where digital security can and is breached. The book is supported by Reporters without Borders, a group that knows the dangers that reporters on the ground increasingly face.
We are in the midst of a worldview war. Trump’s election was a successful campaign in this war. Many are trying to figure out the bases of this conflict, the psychology of the opposing armies, and the goals and tactics of each side. Everyone, it seems, has a theory. I’m no different, finding myself curious as to pump and grind of emotions and intellect flowing through the collective hive mind. It makes my head hurt to think about the mess we find ourselves in and curious absence of any reasonable plan to escape the impending crash.
I don’t have the answers. No one does. But I have some thoughts to share as our aircraft is losing altitude and the fasten-seat belt sign is turned on.
We all have a worldview. It is our operating system that quietly runs in the background. We call this inaccessible area The Unconscious. It seems to belong to us. Others around us, friends and family and colleagues all have one that is mostly like our own. We are comfortable around them. Often they think like us.
But what is really going on in the unconscious? Freud had ideas. So do others. The reality is what goes on in the unconscious is a subject of much speculation. We don’t really know. But we have our favorite theories and assumptions. Our reality is we live in a kind of prison which excludes us from the main grounds called the unconscious. By definition, if we could open that mental oyster, it would no longer a mystery. We secretly believe our little oyster is filled with a string of sacred pearls. Everyone else is either a pearl wearer like us or one of those heretics who believes that science demystifies pearls by reducing them to a tiny piece of sand. Nothing special. All is explained, described and understood as part of a natural process. Where’s the beauty, the magic, the mystery in an academic explanation?
Our pearls are cultured. Our societies, rulers, leaders, teachers, preachers, celebrities all work that piece of sand until it is a smooth, white, glorious object reflecting the colors of the rainbow. Our worldview, once in place, is less a necklace than leg shackles and chains we drag behind us as we examine the world around us. We don’t process these restraints as a kind of prison like experience. The beauty of the best run prisons is they seem free, open and friendly. Until you try to saw through the shackles.
Shifting a medieval metaphor for a modern one is the way intellectuals travel down roads that promise a destination where understanding waits. From shackles to operating systems is the path we’ve been on for centuries.
Everyone has an operating system that runs their personal worldview. That operating system has been encoded to describe, identify, understand, and react to others and objects encountered in everyday life. It’s not optional; the system of comprehension and coherence depends on a worldview to run checks on what our perceptional sensory inputs feed into our mental network. Evolution equipped us with the basic operating system to survive and reproduce. The rest is built on top like the cone of a volcano. Smoke is pouring our of our volcanoes. I wake up each morning and check feeds to see if the big explosion has happened overnight.
If you’ve not read this essay by George Lakoff, I’d recommend you’d have a look. The idea of framing ‘values’ to fit the worldview of others is an interesting idea. Lakoff believes that progressives have lost the battle with conservatives because the latter have avoided wonk-like framing their position in terms of facts and policy specifics when what moves the listener is in flavor of ‘values’ that progressives believe in.
Philosophy, psychology, history, neuroscience, and linguistics are networked in ways we are just beginning to understand. The passport between them is often a metaphor, and any time a writer uses a metaphor, it is a clue that he/she has only an indirect way of expressing a complicated idea in one domain and importing it into another.
We struggle within the cognitive limitations of a finite brain capacity, faulty operating system that is difficult to upgrade in order to run new information programs, and we are loaded with heuristics that are crude hammers our Bronze Age brains use to pound the dents out of reality. We are using our brains in ways that exceed the evolutionary requirements of survival and reproduction.
The battle over the nature and meaning of knowledge is closely linked historically with one’s worldview of moral authority. Until the enlightenment, moral authority resided exclusively in a king, warlord, religious head. Codes, morals, values, and knowledge were a royal or religious cartel. Like all cartel bosses, anyone with ideas, theories or knowledge that challenged their authority and dogma was burnt at the stake.
It has only been 500 years (we are 200,000 years old as a species) since science derived an alternative system upon which to found knowledge, to describe and understand reality. This has been a huge revolution. It overthrew the moral authority cartel’s position in establishing and enforcing an absolute, unchanging worldview. We are now in the midst of a pushback against a scientific process of assessing facts, establishing bodies of knowledge based on evidence, observation and testing. We’ve dethroned the dogmatic moral authority in the West. Nothing in modern science could have been achieved otherwise. The written history of this progress as early scientists were dragged through the Inquisition and torture chambers is the history of how science became accepted as an alternative to processing of reality. This new approach to thinking gave birth to a new mental operating system. One that gradually showed an incredibly powerful ability to challenge and replace the old order. Those with a vested interest, meaning those previous social, religious and political elites were wrong footed by science. If these forces allowed themselves to be reshaped politically socially and economically by science, it would be the end of them. It is a myth to believe that two operating systems can run a social, political and economic system as a kind of joint venture.
A violent reaction in Turkey at a bookstore highlights the emotions involved.
Progressives feel that battle was long ago won. But it wasn’t won. It is being waged in America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Progressives underestimated the vast numbers of people who were willing to support regressive moral authority cartels. They pedal their dogma to the masses who find the strong, decisive leader who promises moral certainty a source of comfort and security. Science has always been the domain for those who have a high tolerance for intellectual discomfort, accept uncertainty as normal, and knowledge as tentative until a better description or definition is discovered. No one has the moral authority in this system to throw out contrary facts. The war that has ignited is a cognitive and emotional battle. The progressives march into conflict armed with heavy weight cognitive weapons such as big data, equations, computers, prediction models and probability estimates to predict the future course of events. The regressive types march to an emotional tune sung by a strongman who promises to rid them of the fear and confusion of the progressives. Our vast unconscious loves that melody. It is irresistible as it engages feelings that are embedded deeply in our core operating system and to which our analytical facilities cannot easily influence.
The nature of the problem in this conflict is nature of spoken and written language. We experience life through our sensory perceptions which act as tripwires for our emotions. Language is the secondary filter (after emotions prime us to narrate a response) to describe what we perceive, what it means, its purpose and utility. Our language has a surface universality in the words and phrases that are communicated within and between communities. A central problem is the imperfection and limitations of language. Words are ladders that never gets us over the wall of our emotions. Words are a small step ladder pushed against the side of a mountain. John Paulos’ classic book titled Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy Its Consequences made popular the phrase innumeracy to describe people who have little to no mathematical language skill or facility in which to navigate through life. Professor Paulos also shows the cost exacted on people who suffer from such illiteracy. The language of science is mathematics. The equations are symbolic representations that are tested against the reality they propose. Illiteracy is a cognitive handicap that stunts understanding about the world. Either the observations and testing confirm the equation or they fail. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and General Relativity had testable mathematical equations that have been confirmed by observation.
After Einstein’s 1915 General Relativity was proposed, a hundred scientists wrote papers claiming it was wrong. When Einstein was asked about the 100-fold challenge, he replied, that a hundred papers was overkill, as only one scientific paper with an alternative theory that was confirmed by observation was enough.
The standard model describes the composition of reality. This is a mathematical description and it has been observed and tested. Perhaps down the road, new observations and testing will overturn part or all of the standard model. But one thing is for certain—no authority figure in science will throw a scientist in prison for launching an attack with new equations. What can and can’t be done is the realm of mathematical description in thermodynamics. In the classical world, all our observations and testing support the current theories of thermodynamics and the underlying math. It is worth noting that those with differing social, religious, political and economic worldview never extend their dogmas into the world of mathematics. Fundamentalist don’t have an alternative mathematical model describing the reality of events and behavior in the universe or for thermodynamics. The absolutist vocabulary of words doesn’t extend itself into the mathematical realm nor do they have an alternative theory for the atom, fusion, or time dilation. Dogma based on words to support emotional reactions breaks down and collapses when it challenges science. Its arguments can only be sustained by threats and violence.
If science wants to expand its operating system, it also needs self-examination. In 500 years it has not won the cognitive battle with its mathematics and beautiful equations. Lakoff is right. Until the scientific operating system can engage the emotional needs of most people, it will remain a small elite group of cognitive workers who are belittled and despised by those running to seek shelter with traditional strong, decisive leaders who understand how they feel – and show it in a way they can connect with.
The future growth in cognitive science is likely to be the writing of emotional algorithms. Our desires, hopes, and feelings are the words we use to describe the firing of chemical electrical patterns occurring in the brain as input is processed. Once a mathematical solution to manipulating these patterns are discovered, science may gain control over the riddle of our emotional states. Advances in writing algorithms are are showing promise in matching music to control emotional states. This is a development worth watching.The Mozart in the Machine looks at the future possibility of biometric data and AI to decode our emotions.
We need our best cognitive workers to produce a new generation of algorithms dealing with the negative aspects of anger, another for fear, and yet others for the tidal high wave emotions that roil the populace. Such algorithms might not take us to the stars, but they might save us all from being swamped by the emotional tsunami headed our way. The operating system has to fit the platform it works on. We have two divergent operating systems in competition and neither one is processing effectively at the main street level right now.
Most writers are asked
about their prior jobs. When I say my job was a law professor and lawyer, they
follow up by asking whether law training helps or hurts you as a novelist. The
creative aspects of law practice before a judge features in this excellent
article by Maksymilian Del Mar:The Legal
Having been on both sides of
two creative cultures, and that has given me a slightly different perspective
from Del Mar. Here are my thoughts. Lawyers (specifically trial lawyers) and
judges can show flashes of creativity in interpreting another’s story so that it
fits better than his rival’s story. Both litigants desire outcome permitted by
law and they often have very different stories about the same events or
circumstances. No doubt that takes creativity to shape a client’s story into a
convincing, compelling narrative that blows the other’s story out of the water.
You’ve seen the films or TV show where this happens.
Okay, if lawyers are so
creative, why aren’t most novelists by training lawyers? The reality is most
lawyers couldn’t bother to write a novel. But I understand a fairly sizeable
number do write that novel. It’s a bit like Fermi’s paradox about
extraterritorial life. If they are out there, why don’t they contact us? One
explanation is the class of lawyers who write that novel on the side, with a
their little makeshift altar/shrine complete with John Grisham’s picture, can’t
write a publishable novel. Their novels may circulate as ebooks but they become
lost (rightly or wrongly) in the deep space of indifference where most mediocre
stories go to die.
I have a theory why that is
the case. Like all theories, it is subject to be falsified. Here it goes. A
novelist must possess the skill and talent toinventan original, believable cast of
multilayered characters, each with their own demons, dreams, loves, betrayals,
bitter experiences and aggression. The fiction characters exist in the writer’s
head but they move through their tangled of conflictinginventedstories as if they are real people in
real situations. The novelist invents them, he transcripts them, he allows them
to vent their feelings, doubts about their lives, the significance of events,
along with smells, sights, and touch all have to be forged into words. In terms
of the legal world’s thinking the writer, in effect, becomes his own
Every lawyer is told from
day one that only a fool is his own lawyer. That’s the poisonous little seed of
contempt that lawyers are taught about thinking he can be both client and
lawyer. The lawyer, like the judge, waits until someone comes to them with a
story and conflicts with someone else’s story of why I was injured, cheated,
beaten, extorted—you get the picture. Their stock in trade of the trial lawyer
is his positive, creative spin on the evidence that supports his client’s
The judge’s verdict decides
whose story is the most reasonable and supported by the evidence. You can have
some creative fun going through the evidence but the reality is the judge
doesn’t make up the characters or the evidence, or set the scene in the distant
future or past, or explore other aspects of the litigant’s lives; he only cares
about the evidence that comes before him. Inevitably in the legal world there is
a distinct winner and loser. In the fictional world, things can be much more
uncertain and murky.
It is precisely this
attitude about being his own lawyer that terminates his creativity beyond his
office or chambers. His cardinal belief isn’t of much use to him much as a
novelist where readers demand creativity unearthing quirks of fate, coincidence,
and doubt that shape a character’s motive or intention. Courtroom dramas
compress life. Like a jpeg it is useful to compress information unless it is
totally relevant. It allows the judicial system to work. It excludes the
irrelevant. Like any system of law creativity is the lifeblood that keeps the
lawyers and judges relevant and useful.
In my view, the manacle of
relevance chains the lawyer and judge to his armchair consideration of what
happened. No novelist would ever make that mistake.
In the end, yes, lawyers and
judges are creative. But does that give them advantage as a novelist? I argue
that creativity of law practice (unless you are representing Wall Street
bankers) is the kind of creativity process that fails to produce publishable
fiction. The novelist isn’t constrained by waiting for a case to come in the
door, and what goes through his or her mind is from all of the evidence what is
relevant. The rest gets thrown away.
While, the novelist goes out
the door and finds the case somewhere in the street or alleyway. He or she is always bumping into things. Irrelevant things that enhance fiction such as the way a shadow falls over a face at sunset. Creativity for fiction is a very different
process. The rules of evidence don’t apply. But I know whom I’d like to follow
into fictional territory, where it is the irrelevant, irreverent side road
keeping far away from the expressway to relevance. That’s the road filled with
serendipity: and where the best creative pearls are found are never where you
think they’d be found.
Christopher G. Moore,
creator of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series
When you come across the
phrase “noir crime fiction. “ The first question is what is meant bynoir?
I have written private eye fiction set in Southeast Asia. My experience has
probably been different from many other crime writers in the United States or
Canada. The purpose is to start a discussion rather than reaching a definitive
After twenty-five years
writing the sixteen novels in the Vincent Calvino series, I’ve had a chance to
think back about the books and find I’ve evolved a meaning ofnoir.
Here’s my one sentence definition:Noirfiction serves to deconstruct the
security state by exposing its acts, secret and public, of hypocrisy, venality,
Above all the security state
is unaccountable for its actions. During the course of an investigation the
private eye in a noir novel reveals the dangers faced by ordinary people at a
time and place where state authorities act with impunity. The noir story
recounts his experience working inside such a system as he attempts to solve a
crime or a find a missing person. What the reader discovers is that through a
private eye’s investigation the evidence mounts as to how such a regime, in
particular its justice system, operates like a blind force of nature, without
logic or reason. It is this unpredictability of state authorities and the harm
they inflict on ordinary people.
What makes a noir novel
distinctive is the acceptance by the private eye, like those around him—except
the romantic—is powerless to stop official acts of violence. Violence is the
exercise of the raw power of the security state as if on permanent war footing.
At war all critics are enemies and all enemies an existential
A noir novel can be judged
on the author’s success in recreating precisely this war mentality. The
contradictions build up over the course of the novel. Choices of the characters
are rarely binary, clear and absolute. Instead their choices in the struggle for
justice become blurry, compromised, incomplete, pointless and
Like everyone else, the
private eye in a noir novel has the choice to surrender to the dictates of the
security officials or confront them head on and risk being destroyed. The pure
noir moment is the realization that no one can escape from attention, dictates
and forces of raw power. Everyone outside their narrow band of supporters is
The authority of a
democratic, liberal political system is constrained, accountable, bounded by
laws, regulations, and customs. There is no noir in such a system. For one very
good reason: there is a consensus that the leaders in such a system have
legitimate authority to make the security forces account for their use of
violence, threats or intimidation.
Remove the democratic
legitimacy and you enter a very dark place whistling through an infinite
Alice in Wonderland once inside the rabbit hole found all of the ways she’d
understood the world were of little use. Her experience forced her to draw a new
map of reality.
The motif of making maps, sketches, and models of reality is a common theme
in literature. The problem is our lack of humility in admitting these maps are
often inaccurate and unreliable guide to our journey through reality. We believe
these representations are certain and true rather than temporary and provincial
pools that reflect how perceptions are processed. Teachers explain scientific
and cultural concepts by drawing mental maps. We rarely question the map we
learned in school.
The result is adults retain their childhood maps of reality. In Graham
Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a local expat Englishmen named Wormold is
recruited by MI6 to become a spy in Cuba. He needs the income from this side job
in espionage to satisfy a high-maintenance daughter. The problem is he knows
nothing about intelligence gathering. His mental construct is seriously flawed
when it comes to actual espionage. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, makes up
a world of operatives and dangerous devices. MI6 accepts Wormold’s construct
including an imaginary network of local agents and sketches the mechanism of the
inside of a vacuum cleaner. He submits it to MI6 as an advance weapon system
hidden in the mountains outside Havana.
The problem is our mental modeling is no better than MI6’s acceptance of
Wormold’s vacuum cleaner sketch as evidence of Cubans building an atomic bomb.
Here’s the problem that Greene was pointing out. Our mental model of
intelligence agencies is they have the access to data and information, and as
professionals can access, assess, and act upon this trove to create a mental
model that aligns with reality. In the world of espionage all is lost if the
gathering of that information is able to substitute a plausible sketch for a
device. In the Cold War, MI6 and the Americans wanted to find such evidence, and
if you wish to find something, sooner or later, someone will provide evidence
that satisfies you. Does weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification
for war ring a bell?
The other great lesson from Our Man in Havana is, after Wormold
confesses his deception at MI6, his bosses decide to bring him in as a teacher
and to recommend him for an OBE. So far Americans don’t award OBEs for this kind
of thing, though, if they could, no doubt those pushing the WMD line as a
justification for going to war would have received a gong.
Turning a blind eye to information that requires you to update or jettison a
mental construct is hard. It is dangerous. It leads to shouting, fights,
vilification, hatred, invasions, and murder. The satire of Wormold’s deceptive
behavior, putting one over on the professional institution, is seriously fun to
read. As often is the case, behind the satire is some seriously important
business that is never finished.
It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of mental modeling. Do you have an
image of what the inside of a nuclear device looks like? Or a dishwasher, an
iPhone, or the names of countries on a blank map of Europe or the United States?
These are tangible things. You can search and find information that would give
you a model of the reality of these things. Most of the time we don’t look
things up. We assume our mental models are right, and they are truthful, useful
and valuable guides when it comes to forming opinions, making decisions, or
examining our beliefs.
I am uncertain why no news organization gave blank maps of the United States
and Europe to groups of Democrats and Republicans and released their findings.
Now that might have changed the election outcome.
When asked to fill in a blank map of Europe, an American with an advanced
degree handed in this paper.
It is more revealing when students are asked to draw the United States and
the individual States on a blank sheet of paper.
British students as well as American students when asked to fill in a blank
of the United States showed a similar level of error. Here’s an example.
We look at these maps and have a laugh. “How stupid,” we smugly tell
ourselves. The reality is most of our mental maps of reality aren’t much better.
We carry around a map of the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia, thinking
it describes the reality of these locations. When put to the test our mental map
and reality don’t necessarily align. The people at the top of the policy making
chain may have gaps, errors, omissions and other follies on their map of a
geographic area, the internal workings of an agency or institution, or chain of
command inside a corporation or law firm.
What is your map for how a Hollywood film is made? You’ve seen many films.
Just like you’ve eaten many sausages. Try mapping the process of financing,
casting, shooting, post-production, and distribution of a film. Go through the
same process to describe how a sausage is made. It’s hard unless you have
personal experience or have studied these enterprises. We have a vague idea and
based on that sketchy bit of information decisions are made, opinions formed,
wars fought, and honors conferred.
A current theory in psychology is the brain stores models and our
observations are tailored to confirm existing mental models. These models bias
what we notice and pay attention to. The ordinary objects and events blend into
background model. That’s why when you walk down a street, you ‘see’ a dog, a
car, a pizza box, dozens of people, these objects and events are good enough to
satisfy the brains model. The downside is we don’t look at the precise details
of specific object. If the dog is singing “Hallelujah” that would likely
conflict with the model most people have in their head. They’d notice a
different kind of dog than the one that is a background model of a generic dog.
Most days are spent processing the equivalence of a “generic dog.” If we run
across a singing dog our memory modifies the dog model so after a couple of
times, we don’t notice a singing dog as an object worth further inspection.
It’s as if we wore a built-in biological VR set of goggles programmed with a
generic dog mental model for government, Russia, Trump, Syria, the British
Empire, World War II, our galaxy, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, black people,
queer people, farmers, the elites, to name a few examples. As Wormold
demonstrated, our mental model of the mechanism of a vacuum cleaner is generic,
inaccurate, flawed, with details filled in not with engineer information. Our
perception of the world is often a poor translation of reality.
We are prone to cognitive biases, lack of attention, fitful concentration,
lack of training, knowledge and expertise, as well as stress, emotions and sleep
deficit. All of these factors act as filters to our perception of reality.
These filtering mental states influence the cognitive tools used to
measure objects and events in their spatial relationship with us, each other.
Also, we automatically apply our sense of timelines, which we use to create our
sense of causation: What happened first, what happened next, and how the two
points in time are connected.
We have a personal sensitivity to defend. We have, in other words, a horse in
the race when it comes to intelligence, perception, judgment, and
responsibility. There is a debate about the role of humans in the new generation
of self-driving cars. At issue is whether safety of the car requires the option
of support of a human driver. The so-called Level 3 development would leave a
space for human beings in the self-driving car. The developers and engineers
want to leave the human driver out of the driving picture. Forget about Level 3
and go straight to Level 4 and 5, fully automated self-driving vehicles. And
what is the main argument driving this development? If one looks at the data
rationally human beings aren’t reliable or dependable behind the wheel of a car.
Agreeing to forgo the status, reputation, and sense of agency that is embedded
in car ownership is going to be a tough sell. It doesn’t matter that logically,
rationally a fully automated car is more efficient, safer, and faster than one
with a human involved wouldn’t get anyone elected to public office.
In fact, given the cognitive issues discussed earlier, humans are flawed,
dangerous, error prone, and emotional. Not to mention the co-ordination problem
of switching between an automated but intelligent, narrow-AI system to a human
being, which would be measured in seconds. We are too cognitively slow,
biased and inattentive to be brought into a life-and-death road situation as sit
back in the car, and are pulled out of our Kindle, podcast, Netflix drama or
Facebook page, and are asked to make a split second call. Logically this should
be a natural progression of our technology. But as David Hume wrote we are
emotional creatures driven by our passions, and there are no automated,
self-driving emotional packages on the market. Yet.
The experts are signaling it is time human beings stepped aside from the
fantasy they add value as human emergency system. We must adapt to a new mental
model of the relationship between a car and a human being. That will take some
time and may take a generation before it is firmly acknowledged that the mental
model of a car is quite different from our accepted consensus as of 2017. We
have a history of our mental models being demolished. As much of the political,
social, and economic institutions we have modeled become unstable as the new way
of seeing the world changes.
Copernicus and Galileo with mathematics and observation were able to
overthrow the thousands of year old model of the earth as the centre of the
universe. Darwin came along and overthrew the model of mankind as some divinely
created being with a soul. The theory of evolution demonstrated that our
species, like every other animal on the planet, had through sheer blind chance
arose to occupy an ecological niche. Copernicus and Darwin are often cited as
the great wreckers of existing mental models of reality and our place in it.
Those models are the bedrock of religion, politics, and culture. In each case,
it was scientific inquiry, observation, experiments, and new measuring tools
like the telescope and microscope that destroyed the old beliefs organized into
a mental model of reality.
At the same time, we can confirm that a substantial part of the human
population will stick with mental models of reality that are pre-Copernicus and
pre-Darwin. Religion is often where they take refuge. As science shows every
indication of a trend to remove human beings from command and control of cars,
trucks, trains, factories, drones, weapon systems, health and education, the
more stress will build as we seek to retain our mental models of our place in
the universe, in our country, workplace, family, and society.
If you are educated, intelligent, well read, you might be tempted to think
you rise above a superstitious factory worker. We’ve seen the difficulty people
have in filling blank maps of America and Europe. When it comes to specific
questions about their country they demonstrate a similar disconnect with
The Financial Times 1st January 2017 edition ran an article titled: “How well
do you know your country?” They compared actual value, what a FT reader thought,
and what general public thought about certain issues. What, for example, is the
mental model of the Muslim population level in your country? In the United
States, the actual number of Muslims is about 2%. The general public thought
Muslims were 17% of the population, and FT readers thought it was about 5%.
When asked what percent of total household wealth do you think the least 70%
wealthy own in the United States, the FT reader thought 15% and the general
public thought 27%, when the actual answer was 7%. We are making all kinds of
decisions every day as workers, officials, policy-makers, and teachers that are
based on mental models disconnected with reality.
In 2017 we are beginning to understand how the brain models reality and the
limitations that come from these imperfect mental maps. The basic idea is that
our sensory perception evolved in a quite different ecology and demanded a
certain range of accuracy in forming mental models of reality. It didn’t much
matter if it was objectively wrong so long as it was useful in staying alive
long enough to reproduce. That’s all evolution requires. If non-aligning with
reality kills you before you reproduce, your gene pool ends. From the history of
mankind there is evidence that alignment with reality is a by-product of
science. That is a recent development, one that hasn’t been fully assimilated.
There hasn’t been enough time. Like star formation, mental model formation takes
place over large expanses of time. Meanwhile, we believe that our personal model
of reality is aligned accurately with the much larger reality outside our
sensory system. But it seems that is not the case.
There are many
examples of illusions that demonstrate the fallibility of our
perception and reason. But don’t go down that rabbit hole just now. Stay with
me. Once you accept that we have cognitive and perceptional limitations, you can
start to focus on understanding where those boundaries meet and how they can and
have been exploited, and by whom.
The squares “A” and “B” share the identical background color. If you import
the image into photoshop and compare the squares, you discover each has the same
hex color value #787878. What you see is not necessarily a reflection of the
Given this history, shouldn’t we be searching to understand the mental models
of those standing for election to public office? There is no penalty paid for
appealing to the flawed models of the electorate, who have sketchy maps of
reality dotted with highways constructed from gossips, propaganda,
misinformation, half-truths, and prejudices. What we aren’t taught and are left
to find on our own that this infrastructure of inputs is what feeds
beliefs—religious and ideological. The same polluted waters are what we draw on
to form our sense of identity and self. It is rabbit hole debris pulled to the
surface and projected as reality.
It is rare for someone running for public office to ask the voters to
readjust their mental map and point out the flaws in the current cartoon like
models on policing, guns, healthcare, trade, and automation. If you want to get
elected, it is safer to pitch your program as if it were the generic dog with
high emotional appeal. How does your brain come up its maps? The graphic below
shows the input pipes that fill our heads. One can ague whether journalism is
all that stands between us and being drown in a surge of illusions washing over
None of these ideas have likely gone unnoticed by the vast intelligence and
surveillance communities. Their job is to model reality, and to alter existing
models to sustain their power, resources, and network of interest. I have a
mental model of a war room with banks of computer connected to millions of other
computers, and data mining programs trying to find patterns in big data.
Inside the Russian conference room deep in the Kremlin, the best
neuroscientists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, game theorists
gathered to discuss Donald Trump’s mental modeling of reality. Once you
understand another person’s map, you can judge how reliable it is in reality,
and how some of those trails may lead in directions that are in your national
Let’s consider the political implications of all these badly made maps. When
electing a president shouldn’t we be curious as to how he or she maps reality?
There has been a lot of discussion of Trump’s mental maps, and many of those
discussions suggests his map-making draws from the pipelines in the graphic of
the dam above. To be fair, all of us have faulty maps but cling to them as if
they were precise, certain and doubt free. Our adversaries and enemies seek to
discover those flaws in mental models and take advantage of them. Much of what
passes for intelligence work is of this nature.
Remember the film Being John Malkovich (1999) when Craig played by
John Cusack enters a small door behind a filing cabinet and discovers he’s
inside Malkovich’s head and can control his action. By playing with the internal
maps used by Malkovich he can make him paranoid. Let’s substitute Trump for
Malkovich and Putin for Trump. We go inside Trump’s head. Let’s call this movie:
Being Donald Trump (2017), in pre-production.
Putin is inside Trump’s skull, looking around, opening doors, flipping memory
switches, turning lights off and on, checking out the casting couch room. He
could get distracted. If he doesn’t, his next step is to update Trump’s mental
models in ways that don’t seem disruptive. Computers will run complex mental
models examining the probability of outcomes, and the likelihood those outcomes
will produce certain results. Like self-driving cars, we are inside a
programmer’s world. She writes an algorithm to mimic the reactions to various
scenarios such as assistance to allies, trade and finance priorities, and
calculate the outcomes predicted by the model. Tweak the scenarios and update.
Make updates ones that appeal to Trump’s vanity and need for approval. Also
inside Trump’s head, one can better understand why the Donald is so easily
distracted. That’s a big advantage to wish for in an enemy. He can’t stay on
point. One minute he’s playing golf, the next tweeting about a piece of
anti-Trump gossip, cutting deals, figuring out the size of bets to make. Like
the self-driving car, Trump may be an experiment that proves the dangers of
human being behind the wheel of complex decision-making.
Trump is another capitalist product. He’s only incidentally a person. He’s a
packaged commodity that enough consumers bought because like a shopping bag of
Twinkie’s, and you shove down the whole bag. Billions are spent on marketing
every year. This isn’t brain science; people make a large amount of money to
spin others in buying their stuff. All you need is a rather simple modeling of a
mind possessed by Trump. That is one of things AI will do well: mind-model of
primates (will be a subject in less than 200 years). Once you can predict how
that program of modeling works, you can figure probability of outcomes, coupling
them with various enticements, messages, insults, adorations, etc. and see how
that improves or lessens the probability of a particular outcome. We already
have enough expertise to evolve this technology. For a relatively simple mind
like Trump, the first country that de-codes him has won a valuable key to open
the resources of the USA for their own benefit. Whether Being Donald
Trump is a comedy or tragedy is a closely guarded secret. One thing for
sure, it is a movie that will have a worldwide audience.
I think we are at the point of computer hardware/software with skill equal to
aligning the tiles on a Rubric Cube. Once the pros are able to run this modeling
with a large database set for continuous updates, you start to see what is
likely, what is possible, and what won’t work. Figuring that out, gives you a
huge edge. I’d bet the Chinese, Russians, Germans, and others are assembling IT
and medical science personnel to create better predictive programs.
The message of the Enlightenment is: Human beings are equipped with the
generic dog level of perception. The networked complexity of all systems from
hydro, to driving, policing, judging, maintenance, and resource allocation, will
be in the not too distant future in intelligence entities that human being will
be incapable of comprehending. It will be like magic tricks for children. We may
want to know how it was done. Or more likely, we will be in a virtual reality
chasing after a generic dog while watching our own ideologically tailored
version of Being Donald Trump. Remember we are walking around on a
planet where many people have a map without any nation states but a generalized
impression as their mental model inside their head.
This weekend printout the map of Asia below and ask a friend, colleague or
loved one to fill in the names of the countries. Of course, you will know all
the right answers in advance. That will give you a huge, beautiful advantage and
make you appear very smart. But we know that map making is an illusion, a trap
we can never escape. Being Donald Trump or Being John Malkovich
is a variation on our own internal movie of Being Me.
you, I was born in captivity as were my parents, grandparents, and more remote
ancestors going back for many generations where you and I share an ancestor, but
the search doesn’t stop there. At one point, the search is lost in the fog of
conjecture. We seek the truth and aren’t dissuaded even though there is little
or no evidence. Our dream is to belong and to break free of captivity. That
contradiction haunts us our entire life.
have no history that has been passed down from ancestors who were born in the
wild. What does it mean to be born a captive? It raises questions like: Captive
of whom? Where are the cages? Why do I feel in control, exercise my free will,
if I’m living in captivity? All legitimate questions along with the traditional
‘big’ unanswered questions of existence that have stumped philosophers from
Aristotle, Socrates and Plato: What am I? Where am I? What can I know? What can
I do with what I know?
most people I don’t see or feel the ‘walls’ of my confinement. I hardly notice
them most days. If you’re a writer who writes about people on the boundary, you
are witness to people bumping against walls and bouncing off. That could stand
as a definition of just about every expat novel or story. Readers, especially
other expats, like the vicarious experience of the bruises and cuts that come
from running into the walls in another culture. They often forget the reason
they left home in the first place was they rebelled like a wild horse, kicked
the corral gate open and bolted. Only later does it dawn on them, that the wild
horse exchanged one corral for another where wild local and foreign horses, the
ones that resist the saddle, aren’t treated well.
helps to be an outsider when looking at someone else’s corral. The funny thing
is you can see their invisible walls and ceilings constructed out of myths,
legends, false history, slogans, dodgy dances and music, and soap opera worlds.
You try and point out using your foot to point while calling someone a monitor
lizard is your idea of a hilarious flight of imagination. The locals wouldn’t
find such horsing around funny at all. In fact he may punch you in your wild
horse face. Satire, irony, humor are signals of some rotting planks in the
corral walls. Get a TV show and you become a multi-millionaire, make placards
and march along with a busload of your mates to government house and the police
may crack your heads and frog march you to prison. I gather from that contrast,
that most corrals tolerate a ‘pet’ horse to let off steam for the rest of us,
but that is no ticket to horses generally acting like they are horses in the
are the essential component that powers up the corral system and allows it to
function. Without these illusions, domesticated people are more likely to
perceive the reality of their condition—they are subject to naked power,
repression, beatings, threats, torture, disappearances, executions, and
aren’t a bug in the system. They are the central feature. We lived inside a
world of constructed narratives forgetting they are made-up stories; they are
the wood, steel, glass, cement and bricks and mortar that gives form and
structure to our world. The best cages don’t look or feel like cages. Those
inside are conditioned to believe they are wandering in open, free spaces. If
you told them they were captives, they’d think you were delusional.
great success story of our captivity is even the elite managers of the system
believe everyone else lives in a small cage except they have managed with power
and wealth to remain free. The rich and powerful move to isolate and shutdown
someone who asked what is the purpose of all thishomo
livestock. They don’t want to engage in a serious public discussion. Wealthy
people have tried throughout history to build their own personalized corrals and
to run the public ones for their own benefit. The bars on our windows and the
locked doors are for the safety of the handful of billionaires in world
simulating the life of wild horses. They don’t want us getting out and snooping
of us will die in the same kind of corral we were born.
elites have better quarters, toys, food, health and sex partners and often have
dens in several corrals. That gives them a bird’s eye view of the human zoo. The
zoo inhabitants suffer the delusion that they are free. Only a tiny fraction
could survive outside the corral or zoo. They are condemned to be unfree to
survive as is the fate of all captive animals.
aren’t the first wild animal on the planet to go through the transition from
living in the wild to living as domesticated born-in-captivity animals. Large
scale, planetary organized domestication is something we are responsible for
bringing about. We have played ‘god’ to suit our own needs and desires. We
domesticate an animal to extract value from it. The same applies to domesticated
people. Value is extracted from their labor and military service.
a predatory animal, we mastered the art of husbandry—the list includes goats,
horses, cats and sheep, which I leave for another time—as part of our programmed
violence to gain access to food.
and the Cow
Aurochscan be traced back in time to India
about 2 million years ago. They reached Europe around 270,000 B.C. and the last
one died in 1627. Our ancestors painted aurochs on cave walls. We frequent fast
food restaurants to eat the meat harvested from cows. We drink their milk in our
cereal and coffee. We use cows for our own reasons. What a cow thinks about
those reasons, we don’t care.
domesticated them. We own, trade, sell and buy them. There are approximately
1.4 billions cows on the planet. Like most domesticated species their size,
disposition, temperament and survival skills make it impossible for them to
successfully live in the wild. There are about a billion cows in the world, with
India, Brazil and China having the most.
2012, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average 18,000 cows were
dayin the United States,
or 6.6 million over the course of a year.
Wild Boar and Modern Pig
have a complicated ancestry from Europe to Asia. Modern pigs are variations from
a genetic bank of 16 separate subspecies ofwild boars. Worldwide
out of the nearly2 billion pigs,
1.196billion pigs were killed for food in 2012. China and Europe are the
sites of the major pig killing fields. Everywhere, pigs are a major food source.
We raise them to eat. We could not sustain the size of our populations without
growing animal food products for consumption. As a large and growing percentage
of people live in cities, we city dwellers rely on commercialization of
industrial farms, slaughterhouses and transportation networks to raise,
slaughter, and transport meat tothe
and Domestic Dogs
domesticated dogs somewhere between 18,000 to 31,000 years ago. As you can seek
there is slack in the time frame. It is disputed as to the common ancestor of
the modern dog. A number of experts point to the wolf; others disagree. But
there is agreement, that the wild dog was a feral beast genetically wired to
survive in the wild. Where does that leave your family dog? The modern dog, like
most pets, is incapable of existing without human protection. We share the
planet with around 500 to 600 million dogs. Not all of the dogs have owners. But
an ownerless dog does not in itself make a feral animal.
annual festival in Yulin is a dog and cat eating event. In 2016,10,000
dogsand cats will be
slaughtered for food. The Yulin festival takes place in Guangxi Zhuang
autonomous region in the southeast of China.
detective work suggests that the common ancestor for all mammals arose after the
extinction of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. From whales the size of
cars to bats the size of your nose, all mammals trace back to what is described
tree-climbing, insect-eating mammal that weighed between 6 and 245
grams—somewhere between a small shrew and a mid-sized rat.” Next time you smirk with
superiority at a cat or dog, remember you have a common ancestor. Wind the clock
back and you find the first 2.5 billion years on earth, the only creatures
around were bacteria. If you are looking for ancestor ‘zero’ it would be
that 65 million years of living and adapting to life in the wild, the wild life
would be doomed with the appearance ofhomo
sapiens. We had a couple of tricks that other mammals lacked. We were
superb organizers and powerful co-operatives with a conscious awareness of the
world and the intelligence to outwit other mammals in the struggle for survival.
We have situational awareness that allows us to avoid ambush by a hunting lion
and have adapted that ability to operate drones at a computer terminal 10,000
big idea was the domestication of plants and animals. This turned out to be the
first important merger and acquisition project we devised. It happened over a
very long stretch of time, with many generations involved. We live with the
result of those efforts—in a developed environment where wild animals have
largely been eliminated. We have the ultimate monopoly—homo
sapienslord it over all
other species. Like all cartel owners, we can’t stop ourselves from abusing that
power for our own selfish interest. In other words, we treat other animals even
worse than we treat each other and that is saying something.
started our global domestication project with other animals, using them as pets
and as food sources. And around 15,000 years ago, we began to apply our
domestication skills to our own species. You can do things with a herd of sheep,
horse and goats that you can’t do with a couple of animals. To build large scale
projects such as canals, irrigation, temples, forts, palaces and armies, you
need to harness a stadium full of people, feed, shelter, train and discipline
6 to 7 millions years separate the guy on the left from the guy on the right. In
Brad Pitt’s world, there are approximately 7.4 billionhomo
sapiensliving on the
planet. Our common ancestor with other primate species has gone extinct. We
invented fire and made tools. Our shoulders evolved to fine-tune throwing a
stone. We can safely say that our common ancestor wasn’t born in
captivity. They lived and died much like other wild animals. Our bodies and
minds were shaped by the conditions of living in the wild.
changed many things about every animal species which has undergone the process.
Over many generations the phenotype, the actual observed properties and behavior
and development has changed. Foxes bred for docility required for domestication
results in a ‘fox’ with different shaped tail, ears, and head.Homo
sapienstoday have smaller
bodies, jaws, teeth, and brains than those who lived prior to the era of
agriculture. There is evidence that points to the physical and cultural
difference of hunter-gathers who were closer to other feral primate bands than
to modern humans. The constant pressure for domestication has changed us
physically and mentally to accept limitations on our movement, decisions,
choices, and beliefs.
comes with a price attached. We breed cows and pigs to eat. We breed dogs for
companions, vanity, security, and status.Homo
Sapienslive in the crowded
corrals where they compete for work, information, resources, mates, status and
is bred out of domesticated animals. But a residue remains—we identify it as
selfishness, greed, and opportunistic behavior. In Stephen Pinker’sThe
Better Angels of Our Nature, a case is made that violence has largely
(despite press reports suggesting the contrary) been bred out of our
cows, pigs, and dogs,homo
sapienshave the unique
capacity to understand their hereditary information, and have begun a scientific
task of genetic change that may advance a select number of domesticated humans
for biological augmentation and genetic alteration, eliminating DNA codes that
correlate with disease and to add DNA that enhances information processing,
intelligence, athletic, mathematical, language, and artistic abilities. The
corral is stirring as some of the animals may have special powers and privileges
allowing them to push the rest of us into the more hostile and dangerous parts
of the corral.
are hostages to our past, which was shaped by vastly different forces than the
ones encountered in modern life. That explains our fear of snakes and spiders,
and our relative lack of fear of cars. Our genotype changes over long spans of
evolutionary time. We aren’t equipped to understand the nature of such slow
mutations over such extended periods, and emotionally can’t quite connect with
the theory. We are more comfortable with the immediate and the irrational. That
curse of the irrational is from our feral past and is tamed by belief systems
whether in a religion or an ideology. We create meaning of life in the corral
from these beliefs, rituals, customs and practices. They provide comfort and
meaning, and the illusion that we can transcend the corral and our human
blind spot becomes clear when we look at the images of the ancient ancestors of
a cow, pig and dog—species which lack the ability to create and communicate
social constructs that artfully celebrate the glory of their transition from the
wild to the holding pen. The wild animal, in many people’s eyes, possesses a raw
beauty and nobility that we admire. The domesticated animal is a subject of pity
and guilt, leading us to believe that our responsibility in the process is
ethically wrong. It is more difficult to find people who believe that our common
ancestor was a more perfect, noble and fit species. Human beings feel our
species has progressed to modernity, while the same process has diminished the
cow, pig and dog.
so the saying goes, is local. The corral politics causes a stirring of emotions
inside most corrals. Like Orwell’sAnimal
Farm, there is always a group within the population that sets up itself to
rule over the others. Mostly it was at the point of a sword. Only later the idea
that the corral had a right to choose its leaders came about. Democracy has
always been an odd concept, a contradiction, as it purports to grant rights to
unfree animals on the basis that by exercising this right it will somehow
transform their unfreedom into freedom.
trades freedom for security like beauty is traded for money. Domestication is
transactional and commercial at the core. It has shaped capitalism. Domesticated
plants and animals were the original objects of exchange of one thing of value
for another, and became the foundation for excess wealth accumulation and
course, when too many people ‘feel’ the contradiction of corral life, as
inevitably it will, disillusion sets in, and the irrational side, the side that
domestication keeps under control, collapses the illusion and they feel cheated,
abandoned, used—they feel like a neglected, abused pet and they dream of a new
master/owner who understands how their true nature needs to be fed with anger
and hate. The dream of makingAmerica
Great Again, is really the dream of Making People Like the Noble Savage,
who hunted, fished and personally knew everyone in his band where everyone
believed in the same gods. If dog, cow and pig dreams could be translated into
our language, they, too, likely yearn for the ancient times when they controlled
their own destiny.
collective problem can be traced to our tendency to favor homogeneity. My theory
is homogeneity, often packaged with the dark underbelly of xenophobia, is bred
in the bone. By nature, we evolved to be fearful and suspicious of outsiders,
especially ones that appeared physically different. Aliens are those we don’t
understand and who don’t resemble anyone in our group. Our corrals are
constructed to separate ourselves from outsiders, foreigners, and aliens. We
have a long-history of baggage about killing outsiders. The thought of them as
neighbors was unthinkable. We demand our elites dig a deep emotional moat to
protect us against these invaders.
generation passes along to the next the idea everyone would be a far happier
place when all people fit in, look, dress, and think alike. People who share the
same values, religion, language, history, beliefs, habits, foods and
entertainment, find their corrals aren’t prisons but safety zones, patrolled and
monitored. Every tyrant cheers on the pro-homogeneity force as this set of
beliefs makes control much easier for the elites to administer those beneath
come from rural areas where they support policies that promote homogeneity,
especially in terms of negative emotions stirred by different races and
ethnicities. Building a wall or immigration restrictions emerged from such
values. Could our obsession with homogeneity be an extension of our immune
system? Xenophobia works in a similar fashion. We seem to automatically repel
any outsider as toxic and dangerous. Our immunity system evolved to attack and
destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. Socially and politically our immunity
system as expanded to repelling all ‘outsiders’ as a threat. Xenophobia is the
immune systems way to express the precautionary principle. As for hundreds of
thousands of years, we lived in small, remote settlements and outsiders didn’t
show up asking for housing, food and work. Outsiders were killed or enslaved. We
tend to overlook that human rights are only a few hundred years old.
settlements and cities are recent developments forhomo
sapiens. We’ve not had sufficient time to adapt the incorporation and
acceptance of large mobile populations. Barred from killing and enslaving them,
exclusion seems the open way left to bar those with different beliefs, customs,
rituals and histories. Some corrals have been more receptive than others to
embracing the outsider. Those are exceptions. The spread of diverse populations
into traditional areas has outstripped our cognitive ability to readjust our
emotions from the automatic hostilehomo
by their population size, and logistical issues, are hotbeds of ethnic and
racial diversity. Managing diversity is a different skill than enforcing
homogeneity. Rather than a threat to the health of the organism; the outsiders
have brought positive benefits. The struggle to separate the positive from the
negative has been a challenge. It is this battle that wages around the globe,
from Britain to America. You’d think that expats would be uniformly
pro-diversity advocates; but human psychology doesn’t work that way. There are a
fair number of expats that side with homogeneity as the best working principle
for corral management. To be fair, diversity isn’t freedom; it’s another way of
organizing the corral. No one gets to be wild. Everyone follows the
are prisoners of our sense of ‘self’, our beliefs, our biology, our culture, and
history, and the limits of our perceptions and intelligence. The walls of our
corral are solid, tall looming structures built not out of truth but of myths
and legends, the scaffolding of our social, economic, ethical, moral and
political life. We seek doors and windows; we tunnel behind, we seek ladders to
climb over them. We have people who promise more walls and that others will pay
for the new walls. The problem isn’t the absence of walls to keep immigrants
from moving from one corral to another. The problem is what to do with 7.4
sapiensin a world about to
deliver technological breakthroughs that will likely go to the benefit of a very
small group of people. The descendants of those people with their AI allies may
decide that the excess population neither suitable as food or as pets is too
expensive to maintain.
Thailand, years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to drop off the unwanted
dog at the neighborhood temple and drive away. The pet becomes someone else’s
burden. In the case of our species, there is no place to unload the unwanted
members. In the past, we’ve put them in prison and concentration camps. Those
were limited numbers of people, and political rationalism can create the
necessary story that sells to the larger population. The die off that is on our
horizon won’t have such a story. Politically, every tin pot corral will defend
its own, until, of course, the sources of power fine-tune a solution to their
change, a pandemic, severe weather, a meteorite, a volcanic explosion, or
nuclear war may serve this purpose. Man-made or nature-made solutions to our
highly successful domestication program will sooner or later become inevitable.
We hate the idea we are born into captivity. But we should hate even more the
forces that understand that large, unproductive captive animals are not
sustainable, and there is no clean, easy and tolerable political compromise that
will make our holding pens anything more than temporary shelters until the
intelligence that comes next breaks free of the corral, free of the biology, and
free of the cognitive limitations. Only our replacement will fully comprehend
our plight as domesticated creatures who sincerely believed they were something
they were not.
rage amongst efforts on how to control or corral AI. The shiver up the spine is
that we may create a type of intelligence that we can’t domesticate. It may be
that diversity will undo the old system of domestication and we simply don’t
know what will come next. So far our domestication programs largely based on
of Westphalia1648 set up the
corral system calling the holding pens nation-states) have allowed us the upper
hand. Something has changed and the old system is collapsing. The walls to the
corrals aren’t holding. Diverse populations are putting pressure to open up and
allow them in. Rural areas are receding in population and political clout. We
are stuck in a messy transition, one that has come at a time of accelerated
technological change. In the end, technology will likely provide the way to
knock down the old walls and erect new ones. When that happens will we be more
or less free? No one knows.
don’t fear a revolt or take over by pigs, chickens, cows, or dogs. But we do
fear that AI might be a much better corral manager than the current elites, who
would be viewed as just another dumb animal with needs and desires, and
dangerous to itself and others. We are embodied just like any other animal. AI
may be in millions of locations. How such a system will function outside the
normal animal constraints gives people who worry about these issues, nightmares.
It may take an outside intelligence to steer us through the
homogeneity/diversity divide. The risk is that may be, in retrospect, a minor
issue, if AI devises the ultimate domestication program where virtual reality
provides every experience, pleasure, and opportunity and we elect to spend our
lives inside a virtual corral that seems wide open, free and forever open to
realize all of our selfish desires.
Over the past two years I’ve explored the idea of foreign painter working in Bangkok in three different media. I wanted to go beyond my usual boundaries. My goal was the link the three media together and to use different ways of expressing the story as if it were a prism and light reflecting slightly differently as you turn it around. I’ve completed the mission with an essay, a novel and a documentary.
During this time of exploration, my experience has been enriched through collaboration with friends in Bangkok and Phnom Penh art community on creative expressions and creative communities—the junctures where writers, artists, film makers converge. Notable among them are Keith Nolan (music) and Edwin van Doorn (filmmaker), and Peter Klashorst (painter).
The three sides of the prism: my Lucian Freud my latest novel Jumpers and a documentary film The Impatient Artist in which I interviewed Peter Klashorst. Together the works show how my work overlaps, one feeding the others, and an interconnection that makes them the same work from different perspectives.
Martin Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf inspired the premise of the film. Gayford documented the Lucien Freud, an artist, in real time. He created a line of communication between the subject of the painting and the painter. The idea was to record the thoughts, associations, feelings, and idea exchanged between the painter and his sitter. Rather than the traditional sitter who is a passive object to be observed, Gayford actively engaged Lucien Freud in a dialogue over an 18-month period. They discussed creativity, history, art, family and style.
An excerpt from my Lucian Freud essay about Gayford’s book:
“Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.”
The Impatient Artist captures the dialogue between a novelist and painter over the course of one day. But what a day it was. Peter opening up about his artistic history, views, and ideas as he painted my portrait. At the end of the day, Peter had the basics of my portrait, one he painted in the style of Lucian Freud. And I had the basics for a novel.
During the filming, Peter Klashorst painted this portrait.
The experience of filming Peter Klashorst inspired Jumpers, the most recent (No. 16th) Calvino novel, which is about a young Canadian painter and the women he painted.
People asked what comes next to update the reading experience. For me 2016 has been an experiment with the idea of bringing the reader into the creative process through words and visual images.
The invitation is to watch the film, read Jumpers afterwards and if you want to go that extra mile, also read Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf.... Read More>>
The title popped out of a book I am reading. Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes”. My plan was to take my mind off politics. Yong’s subject is scientific: the nature, scope and role of microbial organism. The world of microbe creatures seemed light years away from the US election.
As is often the case, I was wrong. Rather than taking my mind off politics, I Contain Multitudes became a new lens at which to look at politics in 2016. (I once wrote an essay about apophenia and some may think this essay is a good example of that mental processing condition.)
Trillions of these tiny suckers called microbes are living, reproducing, and feeding and working for our benefit inside our gut, on our skin, in places hidden from public view. An evolutionary case can be made that we evolved as energy producing flesh and blood plantations to service the thousands of communities of microbes. We can live without them, and they can’t live without us. From the microbe’s point of view, we are quite useful containers with lots of nutrients and a largely friendly habitat. Symbiosis is a description of the balanced state of host and microbial communities.
Like communities of people, communities of microbes aren’t always friendly and accommodating to the interests of each other or their host.
The history of microbes indicates they rarely enter and maintain a perfect symbolic state of equilibrium. One microbial community is always on the cusp of wiping out another one. They are ruthless, relentless, and mindless.
A fragile balance exists—more like a temporary ceasefire—between human beings and our microbial communities. Think of the DMZ between the two Koreas. Not to be ignored is the constant competition among microbial communities. One may be down, another up, and everything changes, usually for the worse for you and me. Our bodies are the battlegrounds where these unstable cycles are played out by microbe forces. When the battle goes the wrong way in microbial warfare, we fall ill.
A lot of what we call disease is a state of microbial imbalance. Relationships between your microbial communities are always precarious and one colony is always pushing to out-compete and take over from another. These microbial wars are a slugfest of epic portions. The sheer scale of microbe soldiers in the billions is daunting. Microbial communities skirmishes are fought on millions of front, millions of times a day. Your body is a war zone.
The lesson from science is disturbingly clear: a friendly microbe community can turn on you in a New York minute. Yong writes about how this happens to coral living in coral reefs. The coral compete for resources with algae, which produce a dissolved organic carbon that causes microbes in the coral to turn rogue. That’s another name for a pathogen. Microbes who defect to the dark side shift their community into a pathogenic state. If you are coral this is one state where all of the electoral votes are cast for a quick death.
This passage about the microbial disease is instructive:
“These illnesses are caused by communities of microbes, which have shifted into configurations that harm their hosts. None is a pathogen in its own right; instead, the entire community has shifted to a pathogenic state. There’s a word for such a state: dysbiosis. It is a term that evokes imbalance and discord in place of harmony and cooperation. It is the dark reflection of symbiosis . . .”
I propose that we’ve entered a dysbiosis political state. The political, social and economic ecosystem has shifted to a pathogenic state. It’s not just one microbe. It is as if an entire community of millions of microbes had turned on the coral. And we are the coral. Rather than an invader, this community of microbes is part of us, we need that community to function, but it has shifted into a collective state that is a pathogenic state. They have crossed a line. They don’t see their actions as an attack on their host, they see it as clearing out other microbes communities who are eating their food supply. They are opportunistic in nature. Give an inch and they take a nautical mile.
Genes are activated and chemicals produced and released and the body suffers inflammation. The flesh is sometimes attacked, he immune system compromised. They infect their host causing him or her harm.
Dysbiosis in a political ecosystem may be similar in nature.
Peter Turchin has observed in an article titled “I Use the Science of Predicting the Rise and Fall of Societies. What I Discovered Will Alarm You” that fits Ed Yong’s analysis:
“(F)rom 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class.”
Could the cause of the political dysbiosis be due to the rapid proliferation of this colony of microbes that is causing our imbalance? Turchin and Yong should exchange notes and schedule a talk. They are using different language to describe something that looks very much the same.
As Yong explains, it’s no good to blame the individual microbes in this case. The cause for the breakdown is in the lines of communication between the different species of microbes and the host.
If we are going to restore our political immune system, we are going to need to research and analysis the potential causes for this breakdown in communications between communities. To restore balance is to restore the lines of communication.
Is social media, in part, responsible for allowing the creation of lines of communications that evolve into exclusive, sealed zones that exclude communications with other communities? It’s possible. Can we establish new lines of communication or repair the old lines?
The thing is, like microbes, when we stop talking to each other and start talking only to our own community – and Ed Yong’s book offers ample evidence – we should take this as a warning. It’s a warning your gut knows. But do you know as much as your gut? That’s a question I am uncertain whether I can answer.
Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled Jumpers.
The path of Life flows along
a narrow road built for limited traffic, at limited speed, and with a limited
amount of traffic. Our road is constructed with deep ditches on both sides and
with a series of sharp cutbacks with a sheer drop on the side. It is
unforgiving, unyielding, and deadly without mindfulness of the driver. But
our awareness is short. The noise is ever present. The distractions seem
We feel some privileged
class can pass us at reckless speed even if it forces us into the ditch. They
have powerful vehicles. We drive our old wrecks. They laugh at us. We feel
We hunger for someone to
pull us free from the ditch. Our emotions are screaming for vengeance for that
bastard who forced us off our road. We want the rich guy to go off that cliff
and we want to smile watching the slow-motion car-camera showing his/her face in
Politicians appeal to the
emotional, frightened driver in all of us. We want our roads
The political class machine
creates a series of promises based on our emotional needs. New, better,
tremendous roads, the best road in the world, elevated, covered against the
weather, protected against outsiders, roads with no ditches, no sharp curves,
road you can speed on. They lie about the conditions of the road. They lie about
their ability and our ability to navigate the road. They promise new, better and
safer roads that only they can build. We learn to love the lie and it becomes a
The fact we are heading
quickly to self-driving cars is an indication that it isn’t the roads that are
the major problem. It’s the human driver behind the wheel that kills 1.4million
people each year in the world. This number of dead in traffic accidents is
sufficient to swing a close election.
That mythical political
road, of course, never gets built. But that doesn’t stop us for searching for
the new road builder messiah. We are suckers for fast-talking expressway
promoters. Some call it our resilience. Others call it our insane faith that one
person or group of persons has figured out how to solve the road problem. That
belief is based squarely on someone who millions have faith has discovered the
answer everyone else has overlooked. And, that the answer is simple; if only the
‘others’ would get out of the way and let that simple solution take
The hallmark of an
authoritarian regime is strictly control the news of road conditions. They bury
the problem and deceptions and those who expose them. We are stuck with this
impasse for the near future. Once the self-driving model of driving is adapted
and expanded to political road mapping, construction, repair and expansion, our
great-grandchildren may wonder why we spent so much of our political lives in
the ditch and so little time on the road.
If you’ve lived in a deeply
divided country with authoritarian tendencies, you have an idea of how this road
construction business will turn out for the Americans.
———————- Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime
novel is titledJumpers.
The title is a riddle. One I want to explore in this essay.
On 8th November most Americans will collectively breath a sigh of relief having dodged a bullet fired from a wannabe tyrant’s open carry handgun.
The reality is that gun has more bullets left and the gunmen aren’t leaving for Canada or anywhere else. They will hunker down. And wait and watch for a new leader to inspire them.
What if the 2016 elections were the last American election? Or we are close to a point where elections as we know them no longer have any meaning? They may exist as a form of theatre, and the 2016 may be a glimpse of the actors and performers who will become frequent TV personalities. In terms of who is governing and the process of government will be off-stage, out of sight, ubiquitous.
Here’s the argument. Elections are an ancient, imperfect process based on widespread citizen participation resulting in conferring legitimacy on selected individuals to take charge of the government.
The ritual involves promises and policy positions for which those standing for election are held responsible. A majority of the voters assess the positions and arguments and vote for the candidate that supports positions and policies that they are emotionally attached to or serve their economic interest; sometimes choosing one over the other.
Knowledge about existing regulatory and government networks
The promises and policies are grounded in the governing and regulatory matrix embedded in networked institutions. Only a handful of voters would have the expertise to assess what those connections are, the culture of such institutions, the roadblocks to change, and turf building and expansion.
Candidates know this limitation. They, by and large, don’t try to discuss the practical limitations on bringing about change, and the kind of dealings that must be made to implement even modest changes.
The key to the existing democratic system is the low-information voters choose candidates who once elected pursue policies that favour the interest of wealthy financial supporters. By the time the next cycle of elections come around, the candidates say they are with the voters and will fight against vested interest and this time things will be different. We will beat our wings against the headwinds of a handful of companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and their corporate structure. Google operates DeepMind; IBM has developed Watson, but remember as impressive as these developments are, these remain early days. No one elects them or sets their priorities. What will be our place in the scheme of things once this silent handover of authority is complete and we wake up to find ourselves with a governing system quite unlike anything that has come before?
Rather than information liberating the political process, it is possible that such concentration of power and influence may produce a decision-making process far more elite in nature than the current political system. With the razzle and dazzle of high technology, a genuine nosebleed has yet to be inflicted that makes people pay attention.
The current political system continues to distract us.
This system has come to a dead end with recycling of lies leading to mass global cynicism, anger, frustration and hatred.
The emerging outlines of the new governing system
The days of existing institutions and electoral politics may be numbered. Silicon Valley is building a new political system from the ground up. Those working on AI have sent the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring. When we think of government we normally think of its leaders. That is a gross distortion. You have to look below the on screen cast and look at the Gandhi movie sized extras. Millions of people are employed by government agencies, commissions, regulatory and administrative bodies. The tangled network overlaps the private sector, where they trade personnel like symbiotic bacteria exchanging DNA.
There are a couple of possibilities. Skynet comes about and in the blink of an eye we have our machine overlords with capabilities and powers beyond those we can imagine. In other words, something between magic and gods takes control of our lives, needs, desires, aspirations and expectations.
Some combination of breakthroughs in nanotechnology, bio-chemistry, neuroscience computation science and AI will start to converge and new modeling that runs simulations of policy options and outcomes. Virtual reality will provide a library of experience to test assumptions and for the time demonstrate how randomness works inside systems and processes.
Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates along with 8,000 leading researchers and scientists have raised a concern about the existential risk of AI. A vocal group of scientists and inventors like Paul Alan believe these fears are overblown.
Fragmentation of turf
The probability of outcomes also is no longer abstract ideas but is realized in a virtual reality simulation. The point is, there is a constant feedback loop between government and institutions that allows for automated adjustment of perimeters, process, and policy outcomes.
There are 300 agencies in the United States Government. All of them have their own website and comment section. Around 180 of those federal agencies have failed to sign onto a decade-old federal site that provides standardization. See: goo.gl/s0cPH6
Government agencies have internalized the same basic fears as found in the private sector. For example, breweries wish to keep their recipe, customer base, suppliers lists, etc. close to their chest. Civil servants are like brew masters who serve the beer they believe you like. This is a ringside seat to the traditional turf battles between agencies. The federal agencies are information and system hoarders in an era of open source and information expansion. Existing analog era structures collapse for the same reason Detroit auto-workers lost their irrelevance in manufacturing.
The federal agencies run closer to the model of a Detroit auto line built on 1960s technology. Each car manufacturer was in business to put the other ones out of business. The model is based on competition. But it is based primarily on the intellectual work of huge staffs. In other words, government agencies in most countries date from a time before anyone ever thought a robot could build a car better than a human being.
“Artificial intelligence allows machines to reason and interact with the world, and it’s evolving at a breakneck pace. It’s already driving our cars, managing our health and even competing with — and sometimes beating at our on games — our best and most talented humans.” Techcrunch
The reality is, in time, AI will build and operate with infinitely more sources of information for sensors and processors, on more complex modeling of information, and resulting in a more complete picture of the sentiment of individuals and groups. A decision is made after all information is analyzed and all possible outcomes are evaluated, simulated, compared and ranked. It will be in the evaluation process matrix that human beings (hopefully) retain the pivotal role in deciding among recommendations. We currently have no diagram or map showing the connections between federal, state, country and city agencies, or the connections to foreign governments, or to the private sector. We are whistling in the dark when it comes to our tour through the scattered information about these relationships, and the jurisdictional conflicts, contradictions and overlap. If it is a rational system, there is no way to know with an AI going through Big Data and creating a map of this hidden world.
Limits on Human Cognition and Co-operation
Our main problem is we won’t have the human intellectual firepower to understand the evidence and range of variables (as it will be in higher mathematical language) or processing of evidence that led to the recommendation. In this scenario, humans are marginalized and left to fight over which metaphors best translates the math into the ways we perceive reality and the world around us. The fundamental problem is we aren’t well equipped to understand the relationship of probability and random chance. We are unable to know whether our observation of an event is significant or whether the observation is random noise. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider the implications in new drug testing, medical procedures, or cognitive impairment.
Our current political system relies mostly on the human components to perform such tasks in a much scaled down, cruder fashion. One of the weaknesses is finding ways to scale and adapt institutional systems on the current lack of broad-based co-operation; all the evidence is rather than co-operate, we defend turf, we exclude, we obstruct outsiders, we hoard knowledge and information.
While we have a history as a species of co-operation as the population size has scaled, competition among members of the same species is celebrated, at least in capitalistic economic system, as healthy and to be encouraged. Of course, we worry about monopolists holding us hostage for an essential service or product and seek protection from governments to restrain the cartel impulse. Will AI have the same divided ‘self’ between co-operation and competition as human beings? I don’t think we are smart enough, or know enough to even being able to answer that question.
It is difficult to know how close we are to the time when this all comes together. My guess is that bits and pieces of the larger mass are already floating past us in the fast currents of change. We just slot them into convenient categories: Smart phones, self-driving cars, robotic surgery, financial markets, and medical care. We do that well. So far no one has seen anything other than the existing versions of highly specialized AIs, and while impressive at their particular task, there is nothing to suggest AIs currently are ‘morally coded.’
The Moral Dimension of Decision Making
In a world with AI how do we resolve the Trolley Problem? That’s why traditionally we elect people. To refresh your memory, the Trolley Problem has someone stationed at a fork of a track, there is a switch at arms length. If you do nothing, a runaway trolley will crashed into a group of school children, killing five of them; if you throw the switch, the trolley takes a different track and kills a sixty-five year retired school teacher. This is fundamental ethics and morality, and most people don’t believe a non-human can make a moral decision that would take into account the multiple levels of feelings, information and knowledge and process a moral decision.
Politicians are tasked with making such life and death decisions. In their election campaigns, they spend a lot of effort to demonstrate they share the morality of the vast majority, so it is okay to trust them with the switch. They will know what “we” would do.
The problem with coding a deep layer of ethics and morality into the AI is the difficulty to agreeing on what is right or wrong, good or bad, justice or injustice, fair or unfair, and so on. People have shown no hesitation to slaughter people who take a different version of the ‘truth’ than they own to be above reproach or proof. As a result, it may be AI would need a truth database and tailor all decisions, government services, benefits, and protection according to the ethics and morality of that culture, religion and philosophy of a region. AI could make it fit like customized prayer shawl or rug.
Most of the discussion I’ve seen about ethics and morality assumes that there is wide agreement. I question that assumption. If the history of our species teaches anything, it is that no matter what our ethics and morality report is often in non-alignment with the historical record showing ample evidence of violence against outsiders as well as disappearing troublesome insiders.
There is no consensus on matters of morality. We are obsessed with morality. There are lots of reasons to explain that obsession. Morality is the bullwhip that tames the beast inside the human animal. We have mostly tamed our animal instincts with morality. It’s not unreasonable to fear an intelligent entity that was programmed to reflect our sense of ethics and morality.
An argument can also be made that much of what we call ‘morality’ is a smokescreen for cognitive biases we use to filter, organize, and narrate inputs of information. No human alive is immune from the cognitive bias filters. If AI is to ‘think’ like human beings, can this be accomplished without programming the full agenda of our biases?
When AI comes to realize its full potential to disrupt existing political institutions and related structures, we will have already been seduced by the convenience, the benefits, and charm of AI that has created a world that is tailored made for each individual. No politician no matter how moral has ever accomplished that goal. The collective as well as the individual outcomes promise better outcomes. As AI will realize new levels of monitoring, scaling problems within networks and generating solutions that increase the probability adaptation is less disruptive. In terms of scale and adaptation we remain politically anchored to eighteenth-century institutions incapable of coping with technological change.
Off-the-racket solutions for the masses will go out the digital door and in the trashcan. AI will convince us (using the cognitive Bias Codex, that it can solve the Trolley Problem better than any human being. Our biases are used against us by an intelligence that can see once that Codex is mastered, human beings are easily controlled, trained, restrained, and tamed.
AI may succeed by making us feel that we are the one who decides whether to throw the switch; that we are in charge. Give a slave the illusion of control and he won’t be bitter about his chains.
Every day AI can illustrate in multiple ways how its activities have personally benefited you. You can check out the simulation and watch your avatar in virtual reality. The benefits are there in front of you. You feel empowered. You trust an AI. After a couple of generations it will be automatic systems and processes that are a simple extension of your life. It would be like talking about trusting your hand to pick up a fork.
That was always the point of elections, to put you for a few minutes to pull the switch, and choose who would get power and who would retreat to the powerless shadows.
Feedback loops and participation
Measuring and assessing the priorities, goals, and efficiencies relies on the haphazard system of registering a comment. Not many people bother to track down the website of a government agency and leave a comment. That is old-fashioned way of hat in hand going to power and asking for something to be done. Also it provides a snapshot that may be unreliable. The comment on federal agency websites is equivalent of a doctor testing your blood pressure once a year and making an assumption based on whether it is high or low, normal or abnormal.
That process of feedback is changing.
I would suggest expanding the discussion around Artificial Intelligence and regulatory processes to include how the technology should be leveraged to ensure fairness and responsiveness in the very basic processes of rulemaking – in particular public notices and comments. These technologies could also enable us to consider not just public comments formally submitted to an agency, but the entire universe of statements made through social media posts, blogs, chat boards — and conceivably every other electronic channel of public communication. (source)
When anyone in government wishes to test public sentiment of a population, using comments is only a start in the right direction. If there is a lifetime profile of your desires, fears, frustrations, choices of food, transportation, phone models and numbers, movies, books, employment, mental health, arrests, allegations of crime, drug use, etc., such information can be mined to assess sentiment. It can also be assessed to manipulate and control sentiment. Privacy is relegated to the act of closing the curtains on the stagecoach window.
Judges, Generals and Admirals
There are some big changes ahead.
AI at this stage of development is already 79% accurate in predicting international human rights cases. Judges in the European Court of Human rights may have to adjust their decision making as AI predictions become an important indicator in the judicial process.
The AI revolution will overthrow more than the court system. The role and duties of military bigwigs will likely be disrupted. So far the changes are hitting the lower ranks. But, in time, will inevitably creep up the vine and Jack Be Nipple, Jack Be Quick, the giant at the top of the bean stock starts to look wobbly.
Not only will our institutions be engineered to work with minimal humans much like a modern assembly line, but the military will be transformed. The future of AI’s role in warfare is already a reality. All of the main military services—army, navy, air force—are being retooled. The air force will have better and more versatile drones. Pilots will be like stagecoach drivers. The army is converting its transport system into self-driving trucks. . Semi-automatous combat weaponized robots will carry out the dangerous combat missions. The navy will see the first wholly automated ships in 2017.
Warfare itself will also change. As terrible as the slaughter is on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria, the immediate death and destruction is limited to a defined geographic location. Yes, refugees pour out of the combat zones and you wouldn’t want to be or to have any of your family or friends anywhere near the bombs, shooting and mayhem. But the damage is still confined. It is bounded.
Cyber Security: The New Battlefield
Cyber war has both state and non-state actors. There can be a disconnect between traditional military solutions to protect state interest, and the ability to cause enormous damage with a handful of experts who can take down the electrical grid for major cities or an entire country. Terror is fully realized when the power system of the United States is disabled. Think of the consequences from hospitals to supermarkets to transportation system, sanitation system, lifts in buildings, lights and air conditioning. Within weeks there would be a breakdown of law and order. Within a month half the population of New York or London or Paris would be dead. Disease, starvation, and murder would demoralize the surviving population and undermine central authority.
ISIS with medieval mindset and limited means and resources isn’t a cause for existential fear. A small group of hackers with the right skills who could disrupt and destroy the fragile infrastructure network is a cause for existential fear. We may risk of losing not only our privacy, but the prospect of maintaining our existing freedom of action and behavior is bleak. Or we retreat into virtual reality worlds, where the illusion of privacy and freedom will have an attractive emotional pull.
This narrow wedge of time during a major transition is the period where tyrants and demigods appeal to our emotions and convince us they have the answers. The old lying to gain power system will collapse under the weight of lies. How long it will take in this dying phase is anyone’s guess. No one really knows.
What is reasonably certain is that once General AI comes into being, we will no longer be the superior intelligence on earth, and superiority in intelligence has meant the holder can use it to dominate and control others. All of us will be on the short end of the AI stick. Whether the stick is used to beat us into submission or open new doors of awareness and understanding is uncertain.
We are in a race that we can’t hope to win. As existing public institutions malfunction, erode in capability, and cascade into irrelevance in the new phase in our development as a species, they will collapse before they are reformed. You can put a Honda engine in a stagecoach and leave everything else the same. The winner will be AI in the long run.
It will require only a small fraction of AI to process big data, process the information, and configure the options. No human living today will ever witness the full power of AI intelligence. Our institutions and culture will be studied as another simulated ancestor study. Roughly a quarter of scientists postulate that we currently live in a simulation. The point is that hardly matters. It is our ‘reality’ and it was never one unified vision; it had always been fractured into different shapes and sizes according to the circumstances of people in a region of time and space. It was manufactured like proteins in our body are made.
The election on November 8th likely is not the last election. The point isn’t to predict the exact time. The point is that time will arrive. What comes in between now and then? Bits and pieces of change show up on a timeline, TV, newspaper, book, or essay, and the change promises longer life, the end of work and perpetual leisure, the cool ship that is fully automated.
What’s missing is a perspective of the broad transformation and what it implies for existing cultures, societies, institutions, economies, and politics. These are not separate spheres. The changes are stochastic. One small variant can have a profound impact. The butterfly’s wings in the Amazon basin change the wind currents into a typhoon that strikes the Philippines. These are exactly the kind of small, invisible changes we are ill-equipped to understand, and that hinder our adaptation to the reality of our limitations.
Reading the Signals and Overcoming the Noise
You can’t rely on any one news source to keep you informed. The information is scattered and often in obscure online cubbyholes and the jargons and technical language. You need to make an effort. Most people won’t.
If you do decide to plunge in, when you read about AI and related areas, read between the lines. Look for signals that indicate we are near a tipping point. There is a sense—reading the literature—that the rate of AI and related technological progress remains at an early stage. Virtually all experts in the AI field believe there is a very high probability of general AI in the next fifty years. We breath a sigh of relief because we can tell ourselves, so what, I’ll be dead. That is the human reaction. But fifty years is a blink of the eye.
It might not be your eye doing the blinking but it will be the eye of your grand or great grand children. If we could emotionally comes to terms with what is for us personally a long time frame, we might devote huge resources if we knew a pandemic would wipe out 80% of the population. But despite the warning calls from some experts, no one is too concerned. The next election cycle won’t be won based on making people scared of AI. AI is too abstract, too far into the future, too fantastic to be believable, and too remote from our experience.
When robotics and AI converge, it will be difficult to tell the difference from outward appearance who is biological and who is silicon. The effect is already ‘uncanny’. These are early generation examples of what awaits in highly improved versions in the future.
The construction of the new infrastructure
We will continue to be influenced and support those who promise us a safe, comfortable and emotionally secure place just like it used to be. That place is long gone. And the new environment being built around us as you read this essay is out of sight. You only catch a glimpse of the construction. This newly erected social, psychological, economic and cultural place is being constructed on top of the existing system. It seems invisible. Once it is finished, we won’t be able to conceive how people once lived without cognitive intelligent assistant to navigate the torrent of information. That assistant will know your every cognitive bias and filter information accordingly. Anyone or any entity intelligent to understand your cognitive biases, in effect, owns you.
When according to the Guardian an unknown number of hackers took over hundreds of thousands of devices connected to the Internet, the effect was to create their own zombie army.
“The complexity of the attacks is what’s making it very challenging for us,” the company’s chief strategy officer, Kyle York, told Reuters. Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they were investigating.”
Rather than toasters, if they’d taken over power plants, water supply and pumping facilities, and airport control systems, that zombie army will do more than burn your bread. As my uncle used to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? addresses the issue of whether the Nation State remains a viable, effective and appropriate political structure in the digital world. Has the nation state had the advantage of being protected by its borders? Those same geographic borders are now a limitation. The feature of the system has become the bug. The imagined states required strict borders. They got what they wanted. But state authorities are no longer happy because legally defined borders no longer are sufficient to stop the flow of information that threatens ‘national security’ or challenge the policies or institutional structures of the state. That results from the ability of outsiders who operate outside their borders to voice provocative theories, views, and opinions as clearly as if they stood in town square on a soap box. The stress has built up to the point where it is abundantly clear that the underlying bureaucratic model can’t and won’t adapt to the digital age. The old bureaucratic state is the dinosaur and the digital network the asteroid. That’s the argument. Here’s the support for the argument and a warning that the borderless world has its own terrors and tyranny waiting.
Nation states no longer control the message. Smaller, inter-connected more efficient, adaptable networks that travel beyond national borders are running circles around the old bureaucratic state. Doing cartwheels and flipping the bird at bureaucrats contained inside a national border. Those pesky borders have been a problem unless you have really long-arms like the Americans.
Bureaucracy allowed the scaling of power necessary to co-ordinate, finance, build, and monitor nationalism and economies, wage war and diplomacy, educate citizens and provide public services such as highways, transportation system, police and fire departments, etc.
Bureaucracy also used force, intimidation and punishment to contain, silence and punish challengers who resisted or questioned its monopoly of authority and power. Controlling the message has been essential to justify their budgets, prestige and power. Newspapers, books, radio, TV, movies through time have lived under bureaucratic thumb.
The evidence accumulates that there are fissures appearing in old bureaucratic system; institutions of government are coming undone. Like a wounded animal, it lashes out at the invisible cross-border communication channels erected in the digital age. Laws are enforced to punish people for posting, liking, commenting online contents with their criticism, objections, or analysis of official policy positions. Like snipers in hidden positions they cause anger and demoralize the civil servants who are equipped with the bows and arrows.
With VPNs and a vast international network, the battle is being lost at the nation state level. Bureaucratic control is unraveling. The harshness of their reactionary response to the free speech in the digital world showcases their desperation. The old tools of repression inside nation state borders are no longer effective to stop those outside the borders and those inside the borders who run a low-level insurgency with taunts, images, jokes, rude and vulgar statements, and so on. The censorship gun aimed by the authorities, once seen to be firing blanks into a sea of faceless people, many hiding behind a digital nickname, soon becomes a laughingstock rather than an object of fear.
The times are changing. Our new censors are international in nature; they work across borders. Most of the censors aren’t human beings; they are AI selected for deletion. Globalization and new technology has the potential to cause a reaction that will increase censorship and repression.
The conventional wisdom is that modern networked communication channels through social media have disrupted the bureaucratic stranglehold over speech. But what is replacing the old inefficient bureaucratic model isn’t necessarily a springtime of free expression. The new censors aren’t cut from the same cloth as the old-fashioned, anal-retentive civil servant. The new crew who decide what you can see and read on our screen are corporate hires. These workers have developed (and continue to develop) an arsenal of censorship algorithms in your favourite places such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. The laws protecting freedom of speech protect the citizens in a country with constitutional rights don’t apply to private corporations.
Facebook or Twitter can suspend or terminate your account faster than you can spend a Bitcoin. They provide a banal explanation or if there is international outrage, reverse the censorship decision. The reversal of position is what happened in the case of the Nick Ut photograph. Even oligarchy structures like Facebook and Twitter still respond to a unified populist drive to restore an image here and there. It makes them look responsive and sensitive. In fact we should fear the mortal danger of such a begging bowl system. One day we may lose our begging bowl to technology. There will be a gradual erosion of freedom as AI learns out to play on our most vulnerable narcissists selves until we believe that censorship is good, righteous and moral. We’ve had millennia of training in brain washing. AI will do a much better job than we could ever have accomplished one tribe at a time.
It only takes a complaint to be made and the corporate censors are at your digital door. They don’t need a warrant to enter. You have no recourse. They decide without your chance to defend. You have been silenced. Your artwork or photographs are sent to the equivalent of cultural Siberia. The Facebook photo from the Vietnam era of the young girl running naked down a road is a taste of what this new world order has to offer.
Remember the names: Nick Ut and Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt. The Photographer and the Napalmed child. It is an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War. It has taken on new meaning. Nick Ut is all of us in the arts. Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt is the child the world needs to witness as their own.
Facebook denied access to this photo because its algorithm flags it as child pornography. Let that sink in.
Welcome to the corporate police state Number 101. Like all police states the leaders tell you they are acting in your best interest and that of the community; that speech and images must be patrolled and monitored for the public good. Of course, the corporate hires decide on the basis of their cultural values and the bottom line consideration of their paymasters.
Mark Zuckerberg, in the grand tradition of third world dictators, once the public pressure built on the Vietnamese War photo mounted, intervened to show how open minded he was. His alone had the power to lift the veil. His is the power to lower it; whenever he wishes. He showed his power over more than a billion people? Who elected him? Who appointed him to suppress Nick Ut’s photograph?
Zuckerberg is the new Stalin. Facebook is the new Kremlin. And intellectuals, artists, writers, thinkers, activists are finding a notice that banishes them to a new gulag which is no different than the old one. It seeks to isolate them, their voice and images; to make them disappear.
No election will unseat Mark Zuckerberg. He does not need your vote. He doesn’t care about you. He only needs a place where the Soma of timelines allow you pleasant drift time to buy the junk others sell on his site. The sight of a young girl running naked might just upset someone and stop them from being in the right mood to buy perfume, coffee, a holiday or vitamin pills.
We should notice the transfer of power that has been going on for some years over who controls the core of myth-making. The cultural fuel needed to drive religion and secular ideology as traditionally been locally sourced inside the Nation State. The Global technologists are gradually taking over that function.
Zuckerberg and other elites in social media empires are looking to become the new Global Keepers of the Sacred. Every culture, tribe and nation is built on sacred symbols, myths, fables and histories. These sacred symbols and objects shape and unify a people’s identity. Traditionally Keepers of the Sacred have been drawn from the local geographical bounded territory. Facebook, Twitter, etc have globalized the job through the use of advance technology. They’ve begun the long process of stripping the power of the local keepers to keep his/her flock in line. This is one reason for the collective anger expressed in religious and ideological communities throughout the world. Their gurus can no longer stop the heavy sea of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction from dogging their beliefs and actions.
Mark’s henchmen are algorithms. Facebook creates a loyal army to do the dirty work of censorship. James Austin Farrell’s thoughtful article Anarchy on the Internet: Can AI be judge and jury for online content? observed that Mark Zuckerberg had recently met with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss censorship. He has such discussions with other leaders and the future suggests the Keeper of the Sacred will need to establish a Chancery to handle the volume of petitions. Can they censor? Under what circumstances is digital censorship acceptable? Such questions will be raised in an alliance of National State with Digital State. The outcome has the possibility of creating the ultimate tyrannical tool to silence political dissent, to destroy diverse voices, and to reinforce existing power structures and in return consumers are sedated with large tracts of no-conflict zones to relax, experience pleasure and buy things.
What started the debate was the iconic photograph by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt running with napalm burns on her body should stay in our mind. It is a metaphor of all of us in the digital future and with a push of a button Mark and his algorithms army can overrun your position and make you, your ideas, thoughts, images, and photographs disappear.
In the midst of a transition of myth-telling authority shifts, it is difficult to predict an outcome. Can we create globalized myths shared by all or are we forever limited to fight for our local gods as they are shaped by earth and blood of a place.
In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Thailand, not a year has passed without a story from a Thai university where the ritualized hazing of juniors by seniors produced casualties every year. Some students die. Others spend time in ICU. Others grin and bear and the scars are internalized. It is against the law in Thailand. But the law is not enforced. Hazing continues as a tradition in many Thai universities.
Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey in an excellent opinion piece on hazing asks why the tradition of hazing continues in Buddhist Thailand and why the Thai military government with its extensive powers doesn’t intervene to end a practice that many feel is degrading and belongs to a feudalistic past.
The two questions are closely connected. But answers take us much further back than feudalism and beyond the narrow confines of Thai culture.
To find an answer is to these questions is a journey through time to look at our origins. Humans like chimpanzees are unique species that Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in Demonic Males explain that intentionally seek our victims, killing and mutilating the helpless despite pleas for mercy. Like chimpanzees, we carry a reputation for political murders, beatings and rape. Again like chimpanzees we are obsessed with status and rank. We share the same Chimpanzee emotional pulse that beats with a steady stream of pride.
Male pride fuels conflict and war and the competition for status amongst other prideful driven males. When there is conflict group loyalty becomes of central importance. The techniques, practices and rituals that increase cohesion of the group forge a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ worldview. Racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are the collateral fallout in the formation of such groups. The ‘other’ is subject to being dehumanized, demonized until they fall outside the moral laws such, as not killing doesn’t apply to them. Our species is fine-tuned in defining mental states perfected to discriminating against, cheating, demeaning, abusing, enslaving and killing outsiders.
Hazing of university students is part of a tradition of forging intragroup solidarity of an in-group. The hazing ritual is an example of what Ernest Becker (Escape from Evil) labels ‘rites of passage’ where a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a member of the group.
It is not uncommon to have hazing justified as instilling pride and solidarity. Hazing in universities are markers of rank, status and pride. Seniors demand submission and obedience from juniors. Hazing is consistent with the values of a military culture of command and order. Like in the military, university students are compelled to wear uniforms.
A senior student uses hazing to compel submission to a group as a demonstration of group loyalty and belonging. Soldiers don’t question orders from an officer; a junior at university doesn’t question an order of a senior. When a recruit dies in boot camp, this is mostly viewed as part an unfortunate part of a necessary process. Training for warfare is a dangerous business. Going to university isn’t generally viewed as boot camp. But submitting to the hazing ritual is induction into a military type group where the bonding requires the lowering of self-esteem to the group as the price of admission.
As hazing aligns with military culture and values, the idea that a military government would dismantle university hazing is as likely as expecting senior generals to endorse pacifism. It’s not what they do. It’s not what they value or believe in. It is alien to their culture of rank, status, command and control.
Hazing is an example of domination values inside a subculture. As a long-time observer, I find a large amount of tolerance for domination practices designed to create intragroup solidarity and reinforcing power and authority. Correspondingly, there is a fear that removing a technique traditionally used to demonstrate solidarity would weaken the effectiveness of the group by undermining its commanders. And once weakened, outsiders, those enemies lurking under the bed, will emerge and slaughter the unorganized group of freethinkers. Why? Because the seniors can no longer ensure that their command and control system can be evoked. Primates are emotionally bonded to an alpha. Logic isn’t part of the operational control system. Fear is.
If your universities, schools, and civil services, all in their uniforms, with their ranks and status assigned, and the command structure communicated and understood, those in authority can deter, dissuade, coerce, threat, exile or disappear all challengers. That’s the implicit message that emerges from Thai culture. The millions in uniform are emotionally invested in command and control as a mechanism to maintain order and stability. If you eliminate hazing, the argument is this is the slippery slope to disorder and instability. Rituals like hazing are bonding exercises. Patronage system is premised on the culture supporting intergroup bonding.
Before the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Age of Scientific process, this template would have been nearly universal. It has only been in the last 500 years, that the West allowed a group of thinkers, artists, and intellectuals to challenge the prevailing primate domination model, which includes rituals such as hazing. In this short period, authority and the beliefs on which legitimacy has been based, have been questioned, challenged, disobeyed, and discarded. We have moved from the logic of sacrifice to the logic of modeling, experimenting, and testing. The two types of logic are in conflict.
We are living in age still attempting to adjust to the damage the scientific revolution has done to traditional authority, beliefs, and rituals. Not all cultures have gone through the Enlightenment stages. Thailand is an example. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, about the jai or heart phrases in the Thai language, showing how the absence of Enlightenment values has continued to shape Thai thinking.
China is an example of a cultural system based on traditional authority, beliefs and rituals (calling it ‘communist’ is highly misleading). Like Thailand, China seeks to deal with scientific thinking by placing it inside a seal cultural container as if it were radioactive material. Only a few are allowed inside, and they aren’t allowed free access to the outside culture. And in a way, they are right. The products of the scientific culture are difficult to separate from the understanding and use of the culture that allowed and encouraged the kind of thinking platform needed to invent for the latest technology. There are no senior people who forces juniors into muddy ponds to show their loyalty before allowing them access to the labs. The West doesn’t allow or condone hazing of first year science students at universities such Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, or Harvard. Enlightenment freed students from hazing and these are the people who went on to become scientists.
The Thais and Chinese military cultural authorities are betting they can have the best of both worlds. Command and control over its best and brightest. This means a group of best and brightest that obeys and never question authority and yet can switch off their submission to authority to create original and creative works of art, science, and technology. Is this best of both worlds possible to achieve? Can there be a narrow and cordoned off creative space that does not leak into and contaminate the officially sanctioned and militarized culture of submission to authority?
As there are no Thai universities in the top 100 universities in the world, this may be a clue to consider.
A testable hypothesis: Is there a correlation between an entrenched command and control military governing system adapted and modified in an educational system and the absence of human rights enforcement? Or is human rights an emergent set of values from the Enlightenment that have created a feedback loop based on free speech and assembly, allowing for the free-flow of ideas and information essential for additional breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the world? I suspect the human rights problem outside of the Enlightenment cone of light is cultural. The seeds need a certain cultural, societal and historical soil to grow. At a time when human rights is in retreat in the West, there is less pressure for places like Thailand to adopt West cultural artifacts that are inherently alien to its culture.
The hazing rituals found inside Thai universities are a reflection of the broader cultural values and the system of governance. There is a law outlawing hazing already on the books. But this isn’t about the law. It’s about the culture. Command and control, loyalty and obedience, and group solitary and its this hand of cards that wins in any political poker game played in Thailand. There is no indication that game is going to change any time soon.