I have been playing with
the idea that noir crime authors are a subset of hackers into the hive mind
collectively shared by their readers. A few years ago I wrote about Writing Novels inside theHive Mind. I’d like
to further develop this metaphor along with the related idea of hacking. It is
mixing of metaphors to be sure. I hope to show that despite the limitation, we
can find another layer of understanding and perspective about how we process
noir crime fiction.
The best of the noir
authors understands, like all hackers, that the mental system has an explanatory
description of the world that has a number of flaws and weaknesses. The
stability of any hive or colony (think ants or termites) requires order,
separation of functions, and coordination of routines, and cooperation to
survive. We find elements of this structure weaved through our own lives.
Cultures bond people by giving them messages about predictability, certainty and
control. Most people recoil from inhabiting a world where doubt, uncertainty and
randomness can only be removed with sleight of hand tricks. Hive dwellers,
though, are a sucker for such illusions.
threaten to capture and control a hive population through the use of delusion
creation projects. They play on the cognitive handicaps by using techniques that
calm the hive. The business of most cultures if you peel back the political,
social and economic layers has a common theme: the elite bees or ants maintain
their status by promising to eliminate doubt and chance. If you can create the
illusion of hive harmony, purity and certainty, and you own the hive.
Noir crime fiction is a
hack into the hive, leaving behind a message—you can never overcome or defeat
randomness and there are no handrails that deliver you from doubt.
I’d like to develop that
idea in this essay.
In a minute I’ll throw a
noir crime book into the hive and report on the buzz.
Our cognitive machinery
evolved, in part, as a function to living in the equivalent of a hive. You are
unique just like everyone else is the old saying. Our minds suffer from a number
of biases, illusions and errors. We rarely question whether what we are
processing is connected with reality. Most of the time, we don’t recognize a gap
between our perception and the reality we perceive. We see patterns that are
smooth, harmonious, and consistent, reinforcing our beliefs and values. We make
honey. We work for those who run the hive. Most of the time, we don’t think
twice about that arrangement. We look around and see everyone else is in the
honey making business and not questioning too deeply their role in the larger
scheme of things.
Our assumption is that our
mind is a reliable reporter, translator and interpreter. Clinging to beliefs is
much easier than junking them and considering new ones. Beliefs are resilient
and reality doesn’t necessary change a belief.
Make fun of or belittle
someone’s idea of the sacred and see the reaction. Try teaching evolution in a
Texas school. Or try to suggest that a state sponsored health care or gun
control is a good idea in America.
Daniel Kahneman who
authored Thinking Fast and
Slow, has spent a lifetime
studying the effects of anchoring, confirmation bias, framing and other issues
that influence our distorted view of the world, others, and ourselves. The
distortions vary from culture to culture, but the basic idea is the same. We
have the same brain but the programming is culturally determined. Each hive has
a slightly different operating system much like Apple and Microsoft platforms
sharing a different set of biases and limitations, but in reality they are more
alike than different.
It is the biased mind that
reads and thinks about books. As it is a biased mind that writes them. There is
something very noir-like about the trap of biases that our mind automatically
We need to think about
what it means to educate literate people. The basic idea of literacy that most
people accept is narrowly framed. Literacy means a person has acquired the
ability to read and write with sufficient skill to navigate inside the hive.
Without literacy, there would be no book authors and book readers or books.
Also, literacy normally leaves a large backdoor for updating the operating
system. There is intense competition to hack the hive mind. The partial roll
call includes authors, governments, religions, celebrities, corporations,
political parties, advertisers, and subversives.
If the educational system
is one where the teacher is the unquestioned authority, and the text the
unquestionable truth, and the pupils’ duty is to master the language sufficient
to read, memorize and write out the exercises that reinforce the received
truths, the pupils graduate into the community not as ‘educated’ citizens but
‘programmed’ (and programmable) citizens. Ever since the industrial revolution,
the commercial, corporate and military institutions have established power by
hacking their messages into the vast ranks of programmed citizens. That is the
template for the human hive. George Orwell’s 1984 fictionalized the
process of programming and the perils of outsiders hacking into the citizen’s
preprogrammed set of beliefs.
The use of critical
thinking and analysis is paid mouth service all around the world. It has become
a kind of slogan like motherhood. Or like the advice to avoid stress, exercise,
don’t drink or smoke too much. Hive owners force themselves to lie about their
commitment to the critical thinking business.
This isn’t exceptional
inside the hive where there is a free for all over the programming hack into how
you should deal with stress, how you should exercise daily, restrain your
drinking, drugs and smoking. Our cognitive machinery has been hacked like a
meteorite shower raining down hundred times a day dumping TV commercials,
shopping mall live feeds, TVs in trains, ads online or in newspapers (where
those still exist), billboards, on the logos on cars, shirts, watches, cell
phones, handbags, and clothing straight into our brains. We don’t see the
contradiction that this is the price of hive life.
Next time you wake up,
start the day with a notebook and pen and note down the ‘hacks’ you encounter in
your little corner of the hive. Open your eyes to what messages you find in
words, symbols, slogans, commercials, logos, pictures and music. At the end of
the day, go through your list to see how many hacks have been attempted on your
mind. Our minds are filled with these viruses. They are overrun with tiny
patches that slight through without us being aware we’ve been
To view everything in terms of our own time is another bias to avoid–though
it is difficult to consistently do so. It is likely that every civilization has
defined the ‘civilized citizen’ as the person who excels in representing the
legitimacy of the Truth Keepers, these honey hoarders, extolling the virtues and
grandeur of hive culture, the nobility and purpose of the unified community.
Civilization, like any hive structure, can’t be established or maintained
without such programming.
The programming power to shape the emotions of the hive members and organize
their movements through art demonstrated in this video. Have a look. It is a memorable and
telling experience. Who gets to play the music controls those who can’t resist
the instinct to join the dance and co-ordinate their movement with the others.
Think of bees dancing to direct the colony to a field of flowers in
This Russian dance video
shows the power of music imported from the ‘outside’ and in a culture noted for
its historical restrictions on freedom of movement, thought, and artistic
The Ode to Joy,
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 In D Minor, OP. 125 video is acts as counterbalance in
several ways. The first thing I noticed in the Beethoven video was the different
role played by the audience and the expectations of the audience. They are not
an active part of the performance in the Beethoven video. The audience is one of
listeners, who are recipients rather than active co-participants in the
performance. People stay in place. They witness, appreciate, and admire. Also,
while there are shots of a few children, the audience is noticeably older at the
The Beethoven video
demonstrates the power of the existing culture to use the Truth Keepers music to
unite the hive members into one group strung together by a common, shared
emotion. No barbarians are in that crowd.
Different music, different
programs hack into the mind of the audience, leading them to quite different
ways of expressing the collective self.
Irony has been the stock
and trade of novelists through the ages. George Orwell’s The Hanging is
a perfect example of dramatic irony. We follow a condemned Burmese man on his
way to the gallows as he carefully sidestepping the puddle of water along the
path so as not to dirty his shoes. Or Shooting an Elephant we witness
the torment of a British colonial official in Burma who is torn between allowing
an elephant to live and lose his authority over assembled villagers and shooting
an elephant as a way of reinforcing his power. This is an example of situational
Irony is that lovely,
moving, touching human situation where the best of our writers present us with
incongruity or a conflict that transcends the behavior, thoughts, words or
desires of the character. Irony has been labeled as a rhetorical device or
As a short hand wiki
definition that is good as far as it goes, but irony is something else. It is
subversive, it is a both an invitation to a kind of bonding that comes from
recognizing the disturbing contradictions that thrust themselves into a
characters life and it is also a shock or surprise as we deliberate about the
meaning of life written in evoked in a larger frame that we expected. We wide
angle the context of the scene or situation and irony is our lens.
We’ve entered, or will
soon do so, an era where literary irony which operated a cartel on irony has
been exhausted. Literary irony for most purposes is dead. Not buried, but dead.
The zombies continue to haunt the pages of our novelists, thrusting a goulish
finger at what passes for a condemned man’s puddle jump and we look, we stare
and then we shrug and turn the page. Literary Irony is quaint, dated, and old
fashioned. We are longer impressed or surprised. We don’t feel the same degree
of intimacy as our parents and grandparents felt reading an ironic
My theory is our present
information world has been hyper-inflated with incongruity and conflict. Large
data dump that pass our eyes daily from politics to culture and economics; the
default for communicating discontent is to use irony. From Jay Leno to the Daily
Show, TV has colonized irony like termites in a wood palace. Switching
metaphors, the smoking gun of irony is found at the scene of just about any blog
you read, Twitter feed is littered with irony, Facebook is an open sea of irony,
obit piece are dipped in it, TV commercials sell you stuff based on irony, and
lyrics have put it to music.
We suffer from a massive
irony overload. It’s not that irony no longer moves us as in the past, our lives
are now lived as if incongruity, the heart and soul of irony, is our normal,
expected, and demanded psychological state. Like an old married couple sitting
across the dinner table attending to their iPad with half a dozen windows
feeding irony fix as they work their knives and forks in an oddly synchronized
fashion. They call this the modern family meal—and without irony. Our sense of
incongruity has been blunted like a sword struck too many times against a large
rock. It is even useless to fall on.
How did I come to this
conclusion that we no longer respond to ironic dramas and situations in the same
way as Orwell’s time? It happened during a visit to a cemetery in Buenos Aries.
Prisons, cemeteries, courtrooms, universities and slums are a good place to
judge the place of irony in a culture.
The day before my trip
down the rows of the dead, I’d been taken by car out to La Plata University
where I was scheduled to give a talk about cross-cultural issues in my writing.
My task was to address a class of about 40 English majors who were studying to
become translators. These were the kind of young people who had a professional
stake in irony.
On this journey, the car
passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aries. We passed kilometers of
slums—hard-scrabbled squalid hovels bearing witness to heart-wrenching
suffering, poverty and desperation. It was hard to believe that human being
could inhabit such awful conditions and not revolt. The students were attentive
and asked many questions about Thailand, literature and culture. In the
corridors students made protest banners. They seemed politically engaged in a
way that Thai university students were not. These were large state universities
and didn’t cater to the offspring of the ultra rich.
The next day, my gang of
four Latin American authors (we were attending Buenos Aries Noir, a conference
organized by Ernesto Mello) and I set off to visit La Recoleta
sprawling 14 acres in the heart of in Buenos Aires contained 4691 vaults.
Mausoleums grand and small housed the remains of generals, presidents, with a
dusting of poets and actors. Their final vaults inspired by Art Deco, Art
Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic created a city of the dead unlike any place
The contrast between the
slums along the road from Buenos Aries to La Plata which housed the living and
the Art Deco mausoleums made from fine marble was like watching a thousand
condemned men do a tango around a puddle on their way to be hanged. The
celebration of the powerful in death transcends humanity offered to the living.
I watched as people came to bring flowers and take photographs of Eva Peron’s
mausoleum. Eva Peron was a perfect example of a patron who entered the grand
station of national politics on the side of the poor. In death, she wasn’t
buried with those she sought to represent and encourage.
Instead, Evita took her
place along side other members of the privileged with an address along a lane
with rows and rows of other long dead patrons in their marble palaces. Walking
down those lanes, peering at the names, the tombs, and the heavy marble walls,
it wasn’t difficult to understand these dead had left a legacy for the living.
It is one that most people in the world can understand. The elites, even those
who pledge themselves to helping the poor and suffering, ultimately enter the
afterlife in shrines erected for the few.
No one in the cemetery
spoke of any irony in the incongruity of the slums and the marble mausoleums.
Somewhere I am quite sure there is a marble tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery where
the earthly remains of irony are housed. I didn’t find it. 4691 vaults is a lot
to inspect on a cold, rainy Buenos Aries afternoon. Leaving the cemetery we came
across a large, well-fed cat curled up into a ball under a tree in the shadow of
a dead president. It was an ideal place to be a cat. After closing time when the
tourists left and the rats came out of the shadows. The hunting must have been
good. Like shooting fishing in a barrel. Rats stalking the dead, the cats
stalking the rats, and not even a hint of irony in the ecology that has come to
represent our time and place.
I am prepared for a
Western post-irony future. After nearly twenty-five years living in Thailand, a
culture rich in puns, riddles and word play but autistic when it comes to irony,
I can give you a hint of what to expect next. Without knowing it, you begin to
accept that incongruities aren’t really contradictions that need resolution.
Reality is large enough and people are adult enough to not dwell upon such
matters. Once you accept that premise not only is irony dead, it was
In a recent
interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in
I was a 13-years-old
newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car
stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a
ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he
spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was
cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next
thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had
lost my small nest egg.
I was without any money
and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to
wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I
washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer,
driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed
at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand
a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t
get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.
It didn’t matter about her
lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was
getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny
car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke
up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest
Three weeks later, I
arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and
worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale
brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on.
The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an
employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the
week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being
held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in
the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all
of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.
I got a job stacking
shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved
enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon,
my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was
an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet
Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my
I walked into the Canadian
embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second
secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that
unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me
with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living
killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was
careful about places and dates.
Twenty-years old, I
arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a
stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get
in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the
mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman
who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I
told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
But I was wrong.
The driver spoke perfect
English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or
the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me
into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said,
you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech
and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to
live with a bed full of blondes.
I said I could do that and
I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real
conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black)
had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with
English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully
understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio
play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.
I stopped saving and spent
every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his
father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the
father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a
snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate.
He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.
Tourists checking into a
five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall
the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving
staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being
special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate
free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the
hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that
keeps tourists returning to Thailand.
On the outward flight
home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college
age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of
them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking
officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into
one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style,
which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the
objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary
mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public
and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever
One reason that many Thais
feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in
their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions
the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such
an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as
part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have
little practice in defending such practices.
Foreigners bring a Thai
accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying,
foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference
identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The
family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the
person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded
deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect
is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some
racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a
personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed
inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference
system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand.
And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful
for a Thai than for most nationalities.
Deference is the respect
or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In
deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to
gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be
defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every
culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are
respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural
deference systems are the same.
In the West, the deference
culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect
deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about
deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed
along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most
part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline
of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference.
In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the
regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked
from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing
conflict’ and is discouraged.
In Thailand the deference
culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai
expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and
economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one
size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in
a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully
executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a
Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the
headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political
beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to
gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government
official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at
the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military
styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are
expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to
In Thailand, a case can be
made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By
unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would
independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The
unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have
the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that
you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently.
Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category.
The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way
from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because
the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.
You see them in their
fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in
Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those
very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such
unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to
deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back
from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal
system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money
changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is
In deference culture,
where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person
through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution,
talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time
assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one
day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private
life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is
unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that
protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of
jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front
of the plane as a matter of right.
The perspective of members
within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common
to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are
really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system.
That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how
the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in.
They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that
instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully
valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how
Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.
In Thailand, the personal
information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the
earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs
are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then
the connection between that person and his or her family with others,
establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering
with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and
economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is
the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of
patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is
intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the
major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently
questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably
A number of people
criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to
have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to
exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an
education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that
must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense
from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the
deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural
peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be
counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the
doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and
The political impasse in
Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the
population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters.
If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of
society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the
basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are
willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the
fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and
unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.
The deference system plays
out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to
restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the
legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working
underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems
incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.
Is deference a kind of
article was originally posted in May 14th, 2010.