Archive October 2014
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
|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.
Crime scene preservation
is now widely understood even by school children. Don’t touch!
information, the techniques, timing, history, limitations are a Google step
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
has over 45,000 signatures. Here’s an example of how the word of the
petition is spread
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.
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
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
million in Thailand, and tens of thousands each in many other
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.
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
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.