Archive November 2014
|The Astrologer’s End Game
I’ve been thinking about
the current government’s plan for Thailand to create a digital economy, AI and
H.P. Lovecraft. Digital is a magic word. It is a talisman for progress and
development like Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy and other of the upper case
words that fly past in the sentences we read every day.
You may have missed the
news cycle where the prime minister announced Thailand’s plan to enter the
digital economy. There are a number of contradictions in such a plan not least
of which is that internet freedom is ranked as ‘not free’ and
Thailand is lower than Burma. You might say those are minor details to be
worked out later. Or you might think if your substituted digital for air
transport economy, with the caveat that all authorized aircraft are barred from
Thai airspace and offenders will upon landing will be arrested. It’s too early
for an analysis of the specifics of what Thailand would need to adjust for a
digital economy to work. It is, however, a good time to look at the larger
context of the mindset inside the digital economy and where cultural, political,
social as well as economic implications that lie ahead.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s world,
the digital economy is one more milestone leading to our eventual extinction.
Biology, ecology and technology merge in our little tango until reaching a final
climax when the music stops. That end is far down a dark future road. For the
here and now, the question is more immediate—how does a country and a culture
move without great disruption to its core moral values, myths and legends from
an analogue society to a digital one? Or can the disruption to the existing
cultural infrastructure be limited or contained?
In other words, what
resources in terms of education, research and development, incentives and
mindset must be changed to ease the transition from one type of economy to
another? The information is written in the stars. The difference that matters is
in the process used to extract that information. Astrologers have extracted
information from the stars long before the digital age. In the scientific
age of algorithms, big data and space missions, involve the use of different
tools, training, skills and language from those used by a fortuneteller.
There are costs involved any time a culture moves from astrologers’ predictions
to the international, post-Enlightenment world of scientists speaking to each
other in complex mathematical equations. You can launch a government policy by
announcing it. But to change a cultural mindset requires more than a public
Most of us go about our
lives flitting between mental states that are not unlike goal posts on a
football field. One end is the rational, deliberate, analytical end zone where
uncertainty and ambiguity over whether you’ve scored a real goal is elusive, and
at the opposite end someone like an astrologer is the goalkeeper. At that end
zone are the absolutes, myths, fables, legends, the sacred, where there is never
a doubt. Our feet are on the ground but we long to experience a sense of
transcendence, freedom from doubt, and glue to bond a large community. An
Astrologer’s culture delivers such goods and that’s what makes them endure, a
lot of people want exactly these things.
In between is the playing
field where teams from both sides huddle, call plays, throw passes and where the
highest achievement is to score an on-side goal. Logos and Mythos are the opposing
The Logos side, the
‘reasoned discourse’ is based on doubt and predictions on a testability and
repeatability of a set of facts that are falsifiable by any independent
observer. It embraces the Darwinian world in which 99.9% of all species go
extinct, and that will include us. High priests lift a shield manufactured from
authority, fable and dogma to protect such a bleak future. Science fields the
logos team. Their players are coached on a diet of facts and logic. They enter
the game not with an answer but with questions. They are hypothesis creators,
tentative, and comfortable with ambiguity. In their playbook, they move down
field accepting that in a state of ignorance and chance, nothing is certain.
Like Dr. Spock, they are offended by arguments tainted by emotional or
irrational premises that aren’t falsifiable. Science can partially lift the veil
of ignorance before it falls again on hard questions for which there is no
certain answer. Consciousness, dark matter, and dark energy are contemporary
examples that most scientists throw up their hands and confess ignorance. Of
course, there is hand waving by a few but that will never pull down the science
goal post. Logos gives you a card with this written on it: You’ve cleared the
maternity ward and ahead is an exit that doubles as the crematorium door. For
the duration of that journey, you can accept the handrails of dogma or accept no
one has truthful answers to the big questions.
In your time between those
two doors you will be in a free fall. As John Gray writes in the New
Statesman about Lovecraft, we may have
to face that we occupy a universe that is nothing more than lawless chaos. There
is no parachute. There is no safe place to land. Mythos shields us against such
a terrible reality.
The Mythos side shelters
under a large tent populated by spiritualists, religious believers, astrologers,
shamans, faith healers, magicians, palm readers, New Age people, artists,
dropouts and the authoritarian minded who place priority on a number of
values—authority, hierarchy, loyalty, purity, security, and faith.
By tradition, a high
priest wouldn’t tolerate being contradicted, questioned or his authority
doubted. His word and precepts embody the absolute truth. Inside this universe,
the mind of man reigns supreme. Until the Greeks came along logic at least in
elementary form likely existed but it was hardly a cultural necessity. The role
of Logos accelerated around five hundred years ago with the Age of the
Enlightenment. The impact it had the West saw dramatic political, social and
economic changes. In the East, there was drama but most of it couldn’t be traced
to the Enlightenment. People, whether from the West or East, possess the same
basic computing wetware in their skull. How they process information is part
culture and part hardwired. Research suggests that we are predisposed to Mythos
no matter where we come from.
The digital economy the
Thai Prime Minister wishes to kick start in Thailand is a modern product born
from the scientific tradition. The Mythos cultural ownership over ideas,
explanations and proofs act like the dark matter, as scaffolding for in the
digital world. Logos represents, based on this metaphor, 5% and Mythos 95%
of the human mind. Our rational, logic mind is the mahout on the back of the
unconscious, irrational mind. Both Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking,
Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The
Righteous Mind make this point.
Mythos has a different
card: Your faith and belief are your parachute, strap it on, and whatever you do
when one of those free fallers appears along side, ignore him because you have a
safe landing ahead. It is difficult to organize, lead and field an army
based on the elegance and beauty of a mathematical equation. While debate, words
and equations are the arsenal of Logos, Mythos uses hate and anger as a prelude
to inflicting violence and to redact all evidence of violence and the officials
doing the dirty work from the public record. The history of Mythos is a long
chronicle of blood letting and violence. The release by the US Senate Select
Intelligence Committee of a 500 report documenting torture by the CIA has
exposed that underneath the myths, fables and legends of American democracy and
ethics masked a much darker side, one that leverages cruelty, brutality, and
lying in the name of freedom. Mythos hides the dehumanization carried out on an
industrial scale inside dungeons, torture chambers, Black sites, and detention
centres. (See New Yorker article: here)
In reality, we all have a
logos and mythos side. Knowledge and anti-knowledge, like matter and anti-matter
annihilate each other, and when you look around you see evidence of that mutual
destruction most places that you look. But no one should be smug and feel they
are above the fray. Would you buy a condo unit on the 13th floor of a
building given there were comparable units on the 14th and
12th floor? Do you have a lucky charm you carry, although you might
not call it that?
Ultimately a choice has to
be made. The two worlds start from different premises. But there are also lots
of overlaps that don’t look like an overlap until you examine it closely. When
Logos seeks to legitimatize a practice borrowed from Buddhism the mindfulness
movement turns to science for validation. (see
Here) Faith in
science isn’t the same as science which makes narrow claims about the known
physical world and processes in that world. Borrowing the ‘science’ label as way
of giving a Logos explanation for a diet, vitamins, exercise or mindfulness is a
way to distinguish it from religious ‘faith’ but substituting science for
religion doesn’t dilute the fact it remains faith driven.
When either Logos or
Mythos attempts to validate its borrowing from the other tradition, it usually
manages to alienate both sides. There lies the conundrum for leaders in
countries such as Thailand who wish to preserve the heart and soul of Mythos
while at the same time creating a Logos based economy. We may not be capable of
making such a choice and will remain divided until a super-intelligent AI
decides we are more bothersome and more trouble than we are worth and turns our
atoms into paperclips.
Because of our cognitive
limitations and biases we are easily manipulated and our senses easily fooled.
We want to believe that those who say they know are speaking the truth. We want
to believe some people can tap into magic. There is a software app that has been
developed to play on this vulnerability. It’s called Phoney and like any good mind-reading
card trick convinces you that it has read your mind. (See
here) We are
suckers for sleight of hand. Conmen, illusionists, magicians, politicians, and
others know the dirty little secret that fuels Mythos—we love theatre, mystery,
the unexplained super-human feat that makes us sit in awe, believing the person
in front of us, or the app on our screen, has tapped into some magical cosmic
The fear, among some
quarters, is that an intelligent AI can become the ultimate shaman by exploiting
psychological and mathematical principles that create the illusion of reading
our minds. Would such a superintelligent AI shed Haidt’s elephant (the
unconscious brain and the behavior attributed to it) in favor of the mahout, the
elephant rider, the Logos? Some very clever people looking at the existing state
of artificial intelligence believe we may never create a ‘superintelligent’ AI.
While others, equally as brilliant, have faith this will happen in our live
times. (see: Vanity
Fair,Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial
Intelligence) Opinion is divided on
the potential to realize intelligent AI. Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in
the field writes that those worried about super intelligent AI are creating
a “religious narrative that’s a version of the Frankenstein myth.”
Researchers and thinkers
like Nick Bostrom apply probability analysis to the problem and conclude there
is more than a negligible probability of a ‘superintelligent’ AI coming into
existence. The fear is that unless development protocols are agreed upon to
restrict and control (or delay) development (at least to those outlined in
Asimov’s three laws of
intelligent AI could present an existential threat to our species. Those who
worry about an uncontrollable AI are like betters at the track. In a horse race
the probability is the long shot won’t win. However, if the race is run enough
times, a long shot will ultimately win. It’s not faith but a high mathematical
probability that sooner or later intelligent AI will enter the winner’s circle.
There is enough time to give policy makers breathing room to implement rational
decisions and deploy remedies to prevent the catastrophe scenario of an
unfettered ‘superintelligent’ AI.
Why an existential threat?
Because evolution would no longer serve as the base for ‘natural selection.’ The
increased intelligence, if such a thing arises, may operate on a different basis
of recursive self-improvement, change and transformation. AI relationship with
natural being may be radically different from our own and every other species
that has evolved. We can’t image how and who will play this game, their rules
and goals. We can hardly imagine our own world beyond what we currently know as
Logos and Mythos leaving a trail of artifacts, murders, and victims. Crime
authors, like science fiction authors, follow that trail.
Cultures and societies are
also divided and split along the Logos and Mythos playing field. It’s no
surprise that sports mad America provides the daily news cycle with reports of
who has scored the latest goal. In most sports, there is no ambiguity; one side
won, the other side lost. The goal post defenders, write columns, run for public
office, own and operate TV stations, newspapers and blog sites. Look around you
and ask yourself if someone were looking at your favourite blogs and websites
which goal post they thought best represented your psychological and cognitive
self? Make an edit. Ask your children, spouse, family, colleague, friends,
whether they consider you a logos or mythos person? You can ask yourself, but
will you give yourself an honest answer?
Next unpack the last
24-hour cycle of digital artifacts—the blogs, tweets timelines, Facebook posts
and comments, blogs, essays, news articles, headlines, and photographs. I
pretend to myself that I am up to date, informed member of the digital elite.
The truth is I’ve skimmed a small thumbnail of the surface of the daily
information. I am like one of the tourists on jet-skis rented from the local
mafia, zooming across what appears to be the open sea of information. At the end
of the day I end up back on the same beach, turn in the jet-skis, and stare at
the vast ocean knowing I’ve not really gone anywhere, I come back to where I
was, staring at a huge sea in front of me, with someone from the mafia claiming
damage to his jet-skis and demanding money. Then it occurs to you. This is
theater. We are involved in a complex drama and like most extras who have
noaccess to the script, we only know the bits that are fed to us and from that
we believe we have the whole drama in our heads. Science gives small, narrow
answers to precisely formulated questions to answer what is the physical world
made from and how the processes shape that formation. But science doesn’t have
an answer that explains everything.
Theatre, novels, plays,
art, music and dance are our theater. I write novels—intellectual submarines for
the literate class—and create a theatre of the mind. Inside that mind are
explanations for everything. It’s why we create and patronize the arts. It is
from us, about us and serves important social and psychological needs. But I
also recognize that oceans all of us, author and reader, seek to explore are
infinitely large and the range of submarines small. I also have great respect
for the scientific approach that is the modern logos model. Do I wish for
economic and technological management, questions of climate change, resource
exploitation, inequality, and injustice to be part of the mythos theatre? Not
unless I am willing to live with the consequences of gross mismanagement,
incompetence, and pogroms. Given the level of development, the great
transition that creates so much hatred and fear on the old playing field has
shifted. Logos has created a technological revolution that is taking
Mythos out of the explanation of life game, make it a bystander, another face in
the stands, a non-competitor.
Those on mythos side
aren’t going to hang up their jerseys and leave the field quietly. They rail
against the Lovecraft implication that extinction spares no species, including
ours. They have the numbers on their side worldwide, and they are pushing back
in the Middle East and Asia and America. In this theatre we watch the
players come on stage as hostages, beheaders, suicide bombers, children
soldiers, and warlords, and we watch the old elites believing the old magic
based on mystics and superstitions will continue to work the levers of stability
The question isn’t really:
How does one go about creating the basis for a digital economy in Thailand?
Instead, it is how does Thailand plug into and participate in the existing
global digital economy? Consider that Freedom
House has concluded under its
Freedom of the Net Status category that Thailand’ net is ‘not free.’ As I noted
at the beginning, there appears to be a policy ambivalence, if not conflict, as
to role of the Internet in a digital economy.
The digital, technological
world connects creative minds to a certain cognitive inclination—one that is
critical thinking, authority challenging, mystical destroying, and superstition
busting mindset. It is also the side that accepts the mantra “I don’t know.” If
your culture is based on the assumption those in authority should be trusted
when they say, “I know” some cognitive adjustments will be needed for importing
the digital infrastructure for this new technology. The astrologers’ ethos will
need overturning at the highest levels.
Is there a workaround that
allows for the importing of the digital world without contaminating the users?
There’s a hard question. If it were narrowed to just technical and engineering
problems there wouldn’t be a problem. But that is an illusion; the inquiring
mind can’t be contained and when it looks down field, the crystal ball gazers
find a direct threat to their mythical world. As an old uncle used to say, a
time comes when you fish or cut bait.
There are storm clouds on
the horizon. How we will individually and collectively deal with them will
depend on the battle between the logos and mythos. The victor will get to write
the history of that game and whose goalposts were left standing. Meanwhile, in
Thailand, I expect an auspicious time and date will be announced for the launch
of the digital economy, and the funny thing is everyone, logos and mythos, will
agree that is entirely normal and fully to be expected.
Like most people, I have a
great deal of trouble comprehending very large numbers. We read that there are
between 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and a like number of
galaxies in the universe. How about Nonillion, Octillion or
Decillion? And at a dinner party
someone explains that we have 100 billion neurons in our brains and over 100
trillion synapses, and we can’t decide on whether to have a second helping of
rice. There are over a billion Chinese and over a billion Indians. They all want
what you have—car, air-conditioning, holidays to exotic beaches, restaurant
dining, iPhones, designer clothes and watches. But I have no idea what those
numbers actually mean.
That’s no surprise. Most
people have trouble with numbers, small or big. It may be that evolution never
intended for us to worry about numbers beyond our fingers and toes. That would
have been good enough in most cases. You go to the bank, take one of those slips
from a machine and look at the digital number displayed to figure out how many
people are ahead of you in the queue. We can do that pretty well. And because we
can figure out that simple math and how that translates into waiting time, we
have believed that we can handle numbers.
In reality, an
overwhelming number of us fail to appreciate that we have crossed a numbers
frontier and have entered a new terrain where the sheer size and complexity of
numbers are shaping our modern lives in multiple ways. From our personal
investment decisions to the deciding whom to vote for in an election , our
expectations from politicians, leaders, and policy makers are increasingly
connected with understanding the math than the personality behind the
The problem is how slow
advance in numeracy has left most of us at a distinct disadvantage in a modern
scientific age where probabilities, big numbers, and percentages test the upper
limits of our cognitive abilities. John Paulos’s classic book Innumeracy:
Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences sounded the alarm more than twenty-five years ago.
This brilliant book remains widely read and cited, but if anything, innumeracy
has increased during the period since it was published and the world of huge
numbers has proliferated like a third-world dictator’s watch collection. Numbers
only tell part of the story. It is numbers combined with our illusion of
superior wisdom that makes for a toxic brew. In other words, rather than being
humbled by numbers we can’t understand, the opposite seems to happen—we become
more dogmatic and certain.
A few examples will show
the nature of our insoluble problem.
psychology professor David Dunning was part of the duo who came up with the
effect. This happens to be one of my
favorite cognitive biases. Not a day goes by without witnessing countless
examples of unskilled people, officials, politicians, pundits, leaders display
their illusion of superiority in knowledge, vision, policy decision making,
predictions, and advice. They mistakenly rate their ability as superior and
expect others to share that illusion. The fact they can’t recognize their own
ineptitude is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Professor Dunning is back
with more damning evidence of how this illusion of superiority is alive and
well. Managers and supervisors rate their managerial skill, and then employees
and peers rate the managers and supervisors skill. Guess what? There is no
correlation between the two ratings. Managers psychologically can’t resist
overrating their skill and talent, as they believe their view isn’t an illusion
but an objective fact. That makes sense as CEOs and managers are paid because a
board of directors also believe the top dog has superior managerial skill and
cuts them large pay cheques for sums we only vaguely can comprehend. Professor
Dunning’s research unearthed that 32% of engineers in a software company and 42%
in another such company believed they were in the top 5% in terms of skill and
The illusion persists for
a couple of reasons: people fail to be honest about their weaknesses and their
identity is linked with their strengths minus the weaknesses. Point out a
weakness of anyone and watch the psychological defense mechanisms kick into
place faster than a North Korean reply to a UN Human Rights Commission
Here’s the executive
summary: We are bad at big numbers, we have huge egos and monumental sized
vanity shields protecting us from our weaknesses, as we go about the daily tasks
of misclassifying, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. We bring
these cognitive resources and biases to forming opinions on a wide range of
issues from climate change, health insurance, and the risk being killed in a
terrorist attack. Add the ideological filters and the realm of numbers become
entangled with our belief system, representing what we wish the world to be
rather the world as it is.
It gets worse. Those who
earn their living based on getting the math right, mostly get it wrong. Check
the record of economists predicting inflation or deflation, unemployment, market
trends, and you see the fingerprints of Dunning-Krueger Effect all over the
Excel files. Economists failed to predict the global financial crisis in 2008.
(see here) In the world of casinos and
professional gamblers they would have gone bust; but in the world of economists,
we are left to think that Pinocchio must have been a fable about an
Religion is a great place
to bring perspective to the abstract idea of big numbers. Let’s leave the
rarefied atmosphere of billions and trillions and drop down to the lower levels
of tens of thousands. We still have trouble dealing with numbers of that size.
Wikipedia has a page informing us that
there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. That’s not a misprint. There
are, according to Wiki, 41,000 different Christian denominations. Not
41,000 denominations of all religions, this is just the Christians. Do you have
any idea how big the number 41,000 is? Visualize a traditional Thanksgiving
dinner at your house and let’s say you’ve squeezed in 23 relatives around a
table. You can’t breathe for all the body heat generated around the table.
Twenty-three people around a communal table is a large number but one we can
comprehend. But compared to Christian denominations, 23 is a mere rounding off
error. Even in small numbers people disagree about many things. So it should
come as no surprise that Christians are forever disagreeing on the nature of
Jesus, virgin birth, no virgin birth, what are curse words you can and can’t
use, whether the pope can turn out any doctrine he wants and call it god’s
Does anyone believe that
there are 41,000 ways to use a hair dryer? Or cook an egg? Or make soap? Or
manufacturing cars? Or cleaning a monkey’s cage at the zoo. Anyone who held such
a belief would be hauled off as insane, eccentric, unstable, or a fourteen-year
in his locked room behind a computer screen. But when it comes to religion, we
shrug off our insanity awareness detector and accept this state of disagree on
all matters concerning exactly who is and what he stands for and what he would
accept as right and wrong, a Christian god.
Scientists never say there
are 41,000 competing theories of gravity or general relativity or 41,0000
versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. No there is just one theory and a
handful of rival hypothesis. We seem to be able to cut big numbers down to very
small number only if what is at stake can be measured and repeatedly tested
countless times and each time the theory survives being falsified. That doesn’t
mean a theory can’t be overturned or modified, only so far our theory of
gravity, general relativity and evolution describes a testable
Fantasies are not
testable. Religious beliefs are not testable. You can fill in the logical
connection. This is why religious dogma, stories, beliefs can last for thousands
of years. They can never be disapproved but every few years someone comes along
with a new belief of what Jesus meant by what he reportedly said hundreds of
years before it was actually reported. That is an advantage that religion
enjoys. Like in writing any story, there will be fans, critics, and detractors.
It just so happens the fan base for the Christianity story has spawned tens of
thousands of slightly different understandings that makes its story superior and
more true than the others. Dunning Krueger Effect is in the fine point of
dogma, too. We can avoid it even when thinking about the afterlife.
Back to the number of
41,000 and what it says about us, how we count things, divide up things and
ideas, and base all kinds of assumptions on an abstract number. What makes for a
great deal of disappointment and disillusionment is our inability to question
our illusion of superiority. We compound that weakness with our cognitive
inability to understand big numbers or to employ techniques like probability
analysis, and critical analysis of measuring and testing.
We are locked into the
cognitive prison cell of the Dunbar Number. 150. That is the number of people we
can have a social relationship with. That number has remained constant over the
time of our species. We are a small number species. We just haven’t faced up to
the fact. There are a handful of people who get the big numbers. But teaching us
is like instructing a chimp in playing poker. We can’t keep our cards straight
or the cards played by those sitting around the table.
In terms of number
comprehension, we’ve created advanced technology that is beyond our capacity to
understand. We are constantly hitting the upper limit 150. You needed the brain
for many things. Like most primates our social habits are based on mutual
grooming in a band. Each one of our ancestors picked the fleas off others in
those hard to get places. All of the evidence suggests that we are better flea
pickers than stock pickers. We’ve hit a numbers wall. The problem is scaling.
Number comprehension that worked perfectly well for flea pickers breaks down in
a complex, interconnected world occupied by billions of their
This doesn’t mean that
only highly competent mathematicians should be allowed to vote, make
predictions, or form policy; what it does mean is that our modern world is
slipping out of our comprehension. Artificially Intelligence (AI) ultimately
(2050) will come into its own because nothing short of advance intelligence will
be able to make sense of the numbers emerging from Big Data. AI promises to
calculate without the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We will see about that.
Alternatively, we might
never get to the AI intelligent machine stage. In places like the USA where a
new congress is riddled with anti-science, innumerate representatives, we may be
witnessing a return to a culture where the highest value is placed on the
ability to pick the fleas off a neighbor, who keeps count and returns the favor.
But with those billions of Chinese and Indians that may prove to be a lot of
fleas to keep track of.
|Losing Your Breakfast/Losing your Privacy: A story of one man’s loss in Bangkok
I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly dismissive of timeline photos and stories people post about food. If I really come clean, I’d say that my bias against such foodie photo/opinions/revelations has created an unearned sense of superiority. You’d never find me posting a photo of food, I tell myself. Until one Tuesday evening in November in Bangkok, that is. Here is my food story with accompanying documentary evidence, which appears required if you are going to tell a food story. In any event, while chance sent me free food, I am paying a large price in now admitting myself into the circle of those who post stories about food.
I boarded the MRT from Sukhumvit Station around 9.45 p.m. Tuesday night, 18 November 2014 (details are important for the archive). I was on the last escalator leading to the train platform. I had noticed a farang immersed in a cellphone conversation and taking his time. I rushed past him sensing that the train might be there (most of the time I am wrong about that), running down the escalator to find the train waiting, doors open. I ran and slipped inside. About four steps behind was the guy who’d been on his cellphone. The doors were closing. It’s like one of those horror movies. The inevitable closing on someone’s hand and foot. He struck his hand in the door for leverage and his foot, too. Both were wedged in the door of the train as it was closing. But the MRT doors are unforgiving. He struggled but managed to remove his foot.
At the same time before he floated away into nothingness, he left us a legacy of his existence: a plastic bag with bananas (2), yogurt (2) small milk (1), and a small box of Special K* cereal. This legacy (pictured above) managed to squeeze through the inner door. It was a battle he realized he was going to lose. He shook his hand free of the door. We locked eyes in that very moment. I felt I was watching a rough cut of George Clooney suited up in Gravity as he pushed away from the space ship. Peter, like George, had performed his part of the drama and now nothing was left but to push him into another time dimension outside of our vision. Let’s not get too overly dramatic, though. Unlike George Clooney, Peter had time to contemplate an alternative Plan B: either go back and buy the breakfast for a second time or call it a night and wait five minutes until the next train arrived.
From the contents of the plastic I concluded he’d not only lost his Wednesday breakfast, but there was someone waiting at home who had relied on Peter to bring breakfast home for him or her. I imagined a deep sense of disappointment descending on Peter’s household as he arrived empty handed, and offering up an original retelling of the “dog ate my homework” story.
As the figure of Peter trying to bravely smile as we saw him get smaller and smaller as the train gathered speed, all the Thais turned around in their seats. They were highly entertained by the farang missing the train but were at the same time slightly confused that his groceries had made it inside; well, almost inside, they were hanging, suspended chest high in the door. It was like a magic act. No one could take their eyes off the bag stuck in the door. Their brains were turning over, trying to process exactly what had happened.
I stood near the door, guarding the bag, wondering what I should do? I had one stop before I got off to walk home and not much time to make a decision. When the doors open, do I give the bag to who looks to be the poorest person in the car? It occurred to me that with the exception of my wife, I’ve never met a Thai who wouldn’t confess to a murder wrap before they’d eat something labeled: “Live Active Lactic Acid Bacteria Culture.” Beside the aversion to the yoghurt, the milk and banana would be of interest. But would giving it to one rather than another cause envy, may be a fight? I didn’t see any gardening tools so none of the passengers looked all that dangerous. But I decided, none of them looked hungry. Or poor. Then I thought, do I give to the motorcycle taxi guys outside my condo? No matter how many possibilities I couldn’t get over the Lactic Acid Bacteria problem I’d encounter. But it seemed an ethical violation to keep the food as spoils of a war left behind by a farang casualty in a battle with an MRT car door.
What would Calvino do? Or Mrs. Calvino (this is not a spoiler, only a possible long distance possibility in the deep future when Calvino, like Peter, leaves his food stuck in the door one too many times and decides it’s time to settle down with a woman who will see that he’s properly fed)? As it turns out, my wife was the one who fished out of the plastic bag a KBank receipts. One receipt had his name; his first name is Peter. I won’t embarrass him by spelling out his last name. If you know a Peter who banks at KBank who is his missing breakfast, let him know that I have it. It’s chilling in the fridge. He can pick it up anytime.
I had wanted to write about privacy and how that idea is dead. We are like one of those sad chimp mothers who continues to cradle the dead baby against her chest refusing to give into the reality of the situation. The two receipts Peter slipped into the shopping bag gave me a chill. There was not only his full name on the credit card receipt. There was also an ATM receipt showing a sizeable bank balance. How would he know the food would depart on a train without him? How would he sleep knowing someone on that train not only had his breakfast but his name, the branch of his bank and the amount of money he had on deposit.
This is a glimpse of how modern life has swallowed your privacy and spit it out on receipts. I am forever finding one in a pocket. I held a stranger’s two receipts in my hand. I don’t know him. But I now know a great deal about him. More than most people would be comfortable in confiding with a stranger. The ATM receipt was the equivalent of a privacy death certificate.
It couldn’t be more clear. Peter has no privacy, neither do I, and neither do you. Whether it is your Bank, credit card company, or any company you do business with, they can encode all or part of your personal information they’ve collected and they can sell, license, give, trade it, print it and distribute it, and profit from it. We’ve all lost much more than our breakfast. We’ve lost the right to put a receipt in a bag and lose it. The contents of Peter’s bag from the supermarket broadcast to the finder his private dietary choices and the financial details of his life. I feel I know a lot about Peter. In the future, we won’t have to lose our shopping bag to be in Peter’s situation.
Strangers are reading your life in the data you leave behind, the searches you make online, your emails, the articles and essays you read, and you are tracked in a hundred different ways. Google is a leading privacy slayer. I will leave you to contemplate two seemingly contradictory conclusions: We, our health, finances, politics, reading choices, desires, prejudices will never be lost to those who have access to the tools that allow for an audit. And secondly, We’ve all missed the train, leaving our identity stuck in a bag in the closed door. Take a long look. Peter’s you and he’s me.
*The keen eyed reader will have spotted the Special K box of cereal was sold past its expiry date.
The difference between a man with a big reputation and one with no reputation is very little. That is the stone I want to put in your shoe. This weekend, walk around the block with it a couple of times before you take your shoe off and throw the stone away. We are conditioned to believe a universe of difference exist between people based on their reputations. Of course it is another social construct drilled into our skulls, the wound healed up, and we don’t ever remember the operation that put it in our minds. But it is there, rolling around each time we see a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, someone on TV or in a movie, or read something on social media.
We are bombarded with reputation type advertisements. The advertisement often features is a smiling celebrity selling us a watch, perfume, a car or a cell phone. That person has a big reputation. The product or service he or she is shilling for benefits from the angel dust of the celebrity’s reputation. If his wife throws him out for infidelity like Tiger Woods or he shoots his girlfriend through the bathroom door like Oscar Pistorius, the ad campaign is cancelled and the connection is severed. Consumerism thrives on an ecology based on reputation.
People online are infinitely conscious of their reputation among their ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter. Slights, criticisms, and disrespect tarnish the highly polished reputation. People with a reputation, in other words, have something, in their mind, of great value that is to be protected and guarded. Reputation, like money, is a currency that buys the most precious of all commodities—social co-operation. We want to associate with people with high reputation. We want them as our friends, colleagues, family members, spouses, teachers, judges, politicians, policemen, generals, and sports figures. We want them to be heroes. We want them to be brilliant, kind, insightful, moral, and perfect. We demand the impossible and we reap the grief of disappointment when they fail us.
In Thailand, reputation, identity and face are rolled into a spiritual, sacred part of a person’s vital being. The cultural illusion is that face represents the essence of the person. Causing someone to lose ‘face’ in Thailand is dangerous. Case studies of people being stabbed, hacked, shot, knifed, strangled, dismembered, burnt or suffocated as a reaction to the loss of face would fill a small library. There seems to be a grim consensus that the victim is the one whose face has been destroyed and the dead face destroyer pretty much got what he or she deserved. Other cultures place an even more radical value on reputation or face, one that can extend to the entire family. For example, in some Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or runs away with her sweetheart against the wishes of her family, her relatives stone her to death in order to preserve the reputation of the family.
Reputation, gaining, maintaining or losing it, in other words, can be a very serious business. Social media has made fundamental changes to the reputation game. Those seeking to use their big reputation online find a battalion of anonymous snipers gunning them down every timeline and newsfeed. And ordinary people can overnight create a large reputation from a YouTube video or photograph of a cat or baby. Our definition of what it means to have a ‘big’ reputation is changing. Among the millions of people who instantly recognize Kim Kardashian’s ass, how many of them would recognize the face of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Literature’s face? For those who have gained their reputation status in the analogue world, the digital minefields (I am sticking to the warfare metaphors) are more than an obstacle they are a clear and present danger. Bring in the minefield sweepers, and that is what appears to be happening in many places. Freedom of speech has been a casualty of this digital war.
We are in denial that the right to a broad freedom of expression is in triage. We don’t want to confront that reality. As we know, denial is the first stage in the five stage of grieving. We shut it out and pretend that we are entering a tunnel of grief and there is no way out. This sense of denial has been working through our consciousness for a long time, as has the crude, clumsy and brute stuff at the hands of dictators and authoritarian laws; it has been chipped away by those who have been the greatest supporters of freedom of speech, and they’ve done this in the name of hate crimes. Freedom of Expression has been slimmed down to the bone by both sides of the political divide for their own ideological reasons. One wonders whether free speech remains capable to run a good race in the competition for ideas. Speech can be a nasty, dirty and hateful display by the worst of our species, attacking women, gays, blacks, fat people, ethnic groups and religion. For everyone who stands on a soapbox and challenges an official or government policy connected with torture, extra-judicial murder or corruption, there will be five people standing on a soap box in some dusty, fly-bitten slum attacking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
Authors are, as a class, as obsessed by reputation as much as the next person. You don’t have to look far to find one who falls apart emotionally over a ‘bad’ review, who lashes out as if the poison from the arrow shot into his reputation slowly causes his brain to unleash an unworldly howl. What readers (and most authors) forget is that a writer starts out with no reputation. She is an ordinary person sitting in a café, living off the dole, drinking coffee and writing Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, yes Virginia, started off as a nobody. After her reputation went off the charts into the realm of hyperspace-reputation, she penned a mystery under another name because she wished to escape her ‘reputation’ to prove that she could write a successful, well-received book without her ‘big’ name on the book. Of course The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Appeared like another guppy in a large school of guppies. Then word leaked out that it was written by ‘big’ reputation Star Fish named J.K. Rowling and it stood out in the aquarium, going on to become a huge international bestseller, confirming what we all ready know—we buy on reputation. We live and die on reputation. We are conditioned by birth to vote, love, kill, give and condemn based on someone’s reputation.
B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, saw people as malleable and easily shaped by positive tools like money rewards and negative reinforcements like shaming, shunning, or confinement. Skinner called our ability to be manipulated through rewards and punishments ‘operant conditioning.’ Consumerism exists because of this flaw in our collective character. We are insecure as to our identity, what is of value, what is worth living and dying for, that we are ripe to be manipulated by the big reputation gods that walk among us.
There are abstract ideals we believe people have the free will to choose—integrity, morality, ethics, or motives. When someone is attacked for corruption, wife beating, drug addiction, meanness, pettiness it diminishes their reputation. There are defamation laws to protect reputation. And in Thailand there are not just civil laws, but criminal defamation laws that will send someone who attacks another person, say for human trafficking, to prison. The state is enlisted as a protector of individual reputations. Reputation is these cases overrides facts that support the person was a fraud or charlatan. Criminal defamation makes them bullet proof; facts and evidence bounce off the plaintiff’s chest like bullets hitting superman.
Freedom of expression is important as a way to keep reputations from becoming bloated, overblown and dangerous lies. Much like there are drug testing laws that seek to protect us from ingesting drugs that will kill us, free speech allows us to expose the lies and deception and half-truths that poison a society. We all know this and agree to it in principle. We accept that those in the public eye, who have established a high reputation, are vulnerable to false accusations, slanders, and hate.
The question is whether we can tolerate the damage done by trolls, the haters, and psychos as a fair price to be exchanged for freedom of expression?
The reputation marauders pump cluster bombs to blow up reputations; they work around the clock on thousands website, blogs, gossip columns, and chat room. We love talking about ‘big’ reputation people, and one that has run over a cop, cheated widows and orphans out of their meager savings, or shot his girlfriend, is all over the news. The Germans have a great word for this moment as the reputation crashes and burns: Schadenfreude. You think you’re such a big shot, look at yourself in the mirror now. You see, you’re no different than the rest of us. Like my opening sentence, there has never been any other than imagined difference. But our imaginations create the balloon and marvel and cheer at its destruction.
That is the problem. We want freedom of expression without paying the piper. We think free means without costs. That is nonsense. But we accept so much nonsense and lies why should our skewed view of free speech be any different?
Some of the most honest writing you will read comes from writers before they had a reputation. Three such writers are Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and George Orwell. All of them were down and out and wrote about what life looked like when they had nothing but their wits, talent for insight, the observational skill, and with nothing in terms of reputation to lose. You learn from reading Bukowski what it’s like to be stopped by the police when you are a nobody and a drunk. He conveyed our worst fears of terror, humiliation, and helplessness; how they taste, how they stink and stick in our crawl. They reek like stale beer and cigarette smoke from Bukowski’s work. He not only understood fear, Bukowski could express that fear in words. He understood your fear, my fear and all of those around us. We are afraid that without a reputation anyone can do whatever they wish to you, violate you, beat you up, run over you, take your property, your wife, children, dog and there is bugger all you can do. So long as the actor has a ‘big’ reputation and there are no witnesses, and you have none, you are toast. It is your word against his. Good luck.
From Henry Miller, you learn the mental resources that are needed if you are a nobody and want food, drink or a place to flop in Paris. Miller lived among artists, the dreamers, the adventurers and wanderers, and he had an inner confidence that he’d be a somebody one day. He wrote about being a writer with a dream. But a dream doesn’t even rise to the level of a reputation. And we’ve already established a reputation is an abstraction, a social construct, and a fiction. Miller drove himself with booze and cigarettes and adrenaline to write a book that would convert him into a ‘big’ reputation man. Tropic of Cancer did that for him. And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, you find in this book no romance in poverty and obscurity. Orwell went to the extreme. From Eton to the slum in order to experience how the class with no reputation existed. And he left us with a lesson—it wasn’t class but reputation that drove our manipulation to our high reputation overlords. Money was always part of the deal, a big part, but to keep it and expand the bank account, a man or woman needed a reputation to act as the armed guards against the anonymous who asked awkward questions about wealth allocation.
You can read Bukowski, Miller and Orwell (and of course there are many others, too) as sending signals from the pages of their novels and memoir to the rest of us that life without a big reputation behind it is a slow fuse that will sooner or later blow you into oblivion. Being anonymous, a no name person, like a no name brand, translates into a sense of worthlessness. Who wants to think of themselves as having no value? We are conditioned, in a B.F. Skinner way, to believe our value must be measured by the value of other people’s reputation. No matter what you’ve accomplished or done, just remember there will inevitably be someone who has done what you done by the time they were twelve years old and accomplished ten other grand things by the time they are thirty, and so it goes.
It’s a competition game you can never win. It’s also a con game. If we forget about reputation, then on what basis can we trust our judgment to rely on someone else? You need a leap of faith—the belief that most people are decent, honest, reliable, and kind and a big reputation is no guarantee that the holder has any of those qualities. You likely know lots of people who fit this bill who aren’t ‘big’ reputation people in the public commons. That’s always been the wrong place to look. They are closer to home, in your neighborhood, your office, and most of them are chasing the same things we all are—security, fairness, comfort, pleasure, and friendship. They don’t need the big named public role models, they just need to have confidence in themselves there is very little difference between people and go forward in the world and act upon that insight.