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Blog Archive September 2016

The New Cultural Siberia

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Photo Credit: Nick Ut

The End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? addresses the issue of whether the Nation State remains a viable, effective and appropriate political structure in the digital world. Has the nation state had the advantage of being protected by its borders? Those same geographic borders are now a limitation. The feature of the system has become the bug. The imagined states required strict borders. They got what they wanted. But state authorities are no longer happy because legally defined borders no longer are sufficient to stop the flow of information that threatens ‘national security’ or challenge the policies or institutional structures of the state. That results from the ability of outsiders who operate outside their borders to voice provocative theories, views, and opinions as clearly as if they stood in town square on a soap box. The stress has built up to the point where it is abundantly clear that the underlying bureaucratic model can’t and won’t adapt to the digital age. The old bureaucratic state is the dinosaur and the digital network the asteroid. That’s the argument. Here’s the support for the argument and a warning that the borderless world has its own terrors and tyranny waiting.

Nation states no longer control the message. Smaller, inter-connected more efficient, adaptable networks that travel beyond national borders are running circles around the old bureaucratic state. Doing cartwheels and flipping the bird at bureaucrats contained inside a national border. Those pesky borders have been a problem unless you have really long-arms like the Americans.

Bureaucracy allowed the scaling of power necessary to co-ordinate, finance, build, and monitor nationalism and economies, wage war and diplomacy, educate citizens and provide public services such as highways, transportation system, police and fire departments, etc.

Bureaucracy also used force, intimidation and punishment to contain, silence and punish challengers who resisted or questioned its monopoly of authority and power. Controlling the message has been essential to justify their budgets, prestige and power. Newspapers, books, radio, TV, movies through time have lived under bureaucratic thumb.

The evidence accumulates that there are fissures appearing in old bureaucratic system; institutions of government are coming undone. Like a wounded animal, it lashes out at the invisible cross-border communication channels erected in the digital age. Laws are enforced to punish people for posting, liking, commenting online contents with their criticism, objections, or analysis of official policy positions. Like snipers in hidden positions they cause anger and demoralize the civil servants who are equipped with the bows and arrows.

With VPNs and a vast international network, the battle is being lost at the nation state level. Bureaucratic control is unraveling. The harshness of their reactionary response to the free speech in the digital world showcases their desperation. The old tools of repression inside nation state borders are no longer effective to stop those outside the borders and those inside the borders who run a low-level insurgency with taunts, images, jokes, rude and vulgar statements, and so on. The censorship gun aimed by the authorities, once seen to be firing blanks into a sea of faceless people, many hiding behind a digital nickname, soon becomes a laughingstock rather than an object of fear.

The times are changing. Our new censors are international in nature; they work across borders. Most of the censors aren’t human beings; they are AI selected for deletion. Globalization and new technology has the potential to cause a reaction that will increase censorship and repression.

The conventional wisdom is that modern networked communication channels through social media have disrupted the bureaucratic stranglehold over speech. But what is replacing the old inefficient bureaucratic model isn’t necessarily a springtime of free expression. The new censors aren’t cut from the same cloth as the old-fashioned, anal-retentive civil servant. The new crew who decide what you can see and read on our screen are corporate hires. These workers have developed (and continue to develop) an arsenal of censorship algorithms in your favourite places such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. The laws protecting freedom of speech protect the citizens in a country with constitutional rights don’t apply to private corporations.

Facebook or Twitter can suspend or terminate your account faster than you can spend a Bitcoin. They provide a banal explanation or if there is international outrage, reverse the censorship decision. The reversal of position is what happened in the case of the Nick Ut photograph. Even oligarchy structures like Facebook and Twitter still respond to a unified populist drive to restore an image here and there. It makes them look responsive and sensitive. In fact we should fear the mortal danger of such a begging bowl system. One day we may lose our begging bowl to technology. There will be a gradual erosion of freedom as AI learns out to play on our most vulnerable narcissists selves until we believe that censorship is good, righteous and moral. We’ve had millennia of training in brain washing. AI will do a much better job than we could ever have accomplished one tribe at a time.

It only takes a complaint to be made and the corporate censors are at your digital door. They don’t need a warrant to enter. You have no recourse. They decide without your chance to defend. You have been silenced. Your artwork or photographs are sent to the equivalent of cultural Siberia. The Facebook photo from the Vietnam era of the young girl running naked down a road is a taste of what this new world order has to offer.

Remember the names: Nick Ut and Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt. The Photographer and the Napalmed child. It is an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War. It has taken on new meaning. Nick Ut is all of us in the arts. Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt is the child the world needs to witness as their own.

Facebook denied access to this photo because its algorithm flags it as child pornography. Let that sink in.

Welcome to the corporate police state Number 101. Like all police states the leaders tell you they are acting in your best interest and that of the community; that speech and images must be patrolled and monitored for the public good. Of course, the corporate hires decide on the basis of their cultural values and the bottom line consideration of their paymasters.

Mark Zuckerberg, in the grand tradition of third world dictators, once the public pressure built on the Vietnamese War photo mounted, intervened to show how open minded he was. His alone had the power to lift the veil. His is the power to lower it; whenever he wishes. He showed his power over more than a billion people? Who elected him? Who appointed him to suppress Nick Ut’s photograph?

Zuckerberg is the new Stalin. Facebook is the new Kremlin. And intellectuals, artists, writers, thinkers, activists are finding a notice that banishes them to a new gulag which is no different than the old one. It seeks to isolate them, their voice and images; to make them disappear.

No election will unseat Mark Zuckerberg. He does not need your vote. He doesn’t care about you. He only needs a place where the Soma of timelines allow you pleasant drift time to buy the junk others sell on his site. The sight of a young girl running naked might just upset someone and stop them from being in the right mood to buy perfume, coffee, a holiday or vitamin pills.

We should notice the transfer of power that has been going on for some years over who controls the core of myth-making. The cultural fuel needed to drive religion and secular ideology as traditionally been locally sourced inside the Nation State. The Global technologists are gradually taking over that function.

Zuckerberg and other elites in social media empires are looking to become the new Global Keepers of the Sacred. Every culture, tribe and nation is built on sacred symbols, myths, fables and histories. These sacred symbols and objects shape and unify a people’s identity. Traditionally Keepers of the Sacred have been drawn from the local geographical bounded territory. Facebook, Twitter, etc have globalized the job through the use of advance technology. They’ve begun the long process of stripping the power of the local keepers to keep his/her flock in line. This is one reason for the collective anger expressed in religious and ideological communities throughout the world. Their gurus can no longer stop the heavy sea of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction from dogging their beliefs and actions.

Mark’s henchmen are algorithms. Facebook creates a loyal army to do the dirty work of censorship. James Austin Farrell’s thoughtful article Anarchy on the Internet: Can AI be judge and jury for online content? observed that Mark Zuckerberg had recently met with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss censorship. He has such discussions with other leaders and the future suggests the Keeper of the Sacred will need to establish a Chancery to handle the volume of petitions. Can they censor? Under what circumstances is digital censorship acceptable? Such questions will be raised in an alliance of National State with Digital State. The outcome has the possibility of creating the ultimate tyrannical tool to silence political dissent, to destroy diverse voices, and to reinforce existing power structures and in return consumers are sedated with large tracts of no-conflict zones to relax, experience pleasure and buy things.

What started the debate was the iconic photograph by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt running with napalm burns on her body should stay in our mind. It is a metaphor of all of us in the digital future and with a push of a button Mark and his algorithms army can overrun your position and make you, your ideas, thoughts, images, and photographs disappear.

In the midst of a transition of myth-telling authority shifts, it is difficult to predict an outcome. Can we create globalized myths shared by all or are we forever limited to fight for our local gods as they are shaped by earth and blood of a place.

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Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.

Posted: 9/29/2016 8:58:36 AM 

 

The Culture of Hazing

In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Thailand, not a year has passed without a story from a Thai university where the ritualized hazing of juniors by seniors produced casualties every year. Some students die. Others spend time in ICU. Others grin and bear and the scars are internalized. It is against the law in Thailand. But the law is not enforced. Hazing continues as a tradition in many Thai universities.

Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey in an excellent opinion piece on hazing asks why the tradition of hazing continues in Buddhist Thailand and why the Thai military government with its extensive powers doesn’t intervene to end a practice that many feel is degrading and belongs to a feudalistic past.

The two questions are closely connected. But answers take us much further back than feudalism and beyond the narrow confines of Thai culture.

To find an answer is to these questions is a journey through time to look at our origins. Humans like chimpanzees are unique species that Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in Demonic Males explain that intentionally seek our victims, killing and mutilating the helpless despite pleas for mercy. Like chimpanzees, we carry a reputation for political murders, beatings and rape. Again like chimpanzees we are obsessed with status and rank. We share the same Chimpanzee emotional pulse that beats with a steady stream of pride.

Male pride fuels conflict and war and the competition for status amongst other prideful driven males. When there is conflict group loyalty becomes of central importance. The techniques, practices and rituals that increase cohesion of the group forge a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ worldview. Racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are the collateral fallout in the formation of such groups. The ‘other’ is subject to being dehumanized, demonized until they fall outside the moral laws such, as not killing doesn’t apply to them. Our species is fine-tuned in defining mental states perfected to discriminating against, cheating, demeaning, abusing, enslaving and killing outsiders.

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goo.gl/q4YfvP

Hazing of university students is part of a tradition of forging intragroup solidarity of an in-group. The hazing ritual is an example of what Ernest Becker (Escape from Evil) labels ‘rites of passage’ where a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a member of the group.

It is not uncommon to have hazing justified as instilling pride and solidarity. Hazing in universities are markers of rank, status and pride. Seniors demand submission and obedience from juniors. Hazing is consistent with the values of a military culture of command and order. Like in the military, university students are compelled to wear uniforms.

A senior student uses hazing to compel submission to a group as a demonstration of group loyalty and belonging. Soldiers don’t question orders from an officer; a junior at university doesn’t question an order of a senior. When a recruit dies in boot camp, this is mostly viewed as part an unfortunate part of a necessary process. Training for warfare is a dangerous business. Going to university isn’t generally viewed as boot camp. But submitting to the hazing ritual is induction into a military type group where the bonding requires the lowering of self-esteem to the group as the price of admission.

As hazing aligns with military culture and values, the idea that a military government would dismantle university hazing is as likely as expecting senior generals to endorse pacifism. It’s not what they do. It’s not what they value or believe in. It is alien to their culture of rank, status, command and control.

Hazing is an example of domination values inside a subculture. As a long-time observer, I find a large amount of tolerance for domination practices designed to create intragroup solidarity and reinforcing power and authority. Correspondingly, there is a fear that removing a technique traditionally used to demonstrate solidarity would weaken the effectiveness of the group by undermining its commanders. And once weakened, outsiders, those enemies lurking under the bed, will emerge and slaughter the unorganized group of freethinkers. Why? Because the seniors can no longer ensure that their command and control system can be evoked. Primates are emotionally bonded to an alpha. Logic isn’t part of the operational control system. Fear is.

If your universities, schools, and civil services, all in their uniforms, with their ranks and status assigned, and the command structure communicated and understood, those in authority can deter, dissuade, coerce, threat, exile or disappear all challengers. That’s the implicit message that emerges from Thai culture. The millions in uniform are emotionally invested in command and control as a mechanism to maintain order and stability. If you eliminate hazing, the argument is this is the slippery slope to disorder and instability. Rituals like hazing are bonding exercises. Patronage system is premised on the culture supporting intergroup bonding.

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Before the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Age of Scientific process, this template would have been nearly universal. It has only been in the last 500 years, that the West allowed a group of thinkers, artists, and intellectuals to challenge the prevailing primate domination model, which includes rituals such as hazing. In this short period, authority and the beliefs on which legitimacy has been based, have been questioned, challenged, disobeyed, and discarded. We have moved from the logic of sacrifice to the logic of modeling, experimenting, and testing. The two types of logic are in conflict.

We are living in age still attempting to adjust to the damage the scientific revolution has done to traditional authority, beliefs, and rituals. Not all cultures have gone through the Enlightenment stages. Thailand is an example. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, about the jai or heart phrases in the Thai language, showing how the absence of Enlightenment values has continued to shape Thai thinking.

China is an example of a cultural system based on traditional authority, beliefs and rituals (calling it ‘communist’ is highly misleading). Like Thailand, China seeks to deal with scientific thinking by placing it inside a seal cultural container as if it were radioactive material. Only a few are allowed inside, and they aren’t allowed free access to the outside culture. And in a way, they are right. The products of the scientific culture are difficult to separate from the understanding and use of the culture that allowed and encouraged the kind of thinking platform needed to invent for the latest technology. There are no senior people who forces juniors into muddy ponds to show their loyalty before allowing them access to the labs. The West doesn’t allow or condone hazing of first year science students at universities such Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, or Harvard. Enlightenment freed students from hazing and these are the people who went on to become scientists.

The Thais and Chinese military cultural authorities are betting they can have the best of both worlds. Command and control over its best and brightest. This means a group of best and brightest that obeys and never question authority and yet can switch off their submission to authority to create original and creative works of art, science, and technology. Is this best of both worlds possible to achieve? Can there be a narrow and cordoned off creative space that does not leak into and contaminate the officially sanctioned and militarized culture of submission to authority?

As there are no Thai universities in the top 100 universities in the world, this may be a clue to consider.

A testable hypothesis: Is there a correlation between an entrenched command and control military governing system adapted and modified in an educational system and the absence of human rights enforcement? Or is human rights an emergent set of values from the Enlightenment that have created a feedback loop based on free speech and assembly, allowing for the free-flow of ideas and information essential for additional breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the world? I suspect the human rights problem outside of the Enlightenment cone of light is cultural. The seeds need a certain cultural, societal and historical soil to grow. At a time when human rights is in retreat in the West, there is less pressure for places like Thailand to adopt West cultural artifacts that are inherently alien to its culture.

The hazing rituals found inside Thai universities are a reflection of the broader cultural values and the system of governance. There is a law outlawing hazing already on the books. But this isn’t about the law. It’s about the culture. Command and control, loyalty and obedience, and group solitary and its this hand of cards that wins in any political poker game played in Thailand. There is no indication that game is going to change any time soon.

Posted: 9/16/2016 9:04:23 AM 

 

 

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