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Blog Archive May 2014

Silence

“Silence is the ultimate weapon of power.”
Charles de Gaulle

There are two silences that concern me and should concern you.

“You have a right to remain silent.”

What usually follows is: “Whatever you say may be used against you in a court of law.”

This right to be silent is enshrined in the 5th Amendment of US constitution. Like many constitutional rights the right to remain silent has been chipped away, sculptured into an object that continues to have similar traits but is a different species. In principle, the right to stand your ground against the vast power of an oppressive state is a symbol against tyranny.

The right to remain silent when questioned by the State is a radical right. The right is your shield against forced incrimination. It is why torture and beating are so repulsive and threatening. In the face of overwhelming power, all citizens, even those we despise and hate, need protection against authority. One man can stop a column of tanks through sheer defiance. But how long can he stand before being run over? It’s for our own sake that we protect our right to silence. To exempt one is to exempt everyone. The onus is on the authorities to make a case of wrong doing without torturing the suspect into a confession.

But confessions are popular in many places. Confessions have an enormous advantage—they shortcut the tedium of dead end investigations, paperwork, false leads and trails, and looking for incriminating evidence and witnesses.

The second category of silence is connected to the truth. Freedom of expression is the truth telling process. Of all the amendments to the American constitution, this is the number one right of a citizen. As George Orwell wrote, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” He also wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Silence is not just a right. It is a condition that can be imposed. Silence can be commanded on political grounds. In this case, not remaining silent becomes a crime. It can be seen as a provocation to those in authority. Speaking and non-speaking in tyranny must pass the test of loyalty. There is no other feature in such a system by which silence can be judged.

Silence is one purpose of repression as it mutes critics, those with the awkward questions, those who wish someone to explain a contradiction, a paradox for which there is no good answer. Silence never embarrasses authority; it comforts them.

How to illustrate or describe silence in words is difficult. The act of writing breaks the silence. This state of being quiet is both an internal mental process we aren’t privileged to witness in others, and an external signal of the silent process. When I am silent, you may guess that something is going on inside my mind, but it remains a guess until I reveal my thoughts.

I can illustrate silence by describing an exterior event. An empty dinning room table with a woman reading. A bedroom with an elderly man staring at the ceiling as death approaches. A crime scene with yellow tape draped across a doorway, with a woman with blood on her blouse, staring into space. Silence envelopes each, expressing a different range of possibilities as to why words are absent.

There is another kind of silence that writers throughout the ages have faced. Not a tyrant seeking to incriminate the writer for a crime he didn’t commit, but the tyrant who uses power to stop a writer from voicing criticism, challenging dogma, pointing out errors, mistakes, flaws and deceit. Silence in this case is the tyrant’s friend and ally. The weight of occupation is the enforced silence the occupiers impose. Like torture or beatings, the command to shut up and obey causes suffering.

Silence in the interrogation room is prohibited. But silence inside the marketplace of ideas may be required. Power has this contradictory relationship with silence. You have to say the State’s position on silence depends on the context.

Writers such as George Orwell have been curious about the meaning of silence. Most people are not by nature silent. In a silent room, look for the censor. Ask him the score. He won’t be able to tell you more than I’ve told you: either remain silent or join in praise of the leader. “You see,” he says, “we give the same choice to all people. The good people and the bad people are known by their choice.”

We have a natural impulse to explain, to discuss, to debate, to test, challenge and contest theories, beliefs and principles. But in a time of repression, the spontaneous discussions grind to a dead halt. It is a time for thinking, in silence.

You have a choice. You can be defined by the censor’s choice or you step forward in front of a tank. Until this week, I never emotionally felt how brave that man was. How he gives me hope in a world where words bend to the iron will and tanks of rulers. That is our history. What our ancestors experienced. They understood the lesson repeated generation after generation, that to break the official silence is a crime. The truth card won’t get you out of jail, and it may well be your one-way ticket to a prison cell.

Here are some thoughts from writers about the nature of silence, truth and censorship.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
George Orwell, 1984

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”
Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”
George Orwell

“Silence is the ultimate weapon of power.”
Charles de Gaulle

“Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
George Orwell, 1984

Posted: 5/29/2014 9:15:59 PM 

 

The Global Language of Bias: What do we use language for?

The first obligation of a writer is to mess with people’s biases, making them question the reliability of the filters they use to construct reality. We are all in the reality construction business. But the building material comes from quite different sources. You can build a grand structure of reality without using a single brick from the warehouse of facts and evidence. If someone asks you whether you are biased, you might inquire which of the 93 Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases, or did the person have in mind one of the 27 social biases or possibly one of the 47 Memory errors and biases?

You might think of these biases like the searchlights used in London during the Blitz in World War II to spot and shoot down enemy intruders. We are bombarded daily with ideas, thoughts, facts, opinions, evidence and our biases distort, deflect, and filter the information as we process it. These are our prison walls. No one can scale them and be free.

Billions of people live inside such socially constructed structures erected from ancient holy books, customs, beliefs, and rituals. When a tsunami of facts washes over these ancient structures, showing they are false, unsafe, and unreliable, what do people do who live in these buildings? They hunker down and claim their traditional structure of reality is stronger than ever. And the heretics with their ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are condemned and vilified. Ever since the science revolution in the 17th Century, the battle over what material is appropriate material for social constructs of reality has been waged.

An article in Macleans titled America Dumbs Down observed, “A national poll, conducted in March for the Associated Press, found that 42 per cent of Americans are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution. Similarly, 51 per cent of people expressed skepticism that the universe started with a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago, and 36 per cent doubted the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.”

The first obligation of the average best selling writer is to pander to people’s biases, confirming their vision of reality. Not all best sellers are cynical attempts to make money. Accidental best sellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is a good example of a book that undermines conventional economic wisdom, exposing the bias and fraud of many contemporary economists.

To make people think for themselves critically in an age where independent thinking is uncomfortable, out of fashion, and suspected to be a covert tool of the elites to undermine faith and religion. An example of the trend in the Macleans article: “Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”

The crucial question is what do we use language for? Every culture and time throughout history has addressed this question. In our culture and time, the debate continues. By examining the controversies about literature and the world of ideas found inside books, we can take a snapshot of how we address this question. Without language and books we can’t communicate about the past and the make predictions about the future. This makes language potentially dangerous. This explains why the past in every culture is a manufactured product. The reality of the past when challenged leads to conflict, assassination, exile and stigma.   Students are not so much taught as indoctrinated. And the task of envisioning the future, which draws lessons from the past, becomes riddled with the serialization of errors, lies, and illusions continued from the past.

Language in print establishes our sense of reality so completely that we become accustomed to perceiving the world visually. Our other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and taste atrophy as we explore the world through analogue and digital print worlds, and the visual worlds of YouTube, TV, and movies. By controlling what people see, they can be easily programmed to share a homogenous reality—social or political. The financial control by the elites over the medium of print and images is a guarantee of their power and influence can be extended and remain largely unchallenged. One of the first tasks of coup makers is to take control of the media. And they seize TV, radio station and threaten others in social media for good reasons.

We design the space we call the ‘present’ by reference to this unreliable account of the past. When students enter that design space in school and university they can come in for a shock. We can’t tell them they’ve been lied to and deceived most of their life, instead we warn them to brace against a ‘disturbing’ scene in a play or book as it might unsettle, confuse or disconcert them.

The number of books being read per person is in decline. Ignorance and anti-intellectual attitudes are in vogue. The New York Times reports a trend in American colleges that seems to be a parody, something Jon Stewart would run on the Daily Show.

“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [as] in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

That’s not a mistake. This isn’t an article about 10 year olds in a South Carolina redneck country school; it is about colleges throughout the United States. Though, I am skeptical of the NYT’s author’s claim. The author offers the usual anecdotal evidence without supporting data to support the claim of a mass movement in this direction. Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that the big data supports this claim of a countrywide trend in American colleges in support of trigger warnings to be issued by professors assigning plays, poems or books with disturbing themes, characters or events.

Isn’t one of the purposes of a college education the goal of exposing students to a wide range of ideas, cultures, histories, and theories as an introduction to the reality of the world? Yes, Johnny and Mary, the world is often in conflict over ideas, events, personalities, and history. If you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, who found himself at ground level during the fire bombing by the allies of Dresden, you will discover one way of processing such a traumatic event. Every great book ever written triggers an emotion, upsets values, threats the orthodox views, and, yes, makes you appreciate we have always lived in an uncertain, contentious, messy, dangerous world, where people are injured, disappeared, killed, tortured and abused. Shouldn’t college students have an deeper, more diverse, complex understanding of ways that reality are fashioned in our world?

Apparently that view is a minority in the American trend for bringing in a system of ‘trigger warnings’ as the last step toward creating a state of near total control. If I were one of the oligarchs, I’d very much support and fund such a trend. The reality is anything that might threaten the oligarch’s social construct of reality is deemed a threat to all. The trigger warning is itself a warning about who has their finger on the trigger and where the barrel of that gun is pointed at writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.

The New York Times article gives a couple of examples, “Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses suicide).”

The new purpose of university education has narrowed considerably as it has gone into the mass education business. Trigger warnings become a strut in the new infrastructure of reality to reinforce the prevailing view that college is a place to learn job skills. Our biases ensure that we are hardwired to believe things that are not true.

Recent studies have shown that most people live in a ‘fact free zone’ and debunking lies and deceptions brings in Backfire Effect like ack-ack guns firing at the incoming facts until the barrels melt. These people, it appears, need protection from the blitz of images, facts, opinions that challenge their personal operating system of reality. Having internalized the message, the herd becomes self-censoring. The Elites react negatively and intervene when an individual or group attempts to divert the masses from their auto-pilot setting. For example, someone may ask a dangerous question: Is wealth equitably distributed by unregulated capitalism?

America is, in other words, trending toward the Chinese model of higher education. Intellectual and emotional controls are a step away from eliminating the awkward that may get in the way of learning how to build a bridge or computer program. If a professor must live under the shadow of a trigger warning, the temptation will be to avoid any literature that might have such a trigger for fear that his warning was too little, too late, and he is open to a law suit for failure to make a full and informed disclosure in a complete warning. Every professor would need to retain a lawyer with expertise in what is an appropriate trigger and how to give effective warnings. Does society want to go down that path? It seems there are many in America who wish for this path.

Students are cocooned in a manufactured reality where disturbing, disruptive or destabilizing images, scenes, characters might upset the reality that has been pre-ordered and assigned to them. The Oberlin College guideline is specific: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Unfiltered, ugly, twisted, confusing and threatening reality is an enemy to those in power. Most people are willing to hand over their liberty and privacy to escape that reality. Oligarchs know this about the human condition and they exploit this design defect to their and their heirs enduring long-term advantage.

The techniques of control are outright repression as in Orwell’s 1984 or soma in Huxley’s Brave New World. We are learning this is a false choice. In many countries the oligarchs use a combination of both techniques to quell rebellion and to dampen fears of the disturbing, inconvenient truths of most people’s lives. Issues of ‘privilege and oppression’ are triggering events. We must warn students that an assigned book might create an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance.

Not all messages are allowed equal passage along the pipeline of information. The medium has more than one way to deliver a message and more than one message: the most powerful symbol of blocking the herd from seeing what the caretakers wish them not to know about their plans, policies, and self-dealing is ██████████. When a non-authorized person wishes to send a public message over the heads of the caretakers which alerts the herd of a danger, a misdeed, or abuse the message is blocked are behind a wall: ██████████. Analogue or digital, the traffic of ideas, information, and theories is under constant surveillance, censors patrolling space, searching for the words and images that challenge authority’s version of reality. We can follow their trail. Our overlords leave behind their historical signature of disapproval ██████████ erected like a tombstone over the grave of a murdered thought.

Trigger warnings are a sign of attempts to restrict and ultimately to abolish cognitive dissonance. No one should be surprised by this desire. Thais often say that thinking too much gives them a headache. That view, as it turns out, may now represent a larger, universal attitude in many other places.

Deliberate calculation, skepticism, doubt, and calls for falsifiable theories are time-consuming, slow thinking in a world where change accelerates and people are afraid of being left behind. The sheep keep dogs as house pets not quite seeing the terrible irony of that relationship, without seeing what has happened to the wolf over evolutionary time has happened to them.

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, more than fifty years ago saw then what we are experiencing now: “Homogenization of men and materials will become the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.”

Trigger warnings are another example of the Hyperreality that maintains an environment for the herd. In dense concentrations in modern cities, the members of this herd, individually and collectively, remain calm, content, and undisturbed as they study, work, eat, love, pray and shop. The gates leading from one to the next enclosure should give the appearance of freedom. People need to believe they glide along one seamless path where they are warned in advance against any thoughts or images that might disturb them. Guidelines are issued to carefully monitor and control ideas, reports of psychological states, degrading and horrible experiences, injustice and arbitrary action as if they are about to be injected with a dangerous drug. The best of literature is dangerous as it shows the manufactured reality is a drug of the worst kind of oppression.

The future is a fight against a model of reality that is a monopoly, controlled and protected and defended against dissent. We are already far down the road where our reality is one manufactured under close supervision, blending entertainment, status, prestige and pride. Non-corporate media has noticed how big corporate media has been relatively quiet in reporting about a Princeton Study that showed the considerable power to influence government policy held by the economic elite.  Information has been sufficiently filtered by big corporate media and the question is how long before non-corporate online players make the old filters irrelevant?  The information dam will bust. People will know who has what and where they’ve stashed it. It seems the chase has started.

I try to imagine how this will work out. The economic elites still operate the main feed line of what you experience everyday. Every object around you throughout the day connects you to a product that comes off the feed line. Personal emotional attachment and engagement becomes detached from day-to-day reality. We are attached to what isn’t real, and reality, which we no longer engage with, seems less and less real.  Disneyland is the prevailing metaphor, the 3D cartoon world. The artificial environment becomes the new real. The Eiffel Tower displayed Disney World in Orlando becomes as ‘real’ to the visitor as the one in Paris. People no longer can distinguish one from the other. A copy becomes as valid an experience as the original. It is inside this blended reality that students are shielded against an earlier world of experience and reality where bad things happened to good people.

The best writing will continue to explore the sharp edges of reality, the hypocrisy of power, the abuses of authority, the inequity and injustice of those behind the veil. It is a rearguard action as those who have used truth to challenge power, only to discover that those in power deflect truth under the guise of protecting youth from the harmful consequence of truth. We have advanced technologically beyond what our ancestors could imagine while emotionally running on the same treadmill that Socrates pointed at in the public square. And that cup of hemlock takes a new form as we escape deeper into the world of sheep forgetting the history of dogs.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in Gutenberg Galaxy: “We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century. ‘We are the primitives of a new culture.’” We enter this new culture will our bias guns fully loaded and blazing away.

Posted: 5/22/2014 8:42:45 PM 

 

Fictional Character Migration into the Digital World

“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Characters, even the most memorable ones, are creatures of their place and time. Time is an inescapable aspect of character, giving it weight, dimension, and volume like a physical property. As people are born, live their lives and die, so is the fate of fictional characters. While the expiry date condemns most fictional characters to the literary graveyard, a few manage to achieve a kind of immortality. This literary elite roll call of characters is handed onto future generations. But as this is such a rare event, we should be asking how and why that happens at all. As Lewis Carroll implies in the opening quote, people, like novels are period pieces, who understand themselves in a way that has little relevance to the contemporary world shaped by new and different forces.


As the cartoon suggests, an essential quality defining a character in a novel (or life) is the way they are products of the technology of their time. Their technology has shaped their view of the world and how they see themselves and others.

In crime fiction, the office of a private eye might contain a Remington typewriter, a hat and umbrella tree, a Bakelite rotary phone and a couple of metal file cabinets with neat rows of paper folders. The private eye’s Secretary takes short hand or transcribes her boss’s dictation.

Investigations are centered in the analogue world where people are followed, watched, and there are face-to-face meetings, confrontations, discussions and arguments. We can read the classic fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet with pleasure by the simple act of accepting that we enter a world of very different artifacts, objects, and technology. This conceit works because inside that world everyone is working, living, stealing, killing, lying, and running on the same technical infrastructure. None of them have a significant technological advantage over the other. It is then a war of wits, shoe leather, discipline, and one or two lucky breaks that makes the difference in a private eye’s fate.

I have described a world that pre-dates the age of big data, computers, GPS systems, Google, Facebook, Twitter, tracking programs recording computer keystrokes and website searches, CCTV cameras, and computer forensic experts. This technology provides the context in which we live, move and die; it is how we perceive what is meaningful in the age we live in.

Let’s take the example of a murder. If the police or private eye discover a murder victim who had no email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Skype accounts, and who had no text-messages, no smart phone, and whose sole possession was a black and white TV, radio and cassette player, they might wonder if this person was a time traveler from the past. Certainly it would seem odd; a character who chose in 2014 to divorce himself from the digital world would be a fish out of water. His murder would appear more freakish to the new generation because he chose find happiness in a life totally removed the digital world. That seems incomprehensible to many young people (a hypothesis that needs testing).


It is easy for the older generation to devalue communication channels such as texting and tweeting. Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of many books including “How the Mind Works” and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/05/what-could-be-more-interesting-than-how-the-mind-works/ has a good response to this tendency to criticize the new channels:

“So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works. All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so, too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums.”

A non-connected character stands a chance to gain a reader’s interest if she is a technology lover, who wonders how such a character can exist outside her digital zone and call themselves content and happy; and satisfies the Luddite, who sees her own possibilities in following a life (minus the unhappy ending) like such a character, drawing inspiration and courage from the example.  It would be a character both sides of the digital divide would enjoy but for different reasons. That’s what makes for a good character—he or she plays across the narrower bands of class, education, and status lines.

Unfriending or blocking someone online and offline are two different social spaces, protocols, repercussions, and reactions.

As readers we follow the lives of characters moving about inside fictional worlds that are significantly different from our own life. The strength of the characters and their story can (and do) allow the reader to enjoy the human aspect of the experience that transcends primitive information retrieval and storage systems, and rudimentary communication systems which makes their culture very different from our own.

Readers now expect their characters to be influenced, affected by, and in reaction to the things that happen in the digital world.

The technological distance between 2014 and 1974 is only forty years. In many ways the forces that shape lives have changed considerably over this brief period. Part of the fallout is that more people have vastly more information about each other. Meet someone new and want to find out who they are? In the analogue world it might take a long time to find out information about someone. Today, we Google them and in a few minutes have a profile.

All of us have become private investigators with access to far more information than any governments had at their disposal 50 years ago. The lives, possessions and luxury life style of the .1% are no longer secret. Inequality and the gap between those who own the system and those who work for the system has created digital interest, with the online communities channeling statistics, reviewing books, discussing causes, priorities, policies and propaganda. A worldwide audience has a conversation that goes on twenty-four hours a day and leaves that conversation online for others to read and participate in.

Our ideas about secrecy and privacy come to have very different meaning and importance depending on the technology environment.

Are the old classics relevant to the new generation and those who will have more advanced technology in the next 50 years? Will they enjoy Richard Stark’s Parker novels like The Score, or James Crumely’s The Long Good Kiss or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Cain’s title begs for a cartoon with the ten year old asking: Was his email account down? The issue isn’t limited to crime fiction. The classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry of Values by Robert M. Pirsig written in the early 1970s assumes a technological platform that has long since vanished. A son and father on a road trip, discussing the meaning of life; they lacked a digital connection. In the novel, there were just the two of them on the road and the stars above their heads at night. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?


We are at a crossroad (some would argue we are always at a crossroad). There are those who read these novels, learn from them, share them with others, and increase their understanding of others (call this the empathy bonus). But there is no doubt that the characters in such books experience life in a quite different fashion from contemporary people.

We shop online. We socialize with one another over large distances, fall in love, out of love, feud, form alliances, vent anger and hate—all online, from the safety of their home, office, car, Starbucks or Siam-Paragon shopping mall. Most young people spend as much time (if not substantially more) online as they do in their offline world. People hang out online the way in once did at the local pub. A character’s personality, desires, motives and goals are as much defined by his or her relationship with others online as in the old analogue world. We think we know others in the digital world and they know us? But what do we really know about each other from our computer screen, iPad, or iPhone? Pinker might argue there are different styles of knowing. To some extend that is true. We all know some people much better than others even in the analogue world.

But the medium of the messages, its style, is also a clue to its limitations. The digital world is a substitute for face-to-face conversations. Your choice of medium will be a trade off in the quality of collecting and analyzing information.  In the analogue world, you can see a person’s facial expressions, their hands making a gesture, their posture as they sit, talk, stand, walk across a room, or observe their eyes during a moment of silence when all kinds of information about mood, attention, veracity, and openness/resistance is revealed outside of formal language. Emotional icons are a poor substitute. The judgments we make in the analogue world are both restrictive—what you see is all that you get—and expansive—they include smells, sounds, touch and taste.


Many readers hunger for a reading experience that not only explores the technological impact on the lives of fictional characters. A novel recreates the risks, dangers, and opportunities such innovations bring, ones that disrupt like a knife blade cutting through skin and soft tissue and ones that change the ways we think about ourselves and each other.

News feeds produce a huge volume of information about the global migration of people across geographical boundaries. The Rohingya fleeing Burma on old unseaworthy boats to escape persecution and murder under the eye of local authorities. Africans escaping again by boat to Europe. Hispanic people cross into America for a better life. Cambodians and Burmese cross the border into Thailand for a new, better life. We don’t get a true sense of the proportion of such people and their problems in our cozy digital social networks. The one justification for writing a novel is to make such people ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ and ‘individual’. How do such people fit into our hybrid analogue-digitally divided lives? That’s the question you should be asking a novelist?

The physical world continues to draw our attention and when we read these stories we rarely ask how much longer until the digital world distracts us from the analogue migration patterns of our species. As the locus of the real action moves into ‘hyperreality’, blurring what is ‘real’ along with what we are paying attention to, we may be losing our ability to distinguish digital migrations from physical ones.

We can easily make a list of our favorite analogue world authors, where the technological perspective is pre-1982 (IBM PC goes to mass market). Writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Richard Stark, and many others who are widely read, discussed and admired fall into that category.

The Bakelite phone generation, as a result of the scope and nature of their technology, have (to our modern eyes) severe limits on how they can find out things about other people, how they go about looking, where they search, and what they do when they find what they are looking for. We see them as handicapped in a way that we are not.

The people in the pre-1982 novels had no devices others than telephones to communicate with each other. Most of the inter reaction is face to face. How primitive the new generation might be tempted to conclude.

We expect a character from a contemporary author to mirror the reality of the modern world and that means an accounting of his or her connections to the digital world. Readers expect to find hybrid characters with a foot in both worlds. These connections are essential to understanding a person’s identity. The separation of what they believe, know, or understand from the two worlds is blended in a way that it can’t be untangled. Person and device blurred into one. The device augments, enhances the character, makes him feel smarter, more knowledgeable, capable and in control. Like drugs or alcohol, in the digital world the information flow becomes an addictive river where people wish to bathe for hours. Such people start their morning and finish their day checking their timelines, email accounts, and browsing for the latest breaking news.

People who have crawled into the digital world are readers looking for stories about how others have used this crawl space, their problems, ups and downs, and the way they handle relationships in the online and offline worlds.

The final chapter about character remains as open ended as technology. But there seems no going back to the time of the classics, not in crime or literary fiction. As future readers, if an author is to purchase a piece of their fragmented attention, he will need a story that transcends time and technology. That’s a tall order and no one can say what will survive.  Readers in different times have wanted the same experience: a literary mirror, a compass, a shield and a sword to go forth and wage the battles in their daily life. And to understand the meaning of those battles, the victories and the defeats.

Characters in books will need to adjust what they pay attention to and who pays attention to them. Authors who ignore the evolution of human relationships and identity building will be writing about a lost past. There will always be a market for nostalgia and idealized fictional characters. As there will be those suffer from the delusion that such characters whose lives never touched the digital world are meaningful to the new generation of readers. Those of us who reached adulthood long before our world was rewired for broadband width communication remember that earlier off the grid analogue world we grew up in. We also know that this world is behind us. And the new generation of readers will expect, what we expected, characters we could identify with; not characters that would judge us or look down on us, our way of life and values.


What will this new generation of readers expect from fiction authors? In my view, we will enter fictional worlds where characters’ emotional reactions, intentions, preoccupation shift between the analogue and digital experience. Young readers will have many more people they call ‘friends’ than prior generations. Most of these friends, they will have never met outside a computer screen but that won’t lessen their feeling of connectedness and intimacy. Friendships in the analogue world will have a different time scale and priority. Books will chart the connection between characters inside the two worlds. Technology disrupts not only jobs and industries; it disrupts the nature of our identity. Authors, in the future, will discover ways to tell the stories about people whose identities are the product of information and communication linking two different worlds of thought, experience, ideas, values and relationships.

Posted: 5/15/2014 9:40:33 PM 

 

AI Overdrive and We Are in the Way

The nature of crime is relatively straightforward across all cultures. Criminals depend on others who fail to cross check for danger and assess the risk of what lies waiting in the shadows. We grow fat and complacent and lazy. Members of the criminal class calculate their chances of making themselves richer at our expense and move away from the crime scene unscathed. With our habits and routines and disengagement from the analogue world, we make it easy for criminals.

Not us smart, non-complacent ones we assume, but the others: we see their bodies and we see the tears in the eyes of their families and friends. Sometimes all the vigilance in the world won’t be enough. Things happen to people and to the planners who have gone through the checklist twice before taking off. Call it bad luck, or karma, or the randomness of the universe, mysteries which mock our planning.

We are nearing the end of an age when crime fiction was an epic battle of law enforcement authorities matching wits with criminals at the domestic and international level. From the Parker novels to the Wolf of Wall Street, there is a parade of crime in the back alleys of Main Street and Wall Street.


Leonardo Di Caprio, Wolf of Wall Street

The state authorities have been making gains employing the latest advanced technology such as surveillance cameras, Internet tracking, GPS systems, and recording of our online search histories, credit card purchases, telephone calls, and emails. There are many more ways to discover what others are planning, and to catch criminals after they commit a crime. There are fewer dark corners for criminals to hide and they continue to diminish.

Technology is dynamic. The devices appear to be egalitarian, and seem through the promise of connection to expand our sense of kinship, and that lulls us into feeling empowered.

The reality is the data collected about you and me and everyone is being concentrated. It is the new Capital, the new wealth from which income is being generated. Not US Treasury Bonds or dividends paid to shareholders. We are starting imagine where all of this is leading us.

As most people are caught up in the daily struggles it’s no surprise that the larger forces remain invisible even as they gather significance. One of the best examples is the potential for existential shifts caused by AI or Artificial Intelligence. This essay is about what the possibilities of AI may have waiting for us in the near to medium future. Let’s take a walk down that alley.


Johnny Depp, Transcendence

Often the first hints about the nature of abrupt change are found in literature and film. Two recent films: Hers and Transcendence ask questions about the intelligence combined with technology that dwarfs human intelligence.


Joaquin Phoenix, Her

We begin to notice small stories buried in the back pages about how the military is funding the development of autonomous-weapon systems. The technological entity launches itself, select the target and destroys and we sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch the video replay.

We start to see articles about how people around us have withdrawn from the world and their lives, even as they are in public, are lived in a digital link through their iPhone or tablet. There are articles pleading for people to look away from their iPhone and engage the world around them.

The next canary to ring the warning bell is found among scientists, the rationalists, those who aren’t in the business of channeling our fears but understanding and explaining the nature of the world and updating the context of our reality. These aren’t doomsday people or someone trying to make a market, a buck, a name. They are shouting. They are asking people to pay attention.

Stephen Hawking in a recent piece for the Independent wrote:

“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

As Hawking notes, few resources are being marshaled to monitor AI development, but there are “non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute.”

AI depends on not just who controls it but on the more basic question—at what point does AI slip the collar and no longer can be controlled by human intelligence? And slips that collar around our necks.

What is the timeline for an event when AI exceeds human intelligence? Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky have debated issues, including the speed of AI development and the debate has been archived. Judging the possible rate of AI acceleration is hotly debated. AI might go through many steps allowing for all kinds of plans, policies and consensus to develop before the next step; or it might happen suddenly without advance warning. No one can give a reasonable probability of which position is more likely. As a result, scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued (this is the existential concern) that government should take precautions on AI going FOOM.

The rate of change factor is a major difference that distinguishes the impact of AI, its disruption of the concentration of wealth accumulated over many generations, which is Piketty’s domain. It is, for example, highly improbable that all wealth in the world would be owned by a single human being, acting on his or her own intelligence, in the space of 5 hours; but there is an argument that this probability is significant enough with AI that we should pay attention and plan for that probability.

Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is generating a lot of attention, controversy, and heated exchanges. Perhaps it is time to take Piketty’s argument about capital and put it in a different context to see if the feelings it evokes shift. I’ve written a short think piece on how Piketty’s argument would look inside the field of AI.

 

Artificial Intelligence and the Piketty Argument

Piketty’s research showing the exponential threat of unregulated capitalism hitting a wall, one built during the Cold War as a response to communism. The time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Capital in the 21st Century is too short for the old ideological beliefs and faith in capitalism to not influence some contrary reaction.

Wasn’t capitalism what the Cold War was fought preserve against a collectivist nightmare? How can a French academic appear out of ‘nowhere’ and challenge the banner under which that Cold War was fought and won?

Piketty has said in an interview:

“’One of the conclusions that I take from my own work is that we don’t need 19th century economic inequality to grow. One lesson of the 20th Century is that the kind of extreme concentration of wealth that we had in the 19th Century was not useful, and probably even harmed growth, because it reduced mobility and access of new groups of the population into entrepreneurship and power. It led to the capture of our political institutions prior to World War I. We don’t want to return to this.’

We are headed down that road and we should take note and prepare ourselves. How we prepare for it and what tools we can reasonably use are another questions that require political solutions.

In a review of Piketty’s book, Branko Milanovic summarized the main thesis:

“Piketty’s key message is both simple and, once understood, almost self-evident. Under capitalism, if the rate of return on private wealth (defined to include physical and financial capital, land, and housing) exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, the share of capital income in the net product will increase. If most of that increase in capital income is reinvested, the capital-to-income ratio will rise. This will further increase the share of capital income in the net output. The percentage of people who do not need to work in order to earn their living (the rentiers) will go up. The distribution of personal income will become even more unequal.”

One way of understanding Piketty’s arguments based on research is to remove it from an economic platform associated with having avoided the prospect of subjection to communism. That is, let’s leave capitalism aside for a moment. And instead, we will focus on the basic idea Piketty’s research has revealed in another domain, Artificial Intelligence.

Now consider a revision of Branko Milanovic’s summary as follows:

We have a world of intelligence divided between human and machine intelligence. We live in a world where human intelligence is a domain. But as we continue to develop artificial intelligence, if the rate of increase of intelligence by AI (defined to include general and specialized intelligence and the ability to update itself) exceeds the rate of growth of human intelligence, the share of artificial intelligence will increase at a rate faster than human intelligence. If most of that increase in AI intelligence is reinvested by AI to make even smarter AI intelligence, the machine to human ratio the will rise.

At some point AI intelligence exponentially explodes to a level vastly beyond human intelligence (the ‘singularity’). Along this path, we can expect that the ratio between machine and human intelligence will result in a further increase the share of AI intelligence in the net output until human intelligence is no longer a significant or relevant factor.

The end game of AI arrives once human intelligence is no longer a relevant factor in technology, government, resource allocation, investment, etc., so that thinking, information, solving problems, analyzing data for patterns is no longer primarily carried out by human beings.

After the singularity, human beings might occupy a world where human intelligence no longer shapes or defines their world. Their lives and choices are in the memory and sub-directories of machines. After all human beings are a collection of particles and an advance AI might rationally believe those particles are put to better use by using them to make paper clips or fiber cables or memory boards.

Given this potential, does it make sense to invest resources to regulate the development of AI? Are the arguments that apply to the capital/income ratio applicable to the machine/human intelligence ratio? Should work be done to calculate this ratio, to monitor it, and to guard against a tipping point beyond which human intelligence is reduced to close to zero?

We have spent most of our time worrying about divisions within the society of human beings as if that society can never have a substantial challenger. Such species exceptionalism is an example of the hubris that history teaches is the ultimate undoing of all great leaders and empires. We try to think of a situation where the difference between members of the species is not the primary concern but the survival of the species is. It seems too far away for most. Remote like climate change or science fiction, we smile and move on.

We hear the canary in the mineshaft but we don’t believe he’s calling our name. Stephen Hawking understands the risk. He’s raised the alarm. The biggest crime story of all times is to ignore that warning and continue on with the day-to-day politics, crimes, injustices and unfairness putting off the day when we all get mugged and turned into paper clips.

William Shakespeare observed what it takes for kinship to take hold: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  Earthquakes shake the ground under our feet. They spare no one. The same result may be the fate for our children and grandchildren once AI goes FOOM. And there lies the irony, we are fated to experience kinship when it is too late to celebrate and enjoy the recognition of our common bond.

Posted: 5/8/2014 8:53:38 PM 

 

Beagle Sailing Lessons for Writing

I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the other from the world of academia.  This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to put my thoughts down for other writers.

I believe every writer develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.

I am also asked ‘How do you go about writing a book?’  Another question I am asked is closely related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’

We genuinely seek satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks about books and the writing process.  Not have the usual discussion about when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.

I will start instead with a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind of book should I write?

For me, I start answering this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle.  My first decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to work.

 

The Fiction Box

The first box the puzzle pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard decisions, and life-changing choice.

This is what I look for when I open the Fiction Box.

When I write a novel this is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane, explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality, attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their successes.

 

The Non-Fiction Box

The second box is also filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.

This is the Non-fiction Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.

When I open the Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence, facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a political party, or a life-style.

These are confirmation bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be ‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the evidence.

 

The Beagle Expedition


Charles Darwin

My personal role model, whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise. It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on 24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive for any writer.


The Origin of Species

Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab.  Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.

Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real world.

 

The Entanglements

What a writer is doing, whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things, ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up, entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of what is life.

Quantum physics is a good place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.

A writer needs to sign on to his own private Beagle and set sail.

A writer needs to take time to observe, record, and search for connections.

A writer needs passion. A book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the entanglements a plausible story.

Ultimately what readers look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.

Readers hunger for meaning and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.

 

Buddhist’s Lessons for Writers

Buddhism offers several lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with fear.

 

Non-attachment

A central theme of Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts, emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag, a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved their internal conflict.  My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go. Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom you are trying to please?

You think that it is you. But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants  you to be perfect and have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before you are allowed to take the next step.

When you write you sometimes reach a dead end.  Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words. Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away. Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or being less than perfect.

 

Unpredictability

Another important tenet of Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no intrinsic sense.  Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the next.

If your characters are too predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she is in good hands.

Specifically this means you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.

Predictability like control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking, and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with mirrors.

Learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes, there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them altogether.

 

Self

The last of the Buddhist lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’ is an illusion.

For a writer, the concept of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else, is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see in the mirror.

There are a couple of problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a ‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for perpetuating our sense of identity.

The act of writing requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes, jealousy, and desires.

Once that happens it is possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away. He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.

Our overwhelmingly powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle ship journey into the unknown.

Darwin didn’t set out on the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of opinion.

The point of this essay, is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of ‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go exploring.

This is a look into my writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the process works.  I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion. Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage. Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own personal Beagle.

Posted: 5/1/2014 8:59:10 PM 

 

 

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