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Blog Archive October 2014

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Lake Wobegon is a mythical town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor created this fiction place that is a shorthand expression for our human tendency to overestimate our achievements, talent, intelligence and skills in comparison with others. The thing to bear in mind is that in Lake Wobegon everyone living there is persuaded that the women are compassionate, strong, the men brilliant and good, the children obedient and outstanding. Above all, it is special as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” To the residents of Lake Wobegon, these shared views aren’t an overestimation of their capabilities but represent the absolute true picture of the people living in that place.

01

Garrison Keillor created this fictional place and its citizens entertained and informed radio listeners on NPR.  It touched upon a deep longing to be part of a community in a more simple, calm and happy time. To suspend disbelief is the first rule for a fiction writer. It is also a rule shared by politicians and state officials. To examine Lake Wobegon thinking helps us to understand what entertains us can also carry the seed of our worst nightmare.

It is difficult to persuade people to accept an opinion, point of view or fact that doesn’t confirm what they believe to be true or to motivate them to act as if persuaded. Whether it is selling a new cellphone or tropical holiday to Thailand, business people use marketing to create a comfort zone, which is non-threatening, and then make the product or service irresistible to their happiness. Billions of dollars are spent to persuade you to do something, buy something, believe in one thing and reject another; join a community, which offers you status and enhanced reputation because you share their view.

The persuasion may be an appeal to authority such as a holy book, a national tradition, a cultural artifact such as music. The Taylor Swifts, Brad Pitts, Jon Stewarts persuade and shape the attitudes, values and desires of their fans.

02

To persuade another person is an art. It takes interpersonal skill, the ability to present facts and arguments that are appealing. And what is appealing? In our late capitalist age, it is usually a product or service or set of policies or beliefs that we believe make our life more pleasant, happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable. Whether our life is actually better is another matter. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by others mainly because we wish to belong and be accepted by our social group, our family, our circle of friends, those we work with. We crave their admiration and respect and our lives are co-dependent of these people. We need them to co-operate with us, and we need to co-operate with them. In other words, behind our reciprocity, we run our lives on a software program labeled—persuasion.

The question arises: why is it so hard to persuade others about the merits and values of things or beliefs? This begs the question who we are trying to persuade. Most of the time we find ourselves having to make a case to someone who doesn’t share our view, say on climate change or freedom of speech or the value of Rolex watch compared to one bought from a street vendor or whether downloading illegal copies of a book is wrong. We have fundamental disagreements about such issues, products, policies, as we disagree over what is true, what is an illusion, and what direction any policy from education to police reform should take.

Persuasion isn’t always based on a hedonistic rainbow at the end of the pitch to sell a political candidate, laundry soap, wine, films or books; it can also be an appeal to values such as family, religion, morality, ethics, or fashion. We can argue from authority such as the Koran or the Bible, or we can argue from statistical data or the results of tests, polls, measuring devices, or observations where the results can be repeated and confirmed.

We click on ‘like’ when we signal our solidarity with a posting from one of our Facebook friends. The digital world has given us the ability to invent and inhabit our own Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” And if we make a mistake and befriend someone who doesn’t share that illusion, where he or she doesn’t belong and is sent into exile by the act of ‘defriending.’ Amongst friends the remedy is exclusion. The possibility of being ostracized remains a powerful punishment.

03

Little in the private relations matches the range and severity of penalties available to officials in the public sector. Governments have a monopoly of force and they can use weapons to make people afraid to challenge their authority, policies, and legitimacy. The state always has the ‘intimidation’ card up its sleeve if persuading you to stop criticizing their administration of Lake Wobegon. The police or army can force you to do something or to shut up, even though you would freely choose not to do so. Governments are always trying to cobble together Lake Wobegon and maintain the illusion that all of its citizens are happy together. It is a wonder, even after the abysmal history of past failed experiments at utopia, that such new attempts are launched, and the state officials believe it will be different this time.

The main feature of a Lake Wobegon culture and way of thinking is the fear of critical thinking by its citizens. If citizens can freely discuss among themselves the role of government, the limitations on power, and to set an agenda of priorities and policies. Those at the top of the political chain hate the idea of limitations, criticism, and dissent. When the town of 800 is scaled to cities with millions, the diversity of voices and conflicting beliefs and goals make the idealistic ways of behaving outdated. There lies the problem. The intimidation, use of coercion, and threats follows as the citizens start a public debate as to why Lake Wobegon is a mythical place. Officials who love Lake Wobegon do not take kindly to anyone who criticize the object of their love. It’s not so much a restriction of free speech, but their way to protect their beloved town and its good people. If that means sacrificing critical thinking, all right minded people would agree that this is a small cost to maintain Lake Wobegon as the ideal place where for all good, beautiful and decent people live in happiness. Critical thinking is a shorthand expression for the human capacity to process change—technological, political, social or economic. It is also a technique for testing statements, theories, and premises. Our brain operating system is designed to detect risks, opportunities, and inconsistencies. We update our view of the world as it changes before our eyes. The question that is never settled without anger, hate and blood is who should be in charge of making the changes.

Non-critical thinking is when you automatically accept what an official, a celebrity, a book or slogan says as true and legitimate. A Lake Wobegon culture works only when the citizens are a very small group of non-critical thinkers living in a changeless world.  The more people you have who use critical thinking to assess the effectiveness, fairness, and justice of systems and networks, the more likely you will have a lively public debate. The tension is between those who firmly believe that Lake Wobegon and all official versions of the place are perfectly ordered and fair and only troublemakers and discontents argue for the need for updates that take into account the nature and scope of change. Change versus non-change is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Some people fall off; others are pushed off. That’s the nasty bit that lies behind the curtain of the stage where Lake Wobegon is played out.

The heart of any human social, political or economic network requires a functioning system of co-operation. Without such a system, nothing works, and chaos and instability fill the void. The more rapid the technological change the more the change will destabilize the basis of co-operation. There is little time for consolidation as all energy is focused on the constant rebuilding of consensus. Whether it is Google driverless cars, or TV sets that record your conversations, the adaptation to new limitations to free will, privacy, and the growth of private and government surveillance requires our critical thinking.

We seek new and better ways to co-operate with each other. But co-operation takes resources, time, energy and good will—all of which appear to have been depleted in most places, including Thailand. We also seek new and better ways to defeat those who think differently from us. Both impulses, to co-operate and to defeat, usually results in people taking sides and doing whatever is needed to justify the actions of their side. This isn’t critical thinking. This is partisan posturing.

The problem is many people argue in favour of critical thinking but in reality most people fear it. They want their side to prevail and their thinking is devoted to making that happen. If we truly embraced critical thinking, we’d accept the implicit rate of change has accelerated and many of the old truths have been refuted. It is time to let them go. We didn’t evolve to be critical thinkers. Everything about our past shows it wasn’t very important. We lived, worked and died in an environment where change was quite slow. We could absorb the changes over hundreds of generations and make adjustment.

That time is gone. Lake Wobegon never existed except in our imaginations. We need to face the reality that we can’t return to the past. We live in a time of highly accelerated technological change and even the best minds employing critical thinking are finding themselves exhausted, unable to process fast enough before the next disruption occurs.

Posted: 11/6/2014 7:44:41 PM 

 

What Should We do?

In every age the same question is asked when a band, tribe, or nation is confronted by a challenge, dilemma or catastrophe. If we examine the historical record, the evidence suggests that this question has traditionally been answered by a consensus of the elites. Though a case can be made that in the last one hundred years the opinion of the masses has gradually influenced the answer. We have always had faith in finding an answer and moving on. Will this faith endure? There is a growing sense that it will not. We are entering an era of shattered faith in finding an answer to What Should We Do that has a broad based consensus even if we restrict the decision to those within the existing elites.

History has provided a handrail to guide successive generations. We are at the end of the handrail and nothing that has gone before can prepare us from the technological changes accelerating throughout all systems, cultures and civilizations. You will say, well that’s been said before, a thousand times before, by someone in every age. And you would be right. It has been said.

Cultural skirmishes, wars, aggressions and belligerence have changed as populations scaled to billions. Elites found effective means to harness the power of the masses to maximize industrial production and to provide manpower for armies. Elites battled one another over resources and markets and trade routes. Controlling these strategic points led to a dominion over other elites. History is a record of one set of elites bowing , or pretending to bow, to another,  one set of elites conspiring to betray one another—an account of elites fighting among themselves for power and authority. No victory was ever final. Over time the fate and fortunes of elites were never stable. The masses woke up to find new rulers and masters—newly constituted elites dictating who received an education, health care, jobs, benefits and security.

Democracy gave the appearance that the masses through trade union, social organizations, and elections could finally control and shape their own destiny. During the Great Depression, they had a say in answering the question: What Should We do? The welfare and benefit programs under FDR and the funding of mass education are a testament to their influence. The middle-class expansion followed, accelerating after World War II. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has documented the concentration of elite wealth and income and the destruction of the post World-War II middle-class. For a short period after World War II it appeared the middle-class would act as a counterbalance to the power of the elites. That has proved to be a fantasy. New technology has accelerated the creation of a pervasive and intrusive surveillance state that has made it easier to monitor undercurrents and apply preventive measures against potential challenges to state/elite interest. Constitutional and liberal safeguards that were the first line of defense against state abuse of power have been undermined. Technology has undermined political and economic structures in the span of a few decades, and there is no indication of this process slowing down. The result is that the middle-class in America is in the process of being dismantled as an effective political, economic and social force. The working class and middle class have been divided and conquered within. Their views on What Should We do are largely irrelevant. The reason is that workers, blue collar and white collar, are becoming irrelevant in manufacture, marketing and distribution of goods and services.

Modern elites, in the private and public sectors, have access to technology that does not require mass labor to be productive and competitive. The middle-class is losing what the working classes have already lost—bargaining power to negotiate a better sharing of wealth and income. Robots manufacture consumer goods. Machine intelligence creates software and algorithms. The elites need far fewer engineers, lawyers, accountants, or architects and in the future their numbers will continue to dwindle. As Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, has pointed out, we have had periods of thousands of years where very little in terms of tools and technology changed. Generation and after generation of people occupied the same technological world. If you could time travel a person born in 900 to 1100 or from 1100 to 1300 they would have seen pretty much the same world. Go back in time an over long stretches of time nothing much changed whether political, social, economic or technologically.

Now consider someone who was born in 1950 who now lives in 2014; her experience of life today is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the year of her birth. Our technological world from weapons, information, computers, communications, transportation and manufacturing systems have been dramatically altered. Evgeny Morozov observed in the Guardian that algorithmic regulations are the beginning of our colonization by technologists: “[Our] smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms?”

DNA storage breakthrough allows 700 terabytes of data in a single gram. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Miri) can now scan a single atom. A 3D printer can produce a metal handgun, car, or parts of a plane. Ultrafast low-power logic circuits from graphene by 2024. What will be her world when she celebrates her one-hundredth birthday in 2050? There is a not insignificant probability it will be a world dominated not by the traditional elites but by artificial intelligence. No one can predict the time when, the place where, or the forces that finally allow that final step to occur. It may be that enhanced human intelligence will create a new class of intelligent elites.

Not everyone agrees on the timing. Experts like Michael Jordan, one of the most respected authorities on machine learning, argues there has been too much hype and we are decades away from solving many of the hard engineering and mathematical problems. When asked when a machine will pass the Turing test, Jordan replied:  “I think you will get a slow accumulation of capabilities, including in domains like speech and vision and natural language. There will probably not ever be a single moment in which we would want to say, ‘There is now a new intelligent entity in the universe.’” Jordan’s slow start view depends on human intelligence staying at the current level.

Scientists like Stephen Hu predict in the near future the likelihood of tweaking human beings’ IQ to 1000. There are approximately 10,000 gene variations (alleles) in the brain that correlate to intelligence. We are on the path to optimization of these genes to maximize our cognitive potential. Prenatal genetic engineering will change intelligence perimeters prior to birth. As impressive as being ten times smarter than the average person is, an AI at super-intelligent levels is 100,000 to a million times faster, with better memory, better retrieval and access, and self-editing and correcting, being able to alter, update and evolve its operating system as it learns. At this point, the ‘measurement’ based on IQ is a bit like using a car’s odometer to measure the speed of light. It wasn’t created with the capacity to measure that level, and any reading is meaningless. It is not unlike the measurement problem faced in quantum mechanics that makes us question the utility of what we measure in the classical non-quantum world. All of our heritage, values, culture, language, and morality have an implicit assumption—it is premised on a normal or Gaussian distribution (think Bell Curve) of human intelligence.

It doesn’t matter where you live on the planet, today you can be certain that no one in your community has an IQ of 1000. The technological accelerator that is happening as you read this essay guarantees such a person will during your life exist. What will that mean? What should we do? Destroy that Gaussian distribution by creating one, a thousand or a million such individuals, and what happens to those premises that underscore your behavior, consciousness, the way in which you co-operate with others and process reality?

The great transition we have entered, one that technology is accelerating at a rate that we can no longer control or comprehend is leading to an AI that will be super-intelligent. Nick Bostrom counsels that we need to slow down technology until we can increase our own intelligence, and that is essential to understand the nature of controls necessary to restrain such a super-intelligence. This would require a degree of co-operation, consensus, and commonly shared values that have never before been displayed among the elites. This is the irony, as the elites have finally found technological ways to marginalize the masses, an AI system by 2050 is likely to have displaced human elites and for the first time in history, there will be no longer a distinction between the elites and masses. They will share the same destiny in a world where a super-intelligent AI won’t be influenced, guided or restrained in its actions by our ethics, values, interest, goals, or morality.

What Should We Do? That question will no longer be relevant or meaningful for our species. Elites and masses will have passed the final post where the sign reads: stop and think about future generations rather than quarterly profit reports. By then it will be what should we have done? And we will likely ask AI for the answer to that question as by then we will be dependent on seeking high level answers from AI. And what will AI reply? With a neural stimulation that gives us pleasure, happiness and steers our mental activity away from contemplating our old habit of worrying over the range of answers and scenarios that always left us uncertain, confused, insecure and unhappy.

If you read one book this year, make it Bostrom’s Superintelligence. The prose can be dense, abstract, complicated with jargon—the writing isn’t a model of elegance or grace. But it gets the job done. Like an executioner’s axe it delivers a dramatic blow. Superintelligence is no literary masterpiece but it may be something more rare—a prophetic vision of an existential inflexion point on the near horizon. It is a call for us to wake up. Watch the daily acceleration on your screen and ask yourself with the technological and political elites are waking up to the existential threat. These elites with their illusion of understanding and power, with their influence and the leverage of their wealth, are about to be blindsided, along with everyone else, by technology they’ve funded and celebrated. In the case of a hard or fast take off, no one will see it coming until it is too late. But Bostrom, at the end of this powerful book, remains an optimist. He believes we still have a chance to put the brakes on technological acceleration, and give ourselves breathing room to work out a slow take off which will allows us to put in places controls over AI. Once AI has a hard take off and becomes super-intelligent, it will be too late to control or regulate it.

Bostrom lives in Oxford, and I live in Bangkok. I know his world, I shared it, and came from it, but I can’t help but wonder if Bostrom lived in my post-coup world of Thailand if his optimism about the future would still prevail. If the small probability of super-intelligent AI emerging in the next decades comes about through a hard take off, humanity will likely inhabit an alien environment, existing inside a post-human intelligence controlled world. How would we know? Having been through a number of military coups, the usual routine is to run patriotic music on every radio and TV channel. It is likely to be different with when AI sends out its message. One morning you wake up and its not marital music playing on every YouTube channel but music specifically programed to match your mood from all those choices you’ve made for years, along with carefully crafted images linked to your school, family, friends and all the memories that make you happy and reinforce your personal identity. What we should do will no longer be a question anyone will ask other to anyone other than AI.

Posted: 10/30/2014 8:45:39 PM 

 

The Shadow of Freedom

Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.

From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.

The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.

There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.

As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”

“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”

“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”

“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”

“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”

The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.

The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.

The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.

As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.

*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.

Shadow of Freedom is an essay from Fear & Loathing in Bangkok.

* Shadow of Freedom was originally published on 19 January 2012.

Posted: 10/23/2014 9:03:53 PM 

 

Collective Amnesia

What we forget may play as large a role in our lives as what we remember. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers and Strategies (2014) outlines the cognitive limitations of the human brain. Paying attention to our brain’s capacity to remember, how it remembers, the speed of remembering, and the capacity limits of memory is useful in placing amnesia into context.

We can’t understand how and what we forget without understanding something about the architecture of the brain where our memories are stored. This is summary drawn from Bostrom’s Superintelligence:

The speed of at which our brain makes calculations—what Bostrom’s calls computational speed of our biological neurons—is painfully slow. As it is natural to us, it doesn’t seem slow. But when we compare that with reading this essay on a computer housing a microprocessor operating at 2 GHz, our brain (and everyone else) plods along at 200 Hz. Our computational brain operates seven orders of magnitude slower than a computer than costs less than a thousand dollars.

The other slow lane where we find the operational limitations of the brain is the speed of axons communications within the brain. We limp along at 120 m/s while an electronic processing core communicates at 300,000,000 m/s. Our brain’s incredibly limited communication speed means we are way out of our league on the electronic expressway. This is the slow lane speed at which we take processing our information. If you owned a computer that operated at this slow speed, you’d return to the shop and demand your money back. We don’t have that option.

All the computation in the brain occurs inside slightly less than 100 billion neurons. Whether you are the village idiot or Einstein you have roughly the same number of neurons. Forget, for the moment, all of the hype about cognitive enhancements; no matter what you do to enhance the speed of a horse it will never win a Formula One race.

The brain not only makes calculation and processes data input from the outside world; it also has a storage capability. Unfortunately for us, this capacity is as limited as our computational and communication operating speeds. Bostrom observes our brains hold between 4 and 5 chunks of information in memory as working memory at any given time. Long-term memory is also limited but as Bostrom notes it is unclear whether we use it up during a normal lifetime due to the slowness of processing information. The accumulation of information is slow, subject to errors, miscalculations, and mistake for a number of reasons including old of date cultural filters, multiple biases, chemicals, drugs, alcohol, and propaganda. Our brain memory storage capacity is at the level of a moderately priced smartphone.

Amnesia is used to describe deficits in memory resulting from brain damage, disease or psychological trauma. The loss of memory can be either loss of short-term or long-term memory. An unfortunate suffers from the loss of both. The causes can be biological as the case with brain structure irregularities or chemical protein processing. While the medical side of amnesia is of great interest, there is a cultural component of amnesia that is less well understood and discussed. It may be the function of culture is to create amnesia among a population, creating a system of short and long-term memories that have a degree of uniformity, consistency, and plausibility.

The educational system in most countries is the primary delivery system. Students are taught to ‘forget’ or ‘ignore’ contrary information. Students are rewarded with high marks when they demonstrate they recall specific information on their examination. The examinations are designed to test their memory and understanding of historical, cultural, and normative information. In Tokyo Joe, one my early novels, the plot revolved around the Ministry of Education in Japan seeking to erase from public memory the role of the 731-Corp during World War II. That unit in the Imperial Japanese army, while based in China, carried out biological research including subjecting them to disease on prisoners of war. Recently in Thailand, a former prime minister’s name was eliminated from school history books.

In an authoritarian system the teacher’s role is a conduit to transfer knowledge and information to students, and the students’ role is the passive receiver. The process is memory formulation based on the orthodox cultural narrative. Not even the slightest variation from the narrative is sanctioned. The student who challenges the teacher’s conventional story may expect to receive severe punishment. In such a system, amnesia is the goal. The schools aren’t the only actors in memory formulation or manipulation. The media, government, civil service, courts and other officials work to reinforce the cultural message taught in the schools. This social modeling gives ‘culture’ the seamless feeling by instilling a shared set of social signaling and preference. When a small gap opens, it is quickly shut down or isolated from the mainstream.

The problem in the post-digital school system is that teachers find themselves in competition with other information sources. Social media along with the search functions on the Internet allow for leakage into the state authorized information system disrupting the social and political modeling and design matrix . Outsiders, in other words, are tampering with the collective cultural memories of their citizens. The reaction is fairly predictable from criminalization of expression, to censoring websites, and consolidating forces to fight against unwanted memories from being spread in the population.

In Thailand following the May 22nd coup, the military government has sought to implement techniques and training—including the so-called ‘attitude adjustment’—with the purpose of erasing specific memories, altering other memories, and redesigning memories.  Such a goal requires the official monitoring and control.  Such a course of action is not surprising. Traditionally cultural authorities under the watchful eye of governments and religious authorities have established and updated the mental content of people under their jurisdiction as if education and normative social values were a proprietary operating system, self-contained with only authorized by approved social engineers. In a closed system, whether software programming or cultural programming, what is created is deemed propriety—it is owned by the State, which uses laws, propaganda, education and media to exclude others from the process. By contrast, in an Open Programming Model, an innovation of the digital age, hundreds or thousands of ad hoc individuals are encouraged to improve, revise, amend and alter the original program. Cultural authorities and governments that strictly control the kind of attitudes, values, wish to appoint their own trusted engineers to ensure the ‘right’ thinking processes remains pure.

Access to information is not open-ended. Controlling memories about past events, personalities, successes and victories form a core collective memory shared by citizens. A political culture seeks to establish a commonality of interest and purpose among people. It may be self-serving for a powerful elite who benefit from manipulation of collective memory or it may allow the authorities a basis to call upon citizens to sacrifice to the larger good.

Amnesia, in this cultural sense, is programmed by political forces on behalf of governing institutions. These institutions depend for their legitimacy on how people they govern remember, forget, access, acquire and store information in their memory. In all social, cultural and political systems people are taught to submit to the unwritten understanding that their memory isn’t exclusively theirs to develop. They learn to submit or yield to the cultural imperatives of the memory palace of their country. Freedom, as developed in the West, has been a fight to bring the right of debate, challenge and consent to balance the calls for submission. The Internet has accelerated the idea that consent should prevail over the absolute power to force submission. No democratic system can exclude ‘consent’ of the people. No authoritarian system can rely on submission and repression to bring stability.

Waking up happens when significant numbers of people discover the amnesia induced by their culture is not from nature. Memories instilled from the official cultural channels are man-made, produced, distributed, and monitored for the benefit of the system. Once that insight is glimpsed the cultural memories become unstable and the authorities, in Thailand and many other places, have doubled-up on their attempts to gain control of what information is stored, rewarded, prized, prohibited and criminalized.

Around the world from the Middle-East to Africa and Asia, the collective amnesia is wearing off. People are waking up. You see them being reborn on social media. They discover their memories were products of submission and not choice, that what they recall are memories of others. The massive impact of this awakening is playing out inside millions of lives, and no one can predict what new processes of remembering will take their place.

Nor can we predict how our cognitive capacity may change over time, or how it may be marginalized with a superintelligent AI. Bostrom’s Superintelligence may be the most profoundly disturbing book you will read. In the world ahead, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may look back to our time of repressive governmental regimes filling our memories with nonsense and conclude that at least in our lives, compared to their own under the control of an AI superintelligent entity, we stood had a fighting chance to gain choice in modeling the content of our memories and thoughts. Perhaps only then will we have looking back understood the true meaning of freedom.

Posted: 10/16/2014 8:59:46 PM 

 

In Defense of Liberty: A Digital Appellate Court of Netizens

Forensic science is no longer a mystery to the general public. It has technical components that require expert knowledge. However, countless hours of TV drama like CSI have been watched not just by the public but by the police, too. They believe, rightly or not, that their knowledge is equal to the expert investigators who process evidence in a criminal case.

01

Crime scene preservation is now widely understood even by school children. Don’t touch!

DNA processing information, the techniques, timing, history, limitations are a Google step away.

Our information about the nuts and bolts of crime investigation is available to anyone with a computer and Internet link. This has disrupted the information/knowledge monopoly previous enjoyed by law enforcement authorities. That information and knowledge is ubiquitous. If you have an Internet connection, you don’t need to rely on what someone in authority claims is the ‘truth’. You have a world of authorities to choose from, thousand of other voices. Authorities fear that with such power you’ll discover their local opinion is out of synchronicity with the generally accepted opinion of experts.

02

Social media has provided an outlet for experts, pundits, activists, and along with a cynical, suspicious public who gather on Facebook and Twitter to exchange views, opinions, and criticism.

Once upon a time a high profile criminal case like the killing of two tourists in Thailand might attract fleeting international attention but the attention faded quickly as old media focused on a new domestic crime. For the old media, the rule of thumb was murder close to home attracted more attention from its audience than one that happened in a foreign country.

03

The terrain of the new digital world is beginning to emerge and the authorities are only beginning to react with horror that their place inside this new social media driven world operates along lines that are outside of their experience.

The pre-1990 generation or those raised and educated in a pre-digital world, and that includes most of us, had a different social construct of the police, crown prosecutors, and courts. Members of law enforcement rarely suffered sustained public assaults on their authority, competency or trustworthiness. As the Thai police force are discovering, they no longer control the information, they no longer are ceded absolute control of the case, and they no longer are given the benefit of the doubt.

In the case of Thailand, we have up to date statistics that demonstrate the how widely spread social media has become in Thailand. The Thai social media exceptional growth has been noticed inside the tech world. Worldwide, Thai Facebook population ranks No. 9, and comes in No. 17 in the Twitter rankings according to latest 2014 stats: Note as well that 42% of Thais or 28 million have Facebook accounts, representing a 53% growth and 4.5 million Thais with Twitter accounts for a 350% growth rate).

The Koh Tao murders illustrate a long free fall from the august heights of authority and there is no indication of where the bottom will be once the authorities land. Members of the wider public read accounts in newspapers or watched the nightly TV news, which filtered information to them about crimes, suspects, pleas, verdicts and sentences. It is a process that worked like clockwork like acts in Shakespeare’s most popular drama.

The Internet and Social Media has overturned the old order. The old scripts no longer work. Thais and foreigners are going to a Facebook page called CSI LA for latest updates and analysis of the Koh Tao murders.

The lead actors, supporting cast, producers and directors assemble to speak at news conference, to talk to reporters, and to explain how they are about to arrest the killers. Welcome to the high-tech world where things are done a little differently. In an international, high profile Thai criminal case, the fault lines between how the old crime story dramas played out and how a contemporary crime story does, in contrast, falls into incoherence.

04

The age when police officers’ uniform or crown prosecutors’ or judges’ robes were symbols of authority that shielded them from the outside is rapidly fading from sight The automatic shield of authority is gone. But the fight isn’t over. No better example of the revolutionary role in this process is found than in the Koh Tao double-murders of two young Britons, Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24 who were on holiday. Others have set out the details of the crime scene on theSairee Beach, Koh Tao, where the battered bodies of the two were discovered. (Andrew Drummond summaries the twists and turns in the case here.)

Allegations of local mafia involvement, bribery, torture, forced confessions, sexism, racism, mishandled evidence, false leads and misleading statements have left a digital vapor stream that the police have desperately tried to erase.

In the pre-digital world, the restraint against abuse of authority arose from a constitution, written or unwritten, and protection against such violations against a citizen’s liberty had a legal foundation. In the post-digital world where constitutional protections have been eroded almost everywhere, what is emerging is a digital citizen code of protection that transcends the old geo-political borders. What unites most officials is an abhorrence of being made to look foolish, corrupt, incompetent, psychopathic, cruel or arbitrary. Of course there are places where militants will violate all such social norms, kill as many people as necessary, spread terror all in the name of a belief and to secure a complete victory. Thailand isn’t one of those places. But it is a culture where face plays a significant role. Admitting a mistake or error is rare.

When someone is caught in a lie, a cover-up, or a misdeed the usual retort is there was a misunderstanding. It is the culturally graceful way of allowing someone who has been cornered to save face. The social media has backed the police into a corner. Internet petitions have urged the case against two young Burmese to be reconsidered or dropped. This petition on change.org has over 45,000 signatures. Here’s an example of how the word of the petition is spread onlineHuman rights activists have called for an independent investigation. News articles and editorials (Thai as well as Burmese) have raised doubts as whether the two young Burmese, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, each man 21 years old, arrested in the case confessed of their own freewill or whether the bruises on their bodies is consistent with their story that they were tortured during the interrogation process. But young men have recanted their confessions saying they’d been tortured and beaten. Link.

05

Then disturbingly, on a social media, it has been suggested the police have expressed concern the Burmese suspects might be a suicide risk. You can let your own minds sort through the range of possibilities inherent in such an announcement. Meanwhile, the police are sticking to their story:  that they have evidence that the two Burmese men committed the murders

The two Burmese suspects have no constitutional rights or protection. They suffer from the stigma of their ethnicity and nationality, which has been traditionally promoted by the Thai education system and media. They have no money, power, or friends. In the pre-digital age they would have been doomed. The names of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun would soon have been forgotten.

But the murder case brought against them shows how rapidly social media have given birth to Netizens who will challenge the authority and exclusivity of a  criminal charges perceived as biased and unfair. The fairness and adequacy of the actors within the Thai justice system has attracted the interest of a massive online international audience.

Check out the FB posts, some in Thai, some in English: https://th-th.facebook.com/CSILA90210

Look at this post, showing number of people reached by this FB page (3.5 million in Thailand, and tens of thousands each in many other countries)

A survey done at this FB page shows over 90% of readers don’t believe the thai police.

And the verdict of that audience is not one that is to the liking of the police or others in authorities. That verdict is the case against them is tainted and it would be a gross travesty of justice to continue the case.

06

If the intention of the police was to clear a high profile case by prosecuting the two Burmese men to impress an international audience from whom millions of tourists are drawn annually, they have failed. The handling of the case, rather giving foreigners comfort of their safety on holiday in Thailand, they have scripted a dark tragedy.

Whatever the fate of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, we are witnessing the birth of a new appellate process. It doesn’t have a name yet. Nor is the process or the personnel static. The digital guardians, with social justice and fairness as their brief, have organized themselves on social media platforms, and their judgment is overwhelmingly negative in the handling of the investigation. The concerns expressed online are that the case against the Burmese suspects is riddled with uncertainty, flaws, and suspicions and it is unsafe to continue. If the digital community’s verdict is ignored, no one can predict if these same guardians of liberty will find digital ways to spread collective action to impose sanctions.

Addendum: The Koh Toa murder case against the two Burmese continues to move, or perhaps lurch, from pothole to pothole on the bumpy road to justice. The latest development just in from Surat Thani’s prosecutors who have concluded the 850 page police report flawed and too long, and have sent it back to the police. So far no news on whether the reward promised to the police for ‘solving’ the case has been withdrawn.

Posted: 10/9/2014 8:53:50 PM 

 

 

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