Archive October 2013
Time is etched into our culture. It is reflected in our language—losing time, wasting time, saving time and serving time are some examples. When someone breaches the law we punish them by confining them for a period of time, sometimes for life. Lawyer bill clients according to the time spent—another indication that time and money are things woven together. You can go out in a blaze of glory like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jim Morrison—“no one gets out of here alive”—or you can live a long, flat and anonymous life that doesn’t leave a ripple. A meaningful life is more than the sum total of the years lived and isn’t necessarily one that leaves a legacy beyond immediate family and friends.
We all have this in common—you and I have an expiry date like the one on that bottle aspirin above the bathroom basin. Take out the bottle and look at it. You know when to throw it away. That information is withheld from you unless you face execution or suicide. In the great Hindu legends time passes through cycles. One day of Brahma is 4,320 million earth years. Ancient Egyptian mythology also was based on cycles of time. The Western culture of time is expressed in this passage:
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.
We are born into a culture that wires our perception to time. No culture can avoid the universal fate of all people whose duration—short, medium or long, comes to an end. A great deal of literature and crime fiction revolves around the unfolding of the present, linking it to the past as something important to determining our future fate. Poets, playwrights, novelists and songwriters can compress, expand, or reverse its direction, distort the passage of time for dramatic effect. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey are epic journeys through time cycles.
Our endless fascination with time is reflected in the movies. When we watch a movie that last 120 minutes a number of lifetimes can unfold. Sometimes time moves in a backward direction like in Benjamin Button and sometimes time is on auto-repeat with each day the same as the day before day as in Ground Hog Day. Movies can fulfill a longing to go physically back in time such as Field of Dreams, Somewhere in Time, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Movies also transport us to the distant future like in Back to the Future, The Terminator, and The Planet of the Apes.
When you have some spare time, here is a list of the best 50 time travel movies.
These movies indicate that we just can’t get enough entertainment that transports us to time ports that reality denies us.
Once we close a book or leave the cinema, we are back to our time reality—where time hovers like a drone with a sealed order to strike and you are the target. You live in that crosshairs, waiting. That’s pretty morbid, you say and you’d be right. We avoid thinking about that time for that very reason—it gives us an uneasy feeling. Our lives are lived in time. In the scheme of things, the time of any mortal life is short. If you think about four letter words—time ought to be at the top of any list. An insult or obscenity may hurt sensibility. But time, in the end, destroys sensibility and the body housing it.
People escape in all kinds of ways. Into booze, religion, sex and rock ‘n roll, books, opera, dance, and travel. Billionaire or pauper, time doesn’t care anymore than if you were famous, popular, loved, adored or made the planet a better place. You still are axed. With time, there is no escape. At some point in your life, you reconcile yourself to the reality that time existed before you were born and will continue to exist after your death. In between those bookends of time is where you are. Now. At this minute. Reading these words. Where we are sharing time in the land of thoughts.
Time and destiny are tightly woven into our lives. In the previous two weeks I’ve discussed the ideas of disruption and discontinuity. Duration fits within this context as both of these earlier concepts assume the passage of time. Time is also part of the equation that includes space.
Each week there are new discoveries about exoplanets in our own galaxy—perhaps 40 billions such planets. The problem is one of distance. It takes time to travel in space. The Economist recently ran an article about traveling in space. If earth were the size of a grain of sand, the moon is 3cm away, the sun 12 meters away, and Alpha Centauri B is 4.4 light years away or 3,200 kilometers away from our grain of sand planet. With our current technology the travel time to Alpha Centauri B clocks in at 75,000 earth years. Remember this alien planet is, in the scheme of things, very close to our planet. Assuming a life expectancy of 75 years, that would take 1,000 live times.
Barring a time-bending new technology, our life spans never evolved for the time scales required for space exploration. Not that it doesn’t stop us from dreaming of the possibility or reading science fiction premised technology that overcomes the impossibility of limited lives taking very long journeys. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, space is very, very big. This is an understatement given our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and there are billions of galaxies. And galaxies and other matter are 5% icing spread on the 95% of a dark cake.
Each time I start planning a new novel, I must decide ‘when’ it starts. Without a time anchor the suspense of a crime novel falls to piece. The same with the mystery elements which evolve through time, the puzzle pieces are time envelopes we open to better understand the past, the character’s reactions, and allows us to guess what possibilities will next follow. In The Marriage Tree, the latest Calvino novel, the time is around the Songkran Festival, which falls in April each year. If you know something about Thai culture, weather, history and language this piece of information is valuable. It immediately allows you mental image of Bangkok around this time. The novel may confirm your own experience of how people move in and out of the city during this important Thai holiday. For those who have experienced April and Songkran as a cultural/time unity, the novel will have added meaning.
We are drawn to narratives where time ‘flows’. In a flashback, the author takes us back in time. A lot of readers don’t like flashbacks. Literary time travel is counterintuitive. We are stuck in the moment, and each moment succeeds the next. There is, in life, no returning to a past moment except as a matter of memory. That is time in the ‘head’ or, if you will, ‘time in a bottle’ as it is imagined rather than experienced in reality of the moment.
Some novels offer a long time frame, others a vastly reduced time scale. The narrative may occur over many centuries, years, months, weeks or days. Or in the case of Ulysses the entire novel may be confined to a single a 24-hour period. Crime fiction usually selects a limited time frame of months or weeks. Science fiction takes on the multiple century sagas such as Issac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy.
We are time contemporaries. Our lives overlap in time. The fact that we share the same time is significant. We think about Socrates or Plato is a quite different way, or someone we imagine will live two hundred years from now. People who exist outside of our time are more alien and foreign to us that any small Amazon tribe living like hunter gathers.
We know people who choose to live in the past. For them what is for most are a past that no longer exists is largely irrelevant in light of legacy mentality, a thought process that ‘glorifies’ the achievements, wisdom, civility and morality of the past. The myth-making is inevitably backward looking. The obvious emotional attraction is the promise of a fixed, immutable, comforting boat to ride through the chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous present. Those who live in the ‘future’, discounting the present, climb aboard a boat ride on a sea of speculation. We are tempted to wonder about the fate and state of humanity in the deep future, one we will never see. We make up stories to satisfy that urge. All of these time-based emotions are fueled by our existential anxiety. Personal extinction is about as personal as it gets.
We can’t stop time. The reality is we exist moment to moment. Our attempts to escape into the past or the future are futile. Our best remaining option is to find ways to slow down our sense of how time passes as a portal to greater life satisfaction.
What makes time speed up or slow down? When you are young, time seems to move slowly. The endless summer days of youth are fondly remember when by middle age that slow boat to China becomes a Japanese bullet-train as we feel that the days are flying past our window at an accelerated rate. One theory is novelty slows down our perception of time flowing. The more we notice, the more we find that is new, slows us down. For a child everything is new, vivid, revealing a new color, sound, smell or taste. By the time that you reach middle age, most of your senses have gone on to automatic pilot. Your mind no longer needs to sort out the world around you. You are convinced you know your word. You are an expert at your work and nothing surprises you. You’ve seen it all before. The loss of a sense of novelty is the best way to stomp on the time accelerator. Before you know, by old age time is passing at a warp speed.
How our brain is structured over time influences our time perception.
“Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.”
If you want to slow down time, do something new and novel. Learn a language, or a musical instrument, or read in a number of different fiction and non-fiction areas. Improvisation should be a life-long habit. It increases acetylcholine levels, and those are chemical actors that recreate that inner child who started out improvising with a totally unknown world. Don’t go onto automatic pilot where you simply are repeating patterns or cycles in your work, life and community of friends. You have a choice about how you experience time by yourself and with others, make it slow down, drink it in, and prolong it with novelty and wonder. We can choose to occupy a time to love or a time to hate, or a time to cry or a time to laugh. And if enough of us find the time to embrace and the time to search, our passing through time has the possibility of rewarding us with hope.
One assumption most people
share is the past and present are casually linked. Like Lego bricks we build the
present out of the tiny blocks we’ve received from the past. Disruptions break
that casual link and throw out the old building components and way of thinking.
How we think about literature, technology, politics, history or culture is
bounded by our knowledge, imagination, and processing ability. We draw meaning
from this causal link. Break that link and we are cut adrift, scrambling to find
alternatives to substitute for meaning. The technological disruption is so vast
the cultural gravity can’t accompany it. Like a collapsed star, such a
disruption creates a black hole in the culture. Nothing can escape from the
forces of such a disruptive black hole. Cultural gravity becomes null and
Discontinuity happens at
the personal level. If you’ve left your home culture and not returned for twenty
years, you will discover a wide gap between what you remember about the cultural
life and what presently forces have shaped the culture. It is hard to pick up
the thread because so much of it has been woven into a new suit of clothes. Your
family and friends wear those new clothes. They look different; they are
different. They have discarded the clothes you remember. They have moved on;
your memory has kept culture static and eternally the same. Their views and
behavior are no longer predictable. You are missing too much relevant
This kind of small-scale
discontinuity is one that would have existed for many generations. It isn’t new.
What is new is the very real possibility of large-scale discontinuity that will
follow by a major technological disruption. In the event of a great disruption,
the rules of the game change. The disruption is an act of violence; it is mass
murder of a whole industry, economic system or culture. The asymmetry separates
the past and present. A bridge is destroyed in time, leaving the past irrelevant
as a guide to the future. A disruption at the high level washes away the
assumptions people relied on to create identity, their sense of self and
institutions that serve and protect their collective selves. But until that time
we won’t know the new game or rules.
I can’t see exactly what
that disruption will be any more than someone in 1900 could foresee the
technology in cars, planes, television or the disruptions to transportation and
communications systems, to the growth of urban centers, and the resulting
political and economic shifts that followed. It is, in other words, impossible
to analyze what you don’t know. It is also impossible to predict outcomes based
on projecting what technology might look like based on our current knowledge.
But there are two places to start an inquiry into the source of discontinuity:
Intelligence and Space.
Memory Storage and
Information Processing capacity
Very intelligent people
like very tall people are rare. In a way, they are freaks. Yet the qualifier
‘very’ is misleading. A man who is 2.52 meters in height is indeed very tall.
But there is no man who is 4.3 meters tall. The same kind of limitation is found
in human intelligence. If you have an IQ 30 points or more above average you
have a life long built-in advantage at school, university, work, recognition,
and status. Here are some famous
much higher IQs such as World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, Sir Isaac Newton,
Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and Ludwig Wittengstein. Each one had an IQ of
190. American actor James Woods isn’t far behind with an IQ of 180. A high IQ is
no guarantee of works of genius. An American Christopher Michael Langan, whose
occupation is listed as a bouncer, has an IQ of 195.
To put this in perspective
persons with the highest IQs are roughly twice as ‘intelligent’ as the average
person. Twice as smart is as impressive as is twice as fast or strong. We admire
and shower attention, prizes and glory on such individuals. Genius is an
individual prize. That is a common cultural artifact though any scientist will
tell you that the collective minds of many scientists are essential for most of
our modern breakthroughs. The reality is we listen to and supply money through
private and public sources to very smart people on the basis that such
intelligence can be valuable to increasing competitive advantages.
We also have a sense of
fear and intimidation in the knowledge that such very smart people can run
circles around the rest of us. We admire what we fear. What defines these high
IQ individuals is their memory storage and processing abilities. They remember
far more than the rest of us and can process new information at a much faster
rate. We also look to these people especially in the arts and sciences to
provide a hint of what disruptions will next ripple through the cultural gravity
that holds people together with their communal institutions.
So far no one who is twice
as intelligent as the average person has used those abilities to cause a major
discontinuity. While he or she is very smart and clever, they remain
recognizably human with most of the same failings, flaws, and emotional
limitations as the rest of us. The big ‘what if’ question is what happens if
intelligence isn’t double the average, but ten times, a hundred times, a hundred
thousand or million times the average. We can’t predict the meaning, use and
intentions of such intelligence should it come about.
Intuitively, we can assume
an intelligence a hundred thousands greater than human intelligence would likely
cause a major discontinuity between the past, present and future. The potential
of AI or artificial intelligence is seeking to find this pathway. World Chess
Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated at chess by an IBM computer called Big
Blue. While Big Blue couldn’t ‘think’ in metaphors, write poetry, or cook a
pizza, it could calculate the implications of possible moves on the chess board
(there are only so many fixed moves) and come up with a probability of outcome.
Big Blue’s speed of calculation far exceeded that of Kasparov. It was a
humiliation for our species when a machine could beat one of our most
experienced and intelligent members. We can minimize the psychological blow from
Big Blue by taking the position that the computer software was indeed
‘intelligent’ but only in a highly narrow way and resorted to ‘brute force’
(which works well in a limited context turned up at high speed rates of
processing in the computer) rather than ‘reason’ to justify each move on its way
to victory over Kasparov.
This may be a glimpse of
the beginning of machine intelligence that cannot be beaten by the intelligence
of any living human being. There are debates inside the AI community as to how
and when an intelligence of a qualitative and quantitative magnitude will
emerge, and there is no consensus. We don’t know enough about how to define
‘intelligence’ to have a good handle on the underlying issues needed to be
understood before theory and engineering can advance. It might be ten years, or
it might be one or two hundred years before such AI appears. Significant
developments in our understanding of quantum physics, neuroscience, biology and
chemistry must first be made before we have a workable definition of
Once we reach that stage,
the question will be: how will we know that an intelligence a million times
faster than any human being comes into being? If it is a gradual process, a
system progressively getting smarter, we can prepare ourselves. But there is the
possibility that an AI system could through self-learning, and rewriting the
rules of AI itself (recursive systems), could spring into existence in a week.
In the latter case, there would be no warning and may be no evidence either. And
an intelligence of that kind might be able to conceal itself or even if the raw
information of its presence reached us, we would fail to comprehend its scope
and scale. Its very nature may exist behind a veil that can’t be pierced much
like a honey bee flying over an expressway between fields of flowers doesn’t
comprehend the traffic below.
Intelligence, once it emerges, will be disruptive across the board and will
likely cause a level of discontinuity that calls into question a host of
existential questions about the place and role of our species. For example,
human cognition, perception and behavior is largely shaped by culture, which
defines how we perceive space, time, beauty, respect, fear, and how we learn to
read the intentions of others, and create meaning of self. Culture and
like space and time, are a knitted together. It is difficult to imagine what
equivalent role, if any, our idea of ‘culture’ will play in a super-intelligent
agent. Or the role of emotions which make us laugh, dance, cry and
This AI is not using brute
force; it is using something very much like the associative learning of a human
being. From jobs, the finance, governance, warfare, secrecy, and consumption is
flipped in a week. That’s maximal disruption; and it’s systemic discontinuity
which is another way of saying evolution bring warp speed changes without any of
the gradual changes that normally accompany change. All parts of the system, the
interrelationships and interdependencies become unstable and no longer function.
Such an event will change the stories we tell about ourselves. It will change
how we perceive ourselves and others. It will change our views about coercion,
incentives, morality and arguments.
(historically i.e., pre-Internet) have been defined by three-dimensional space.
Your immediate neighbors (if you live in a condo) are those who live people
above you, below, and to your left and right. We have lived most of our
existence inside this spatially limited box. When I arrived in Thailand
twenty-five years ago, the Thais from upcountry came from villages and towns
where they had never seen a farang. Many of them had never seen a
Thai-Chinese from Bangkok either. Isolation and ignorance of other people and
cultures has been the by-product of our limited physically defined spatial
Like the cap on
intelligence, the cap on how we experience space, despite other technological
developments, has maintained our continuity with the perceptions of those who
lived before us. Strangers lived in another physical space. They had to make a
physical effort to move their bio-mass to our village. At most, people had a
social relationship with a hundred or so people. The Dunbar Number (i.e., you can have a social
relationship with up to 150 people; you individually know these people but after
you exceed that number, you need bureaucracy to communicate or the relationship
structure breaks down) arises from this spatial limitation.
In a low-dimensional space
I can find anyone so long as I have two fixed points of reference: their
latitude and longitude. Give me those numbers and I’ll deliver the person in
We are mostly spatially
illiterate. Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wrote
that space is very big.
A recent article in the
Economist (which quotes Adams) gives
an example of how big it really is.
“During the cold war America spent
several years and much treasure (peaking in 1966 at 4.4% of government spending)
to send two dozen astronauts to the Moon and back. But on astronomical scales, a
trip to the Moon is nothing. If Earth—which is 12,742km, or 7,918 miles,
across—were shrunk to the size of a sand grain and placed on the desk of The
Economist’s science correspondent, the Moon would be a smaller sand grain
about 3cm away. The sun would be a larger ball nearly 12 metres down the hall.
And Alpha Centauri B would be around 3,200km distant, somewhere near Volgograd,
Our current technology
would take us about 75,000 years to go 4.4 light years to Alpha Centauri B and
that is in a universe that is 13.8 billion light years. Adams was right about
the universe being big. We don’t occupy cosmological space except before dinner
when we want a thought experiment to take us away from being hungry. We occupy a
social relationship space. The people we are going to have dinner with have
infinitely more pull on our choice, desires, and actions than Alpha Centauri B.
However, should we ever overcome the energy requirements to travel through
cosmological space, the discontinuity would be immense. We don’t need to leave
the planet to find a significant change has occurred in our sense of
Lee Smolin’s Time
Reborn discusses our ‘low-dimensional’ world before modern technology
expanded the dimensions beyond anything anyone who time traveled from 1900 to
our world of 2013. Who could have conceived that a villager in rural Thailand,
Burma, India or China with a cell-phone had the possibility of more than two
billion possible connections? Smolin notes that with the Internet we have
created a higher-dimensional space and many people are migrating to and living
their lives inside this new digital space. Physical space, where we heard, told
and shared our stories has been restructured into digital space.
In the early 1990s I wrote
a novel titled The
Big Weird in which I explored how a Bangkok sex worker used an
avatar online to expand the dimensions in which she could find customers from
the physical bar. The space in which people meet is no longer the same as our
Smolin writes, “In a
high-dimensional world with unlimited potential for connection, you’re faced
with many more choices than in the physical three dimensions.” The next
progression in thinking is, space is an ‘illusion’ masking a deeper reality of
networks. Our sense of space is our way of understanding our connections to one
another. Connections can be open or closed. That suggests a world where people
occupy different spatial frames.
Importing latitude and
longitude from the low-dimensional world is no longer useful. One would have
thought someone inside the US intelligence community would have made the point
that tracking inside networks no longer fully corresponds with low-dimensional
space tracking. When someone leave low-dimensional space and ‘disappear’ into a
network, who are they sharing that space with, what information and resources
are involved? What is the scope of privacy and secrecy inside networks in this
new high-dimensional space? We are beginning to ask the questions and find some
consensus that the broader community ought to be engaged in deciding how
government and private enterprise patrol higher dimensional space.
Governments are having
difficulty coming to grasp with the implications of a higher dimensional place
to store and publish stories. When members of the British intelligence services
arrived at the offices of the Guardian and demanded to produce a computer
that could be destroyed even though they knew the ‘space’ where Snowden’s
documents were stored made the act an empty gesture except as a kind of
old-fashioned brute intimidation that carried a whiff of medieval times rather
dealing with the issue of multiple copies strewn through digital space. It seems
even governments can’t understand, adjust or control the spatial disruptions
that in large part they are responsible for funding. They appear like the
Keystone cops running around as if latitude and longitude still rule the spatial
dimension that they have themselves have helped to destroy, leaving an
interesting contradiction for us to contemplate. The expansion into higher
dimensional space calls into question who and where is the journalist?
Journalism is a good example of a casualty of disruption waiting in ER with no
doctor able to determine the extent of the injury.
That separation of space
sensibility creates discontinuity. Those who live in a pre-Internet world occupy
a different ‘space’ than those who are connected digitally to billions of
others. The old term for the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ was formulated to look at
living standards and wealth disparity. The political, social and economic
influences of the old distinction have been the stuff of literature throughout
the ages. It has existed long enough to shape our thinking about social
relationships, culture, history, and ideals such as social justice and fairness.
When a high-dimensional space becomes accessible to the vast majority of people,
what will happen to social, political and economic disparity?
We need a new literature
that will examine this process of evolution into huge networks and what that
means for individual opportunity, identity, and relationships—and what meaning
is attributed to your position in physical space. Culture depends on
low-dimensional space, a concept that is shared among all cultures. When that
concept gradually comes to be seen as an illusion, the result will be to weaken
the Cultural Gravity that has traditionally been the natural force holding
together communities and people in them in the low-dimensional world. When space
dissolves and networks become the login to reality, we can expect major
Think of the ‘space’ where
you watch, listen to, or read news, or buy books or anything else. Then ask
yourself how that space is different than the one you navigated ten years ago.
Count all of those ‘new’ network connections you didn’t have back then. You have
broken out of the low-dimension space in which you were born.
In many countries, one can
find authorities passing laws to censor the new multi-dimensional space and to
criminalize citizens in their interactions inside that space. That is gravity of
the cultural type seeking to increase its force, seeking to reclaim the physical
space inside digital space. It is the last gasp by authorities who fully
understand that allowing people to roam inside the vast world of networks they
run the risk of the old spatially bound narratives coming under attack and
It is a real worry. People
are anxious but so are institutions because we can’t look to the past as a guide
how to react to this new idea about space. The result is repression to make
people fearful about their interactions in digital space; they patrol the
networks but the resources to monitor the higher dimensional space will never be
There is no guarantee of
safe passage into the future. But I suspect that books will evolve to examine
our potential to live inside higher dimensional space with super-intelligent
beings. That will take time. And by the time we have adjusted our visions,
expectations, dreams and desires to accompany life inside a higher spatial
dimension, we may discover it shared with an AI intelligence that, to our human
sensibilities, performs cognition that appears like magic. How friendly will we
find AI? How will a super-intelligent agent shape our experience of higher
dimensional space? The bargain civilization has made is based on the idea that
security will protect us against the worst aspects of ourselves—Homo homini
lupus [man is wolf to
man]. There may be a new, more dangerous wolf to worry about
and our idea of civilization may not cage that new animal. Who will bell that
Most people don’t like
change and the faster the change the more discomfort and dislike they
experience. The vast majority of people don’t stray far from their culture; to
put in another way, the frame of their life, worldview and mindset is set in
place by cultural gravity. Gravity is the force that attracts objects to earth.
Scientists have discovered that gravitation pull is not uniform on the earth.
There are variations so gravity on earth is relative to position. A similar idea
applies to culture.
Cultural gravity is the
force of ideas, concepts, values, and attitudes that shapes, forms and attracts
those who share them into a community and keeps them in orbit around the
community. Only a minority of people in any community make the decision of their
own free will to leave and take up residence in another culture. There are many
obstacles to breaking cultural gravity orbit. You start over by learning a new
language, history, social customs, taboos, and that is no easy task. And as hard
as you try, at some level, you will always remain an outsider to
Moving to another culture
also comes at a high price: you cut your day-to-day link with people from the
culture you once shared. You swim inside a different fishbowl where you can see
the water. If after ten years you try to return to your ‘home’ culture; you find
yourself an outsider in the place you once called home. You discover that you’ve
acquired a different perspective, which allows you to detect the lies and
deceptions you’d previously not seen. Also you’ve lost the basis of social
conversation based on local personalities of the moment, sport, gossips, TV and
movie celebrities, and the spills and chills of neighbors and friends who signal
such events with short hand expressions that mean nothing to you.
Expat authors are an
example of those who shed their cultural gravity boots, some for a time, others
for a life time, to live in locales foreign to their native culture: from Joseph
Conrad, Grahame Greene, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and a fair share
of authors on the annual Man Booker long-list fall into this group.
I have a horse in this
race as well. I’ve written twenty-four novels and most of them feature outliers
treading in new cultural waters and trying to stay afloat. Taken as a whole, my
novels are a long chronicle of stories and characters who, over a number of
decades, have shaken loose from the gravity of their home culture. Sometimes the
decision was accidental, other times involuntary, and often intentional. Inside
my fictional worlds, the characters confront the consequences of leaving their
native culture by stumbling through the social fabric leaving behind a trail of
miscommunication, misunderstanding and disaster.
Only a few of the
characters I’ve written about have undertaken a journey into another culture and
emerge into a realm of greater insight and understanding. Changing cultures is a
costly, risky business. There is one large upside that can also be a curse—once
the cultural gravity is lessened, the first realization is the shared belief,
attitudes and values were never more than social constructs and people have the
freedom to choose among a number of different religions, languages, or history
of events. That is a radical idea to many.
If you speak more than one
language, have been educated in another culture or live in another culture from
a young age, you have likely found the experience has equipped you to ride the
differences with an open mind and you’ve evolved the ability to adapt. That
said, there are a number of people who have lived in Thailand for more than
twenty-five years who still wear their hometown gravity boots as a source of
It is possible to coast to
through life, ride the wave without thinking too much about the experience.
Until there is a disruption and something in the culture comes under stress,
breaks up, or falls apart. Disruptions are usually unexpected and come in a
variety of forms. Internal cultural disruptions can be caused through
large-scale immigration, increases in poverty, crime, inequality, or
unemployment. Another source of disruption—and perhaps the most important—is
technological change. When the methods, processes, raw materials, networked
links abruptly threat the existing way of doing things, a fundamental source of
change that ripples through a culture, destroying and leveling the old. From the
invention of the printing press, steam engine, gunpowder, airplanes, telephones,
radio, TV, and computers, cultures have changed as the underlying economic
system has shifted.
Part of the role of
fiction is to document the range of emotional reaction that occurs during
periods of disruption. When a culture goes into a phase transition and there is
a sense of excitement, uncertainty, and fear. My first novel, His
Lordship’s Arsenal was a story about how the invention of the submachine gun
changed not just warfare but the military class system. The Vincent Calvino
series will soon be 14 volumes, and most of them are about the cultural changes
in Southeast Asia over the last twenty-five years.
Zone, Vietnam and the lifting of the American embargo became
the pivotal event that caused disruptions. And in Zero
Hour in Phnom Penh, the appearance of UNTAC in Cambodia as part of
the transition from civil war to peace was an opportunity to examine how people
reacted during this period.
In Rangoonwith the opening of Burma after half a century of
isolation was to peer into a culture that had been frozen and to see what
changes were coming to transfer it. In almost every one of these books, there is
an old elite defending wealth captured from the fruits of an earlier technology.
When a new technology threats to make the old methods and ways obsolete,
tensions inside the culture arise as those who stand to lose readjust the rules
and beliefs to their benefit. Literature is a portal into that tug of war
between the conservative forces against the creative, innovative forces working
to replace them.
In my Cambodia, Vietnam,
Burma and Thailand novels I’ve explored what happens to the lives of people
inside a culture once a big disruption lessens the force of the old cultural
gravity. I spent time in Rangoon January 2012 researching for Missing in
Rangoon. I’d been to Burma many times from 1993. This time was different.
The country was opening up to the world. A political decision has been made to
engage the world. In 2012, I was struck to see how many people were smiling and
they looked happy as if they were already floating free from the old
cultures often in the pre-digital past was carried through the medium of books,
magazines, radio and TV. Though in many cultures the availability of ‘other’
cultures was at best limited. Look at a bestseller list in the United States
like the New York Times. The authors wear cultural gravity boots and this
appears to the local readers who see shadows and reflections of themselves,
fears, lives and dreams in the story and characters.
There are the ‘nativist’,
the ‘racist’, and the ‘nationalist’ who share a common front against an open,
tolerant, and diverse approach to the world of ideas and beliefs. Such people
patrol the boundaries of their culture for intruders, defectors, and dissents.
The old slogan: “Love it or Leave it” is stenciled on their cultural gravity
boots. The predominant goal is to prevent change and preserve the past.
These are technological consumers who hate paying the price that new technology
Sometimes a disruption may
be isolated inside one culture. Immigration is a good example of disruptions in
patterns of daily life that causes anxiety, distrust, and suspicion among those
who fear the presence of the ‘other’ will change their way of life. Immigrants
enter a space where the locals wear cultural gravity boots manufactured by
immediate family and neighbors through teachers, preachers, friends, relatives,
TV, movies, radio and books. The immigrant is the ‘other’; not one of us. The
belief system is a shared social construct that is assumed to be ‘real’ and not
a construct that someone can choose to accept or reject. It often takes an
outsider to point out the network of lies, deception and illusions. You would
think that would make the locals happy. Life doesn’t work that way. Locals
become hostile, defensive and angry. A drug addiction is minor compared with
ability to kick the easy slogans and half-truths embedded in a social
The social construct can
be so ‘real’ as to lead to demonstrations and violence for those who believe in
them as ‘scared’. The anxiety surrounding the wait for the International Court
of Justice’s decision on grounds adjacent Preah Vihear Temple along the
Cambodian-Thai border is a classic example of nationalism. A small strip of land
becomes inflated with identity, purpose and meaning. It is difficult to control
the emotions once they go through a phase transition inside the nuclear reactor
What has changed in the
lifetime of my writing is the rate or velocity of change that causes disruption.
In the past, there was time for people to adjust their lives to the disruptions
caused by technology. Political institutions had a way to incorporate the
changes into the existing culture to preserve their own power and authority and
to adjust the cultural landscape to keep the casualty rate caused by change low.
Those days are gone. The current rate of disruptions in computer software and
hardware are bringing fundamental global changes in medicine, health, marketing,
security systems, information gathering, storage, and evaluation. No individual
culture is doing well to understand, communicate or absorb the rapid changes
You can witness the full
force of cultural gravity on a population when a national sports team wins a
gold medal at the Olympics, a local beauty is crown Miss Universe, local
scientists and scholars take home a Nobel Prize. National air carriers, flags,
colors and uniforms are part of the cultural gravity wardrobe. Then there are
the annual indexes on corruption, governance, longevity, human rights, and
education to name a few, which can show the dark sole of the cultural gravity
boot. To prevent a break in the gravitational cultural force the negative
reports are usually buried in the back pages of a newspaper.
This will make fiction and
non-fiction all the more essential as people wish to understand the source,
nature and dangers of the disruptive changes and prepare themselves for the
future. No longer can we rely on existing cultural institutions from political
or social to address the political and economic issues with clarity, precision,
and absence of bias. We will become more aware that our cognitive biases have a
cultural contour. Being guide by our biases, cognitive and cultural, is like
wearing blinders on a dark road, driving at night without headlights.
The old order in most
cultures is reactive and seeks to control the rate of the disruptions caused by
the new technology and the fast-changing social structure. That approach is less
effective than in the past as the old order no longer can monopoly over
communications, the products and services demanded by its citizens. It’s not
just the elites who have a large stake in wealth destruction who push back, but
a significant minority of ordinary citizens who form an alliance with these
elites. Check the footwear. Both groups are wearing the same gravity
But for others, they
discover the old cultural gravity boots no longer keeps them grounded to the
neighborhood. They are free-floating in a larger world. Witness the fear, the
doubts, along with the heightened emotions on the political and social front.
Communities are splitting into smaller units. The old beliefs and systems lack
the comfort and security of earlier times. People lose faith first in their
political institutions, which can’t control the scale and rate of technological
disruptions, blaming politicians for events they don’t fully understand and have
limited ability to influence. The attraction for the soft totalitarian regimes
is taking place as a substitute for the slow, messy and inefficient democratic
institutions that are less able to manage disruption as sub-communities no
longer accept electoral mandates.
The role of thinkers and
writers in the whirlwind of disruption is to provide context and meaning to
these forces and how they are shaping modern choices about life. But writers
need, in other to thrive, a democratic culture to work in and they atrophy in
totalitarian ones. The political class is skillful in using in sticking to the
cultural gravity talking points that avoid dealing with the hard choices ahead.
No one wants to hear the old set of boots no longer fit. We have less focus, and
pay less attention to difficult issues. The void is filled with hundreds of
daily streams of that promise fun and thrills, from YouTube cute cat and dog
videos, twerking, plates of bacon and eggs and breaking news story about
celebrities. The new technology is disrupting the thinking process, too. The
short entertainment is read, shared and discussed more avidly than the
thought-provoking essay. As we enter a new Dark Age, it won’t seem dark. The
bright colors, the seductive graphics, the flash programs mask the emptiness of
the message—buy something. Laugh and everything will be better. Don’t think too
much, the old bar girl piece of advice has gone viral.
Writers need to be the
ones to push back against these disruptions not by becoming Luddites but by
laying out the implications of what choices we have, the implications of the
choice, the cost we will pay, and what this means for our relationships. We are
at the beginning of a global scale restructuring of culture project. It is a
scary time for many because the direction isn’t clear. No culture will remain
untouched by these changes. New, resilient global communities will kick off
their gravity boots and find a way not only to survive but to thrive in the new
environment. Others will join them. But they will also find there is a lot of
kick left in the old gravity boot brigade who won’t go quietly into the long
In this essay Newtonian
principles have been adapted to look at the effect of culture. Newton’s theory
of gravity is flawless for most everyday purpose. On a larger cosmological
scale, there are problems. Next week, in an essay titled Discontinuity,
I ask whether Einstein’s theories of relativity might be adapted to reveal a
deeper understanding of culture and lead to an idea of “cultural
A Guide To
Most authors who write
crime fiction are also avid readers of the genre. Books come to me in the usual
ways—review copies, manuscripts, handed on by someone, or bought in a bookstore.
I don’t write a lot of book reviews. You write a bad one and you make an enemy
for life. You write a good one and everyone assumes it is because I know the
author or he has old photographs of you in a compromising position with a zoo
animal. For the record, I don’t know Eoin Colfer, and I can be reasonably
certain he’s never heard of me.
Inevitably any book review
is as much about the reading taste of the reviewer as it is about the book under
review. Reviewers, in my opinion, set out the kind of checklist of books in a
genre they read, admire, dislike, and by the lack of inclusion, the books they
ignore. Only then can a reader have some idea whether they agree with the
checklist can they have any confidence in the review.
In this review, I will do
three things: First, I will tell you a little about the author. Second, I will
give a brief summary of the book. Lastly is my checklist that lets you inside my
mindset about how I go about assessing crime fiction. You can also think of my
checklist as a guide as to the categories of crime fiction that I
by Eoin Colfer (2011) was handed on to me with a recommendation to read. The
author is a best selling author of a children’s book series, titled Artemis
Fowl. He was also chosen to finish Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to
Galaxy series. Some authors are like natural born athletes. Michael Jordan,
the sensational basketball player, quit basketball to play professional
baseball. His decision to leave basketball was to honor the dream of his father
who wanted him to play professional baseball. Jordan returned to basketball
after one year.
In Jordan’s year in
another highly demanding sport Wikipedia sums up his minor league
career: “In 1994, Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A minor
league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, batting .202 with three home runs, 51
runs batted in, 30 stolen bases, and 11 errors.”
It would be fair to say
that Eloin Colfer has proven himself a star in children’s books, science fiction
and crime fiction. He’s a natural born storyteller and Plugged displays
this gift on every page. He has talent for metaphor, scene setting, instilling a
sense of suspense and danger. If Plugged were a seashell and you
pressed against your ear, you’d hear echoes of the violence found in the films
like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and in the high octane novels
Boombproof by Michael Robotham and Drive by James
The basic story revolves
around ex-Irish peacekeeping soldier Sergeant Daniel McEvoy who has
psychological issues following two tours of duty in the Middle East. McEvoy’s
mother is an American, so he heads for New York and finds a job as a doorman in
a downscale dive in New Jersey. After a sleazy New Jersey lawyer assaults one of
the hot hostesses, McEvoy pulls the lawyer into the backroom. There is a
confrontation. McEvoy has had a bunk-buddy relationship with the hostess. When
the hostess ends up with a bullet in the forehead in the club’s parking lot, he
is a suspect. The two black women detectives working the murder investigation
find themselves inside mafia territory. One bent cop partners with the other one
who is a tougher than a rogue water buffalo in a rice paddy teaming with
crocodiles. A ghost named Zeb buzzes around inside McEvoy’s head like a firefly
inside a Halloween pumpkin whispering one-liners and guiding him on what do once
he is on the run.
The lead character in any
series needs a psychological profile; one that makes sense in viewing his
actions (or inactions). McEvoy suffers from an excess of ‘empathy’ and this
leads him to wish to ‘protect’ a number of crazy, arrogant, doomed people who
have no problem putting him in the cross-hairs of the evil ones.
There were a couple of
clunkers that took me out of the story and reminded me that I was reading
fiction. McEvoy has hidden away in the wall of his apartment fifty thousand
dollars in cash. He’s plastered it into the wall. He breaks the wall, takes his
stash and hides bundle of money on his person (no unsightly bulge apparently),
and later stuffs fifty grand down the crack in the backseat of a police car
while the woman detective is driving. Apparently she doesn’t notice his digging
like a squirrel burying an acorn in the backseat. The chances of all of that
cash were hundred-dollar-notes is remote (unless it’s explained that he kept the
size and weight of the stash in mind). Fifty grand is a lot of volume to
conceal. Besides, McEvoy is a small timer, a doorman at a rundown club. He’d
have a fair number of tens and twenties and fifties in the stash. Also left
unexplained as to why he’s working for peanuts on the door of a sleazy nightclub
when he has enough stashed away to look for better alternatives.
The other example of this
just doesn’t fit the world of reality is when McEvoy assembles a rifle and, at
some distance, shoots one detective in the shoulder just before she’s about to
execute her partner. That partner who has a renewed lease on life, fires six
rounds at close range into the wounded detective’s midsection from a couple of
feet away. The detective with seven bullets in her body is later able to climb
out of the trunk of a car and go for help.
These aren’t the kind of
questions you want a reader to be thinking about as they pull him/her out of the
story, and raise some credibility issues. That is, if the book is meant to be
‘reality’ based as opposed to ‘Pulp Fiction’ based where ‘reality’ is an
annoying artifact to be discarded when the book is opened. Eoin Colfer straddles
these two crime worlds. Sooner a later, an author has to choose between them or
run the risk of losing readers who want to buy into one or the other, but not
the two conflicting approaches together.
I have a checklist when I
buy and read crime fiction. I have a couple of points to consider before going
to the categories. It is rare to have a crime novel stay solely within the
boundaries of a single category. There is bound to be overlap. In reviewing
Plugged, I’ve looked for evidence of a category and let you know what
I’ve found as that might be useful to you as a reader especially if you like a
particular category more than others. You can have literary/comic novels, or
cross-cultural novels that take you down the rabbit hole and make you feel like
you are inside the story. You will note that I stay away from ‘hard-boiled’ and
‘noir’ in the categories. These terms are more often used to describe the nature
of moods or atmosphere that give a haunting edge of a crime novel. Plugged has
some brush strokes that suggest hard-boiled, but the constant, non-sense humor,
though black at times, eliminates the possibility of noir.
Crime Fiction. The use of the language, the development of characters, the
detailed descriptions of place, person, events, emotions, and relationships
which often expand like continent size in a perfectly created world. Literary
crime fiction often appeals to and challenges the intellect. Roberto Bolano’s
2666 is a good example of a literary crime novel. You must be in
the mood for epic descriptions of the context in which police, criminals,
tourists, corporations, killers, torturers, sadists, hookers catalog their
memories, miseries, and mortality. Other literary crime writers are: Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the
Rose, John Le
Carrie’s A Murder of Quality, and Charles McCarry’s Tears of
Autumn. Plugged isn’t literary crime fiction. If that is your
novel of choice, move along, there’s nothing for you to see here,
Cross-Cultural Novels. The crime fiction novel over the past decade or so
has been a vehicle to explore cultural identity, language, history,
psychological and religious variations found in different regions around the
world. The reader buys this type of novel to better understand the mindset of
people living in places like Thailand (John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan), Laos
(Colin Cotterill), Iceland (Quentin Bates), Turkey (Barbara Nadel), Norway
(Jo Nesbø), The West Bank (Matt Rees),
France (Fred Vargas, Pierre Lemaitre, Cara Black), or Finland (James Thompson).
These crime fiction books offer cross-cultural insights into law enforcement and
social and power arrangements, the story reveals an insider/outsider perspective
as often a foreigner is caught up in a cultural no man’s land looking for a way
out. These countries and authors represent the tip of a large cultural crime
novel iceberg. The difference between Pulp Fiction or Drive
and the crime fiction of Manuel
Vázquez Montalbán (who died in Bangkok ten
years ago today: 18 October 2003) is the difference between an iceberg
and iceberg lettuce. Plugged offers little cross-cultural insight other
than some scenes where he has communication trouble leading to understandings
with the wise guy class of New Yorkers. If you are looking for a cultural
enlightenment, Plugged doesn’t take you diving down the base of the
iceberg to explore what is there.
3. The Rabbit
hole. Occasionally there is a crime novel that pulls you down the Alice and
Wonderland rabbit hole by the back of your neck and you forget that you are
reading a novel. You become emotionally involved and part of the story. You see
and hear the characters who are alive and you are moving among them. You
identify with the characters (or some of them). Reading fiction is an exercise
in emotional identification and empathy. This is an important reason for many
readers to read a novel. Not every reader would agree what combination of
elements in the story, writing, plot and characters reaches a critical mass and
before you know you’ve slid down the rabbit hole and you are inside the world of
the book. I liked Plugged. But I was always conscious that I was
reading a cleverly written book. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a
Train is a journey down the rabbit hole into a world of sociopaths. Or
Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is another
4. Comic Crime
Fiction. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a good example of comic crime
fiction. Pynchon is another Michael Jordan player who switched from literary to
crime fiction for this book. Plugged has a great deal of humor. Especially in
the dialogue. The problem with humor is a bit like hot chili powder in the
tom yum gung. At some point your eyes tear up and your mouth explodes
into flames. An example of how humor worked in a crime novel was Jonathan
Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This novel sticks in my mind. I’ve read
it several times. And for a good reason. To see how Lethem’s mind created such
live, rich and real characters rooted in their New York neighborhood. An
essential part of the Motherless Brooklyn’s central character named
Lionel and his mental condition. Lionel ‘suffers’ from Tourette
syndrome (to coin a phrase from an aged gangster in the story). The consequences
of that mental suffering were seamlessly woven into the character and the story.
Halfway through Plugged I felt that I’d been to a marathon comedy club
on the lower East Side. Every comic who came out had non-stop funny lines but at
the end of the night, I didn’t feel I really knew that much about the
characters. We reveal through humor; we also hide with humor. In a crime novel
some hard choices are required to be made: is the story one, long send up or is
comedy a relief among the slaughter and mayhem the central character finds
himself in? Most of the dialogue are one-liners. The banter is clever, and it is
fun. The question is whether banter as the central communication device between
the characters is a bit like Henny Youngman on a perpetual loop. If you’ve
been in a Bangkok bar, you hear this back and forth frequently. It is an easy
way of distancing yourself emotionally. But the tom yum gung could have
been served with some rice now and again to vary the experience. If I’d ordered
Plugged off the comic menu, I’d have sent it back to the
Pyrotechnics/Adventure. In the Fight Club men test themselves. In
Richard Stark’s iconic Parker novels, Parker tears through a life flanked with
guns, knives, explosives, and does business with those who may betray him, hurt
him, kill him. These type of novels are stories of how men establish their
manhood, illustrate their tolerance for pain. In the dark horizon of such novels
there is no remedy for angst, no cure for pain, but plenty of proof we occupy a
bleak world without meaning or purpose. Or alternatively, we know that our
collective history is a bone yard filled with individual and collective
violence. Crime fiction in this category cover the grounds of greed, hatred, and
revenge, rolling out an assortment of bad tempered knuckle draggers whose
vocabulary substitutes bullets for full stops to end sentences in arguments they
can’t otherwise win. This is the action stuff that frequently makes it on to the
bestseller list. People apparently love to read about violence, violent men and
women, the mechanics of violence, the aftermath of murder with the bodies and
autopsy chambers. Many readers say they don’t read such books. But the weight of
money spent on books shows either that is a lie or the wrong people are being
McEvoy’s life is in constant jeopardy like a man chased down the side of a
mountain by a grizzly bear. He must be clever in order to survive in an
underworld where a lot of people want him dead. There are many chances for him
to die. Each time he finds a way to avoid his fate. Once you ride that
rollercoaster, you feel your stomach at the back of your throat as if it is an
exit door. This is where Plugged excels. It is fast-paced like a man
running through a Cambodian minefield we can’t stop ourselves from watching
whether he will make it to end. Once he makes it to end, your heart is pounding.
And you know in your bones, he’s going to turn around, catch his breath and run
I suspect this to be the
case as Eoin Colfer has a new crime fiction novel called Screwed,
featuring McEvoy. Plugged makes me very curious about Artemis
Fowl, the children’s book series that is an international best seller.
Children growing up on that popular series have McEvoy waiting for them upon
graduation into adulthood. No question that McEvoy is a creative, talented
writer who can move between genre categories. I suspect, over time, he will
smooth and polish the rough edges that might cause some reader to bleed out
interest about half way through the book. Back to Michael Jordan for a closing:
Eoin Colfer has an incredible fastball pitch but he needs some work on his
change up. I’d certainly buy a ticket any time he’s in the game. And it seems
that Colfer’s McEvoy is back on the mound, winding up in a new novel titled
|The Twilight of Prophecy Cultures
News stories in Thailand
frequently have a supernatural or superstition angle. Two recent examples
illustrate the point. First, Pemmika Veerachatraksit received a 4 and half-year
prison sentence following her fraud conviction for her role in deceiving a
famous Applied Physics tutor named Prakitpao Tomtitchong to give her nine
million Baht in cash and gifts. She had convinced him that they’d been a couple
in a past life and he had abused her in that past life.
In the second
week, in Songkhla, in the South of Thailand, a sixteen-year-old Thai died in an
exorcist ceremony after drinking 18 litres of water. The ritual was
supposed to release a tiger ghost from the boy’s body.
In the same week,
Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the Nobel
Prize in Physics for their discovery of a theory of the Higgs boson particle—or
popularly known as the ‘God particle.’
We live in two different
worlds—the duped physics tutor in Thailand the physics genius in Britain and
Belgium. One world is occupied by people who believe an exorcist can banish the
tiger ghost and another world where scientists believe a tiny particle causes
the fundamental units of nature to stick together to form atoms, you and me,
planets, stars and moon cakes.
Thailand is a good place
to explore the psychological and cultural gap that separates these two ways of
Part of the challenge of
writing a crime fiction series set in Thailand is to understand the cultural
mindset that comes into play. Solving a crime doesn’t take place in a cultural
void. To understand how police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, private
eyes, and others assess criminal behavior, search for a criminal, provide for
victims, the cultural mindset needs to be addressed. What is a crime and who and
how people are punished are artifacts from a much deeper cultural
An author from the West is
more likely to have a probability or science-based, fact or evidence-based
mindset. It isn’t that the Thai are oblivious to facts. They aren’t. But the
role of facts and evidence is filtered through a different way of being in the
world, understanding and reacting to the world around them. In places like the
United States, there are millions of people who live inside a prophecy culture
and butt heads with the scientific community at the political level, over
education policy, medical care and other issues such as abortion and gun
I have lived the last 25
years in Thailand inside a culture where a large number of people of all classes
and ranks believe that certain monks, ex-monks or astrologers (they are on TV,
on charging-by-the-minute phone numbers, in the newspapers and magazines) can
predict a future outcome. There are tensions inside Thai culture, but
disagreement over the role of prophecy isn’t a hot button issue. Most Thais seem
indifferent to the fact that these prophecies happen with likelihood equal to
that of flipping a coin or random chance. The failure of predictions isn’t
generally seen as a bug in the system. It’s like horse racing, there’s always
the next race to bet on.
There is a large market in
Bangkok for personal predictions. The usual thing people wish will happen in the
future—you will find wealth, or a kind, loving partner, or rise to a high
position in your company, or become famous. Prophecy comes in a package with
other values like multi-colored feathers on a peacock’s tail. You need to
believe that certain human beings not only have a deep insight about the world,
but that they can accurately forecast what will occur next week, month or
From politicians to civil
servants on to soldiers, sailors, police, schoolteachers, and students we don’t
begin to touch the breadth of the share belief in the supernatural and
superstition. Far more public attention is focused on prophecy makers and their
predictions than on mathematicians who rely on complex algorithms that indicate
a probability of an outcome happening. There is uncertainty built into the
scientific system that analysis patterns and attempts to draw inference as to
the meaning of the patterns and how likely the pattern will repeat. Will it rain
tomorrow? 70% chance of rain mean there is a 30% chance it won’t. So do I take
an umbrella or not?
My world in a large,
modern city like Bangkok is also another world—one of omens, spirit houses,
magical tattoos, amulets, astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers and
various other gurus. The undercurrents that drive this magical world in Thailand
are found in Hindu myths, animism, and a particular vision of Buddhism. No one
is excluded from participation. Everyone has roughly an equal understanding and
belief that invisible forces are at work in their lives.
What makes prophecy so
seductive is that the prophet doesn’t need to hedge his or her bets. The
prophet’s authority isn’t from the realm of science. It springs from an
invisible spiritual connection with a higher celestial being. The prophet’s
direct pipeline to the gods isn’t a fact. There is no evidence to support the
claim. It has to be taken on pure faith. The Prophet is the messenger but until
your FedEx delivery guy, this kind of messenger is conferred with a halo. The
Prophet claims ‘God’ told him that so and so will happen.
Often what is predicted
isn’t the usual garden variety that a red traffic light will in three-minutes at
Asoke and Sukhumvit Road transition to yellow and then green. Prophets, like
novelists, are lovers of high drama. Predictions spring from the same well of
belief as the apocalypse with its messy, inky dark non-future. Prophets announce
prophecies. Abrahamic religions were founded upon the writings of prophets. We
have a long tradition of masses of people believing prophets were the output
pipe fitted to an input pipe with a higher being who wrote a holy book without
the aid of a computer. Once you are on that slippery slope all you can do is
enjoy the ride into the waiting jaws of the apocalypse.
The worldview of Peter
Higgs and his God particle and the exorcist in Songkhla have been on a collision
course since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The core insight of the
enlightenment was to view superstition and prophecy as bogus tools to work out
an understand the fundamental nature of reality. That battle continues to be
fought 500 years later. From our computer screens we are far removed from the
reality as experienced by billions of people whose identity is tribal or through
their clan. Prophecy functions as a belief in a transcendent realm that
protects a tribe or clan and its members from harm. It is also part of the
‘religious’ justification for the tribal leaders’ decision and legitimacy as
rulers. In Peter Higg’s world there is no transcendent realm where prophecies
are handed down to local prophets; there is only a material reality that is
subject to investigation, testing, evaluation and analysis. No politician will
use Higgs Boson as a justification for punishing an opponent or to support their
authority to govern.
A prophecy culture doesn’t
have a place for people like Peter Higgs, Francois Englert, Christopher
Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or Jon Stewart. The writer of noir crime fiction
wouldn’t be safe either.
Over an epic sale of time
a large number of wars between people claiming their prophet’s predictions were
the true word of god. Sooner or later that is bound to come to blows as these
kinds of predictions are thought to be absolute and universal. There’s no room
for doubt, evidence, irony or satire. Even when one of the vague predictions
appears to be false, there is never any real fall out; there is rarely a dent in
the credibility of those believing in the idea of predictions being a source of
truth, revelation, and guidance.
The question is whether
these two worlds incompatible worldviews can co-exist? A case can be made that
they will remain in conflict and at war with one another. Modern technology is
being used to dissemble the tribal world and reconfigure it as par of the global
system. Essential to that task is to change the way tribal people around bound
by their own Higgs-boson of prophecy and superstition. The process is to make
prophecy a commodity, and prophets another system provider who is motivated by
profit and expanding markets.
Tribal and clan leaders
have long benefited from a prophecy culture that is outside of time, markets and
dissent. The American drone program is an example of a high tech device to
dismantle the tribal-warlord system. The idea is superstitious people will fear
the drones that hover overhead for 24 hours a day. Drones will force the
inflexible tribal leaders to leave their villages for the safety of caves and
mountains. Drones and their power of destruction show that their local gods
can’t protect them, and there is a new god on the block who can kill them in an
instant so they’d be wise to abandon their old leaders, ways and beliefs and
become absorbed into the modern high-tech world. The reality is the unintended
consequences have been to increase loyalty to the prophecy culture, strength
tribal ties, and allow extremists with strong traditional values to assume
I don’t have a problem
with people who believe in prophecy. It is the way they process the reality of
the world. That there is someone who is connected to a higher voice who
communicates an event before it happens. What usually goes hand in hand with
this view, is that there is nothing anyone can do but accept the prediction. If
you have power, not brooking dissent is always a goal, and if you can shelter
behind the veil of predictions from a divine source, you can crack a lot of
heads, eat most of the buffet, and claim these outcomes are ordained. You don’t
have to look far in the world to see a lot people are having second thoughts
about the prophecy business and how it drives social, political and economic
choices in ways that serve the prophets and their best clients.
When a modern, globally
wired society tries to communicate with a culture of prophecy it becomes
apparent that they don’t share a common vocabulary about the world. The modern,
global wired society isn’t because fibre optics, computer chips, nanotechnology,
and waste treatment plants are with us because science and mathematics banished
prophecy from the way we understand the world. In its place came theories that
could be tested and falsified through experiment. That’s how knowledge
accumulated. That knowledge continues to accelerate in velocity. As new
evidence arises old theories are thrown out. I recently read that in 1920 most
people, scientists included, thought that Earth was one, fixed, immoveable
surface. The science of shifting plates in the geology of the planet created a
new science of tectonics, which destroyed the old belief. Science doesn’t deal
in absolutes; it deals in probability of outcomes.
The implications of this
one vital difference drive the worldview and behavior of people. You won’t get
the engineering required to put a space station in orbit from a prophecy-guided
guru. They live in two different worlds. When a prophecy culture imports the
engineering and technical know-how to build dams, bridges, road, trains and
planes, they seem to have achieved the best of both worlds. You get to use the
modern transport, appliances, weapons, and means of communication without giving
up your belief that Wednesday is a bad day for a haircut, and the lucky lottery
number came to you in a dream as often believed in Thailand.
A brand new, modern
full-automated rail system appears to be like a young adult at his physical
peak, but it is actually more like a newborn that needs constant attention. Not
surprisingly in a prophecy culture the technical knowhow may be accessible but
the attitude of many of those in the system is based on luck or chance and
This year Thailand has had
114 train derailments. Every other day a train seems to fall off the track.
There are many reasons given to explain why this has been happening, including
the lack of funding for the national rail system. Not funding the system makes
perfect sense if you believe in prophecy. The civil servants in charge of the
rail system decided it was a damaged painting in the HQ that caused the spirits
to become angry and have ordered the painting to be resorted. When the army
bought lots of GT200, a fraudulent mine-detecting gadget, they insisted, once
the scientific evidence showed the device was less reliable than pure chance in
discovering a mine, announced that they had ‘faith’ in the device.
The twin of prophecy is
the belief in the world of spirits, angels, demons, and forest fairies. No one
needs wasting years to acquire a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, chemistry, or
engineering to join the club that makes a living from the prophecy
My horoscope for
8th October 2013:
“This is just the kind of day you
like, intense and supercharged, just like you! It seems there’s a deadline
coming up, or a time-sensitive project. You’ll have a lot to do and not a lot of
time in which to do it. Just remember to drink plenty of water and eat. Lucky
Color Dark Red Lucky No. 5.”
As a harmless form of
entertainment, astrology has a place with The Daily Show, Not the
Nation and The Onion. But as a mindset in charge of procurement of
high-tech devices, and the maintenance and repair of water management systems,
trains, airplanes and telecommunication systems demonstrates the limitations of
a prophecy culture to operate highly complex systems developed in science
progresses as scientists and mathematicians have new insights into fundamental
reality. Those insights can be tested. The insights of a prophet are of a
different order. You can’t build a safer nuclear reactor or cure cancer based on
a guru’s prophecy. Scientists will explain to you that predicting future
outcomes is extremely hard. There are too many variables that come into play,
and their connection, lack of connection, or random shifts influence outcomes in
ways that can’t be predicted in advance. Prophets don’t process reality with
this humility as to their limitations. Or the limits of the law of
It’s not uncommon to climb
into a Bangkok taxi and find amulets hanging from the rearview mirror, or to
find the driver touching the amulets as he races through a red light. Amulets in
this way of think somehow neutralize the law of physics, allowing him to pass
free through an intersection.
In a science culture the
devil is in the details, in a prophecy culture the devil is
the detail. Prophecy is an example of deception used by rulers in the past to
keep themselves in power. With prophets on the payroll they could claim a
pipeline to the divine themselves. The thing with prophecy is the lack of an
audit trail where you can break down the reasoning into a series of steps and
find out what sequence caused the mistake about a future outcome. That is one
reason why accountability is difficult to graft onto a prophecy culture. No
prophet can withstand an audit; no prophet is held accountable, as he’s just the
input pipe, and the output pipe, being divine, is beyond
In the end, a culture
decides how to explain what it knows and how it knows things as a collective
intelligence. In the event the culture is based on prophecy, that way of knowing
about the world will produce a certain kind of society. A culture where science
is allowed to flourish, evolving insights lead to better and improved precision
measurement instruments, and those lead, in turn, to more advanced
In the West, the
scientifically minded believe that the stories that science tells are more
powerful as others can test and repeat the facts and evidence to support the
stories. Thailand is in transition from a prophecy culture to a scientific one.
This is a long process and during the transition, one is bound to see
contradictions. The more connected Thailand becomes to the outside world, the
more that prophecy culture will lose its force. In far less developed countries
in the Middle East, the fog of conflict masks the rate of any such transition.
Drones are the response of a science-based technology, and tribal cultures
haven’t shown an inclination to give up their transcendental beliefs in the
supernatural world to embrace a materialistic world. Meanwhile, we have at the
front line of this conflict panic, irrational claims, terrorism and violence—as
the world of the prophets’ lashes out against the world of science.
It is the struggle of our
times as one culture is in the death throes and the new science culture requires
a deep knowledge of difficult concepts. This level of understanding of Peter
Higgs’ theory excludes the average person from participation except as a
consumer. In the world of prophecy everyone is equally at the mercy of the gods
and that creates a degree of solidarity.