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Albert Camus wrote “Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

In this rebellion, there is an irony: the nature, scope, function and method of consent has no historical or modern consensus. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln’s view on consent may, in part explain, the Civil War that followed his election. “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” There could not have been a more clear statement of the flaw of slavery.

Consent is a relatively new concept in balancing power, authority, and the governed. It competes against other values that pre-date the modern meaning of consent. In the ancient world the ideology was based on obedience to the powerful. Herodotus wrote, “To think well and to consent to obey someone giving good advice are the same thing.”

The powerful always believe they are giving good advice and those that think well recognize it as good and it is only their consent that matters. We don’t live, nor have we lived, in a one-word universe of consent. Other words have also shaped our opinions, views, attitudes and behavior. Such words penetrate deeply into the psyche such as honor, duty, security, safety, loyalty don’t exist in a vacuum. They evoke feelings. Rouse our emotions. Define our identity to others with a shared identity and to ourselves.

These emotionally compacted words are tagged to objects in the physical, exterior world, and we reinforce our sense of self through the protection and veneration of a sacred object. Most people can list examples, bible, the Koran, a constitution, a flag, the cross, or in the United States, or a gun are objects fall into the category of the sacred for a large number of people. These objects are visual, tangible altars used by power to justify their commandments. Other sacredness appears to the aural. The feelings evoked by a national anthem or a song attached to the strong emotions of war, oppression, or salvation. Standing as the national anthem is played at a cinema or sports stadium is a communal affirmation of identity. This is not a conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, or East vs. West split. All sides mentally prostrate before its icons

When someone challenges gun laws or the confederate flag flying above the state capitol in South Carolina or Alabama, offering up evidence to support their attack, those whose identity is tightly connected with such a symbol reacts as if the challenge is made to them personally.

Those who seek to tighten gun laws or block the teaching of creationism in public schools aren’t in a debate over the merits of wide spread gun ownership and the high rate of deaths arising from handguns or whether creationism is an alternative theory to evolution. The truth of the symbols is absolute for the true believer. Emotions allow no evidence to disturb its settings tuned to the symbols they identify with. Rational, deliberate debate where reason and evidence prevail is a pipe dream from the opium nights of the Enlightenment. No amount of persuasion convinces people to reject, modify or question the validity of a symbol that is a mirror for their identity and values. Break that mirror, and their identity is shattered.

Marx was right about role and function of religion. It was the opium of the people and the drug was not so much imposed by a cynical, manipulative authority than it was demanded from the people. It’s not just religion and the iconic images that form the person’s view of themselves and the world, it is a junk shop stocked with nationalistic, historical, and mythical images to grow fully formed identities pushing ideas of valor, glory, honor, purity or goodness.

Much of the current conflict from Thailand to Turkey displays the tension between traditional symbols of beliefs, loyalty and hierarchy and values for modern secular globalized values of human rights and freedom. What makes this time different from our ancient ancestors is modern people in big cities around the world believe their consent politically, socially and economically matters. This comes from a much older world where certain symbols invested an unquestioned power to rule. Modern people might honor a national symbol but still demand their consent be counted politically. That is a big difference between the not so distant past and the present. Consent can also be a slippery concept. Even the most brutal dictators relied on the loyalty and approval of a small percentage of people who benefited from the brutality. What makes ‘consent’ in modern times is the inclusion of people who are strangers, from different backgrounds, races, class or caste, or religion. The tribal aspect of consent is broken.

As the exclusive, limited range of people whose consent had been sufficient for legitimacy find themselves as a minority voice in a political system serving the interest of the majority, they fear the new allocation of resources and benefits will shift to their detriment. It is this fear that lies at the heart of consent. The change to include all citizens without doubt threatens the stability of the traditional, political system. Whenever and wherever this political transition has been occurred, the privileged minority pushed back against the expansion as they were afraid of being left behind.

Our civilizations have risen on the crest of non-consent. Obedience wasn’t based on choice; it was based on a combination of iconic symbols and threat of force. Both the 18th century American and French Revolutions were waged and justified by its rebels on ideologies of consent. It took violence before consent as an ideology to begin the process of replacing the obedience to authority model. We live in the aftermath of that sea change, working toward a coherent theory of political consent. It is not clear hundreds of years later how successful either revolution has been dislodged the obedience ideology. In many places, the battle continues.

The modern mantra is that the exercise of power without consent is the definition of tyranny. That authority must in order to claim legitimacy to govern must have consent from the governed. Any other foundation is corrupt, oppressive, and self-serving on behalf of a narrow class of elites. Faux polls are often employed by tyrannical regimes as a substitute for consent. Polling numbers inevitably are presented as showing 80% to 90% levels of support for the tyrants or their policies. Their purpose is to offer a substitute for consent in order to establish legitimacy. Such polls are like shallow graves are crude engineering projects and few are fooled that the bodies inside can be identified as truth, fairness, transparency, diversity and co-operation. The tyrants are not that creative in their attempt to manufacture alternatives to consent. That failure contributes to their paranoia, brutality and repression to those waving the consent banner. These modern pro-consent people want a break from the institutions, governing principles, and values of the past where consent did not feature except at the margins.

What is driving the globalization of the consent mantra? There are several factors coming together. First, consent can be shaped, manufactured, engineered to serve the purposes of elites. The weight of money in politics is a measure of respect the elites have in creating the illusion of consent. At the same time, the digital networks have given a space for a new identity of self based on consent to emerge. The new concept is universal and disrupts the ancient ways of viewing self, authority and power. Consent has become a moral value. It is suspicious of the traditional consent engineers who serve authority. The digital world has disrupted the “obey culture” by presenting choice as to whom to obey an alternative based on consent.

Consent has long featured in our criminal laws, from rape, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and assault. We have a long history where consent is an essential element in our personal treatment of others, and how they treat us. It is at the political level that legitimacy based on the ideology of consent is resisted in non-Western cultures. Jonathan Swift, like Lincoln, glimpsed of the true implication of the ideology of consent: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.”

There’s also consent, in a private, personal sense, which involves our relationship with certain objects or symbols. A person’s sense of self is like an identity-kit assembled from childhood and those things on the shelf that form part of the kit are defended as if the challenge is existential. And that is the difference between a real education, and an education sufficient to transfer skills to fit within the needs of a system. The evidence will support that an overwhelming number of people pass through the second type of school, university system. They accept what they are told by their teachers and professors. They are in the classroom for a reason. To gain skills for a skill-orientated workforce. But the skill to program is, in this world, more important than how the military or security services will deploy such a program. When people from these two very different educational background meet, they have difficulty finding common ground. They might be from alien planets speaking a language the other side processes as proclamations of war or evidence of ignorance if not stupidity. Follow the debate on government surveillance and the concept of consent is at the core of the conflict.

It isn’t just government. Corporations play a large role in stripping us of our consent without us noticing. Every ‘like’, ‘retweet’, credit card usage, telephone call is stored in your digital folder inside the larger surveillance-marketing-system (SMS), and this system is designed to engineer your sense of self and identity. We are being ‘played’ and the players understand how to extract our consent in a way that makes it appear real and voluntary. Like a dictator’s faux poll, the real and the fake become blurred.

If you follow the Alan Watts path, you might discover another school that teaches about the purpose and meaning of life is to discover that self or identity is an illusion and escape from that illusion is the main purpose of life. In this world, the symbols are illusions trapping us like flies in amber. Symbols, in the world of words and objects, anchor us to the past and assume a reality that is constructed. It’s only real because collectively people look at a cross one-way and an image of the Prophet in another. The reactions from anger, hatred and violence, perceived or otherwise, to such symbols suggest the power of an image. The guarding of symbols is guarding the past like a fixed frontier and resisting assaults from the present. The future unwinds slowly as the low-grade warfare between the place and role of symbols don’t retreat quietly or softly. They go with much shouting, threats, violence, and disruption.

We are inside a travel machine, one that travels a bumpy, uncharted road. Our fear is taking this journey without our identity left intact, and we won’t survive. We can’t imagine how anyone without that comfort can survive the journey and find peace of mind, contentment, salvation, redemption, happiness—all of the outcomes that most people agree is worthy in themselves. But getting to that point, the end point, as Alan Watts and others have taught is for us to understand we are always at that point. We are at every point. We are in the NOW and yesterday or tomorrow are only inside our individual and collective minds evoked by words, images, pictures, objects and artifacts of daily life.

How do we deal with this sacred cargo that our ancestors have accumulated and passed down to use? How do we push back against SMS? Our backpacks are filled with such stuff. We keep on walking, carrying the load. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” That’s our limitation, cognitive cutoffs. We can grow (so far) a brain with a different structure, a different pattern recognition and filtering system. But we’re stuck with the wetware we inherited.

If you lived through the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut did as a capture soldier, an external event can change the way you process the world. Much like the impact of torture. Those who have no hands-on experience are the greatest cheerleaders for ‘enhanced interrogation’ (the term they use for torture) than those who have done hundreds of hours of interrogations. Sometimes you must participate, witness, or be caught up in a situation where no symbol will save you. Some of those emerge from such an experience find the symbol/word filters altered, sometimes shut down. They have first-hand experience these illusions were no buffer against reality. They find a new way of assembling identity, one that doesn’t rest on a false premise. One that doesn’t rest on anything at all and then they are free. And they are alone.

But that is only partially true. We are never alone. We are social creature by nature. It seems that nature is changing. We wish to define self, our identity, or other people’s identity. Consent. The ability to give and withhold it is the power to grant or retract legitimacy. Consent is a powerful weapon to build an identity for the new world. SMS chips away slowly at consent, manufacturing a look alike. This process has all sorts of implications for how we consent becomes a pre-condition to obedience. That is a huge step, like the moon landing, into a territory very different from the one in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. Those clinging to a culture of obedience without consent have their work cut out for them.

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Posted: 7/7/2015 8:45:13 PM 

 

My last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey. It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.

01
18th Century London

In the 18th century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head, the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities, celebrities, and toy poodles.

How people communicated, the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their 18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole purpose and meaning of elections and voting?

People living in feudal times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have been viewed as treason.

The 18th century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate, his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus different from those in the 18th century.

02
18th Century technology

The expectations we have about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the governed and the policies of those in power.

Elections have fallen on hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be, directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates, consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and upgrade the weak signal.

Elections are staged events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads, interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.

I suspect no one under forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.

03

Thailand is an example of the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash payments.

Those who protest against elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a different cultural and political tradition.

Elites suffer from the old devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this 18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated given the current technological and information revolution?

04

We’ve inherited election from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems everywhere there is an internet connection.

What do people want from their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was slipped on the black box.

Elections voted representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016 presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a consensus.

This raises a number of hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon. The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens. They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test of resolve and commitment.

Governments in their international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and expensive.

We are left with the blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down. No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a political system.

05
18th Century Voters an exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males

Not only are elections incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry, “Look, there’s a squirrel.”

Elections and voting were created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an 18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo. There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.

06
18th Century French cannon

In time, the 18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known. Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues, products, events, and personalities every day.

When the military assumes power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making, legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information, and the economy.

In another context, Thomas E. Ricks wrote,

Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link: https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2015/06/hierarchy-does-not-work#sthash.LjOWQZqZ.GahTqApd.dpuf

We see some outlines of direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support. John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil forfeiture.

He’s hit a cultural sweet spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change as there will always be a group that will resist change.

Link: http://time.com/3674807/john-oliver-net-neutrality-civil-forfeiture-miss-america/

In modern, contemporary life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.

We are at a major crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the past.

What will the new digital generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role. What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.

Once consensus is the product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they want.

In this world, voters are a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the government should do with plastic bottles.

07

In this brave new merged buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the governed.

We aren’t at that point and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies. Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many powerful people around the world.

A new generation is already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions. They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in The Truman Show,  are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die, and a new era will begin.

08

The one most people know is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.

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Posted: 6/12/2015 1:24:04 AM 

 

anslinger
Harry Anslinger


I’ve been thinking of winners and loser, peacemakers and warriors, victors and the vanquished. These binary extremes define much of our culture, and much of about the way we think of war and winning. That visceral desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in the fallout that rains down from such a world. Only we know life is far more complicated than such neat divisions appear to offer. Black and white has always given a seductive quality over shades of gray. Comfort comes from believing we can size up an event, situation, person, idea in terms of right and wrong, truth and lies, and hate and love, peace and war. It is, though, a false comfort, and the best fiction—crime fiction or other genres—cause a reader to question such thinking. Come to think of it, the questioning of the sacred, the challenge to belief is one of the main reasons people read a certain category fiction. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know. Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it has a fiction and non-fiction wing. Such books stand in contrast to escapist stories or confirmation of bias stories—as these are the meat and bones of bestsellers, publishers love them. They sell in the millions of copies. Deliberative Literature has a small audience.

But this wasn’t always the case.

One place to start to understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical, true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical, emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches, mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.

We need to deliberate on this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become vulnerable when subject to verification.

Non-fiction books also have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice, deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience, scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the lives of millions.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend. And say, “Read this.”

While these thoughts circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream. It’s a three-year in the field study from the frontline of the drug war—the battlefield is worldwide, and Hari narrows things down to Canada, United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and a scattering of other places in South America. He’s done his homework, interviewing drug users, addicts, counselors, and local and national offices. He has doubts and shares them. . It is wise to raise health concerns about any drug, cannabis included. One problem associated with Anslinger’s War has been the failure to fund and support independent scientific research projects to gather, analyze, and debate evidence of both positive as well as negative effects of cannabis. There is credible evidence that cannabis use by teenagers has harmful effects on cognitive development, and heavy users show a pattern of poor attention, memory loss, lower educational achievement and lower IQs. The usual caveat not to confuse correlation with causation applies. The Australian government has funded several research projects to examine health issues arising from cannabis use as a prelude to introducing legislation for medicinal cannabis use. While there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use makes someone smarter at school, the work place or at home, it is difficult to justify a war based on scientifically challenged research produced to date and to fund a worldwide gulag system to incarcerate cannabis users.

He looks for contrary evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign. Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police. Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders. The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization response to cannabis use.

What Colorado and Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C., they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.

One of the best parts of Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named Harry Ansingler  who served 31 years as the Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war, like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal person into a slavering murderer.

Hari says we laugh at that now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge, ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.

When both wars started—the war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology, and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion. Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the exclusive right to use violence against others.

Ansingler’s War though may qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street criminals.

In the last couple of decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa, are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their children and family from taking drugs.

Look back on the casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he had released onto the world.

In the future, people will build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’ button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear Mountain.

As the wise man says, the future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present, trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable guide.

We need to adjust our attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in Aeon Magazine. Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace. It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.

Kukris shows evidence of the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From 1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990 to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14% resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to awakened us from this self-induced slumber.

Deliberative Literature, like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing. While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.

The statistics recited by Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700 Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved elusive.

Although Kuris doesn’t break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence: racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and destruction.

The War on Drugs like the War on Terror  are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain. Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.

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Posted: 6/1/2015 8:41:09 PM 

 

Watching the John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight featuring an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow is a parody of Black Mirror,  the Channel 4 award-winning TV series created by Charlie Brooker. His interview might have been drawn from the premise of the episode titled Fifteen Million Merits—set in the dystopia future where a citizens’ drone-like life is a routine of mindless work-fitness-entertainment-confinement inside a doomed and bored life. The main character in Fifteen Million Merits is Bing who he has the idealism, courage, and conviction to expose the cruelty and dangers of the ‘system’. He’s found a way out of his narrow, confined life of repetition by buying his way as a contestant on a TV reality show. His purpose is to rage against the unreality of life, which lacks meaning outside of personal consumption, where people have become robots condemned to servitude.

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Bing threatens to kill himself with a piece of glass during his performance. With the shard pressed against the artery at his neck, Bing rails against the unfeeling robot-like consumption life. Moral and ethical life is a thing of the past. Citizens have been turned into puppets and the main obligation of the state is to entertain them. Bing, like Snowden, points at the strings attached to us all. He’s angry and he’s articulate about how we demean ourselves and that it is better to die than to continue living such a meaningless existence. He reams the ‘system’ to expose the hollow core where a few control and program the many.

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Rather than seeing the full frontal attack as a threat against a totalitarian system, the judges take his ‘performance’ as a brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment. The audience is in love with Bing’s rage with the glass shard at his neck. Not because of the content of his message but the explosive sincerity in which it was delivered. At the end, Bing rather than taking his own life to end the absurdity of his existence becomes another regular performer on the reality show. The message of Fifteen Million Merits is Huxley’s Brave New World was a guidebook to the future. Rage and anger are folded into the entertainment industry. Bing was co-opted. Was Snowden co-opted in a similar fashion? That’s the question.

John Oliver like the judge in Fifteen Million Merits did what no NSA or CIA operative could have done to undo Snowden. To entertain the viewers while making them understand what their civil liberties and freedoms were reduced to if the government uploads your ‘dick pictures.’ Those selfies of your ‘junk’ –the catchy little phrase Snowden used in the interview, to much of the delight of John Oliver. It was as if Bing’s sober twin had appeared on the screen and the script of Fifteen Million Merits had been adjusted for an American audience. Snowden has had a shard of glass at his throat since he holed up with Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras in 2013 in Hong Kong. CitizenFour, an Oscar winning documentary, revealed the backstory of Edward Snowden’s role in disclosing the massive surveillance run by the US government with a number of its allies to maintain information about its citizens. Culled from Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, phone calls, text messages, the amount of information collected behind the smoke and mirrors of lies blown up the ass end of Congress should have caused a revolution.

When John Oliver did the man in the street interview in New York City, asking people if they’d heard of Edward Snowden, most hadn’t. Those who had clearly had been brainwashed by the official blowback that Snowden was a traitor, a thief, someone who was a criminal with bad intention. The government had attacked the messenger and that effectively had killed the window for his message to filter into the minds of most people. What Snowden had expected from the release of the massive surveillance was indignation, outrage, calls for investigations, and angry groups of citizens demanding and lobbying for restrictions on data collection by the government. That didn’t happen (except within the narrow confines of the international chattering class). Not in the political mainstream of American life. Most people didn’t care. Snowden wasn’t on their radar screen. Or if he appeared, it was as someone who was a bad American who should return home for a proper trial of his crimes before being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Enter John Oliver as your show host of the dystopia reality series where the goal is to make Snowden’s message entertaining. Unless he qualifies as a standup comedian, he has no message that will be heard. Snowden performed. Like Bing in Fifteen Million Merits he seemed to understand while on stage that no serious message can be sent unfiltered to a mass audience parallels the NSA universe where unfiltered communications from the masses can’t be perfectly monitored or understood. Oliver frankly told Snowden that his attention wandered, his eyes glazed over as Snowden made an impassionate argument about the dangers of mass surveillance. The only salvation was to retool the message as another ‘dick photo’ story. One wants to say a ‘dick photo’ that has legs. But of course it has legs.

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Those legs have taken us into the playpen where like children we can giggle, nudge each other, and feel a sense of personal vulnerability. That could be my ‘dick photo’ suddenly has the audience’s attention. They are now listening to Snowden. While Snowden doesn’t have a glass shard pressing against his throat, he has something better. He now has a laugh track and an applause meter with the needle registering in the red zone. Snowden has shed Noam Chomsky and embraced Lenny Bruce. He has shifted to the reality show, comedy central entertainment paradigm to communicate. Snowden is part of show business.

The piece de resistance came at the end when John Oliver pulled out two Oscar statues and handed one to Snowden. The Oscar was made of chocolate. To Snowden’s credit he didn’t follow his interviewer’s lead and bite the head off the Oscar. As the program ended, I thought there is a good possibility that in the future Edward Snowden will be credited as the person who popularized the word ‘junk’ to refer to a man’s penis.

John Oliver has Bingfied Snowden. Snowden, and his ‘junk’ metaphor, has been swallowed by the ‘system’ and elevated him to another amusing TV performer for the masses. Snowden has been reborn, relabeled, and co-opted by a system he believes has the capacity to change when given the right information. To be twenty-nine years old and have such faith is as rare as it is admirable. Now that Snowden knows that unpackaged information, no matter how alarming to experts, has no real audience. It must be tied to ‘junk.’ I guess Snowden has learned a valuable lesson. Will the audience want Snowden, the comedian, back on stage? Perhaps someone will write a song titled ‘Junk’, or a band named ‘Junk’ will emerge, books and articles with ‘Junk’ in the title will appear. Who knows, a TV series titled ‘Junk’ may be being discussed in Hollywood offices as we speak. The entertainment industry will scramble to showcase this fine performer as someone who makes the masses laugh. Only the joke is on them.

Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is Crackdown.

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Posted: 4/8/2015 12:40:29 AM 

 

There are streets in Jaipur, an old Rajasthan city in North India, that seemed unchanged over long spans of time.  You can spot a tourist by the way they walk along such roads. They are highly focused on not stepping in cow shit or little garbage igloos sculpted by the wind, tires, and sandaled feet. Where an annual literary festival is held over five days at Diggi Palace. It’s hard paying attention to two or three things at once. You have a choice, you reduce your probability of stepping on shit or piles of garbage with more bacteria than your entire genome, or getting ploughed from the side, back (most likely angle) or a full frontal collision with a bus guaranteed to launch your body on a trajectory that will surely end in shit or garbage. But as I said, it’s your choice.

The first day I paid full attention to the street. I almost was hit three or four times by rickshaws, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the near sighted Jaipur middle class driver in one of these pencil box sized inexpensive India designed and manufactured cars, the kind you saw on Mr. Bean. By day two, my tolerance had vastly expanded when it came to accidentally stepping on nasty stuff.

You can tell a lot about a place by the condition of the sanitation and its streets; when the channel is set up to meet both important social needs—the need to shit and the need to get to a place even though in the case these Jaipur streets, the place they were rushing to didn’t apparently involve using a toilet.

Like anywhere else city experience depends on the people who inhabit them.  Clear New York City of its population and replenish it with ten million Indians imported from Jaipur and the surrounding towns, and ask yourself if the New York City experience would remain the same after the Indians settled in.

Most of the people in the streets of Jaipur in January are cold. Some of them warm themselves over small fires set in the gutter of the road. It’s smoky, dusty and cold like the blade of stiletto shoved into your ribs. Rickshaw drivers line up along the top of the road on one side, and on the other are the tuk-tuk drivers.  Poverty has its own class distinctions and on the way down the ladder—your identity is defined by your means of transportation, and if those on foot are the worst off.

So when a foreigner takes long walks along streets no longer used for walking except by people so poor they are on their last legs, he is doing something peculiar in the eyes of the Indians. That explains the constant solicitation by rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. Actually rickshaw drivers hover at a low number on the scale of vocal harassment. They hardly try and are easily discouraged when ignored. Not tuk-tuk drivers. They have a horn and they use it to announce they are inviting you to jump inside. You look at their clothes, shoes and faces and you see they have nothing but the tuk-tuk. That’s it. A rickety, beat up tuk-tuk is all that stands between them and the plunge into the rickshaw class. That makes tuk-tuk drivers all the more desperate and persistent.  It wasn’t just the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers; it was the faces of the people in the market, behind the stall counters, their customers, and the lassi wallahs. You rarely found a smile. It wasn’t they didn’t know how to smile, it just the result of how and where they lived. Their faces said to you, “Look around at this shit, would you be smiling?”

No one can understand what a billion people means. It’s beyond anything in our experience. A billion is an abstraction. In that sense it means nothing what we think it means. Take the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers—because of the large population there will emerge many more such people who have the means to become such a driver, than there is a need for the service. In other words, they are condemned to float on the thin membrane of survival and hope they will be spared falling through.

If there was ever an example of the balm of gods, deities, and rituals, stroll along the road lined with rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. There you will find the true believers congregating in clumps, warming their hands over a small fire on the road. My arrival in India for the first time as I did a couple of decades ago was the turning point when clutching to the Panglossian fantasy ended. Voltaire’s Candide brought us face to face with the unreasonably optimistic attitude of life. That things will get better, they will be different, and this dogma or that will bring a life free of suffering. India teaches you that are an illusion. In terms of loss, that is one of the toughest ones to let go of—all of our democratic, North American values, ethics and morality, our political system, democracy, are premised on things will get better.

Of course it is a fabrication, one we like to tell ourselves, and resend about this stage in the essay that someone like me is about to tell them that this illusion isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of people who lived in places like Jaipur.  Bundi, a small village four hours outside of Jaipur, where I once spent two weeks, showed me that there was always some other place more fucked than the one you found yourself in. Compared to Bundi’s population, the Jaipur Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers were making it in the big city. But I am a writer and not a politician who needs to tell voters what they want to hear about ‘life’ and ‘existence’ to get elected. It’s a pity that Voltaire never made a journey to India. Candide would have been a different book.

You might argue, even in Jaipur the average person is likely to be better off than their parents and grandparents. I leave the demographics of Jaipur to the experts.  But the impression walking the streets in and around the old Pink City, that if a lot of people lived in worse conditions than the people I saw, I tried to ask how people would survive long enough to reproduce another messy lump of poverty marginally less in the shit that they were. Pink, you might be thinking, why pink for the walls enclosing a city? Colours schemes, like ideology and technology, emerge from the accidental convergence of taste, personality and fashion of time, hand down as visual reminder how easily susceptible we are to historical mockery.

I wasn’t in Jaipur to walk around broken streets with germ-infected spores hanging like nano dirigibles waiting to fly up my nose, colonize my mouth and eyes. No, I came to the city in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur every year.

Over the years, I’ve been invited to participate in festivals in America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and was the recipient of the royal treatment as a panelist. You experience what it is like to drink from the silver urn in front of an audience clutching paper cups. Such an invitation is the equivalent of touring Jaipur as the raja’s high table guest. I wasn’t invited to Jaipur. I went as a reader. I went as the audience. When you go to a literary festival as a reader you are like one of the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers on the road. You are a transport for others. In the case of others at a literary festival, you are transporting egos and reputations. I was to learn, that a reader’s role at a literary festival is not unlike a rickshaw driver straining his muscles to get you and your baggage up a steep mountain road. Like the people in the street and shops around the Pink City, I was another face in the crowd looking to get a glimpse at the palace entourage moving to their place where they looked down from the stage as this vast mass whose lives were as invisible to them as their lives were visible to us.

Glimpses of the modern world were everywhere—the cellphone, TVs, computers in the hotels and offices but in area around the Pink City you learn that most of the people in the area have no benefit from modernity. Whatever technological driven world had passed their rickshaws and tuk-tuks had left them eating dust, pissing against a wall or waiting for a passenger. The advantages of the modern world never had quite reached them and they live their lives in a world of hand to mouth poverty, one their ancestors would have recognized.

The invited speakers receive the full VIP treatment—proper transport, hotel, meals, special nametags, microphones, photos on website pages, printed on brochures, put them in the limelight. It gives readers a reason to go and listen to what a writer might have to say. Once you’ve been an honored guest, a guru with something worth saying, and naturally you develop an archduke’s sense of entitlement. It took me a day to adjust to my new status as a ‘participant’. Like all former elites who have been overthrown in a revolution, what I thought was the festival life among the attendees wasn’t at all what it was really like. No wonder the elites fought from ancient to modern times, often to the bitter end, as to maintain that place at the high table had an existential element. They sense it was a long drop to the feeding troughs below. And they were right in their fear.

January 2015 brought a number of famous and near-famous authors invited to speak on panels: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nicholson Baker, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and Zia Haider Rahman. As was to be expected, the British authors captivated the audience with their combination of wit, style, charm and turn of phase, that melting them into a pliable unit—they could have marched us as a mob up the hill to demand the organizer upgrade to their room or fly them home first class, and we would have done it gladly. We might have been readers; but there were huge numbers of us at these panel events. I once spoke to an audience of several hundred people at a literary festival in Spain and another in Germany, but the Jaipur Literary Festival audiences were immense, Gandhi sized masses dressed for sitting attentively in the open and in dreary cold of January. At one event, their number expanded like fruit flies to the thousands.

That takes me back to that number we can’t comprehend—a billion. Six thousand people turned out to see VS Naipaul. It seemed, at the time, something like a billion people.  The point is, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is free, and once you’ve done a few forts and palaces, there’s not much other to do than to walk down shit covered side streets, going to gawk at and be entertained by authors, many of whom had been persuaded to leave their comfortable homes for Jaipur. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the festival over a five-day period. I was one of them, wearing a tag with no name but with highly ambiguous word: Participant.

I’ve asked myself, why do the British authors all sound like a version of David Cameron or Sean Connery? Having been educated and taught in England, I had a rough idea—British authors were those who had trained for politics or the stage, but couldn’t get elected an acting job. So they turned to writing. They are naturally theatrical and easily switched into a series of funny regional accents. For foreigners, they can say just about any insane, stupid or silly thing and come across as having spoken the truth. The British authors are like the old Roman roads and fortresses, with their precision, planning, elegance and design. You can be bedazzled by such roads if you ignore the main function of the road isn’t the road but the place it takes you or in the case of the fortress, rather than going into awe over the battlements and ramparts, you ought to be concentrating on the question of defending against whom and what? We tend to look at authors, roads, and fortresses stripped of their essential function. Here’s a good definition of insanity—to marvel with exalted reverence at something that your mind has isolated and totally ignored its context.

Literary festivals are breeding grounds for this kind of collective insanity.

The presence of the British authors reinforced what most of us know that the celebrity culture, like the Borg, has absorbed writers and politicians, and turned them into performers beguile their audience with wit. Sometimes they also read to their audience. That can be a mistake. In the case of one of the British authors, it was sad he’d not been told never to read to an audience as what he had written never matched his improvised riffs. There is an overlap of literary lid on the political jar. Jeffrey Archer springs to mind as does Salman Rushdie, whose appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was dropped after a political protest started to get out of hand. Rushdie that is, not Archer who as far as I know has never worked the Indians up into a frenzy of shouting for his head.

The point is all writers invited to participate in a major festival have been invited based on a political decision. He or she will be popular and draw an audience, and make money and prestige for the festival and its organizers. Festivals are, after all,  creatures born from the womb of capitalism. Celebrity culture, like investment banking, is a money-spinner and a number of people at the top benefit. They are usually run somewhere between Stalin’s regimes and a Mafia organization based on omerta. So like most tyrannies the audience is left to wonder what really happened inside that one author was invited and another was not. The fact is, literary festivals, like elections for politicians, no one is thinking beyond this author or politicians makes me happy, reinforces my good feelings about myself, my life, my identity, and that’s just fucking good enough. Thank you very much for asking.

The one thing I learned as an invited author to a literary festival panel was never to follow a British author, unless he’s limited to reading from his book. Otherwise, I’d be finished before the curtain came up and what the audience would see before them was a Canadian who moved in the literary swimming pool and who was nothing like the British author who had swam all those backstrokes and after doing a series of back flips off the high board. As authors from North America, we can’t help but sounding like someone talking in burst about the weather on a shopping mall escalator, or worse that distant thwack of a machete whacking a path through a virgin forest.

The real turn around that celebrity corner was the election of Ronald Regan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the last non-professional actor elected to the American presidency. Tony Blair played a similar role in taking Britain deep into the makeup room of Hollywood. TV nighttime talk shows and the Daily Show in North America cemented the celebrity deal for politicians. They’ve come a long ways since riding horse in B-cowboy movies that would big in the 1950s. Not surprising, Rushdie inadvertently created that hole in the universe that showed that a literary author could be turned into a large, mass seller through politics and death threats. We have come to expect the author to be foremost a performer; it is the performance that sells a lot of books. This had the benefit of unlocking readers from the guilt of having to read the book. The performance, like the movie, was an acceptable substitute for reading. No one who bought a book was expected to read it. Or read all of it. That is missing the point. It was having the book as a souvenirs of an experience of seeing and hearing a celebrity. Better a book that is signed by the performer.

Living in Thailand, the Jaipur Literary Festival also gave me a perspective on the political situation in that country. I had stumbled upon one of the reasons the current leader in Thailand seems out of synch with the behavior of contemporary politicians; as a military big shot, he never had to earn his stripes as an entertainer for the masses.

I suspect for thousands of years people had no other expectation for their rulers than they would be shout, express outrage, threaten, and demand they pay attention even though he didn’t make them feel good about anything in particular.  Our ancestors lived in a world where it was common for a leader to wave his fist at them, screamed at them to listen and shut up, and called them ungrateful. We have only started to adjust to a world where politicians are scripted, dressed, made-up, and rehearsed before they step behind a podium. That is why they are hardly saying anything that might make anyone, anywhere with the right to vote angry. There are writers like that too. They want to make every reader happy they took the tuk-tuk down their road, the one with no shit or garbage piled up to make you puke on your boots.

Where your worldview was hammered into your skull matters. If your worldview was shaped by command and control, giving orders, the world of explanation and making feel good is an alien landscape, where people make fun of you, laugh at you, or criticize your ideas and cast doubts on your competence and honesty. Show business is cruel in ways the generals don’t easily tolerate. Audience ratings, like election ballots, are popularity contests among those who tell the best stories.

There is a vast degree of misunderstanding between the world of command and control and the world of public performers who manipulate an audience to accept poverty, global warming, shit in the road is always their fault. In the modern celebrity world, shouting orders at audience violates an unwritten code that is the Magna Carta of the vast entertainment industry—audiences expect to be seduced, in fact they have been domesticated by seduction most of their lives; it has become the natural order of things. We crave seduction. Not even Western schools bother any longer to order and drill students into submission to authority. Think of this transition as the difference between love-making and rape. Walking the back streets of Jaipur, seduced or ordered, most of the locals were doomed just like their ancestors stretching in an unbroken line for hundreds of years had been doomed. They had no way out of the Pink City, no exit from their lives, and spent their days running after foreigners to sell a hand puppet as if this cruel irony was living.

The festival lasted five days. After it ended, we moved hotels to a place a hundred and fifty meters from the arches gateway to the Pink City.

Walking along the side roads that were used by rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows and dogs I thought about what I’d heard and experienced at the festival. Thoughts in India are never long before being interrupted with a horn blast or someone begging for money or trying to sell a hand-made puppet or hand-painted silk squares with colorful elephants.

I turned into lane stretching half a kilometer between rows of shops and ending at the entrance to the Pink City. Shoes, gems, baked goods, shampoo and mouthwash shops, hole in the wall places, with eagle eyed staff jumping into my path pinning me between the tuk-tuks and rickshaws racing down the street and their bodies. It felt like a hostage taking situation. They guard their patch on the pavement like an NFL guard. The Indians rarely smile. The more aggressive ones show their teeth as they seek to make a sale. Their skin and bone dogs wonder about the world outside where the rumors must have filtered back to Jaipur about a place where dogs are man’s best friends.

Jaipur gave me the space to think about the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘festival’ used to describe the gathering I’d attended. When I travel to a new place, I walk around and find a place to read. On this trip I packed Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town  & Other Stories and Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.  As I read Bukowski, a couple of observations floated to the surface. He would have immediately known that Bukowski was exactly the kind of writer who’d never be invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival. He was too raw, exposed, and truthful about his relationship to people, authority, and conventional morality. He didn’t play the game that was demanded. He’d have shown up drunk and slurring his words and would paw at the moderator’s beasts. He short-circuited the seduction ritual with huge quantities of beer, wine, and whisky.

As down and out as Bukowski was, crashing into the lives of others and like a parasite burrowing into their nest, fridges, and booze supply until all was sucked dry and then moving along, he would have been no where near the bottom of the heap of people who lived on the back streets of Jaipur. That may have been a good reason not to invite him. His kind of life, attitude, style, and whippet like speed to a liquor cabinet worked extremely well to expose the cant of American middle-class and dog-walking culture but outside of that realm, stripped of its context, it had little meaning. For Charles Bukowski or someone like Henry Miller they never worried about stepping in shit as they bounced from whorehouse to bar like a slinky with too much kinetic energy.

In Train to Pakistan a district official comes to a village called Mano Majara where Hindu Sikh and Muslim had lived in peace. But partition would change everything in their world. The village is dirt poor. It’s a hardscrabble place about to be sucked into the vortex of mass dislocation and wholesale murder. The official is shown great deference and respect, given all of the amenities including a young girl barely one foot into womanhood who comes from the village. Her role is to provide sexual services to this physically repellant and morally corrupted official. She has no choice in the matter. She was no different from the puppets sold on the streets. Someone else pulled the strings and she accepted the hand that fate had dealt her. Ultimately is an illicit affair between a Sikh boy and Muslim girl.

As I looked up from the Khushwant’s India of 1947 and out at the people in the street, I wondered how much the lives of most of these people had changed in relation to power. From the look of things they had been treading water from centuries and the waterline still rested chin high. A few more degrees dip in the temperature would dispatch the next group of the most vulnerable.

All that wit and humor on the stage at the festival was light years away from the reality of their hard lives. Reading Bukowski and Singh in Jaipur made me aware how I can lick my finger and the change the page of the book on a whim. If the passage I am reading is slow, annoying or ponderous and my forefinger is my army. Bury that scene by turning the page. But when I looked up from the book, sitting along a street in Jaipur, there was no page to flip. I was in place with a long history of invasions, wars, murders, and alliances. Billions of pages might detail the history. It was no use trying to flip them. There were too many. History gave me the finger. Fuck you, was the message from the past, we turn the page on you. Your life is nothing but a short story. But our pages as history turn so slowly there is no way to read them all let alone assign moral responsibility for what happened.

History was a major topic at the festival. From the crusades, the blunders of the CIA, the role of Indians in WWI, the Cultural Revolution in China, the mythology of Mahabharata. History is a record of vanity and suffering buried among the lies and inflated self-flattery and congratulations of the victors.  The tragedy of human existence was before my eyes. I didn’t have to read a book to find that out there is madness in the world and when it boils over in revolutions, genocides, wars, and pogroms, those at the bottom suffer the most. We repress most of this knowledge about the world because it is too painful to process. We turn our backs on such knowledge because we wish to continue living in the world where our ignorance is the mainstay of keeping us sane. That’s another reasons the celebrity author is so popular. We’ve become part of the ignorance machinery. An author’s popularity with the masses correlates with his or her ability to create an illusion of knowing. It works because we are conditioned over a lifetime to mistake distractions for knowledge. We know no other way to be. Until we sit on a side street in a shitty part of Jaipur watching a rickshaw pedal by skeleton with flesh attached, someone whose gods give him a chance to wipe the bitterness from his mouth and keep on moving.

The stakeholders in reality run their games in backrooms. The rest of us are one of the chips in large stacks moved on a table with a bet attached. We ride a cultural gulf stream, one which prefers the illusion of democracy. Our celebrity trained politicians, authors, movie stars, TV celebrities, sports heroes combined with our gods distract us from the reality of our life. The boy selling the puppets in front of Mr. Donut in Jaipur is the message no one wants to think about. It’s not witty or funny or amusing. It’s terrifying.

India is the place to go for enlightenment. That’s a small ‘e’ enlightenment experience where the scales drop from your eyes and you see first hand in places like Jaipur, Bundi, and Varanasi the long process of primate domination has always been much the same. We only see the effect: its vanity and suffering. But we ignore the cause. Literary festivals, like the one in Jaipur, are another form of primate domination activity. We repress from our consciousness that the people we have read and listen to on panels are not really telling us what we need to know, and they aren’t really what we think they are. They have their own alpha monkeys with sharp teeth on their back. They are one nightmare away from waking up. Perhaps that’s why we go to see celebrities. It might just be the performance where they truly wake up, throw away the mask, and tell the truth about existence. If only they had the guts. If only I had the guts. But “guts” is just a plain word for emotions and emotions are the well from which we draw our illusions.

I am glad I wasn’t a speaker, that I didn’t appear on stage, that I didn’t feel the pressure to meet the emotional needs of an audience whose illusions needed nurturing—that we are special, that our lives have meaning, that people who write books and say witty things really know something about existence. I could have saved the five days of panels by going to the weapons room at 18th century City Palace inside the Pink City, the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The palace complex houses, among other treasures, an astounding collection of swords, daggers, shields, flintlocks, muskets, battle axes, some in thoughtful daisy wheel patterns to make them look like objects of art rather than objects of murder.

In another place in the same massive compound I discovered two huge sterling silver vessels 1.6 meters in height. Each had the capacity to hold 4000 litres of water. The silver urns were commissioned by a Maharaja who decided it would be a good idea to cart his own water supply from the Ganges River to be used on his 1901 trip to England. The water urns were made from 14000 melted silver coins. Just maybe the vast array of war and ritual weapons in the room had some causal connection to the 14000 silver coins.  Security guards flanked the urns. Sentinels from the past, guarding a treasure so one man could drink water. How those coins were acquired is likely noted in a history book or a document on someone’s shelf, but the words on the pages are too heavy to turn.

The weapons and the urns are a clue to the mystery of why things are the way they are in Jaipur and most other places have been for a very long time. Only the weapons and urns have changed with technology and fashion. The basic idea, though, doesn’t belong to Jaipur. The weapons and urns are a metaphor to mark the moment when you can say, now I understand something useful about people, power, faith, and existence. Some glimmer of knowledge that makes sense of the boy on the street selling puppets, the old rickshaw drivers, the burly chested tuk-tuk driver, people on the street and in the bazaars—all of them united by the belief that all you need to survive are good brakes, a horn and luck.

The Jaipur Literary Festival organizers should commission miniature two silver urns filled with a couple of soup spoons of water from the Ganges River and present them as a gift to the most famous speaker. The ceremony would be the crowning of the new Maharaja in the literary world. The glory, the pomp, the ritual would inflate the crowds beyond seating capacity. It is the performance they want to witness. India is a place where history lives, wake up that sleeping giant, commercialize the silver urns and other artifacts, allow celebrity authors to bring adapt the traditions behind the objects, fitting them comfortably into our modern, global culture.

If I would be invited to a literary festival I’d take a couple of things other than a silver urn to show. A pair of brakes, a steering wheel with horn, and an amulet. One more thing—don’t worry yourself should you step into a steaming pile of cow shit. Just keep moving ahead. I’d tell the audience this is all you need in your knapsack. And they would wonder whether to laugh, wondering if I had told them a punch line to a joke, and if so when would I explain it to them through an amusing story. Then I’d tell them about the weapon room daisy pattern of flintlocks and the silver urns as tall as the average man.  Then I shut up and stay silent for the rest of the performance. And I would never be invited back again.

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My most recent book of essays The Age of Dis-Consent is available in Thailand’s leading English language bookstores and as an ebook: kindle, smashword and kobo.

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Posted: 2/8/2015 6:49:14 PM 

 

In mid-2009 I had the idea to start a blog with crime writers posting weekly essays about crime, politics, corruption, police, courts, crown prosecutors, publishing, and writing. We started out with Matt Rees, Colin Cotterill, Barbara Nadel and myself. Over the years others joined our ranks, including Jim Thompson, Margie Orford, John Lantigua, Matt Rees and Colin Cotterill after many essays moved on. In our most recent reincarnation, our mainstay and the exceptional survivor from 2009 Barbara Nadel has continued to write essays for this website. In addition to Barbara, Quentin Bates, is another of our long term authors who has gone the distance. Barbara, Quentin, along with Jarad Henry, and Susan Moody, are our current team. I’d like to thank each of the current authors and those who wrote for us in the past. Like our readers, I have great admiration for your essays.

2009 seems light years away from the present. The world we started writing about is now a foreign place. Our 2014 world, at least in my part of it, has moved away from support of essential freedoms including free speech. But that is not the reason for saying goodbye. Let me explain why a decision has been made to close International Crime Authors Reality Check.

Writing a weekly essay is relatively easy for most professional writers. That is, for the first few months. Indeed it is exciting and a welcome alternative to writing fiction. Sustaining that excitement for years is more of a challenge. The months turn into years and the weekly demand becomes a burden, interfering with other obligations. It’s easy to get burnt out after a few years of weekly essay writing. This is no doubt why Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates are putting through the weekly essay writing ordeal for three years and then released from those chains with a degree.

Each of us at International Crime Authors Reality check have sought to bring you essays that stimulate, entertain, challenge, provoke, and expand your own world view as well as ours. We are collectively feeling weary from the weekly demand. Some of us are running out of topics and fear repeating ourselves. It is, in other words, time to for all of us to move on.

We are all active novelists and that is a full-time preoccupation. Freeing ourselves from the essay writing will allow us to pay more attention to our research and fiction writing. That is where we make our living. The essays have always been a way of giving back something to our readers in between novels. It has been a way to stay in touch. To let you know how we think about a variety of issues. I believe the website has given each of us a great opportunity to expand the range of our interests and our writing, and to say things that are difficult to work into fiction.

We will leave the website up as an archive to the five and half years of essay writing. We thank our readers for their comments and opinions and for stopping by and reading our latest essays. You are truly special to us. You are the people who buy our books, so we won’t be disappearing anytime soon. You will find us where you’ve always found us—inside the enigma called fiction, sending along our vision of life, crime and society.

Regards,

Christopher

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Posted: 12/18/2014 7:47:01 PM 

 

I’ve been thinking about the current government’s plan for Thailand to create a digital economy, AI and H.P. Lovecraft. Digital is a magic word. It is a talisman for progress and development like Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy and other of the upper case words that fly past in the sentences we read every day.

You may have missed the news cycle where the prime minister announced Thailand’s plan to enter the digital economy. There are a number of contradictions in such a plan not least of which is that internet freedom is ranked as ‘not free’ and Thailand is lower than Burma.  You might say those are minor details to be worked out later. Or you might think if your substituted digital for air transport economy, with the caveat that all authorized aircraft are barred from Thai airspace and offenders will upon landing will be arrested. It’s too early for an analysis of the specifics of what Thailand would need to adjust for a digital economy to work. It is, however, a good time to look at the larger context of the mindset inside the digital economy and where cultural, political, social as well as economic implications that lie ahead.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s world, the digital economy is one more milestone leading to our eventual extinction. Biology, ecology and technology merge in our little tango until reaching a final climax when the music stops. That end is far down a dark future road. For the here and now, the question is more immediate—how does a country and a culture move without great disruption to its core moral values, myths and legends from an analogue society to a digital one? Or can the disruption to the existing cultural infrastructure be limited or contained?

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In other words, what resources in terms of education, research and development, incentives and mindset must be changed to ease the transition from one type of economy to another? The information is written in the stars. The difference that matters is in the process used to extract that information. Astrologers have extracted information from the stars long before the digital age.  In the scientific age of algorithms, big data and space missions, involve the use of different tools, training, skills and language from those used by a fortuneteller.  There are costs involved any time a culture moves from astrologers’ predictions to the international, post-Enlightenment world of scientists speaking to each other in complex mathematical equations. You can launch a government policy by announcing it. But to change a cultural mindset requires more than a public announcement.

Most of us go about our lives flitting between mental states that are not unlike goal posts on a football field. One end is the rational, deliberate, analytical end zone where uncertainty and ambiguity over whether you’ve scored a real goal is elusive, and at the opposite end someone like an astrologer is the goalkeeper. At that end zone are the absolutes, myths, fables, legends, the sacred, where there is never a doubt. Our feet are on the ground but we long to experience a sense of transcendence, freedom from doubt, and glue to bond a large community. An Astrologer’s culture delivers such goods and that’s what makes them endure, a lot of people want exactly these things.

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In between is the playing field where teams from both sides huddle, call plays, throw passes and where the highest achievement is to score an on-side goal. Logos and Mythos are the opposing goal post.

The Logos side, the ‘reasoned discourse’ is based on doubt and predictions on a testability and repeatability of a set of facts that are falsifiable by any independent observer. It embraces the Darwinian world in which 99.9% of all species go extinct, and that will include us. High priests lift a shield manufactured from authority, fable and dogma to protect such a bleak future. Science fields the logos team. Their players are coached on a diet of facts and logic. They enter the game not with an answer but with questions. They are hypothesis creators, tentative, and comfortable with ambiguity. In their playbook, they move down field accepting that in a state of ignorance and chance, nothing is certain. Like Dr. Spock, they are offended by arguments tainted by emotional or irrational premises that aren’t falsifiable. Science can partially lift the veil of ignorance before it falls again on hard questions for which there is no certain answer. Consciousness, dark matter, and dark energy are contemporary examples that most scientists throw up their hands and confess ignorance. Of course, there is hand waving by a few but that will never pull down the science goal post. Logos gives you a card with this written on it: You’ve cleared the maternity ward and ahead is an exit that doubles as the crematorium door. For the duration of that journey, you can accept the handrails of dogma or accept no one has truthful answers to the big questions.

In your time between those two doors you will be in a free fall. As John Gray writes in the New Statesman about Lovecraft, we may have to face that we occupy a universe that is nothing more than lawless chaos. There is no parachute. There is no safe place to land. Mythos shields us against such a terrible reality.

The Mythos side shelters under a large tent populated by spiritualists, religious believers, astrologers, shamans, faith healers, magicians, palm readers, New Age people, artists, dropouts and the authoritarian minded who place priority on a number of values—authority, hierarchy, loyalty, purity, security, and faith.

By tradition, a high priest wouldn’t tolerate being contradicted, questioned or his authority doubted. His word and precepts embody the absolute truth. Inside this universe, the mind of man reigns supreme. Until the Greeks came along logic at least in elementary form likely existed but it was hardly a cultural necessity. The role of Logos accelerated around five hundred years ago with the Age of the Enlightenment. The impact it had the West saw dramatic political, social and economic changes. In the East, there was drama but most of it couldn’t be traced to the Enlightenment. People, whether from the West or East, possess the same basic computing wetware in their skull. How they process information is part culture and part hardwired. Research suggests that we are predisposed to Mythos no matter where we come from.

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The digital economy the Thai Prime Minister wishes to kick start in Thailand is a modern product born from the scientific tradition. The Mythos cultural ownership over ideas, explanations and proofs act like the dark matter, as scaffolding for in the digital world.  Logos represents, based on this metaphor, 5% and Mythos 95% of the human mind. Our rational, logic mind is the mahout on the back of the unconscious, irrational mind. Both Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind  make this point.

    

Mythos has a different card: Your faith and belief are your parachute, strap it on, and whatever you do when one of those free fallers appears along side, ignore him because you have a safe landing ahead.  It is difficult to organize, lead and field an army based on the elegance and beauty of a mathematical equation. While debate, words and equations are the arsenal of Logos, Mythos uses hate and anger as a prelude to inflicting violence and to redact all evidence of violence and the officials doing the dirty work from the public record. The history of Mythos is a long chronicle of blood letting and violence. The release by the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee of a 500 report documenting torture by the CIA has exposed that underneath the myths, fables and legends of American democracy and ethics masked a much darker side, one that leverages cruelty, brutality, and lying in the name of freedom. Mythos hides the dehumanization carried out on an industrial scale inside dungeons, torture chambers, Black sites, and detention centres. (See New Yorker article: here)

In reality, we all have a logos and mythos side. Knowledge and anti-knowledge, like matter and anti-matter annihilate each other, and when you look around you see evidence of that mutual destruction most places that you look. But no one should be smug and feel they are above the fray. Would you buy a condo unit on the 13th floor of a building given there were comparable units on the 14th and 12th floor? Do you have a lucky charm you carry, although you might not call it that?

Ultimately a choice has to be made. The two worlds start from different premises. But there are also lots of overlaps that don’t look like an overlap until you examine it closely. When Logos seeks to legitimatize a practice borrowed from Buddhism the mindfulness movement turns to science for validation. (see Here) Faith in science isn’t the same as science which makes narrow claims about the known physical world and processes in that world. Borrowing the ‘science’ label as way of giving a Logos explanation for a diet, vitamins, exercise or mindfulness is a way to distinguish it from religious ‘faith’ but substituting science for religion doesn’t dilute the fact it remains faith driven.

When either Logos or Mythos attempts to validate its borrowing from the other tradition, it usually manages to alienate both sides. There lies the conundrum for leaders in countries such as Thailand who wish to preserve the heart and soul of Mythos while at the same time creating a Logos based economy. We may not be capable of making such a choice and will remain divided until a super-intelligent AI decides we are more bothersome and more trouble than we are worth and turns our atoms into paperclips.

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Because of our cognitive limitations and biases we are easily manipulated and our senses easily fooled. We want to believe that those who say they know are speaking the truth. We want to believe some people can tap into magic. There is a software app that has been developed to play on this vulnerability. It’s called Phoney and like any good mind-reading card trick convinces you that it has read your mind. (See here) We are suckers for sleight of hand. Conmen, illusionists, magicians, politicians, and others know the dirty little secret that fuels Mythos—we love theatre, mystery, the unexplained super-human feat that makes us sit in awe, believing the person in front of us, or the app on our screen, has tapped into some magical cosmic force.

The fear, among some quarters, is that an intelligent AI can become the ultimate shaman by exploiting psychological and mathematical principles that create the illusion of reading our minds. Would such a superintelligent AI shed Haidt’s elephant (the unconscious brain and the behavior attributed to it) in favor of the mahout, the elephant rider, the Logos? Some very clever people looking at the existing state of artificial intelligence believe we may never create a ‘superintelligent’ AI. While others, equally as brilliant, have faith this will happen in our live times. (see: Vanity Fair,Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence) Opinion is divided on the potential to realize intelligent AI. Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the field writes that those worried about super intelligent AI are creating a “religious narrative that’s a version of the Frankenstein myth.” (here)

Researchers and thinkers like Nick Bostrom apply probability analysis to the problem and conclude there is more than a negligible probability of a ‘superintelligent’ AI coming into existence. The fear is that unless development protocols are agreed upon to restrict and control (or delay) development (at least to those outlined in Asimov’s three laws of Robotics), an intelligent AI could present an existential threat to our species. Those who worry about an uncontrollable AI are like betters at the track. In a horse race the probability is the long shot won’t win. However, if the race is run enough times, a long shot will ultimately win. It’s not faith but a high mathematical probability that sooner or later intelligent AI will enter the winner’s circle. There is enough time to give policy makers breathing room to implement rational decisions and deploy remedies to prevent the catastrophe scenario of an unfettered ‘superintelligent’ AI.

Why an existential threat? Because evolution would no longer serve as the base for ‘natural selection.’ The increased intelligence, if such a thing arises, may operate on a different basis of recursive self-improvement, change and transformation. AI relationship with natural being may be radically different from our own and every other species that has evolved. We can’t image how and who will play this game, their rules and goals. We can hardly imagine our own world beyond what we currently know as Logos and Mythos leaving a trail of artifacts, murders, and victims. Crime authors, like science fiction authors, follow that trail.

Cultures and societies are also divided and split along the Logos and Mythos playing field. It’s no surprise that sports mad America provides the daily news cycle with reports of who has scored the latest goal. In most sports, there is no ambiguity; one side won, the other side lost. The goal post defenders, write columns, run for public office, own and operate TV stations, newspapers and blog sites. Look around you and ask yourself if someone were looking at your favourite blogs and websites which goal post they thought best represented your psychological and cognitive self? Make an edit. Ask your children, spouse, family, colleague, friends, whether they consider you a logos or mythos person? You can ask yourself, but will you give yourself an honest answer?

Next unpack the last 24-hour cycle of digital artifacts—the blogs, tweets timelines, Facebook posts and comments, blogs, essays, news articles, headlines, and photographs. I pretend to myself that I am up to date, informed member of the digital elite. The truth is I’ve skimmed a small thumbnail of the surface of the daily information. I am like one of the tourists on jet-skis rented from the local mafia, zooming across what appears to be the open sea of information. At the end of the day I end up back on the same beach, turn in the jet-skis, and stare at the vast ocean knowing I’ve not really gone anywhere, I come back to where I was, staring at a huge sea in front of me, with someone from the mafia claiming damage to his jet-skis and demanding money. Then it occurs to you. This is theater. We are involved in a complex drama and like most extras who have noaccess to the script, we only know the bits that are fed to us and from that we believe we have the whole drama in our heads. Science gives small, narrow answers to precisely formulated questions to answer what is the physical world made from and how the processes shape that formation. But science doesn’t have an answer that explains everything.

Theatre, novels, plays, art, music and dance are our theater. I write novels—intellectual submarines for the literate class—and create a theatre of the mind. Inside that mind are explanations for everything. It’s why we create and patronize the arts. It is from us, about us and serves important social and psychological needs. But I also recognize that oceans all of us, author and reader, seek to explore are infinitely large and the range of submarines small. I also have great respect for the scientific approach that is the modern logos model. Do I wish for economic and technological management, questions of climate change, resource exploitation, inequality, and injustice to be part of the mythos theatre? Not unless I am willing to live with the consequences of gross mismanagement, incompetence, and pogroms.  Given the level of development, the great transition that creates so much hatred and fear on the old playing field has shifted.  Logos has created a technological revolution that is taking Mythos out of the explanation of life game, make it a bystander, another face in the stands, a non-competitor.

Those on mythos side aren’t going to hang up their jerseys and leave the field quietly. They rail against the Lovecraft implication that extinction spares no species, including ours. They have the numbers on their side worldwide, and they are pushing back in the Middle East and Asia and America.  In this theatre we watch the players come on stage as hostages, beheaders, suicide bombers, children soldiers, and warlords, and we watch the old elites believing the old magic based on mystics and superstitions will continue to work the levers of stability and power.

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The question isn’t really: How does one go about creating the basis for a digital economy in Thailand? Instead, it is how does Thailand plug into and participate in the existing global digital economy? Consider that Freedom House has concluded under its Freedom of the Net Status category that Thailand’ net is ‘not free.’ As I noted at the beginning, there appears to be a policy ambivalence, if not conflict, as to role of the Internet in a digital economy.

The digital, technological world connects creative minds to a certain cognitive inclination—one that is critical thinking, authority challenging, mystical destroying, and superstition busting mindset. It is also the side that accepts the mantra “I don’t know.” If your culture is based on the assumption those in authority should be trusted when they say, “I know” some cognitive adjustments will be needed for importing the digital infrastructure for this new technology. The astrologers’ ethos will need overturning at the highest levels.

Is there a workaround that allows for the importing of the digital world without contaminating the users? There’s a hard question. If it were narrowed to just technical and engineering problems there wouldn’t be a problem. But that is an illusion; the inquiring mind can’t be contained and when it looks down field, the crystal ball gazers find a direct threat to their mythical world. As an old uncle used to say, a time comes when you fish or cut bait.

There are storm clouds on the horizon. How we will individually and collectively deal with them will depend on the battle between the logos and mythos. The victor will get to write the history of that game and whose goalposts were left standing. Meanwhile, in Thailand, I expect an auspicious time and date will be announced for the launch of the digital economy, and the funny thing is everyone, logos and mythos, will agree that is entirely normal and fully to be expected.

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Posted: 12/11/2014 7:39:17 PM 

 

Like most people, I have a great deal of trouble comprehending very large numbers. We read that there are between 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and a like number of galaxies in the universe. How about Nonillion, Octillion or Decillion?  And at a dinner party someone explains that we have 100 billion neurons in our brains and over 100 trillion synapses, and we can’t decide on whether to have a second helping of rice. There are over a billion Chinese and over a billion Indians. They all want what you have—car, air-conditioning, holidays to exotic beaches, restaurant dining, iPhones, designer clothes and watches. But I have no idea what those numbers actually mean.

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That’s no surprise. Most people have trouble with numbers, small or big. It may be that evolution never intended for us to worry about numbers beyond our fingers and toes. That would have been good enough in most cases. You go to the bank, take one of those slips from a machine and look at the digital number displayed to figure out how many people are ahead of you in the queue. We can do that pretty well. And because we can figure out that simple math and how that translates into waiting time, we have believed that we can handle numbers.

In reality, an overwhelming number of us fail to appreciate that we have crossed a numbers frontier and have entered a new terrain where the sheer size and complexity of numbers are shaping our modern lives in multiple ways. From our personal investment decisions to the deciding whom to vote for in an election , our expectations from politicians, leaders, and policy makers are increasingly connected with understanding the math than the personality behind the policy.

The problem is how slow advance in numeracy has left most of us at a distinct disadvantage in a modern scientific age where probabilities, big numbers, and percentages test the upper limits of our cognitive abilities. John Paulos’s classic book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences  sounded the alarm more than twenty-five years ago. This brilliant book remains widely read and cited, but if anything, innumeracy has increased during the period since it was published and the world of huge numbers has proliferated like a third-world dictator’s watch collection. Numbers only tell part of the story. It is numbers combined with our illusion of superior wisdom that makes for a toxic brew. In other words, rather than being humbled by numbers we can’t understand, the opposite seems to happen—we become more dogmatic and certain.

A few examples will show the nature of our insoluble problem.

Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning was part of the duo who came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect. This happens to be one of my favorite cognitive biases. Not a day goes by without witnessing countless examples of unskilled people, officials, politicians, pundits, leaders display their illusion of superiority in knowledge, vision, policy decision making, predictions, and advice. They mistakenly rate their ability as superior and expect others to share that illusion. The fact they can’t recognize their own ineptitude is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Professor Dunning is back with more damning evidence of how this illusion of superiority is alive and well. Managers and supervisors rate their managerial skill, and then employees and peers rate the managers and supervisors skill. Guess what? There is no correlation between the two ratings. Managers psychologically can’t resist overrating their skill and talent, as they believe their view isn’t an illusion but an objective fact. That makes sense as CEOs and managers are paid because a board of directors also believe the top dog has superior managerial skill and cuts them large pay cheques for sums we only vaguely can comprehend. Professor Dunning’s research unearthed that 32% of engineers in a software company and 42% in another such company believed they were in the top 5% in terms of skill and quality.

The illusion persists for a couple of reasons: people fail to be honest about their weaknesses and their identity is linked with their strengths minus the weaknesses. Point out a weakness of anyone and watch the psychological defense mechanisms kick into place faster than a North Korean reply to a UN Human Rights Commission report.

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Here’s the executive summary: We are bad at big numbers, we have huge egos and monumental sized vanity shields protecting us from our weaknesses, as we go about the daily tasks of misclassifying, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. We bring these cognitive resources and biases to forming opinions on a wide range of issues from climate change, health insurance, and the risk being killed in a terrorist attack. Add the ideological filters and the realm of numbers become entangled with our belief system, representing what we wish the world to be rather the world as it is.

It gets worse. Those who earn their living based on getting the math right, mostly get it wrong. Check the record of economists predicting inflation or deflation, unemployment, market trends, and you see the fingerprints of Dunning-Krueger Effect all over the Excel files. Economists failed to predict the global financial crisis in 2008. (see here) In the world of casinos and professional gamblers they would have gone bust; but in the world of economists, we are left to think that Pinocchio must have been a fable about an economist.

Religion is a great place to bring perspective to the abstract idea of big numbers. Let’s leave the rarefied atmosphere of billions and trillions and drop down to the lower levels of tens of thousands. We still have trouble dealing with numbers of that size. Wikipedia has a page informing us that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. That’s not a misprint. There are, according to Wiki, 41,000 different Christian denominations. Not 41,000 denominations of all religions, this is just the Christians. Do you have any idea how big the number 41,000 is? Visualize a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at your house and let’s say you’ve squeezed in 23 relatives around a table. You can’t breathe for all the body heat generated around the table. Twenty-three people around a communal table is a large number but one we can comprehend. But compared to Christian denominations, 23 is a mere rounding off error. Even in small numbers people disagree about many things. So it should come as no surprise that Christians are forever disagreeing on the nature of Jesus, virgin birth, no virgin birth, what are curse words you can and can’t use, whether the pope can turn out any doctrine he wants and call it god’s word.

Does anyone believe that there are 41,000 ways to use a hair dryer? Or cook an egg? Or make soap? Or manufacturing cars? Or cleaning a monkey’s cage at the zoo. Anyone who held such a belief would be hauled off as insane, eccentric, unstable, or a fourteen-year in his locked room behind a computer screen. But when it comes to religion, we shrug off our insanity awareness detector and accept this state of disagree on all matters concerning exactly who is and what he stands for and what he would accept as right and wrong, a Christian god.

Scientists never say there are 41,000 competing theories of gravity or general relativity or 41,0000 versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. No there is just one theory and a handful of rival hypothesis. We seem to be able to cut big numbers down to very small number only if what is at stake can be measured and repeatedly tested countless times and each time the theory survives being falsified. That doesn’t mean a theory can’t be overturned or modified, only so far our theory of gravity, general relativity and evolution describes a testable reality.

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Fantasies are not testable. Religious beliefs are not testable. You can fill in the logical connection. This is why religious dogma, stories, beliefs can last for thousands of years. They can never be disapproved but every few years someone comes along with a new belief of what Jesus meant by what he reportedly said hundreds of years before it was actually reported. That is an advantage that religion enjoys. Like in writing any story, there will be fans, critics, and detractors. It just so happens the fan base for the Christianity story has spawned tens of thousands of slightly different understandings that makes its story superior and more true than the others.  Dunning Krueger Effect is in the fine point of dogma, too. We can avoid it even when thinking about the afterlife.

Back to the number of 41,000 and what it says about us, how we count things, divide up things and ideas, and base all kinds of assumptions on an abstract number. What makes for a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment is our inability to question our illusion of superiority. We compound that weakness with our cognitive inability to understand big numbers or to employ techniques like probability analysis, and critical analysis of measuring and testing.

We are locked into the cognitive prison cell of the Dunbar Number. 150. That is the number of people we can have a social relationship with. That number has remained constant over the time of our species. We are a small number species. We just haven’t faced up to the fact. There are a handful of people who get the big numbers. But teaching us is like instructing a chimp in playing poker. We can’t keep our cards straight or the cards played by those sitting around the table.

In terms of number comprehension, we’ve created advanced technology that is beyond our capacity to understand. We are constantly hitting the upper limit 150. You needed the brain for many things. Like most primates our social habits are based on mutual grooming in a band. Each one of our ancestors picked the fleas off others in those hard to get places. All of the evidence suggests that we are better flea pickers than stock pickers. We’ve hit a numbers wall. The problem is scaling. Number comprehension that worked perfectly well for flea pickers breaks down in a complex, interconnected world occupied by billions of their descendants.

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This doesn’t mean that only highly competent mathematicians should be allowed to vote, make predictions, or form policy; what it does mean is that our modern world is slipping out of our comprehension. Artificially Intelligence (AI) ultimately (2050) will come into its own because nothing short of advance intelligence will be able to make sense of the numbers emerging from Big Data. AI promises to calculate without the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We will see about that.

Alternatively, we might never get to the AI intelligent machine stage. In places like the USA where a new congress is riddled with anti-science, innumerate representatives, we may be witnessing a return to a culture where the highest value is placed on the ability to pick the fleas off a neighbor, who keeps count and returns the favor. But with those billions of Chinese and Indians that may prove to be a lot of fleas to keep track of.

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Posted: 11/27/2014 7:45:56 PM 

 

I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly dismissive of timeline photos and stories people post about food. If I really come clean, I’d say that my bias against such foodie photo/opinions/revelations has created an unearned sense of superiority. You’d never find me posting a photo of food, I tell myself. Until one Tuesday evening in November in Bangkok, that is. Here is my food story with accompanying documentary evidence, which appears required if you are going to tell a food story. In any event, while chance sent me free food, I am paying a large price in now admitting myself into the circle of those who post stories about food.

I boarded the MRT from Sukhumvit Station around 9.45 p.m. Tuesday night, 18 November 2014 (details are important for the archive). I was on the last escalator leading to the train platform. I had noticed a farang immersed in a cellphone conversation and taking his time. I rushed past him sensing that the train might be there (most of the time I am wrong about that), running down the escalator to find the train waiting, doors open. I ran and slipped inside. About four steps behind was the guy who’d been on his cellphone. The doors were closing. It’s like one of those horror movies. The inevitable closing on someone’s hand and foot. He struck his hand in the door for leverage and his foot, too. Both were wedged in the door of the train as it was closing. But the MRT doors are unforgiving. He struggled but managed to remove his foot.

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At the same time before he floated away into nothingness, he left us a legacy of his existence: a plastic bag with bananas (2), yogurt (2) small milk (1), and a small box of Special K* cereal. This legacy (pictured above) managed to squeeze through the inner door. It was a battle he realized he was going to lose. He shook his hand free of the door. We locked eyes in that very moment. I felt I was watching a rough cut of George Clooney suited up in Gravity as he pushed away from the space ship. Peter, like George, had performed his part of the drama and now nothing was left but to push him into another time dimension outside of our vision. Let’s not get too overly dramatic, though. Unlike George Clooney, Peter had time to contemplate an alternative Plan B: either go back and buy the breakfast for a second time or call it a night and wait five minutes until the next train arrived.

From the contents of the plastic I concluded he’d not only lost his Wednesday breakfast, but there was someone waiting at home who had relied on Peter to bring breakfast home for him or her. I imagined a deep sense of disappointment descending on Peter’s household as he arrived empty handed, and offering up an original retelling of the “dog ate my homework” story.

As the figure of Peter trying to bravely smile as we saw him get smaller and smaller as the train gathered speed, all the Thais turned around in their seats. They were highly entertained by the farang missing the train but were at the same time slightly confused that his groceries had made it inside; well, almost inside, they were hanging, suspended chest high in the door. It was like a magic act. No one could take their eyes off the bag stuck in the door. Their brains were turning over, trying to process exactly what had happened.

I stood near the door, guarding the bag, wondering what I should do? I had one stop before I got off to walk home and not much time to make a decision. When the doors open, do I give the bag to who looks to be the poorest person in the car? It occurred to me that with the exception of my wife, I’ve never met a Thai who wouldn’t confess to a murder wrap before they’d eat something labeled: “Live Active Lactic Acid Bacteria Culture.” Beside the aversion to the yoghurt, the milk and banana would be of interest. But would giving it to one rather than another cause envy, may be a fight? I didn’t see any gardening tools so none of the passengers looked all that dangerous. But I decided, none of them looked hungry. Or poor. Then I thought, do I give to the motorcycle taxi guys outside my condo? No matter how many possibilities I couldn’t get over the Lactic Acid Bacteria problem I’d encounter. But it seemed an ethical violation to keep the food as spoils of a war left behind by a farang casualty in a battle with an MRT car door.

What would Calvino do? Or Mrs. Calvino (this is not a spoiler, only a possible long distance possibility in the deep future when Calvino, like Peter, leaves his food stuck in the door one too many times and decides it’s time to settle down with a woman who will see that he’s properly fed)? As it turns out, my wife was the one who fished out of the plastic bag a KBank receipts. One receipt had his name; his first name is Peter. I won’t embarrass him by spelling out his last name. If you know a Peter who banks at KBank who is his missing breakfast, let him know that I have it. It’s chilling in the fridge. He can pick it up anytime.

I had wanted to write about privacy and how that idea is dead. We are like one of those sad chimp mothers who continues to cradle the dead baby against her chest refusing to give into the reality of the situation. The two receipts Peter slipped into the shopping bag gave me a chill. There was not only his full name on the credit card receipt. There was also an ATM receipt showing a sizeable bank balance. How would he know the food would depart on a train without him? How would he sleep knowing someone on that train not only had his breakfast but his name, the branch of his bank and the amount of money he had on deposit.

This is a glimpse of how modern life has swallowed your privacy and spit it out on receipts. I am forever finding one in a pocket. I held a stranger’s two receipts in my hand. I don’t know him. But I now know a great deal about him. More than most people would be comfortable in confiding with a stranger. The ATM receipt was the equivalent of a privacy death certificate.

It couldn’t be more clear. Peter has no privacy, neither do I, and neither do you. Whether it is your Bank, credit card company, or any company you do business with, they can encode all or part of your personal information they’ve collected and they can sell, license, give, trade it, print it and distribute it, and profit from it. We’ve all lost much more than our breakfast. We’ve lost the right to put a receipt in a bag and lose it. The contents of Peter’s bag from the supermarket broadcast to the finder his private dietary choices and the financial details of his life. I feel I know a lot about Peter. In the future, we won’t have to lose our shopping bag to be in Peter’s situation.

Strangers are reading your life in the data you leave behind, the searches you make online, your emails, the articles and essays you read, and you are tracked in a hundred different ways. Google is a leading privacy slayer. I will leave you to contemplate two seemingly contradictory conclusions: We, our health, finances, politics, reading choices, desires, prejudices will never be lost to those who have access to the tools that allow for an audit. And secondly, We’ve all missed the train, leaving our identity stuck in a bag in the closed door. Take a long look. Peter’s you and he’s me.

*The keen eyed reader will have spotted the Special K box of cereal was sold past its expiry date.

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Posted: 11/20/2014 7:51:16 PM 

 

The difference between a man with a big reputation and one with no reputation is very little. That is the stone I want to put in your shoe. This weekend, walk around the block with it a couple of times before you take your shoe off and throw the stone away. We are conditioned to believe a universe of difference exist between people based on their reputations. Of course it is another social construct drilled into our skulls, the wound healed up, and we don’t ever remember the operation that put it in our minds. But it is there, rolling around each time we see a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, someone on TV or in a movie, or read something on social media.

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We are bombarded with reputation type advertisements. The advertisement often features is a smiling celebrity selling us a watch, perfume, a car or a cell phone. That person has a big reputation. The product or service he or she is shilling for benefits from the angel dust of the celebrity’s reputation. If his wife throws him out for infidelity like Tiger Woods or he shoots his girlfriend through the bathroom door like Oscar Pistorius, the ad campaign is cancelled and the connection is severed. Consumerism thrives on an ecology based on reputation.

People online are infinitely conscious of their reputation among their ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter. Slights, criticisms, and disrespect tarnish the highly polished reputation. People with a reputation, in other words, have something, in their mind, of great value that is to be protected and guarded. Reputation, like money, is a currency that buys the most precious of all commodities—social co-operation. We want to associate with people with high reputation. We want them as our friends, colleagues, family members, spouses, teachers, judges, politicians, policemen, generals, and sports figures. We want them to be heroes. We want them to be brilliant, kind, insightful, moral, and perfect. We demand the impossible and we reap the grief of disappointment when they fail us.

In Thailand, reputation, identity and face are rolled into a spiritual, sacred part of a person’s vital being. The cultural illusion is that face represents the essence of the person. Causing someone to lose ‘face’ in Thailand is dangerous. Case studies of people being stabbed, hacked, shot, knifed, strangled, dismembered, burnt or suffocated as a reaction to the loss of face would fill a small library. There seems to be a grim consensus that the victim is the one whose face has been destroyed and the dead face destroyer pretty much got what he or she deserved. Other cultures place an even more radical value on reputation or face, one that can extend to the entire family. For example, in some Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or runs away with her sweetheart against the wishes of her family, her relatives stone her to death in order to preserve the reputation of the family.

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Reputation, gaining, maintaining or losing it, in other words, can be a very serious business. Social media has made fundamental changes to the reputation game. Those seeking to use their big reputation online find a battalion of anonymous snipers gunning them down every timeline and newsfeed. And ordinary people can overnight create a large reputation from a YouTube video or photograph of a cat or baby. Our definition of what it means to have a ‘big’ reputation is changing. Among the millions of people who instantly recognize Kim Kardashian’s ass, how many of them would recognize the face of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Literature’s face? For those who have gained their reputation status in the analogue world, the digital minefields (I am sticking to the warfare metaphors) are more than an obstacle they are a clear and present danger. Bring in the minefield sweepers, and that is what appears to be happening in many places. Freedom of speech has been a casualty of this digital war.

We are in denial that the right to a broad freedom of expression is in triage. We don’t want to confront that reality. As we know, denial is the first stage in the five stage of grieving. We shut it out and pretend that we are entering a tunnel of grief and there is no way out. This sense of denial has been working through our consciousness for a long time, as has the crude, clumsy and brute stuff at the hands of dictators and authoritarian laws; it has been chipped away by those who have been the greatest supporters of freedom of speech, and they’ve done this in the name of hate crimes. Freedom of Expression has been slimmed down to the bone by both sides of the political divide for their own ideological reasons. One wonders whether free speech remains capable to run a good race in the competition for ideas. Speech can be a nasty, dirty and hateful display by the worst of our species, attacking women, gays, blacks, fat people, ethnic groups and religion. For everyone who stands on a soapbox and challenges an official or government policy connected with torture, extra-judicial murder or corruption, there will be five people standing on a soap box in some dusty, fly-bitten slum attacking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Authors are, as a class, as obsessed by reputation as much as the next person. You don’t have to look far to find one who falls apart emotionally over a ‘bad’ review, who lashes out as if the poison from the arrow shot into his reputation slowly causes his brain to unleash an unworldly howl. What readers (and most authors) forget is that a writer starts out with no reputation. She is an ordinary person sitting in a café, living off the dole, drinking coffee and writing Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, yes Virginia, started off as a nobody. After her reputation went off the charts into the realm of hyperspace-reputation, she penned a mystery under another name because she wished to escape her ‘reputation’ to prove that she could write a successful, well-received book without her ‘big’ name on the book. Of course The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Appeared like another guppy in a large school of guppies. Then word leaked out that it was written by ‘big’ reputation Star Fish named J.K. Rowling and it stood out in the aquarium, going on to become a huge international bestseller, confirming what we all ready know—we buy on reputation. We live and die on reputation. We are conditioned by birth to vote, love, kill, give and condemn based on someone’s reputation.

B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, saw people as malleable and easily shaped by positive tools like money rewards and negative reinforcements like shaming, shunning, or confinement. Skinner called our ability to be manipulated through rewards and punishments ‘operant conditioning.’ Consumerism exists because of this flaw in our collective character. We are insecure as to our identity, what is of value, what is worth living and dying for, that we are ripe to be manipulated by the big reputation gods that walk among us.

There are abstract ideals we believe people have the free will to choose—integrity, morality, ethics, or motives. When someone is attacked for corruption, wife beating, drug addiction, meanness, pettiness it diminishes their reputation. There are defamation laws to protect reputation. And in Thailand there are not just civil laws, but criminal defamation laws that will send someone who attacks another person, say for human trafficking, to prison. The state is enlisted as a protector of individual reputations. Reputation is these cases overrides facts that support the person was a fraud or charlatan. Criminal defamation makes them bullet proof; facts and evidence bounce off the plaintiff’s chest like bullets hitting superman.

Freedom of expression is important as a way to keep reputations from becoming bloated, overblown and dangerous lies. Much like there are drug testing laws that seek to protect us from ingesting drugs that will kill us, free speech allows us to expose the lies and deception and half-truths that poison a society. We all know this and agree to it in principle. We accept that those in the public eye, who have established a high reputation, are vulnerable to false accusations, slanders, and hate.

The question is whether we can tolerate the damage done by trolls, the haters, and psychos as a fair price to be exchanged for freedom of expression?

The reputation marauders pump cluster bombs to blow up reputations; they work around the clock on thousands website, blogs, gossip columns, and chat room. We love talking about ‘big’ reputation people, and one that has run over a cop, cheated widows and orphans out of their meager savings, or shot his girlfriend, is all over the news. The Germans have a great word for this moment as the reputation crashes and burns: Schadenfreude. You think you’re such a big shot, look at yourself in the mirror now. You see, you’re no different than the rest of us. Like my opening sentence, there has never been any other than imagined difference. But our imaginations create the balloon and marvel and cheer at its destruction.

That is the problem. We want freedom of expression without paying the piper. We think free means without costs. That is nonsense. But we accept so much nonsense and lies why should our skewed view of free speech be any different?

Some of the most honest writing you will read comes from writers before they had a reputation. Three such writers are Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and George Orwell. All of them were down and out and wrote about what life looked like when they had nothing but their wits, talent for insight, the observational skill, and with nothing in terms of reputation to lose. You learn from reading Bukowski what it’s like to be stopped by the police when you are a nobody and a drunk. He conveyed our worst fears of terror, humiliation, and helplessness; how they taste, how they stink and stick in our crawl. They reek like stale beer and cigarette smoke from Bukowski’s work. He not only understood fear, Bukowski could express that fear in words. He understood your fear, my fear and all of those around us. We are afraid that without a reputation anyone can do whatever they wish to you, violate you, beat you up, run over you, take your property, your wife, children, dog and there is bugger all you can do. So long as the actor has a ‘big’ reputation and there are no witnesses, and you have none, you are toast. It is your word against his. Good luck.

From Henry Miller, you learn the mental resources that are needed if you are a nobody and want food, drink or a place to flop in Paris. Miller lived among artists, the dreamers, the adventurers and wanderers, and he had an inner confidence that he’d be a somebody one day. He wrote about being a writer with a dream. But a dream doesn’t even rise to the level of a reputation. And we’ve already established a reputation is an abstraction, a social construct, and a fiction. Miller drove himself with booze and cigarettes and adrenaline to write a book that would convert him into a ‘big’ reputation man. Tropic of Cancer did that for him. And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, you find in this book no romance in poverty and obscurity. Orwell went to the extreme. From Eton to the slum in order to experience how the class with no reputation existed. And he left us with a lesson—it wasn’t class but reputation that drove our manipulation to our high reputation overlords. Money was always part of the deal, a big part, but to keep it and expand the bank account, a man or woman needed a reputation to act as the armed guards against the anonymous who asked awkward questions about wealth allocation.

You can read Bukowski, Miller and Orwell (and of course there are many others, too) as sending signals from the pages of their novels and memoir to the rest of us that life without a big reputation behind it is a slow fuse that will sooner or later blow you into oblivion. Being anonymous, a no name person, like a no name brand, translates into a sense of worthlessness. Who wants to think of themselves as having no value? We are conditioned, in a B.F. Skinner way, to believe our value must be measured by the value of other people’s reputation. No matter what you’ve accomplished or done, just remember there will inevitably be someone who has done what you done by the time they were twelve years old and accomplished ten other grand things by the time they are thirty, and so it goes.

It’s a competition game you can never win. It’s also a con game. If we forget about reputation, then on what basis can we trust our judgment to rely on someone else? You need a leap of faith—the belief that most people are decent, honest, reliable, and kind and a big reputation is no guarantee that the holder has any of those qualities. You likely know lots of people who fit this bill who aren’t ‘big’ reputation people in the public commons. That’s always been the wrong place to look. They are closer to home, in your neighborhood, your office, and most of them are chasing the same things we all are—security, fairness, comfort, pleasure, and friendship. They don’t need the big named public role models, they just need to have confidence in themselves there is very little difference between people and go forward in the world and act upon that insight.

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Posted: 11/13/2014 7:48:29 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 11/6/2014 7:44:41 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 10/30/2014 8:45:39 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 10/23/2014 9:03:53 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 10/16/2014 8:59:46 PM 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted: 10/9/2014 8:53:50 PM 

 

What is the last question? It appears, at first blush, to be a trick question. Last question means a long line of previous questions leading to the end of the line. Is the last question another way of asking the meaning of life, existence, the origin of the universe? That’s not one last question, that’s multiple last questions. Looking beyond the last question is the last answer.

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Douglas Adams’s answer to the last question was directed at the meaning of the universe. He provided a brief and simple answer: 42. Terry Eagleton wrote a 200-page book titled The Meaning of Life. Did he have the answer to the last question? The Guardian reviewer Simon Jenkins summarized Eagleton’s answer as: Happiness. This verdict is shared by Thailand’s coup makers.

On the other hand, Schopenhauer counseled us not to bother as “the whole human project [was] a ghastly mistake that should have been called off long ago.”

What is the last answer to the last question from which the meaning of life and existence emerges?

One preoccupation that unites all of humanity is the quest to discover an answer to this final question. Philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, intellectuals, religious leaders, old people, young people, the poor and the rich, a rich ore of curiosity that runs through every culture through time. Conflicts, confrontations and wars emerge over the belief that some culture or political system has discovered the correct answer. Hatred and suspicion arises over the process best designed to extract that answer. Who is given the task to find such an answer? And how can we judge whether that answer is true? It gets complicated.

Most of the time we don’t aspire to the lofty heights of worrying ourselves about the Last Question. We are practical people who avoid abstractions. We are more interested in the just-so answer to the latest news cycle of daily questions. Will the police catch the actual killers who killed two British tourists on Koh Tao in the South of Thailand? What will stop the latest cycle of terror and violence in the Middle East? When will Thailand return to democracy? When will the United States return to democracy? Not to mention the mundane questions of daily life: Where to have dinner this evening? When to start writing an essay? Should I invite a friend to lunch? Should I skip a workout on Tuesday? We live our lives by seeking answers to small, immediate questions. We don’t just skip the workout; we skip the hard workout that the Last Question demands.

Our lives represent a series of examinations. We are deemed a success not by our pursuit of answers to insoluble questions, but to the effortless way we fit in to our culture, the workplace, the club, the family and co-operate among friends. When midlife crisis arrives, the dam bursts and the questions come from all directions. No sooner have we answered one and another pops into view. We panic. We’ve been asleep. When we wake up, it is with an understanding that there never was a moment without the Last Question hovering nearby; only we chose not to ask it.

Writing books is a way of putting down on paper the answer to questions. Think about the last novel you read, one that stayed with you, made you think in a way you’d not done before. The characters inevitably struggled with a whole set of questions, anticipated and unexpected, and the reason you kept on reading was to find out how that character processed information to come up with an answer. We judge fictional characters, as we judge those who occupy our ‘real’ lives, by the quality of their answers to the universal questions that we all face.

I’ve been thinking about the question and answer process specifically in the context of a fictional series. The Wire, Dexter, House of Cards are examples of hardboiled dramas which attract millions of viewers. The fans of these series return time and time again in order to learn how the characters will resolve a conflict or problem, what resources they will draw on, what code of conduct they will follow (or violate) along the way, and what impact their answers will have on the lives around them.

I am aware when I write a Calvino novel, that Vincent Calvino and the other recurring characters (and the new ones) succeed in connecting with readers on the basis of how they persist, collapse, cheat, run, lie, improvise in their quest to find answers to questions that fall over their lives like a long shadow. The reality is that the shadow never leaves. The wisdom that life bestows is not to try to outrun the shadow, but to find an umbrella, and when a question rages with wind and rain, to keep on walking. As the old saying goes, you never walk alone. Writing a novel is tracking behind such characters, demonstrating their doubts, fears, and sorrow while celebrating those moments of joy and success.

Finding how that balance between the two emotional states is never stable. Like a moth, we flutter close to the flame, and in the best of writing, we discover that moment when a wing touches the fire or when it breaks away and flies free. That’s why I take walks on writing days. The questions aren’t in my office or in a Google search on my computer. They come to me when I walk and look around at the world I am walking through.

You don’t need to be a writer to devote time to asking yourself questions, and then taking a quiet walk and allow your mind to sort through some answers. Remember: Everyone around you is in precisely the same situation. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of wealth, reputation, status or privilege. The same walk catches all of us and demands attention about what can and can’t be known or controlled. We are on a long march, a collective walk, with no clear sense of up or down, left or right that helps, bumping against the edges of our life, blindly heading toward an oasis where the truth exists. We drink from that oasis to quench our thirst for the answer of the question of today, or this month of October, or biggest question of all: what is on the other side of nothingness?

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Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question is a brilliant example of how the best of our story tellers can show us the long view of what that Final Answer looks like. Do yourself a favor this weekend, read The Last Question and then take a long walk and ask yourself whether the questions that caused you so much anxiety and grief this week are the questions that really matter.

What is your answer to the Last Question?

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With many thanks to my friend John Murphy and his daughter Melissa, who sent me Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question.

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Posted: 10/2/2014 8:52:15 PM 

 

Two young Britons were killed less than two weeks ago on a beach in Koh Tao, a small island, Surat Thani province located in the South of Thailand. There is no need to set out the horrible details of the killing. It is sufficient to acknowledge that the double murder was the result of a brutal and vicious assault by one or more unknown persons. The young woman’s face was mutilated in the course of the attack that claimed her life. Both victims were found dead on the beach semi-nude.  Since the murder the Thai police have sought to apprehend the killer or killers. The process of investigation, from the handling of the crime scene to announcing possible suspects, has been closely followed by the local and international news.

01
British tourists murdered on Koh Tao: David Miller, 24 and Hannah Witheridge 23

At best it can be said the investigation has been shambolic, with conflicting statements about motives, the alleged wearing of a bikini by the female victim, evidence of the murder weapon, identity of possible suspects, reports of sealing the island, mass testing of DNA, including old and young migrant women, and participation of foreign forensic experts to assist the local police.

Many others have reported on the professionalism and competence of the police conducting the investigation. What has been missing from the discussion is the role of the media, including social media in reporting the story. This essay touches the surfaces of what should be a comprehensive survey of contemporary efforts in many countries to devise new policies and guidelines governing police and social media. By social media, I am specifically referring to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. There are other platforms but these are the main ones most people currently think of when they come across the phrase social media.

02
Beach, Koh Tao

It is unclear whether the Thai Royal Police force has a Police Social Media Protocols or Guidelines. From the handling of the Koh Tao murders, one might safely conclude there are no such guidelines for social media, or if there are such guidelines they have been so loosely applied as to be meaningless. These murders have revealed that the Thai police procedures, policies and guidelines are ripe for reform to bring them into the digital age.

International examples of Police Social Media Policies

This is a brief survey and only covers a small amount of the available resource material about current social media policies and practices, updates being called for to existing rules, and specific examples of policies that, if in place in Thailand, would have avoided a great deal of the problems the Thai police have found themselves confronting.

USA

In the United States, discussions are taking place as to formulating social media policy guidelines for the FBI. American experts have written about the need for new policies to take into account social media and view it as an opportunity to enhance their operational and investigative capabilities. There is also the danger of blending personal and working lives in a way that discredits the police. The need for a media policy that takes into account social media security and privacy that also define what can and cannot be shared on social media by police officers and staff.

Attention in US law enforcement has focused on using social media for tactical advantage in policing, with an emphasis on using social media as an investigative tool in law enforcement. The US Justice Department funded a study Social Media and Tactical Considerations for Law Enforcement looking at flash mobs, riots, and mass demonstrations. This is the other part of social media that enlarges the police footprint through the digital world. That potential of social media has already attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in Thailand. It is another way to monitor the conduct of citizens online. The tendency has been to increase the reach of Big Brother into people’s lives through social media activity rather than restraining the scope of police power.

UK

An investigation launched in the UK into the misuse of social media by police is instructive as to the nature of the problem. The Guardian reported that hundreds of police officers are under investigation for breaching restrictions imposed on officers who use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. In 828 reported cases over a five-year period, police officers were found to have made racist and threatening comments on Facebook and Twitter.

Another problem is the use of social media during working hours of a police officer. One police resigned over “‘excessive and inappropriate use of the internet during working hours’, in particular online auction sites, internet banking and social networking sites.”

The police will likely increase among their ranks officers and staff who may post on social media their comments, photos, gossip and speculations. Having more police on social media may also lead to a higher volume of careless, reckless, boastful, racist, sexists, or xenophobic content.  This type of communication would tarnishes the police and may jeopardize an investigation. In Thailand’s Koh Tao double murder case, there have been allegations of police and charitable organizations (who removed the bodies from the crime scene) of uploading graphic photographs of the murder victims. An independent Thai investigation ought to be commission and its mandate would include an audit of Thai police social media accounts from the date of the murders being reported.

The 2010 guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are instructive on the nature of such guidelines, which include traditional and social media. Here are some examples of the 2010 Guidelines:

Article 4.25: Newspapers will wish to report deaths that have occurred in unusual circumstances. However, there are limits on what can be published and on the approaches that can be made to bereaved family and close friends. For instance, the Editors’ Code of Practice, overseen by the PCC, states that “in cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively” (Clause 5, i). The broadcasters’ codes have similar stipulations.

An important issue at a crime scene is the right of the press and others to take video or still photographs. Article 4.38 establishes a guideline for the police to follow:

  • There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore, members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
  • We need to cooperate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.
  • We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now photographed and filmed more than ever.
  • Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and it undermines public confidence in the police service.
  • Once an image has been recorded, police can only seize the film or camera at the scene on the strictly limited grounds that it is suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the photographer has left the scene, police can only seize images with a court order. In the case of the media, the usual practice is to apply for a court order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act for production of the photograph or film footage.

The issues of social media and the police forces are specifically addressed in Article 13, which covers not just operational offices but staff, police IT specialists and possibly commercial partners. As the Guidelines indicate, the rise of social media is a ‘growth area’ and each force is to “determine the level and extent of police use of digital technology to support community engagement.”

The Dorset Police work under a set of Media Relations Guidelines that is also instructive on how to co-ordinate efforts into the investigation of a murder. One of the first acts is to designate a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). A media relations officer is appointed at an early stage of the investigation who works with the SIO on statement to be released to the press and media strategy. And all statements to the media go through the Media Relations Office after prior consultation with the SIO.

Part of the problem in the Koh Tao murder case is the chorus of voices coming from policemen. This added to the confusion surrounding the investigation. Once a murder has occurred, the police can release information about the location, time and date of report, gender of victim and scale of the inquiry. But no details should be released that would allow the next of kin to find out through the media that a loved one was killed prior to be notified first by the police.

The traditional and social media have reported multiple statements from many police sources as to the identity of possible suspects in the Koh Tao murders.

“The Dorset Media Guidelines limit this speculation. Never confirm to the media that someone that they name is helping police with their enquiries, is under investigation or has been arrested. Dorset Police does not confirm the identity of anyone who may, or may not, be the subject of a criminal investigation and who has not been charged. It is the journalist’s risk and not that of Dorset Police if they choose to broadcast or publish information that cannot be confirmed by the Force.

“Dorset Police cannot comment on speculation related to an on-going criminal investigation because of the risk of prejudicing that investigation.”

India

One question is who should be responsible for drafting Social Media Guidelines for the Thai police? In India, the Supreme Court is drafting such guidelines. In Thailand, including human rights groups, the law association, judges, the police along with foreign experts would be a good start to reaching a consensus as to what protocols or guidelines are appropriate for Thailand’s police force.

Australia

In New South Wales, the police also work under a set of media policy guidelines dated May 2013. The NSW police force has a Police Force Media Unit, with a mandate to make media release, hold news conferences, to managing inquires from the media. In other words, the Australian police have institutionalized as a unit within the police force, a unit responsible for media management and co-ordination, and training of police officers in media relations. The police media unit is the exclusive outlet, and this has the advantage of closing down various police officers talking directly to the media about a case.

In the NSW police force:

“Staff must not contact the media in their capacity as Police Force employees to make any comment about any incident, police policy or procedure without prior authorisation. This includes contacting talk-back radio, commenting on social media platforms, and submitting letters or emails to the editor.”

Had such a policy been in place, the free for all atmosphere surrounding the Koh Tao murder would not have taken place.

Here’s a list of information from the NSW Media policy guidelines as to what should never be released by the police. Ask yourself how many of these restrictions, if in place in Thailand, would have been breached in the Koh Tao murder case. Or indeed in many high profile criminal cases in Thailand.

“Never release information that:

  • Hinders or jeopardises an investigation
  • States or implies that a particular crime has been committed (eg:“the victim was murdered with a blunt instrument…”)
  • Speculates on the cause of a death
  • Goes beyond broad statements of facts to reveal details of evidence which may later be disputed by an alleged offender
  • Prejudices a trial
  • Reveals distinguishing methodology used by criminals (beware ‘copycat’ criminals) or investigating police
  • Details or speculates about a motive or absence of motive
  • Details amounts of stolen money
  • Goes beyond broad statements of facts to detail forensic or other examinations or identification ‘line-ups’”

Canada

Social Media and the police are widely discussed in Canada. A YouTube video provides an inside look on the use of Google+ by the Toronto Police. Media experts in the police department engage and inform the public through social media. This video approaches social media not unlike the report commissioned by the US Justice Department discussed above. The number of booksat the Canadian Police College published on the subject of intelligence analysis and data mining in the digital world gives an idea of how the new technology has shaped attitudes about policing, investigative techniques, and police training.

Canada does have a lesson for other countries. Social media policy guidelines can’t be formulated or successfully implemented without first identifying the main elements of police culture and management. Here are seven core values identified in a report titled Rethinking Police Governance, Culture & Management Prepared for the Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP, Public Safety Canada: solidarity, authoritarianism, suspicion, conservative, prejudicial, cynicism, and blue collar.

Summary

The Koh Tao murder case opens the door to an examination of ways to reform the Thai police force. The narrow goal would be to write policy guidelines and make organizational and management changes concerning police and media relations. The broader goal would be to use the experience of Koh Tao as the basis to rethink police governance, culture and management. To be realistic the culture of the police force mirrors its social media policy. It would be difficult to sustain to adopt the police social media policy from another country without alterations to the local culture of policing. Depending on the police culture, it may be very difficult to import a foreign social media model for policing without also importing the foreign police culture.

The Thai police culture includes reenactments by suspects with a seminar-sized group of uniformed police officers photographed looking on. The Thai culture is to one of extending face to the group of officers positioned by rank. It is difficult to fit a Social Media Police Unit into that Thai police cultural picture. But ignoring this opportunity to move ahead will certainly result in other Koh Tao cases emerging again and again.

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Posted: 9/25/2014 8:56:51 PM 

 

The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, has written an interesting article about why in his view that Americans have become less adult and more juvenile over the past few decades. The tile of the article The Death of Adulthood in American Culture is premised on the idea that American culture is responsible for a terrible disservice. “It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”

Scott’s conclusion is Americans, if judged by their TV, movies and fiction have entered a stage of perpetual adolescence. In examining this premise, a couple of points are useful when considering Scott’s analysis. Like a blind man describing a wolf by running his hand along a wolf’s tail. It’s not wrong; it’s just not a very good description of a wolf. And you run the risk of mistaking a wolf for a dog.

01

The divide between adults and juveniles isn’t just an American cultural issue. As with most states of being, it is better to avoid a binary view and see a continuum with concepts such as a complex network of various degrees of wisdom, maturity, experience, empathy, attitudes, or belief systems. The problem with isolating the issue as mainly about the consumption of modern film and TV programs is to miss the broader and deeper layers that go with adulthood.

Let’s start with some basic information about process of domestication. Homo species did not begin as domesticated animals. Domestication is a relatively recent event for dogs and for people. It required thousands of years to create a docile, dependent mindset necessary for people who no longer live in a state of ‘nature’ but live cheek by jowl in megacities beside millions of others. That concentration of strangers is abnormal. We never evolved to live with millions of strangers. The psychology had to be manufactured into broadly accepted social constructs first. Remove those social constructs and revert to the traditional adult member that evolved in our species, and you’d likely find that our cities would be far more like Mad Max rather than Hangover II.

Neoteny isn’t a word you come across every day. Think of an animal that occupies the state of being an eternal juvenile. The idea has both a biological and psychological component. Neoteny is reflected in biology when the animal retains traits that appear childlike. It is the difference between wolves and dogs. The domesticated dog has floppy ears, a curly tail, and puppy like snout and face. Compared to a wolf, the dog lacks the aggressive, adult look of a wolf. No one would think of training a wolf to be a seeing-eye companion for a human being.

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Here are some numbers I’ve extracted from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. There are around 250,000 wolves remaining in the ‘wild’ and around 400 million dogs in streets, houses, farms living as pets dependent on human beings. The adult wolf, in the wild, isn’t man’s best friend. He is aggressive, hunts to kill, attacks for food or when threatened. There are 200,000 chimps on the planet, and seven billion homo sapiens. Scaling the wolf population to 400 million or chimps to 7 billion is an interesting thought experiment.

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What would life be on a planet with such numbers of wolves and chimps? Fill the BTS in Bangkok with chimps from different groups and run it between two stages, and open the doors and you’d find blood, hair, and severed limbs splattered across the seats and walls. Feral, wild creatures outside of their group turn aggressive and violent in the presence of strangers. We have no reason to believe that the innate nature of homo sapiens is little different from that of his close cousin, the chimp. Yet we ride the commuter train without violent attack. Either our biological and psychological conditioning has through accelerated evolutionary pressure fundamentally changed our nature, or that nature remains under a surface and the lid is held on for other reasons.

We can conclude that the changes to the way we process our reaction to strangers has made our species far less hostile. Whatever our current chaos—terrorism, wars, plagues, natural disaster—would be trivial compared to sharing the planet with the scaled up populations of wolves and chimps.

By all scientific accounts (which won’t match the holy books) for the vast amount of our 100,000 year run as a species we lived in small bands or groups that rarely numbered more than a couple of dozen members. The total homo sapiens numbers ranged from the hundreds of thousands to the low millions for most of this period. Evolution produces a biology and psychology that equips an adult with a high level of aggressive behavior. While within the small band or group, the adults may battle for Alpha status, the adults in the band normally don’t turn and maim and kill each other. But if you are a stranger, that is a different matter altogether.

Richard Wrangman’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence arising in primate bands and culture. Those outside the ban can be beaten, raped and killed. There is no taboo against the murder of a stranger. There is no social construct that renders the murder of a stranger into a ‘sin’ or a ‘morally’ reprehensible act. How can we reconcile civilizations if we are a species who possess such an evolutionary pedigree? Clearly, no society of millions of people could exist that rested the foundation that cold-blooded murder of strangers was permissible behavior.

A lot of public and private resources are spent on domestication programs, e.g., schools, universities, churches, and associations. The failures of these programs often fall into the category of psychopath, a person who experiences no regret or remorse in the act of harming or killing another person.

Another reaction is to blame the violence on a ‘foreigner’—someone who is not one of ‘us’, someone suspected of being less than human. In the recent brutal murder of two British nationals on Koh Tao, local police are quoted as saying they suspected a migrant worker had committed the murders. The Bangkok Post noted no evidence was offered to support the speculation. It is a hard pill to swallow that people inside your own culture are as capable as anyone to engage in savage acts of violence.

Neoteny is not limited to biology or the physical difference between a feral and domesticated animal. Psychological neoteny occurs when the domestication is internalized. We socialize the aggression out of human beings. We create social constructs from religion and ideology to expand our feelings about people who are not kin. Strangers become brothers in arms. You couldn’t have a modern army without first establishing the belief that the person in the foxhole next to you won’t slit your throat in the middle of the night. The aggression trigger is reset by instilling the prevailing social construct in a large population of strangers who overcome the strangeness of others and replace it with a feeling of unity and solitary. Domesticated and feral aren’t binary choices. There is long continuum with domesticated and feral at either end. Depending on the time, place, history and culture, large groups of people cluster towards the domesticated end of the spectrum. We are a species that tends towards the kind of large-scale social co-operation that comes from successful domestication.

We are, for the most part, juveniles living inside our group or culture with the psychological settings established by ideology or religion, and this defines the borders of our comfort zone. But we can easily descend into chimps on a rampage when our leaders target non-believers as non-human and command us to attack. This chimp-like aggression isn’t always easily tamed in every member of the community, and we have violent actors who are dealt with by the police, courts, and prison system. We can say these ‘adults’ lack impulse control. Or we can say the social constructs haven’t sufficiently repressed the inherent violence that is part of our biological and psychological heritage.

These are the traits of adulthood, a mature member of the species, feeding, fighting, fleeing and fucking as opportunity, reward and threat appear in his environment.

Scott wrote in his article, “I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” That should be no surprise. Our social constructs are intended to maintain a juvenile vision of the world. Without them, our world of seven billion people wouldn’t be one anyone would wish to live in.

04

Then Scott raises an existential question about adulthood and violence:

“Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

“Before we answer that, an inquest may be in order. Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?”

What killed adulthood wasn’t a TV show or a movie? Or what has happened in the United States over the last fifty or two hundred years. We have created an illusion of adulthood because calling people over the age of eighteen children is thought patronizing or demeaning. We don’t really want the mature, aggressive adult wolf or chimp. We want the softer version of the housedog that obeys and wags its tail when you come home.

And now for Scott’s conclusion, “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.”

Where the analysis goes off the rails is to associate childhood with perpetual freedom and delight. The reality is we’ve long cultivated a juvenile mindset, as that person is comfortable being a dependent. And once a person accepts dependency, he or she is far easier to control and manipulate. Political leaders in number of countries including England and Australia have publicly expressed their anxiety in their young men traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS.  As the rest of the world watches ISIS use social media to recruit fighters from around the world. They hope to attract more young male recruits by circulating YouTube videos of beheadings. The message is clear. Leave aside the domestication of your country, and join us on a jihad to kill the infidel foreign journalists, AID workers and other non-believers. They make their murdering into a righteous cause. A certain personality will find an attraction in that act of murder and the ideology that justifies and condones it.

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That anxiety is about the return of these recruits to their home countries. The fear is once back in London, Toronto, Sydney or KL, their mindset has been fundamentally altered. Their social construct is closer to the ‘wolf’ or ‘chimp.’ The home country domestication has failed in its mission and the new psychology is one based on our most ancient and primitive nature, where violence, aggression and murder are widespread.

The problem is illustrated in a Bangkok Post article with Kuala Lumpur as the dateline: “Police have arrested at least 19 suspected militants loyal to the IS this year and say they uncovered their plan to bomb a Carlsberg brewery near the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the IS militants in a statement in August, saying their actions were ‘counter to our faith, our culture and our common humanity.” A case is being made that we should prepare ourselves for many more such stories coming from an increasing number of countries.

The need to maintain our social constructs that reinforce a dependent-like state, one that falls short of the fully autonomous adult, may be the price to be paid for social co-operation among strangers.

“Humans have been evolving toward greater ‘psychological neoteny’.” Dr. Bruce Charlton, a Newcastle University psychology professor, said what looks like immaturity — or in his terms, the “retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood”— is actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological neoteny. Physical neotenization in humans has, likewise, caused psychologically neotenous traits in humans: curiosity, playfulness, affection, sociality and an innate desire to cooperate.”

Adulthood hasn’t died. American culture hasn’t killed it. Our adulthood has been resized to accommodate billions of people. Our ancient adulthood equipped us to live and interact inside an environment and way of life long since vanished.  Our ancestor had much more detailed knowledge about the natural world. They survived in the wild through their knowledge about hundreds of plants and animals and terrains. Throw a modern person into a jungle and the ignorance of nature, which is the default state of the domesticated, and our fate becomes obvious. Domesticated man can only survive through co-operation with thousands or millions of others within a system much larger than any of us, a system which no one person fully understands or could explain in sufficient detail to rebuild it should it be destroyed.

We have inherited our emotional reflexes from vanished world where higher levels of aggression, fueled by self-reliance and independence, provided an advantage.  That aggression, in part, served to enhance the breath and depth of our knowledge about the untamed world. In 2014, an argument can be made that our emotional gearing suffers from over specification. Not enough time has passed for our emotions to naturally evolve to fit the demands of a life our vastly more limited knowledge about the world and is sufficient to support a repetitive life of routine.

Adolescence (Lord of the Flies) can be aggressive and violent as any adult. The crucial difference is the control over the child by the parent, who is the adult. We’ve evolved a redefinition of adulthood.  Whether the end result is called immaturity, juvenile, or childlike is beside the point. Those are categories that distinguish human traits that fall short of what is perceived to be adulthood.

We are forced by the sheer scale of numbers to accept that domestication is necessary and is bound to mirror the values in our culture. There is an important caveat— our historical violence is receding but the violence that remains indicates that our domestication remains an incomplete process. And when the ISIS fighters who return to their home countries in the West ‘radicalized’ with a radically different social construct about murder, the fear is the returnees have reinvented themselves as the original ‘Adulthood”, the one who worked in small bands and took no prisoners.

A number of governments’ fear, based on uploaded YouTube horrors recorded about the violence of a few thousands of such fighters, is spreading. The deep fear is the security headaches once these fighters return radicalized to their home countries. They also fear that ISIS ex-fighters may change the frequency on the domesticated and feral bandwidth, making social co-operation more difficult. They will have to confront the possibility of a couple of hundred ex-fighters whose experience has caused a reversal of neoteny and reversion to the demonic male. The day that your golden retriever reverts to its true wolf nature will make coming home a different experience.

Looking ahead to the immediate future, what is likely to replace the crude religious/ideological social constructs that are collapsing in many parts of the world will be a combination of chemicals and brain-computer interconnectivity.  This idea isn’t ripped out of a science fiction novel. We are already some distance down this road. News reports hint at what we can expect:

“Currently, brain-computer interfaces can detect emotions. Some technologies, such as deep brain stimulation, can induce emotions directly into the brain. It’s only a matter of time before input is connected with output. This would be a form of telepathic empathy — a technology that lets you feel some piece of what another person is feeling.”

The potential for governments, the police, the military and the superrich to use such technology raises many issues. But this never stopped the spread and use of religion and ideology as means of social control. The new technology will finish the job started by religion. We’ve only begun to explore the digital world for the means to perfect mind control.

As Leonard Cohen said in 1992, “I have seen the future, it is murder.”

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Posted: 9/18/2014 9:01:11 PM 

 

Obedience has a long history. The assimilation of this principle over thousands of years has allowed the creation of empires and nation-states. In the bible we find that, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) The scriptures designation 5.5 (minus the full stop) is frequently used by Thais to signify laughter or a joke.

Religion, culture, society, and politics wouldn’t exist in the absence of obedience. We are too far down the road to turn back. In other words, as it turns out biblical quote or the idea of obedience isn’t a joking matter. It is a deadly serious one. To obey is the bedrock of all monotheistic religions. It also underscores political ideologies from communism, socialism, fascism, capitalism and democracy. Although if Thomas Piketty’s research holds, it appears inheriting the earth hasn’t quite worked out well for the meek.

Last week in an essay titled Obey I briefly examined Henry Miller and George Orwell’s legacy with the subtext (and in Orwell’s case in the text itself) that issued a warning to be watchful of those in power. In the name of obedience to a principle or belief, the true intention of the powerful is to control us for their benefit. Both Miller and Orwell lived, wrote and died in a pre-Internet world with different tools and methods and opportunities being used by the powerful. For those born after 1990, they have only experienced a post-Internet world, and that set of experiences and tools has shaped their identity, attitudes, beliefs and values, including those surrounding obedience. An identity separate from the digital world would be unthinkable.

Miller and Orwell are for the most part to the post-netters, artifacts frozen in a world that is alien to them as the world without electricity and cars is to the pre-1990 population. In my recent books I have sought to begin building a literary bridge between the pre-netters and post-netters. This essay is an example of an attempt to examine the infrastructure of society that manufactures identity in the way any mass product is designed and assembled. In the process a key to our psyche removed barriers to full-blown 24/7 narcissism. Our big data and capitalistic system refine ever more and newer products and services that raise the pleasurable desire bar, and consumers become group of individuals wishing to pole vault over that bar. Our new gods and rituals are in the digital world where celebrities offer salvation chatrooms, Facebook and Twitter the new confessional booth are all available to any individual with an Internet connection. A narcissist never had such a perfectly ordered world to experience his or her self-love. The contradiction is having created a mass market of individuals, who live inside a society that demands they obey rulers, leaders, teachers, police officers, judges, and a long list of people and institutions that narcissists can’t eliminate by going online. Obedience is a concept that is under construction. This essay looks at how the rebuilding of obedience is coming along.

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Obedience is built into social systems at many levels. Someone who is convicted for a crime is often released from prison before serving the full sentence as a reward for good behavior. And what is this good behavior? It is steadfast obedience to the prison’s rules and regulations. A person who has adhered to the rules and the norms of cellblock is thought ready to follow the rules and norms waiting for him on the outside of the prison walls. Though recidivism rates suggest that such a causal connection is illusory.  In Thailand, just admitting guilt for failing to obey the law is rewarded by halving the sentence for those convicted of a crime. A person who insists on maintaining his innocence but who is found guilty by a judge is doubly punished for his failure to show obedience to authority’s judgment of his or her wrongdoing.

The Thai word for ‘obey’ is chua fung, which translates as ‘believe and listen.’ That is likely as good an explanation of what ‘obey’ means in any language. This two-step formula assumes a consensus that flows from a cultural understanding of who you are required to listen to. By the time you are nine years old, if not long before, your mindset is conditioned to know who these people are. Your parents and teachers are the earliest people to be listened to.

In team sports, unless the team followed the play called by the quarterback of an American football team or the captain of a football team, with each player improvising, the result would be an exercise in chaos. Teams, like armies, are destroyed by disobedience among the ranks. The team captain, military general, air traffic controller, judges, wardens, politicians, teachers, or investment bankers expect and receive obedience from those within the cone of their power and influence. Eliminate this socially conditioned automatic impulse to obey and games, plans, prisons, schools, markets, competitions and political systems fail to function. Playing chess without obedience to the rules of the game means there is no game called chess that is being played. That same is true of poker, blackjack, or any other game. Not to obey is not to play the game.

01

To obey is to accept subservience to a set of rules, institutions, or persons. To restrict our freedom of choice and free will is the price we pay and the currency is paid in units of subservience. It is a price most people are conditioned to pay as if they had no choice in the matter. Those who refuse to pay up in units of subservient behavior and break the law are classified as ‘criminals.’ But even criminal gangs have their own code of obedience and subservience so it isn’t that outsiders are inevitably ‘free’ of compliance obligations. We have to go deeper to understand why we willingly obey some people and institutions but are defiant in obeying others.

We appear to be at a stage of development where the manufactured narcissist’s identity rebels against obedience in the offline world. Online is another matter and a digital world exacts its pound of subservience as a price of being ‘liked.’ The post-netters aren’t happy with the baggage the pre-netters wish them to carry.

Traditionally, enforcing obedience on a large population, living within the same geo-political space, is the use of or the threat to use coercion or violence against anyone who disobeys. History isn’t always a reliable guide, but one thing it teaches that remains true can be summarized in a few words—most people, if you put a gun to their head, will obey the gunman. Duress underwritten by such violence works in the short term, as fear is a powerful emotion and obeying is the default response to fear. Over long stretches of time, though, people tend to become less fearful. At some stage they realize that there are more of vastly more fearful people than the handful holding a gun on them. When that moment crystalizes you witness an event like the Berlin Wall. The larger population stops being fearful. They tear down the wall and overnight no one obeys the soldiers with guns, large numbers of whom have dropped their weapons and joined the ex-fearful masses to dismantle the wall.

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Why is one wall torn down while another wall remains a fortress? The history of obedience is fused with vesting ‘trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ in the person or institution seeking subservience. Not everyone sees a wall as a restriction. Others see it like the Great Wall of China to give safety and protection against barbarians. While most people in the West welcomed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, for example, there is no movement (mass or otherwise) to destroy the air-traffic control system at airports around the world. Passengers, pilots and crew on aircraft have no issue with obeying the orders of an air-traffic controller. Human error, lapses of judgment, or equipment malfunctions may cause a plane crash. An investigation and inquiry often follows such an incident to restore confidence. What one doesn’t find is a massive, worldwide distrust of the air-traffic control system that disintegrates into pilots landing wherever and whenever they wish.

Political systems, unlike air-traffic control systems, are based on beliefs and ideology that are fine-tuned to inspire trust and confer legitimacy. A political system risk defections if the subservient believe the system is corrupt, self-serving, or incompetent. Opinion polls are released around the world daily as a weather vane to show which way the political wind is blowing—and politicians ignore the ones that embarrass them and broadcast to all near and far if they support their policies. Do the masses agree that the government or its leader is going down the right path, doing a good job, forming and implementing the right policies? If a poll shows a 1% approval of a policy, the issue of legitimacy is raised and one would expect to find large-scale disobedience in following the policy. Beliefs and norms shift over time, and political actors who depend on popular elections learn to stay in power; they either govern in a fashion that at least creates the illusion they reflect the popular will or they take repressive measures to head off mass disobedience. The challenge to the war on drugs is an example of a political shift. Changes in social norms concerning sexuality and gender are resulting in a change of laws.

03

It is never really a choice of choosing to live in a world where everyone marches to their own drummer, or a world where there is one drummer and everyone falls in behind him. With a population of 7 billion people we have no other choice but to create systems that enforce obedience but stop short of falling into tyranny. That has been the great challenge, and in the post-Internet world the task is more difficult to manage. The power to make others do what you command is subject to abuse. If you control the guns and the polls, you can maintain in the short run the illusion that people consent to be confined inside the Berlin Wall for their own good and happiness. In the long run, without a foundation of trust, order givers who refuse to have their power checked, revised, and limited will suffer from loss of legitimacy. As legitimacy isn’t something found in nature. It is a social construct, a sentiment, a belief, and once people no longer believe in it, the wall comes tumbling down.

04

We have been conditioned for thousands of years to be obedient followers. Our population size before the agricultural revolution 12,000 thousand years ago was around 8 million. Obedience inside small-scale bands would have been a far less complicated affair. Without a modern concept of subservience it would have been impossible to scale to the current size of population. We’ve been domesticated. The wolf-like nature changed to that of a domesticated house pet. For most of that history, subservience was enforced by the sharp edge of the sword. Only in the last 500 years has the basis for obedience been questioned. And role of the larger population expanded into a process of questioning the basis of their servitude. Parliamentary democracies, while imperfect, turned out to be one way to guide the process.

With the diminished role of religion in the West and the contradictions of ideology, the world has become less stable, less subservient. The Internet is filled with thousands of communities of the new digital disobedient who challenge their overlords. Focused on computer screens, the analogue masters are in another room and can see or hear them. Anonymous disobedience is the new virus in the old pre-Internet process.

05

The digital heretics, seeking comfort in emotional and intellectual support provided by their online communities, refuse to bow to authority. They can play cat and mouse, hide and seek with censors. It is no surprise to find the elites inside existing political system, nostalgic for bringing back earlier political arrangement, which relied on official violence and unquestioned acceptance of authority. Whether it is America, the Middle East or Asia, the battleground is playing out a version of the same life and death struggle—who do you listen to and who do you believe? And the evidence is abundant that post-netters aren’t listening to analogue authority as their parents and grandparents once did automatically. Cynicism and skepticism has reduced the range of people will believe and what they are prepared to believe in. Meanwhile, the reality show of modern time is a talent search toward the establishment of a new legitimacy that connects and creates a paradigm for obedience in a digitally networked world. As there is every indication that narcissism has gone deep into the post-1990 population, it is only a matter of time that obeying must have a narcissistic payoff for them individually. I have little doubt that some committed, well-financed and clever people are working to manufacture a tailored made political product that once it appeals to our deepest well of vanity, that product will go viral.

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Posted: 9/11/2014 8:57:01 PM 

 

I have felt the gravitational pull from a number of writers over the years. Most writers go through stages of falling under the spell of another author who they’re convinced has a grand creative mind perfectly designed to tell stories about the human condition. Two of these authors standout above the others—Henry Miller and George Orwell. These two literary writers, literary jugglers, whose lives overlapped during the 1930s and 1940s, have a small bridge that connects them. I’ve explored that bridge crossing a number of times: in an anthology of essays titled The Orwell Brigade, in a short-story titled Star of Love, and in two essays. The last two novels (Missing in Rangoon and The Marriage Tree) in the Vincent Calvino series, and a new Calvino novel, the fifteen in the series, weave the Orwell and Miller worldviews into the lives of the characters.

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Henry Miller

Both authors continue to be read and their books remain in print. Both remain controversial. Their books have been banned and censored. That is a testament to any writer’s success in hitting an official nerve. It is also evidence their literary work touched upon universal human values that persist through time but are sheltered behind a wall of taboos. It is also evidence that the powerful have an interest in monitoring our reading choices.

In most times and places, there is a unifying theme: What is not propaganda is a threat. Neither Orwell nor Miller wrote propaganda, and instead sought to explore the truth.

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George Orwell

The truth telling is a dangerous business.

In the world of noir, the world is a shabby, corrupt place and the whip cracks on the backs of those who fail to make the required compromises. Most readers don’t think of either Miller or Orwell as noir writers. Orwell created dystopia worlds; Miller created neither dystopia nor utopian worlds. Henry Miller placed a literary magnifying glass over a sub-culture in Paris where hedonism, creativity, poverty, the arts and friendship bloomed.

Usually there is a reason why a writer continues returning and drawing water from the same well. In this essay, I will explain why I continue to toss a bucket into the Miller and Orwell drinking hole.

Henry Miller and George Orwell shared an obsession with one word that sticks in the crawl of a man—obey. You can sometimes find it as graffiti. A one-word reminder of our condition makes everything clear.

We’ve been domesticated for so long that our condition is accepted as the ‘normal’ and obeying leaders the bedrock of our survival. Not to obey is an indictment that someone has gone feral. In that case, those with the guns put the beast down to stop the rest of the herd of learning dangerous ideas.

We live in servitude as our parents, grandparents before them, a long string of people who obeyed. Disobedient people are less likely to pass along their genes. To disobey carries penalties from social censure and disapproval to disappearance. It all depends on who has disobeyed and to whom. We know of people who disobeyed, and continued disobeying after warnings to obey, that they disappear.

No one would ever hear of them. No body, no final words, no one found to be responsible. Sometimes you come across a news story marking the fifth or tenth or twentieth year of the disappearance. The police are still investigating.

The disobedient are routinely imprisoned, impoverished, exiled or executed. The newspapers are filled with cases. People glaze over with the latest 24-hour news cycle of casualties of those who failed to follow an order, instruction, decree, or a whim.

01

Henry Miller’s world of disobey was played out in the bars, cafes, and streets of Paris in the 1930s. Tropic of Cancer was a first-hand account of a writer who found his muse and subject in tales of sexual disobedience. The strict puritanical rules over sexuality struck in Henry Miller’s crawl and when he spit them out, the Americans censored him. Barney Rosset fought on behalf of Miller in multiple court battles. He took the matter to the United States Supreme Court. It cost Barney Rosset a fortune and his security in old age was compromised as a result. But Barney never regretted that decision. He would have done it over again knowing the real cost of fighting against the forces of “obey.”

Given the politics of the United States Supreme Court for many years, it may be hard for a new generation to believe there was once such a court that could be convinced that an author had a right to write novels where the characters disobeyed the prevailing sexual mores. Even though Henry Miller’s book offended the sensibilities of those with the power to make others obey, a line was drawn. Henry Miller had a right to disobey them. That included writing about prostitution, using explicit language about sex and bodily functions, and to portray a life of decadence and debauchery.

Rabelais had prowled inside these bedrooms long before Henry Miller’s arrival. Every generation needs a Henry Miller to keep the tall grass from growing and the new ambush points set up by the latest sources of power seeking to enforce the obey commandment over sexual matters.

George Orwell’s essays and novels cast a larger shadow over our overlords who use guns to force us to obey. While Henry Miller was a sensualist, George Orwell thought preoccupation with the sensual was a diversion away from the real war zone. The political implications of “obey” were far reaching and threatened to enslave people in all areas of life. In the essay An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller, I found an ambivalence Orwell felt toward Miller’s writing. As a genuine working-class writer, Miller was the last writer Orwell would have attacked. But that didn’t stop Orwell from expressing his fear that Miller was shooting at small time targets that weren’t worthy of his talents. Orwell had, it seems, a secret wish—to take Henry Miller aside, sit him down and lecture him on the real threat in the 1930s such as Hitler and Mussolini. He might have said to Miller, “Please pay attention. These men have large-scale plans for extending the concept of ‘obey’ across Europe.”

George Orwell was fearful of what he saw—the jackboot on the face of freedom grinding it into the dirt as a warning of what happens when the man in charge is not obeyed. Henry Miller was off in the streets exploring neighborhoods, exchanging stories, gossip, dreams, and rushing back to type them out at 90 words per minute on a manual typewriter. The sound of Henry Miller’s machine was said to be like a machine gun. The rush of exploration into a new language, culture, city and down and out expats fueled Henry Miller’s imagination. He’d disconnected with America. Finding liberation from its constraints created a raging fire inside his imagination.

The coolness of George Orwell’s version of the obedient hell like a sharp blade slowly pierces the skin, then the flesh, and finally the bone. It is surgical in its accuracy of the main malady affecting the patient. His willingness to ignore the cost of his obedience was the message in the bottle found throughout Orwell’s writings.

Like it or not, we are stuck with some system that creates mass obedience, as it is a way to achieve co-operation across a population of millions. In Yuval Noah Harai’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he makes a persuasive case is made that beliefs, myths, and legends are essential ingredients in order for there to be cooperation required when millions of people occupy congested space in modern society. Since the Agriculture Revolution, every culture that scaled its population has accomplished the task, in part, through the use of a sacred store of ‘ghost stories.’ The storytellers have given rules the means to unify its population.

Those who dare to question the sacredness or validity of the local version of the sacred ghost story endanger the emotional bases for mutual co-operation. Myths only work when they are not too closely examined. When activists, scholars, artists, and critics challenge and question the prevailing myths as serving the interest of the elites, the authorities fear chaos. Chaos is the word we use when co-operation breaks down and it is every man and woman acting individually, shedding a sense of a collective self. What glue that bound a band of a couple dozen people before the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and what superglue has been used since illustrates how the puzzle pieces have been kept in place.

When millions of people live cheek-by-jowl in megacities, co-operation among people is the only alternative to conflict and strife. This explains why a threat to the emotional infrastructure of belief that binds people will ignite an official crackdown. Those in power fear the loss of control of the population. Orwell saw through the cynical use of myths, beliefs and legends as disguised power grabs by elites that resulted in the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. He warned that propaganda was the enemy of truth. But this is a two-edged sword, an enemy of truth in the form of constructed reality has allowed vast numbers of people to largely co-operate with one another as they share the same constructs.

Miller’s novels subverted a set of beliefs about marriage, relationships, and family units. These are social institutions, which are embedded in the structure of co-operation. They regulate and define the limits of what is permissible within our co-operative social, economic and political lives. By freeing oneself from the straightjacket of sexual restraints, Miller’s worldview threatened, in the view of the censors, to bring down the whole house of cards in a sexual free for all.

In the last two Vincent Calvino novels, the conflict of vision between Henry Miller and George Orwell is explored. A private eye novel may seem an odd location to report on the battle line between the narrow and wide version of resistance, but that is only because we have a bias about the scope and purpose of such novels. I refuse to accept that a novel about a private eye must be contained solely within the boundary of storytelling, an entertainment. A reader is searching for more than story. She or he wishes to connect on a deeper level with the characters. When a character faces choices that humanize or dehumanize him and others, a mirror appears. The reader can feel the process, the doubts, emotions, irrational thought that accompany such choices especially those made under great stress. What a reader wishes to know as well is what price a character will pay. Strip a book of these dilemmas and the story and its characters are the literary equivalent of a can of Zero Coke.

In Missing in Rangoon and The Marriage Tree, the issues that bound and separated Orwell and Miller reveal crucial elements of the characters.

In Missing in Rangoon (2013), Calvino enters the lobby of a shabby hotel in Rangoon and the old woman at reception is reading a book:

“The second bag was heavy; inside he had two one-liter plastic bottles of coke. He walked back to the guesthouse carrying the bags. The old woman behind the reception desk glanced at him as he turned to walk up the steps. She lowered her glasses. “Mr. Smith buys his dinner at the Savoy Hotel,” she said. It was out of the ordinary in her part of the universe where the Savoy lay in an inaccessible part of the Rangoon universe for her guests. She looked up from another Georgette Heyer novel. He caught the title—The Toll-Gate.

“How’s the book?”

“Stolen gold, highway men, mysterious strangers,” she said.

“Makes you feel right at home,” he said.

“Mysterious strangers and a missing toll-gate keeper,” she said.

“I am familiar with the plot,” said Calvino.

“I thought you might be,” she said. “You don’t look like a reader.”

“I’ve been reading Orwell.”

“That man had no romance in his books.”

Calvino thought about it; she was right. Orwell was a lot of things, but writer of romance novels wasn’t one of them. “But he had a lot to say about the toll-gate keepers.”

In another scene, a bar owner captures the magic power that Henry Miller unleashed in the Black Cat:

“Gung took the spliff from Alf, inhaled, eyes hooded, and the smoke rolled from his lips, “She wanted Rob to be Henry Miller walking the earth, fucking whores, hungry at midnight with no money, but a fire in his belly and figuring out to stop the world from stepping on his shadow, capturing his soul, selling it to the devil for a weekly pay check. Fuck that,” Mya Kyaw Thein had said according to Gung.”

It is a feeling shared with Vincent Calvino:

“In the back of the cab, Calvino’s thoughts drifted. It’d been a long time since he heard that name. The writer was from Brooklyn. He’d written Tropic of Cancer, a diary of sexual adventures as Miller lived down and out in Paris in the 1930s. Miller’s wife had sold her body to support him. Vinny Calvino was from Brooklyn. He knew of the legend of Miller who had defied morality, family, marriage, and home to break free—to roam as a free man. Some men escaped; most were trapped. Who were the saddest of them all? Those without a home, living free under Paris bridges, or those who stayed behind in their old neighborhoods thinking they were free?”

In The Marriage Tree (2014) Henry Miller plays the role of the nihilist who believed no one could protect you. No one could be trusted to cover your back but you. The way to freedom from the force of violence was escaping into a smaller world of like-minded outsiders on the run from ‘obey me’ mantras of the shepherds watching the sheep.

“In Rangoon I had a similar discussion with a singer about taking sides. She said there’s a war raging inside everyone. On one side you have George Orwell, and Henry Miller on the other. Those who refuse to accept injustice and violence and inequality quote Orwell’s work. Miller accepted that the murderers would continue to roam free, making the rules to their own advantage, and for the free man, escape was losing oneself in the world of song, dance, wine and sex. Miller didn’t believe that any principle could protect you against those with real power. He thought that nothing could blunt the exercise of power over the exploited. Miller’s idea was simple: stay off the predator class’s grid. When someone puts their life in the hands of a human smuggler, they ignore the fact that it’s his job to deliver them to their new masters. It doesn’t matter that you pray for a savior who thinks like Orwell because you’ll never have a chance to live the free life of a Henry Miller.”

Missing in Rangoon (2013) and The Marriage Tree (2014) are part of trilogy within a larger series. The final book in the trilogy will be published in January 2015. The territory of obeying is mapped in each novel and the fingerprints of Orwell and Miller are to be found everywhere at the scene of the crime.

In 2000 when Chairs was published, the collection of interconnected short stories included one titled Star of Love. It was based on a long conversation one afternoon with Barney Rosset at an outdoor beer bar in Patpong. The premise of Star of Love is Barney’s view on how Henry Miler’s life would have changed had he chosen to travel, live and write in Bangkok rather taking the boat to Paris. Miller would still have escaped from New York but the experiences as a writer would have been shaped by very different cultural, historical and linguistic forces.

The second piece is an essay titled Re-Imagining Henry Miller, which examines the influences on his life in Paris, especially the two women who held a special place in his affection. It is also an exploration of what it means to be an expat and how that experience shapes the creative powers of a writer. The essay raises the question as to what happens to those memories after the expat returns to his or her home shores? Are the memories of that time harvested for further books? Are the memories locked away and the key thrown away?

The third piece, An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller contrast the two authors’ literary commitment to fighting against the command to obey. Their differences were far more than literary taste. They had different biases. Their education, upbringing, and culture made them as alien as any two writers could be. Orwell patrolled the corridors of power. Like Paul Revere in the 18th Century American Revolution he warned that the powerful were approaching with guns at the ready; Orwell swung a bright lantern to expose their hypocrisy, abuses, and lies. To Henry Miller, it didn’t much matter, local tyrants or foreign ones, none of them could be trusted, and none of them were worth dying for or arguing with. He laughed at them, turned his back, and manufactured a life of minimal contact with those who retained the right to inflict violence.

Those who had mastered the nightlife of the street, the bars, and the cafes could run their grifts and were largely left to the margins; the powerful left them alone, a self-contained amusement in the pre-Internet world. They had an ocean of fish to fry. These were the ones who were scared into obeying. Fear and obedience, the twin monsters harnessed by tyrants, will never succeed by threats of violence on everyone. Somewhere, in some crack of the wall joint, a Henry Miller and his gang of expats, sing and dance and drink and make love and forget the rest of the fish in the ocean are scooped up in industrial strength nets.

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Posted: 9/4/2014 8:59:44 PM 

 

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