Archive May 2014
|The Illusion of Understanding
People become uncompromising once their argument settles into a battle over who is right and who is wrong. Everyone wishes to be right. Arguing that your opponent is wrong only doubles their faith in their belief (Backfire Effect) and you are banished from their list of people who know the difference between right from wrong. Everyone is arguing over their positions, preference, values, and beliefs. Husband and wives, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We live in an angry, emotional time. And I am trying to get a handle on why this is.
One approach to comprehending the forces that have caused this intellectual dead end to control public debate is to ask a few basic questions:
(1) What do we really understand about an issue or policy?
(2) What knowledge do we have and where did we turn to find that knowledge?
(3) How complete and updated is our information? and
(4) What are the limits to our understanding of the underlying complexities of the system from which the issue emerged or the policy must be implemented?
Researchers have suggested that one problem is that we suffer from the illusion of understanding about how something works, say, a flush toilet or air-conditioning unit. They are familiar objects in our daily life. Because they are familiar we believe we understand how they work. That is an illusion unless you are a plumber or air-conditioning engineer. The illusion of understanding also applies in the political realm to policies on immigration, transportation infrastructure, health care, energy policy, climate change and so on. Given where I live and write, I am interested in the politics of change.
We read the headlines (though 66% of people don’t read newspapers). Most of our opinions on policy issues have a headline depth—a mile wide and inch deep. We believe though we know all there is to know about a preference or position from an 800-word story. We would begrudgingly admit there are a few minor details we might look up if need be, but we are pretty confident that our knowledge is solid and relevant. Our 800-word world of knowledge has prepared us for a policy debate, and we enter the battle over right and wrong with a brittle, dull blade and no shield. But we are confident that our weapons of knowledge will allow us to prevail and we emerge in victory, showing that we are right, and they—fools and charlatans, their reasons turned to ashes have been defeated.
That’s pretty much our world of political debate. We dive head first into a pool that is an inch deep and if possible close down the counter arguments made by people who are basically ignorant, know-nothing troublemakers. We need to convert them to the right side.
In utopia people come to their senses and realize that they lack an in depth understanding of a policy position. In the real world, we are ‘cognitive misers’ says BBC’s Tom Stafford.
Our cognitive vulnerability flows from two sources: first, we are lazy thinkers and would rather know just enough to lay down an emotional platform of support that plugs us into our community of like-minded believers.
Second, our headline knowledge gives us a feeling of familiarity about policy issue debate: it might be gun law restrictions, sending special forces to find school girls kidnapped in Nigeria, or the wisdom of a coup in Thailand. An audience of true believers will emerge with similar talking points. Slogans and talking points create a sense of real knowledge and of the familiarity.
An extremist position for or against a policy is almost always drawn from a slogan, talking point, headline grab that passes as reason or justification for why a position is right. This leads to conflict between people on the opposite side of an issue. They hurl reasons at one another. The other side sneers at the reasons from their opponents. Deadlock ensues, positions hardened, and violence begins to rear its ugly head.
Third, our mental processing of patterns, knowledge, and values is filtered through cultural filters. These biases can’t ever be overcome; they are our setting, channels, frequencies over which information is sent and received.
Danger and red flashing lights should be turned on once it is realized that our problem is our tendency to unquestioningly accept that our understanding is sufficient, good enough, to support high confidence in our position. That’s why it’s an illusion. It is also why it’s a contradiction. We deceive ourselves in believing our simple understanding is an accurate summary of how a complex system functions when we don’t understand the complexity.
Researchers have shown that politically polarizing positions rests on superficial understanding of the complexity of how policies work. When pressed we can’t explain how the policy functions in such complexity. We don’t have the information or breadth of knowledge needed to connect policy, policy outcomes, and the system in which policy sinks or swims. The problem with requiring someone with a polarized position to give such an explanation is that it threatens the black and white thinking. The hallmark of an extremist is one who refuses to undertake such an inquiry.
We need diverse information about systems, and that comes from people who see and experience the system in diverse ways. But diversity of explanations can be viewed as challenges or criticism. If you had true power, you’d close down those explanations that didn’t support your policy or actions. Here’s an example from my week.
I received an email from the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) this week about an event:
With absolute power, you can shutdown all public voices that probe for a deeper knowledge, and a broader explanation of the mechanism working inside the system. Asking a question can be viewed as an act of aggression. While a coup is unusual in most countries, the impulse to control policy making by keeping away from the deep waters of knowledge that may cause ‘confusion’ or ‘undermine authority’ is nearly universal.
In a research article titled “Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding” the authors started with the hypothesis “that extreme policy preferences often rely on people’s overestimation of their mechanistic understanding of complex systems those policies are intended to influence.”
Our understanding of policies remains stuck at the abstract, superficial headline level of reality. That understanding is disconnected to an inquiry as to how policies function inside the day-to-day system. The takeaway from The Political Extremism research is the conclusion that when people discover their illusion of explanatory depth, they moderated their opinions. They become less confident in supporting an extreme position.
How do we discover the illusion of explanatory depth has deceived us over whether a policy is good or bad? When asking someone about a policy, the trick is to refrain from asking them to give a list of their reasons to support their preference or position. But why not listen to their reasons? Because the probability is their reasons are degraded products built from inferior materials e.g., vaguely understood values, third-hand reports, talking points by leaders, opinion-makers, celebrities, and pundits they trust or admire, or form from the star dust of generalities that don’t require a great deal of knowledge.
The policies of airport/passenger security are a good example of polarized positions. The government claims its security/inspection policies are essential tools to fight terrorism. This is their reason for what we go through at airports when we travel, young, old, it doesn’t matter. The possibility of a terrorist boarding a plane with potential weapon is the headline reason that in a given year a billion airline passengers must remove their shoes, belts, watches, keys, coins, declare their iPads, laptops, Kindles, and leave behind any liquid more than 50ML.
Remember while you’re putting your shoes back on, and gathering up all the bits and pieces from the plastic tray, that in many countries, officials don’t check boarding passengers’ passport against a database of stolen passports. In a story about stolen and false passports in Thailand, The Guardian noted:
“Interpol’s database of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and the UAE (50m).”
Two passengers on the ill-fated MH370 flight that vanished without a trace (remember that?) boarded with dodgy passports.
Instead of confronting authorities who support the current airport inspection regime not to give their reasons for supporting failed security, we might ask them for a mechanistic explanation of the effects of its procedures, how those procedures were designed, how they have been subject to quality control, how system operators have been trained, how their skills are updated, what disruptions occur inside airport processing systems and how does the policy account for those disruptions. These aren’t questions of preference; it is an explanatory discussion of how inspection works, who works in that system, who supervises and updates, manages and is accountable in the system, the cost of the system (direct and indirect), and what outcomes the policy has produced.
Certain problems can only be resolved by a military solution. That is the use of force to remove an obstacle to the state’s interest and neutralize the threat of the obstacle being reinstalled. Most problems are political in nature and a military solution is ill-suited to serve as a substitute for a political process which is inherently civilian, with the military is only a component in the overall grand plans for governing.
Taking off your shoes at an airport and executing a military coup to overthrow a government are both justified on the basis of providing public security. Can one discover a rational link between these two very different situations in which security is invoked? We seek explanations as to why and to whom policies apply, how the policy targets were designed, detected, and detered, the process of implementation to assess security measures. All policies, including ones connected with security, ultimately must pass through the test of whether the operational filters reduce security threats. Are we, in other words, detaining the people who threaten security or people who ask questions about power arrangements?
People can argue all day and never persuade the other to change his view on the use of a military solution to resolve a certain conflict. Pro-intervention supporters would reason that the military as the last resort could be trusted where politicians are characterized as evil, corrupt and bad people. Anti-intervention supporters would reason that a democratic system can’t by its very nature emerge from a military dictatorship. And the two parties would go round and round in a debate, each feeling more confident the other person was insane and they’d been right all along.
Might there be another more promising approach, which might diffuse each opposing party’s fixed position based on the illusion of understanding?
There is. And it works like this. You ask the other person not for his reasons to support his position on a matter of government, resource allocation, energy or environmental programs, climate change, but you ask him to explain, step-by-step how the position he supports would define its policy and the goal or outcome it seeks to achieve. The Cognitive Miser Theory kicks in at this point. It exposes that the fixed knowledge of how something works, what it takes to make it work, how it breaks down or other limitations, is very shallow.
Finding a middle ground means that people learn to change their use of hearsay, values, and headline knowledge. The breakthrough comes with the realization that these elements promise the illusion of an ocean of truth but deliver a tiny, muddy pond. Rather than attack their policy (that won’t be productive), ask them to explain how the policy they support will bring about the outcome they claim will happen. Give us the specifics of how the policy is connected to and integrated with the larger system, and how that system will be modified, altered, updated and how someone can measure whether it achieved the intended outcome.
Remember that this approach to diffuse political extremism is a two-way street. No one thinks they hold extreme views; this is a label that we stigmatize others with. If you ask another person to take you along an explanatory tour of how the policy he or she supports integrates with the larger system and produces the outcome claimed, he or she may well ask you to do the same. Your explanation may also stall or fail, and you also realize the illusion of understanding doesn’t only rear its head from your opponent’s nest; it lives inside of you, too. That’s when both sides of a policy debate realize they both need to revise their understanding about the meaning, design and purpose of a policy; that it wasn’t as absolute and perfect as they thought and a compromise becomes possible.
Debating the illusion of understanding is an interesting idea. Unfortunately it can’t be raised until the possibility of an illusion is acknowledged. That acknowledgment is difficult to come by and that is core of the problem. Many people are frustrated because their minds are tuned (perhaps imprisoned is a better metaphor) to the easy ride they are accustomed to along the lazy mental landscape of illusions. Suggesting this is an illusion is to touch a nerve and the patient jumps a mile high out of his armchair. Anger and hate are the preferred anesthetic in dealing with the cognitive dissonance.
The discussion between those holding conflicting policy views and what steps are needed before we can go on that explanatory journey has been put on ice. But I write from the tropics where the ice, sooner or later, melts under the noonday sun.
“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
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
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
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.”
“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
“If people cannot write
well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do
their thinking for them.”
“Silence is the ultimate
weapon of power.”
―Charles de Gaulle
“Orthodoxy means not
thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
―George Orwell, 1984
|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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
|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.