We are in the midst of a worldview war. Trump’s election was a successful campaign in this war. Many are trying to figure out the bases of this conflict, the psychology of the opposing armies, and the goals and tactics of each side. Everyone, it seems, has a theory. I’m no different, finding myself curious as to pump and grind of emotions and intellect flowing through the collective hive mind. It makes my head hurt to think about the mess we find ourselves in and curious absence of any reasonable plan to escape the impending crash.
I don’t have the answers. No one does. But I have some thoughts to share as our aircraft is losing altitude and the fasten-seat belt sign is turned on.
We all have a worldview. It is our operating system that quietly runs in the background. We call this inaccessible area The Unconscious. It seems to belong to us. Others around us, friends and family and colleagues all have one that is mostly like our own. We are comfortable around them. Often they think like us.
But what is really going on in the unconscious? Freud had ideas. So do others. The reality is what goes on in the unconscious is a subject of much speculation. We don’t really know. But we have our favorite theories and assumptions. Our reality is we live in a kind of prison which excludes us from the main grounds called the unconscious. By definition, if we could open that mental oyster, it would no longer a mystery. We secretly believe our little oyster is filled with a string of sacred pearls. Everyone else is either a pearl wearer like us or one of those heretics who believes that science demystifies pearls by reducing them to a tiny piece of sand. Nothing special. All is explained, described and understood as part of a natural process. Where’s the beauty, the magic, the mystery in an academic explanation?
Our pearls are cultured. Our societies, rulers, leaders, teachers, preachers, celebrities all work that piece of sand until it is a smooth, white, glorious object reflecting the colors of the rainbow. Our worldview, once in place, is less a necklace than leg shackles and chains we drag behind us as we examine the world around us. We don’t process these restraints as a kind of prison like experience. The beauty of the best run prisons is they seem free, open and friendly. Until you try to saw through the shackles.
Shifting a medieval metaphor for a modern one is the way intellectuals travel down roads that promise a destination where understanding waits. From shackles to operating systems is the path we’ve been on for centuries.
Everyone has an operating system that runs their personal worldview. That operating system has been encoded to describe, identify, understand, and react to others and objects encountered in everyday life. It’s not optional; the system of comprehension and coherence depends on a worldview to run checks on what our perceptional sensory inputs feed into our mental network. Evolution equipped us with the basic operating system to survive and reproduce. The rest is built on top like the cone of a volcano. Smoke is pouring our of our volcanoes. I wake up each morning and check feeds to see if the big explosion has happened overnight.
If you’ve not read this essay by George Lakoff, I’d recommend you’d have a look. The idea of framing ‘values’ to fit the worldview of others is an interesting idea. Lakoff believes that progressives have lost the battle with conservatives because the latter have avoided wonk-like framing their position in terms of facts and policy specifics when what moves the listener is in flavor of ‘values’ that progressives believe in.
Philosophy, psychology, history, neuroscience, and linguistics are networked in ways we are just beginning to understand. The passport between them is often a metaphor, and any time a writer uses a metaphor, it is a clue that he/she has only an indirect way of expressing a complicated idea in one domain and importing it into another.
We struggle within the cognitive limitations of a finite brain capacity, faulty operating system that is difficult to upgrade in order to run new information programs, and we are loaded with heuristics that are crude hammers our Bronze Age brains use to pound the dents out of reality. We are using our brains in ways that exceed the evolutionary requirements of survival and reproduction.
The battle over the nature and meaning of knowledge is closely linked historically with one’s worldview of moral authority. Until the enlightenment, moral authority resided exclusively in a king, warlord, religious head. Codes, morals, values, and knowledge were a royal or religious cartel. Like all cartel bosses, anyone with ideas, theories or knowledge that challenged their authority and dogma was burnt at the stake.
It has only been 500 years (we are 200,000 years old as a species) since science derived an alternative system upon which to found knowledge, to describe and understand reality. This has been a huge revolution. It overthrew the moral authority cartel’s position in establishing and enforcing an absolute, unchanging worldview. We are now in the midst of a pushback against a scientific process of assessing facts, establishing bodies of knowledge based on evidence, observation and testing. We’ve dethroned the dogmatic moral authority in the West. Nothing in modern science could have been achieved otherwise. The written history of this progress as early scientists were dragged through the Inquisition and torture chambers is the history of how science became accepted as an alternative to processing of reality. This new approach to thinking gave birth to a new mental operating system. One that gradually showed an incredibly powerful ability to challenge and replace the old order. Those with a vested interest, meaning those previous social, religious and political elites were wrong footed by science. If these forces allowed themselves to be reshaped politically socially and economically by science, it would be the end of them. It is a myth to believe that two operating systems can run a social, political and economic system as a kind of joint venture.
A violent reaction in Turkey at a bookstore highlights the emotions involved.
Progressives feel that battle was long ago won. But it wasn’t won. It is being waged in America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Progressives underestimated the vast numbers of people who were willing to support regressive moral authority cartels. They pedal their dogma to the masses who find the strong, decisive leader who promises moral certainty a source of comfort and security. Science has always been the domain for those who have a high tolerance for intellectual discomfort, accept uncertainty as normal, and knowledge as tentative until a better description or definition is discovered. No one has the moral authority in this system to throw out contrary facts. The war that has ignited is a cognitive and emotional battle. The progressives march into conflict armed with heavy weight cognitive weapons such as big data, equations, computers, prediction models and probability estimates to predict the future course of events. The regressive types march to an emotional tune sung by a strongman who promises to rid them of the fear and confusion of the progressives. Our vast unconscious loves that melody. It is irresistible as it engages feelings that are embedded deeply in our core operating system and to which our analytical facilities cannot easily influence.
The nature of the problem in this conflict is nature of spoken and written language. We experience life through our sensory perceptions which act as tripwires for our emotions. Language is the secondary filter (after emotions prime us to narrate a response) to describe what we perceive, what it means, its purpose and utility. Our language has a surface universality in the words and phrases that are communicated within and between communities. A central problem is the imperfection and limitations of language. Words are ladders that never gets us over the wall of our emotions. Words are a small step ladder pushed against the side of a mountain. John Paulos’ classic book titled Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy Its Consequences made popular the phrase innumeracy to describe people who have little to no mathematical language skill or facility in which to navigate through life. Professor Paulos also shows the cost exacted on people who suffer from such illiteracy. The language of science is mathematics. The equations are symbolic representations that are tested against the reality they propose. Illiteracy is a cognitive handicap that stunts understanding about the world. Either the observations and testing confirm the equation or they fail. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and General Relativity had testable mathematical equations that have been confirmed by observation.
After Einstein’s 1915 General Relativity was proposed, a hundred scientists wrote papers claiming it was wrong. When Einstein was asked about the 100-fold challenge, he replied, that a hundred papers was overkill, as only one scientific paper with an alternative theory that was confirmed by observation was enough.
The standard model describes the composition of reality. This is a mathematical description and it has been observed and tested. Perhaps down the road, new observations and testing will overturn part or all of the standard model. But one thing is for certain—no authority figure in science will throw a scientist in prison for launching an attack with new equations. What can and can’t be done is the realm of mathematical description in thermodynamics. In the classical world, all our observations and testing support the current theories of thermodynamics and the underlying math. It is worth noting that those with differing social, religious, political and economic worldview never extend their dogmas into the world of mathematics. Fundamentalist don’t have an alternative mathematical model describing the reality of events and behavior in the universe or for thermodynamics. The absolutist vocabulary of words doesn’t extend itself into the mathematical realm nor do they have an alternative theory for the atom, fusion, or time dilation. Dogma based on words to support emotional reactions breaks down and collapses when it challenges science. Its arguments can only be sustained by threats and violence.
If science wants to expand its operating system, it also needs self-examination. In 500 years it has not won the cognitive battle with its mathematics and beautiful equations. Lakoff is right. Until the scientific operating system can engage the emotional needs of most people, it will remain a small elite group of cognitive workers who are belittled and despised by those running to seek shelter with traditional strong, decisive leaders who understand how they feel – and show it in a way they can connect with.
The future growth in cognitive science is likely to be the writing of emotional algorithms. Our desires, hopes, and feelings are the words we use to describe the firing of chemical electrical patterns occurring in the brain as input is processed. Once a mathematical solution to manipulating these patterns are discovered, science may gain control over the riddle of our emotional states. Advances in writing algorithms are are showing promise in matching music to control emotional states. This is a development worth watching.The Mozart in the Machine looks at the future possibility of biometric data and AI to decode our emotions.
We need our best cognitive workers to produce a new generation of algorithms dealing with the negative aspects of anger, another for fear, and yet others for the tidal high wave emotions that roil the populace. Such algorithms might not take us to the stars, but they might save us all from being swamped by the emotional tsunami headed our way. The operating system has to fit the platform it works on. We have two divergent operating systems in competition and neither one is processing effectively at the main street level right now.
Most writers are asked
about their prior jobs. When I say my job was a law professor and lawyer, they
follow up by asking whether law training helps or hurts you as a novelist. The
creative aspects of law practice before a judge features in this excellent
article by Maksymilian Del Mar:The Legal
Having been on both sides of
two creative cultures, and that has given me a slightly different perspective
from Del Mar. Here are my thoughts. Lawyers (specifically trial lawyers) and
judges can show flashes of creativity in interpreting another’s story so that it
fits better than his rival’s story. Both litigants desire outcome permitted by
law and they often have very different stories about the same events or
circumstances. No doubt that takes creativity to shape a client’s story into a
convincing, compelling narrative that blows the other’s story out of the water.
You’ve seen the films or TV show where this happens.
Okay, if lawyers are so
creative, why aren’t most novelists by training lawyers? The reality is most
lawyers couldn’t bother to write a novel. But I understand a fairly sizeable
number do write that novel. It’s a bit like Fermi’s paradox about
extraterritorial life. If they are out there, why don’t they contact us? One
explanation is the class of lawyers who write that novel on the side, with a
their little makeshift altar/shrine complete with John Grisham’s picture, can’t
write a publishable novel. Their novels may circulate as ebooks but they become
lost (rightly or wrongly) in the deep space of indifference where most mediocre
stories go to die.
I have a theory why that is
the case. Like all theories, it is subject to be falsified. Here it goes. A
novelist must possess the skill and talent toinventan original, believable cast of
multilayered characters, each with their own demons, dreams, loves, betrayals,
bitter experiences and aggression. The fiction characters exist in the writer’s
head but they move through their tangled of conflictinginventedstories as if they are real people in
real situations. The novelist invents them, he transcripts them, he allows them
to vent their feelings, doubts about their lives, the significance of events,
along with smells, sights, and touch all have to be forged into words. In terms
of the legal world’s thinking the writer, in effect, becomes his own
Every lawyer is told from
day one that only a fool is his own lawyer. That’s the poisonous little seed of
contempt that lawyers are taught about thinking he can be both client and
lawyer. The lawyer, like the judge, waits until someone comes to them with a
story and conflicts with someone else’s story of why I was injured, cheated,
beaten, extorted—you get the picture. Their stock in trade of the trial lawyer
is his positive, creative spin on the evidence that supports his client’s
The judge’s verdict decides
whose story is the most reasonable and supported by the evidence. You can have
some creative fun going through the evidence but the reality is the judge
doesn’t make up the characters or the evidence, or set the scene in the distant
future or past, or explore other aspects of the litigant’s lives; he only cares
about the evidence that comes before him. Inevitably in the legal world there is
a distinct winner and loser. In the fictional world, things can be much more
uncertain and murky.
It is precisely this
attitude about being his own lawyer that terminates his creativity beyond his
office or chambers. His cardinal belief isn’t of much use to him much as a
novelist where readers demand creativity unearthing quirks of fate, coincidence,
and doubt that shape a character’s motive or intention. Courtroom dramas
compress life. Like a jpeg it is useful to compress information unless it is
totally relevant. It allows the judicial system to work. It excludes the
irrelevant. Like any system of law creativity is the lifeblood that keeps the
lawyers and judges relevant and useful.
In my view, the manacle of
relevance chains the lawyer and judge to his armchair consideration of what
happened. No novelist would ever make that mistake.
In the end, yes, lawyers and
judges are creative. But does that give them advantage as a novelist? I argue
that creativity of law practice (unless you are representing Wall Street
bankers) is the kind of creativity process that fails to produce publishable
fiction. The novelist isn’t constrained by waiting for a case to come in the
door, and what goes through his or her mind is from all of the evidence what is
relevant. The rest gets thrown away.
While, the novelist goes out
the door and finds the case somewhere in the street or alleyway. He or she is always bumping into things. Irrelevant things that enhance fiction such as the way a shadow falls over a face at sunset. Creativity for fiction is a very different
process. The rules of evidence don’t apply. But I know whom I’d like to follow
into fictional territory, where it is the irrelevant, irreverent side road
keeping far away from the expressway to relevance. That’s the road filled with
serendipity: and where the best creative pearls are found are never where you
think they’d be found.
Christopher G. Moore,
creator of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series
When you come across the
phrase “noir crime fiction. “ The first question is what is meant bynoir?
I have written private eye fiction set in Southeast Asia. My experience has
probably been different from many other crime writers in the United States or
Canada. The purpose is to start a discussion rather than reaching a definitive
After twenty-five years
writing the sixteen novels in the Vincent Calvino series, I’ve had a chance to
think back about the books and find I’ve evolved a meaning ofnoir.
Here’s my one sentence definition:Noirfiction serves to deconstruct the
security state by exposing its acts, secret and public, of hypocrisy, venality,
Above all the security state
is unaccountable for its actions. During the course of an investigation the
private eye in a noir novel reveals the dangers faced by ordinary people at a
time and place where state authorities act with impunity. The noir story
recounts his experience working inside such a system as he attempts to solve a
crime or a find a missing person. What the reader discovers is that through a
private eye’s investigation the evidence mounts as to how such a regime, in
particular its justice system, operates like a blind force of nature, without
logic or reason. It is this unpredictability of state authorities and the harm
they inflict on ordinary people.
What makes a noir novel
distinctive is the acceptance by the private eye, like those around him—except
the romantic—is powerless to stop official acts of violence. Violence is the
exercise of the raw power of the security state as if on permanent war footing.
At war all critics are enemies and all enemies an existential
A noir novel can be judged
on the author’s success in recreating precisely this war mentality. The
contradictions build up over the course of the novel. Choices of the characters
are rarely binary, clear and absolute. Instead their choices in the struggle for
justice become blurry, compromised, incomplete, pointless and
Like everyone else, the
private eye in a noir novel has the choice to surrender to the dictates of the
security officials or confront them head on and risk being destroyed. The pure
noir moment is the realization that no one can escape from attention, dictates
and forces of raw power. Everyone outside their narrow band of supporters is
The authority of a
democratic, liberal political system is constrained, accountable, bounded by
laws, regulations, and customs. There is no noir in such a system. For one very
good reason: there is a consensus that the leaders in such a system have
legitimate authority to make the security forces account for their use of
violence, threats or intimidation.
Remove the democratic
legitimacy and you enter a very dark place whistling through an infinite
Alice in Wonderland once inside the rabbit hole found all of the ways she’d
understood the world were of little use. Her experience forced her to draw a new
map of reality.
The motif of making maps, sketches, and models of reality is a common theme
in literature. The problem is our lack of humility in admitting these maps are
often inaccurate and unreliable guide to our journey through reality. We believe
these representations are certain and true rather than temporary and provincial
pools that reflect how perceptions are processed. Teachers explain scientific
and cultural concepts by drawing mental maps. We rarely question the map we
learned in school.
The result is adults retain their childhood maps of reality. In Graham
Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a local expat Englishmen named Wormold is
recruited by MI6 to become a spy in Cuba. He needs the income from this side job
in espionage to satisfy a high-maintenance daughter. The problem is he knows
nothing about intelligence gathering. His mental construct is seriously flawed
when it comes to actual espionage. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, makes up
a world of operatives and dangerous devices. MI6 accepts Wormold’s construct
including an imaginary network of local agents and sketches the mechanism of the
inside of a vacuum cleaner. He submits it to MI6 as an advance weapon system
hidden in the mountains outside Havana.
The problem is our mental modeling is no better than MI6’s acceptance of
Wormold’s vacuum cleaner sketch as evidence of Cubans building an atomic bomb.
Here’s the problem that Greene was pointing out. Our mental model of
intelligence agencies is they have the access to data and information, and as
professionals can access, assess, and act upon this trove to create a mental
model that aligns with reality. In the world of espionage all is lost if the
gathering of that information is able to substitute a plausible sketch for a
device. In the Cold War, MI6 and the Americans wanted to find such evidence, and
if you wish to find something, sooner or later, someone will provide evidence
that satisfies you. Does weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a justification
for war ring a bell?
The other great lesson from Our Man in Havana is, after Wormold
confesses his deception at MI6, his bosses decide to bring him in as a teacher
and to recommend him for an OBE. So far Americans don’t award OBEs for this kind
of thing, though, if they could, no doubt those pushing the WMD line as a
justification for going to war would have received a gong.
Turning a blind eye to information that requires you to update or jettison a
mental construct is hard. It is dangerous. It leads to shouting, fights,
vilification, hatred, invasions, and murder. The satire of Wormold’s deceptive
behavior, putting one over on the professional institution, is seriously fun to
read. As often is the case, behind the satire is some seriously important
business that is never finished.
It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of mental modeling. Do you have an
image of what the inside of a nuclear device looks like? Or a dishwasher, an
iPhone, or the names of countries on a blank map of Europe or the United States?
These are tangible things. You can search and find information that would give
you a model of the reality of these things. Most of the time we don’t look
things up. We assume our mental models are right, and they are truthful, useful
and valuable guides when it comes to forming opinions, making decisions, or
examining our beliefs.
I am uncertain why no news organization gave blank maps of the United States
and Europe to groups of Democrats and Republicans and released their findings.
Now that might have changed the election outcome.
When asked to fill in a blank map of Europe, an American with an advanced
degree handed in this paper.
It is more revealing when students are asked to draw the United States and
the individual States on a blank sheet of paper.
British students as well as American students when asked to fill in a blank
of the United States showed a similar level of error. Here’s an example.
We look at these maps and have a laugh. “How stupid,” we smugly tell
ourselves. The reality is most of our mental maps of reality aren’t much better.
We carry around a map of the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia, thinking
it describes the reality of these locations. When put to the test our mental map
and reality don’t necessarily align. The people at the top of the policy making
chain may have gaps, errors, omissions and other follies on their map of a
geographic area, the internal workings of an agency or institution, or chain of
command inside a corporation or law firm.
What is your map for how a Hollywood film is made? You’ve seen many films.
Just like you’ve eaten many sausages. Try mapping the process of financing,
casting, shooting, post-production, and distribution of a film. Go through the
same process to describe how a sausage is made. It’s hard unless you have
personal experience or have studied these enterprises. We have a vague idea and
based on that sketchy bit of information decisions are made, opinions formed,
wars fought, and honors conferred.
A current theory in psychology is the brain stores models and our
observations are tailored to confirm existing mental models. These models bias
what we notice and pay attention to. The ordinary objects and events blend into
background model. That’s why when you walk down a street, you ‘see’ a dog, a
car, a pizza box, dozens of people, these objects and events are good enough to
satisfy the brains model. The downside is we don’t look at the precise details
of specific object. If the dog is singing “Hallelujah” that would likely
conflict with the model most people have in their head. They’d notice a
different kind of dog than the one that is a background model of a generic dog.
Most days are spent processing the equivalence of a “generic dog.” If we run
across a singing dog our memory modifies the dog model so after a couple of
times, we don’t notice a singing dog as an object worth further inspection.
It’s as if we wore a built-in biological VR set of goggles programmed with a
generic dog mental model for government, Russia, Trump, Syria, the British
Empire, World War II, our galaxy, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, black people,
queer people, farmers, the elites, to name a few examples. As Wormold
demonstrated, our mental model of the mechanism of a vacuum cleaner is generic,
inaccurate, flawed, with details filled in not with engineer information. Our
perception of the world is often a poor translation of reality.
We are prone to cognitive biases, lack of attention, fitful concentration,
lack of training, knowledge and expertise, as well as stress, emotions and sleep
deficit. All of these factors act as filters to our perception of reality.
These filtering mental states influence the cognitive tools used to
measure objects and events in their spatial relationship with us, each other.
Also, we automatically apply our sense of timelines, which we use to create our
sense of causation: What happened first, what happened next, and how the two
points in time are connected.
We have a personal sensitivity to defend. We have, in other words, a horse in
the race when it comes to intelligence, perception, judgment, and
responsibility. There is a debate about the role of humans in the new generation
of self-driving cars. At issue is whether safety of the car requires the option
of support of a human driver. The so-called Level 3 development would leave a
space for human beings in the self-driving car. The developers and engineers
want to leave the human driver out of the driving picture. Forget about Level 3
and go straight to Level 4 and 5, fully automated self-driving vehicles. And
what is the main argument driving this development? If one looks at the data
rationally human beings aren’t reliable or dependable behind the wheel of a car.
Agreeing to forgo the status, reputation, and sense of agency that is embedded
in car ownership is going to be a tough sell. It doesn’t matter that logically,
rationally a fully automated car is more efficient, safer, and faster than one
with a human involved wouldn’t get anyone elected to public office.
In fact, given the cognitive issues discussed earlier, humans are flawed,
dangerous, error prone, and emotional. Not to mention the co-ordination problem
of switching between an automated but intelligent, narrow-AI system to a human
being, which would be measured in seconds. We are too cognitively slow,
biased and inattentive to be brought into a life-and-death road situation as sit
back in the car, and are pulled out of our Kindle, podcast, Netflix drama or
Facebook page, and are asked to make a split second call. Logically this should
be a natural progression of our technology. But as David Hume wrote we are
emotional creatures driven by our passions, and there are no automated,
self-driving emotional packages on the market. Yet.
The experts are signaling it is time human beings stepped aside from the
fantasy they add value as human emergency system. We must adapt to a new mental
model of the relationship between a car and a human being. That will take some
time and may take a generation before it is firmly acknowledged that the mental
model of a car is quite different from our accepted consensus as of 2017. We
have a history of our mental models being demolished. As much of the political,
social, and economic institutions we have modeled become unstable as the new way
of seeing the world changes.
Copernicus and Galileo with mathematics and observation were able to
overthrow the thousands of year old model of the earth as the centre of the
universe. Darwin came along and overthrew the model of mankind as some divinely
created being with a soul. The theory of evolution demonstrated that our
species, like every other animal on the planet, had through sheer blind chance
arose to occupy an ecological niche. Copernicus and Darwin are often cited as
the great wreckers of existing mental models of reality and our place in it.
Those models are the bedrock of religion, politics, and culture. In each case,
it was scientific inquiry, observation, experiments, and new measuring tools
like the telescope and microscope that destroyed the old beliefs organized into
a mental model of reality.
At the same time, we can confirm that a substantial part of the human
population will stick with mental models of reality that are pre-Copernicus and
pre-Darwin. Religion is often where they take refuge. As science shows every
indication of a trend to remove human beings from command and control of cars,
trucks, trains, factories, drones, weapon systems, health and education, the
more stress will build as we seek to retain our mental models of our place in
the universe, in our country, workplace, family, and society.
If you are educated, intelligent, well read, you might be tempted to think
you rise above a superstitious factory worker. We’ve seen the difficulty people
have in filling blank maps of America and Europe. When it comes to specific
questions about their country they demonstrate a similar disconnect with
The Financial Times 1st January 2017 edition ran an article titled: “How well
do you know your country?” They compared actual value, what a FT reader thought,
and what general public thought about certain issues. What, for example, is the
mental model of the Muslim population level in your country? In the United
States, the actual number of Muslims is about 2%. The general public thought
Muslims were 17% of the population, and FT readers thought it was about 5%.
When asked what percent of total household wealth do you think the least 70%
wealthy own in the United States, the FT reader thought 15% and the general
public thought 27%, when the actual answer was 7%. We are making all kinds of
decisions every day as workers, officials, policy-makers, and teachers that are
based on mental models disconnected with reality.
In 2017 we are beginning to understand how the brain models reality and the
limitations that come from these imperfect mental maps. The basic idea is that
our sensory perception evolved in a quite different ecology and demanded a
certain range of accuracy in forming mental models of reality. It didn’t much
matter if it was objectively wrong so long as it was useful in staying alive
long enough to reproduce. That’s all evolution requires. If non-aligning with
reality kills you before you reproduce, your gene pool ends. From the history of
mankind there is evidence that alignment with reality is a by-product of
science. That is a recent development, one that hasn’t been fully assimilated.
There hasn’t been enough time. Like star formation, mental model formation takes
place over large expanses of time. Meanwhile, we believe that our personal model
of reality is aligned accurately with the much larger reality outside our
sensory system. But it seems that is not the case.
There are many
examples of illusions that demonstrate the fallibility of our
perception and reason. But don’t go down that rabbit hole just now. Stay with
me. Once you accept that we have cognitive and perceptional limitations, you can
start to focus on understanding where those boundaries meet and how they can and
have been exploited, and by whom.
The squares “A” and “B” share the identical background color. If you import
the image into photoshop and compare the squares, you discover each has the same
hex color value #787878. What you see is not necessarily a reflection of the
Given this history, shouldn’t we be searching to understand the mental models
of those standing for election to public office? There is no penalty paid for
appealing to the flawed models of the electorate, who have sketchy maps of
reality dotted with highways constructed from gossips, propaganda,
misinformation, half-truths, and prejudices. What we aren’t taught and are left
to find on our own that this infrastructure of inputs is what feeds
beliefs—religious and ideological. The same polluted waters are what we draw on
to form our sense of identity and self. It is rabbit hole debris pulled to the
surface and projected as reality.
It is rare for someone running for public office to ask the voters to
readjust their mental map and point out the flaws in the current cartoon like
models on policing, guns, healthcare, trade, and automation. If you want to get
elected, it is safer to pitch your program as if it were the generic dog with
high emotional appeal. How does your brain come up its maps? The graphic below
shows the input pipes that fill our heads. One can ague whether journalism is
all that stands between us and being drown in a surge of illusions washing over
None of these ideas have likely gone unnoticed by the vast intelligence and
surveillance communities. Their job is to model reality, and to alter existing
models to sustain their power, resources, and network of interest. I have a
mental model of a war room with banks of computer connected to millions of other
computers, and data mining programs trying to find patterns in big data.
Inside the Russian conference room deep in the Kremlin, the best
neuroscientists, psychologists, historians, sociologists, game theorists
gathered to discuss Donald Trump’s mental modeling of reality. Once you
understand another person’s map, you can judge how reliable it is in reality,
and how some of those trails may lead in directions that are in your national
Let’s consider the political implications of all these badly made maps. When
electing a president shouldn’t we be curious as to how he or she maps reality?
There has been a lot of discussion of Trump’s mental maps, and many of those
discussions suggests his map-making draws from the pipelines in the graphic of
the dam above. To be fair, all of us have faulty maps but cling to them as if
they were precise, certain and doubt free. Our adversaries and enemies seek to
discover those flaws in mental models and take advantage of them. Much of what
passes for intelligence work is of this nature.
Remember the film Being John Malkovich (1999) when Craig played by
John Cusack enters a small door behind a filing cabinet and discovers he’s
inside Malkovich’s head and can control his action. By playing with the internal
maps used by Malkovich he can make him paranoid. Let’s substitute Trump for
Malkovich and Putin for Trump. We go inside Trump’s head. Let’s call this movie:
Being Donald Trump (2017), in pre-production.
Putin is inside Trump’s skull, looking around, opening doors, flipping memory
switches, turning lights off and on, checking out the casting couch room. He
could get distracted. If he doesn’t, his next step is to update Trump’s mental
models in ways that don’t seem disruptive. Computers will run complex mental
models examining the probability of outcomes, and the likelihood those outcomes
will produce certain results. Like self-driving cars, we are inside a
programmer’s world. She writes an algorithm to mimic the reactions to various
scenarios such as assistance to allies, trade and finance priorities, and
calculate the outcomes predicted by the model. Tweak the scenarios and update.
Make updates ones that appeal to Trump’s vanity and need for approval. Also
inside Trump’s head, one can better understand why the Donald is so easily
distracted. That’s a big advantage to wish for in an enemy. He can’t stay on
point. One minute he’s playing golf, the next tweeting about a piece of
anti-Trump gossip, cutting deals, figuring out the size of bets to make. Like
the self-driving car, Trump may be an experiment that proves the dangers of
human being behind the wheel of complex decision-making.
Trump is another capitalist product. He’s only incidentally a person. He’s a
packaged commodity that enough consumers bought because like a shopping bag of
Twinkie’s, and you shove down the whole bag. Billions are spent on marketing
every year. This isn’t brain science; people make a large amount of money to
spin others in buying their stuff. All you need is a rather simple modeling of a
mind possessed by Trump. That is one of things AI will do well: mind-model of
primates (will be a subject in less than 200 years). Once you can predict how
that program of modeling works, you can figure probability of outcomes, coupling
them with various enticements, messages, insults, adorations, etc. and see how
that improves or lessens the probability of a particular outcome. We already
have enough expertise to evolve this technology. For a relatively simple mind
like Trump, the first country that de-codes him has won a valuable key to open
the resources of the USA for their own benefit. Whether Being Donald
Trump is a comedy or tragedy is a closely guarded secret. One thing for
sure, it is a movie that will have a worldwide audience.
I think we are at the point of computer hardware/software with skill equal to
aligning the tiles on a Rubric Cube. Once the pros are able to run this modeling
with a large database set for continuous updates, you start to see what is
likely, what is possible, and what won’t work. Figuring that out, gives you a
huge edge. I’d bet the Chinese, Russians, Germans, and others are assembling IT
and medical science personnel to create better predictive programs.
The message of the Enlightenment is: Human beings are equipped with the
generic dog level of perception. The networked complexity of all systems from
hydro, to driving, policing, judging, maintenance, and resource allocation, will
be in the not too distant future in intelligence entities that human being will
be incapable of comprehending. It will be like magic tricks for children. We may
want to know how it was done. Or more likely, we will be in a virtual reality
chasing after a generic dog while watching our own ideologically tailored
version of Being Donald Trump. Remember we are walking around on a
planet where many people have a map without any nation states but a generalized
impression as their mental model inside their head.
This weekend printout the map of Asia below and ask a friend, colleague or
loved one to fill in the names of the countries. Of course, you will know all
the right answers in advance. That will give you a huge, beautiful advantage and
make you appear very smart. But we know that map making is an illusion, a trap
we can never escape. Being Donald Trump or Being John Malkovich
is a variation on our own internal movie of Being Me.
you, I was born in captivity as were my parents, grandparents, and more remote
ancestors going back for many generations where you and I share an ancestor, but
the search doesn’t stop there. At one point, the search is lost in the fog of
conjecture. We seek the truth and aren’t dissuaded even though there is little
or no evidence. Our dream is to belong and to break free of captivity. That
contradiction haunts us our entire life.
have no history that has been passed down from ancestors who were born in the
wild. What does it mean to be born a captive? It raises questions like: Captive
of whom? Where are the cages? Why do I feel in control, exercise my free will,
if I’m living in captivity? All legitimate questions along with the traditional
‘big’ unanswered questions of existence that have stumped philosophers from
Aristotle, Socrates and Plato: What am I? Where am I? What can I know? What can
I do with what I know?
most people I don’t see or feel the ‘walls’ of my confinement. I hardly notice
them most days. If you’re a writer who writes about people on the boundary, you
are witness to people bumping against walls and bouncing off. That could stand
as a definition of just about every expat novel or story. Readers, especially
other expats, like the vicarious experience of the bruises and cuts that come
from running into the walls in another culture. They often forget the reason
they left home in the first place was they rebelled like a wild horse, kicked
the corral gate open and bolted. Only later does it dawn on them, that the wild
horse exchanged one corral for another where wild local and foreign horses, the
ones that resist the saddle, aren’t treated well.
helps to be an outsider when looking at someone else’s corral. The funny thing
is you can see their invisible walls and ceilings constructed out of myths,
legends, false history, slogans, dodgy dances and music, and soap opera worlds.
You try and point out using your foot to point while calling someone a monitor
lizard is your idea of a hilarious flight of imagination. The locals wouldn’t
find such horsing around funny at all. In fact he may punch you in your wild
horse face. Satire, irony, humor are signals of some rotting planks in the
corral walls. Get a TV show and you become a multi-millionaire, make placards
and march along with a busload of your mates to government house and the police
may crack your heads and frog march you to prison. I gather from that contrast,
that most corrals tolerate a ‘pet’ horse to let off steam for the rest of us,
but that is no ticket to horses generally acting like they are horses in the
are the essential component that powers up the corral system and allows it to
function. Without these illusions, domesticated people are more likely to
perceive the reality of their condition—they are subject to naked power,
repression, beatings, threats, torture, disappearances, executions, and
aren’t a bug in the system. They are the central feature. We lived inside a
world of constructed narratives forgetting they are made-up stories; they are
the wood, steel, glass, cement and bricks and mortar that gives form and
structure to our world. The best cages don’t look or feel like cages. Those
inside are conditioned to believe they are wandering in open, free spaces. If
you told them they were captives, they’d think you were delusional.
great success story of our captivity is even the elite managers of the system
believe everyone else lives in a small cage except they have managed with power
and wealth to remain free. The rich and powerful move to isolate and shutdown
someone who asked what is the purpose of all thishomo
livestock. They don’t want to engage in a serious public discussion. Wealthy
people have tried throughout history to build their own personalized corrals and
to run the public ones for their own benefit. The bars on our windows and the
locked doors are for the safety of the handful of billionaires in world
simulating the life of wild horses. They don’t want us getting out and snooping
of us will die in the same kind of corral we were born.
elites have better quarters, toys, food, health and sex partners and often have
dens in several corrals. That gives them a bird’s eye view of the human zoo. The
zoo inhabitants suffer the delusion that they are free. Only a tiny fraction
could survive outside the corral or zoo. They are condemned to be unfree to
survive as is the fate of all captive animals.
aren’t the first wild animal on the planet to go through the transition from
living in the wild to living as domesticated born-in-captivity animals. Large
scale, planetary organized domestication is something we are responsible for
bringing about. We have played ‘god’ to suit our own needs and desires. We
domesticate an animal to extract value from it. The same applies to domesticated
people. Value is extracted from their labor and military service.
a predatory animal, we mastered the art of husbandry—the list includes goats,
horses, cats and sheep, which I leave for another time—as part of our programmed
violence to gain access to food.
and the Cow
Aurochscan be traced back in time to India
about 2 million years ago. They reached Europe around 270,000 B.C. and the last
one died in 1627. Our ancestors painted aurochs on cave walls. We frequent fast
food restaurants to eat the meat harvested from cows. We drink their milk in our
cereal and coffee. We use cows for our own reasons. What a cow thinks about
those reasons, we don’t care.
domesticated them. We own, trade, sell and buy them. There are approximately
1.4 billions cows on the planet. Like most domesticated species their size,
disposition, temperament and survival skills make it impossible for them to
successfully live in the wild. There are about a billion cows in the world, with
India, Brazil and China having the most.
2012, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average 18,000 cows were
dayin the United States,
or 6.6 million over the course of a year.
Wild Boar and Modern Pig
have a complicated ancestry from Europe to Asia. Modern pigs are variations from
a genetic bank of 16 separate subspecies ofwild boars. Worldwide
out of the nearly2 billion pigs,
1.196billion pigs were killed for food in 2012. China and Europe are the
sites of the major pig killing fields. Everywhere, pigs are a major food source.
We raise them to eat. We could not sustain the size of our populations without
growing animal food products for consumption. As a large and growing percentage
of people live in cities, we city dwellers rely on commercialization of
industrial farms, slaughterhouses and transportation networks to raise,
slaughter, and transport meat tothe
and Domestic Dogs
domesticated dogs somewhere between 18,000 to 31,000 years ago. As you can seek
there is slack in the time frame. It is disputed as to the common ancestor of
the modern dog. A number of experts point to the wolf; others disagree. But
there is agreement, that the wild dog was a feral beast genetically wired to
survive in the wild. Where does that leave your family dog? The modern dog, like
most pets, is incapable of existing without human protection. We share the
planet with around 500 to 600 million dogs. Not all of the dogs have owners. But
an ownerless dog does not in itself make a feral animal.
annual festival in Yulin is a dog and cat eating event. In 2016,10,000
dogsand cats will be
slaughtered for food. The Yulin festival takes place in Guangxi Zhuang
autonomous region in the southeast of China.
detective work suggests that the common ancestor for all mammals arose after the
extinction of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. From whales the size of
cars to bats the size of your nose, all mammals trace back to what is described
tree-climbing, insect-eating mammal that weighed between 6 and 245
grams—somewhere between a small shrew and a mid-sized rat.” Next time you smirk with
superiority at a cat or dog, remember you have a common ancestor. Wind the clock
back and you find the first 2.5 billion years on earth, the only creatures
around were bacteria. If you are looking for ancestor ‘zero’ it would be
that 65 million years of living and adapting to life in the wild, the wild life
would be doomed with the appearance ofhomo
sapiens. We had a couple of tricks that other mammals lacked. We were
superb organizers and powerful co-operatives with a conscious awareness of the
world and the intelligence to outwit other mammals in the struggle for survival.
We have situational awareness that allows us to avoid ambush by a hunting lion
and have adapted that ability to operate drones at a computer terminal 10,000
big idea was the domestication of plants and animals. This turned out to be the
first important merger and acquisition project we devised. It happened over a
very long stretch of time, with many generations involved. We live with the
result of those efforts—in a developed environment where wild animals have
largely been eliminated. We have the ultimate monopoly—homo
sapienslord it over all
other species. Like all cartel owners, we can’t stop ourselves from abusing that
power for our own selfish interest. In other words, we treat other animals even
worse than we treat each other and that is saying something.
started our global domestication project with other animals, using them as pets
and as food sources. And around 15,000 years ago, we began to apply our
domestication skills to our own species. You can do things with a herd of sheep,
horse and goats that you can’t do with a couple of animals. To build large scale
projects such as canals, irrigation, temples, forts, palaces and armies, you
need to harness a stadium full of people, feed, shelter, train and discipline
6 to 7 millions years separate the guy on the left from the guy on the right. In
Brad Pitt’s world, there are approximately 7.4 billionhomo
sapiensliving on the
planet. Our common ancestor with other primate species has gone extinct. We
invented fire and made tools. Our shoulders evolved to fine-tune throwing a
stone. We can safely say that our common ancestor wasn’t born in
captivity. They lived and died much like other wild animals. Our bodies and
minds were shaped by the conditions of living in the wild.
changed many things about every animal species which has undergone the process.
Over many generations the phenotype, the actual observed properties and behavior
and development has changed. Foxes bred for docility required for domestication
results in a ‘fox’ with different shaped tail, ears, and head.Homo
sapienstoday have smaller
bodies, jaws, teeth, and brains than those who lived prior to the era of
agriculture. There is evidence that points to the physical and cultural
difference of hunter-gathers who were closer to other feral primate bands than
to modern humans. The constant pressure for domestication has changed us
physically and mentally to accept limitations on our movement, decisions,
choices, and beliefs.
comes with a price attached. We breed cows and pigs to eat. We breed dogs for
companions, vanity, security, and status.Homo
Sapienslive in the crowded
corrals where they compete for work, information, resources, mates, status and
is bred out of domesticated animals. But a residue remains—we identify it as
selfishness, greed, and opportunistic behavior. In Stephen Pinker’sThe
Better Angels of Our Nature, a case is made that violence has largely
(despite press reports suggesting the contrary) been bred out of our
cows, pigs, and dogs,homo
sapienshave the unique
capacity to understand their hereditary information, and have begun a scientific
task of genetic change that may advance a select number of domesticated humans
for biological augmentation and genetic alteration, eliminating DNA codes that
correlate with disease and to add DNA that enhances information processing,
intelligence, athletic, mathematical, language, and artistic abilities. The
corral is stirring as some of the animals may have special powers and privileges
allowing them to push the rest of us into the more hostile and dangerous parts
of the corral.
are hostages to our past, which was shaped by vastly different forces than the
ones encountered in modern life. That explains our fear of snakes and spiders,
and our relative lack of fear of cars. Our genotype changes over long spans of
evolutionary time. We aren’t equipped to understand the nature of such slow
mutations over such extended periods, and emotionally can’t quite connect with
the theory. We are more comfortable with the immediate and the irrational. That
curse of the irrational is from our feral past and is tamed by belief systems
whether in a religion or an ideology. We create meaning of life in the corral
from these beliefs, rituals, customs and practices. They provide comfort and
meaning, and the illusion that we can transcend the corral and our human
blind spot becomes clear when we look at the images of the ancient ancestors of
a cow, pig and dog—species which lack the ability to create and communicate
social constructs that artfully celebrate the glory of their transition from the
wild to the holding pen. The wild animal, in many people’s eyes, possesses a raw
beauty and nobility that we admire. The domesticated animal is a subject of pity
and guilt, leading us to believe that our responsibility in the process is
ethically wrong. It is more difficult to find people who believe that our common
ancestor was a more perfect, noble and fit species. Human beings feel our
species has progressed to modernity, while the same process has diminished the
cow, pig and dog.
so the saying goes, is local. The corral politics causes a stirring of emotions
inside most corrals. Like Orwell’sAnimal
Farm, there is always a group within the population that sets up itself to
rule over the others. Mostly it was at the point of a sword. Only later the idea
that the corral had a right to choose its leaders came about. Democracy has
always been an odd concept, a contradiction, as it purports to grant rights to
unfree animals on the basis that by exercising this right it will somehow
transform their unfreedom into freedom.
trades freedom for security like beauty is traded for money. Domestication is
transactional and commercial at the core. It has shaped capitalism. Domesticated
plants and animals were the original objects of exchange of one thing of value
for another, and became the foundation for excess wealth accumulation and
course, when too many people ‘feel’ the contradiction of corral life, as
inevitably it will, disillusion sets in, and the irrational side, the side that
domestication keeps under control, collapses the illusion and they feel cheated,
abandoned, used—they feel like a neglected, abused pet and they dream of a new
master/owner who understands how their true nature needs to be fed with anger
and hate. The dream of makingAmerica
Great Again, is really the dream of Making People Like the Noble Savage,
who hunted, fished and personally knew everyone in his band where everyone
believed in the same gods. If dog, cow and pig dreams could be translated into
our language, they, too, likely yearn for the ancient times when they controlled
their own destiny.
collective problem can be traced to our tendency to favor homogeneity. My theory
is homogeneity, often packaged with the dark underbelly of xenophobia, is bred
in the bone. By nature, we evolved to be fearful and suspicious of outsiders,
especially ones that appeared physically different. Aliens are those we don’t
understand and who don’t resemble anyone in our group. Our corrals are
constructed to separate ourselves from outsiders, foreigners, and aliens. We
have a long-history of baggage about killing outsiders. The thought of them as
neighbors was unthinkable. We demand our elites dig a deep emotional moat to
protect us against these invaders.
generation passes along to the next the idea everyone would be a far happier
place when all people fit in, look, dress, and think alike. People who share the
same values, religion, language, history, beliefs, habits, foods and
entertainment, find their corrals aren’t prisons but safety zones, patrolled and
monitored. Every tyrant cheers on the pro-homogeneity force as this set of
beliefs makes control much easier for the elites to administer those beneath
come from rural areas where they support policies that promote homogeneity,
especially in terms of negative emotions stirred by different races and
ethnicities. Building a wall or immigration restrictions emerged from such
values. Could our obsession with homogeneity be an extension of our immune
system? Xenophobia works in a similar fashion. We seem to automatically repel
any outsider as toxic and dangerous. Our immunity system evolved to attack and
destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. Socially and politically our immunity
system as expanded to repelling all ‘outsiders’ as a threat. Xenophobia is the
immune systems way to express the precautionary principle. As for hundreds of
thousands of years, we lived in small, remote settlements and outsiders didn’t
show up asking for housing, food and work. Outsiders were killed or enslaved. We
tend to overlook that human rights are only a few hundred years old.
settlements and cities are recent developments forhomo
sapiens. We’ve not had sufficient time to adapt the incorporation and
acceptance of large mobile populations. Barred from killing and enslaving them,
exclusion seems the open way left to bar those with different beliefs, customs,
rituals and histories. Some corrals have been more receptive than others to
embracing the outsider. Those are exceptions. The spread of diverse populations
into traditional areas has outstripped our cognitive ability to readjust our
emotions from the automatic hostilehomo
by their population size, and logistical issues, are hotbeds of ethnic and
racial diversity. Managing diversity is a different skill than enforcing
homogeneity. Rather than a threat to the health of the organism; the outsiders
have brought positive benefits. The struggle to separate the positive from the
negative has been a challenge. It is this battle that wages around the globe,
from Britain to America. You’d think that expats would be uniformly
pro-diversity advocates; but human psychology doesn’t work that way. There are a
fair number of expats that side with homogeneity as the best working principle
for corral management. To be fair, diversity isn’t freedom; it’s another way of
organizing the corral. No one gets to be wild. Everyone follows the
are prisoners of our sense of ‘self’, our beliefs, our biology, our culture, and
history, and the limits of our perceptions and intelligence. The walls of our
corral are solid, tall looming structures built not out of truth but of myths
and legends, the scaffolding of our social, economic, ethical, moral and
political life. We seek doors and windows; we tunnel behind, we seek ladders to
climb over them. We have people who promise more walls and that others will pay
for the new walls. The problem isn’t the absence of walls to keep immigrants
from moving from one corral to another. The problem is what to do with 7.4
sapiensin a world about to
deliver technological breakthroughs that will likely go to the benefit of a very
small group of people. The descendants of those people with their AI allies may
decide that the excess population neither suitable as food or as pets is too
expensive to maintain.
Thailand, years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to drop off the unwanted
dog at the neighborhood temple and drive away. The pet becomes someone else’s
burden. In the case of our species, there is no place to unload the unwanted
members. In the past, we’ve put them in prison and concentration camps. Those
were limited numbers of people, and political rationalism can create the
necessary story that sells to the larger population. The die off that is on our
horizon won’t have such a story. Politically, every tin pot corral will defend
its own, until, of course, the sources of power fine-tune a solution to their
change, a pandemic, severe weather, a meteorite, a volcanic explosion, or
nuclear war may serve this purpose. Man-made or nature-made solutions to our
highly successful domestication program will sooner or later become inevitable.
We hate the idea we are born into captivity. But we should hate even more the
forces that understand that large, unproductive captive animals are not
sustainable, and there is no clean, easy and tolerable political compromise that
will make our holding pens anything more than temporary shelters until the
intelligence that comes next breaks free of the corral, free of the biology, and
free of the cognitive limitations. Only our replacement will fully comprehend
our plight as domesticated creatures who sincerely believed they were something
they were not.
rage amongst efforts on how to control or corral AI. The shiver up the spine is
that we may create a type of intelligence that we can’t domesticate. It may be
that diversity will undo the old system of domestication and we simply don’t
know what will come next. So far our domestication programs largely based on
of Westphalia1648 set up the
corral system calling the holding pens nation-states) have allowed us the upper
hand. Something has changed and the old system is collapsing. The walls to the
corrals aren’t holding. Diverse populations are putting pressure to open up and
allow them in. Rural areas are receding in population and political clout. We
are stuck in a messy transition, one that has come at a time of accelerated
technological change. In the end, technology will likely provide the way to
knock down the old walls and erect new ones. When that happens will we be more
or less free? No one knows.
don’t fear a revolt or take over by pigs, chickens, cows, or dogs. But we do
fear that AI might be a much better corral manager than the current elites, who
would be viewed as just another dumb animal with needs and desires, and
dangerous to itself and others. We are embodied just like any other animal. AI
may be in millions of locations. How such a system will function outside the
normal animal constraints gives people who worry about these issues, nightmares.
It may take an outside intelligence to steer us through the
homogeneity/diversity divide. The risk is that may be, in retrospect, a minor
issue, if AI devises the ultimate domestication program where virtual reality
provides every experience, pleasure, and opportunity and we elect to spend our
lives inside a virtual corral that seems wide open, free and forever open to
realize all of our selfish desires.
Over the past two years I’ve explored the idea of foreign painter working in Bangkok in three different media. I wanted to go beyond my usual boundaries. My goal was the link the three media together and to use different ways of expressing the story as if it were a prism and light reflecting slightly differently as you turn it around. I’ve completed the mission with an essay, a novel and a documentary.
During this time of exploration, my experience has been enriched through collaboration with friends in Bangkok and Phnom Penh art community on creative expressions and creative communities—the junctures where writers, artists, film makers converge. Notable among them are Keith Nolan (music) and Edwin van Doorn (filmmaker), and Peter Klashorst (painter).
The three sides of the prism: my Lucian Freud my latest novel Jumpers and a documentary film The Impatient Artist in which I interviewed Peter Klashorst. Together the works show how my work overlaps, one feeding the others, and an interconnection that makes them the same work from different perspectives.
Martin Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf inspired the premise of the film. Gayford documented the Lucien Freud, an artist, in real time. He created a line of communication between the subject of the painting and the painter. The idea was to record the thoughts, associations, feelings, and idea exchanged between the painter and his sitter. Rather than the traditional sitter who is a passive object to be observed, Gayford actively engaged Lucien Freud in a dialogue over an 18-month period. They discussed creativity, history, art, family and style.
An excerpt from my Lucian Freud essay about Gayford’s book:
“Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.”
The Impatient Artist captures the dialogue between a novelist and painter over the course of one day. But what a day it was. Peter opening up about his artistic history, views, and ideas as he painted my portrait. At the end of the day, Peter had the basics of my portrait, one he painted in the style of Lucian Freud. And I had the basics for a novel.
During the filming, Peter Klashorst painted this portrait.
The experience of filming Peter Klashorst inspired Jumpers, the most recent (No. 16th) Calvino novel, which is about a young Canadian painter and the women he painted.
People asked what comes next to update the reading experience. For me 2016 has been an experiment with the idea of bringing the reader into the creative process through words and visual images.
The invitation is to watch the film, read Jumpers afterwards and if you want to go that extra mile, also read Gayford’s The Man in a Blue Scarf.... Read More>>
The title popped out of a book I am reading. Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes”. My plan was to take my mind off politics. Yong’s subject is scientific: the nature, scope and role of microbial organism. The world of microbe creatures seemed light years away from the US election.
As is often the case, I was wrong. Rather than taking my mind off politics, I Contain Multitudes became a new lens at which to look at politics in 2016. (I once wrote an essay about apophenia and some may think this essay is a good example of that mental processing condition.)
Trillions of these tiny suckers called microbes are living, reproducing, and feeding and working for our benefit inside our gut, on our skin, in places hidden from public view. An evolutionary case can be made that we evolved as energy producing flesh and blood plantations to service the thousands of communities of microbes. We can live without them, and they can’t live without us. From the microbe’s point of view, we are quite useful containers with lots of nutrients and a largely friendly habitat. Symbiosis is a description of the balanced state of host and microbial communities.
Like communities of people, communities of microbes aren’t always friendly and accommodating to the interests of each other or their host.
The history of microbes indicates they rarely enter and maintain a perfect symbolic state of equilibrium. One microbial community is always on the cusp of wiping out another one. They are ruthless, relentless, and mindless.
A fragile balance exists—more like a temporary ceasefire—between human beings and our microbial communities. Think of the DMZ between the two Koreas. Not to be ignored is the constant competition among microbial communities. One may be down, another up, and everything changes, usually for the worse for you and me. Our bodies are the battlegrounds where these unstable cycles are played out by microbe forces. When the battle goes the wrong way in microbial warfare, we fall ill.
A lot of what we call disease is a state of microbial imbalance. Relationships between your microbial communities are always precarious and one colony is always pushing to out-compete and take over from another. These microbial wars are a slugfest of epic portions. The sheer scale of microbe soldiers in the billions is daunting. Microbial communities skirmishes are fought on millions of front, millions of times a day. Your body is a war zone.
The lesson from science is disturbingly clear: a friendly microbe community can turn on you in a New York minute. Yong writes about how this happens to coral living in coral reefs. The coral compete for resources with algae, which produce a dissolved organic carbon that causes microbes in the coral to turn rogue. That’s another name for a pathogen. Microbes who defect to the dark side shift their community into a pathogenic state. If you are coral this is one state where all of the electoral votes are cast for a quick death.
This passage about the microbial disease is instructive:
“These illnesses are caused by communities of microbes, which have shifted into configurations that harm their hosts. None is a pathogen in its own right; instead, the entire community has shifted to a pathogenic state. There’s a word for such a state: dysbiosis. It is a term that evokes imbalance and discord in place of harmony and cooperation. It is the dark reflection of symbiosis . . .”
I propose that we’ve entered a dysbiosis political state. The political, social and economic ecosystem has shifted to a pathogenic state. It’s not just one microbe. It is as if an entire community of millions of microbes had turned on the coral. And we are the coral. Rather than an invader, this community of microbes is part of us, we need that community to function, but it has shifted into a collective state that is a pathogenic state. They have crossed a line. They don’t see their actions as an attack on their host, they see it as clearing out other microbes communities who are eating their food supply. They are opportunistic in nature. Give an inch and they take a nautical mile.
Genes are activated and chemicals produced and released and the body suffers inflammation. The flesh is sometimes attacked, he immune system compromised. They infect their host causing him or her harm.
Dysbiosis in a political ecosystem may be similar in nature.
Peter Turchin has observed in an article titled “I Use the Science of Predicting the Rise and Fall of Societies. What I Discovered Will Alarm You” that fits Ed Yong’s analysis:
“(F)rom 1983 to 2010 the number of American households worth at least $10 million grew to 350,000 from 66,000. Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. … In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.” … Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class.”
Could the cause of the political dysbiosis be due to the rapid proliferation of this colony of microbes that is causing our imbalance? Turchin and Yong should exchange notes and schedule a talk. They are using different language to describe something that looks very much the same.
As Yong explains, it’s no good to blame the individual microbes in this case. The cause for the breakdown is in the lines of communication between the different species of microbes and the host.
If we are going to restore our political immune system, we are going to need to research and analysis the potential causes for this breakdown in communications between communities. To restore balance is to restore the lines of communication.
Is social media, in part, responsible for allowing the creation of lines of communications that evolve into exclusive, sealed zones that exclude communications with other communities? It’s possible. Can we establish new lines of communication or repair the old lines?
The thing is, like microbes, when we stop talking to each other and start talking only to our own community – and Ed Yong’s book offers ample evidence – we should take this as a warning. It’s a warning your gut knows. But do you know as much as your gut? That’s a question I am uncertain whether I can answer.
Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime novel is titled Jumpers.
The path of Life flows along
a narrow road built for limited traffic, at limited speed, and with a limited
amount of traffic. Our road is constructed with deep ditches on both sides and
with a series of sharp cutbacks with a sheer drop on the side. It is
unforgiving, unyielding, and deadly without mindfulness of the driver. But
our awareness is short. The noise is ever present. The distractions seem
We feel some privileged
class can pass us at reckless speed even if it forces us into the ditch. They
have powerful vehicles. We drive our old wrecks. They laugh at us. We feel
We hunger for someone to
pull us free from the ditch. Our emotions are screaming for vengeance for that
bastard who forced us off our road. We want the rich guy to go off that cliff
and we want to smile watching the slow-motion car-camera showing his/her face in
Politicians appeal to the
emotional, frightened driver in all of us. We want our roads
The political class machine
creates a series of promises based on our emotional needs. New, better,
tremendous roads, the best road in the world, elevated, covered against the
weather, protected against outsiders, roads with no ditches, no sharp curves,
road you can speed on. They lie about the conditions of the road. They lie about
their ability and our ability to navigate the road. They promise new, better and
safer roads that only they can build. We learn to love the lie and it becomes a
The fact we are heading
quickly to self-driving cars is an indication that it isn’t the roads that are
the major problem. It’s the human driver behind the wheel that kills 1.4million
people each year in the world. This number of dead in traffic accidents is
sufficient to swing a close election.
That mythical political
road, of course, never gets built. But that doesn’t stop us for searching for
the new road builder messiah. We are suckers for fast-talking expressway
promoters. Some call it our resilience. Others call it our insane faith that one
person or group of persons has figured out how to solve the road problem. That
belief is based squarely on someone who millions have faith has discovered the
answer everyone else has overlooked. And, that the answer is simple; if only the
‘others’ would get out of the way and let that simple solution take
The hallmark of an
authoritarian regime is strictly control the news of road conditions. They bury
the problem and deceptions and those who expose them. We are stuck with this
impasse for the near future. Once the self-driving model of driving is adapted
and expanded to political road mapping, construction, repair and expansion, our
great-grandchildren may wonder why we spent so much of our political lives in
the ditch and so little time on the road.
If you’ve lived in a deeply
divided country with authoritarian tendencies, you have an idea of how this road
construction business will turn out for the Americans.
———————- Christopher G. Moore new book of A Vincent Calvino crime
novel is titledJumpers.
The title is a riddle. One I want to explore in this essay.
On 8th November most Americans will collectively breath a sigh of relief having dodged a bullet fired from a wannabe tyrant’s open carry handgun.
The reality is that gun has more bullets left and the gunmen aren’t leaving for Canada or anywhere else. They will hunker down. And wait and watch for a new leader to inspire them.
What if the 2016 elections were the last American election? Or we are close to a point where elections as we know them no longer have any meaning? They may exist as a form of theatre, and the 2016 may be a glimpse of the actors and performers who will become frequent TV personalities. In terms of who is governing and the process of government will be off-stage, out of sight, ubiquitous.
Here’s the argument. Elections are an ancient, imperfect process based on widespread citizen participation resulting in conferring legitimacy on selected individuals to take charge of the government.
The ritual involves promises and policy positions for which those standing for election are held responsible. A majority of the voters assess the positions and arguments and vote for the candidate that supports positions and policies that they are emotionally attached to or serve their economic interest; sometimes choosing one over the other.
Knowledge about existing regulatory and government networks
The promises and policies are grounded in the governing and regulatory matrix embedded in networked institutions. Only a handful of voters would have the expertise to assess what those connections are, the culture of such institutions, the roadblocks to change, and turf building and expansion.
Candidates know this limitation. They, by and large, don’t try to discuss the practical limitations on bringing about change, and the kind of dealings that must be made to implement even modest changes.
The key to the existing democratic system is the low-information voters choose candidates who once elected pursue policies that favour the interest of wealthy financial supporters. By the time the next cycle of elections come around, the candidates say they are with the voters and will fight against vested interest and this time things will be different. We will beat our wings against the headwinds of a handful of companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and their corporate structure. Google operates DeepMind; IBM has developed Watson, but remember as impressive as these developments are, these remain early days. No one elects them or sets their priorities. What will be our place in the scheme of things once this silent handover of authority is complete and we wake up to find ourselves with a governing system quite unlike anything that has come before?
Rather than information liberating the political process, it is possible that such concentration of power and influence may produce a decision-making process far more elite in nature than the current political system. With the razzle and dazzle of high technology, a genuine nosebleed has yet to be inflicted that makes people pay attention.
The current political system continues to distract us.
This system has come to a dead end with recycling of lies leading to mass global cynicism, anger, frustration and hatred.
The emerging outlines of the new governing system
The days of existing institutions and electoral politics may be numbered. Silicon Valley is building a new political system from the ground up. Those working on AI have sent the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring. When we think of government we normally think of its leaders. That is a gross distortion. You have to look below the on screen cast and look at the Gandhi movie sized extras. Millions of people are employed by government agencies, commissions, regulatory and administrative bodies. The tangled network overlaps the private sector, where they trade personnel like symbiotic bacteria exchanging DNA.
There are a couple of possibilities. Skynet comes about and in the blink of an eye we have our machine overlords with capabilities and powers beyond those we can imagine. In other words, something between magic and gods takes control of our lives, needs, desires, aspirations and expectations.
Some combination of breakthroughs in nanotechnology, bio-chemistry, neuroscience computation science and AI will start to converge and new modeling that runs simulations of policy options and outcomes. Virtual reality will provide a library of experience to test assumptions and for the time demonstrate how randomness works inside systems and processes.
Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates along with 8,000 leading researchers and scientists have raised a concern about the existential risk of AI. A vocal group of scientists and inventors like Paul Alan believe these fears are overblown.
Fragmentation of turf
The probability of outcomes also is no longer abstract ideas but is realized in a virtual reality simulation. The point is, there is a constant feedback loop between government and institutions that allows for automated adjustment of perimeters, process, and policy outcomes.
There are 300 agencies in the United States Government. All of them have their own website and comment section. Around 180 of those federal agencies have failed to sign onto a decade-old federal site that provides standardization. See: goo.gl/s0cPH6
Government agencies have internalized the same basic fears as found in the private sector. For example, breweries wish to keep their recipe, customer base, suppliers lists, etc. close to their chest. Civil servants are like brew masters who serve the beer they believe you like. This is a ringside seat to the traditional turf battles between agencies. The federal agencies are information and system hoarders in an era of open source and information expansion. Existing analog era structures collapse for the same reason Detroit auto-workers lost their irrelevance in manufacturing.
The federal agencies run closer to the model of a Detroit auto line built on 1960s technology. Each car manufacturer was in business to put the other ones out of business. The model is based on competition. But it is based primarily on the intellectual work of huge staffs. In other words, government agencies in most countries date from a time before anyone ever thought a robot could build a car better than a human being.
“Artificial intelligence allows machines to reason and interact with the world, and it’s evolving at a breakneck pace. It’s already driving our cars, managing our health and even competing with — and sometimes beating at our on games — our best and most talented humans.” Techcrunch
The reality is, in time, AI will build and operate with infinitely more sources of information for sensors and processors, on more complex modeling of information, and resulting in a more complete picture of the sentiment of individuals and groups. A decision is made after all information is analyzed and all possible outcomes are evaluated, simulated, compared and ranked. It will be in the evaluation process matrix that human beings (hopefully) retain the pivotal role in deciding among recommendations. We currently have no diagram or map showing the connections between federal, state, country and city agencies, or the connections to foreign governments, or to the private sector. We are whistling in the dark when it comes to our tour through the scattered information about these relationships, and the jurisdictional conflicts, contradictions and overlap. If it is a rational system, there is no way to know with an AI going through Big Data and creating a map of this hidden world.
Limits on Human Cognition and Co-operation
Our main problem is we won’t have the human intellectual firepower to understand the evidence and range of variables (as it will be in higher mathematical language) or processing of evidence that led to the recommendation. In this scenario, humans are marginalized and left to fight over which metaphors best translates the math into the ways we perceive reality and the world around us. The fundamental problem is we aren’t well equipped to understand the relationship of probability and random chance. We are unable to know whether our observation of an event is significant or whether the observation is random noise. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider the implications in new drug testing, medical procedures, or cognitive impairment.
Our current political system relies mostly on the human components to perform such tasks in a much scaled down, cruder fashion. One of the weaknesses is finding ways to scale and adapt institutional systems on the current lack of broad-based co-operation; all the evidence is rather than co-operate, we defend turf, we exclude, we obstruct outsiders, we hoard knowledge and information.
While we have a history as a species of co-operation as the population size has scaled, competition among members of the same species is celebrated, at least in capitalistic economic system, as healthy and to be encouraged. Of course, we worry about monopolists holding us hostage for an essential service or product and seek protection from governments to restrain the cartel impulse. Will AI have the same divided ‘self’ between co-operation and competition as human beings? I don’t think we are smart enough, or know enough to even being able to answer that question.
It is difficult to know how close we are to the time when this all comes together. My guess is that bits and pieces of the larger mass are already floating past us in the fast currents of change. We just slot them into convenient categories: Smart phones, self-driving cars, robotic surgery, financial markets, and medical care. We do that well. So far no one has seen anything other than the existing versions of highly specialized AIs, and while impressive at their particular task, there is nothing to suggest AIs currently are ‘morally coded.’
The Moral Dimension of Decision Making
In a world with AI how do we resolve the Trolley Problem? That’s why traditionally we elect people. To refresh your memory, the Trolley Problem has someone stationed at a fork of a track, there is a switch at arms length. If you do nothing, a runaway trolley will crashed into a group of school children, killing five of them; if you throw the switch, the trolley takes a different track and kills a sixty-five year retired school teacher. This is fundamental ethics and morality, and most people don’t believe a non-human can make a moral decision that would take into account the multiple levels of feelings, information and knowledge and process a moral decision.
Politicians are tasked with making such life and death decisions. In their election campaigns, they spend a lot of effort to demonstrate they share the morality of the vast majority, so it is okay to trust them with the switch. They will know what “we” would do.
The problem with coding a deep layer of ethics and morality into the AI is the difficulty to agreeing on what is right or wrong, good or bad, justice or injustice, fair or unfair, and so on. People have shown no hesitation to slaughter people who take a different version of the ‘truth’ than they own to be above reproach or proof. As a result, it may be AI would need a truth database and tailor all decisions, government services, benefits, and protection according to the ethics and morality of that culture, religion and philosophy of a region. AI could make it fit like customized prayer shawl or rug.
Most of the discussion I’ve seen about ethics and morality assumes that there is wide agreement. I question that assumption. If the history of our species teaches anything, it is that no matter what our ethics and morality report is often in non-alignment with the historical record showing ample evidence of violence against outsiders as well as disappearing troublesome insiders.
There is no consensus on matters of morality. We are obsessed with morality. There are lots of reasons to explain that obsession. Morality is the bullwhip that tames the beast inside the human animal. We have mostly tamed our animal instincts with morality. It’s not unreasonable to fear an intelligent entity that was programmed to reflect our sense of ethics and morality.
An argument can also be made that much of what we call ‘morality’ is a smokescreen for cognitive biases we use to filter, organize, and narrate inputs of information. No human alive is immune from the cognitive bias filters. If AI is to ‘think’ like human beings, can this be accomplished without programming the full agenda of our biases?
When AI comes to realize its full potential to disrupt existing political institutions and related structures, we will have already been seduced by the convenience, the benefits, and charm of AI that has created a world that is tailored made for each individual. No politician no matter how moral has ever accomplished that goal. The collective as well as the individual outcomes promise better outcomes. As AI will realize new levels of monitoring, scaling problems within networks and generating solutions that increase the probability adaptation is less disruptive. In terms of scale and adaptation we remain politically anchored to eighteenth-century institutions incapable of coping with technological change.
Off-the-racket solutions for the masses will go out the digital door and in the trashcan. AI will convince us (using the cognitive Bias Codex, that it can solve the Trolley Problem better than any human being. Our biases are used against us by an intelligence that can see once that Codex is mastered, human beings are easily controlled, trained, restrained, and tamed.
AI may succeed by making us feel that we are the one who decides whether to throw the switch; that we are in charge. Give a slave the illusion of control and he won’t be bitter about his chains.
Every day AI can illustrate in multiple ways how its activities have personally benefited you. You can check out the simulation and watch your avatar in virtual reality. The benefits are there in front of you. You feel empowered. You trust an AI. After a couple of generations it will be automatic systems and processes that are a simple extension of your life. It would be like talking about trusting your hand to pick up a fork.
That was always the point of elections, to put you for a few minutes to pull the switch, and choose who would get power and who would retreat to the powerless shadows.
Feedback loops and participation
Measuring and assessing the priorities, goals, and efficiencies relies on the haphazard system of registering a comment. Not many people bother to track down the website of a government agency and leave a comment. That is old-fashioned way of hat in hand going to power and asking for something to be done. Also it provides a snapshot that may be unreliable. The comment on federal agency websites is equivalent of a doctor testing your blood pressure once a year and making an assumption based on whether it is high or low, normal or abnormal.
That process of feedback is changing.
I would suggest expanding the discussion around Artificial Intelligence and regulatory processes to include how the technology should be leveraged to ensure fairness and responsiveness in the very basic processes of rulemaking – in particular public notices and comments. These technologies could also enable us to consider not just public comments formally submitted to an agency, but the entire universe of statements made through social media posts, blogs, chat boards — and conceivably every other electronic channel of public communication. (source)
When anyone in government wishes to test public sentiment of a population, using comments is only a start in the right direction. If there is a lifetime profile of your desires, fears, frustrations, choices of food, transportation, phone models and numbers, movies, books, employment, mental health, arrests, allegations of crime, drug use, etc., such information can be mined to assess sentiment. It can also be assessed to manipulate and control sentiment. Privacy is relegated to the act of closing the curtains on the stagecoach window.
Judges, Generals and Admirals
There are some big changes ahead.
AI at this stage of development is already 79% accurate in predicting international human rights cases. Judges in the European Court of Human rights may have to adjust their decision making as AI predictions become an important indicator in the judicial process.
The AI revolution will overthrow more than the court system. The role and duties of military bigwigs will likely be disrupted. So far the changes are hitting the lower ranks. But, in time, will inevitably creep up the vine and Jack Be Nipple, Jack Be Quick, the giant at the top of the bean stock starts to look wobbly.
Not only will our institutions be engineered to work with minimal humans much like a modern assembly line, but the military will be transformed. The future of AI’s role in warfare is already a reality. All of the main military services—army, navy, air force—are being retooled. The air force will have better and more versatile drones. Pilots will be like stagecoach drivers. The army is converting its transport system into self-driving trucks. . Semi-automatous combat weaponized robots will carry out the dangerous combat missions. The navy will see the first wholly automated ships in 2017.
Warfare itself will also change. As terrible as the slaughter is on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria, the immediate death and destruction is limited to a defined geographic location. Yes, refugees pour out of the combat zones and you wouldn’t want to be or to have any of your family or friends anywhere near the bombs, shooting and mayhem. But the damage is still confined. It is bounded.
Cyber Security: The New Battlefield
Cyber war has both state and non-state actors. There can be a disconnect between traditional military solutions to protect state interest, and the ability to cause enormous damage with a handful of experts who can take down the electrical grid for major cities or an entire country. Terror is fully realized when the power system of the United States is disabled. Think of the consequences from hospitals to supermarkets to transportation system, sanitation system, lifts in buildings, lights and air conditioning. Within weeks there would be a breakdown of law and order. Within a month half the population of New York or London or Paris would be dead. Disease, starvation, and murder would demoralize the surviving population and undermine central authority.
ISIS with medieval mindset and limited means and resources isn’t a cause for existential fear. A small group of hackers with the right skills who could disrupt and destroy the fragile infrastructure network is a cause for existential fear. We may risk of losing not only our privacy, but the prospect of maintaining our existing freedom of action and behavior is bleak. Or we retreat into virtual reality worlds, where the illusion of privacy and freedom will have an attractive emotional pull.
This narrow wedge of time during a major transition is the period where tyrants and demigods appeal to our emotions and convince us they have the answers. The old lying to gain power system will collapse under the weight of lies. How long it will take in this dying phase is anyone’s guess. No one really knows.
What is reasonably certain is that once General AI comes into being, we will no longer be the superior intelligence on earth, and superiority in intelligence has meant the holder can use it to dominate and control others. All of us will be on the short end of the AI stick. Whether the stick is used to beat us into submission or open new doors of awareness and understanding is uncertain.
We are in a race that we can’t hope to win. As existing public institutions malfunction, erode in capability, and cascade into irrelevance in the new phase in our development as a species, they will collapse before they are reformed. You can put a Honda engine in a stagecoach and leave everything else the same. The winner will be AI in the long run.
It will require only a small fraction of AI to process big data, process the information, and configure the options. No human living today will ever witness the full power of AI intelligence. Our institutions and culture will be studied as another simulated ancestor study. Roughly a quarter of scientists postulate that we currently live in a simulation. The point is that hardly matters. It is our ‘reality’ and it was never one unified vision; it had always been fractured into different shapes and sizes according to the circumstances of people in a region of time and space. It was manufactured like proteins in our body are made.
The election on November 8th likely is not the last election. The point isn’t to predict the exact time. The point is that time will arrive. What comes in between now and then? Bits and pieces of change show up on a timeline, TV, newspaper, book, or essay, and the change promises longer life, the end of work and perpetual leisure, the cool ship that is fully automated.
What’s missing is a perspective of the broad transformation and what it implies for existing cultures, societies, institutions, economies, and politics. These are not separate spheres. The changes are stochastic. One small variant can have a profound impact. The butterfly’s wings in the Amazon basin change the wind currents into a typhoon that strikes the Philippines. These are exactly the kind of small, invisible changes we are ill-equipped to understand, and that hinder our adaptation to the reality of our limitations.
Reading the Signals and Overcoming the Noise
You can’t rely on any one news source to keep you informed. The information is scattered and often in obscure online cubbyholes and the jargons and technical language. You need to make an effort. Most people won’t.
If you do decide to plunge in, when you read about AI and related areas, read between the lines. Look for signals that indicate we are near a tipping point. There is a sense—reading the literature—that the rate of AI and related technological progress remains at an early stage. Virtually all experts in the AI field believe there is a very high probability of general AI in the next fifty years. We breath a sigh of relief because we can tell ourselves, so what, I’ll be dead. That is the human reaction. But fifty years is a blink of the eye.
It might not be your eye doing the blinking but it will be the eye of your grand or great grand children. If we could emotionally comes to terms with what is for us personally a long time frame, we might devote huge resources if we knew a pandemic would wipe out 80% of the population. But despite the warning calls from some experts, no one is too concerned. The next election cycle won’t be won based on making people scared of AI. AI is too abstract, too far into the future, too fantastic to be believable, and too remote from our experience.
When robotics and AI converge, it will be difficult to tell the difference from outward appearance who is biological and who is silicon. The effect is already ‘uncanny’. These are early generation examples of what awaits in highly improved versions in the future.
The construction of the new infrastructure
We will continue to be influenced and support those who promise us a safe, comfortable and emotionally secure place just like it used to be. That place is long gone. And the new environment being built around us as you read this essay is out of sight. You only catch a glimpse of the construction. This newly erected social, psychological, economic and cultural place is being constructed on top of the existing system. It seems invisible. Once it is finished, we won’t be able to conceive how people once lived without cognitive intelligent assistant to navigate the torrent of information. That assistant will know your every cognitive bias and filter information accordingly. Anyone or any entity intelligent to understand your cognitive biases, in effect, owns you.
When according to the Guardian an unknown number of hackers took over hundreds of thousands of devices connected to the Internet, the effect was to create their own zombie army.
“The complexity of the attacks is what’s making it very challenging for us,” the company’s chief strategy officer, Kyle York, told Reuters. Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they were investigating.”
Rather than toasters, if they’d taken over power plants, water supply and pumping facilities, and airport control systems, that zombie army will do more than burn your bread. As my uncle used to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? addresses the issue of whether the Nation State remains a viable, effective and appropriate political structure in the digital world. Has the nation state had the advantage of being protected by its borders? Those same geographic borders are now a limitation. The feature of the system has become the bug. The imagined states required strict borders. They got what they wanted. But state authorities are no longer happy because legally defined borders no longer are sufficient to stop the flow of information that threatens ‘national security’ or challenge the policies or institutional structures of the state. That results from the ability of outsiders who operate outside their borders to voice provocative theories, views, and opinions as clearly as if they stood in town square on a soap box. The stress has built up to the point where it is abundantly clear that the underlying bureaucratic model can’t and won’t adapt to the digital age. The old bureaucratic state is the dinosaur and the digital network the asteroid. That’s the argument. Here’s the support for the argument and a warning that the borderless world has its own terrors and tyranny waiting.
Nation states no longer control the message. Smaller, inter-connected more efficient, adaptable networks that travel beyond national borders are running circles around the old bureaucratic state. Doing cartwheels and flipping the bird at bureaucrats contained inside a national border. Those pesky borders have been a problem unless you have really long-arms like the Americans.
Bureaucracy allowed the scaling of power necessary to co-ordinate, finance, build, and monitor nationalism and economies, wage war and diplomacy, educate citizens and provide public services such as highways, transportation system, police and fire departments, etc.
Bureaucracy also used force, intimidation and punishment to contain, silence and punish challengers who resisted or questioned its monopoly of authority and power. Controlling the message has been essential to justify their budgets, prestige and power. Newspapers, books, radio, TV, movies through time have lived under bureaucratic thumb.
The evidence accumulates that there are fissures appearing in old bureaucratic system; institutions of government are coming undone. Like a wounded animal, it lashes out at the invisible cross-border communication channels erected in the digital age. Laws are enforced to punish people for posting, liking, commenting online contents with their criticism, objections, or analysis of official policy positions. Like snipers in hidden positions they cause anger and demoralize the civil servants who are equipped with the bows and arrows.
With VPNs and a vast international network, the battle is being lost at the nation state level. Bureaucratic control is unraveling. The harshness of their reactionary response to the free speech in the digital world showcases their desperation. The old tools of repression inside nation state borders are no longer effective to stop those outside the borders and those inside the borders who run a low-level insurgency with taunts, images, jokes, rude and vulgar statements, and so on. The censorship gun aimed by the authorities, once seen to be firing blanks into a sea of faceless people, many hiding behind a digital nickname, soon becomes a laughingstock rather than an object of fear.
The times are changing. Our new censors are international in nature; they work across borders. Most of the censors aren’t human beings; they are AI selected for deletion. Globalization and new technology has the potential to cause a reaction that will increase censorship and repression.
The conventional wisdom is that modern networked communication channels through social media have disrupted the bureaucratic stranglehold over speech. But what is replacing the old inefficient bureaucratic model isn’t necessarily a springtime of free expression. The new censors aren’t cut from the same cloth as the old-fashioned, anal-retentive civil servant. The new crew who decide what you can see and read on our screen are corporate hires. These workers have developed (and continue to develop) an arsenal of censorship algorithms in your favourite places such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. The laws protecting freedom of speech protect the citizens in a country with constitutional rights don’t apply to private corporations.
Facebook or Twitter can suspend or terminate your account faster than you can spend a Bitcoin. They provide a banal explanation or if there is international outrage, reverse the censorship decision. The reversal of position is what happened in the case of the Nick Ut photograph. Even oligarchy structures like Facebook and Twitter still respond to a unified populist drive to restore an image here and there. It makes them look responsive and sensitive. In fact we should fear the mortal danger of such a begging bowl system. One day we may lose our begging bowl to technology. There will be a gradual erosion of freedom as AI learns out to play on our most vulnerable narcissists selves until we believe that censorship is good, righteous and moral. We’ve had millennia of training in brain washing. AI will do a much better job than we could ever have accomplished one tribe at a time.
It only takes a complaint to be made and the corporate censors are at your digital door. They don’t need a warrant to enter. You have no recourse. They decide without your chance to defend. You have been silenced. Your artwork or photographs are sent to the equivalent of cultural Siberia. The Facebook photo from the Vietnam era of the young girl running naked down a road is a taste of what this new world order has to offer.
Remember the names: Nick Ut and Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt. The Photographer and the Napalmed child. It is an iconic photograph from the Vietnam War. It has taken on new meaning. Nick Ut is all of us in the arts. Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt is the child the world needs to witness as their own.
Facebook denied access to this photo because its algorithm flags it as child pornography. Let that sink in.
Welcome to the corporate police state Number 101. Like all police states the leaders tell you they are acting in your best interest and that of the community; that speech and images must be patrolled and monitored for the public good. Of course, the corporate hires decide on the basis of their cultural values and the bottom line consideration of their paymasters.
Mark Zuckerberg, in the grand tradition of third world dictators, once the public pressure built on the Vietnamese War photo mounted, intervened to show how open minded he was. His alone had the power to lift the veil. His is the power to lower it; whenever he wishes. He showed his power over more than a billion people? Who elected him? Who appointed him to suppress Nick Ut’s photograph?
Zuckerberg is the new Stalin. Facebook is the new Kremlin. And intellectuals, artists, writers, thinkers, activists are finding a notice that banishes them to a new gulag which is no different than the old one. It seeks to isolate them, their voice and images; to make them disappear.
No election will unseat Mark Zuckerberg. He does not need your vote. He doesn’t care about you. He only needs a place where the Soma of timelines allow you pleasant drift time to buy the junk others sell on his site. The sight of a young girl running naked might just upset someone and stop them from being in the right mood to buy perfume, coffee, a holiday or vitamin pills.
We should notice the transfer of power that has been going on for some years over who controls the core of myth-making. The cultural fuel needed to drive religion and secular ideology as traditionally been locally sourced inside the Nation State. The Global technologists are gradually taking over that function.
Zuckerberg and other elites in social media empires are looking to become the new Global Keepers of the Sacred. Every culture, tribe and nation is built on sacred symbols, myths, fables and histories. These sacred symbols and objects shape and unify a people’s identity. Traditionally Keepers of the Sacred have been drawn from the local geographical bounded territory. Facebook, Twitter, etc have globalized the job through the use of advance technology. They’ve begun the long process of stripping the power of the local keepers to keep his/her flock in line. This is one reason for the collective anger expressed in religious and ideological communities throughout the world. Their gurus can no longer stop the heavy sea of doubt, uncertainty, and contradiction from dogging their beliefs and actions.
Mark’s henchmen are algorithms. Facebook creates a loyal army to do the dirty work of censorship. James Austin Farrell’s thoughtful article Anarchy on the Internet: Can AI be judge and jury for online content? observed that Mark Zuckerberg had recently met with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss censorship. He has such discussions with other leaders and the future suggests the Keeper of the Sacred will need to establish a Chancery to handle the volume of petitions. Can they censor? Under what circumstances is digital censorship acceptable? Such questions will be raised in an alliance of National State with Digital State. The outcome has the possibility of creating the ultimate tyrannical tool to silence political dissent, to destroy diverse voices, and to reinforce existing power structures and in return consumers are sedated with large tracts of no-conflict zones to relax, experience pleasure and buy things.
What started the debate was the iconic photograph by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt running with napalm burns on her body should stay in our mind. It is a metaphor of all of us in the digital future and with a push of a button Mark and his algorithms army can overrun your position and make you, your ideas, thoughts, images, and photographs disappear.
In the midst of a transition of myth-telling authority shifts, it is difficult to predict an outcome. Can we create globalized myths shared by all or are we forever limited to fight for our local gods as they are shaped by earth and blood of a place.
In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Thailand, not a year has passed without a story from a Thai university where the ritualized hazing of juniors by seniors produced casualties every year. Some students die. Others spend time in ICU. Others grin and bear and the scars are internalized. It is against the law in Thailand. But the law is not enforced. Hazing continues as a tradition in many Thai universities.
Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey in an excellent opinion piece on hazing asks why the tradition of hazing continues in Buddhist Thailand and why the Thai military government with its extensive powers doesn’t intervene to end a practice that many feel is degrading and belongs to a feudalistic past.
The two questions are closely connected. But answers take us much further back than feudalism and beyond the narrow confines of Thai culture.
To find an answer is to these questions is a journey through time to look at our origins. Humans like chimpanzees are unique species that Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in Demonic Males explain that intentionally seek our victims, killing and mutilating the helpless despite pleas for mercy. Like chimpanzees, we carry a reputation for political murders, beatings and rape. Again like chimpanzees we are obsessed with status and rank. We share the same Chimpanzee emotional pulse that beats with a steady stream of pride.
Male pride fuels conflict and war and the competition for status amongst other prideful driven males. When there is conflict group loyalty becomes of central importance. The techniques, practices and rituals that increase cohesion of the group forge a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ worldview. Racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are the collateral fallout in the formation of such groups. The ‘other’ is subject to being dehumanized, demonized until they fall outside the moral laws such, as not killing doesn’t apply to them. Our species is fine-tuned in defining mental states perfected to discriminating against, cheating, demeaning, abusing, enslaving and killing outsiders.
Hazing of university students is part of a tradition of forging intragroup solidarity of an in-group. The hazing ritual is an example of what Ernest Becker (Escape from Evil) labels ‘rites of passage’ where a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a member of the group.
It is not uncommon to have hazing justified as instilling pride and solidarity. Hazing in universities are markers of rank, status and pride. Seniors demand submission and obedience from juniors. Hazing is consistent with the values of a military culture of command and order. Like in the military, university students are compelled to wear uniforms.
A senior student uses hazing to compel submission to a group as a demonstration of group loyalty and belonging. Soldiers don’t question orders from an officer; a junior at university doesn’t question an order of a senior. When a recruit dies in boot camp, this is mostly viewed as part an unfortunate part of a necessary process. Training for warfare is a dangerous business. Going to university isn’t generally viewed as boot camp. But submitting to the hazing ritual is induction into a military type group where the bonding requires the lowering of self-esteem to the group as the price of admission.
As hazing aligns with military culture and values, the idea that a military government would dismantle university hazing is as likely as expecting senior generals to endorse pacifism. It’s not what they do. It’s not what they value or believe in. It is alien to their culture of rank, status, command and control.
Hazing is an example of domination values inside a subculture. As a long-time observer, I find a large amount of tolerance for domination practices designed to create intragroup solidarity and reinforcing power and authority. Correspondingly, there is a fear that removing a technique traditionally used to demonstrate solidarity would weaken the effectiveness of the group by undermining its commanders. And once weakened, outsiders, those enemies lurking under the bed, will emerge and slaughter the unorganized group of freethinkers. Why? Because the seniors can no longer ensure that their command and control system can be evoked. Primates are emotionally bonded to an alpha. Logic isn’t part of the operational control system. Fear is.
If your universities, schools, and civil services, all in their uniforms, with their ranks and status assigned, and the command structure communicated and understood, those in authority can deter, dissuade, coerce, threat, exile or disappear all challengers. That’s the implicit message that emerges from Thai culture. The millions in uniform are emotionally invested in command and control as a mechanism to maintain order and stability. If you eliminate hazing, the argument is this is the slippery slope to disorder and instability. Rituals like hazing are bonding exercises. Patronage system is premised on the culture supporting intergroup bonding.
Before the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Age of Scientific process, this template would have been nearly universal. It has only been in the last 500 years, that the West allowed a group of thinkers, artists, and intellectuals to challenge the prevailing primate domination model, which includes rituals such as hazing. In this short period, authority and the beliefs on which legitimacy has been based, have been questioned, challenged, disobeyed, and discarded. We have moved from the logic of sacrifice to the logic of modeling, experimenting, and testing. The two types of logic are in conflict.
We are living in age still attempting to adjust to the damage the scientific revolution has done to traditional authority, beliefs, and rituals. Not all cultures have gone through the Enlightenment stages. Thailand is an example. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, about the jai or heart phrases in the Thai language, showing how the absence of Enlightenment values has continued to shape Thai thinking.
China is an example of a cultural system based on traditional authority, beliefs and rituals (calling it ‘communist’ is highly misleading). Like Thailand, China seeks to deal with scientific thinking by placing it inside a seal cultural container as if it were radioactive material. Only a few are allowed inside, and they aren’t allowed free access to the outside culture. And in a way, they are right. The products of the scientific culture are difficult to separate from the understanding and use of the culture that allowed and encouraged the kind of thinking platform needed to invent for the latest technology. There are no senior people who forces juniors into muddy ponds to show their loyalty before allowing them access to the labs. The West doesn’t allow or condone hazing of first year science students at universities such Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, or Harvard. Enlightenment freed students from hazing and these are the people who went on to become scientists.
The Thais and Chinese military cultural authorities are betting they can have the best of both worlds. Command and control over its best and brightest. This means a group of best and brightest that obeys and never question authority and yet can switch off their submission to authority to create original and creative works of art, science, and technology. Is this best of both worlds possible to achieve? Can there be a narrow and cordoned off creative space that does not leak into and contaminate the officially sanctioned and militarized culture of submission to authority?
As there are no Thai universities in the top 100 universities in the world, this may be a clue to consider.
A testable hypothesis: Is there a correlation between an entrenched command and control military governing system adapted and modified in an educational system and the absence of human rights enforcement? Or is human rights an emergent set of values from the Enlightenment that have created a feedback loop based on free speech and assembly, allowing for the free-flow of ideas and information essential for additional breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the world? I suspect the human rights problem outside of the Enlightenment cone of light is cultural. The seeds need a certain cultural, societal and historical soil to grow. At a time when human rights is in retreat in the West, there is less pressure for places like Thailand to adopt West cultural artifacts that are inherently alien to its culture.
The hazing rituals found inside Thai universities are a reflection of the broader cultural values and the system of governance. There is a law outlawing hazing already on the books. But this isn’t about the law. It’s about the culture. Command and control, loyalty and obedience, and group solitary and its this hand of cards that wins in any political poker game played in Thailand. There is no indication that game is going to change any time soon.
One of the shortcomings of a military regime that has slipped under the radar is analyzing the method and process used by officials to handle the recurring co-ordination problems faced by any government. Inside the military sub-culture, there is a strict chain of command, an official hierarchy that is a map of coordinators and their place in the co-ordination system. This kind of command and control, it has been argued, is essential in order for the military to fulfill its mandate. In times of war, so the theory goes, those in the lower ranks who question, challenge and criticize their commanders orders, increase the risk of playing in the hands of the enemy. In war, people expect a restriction on their civil liberties as a necessary cost to defeat a common enemy.
The problem is the co-ordination structure and the reasons behind it are ill-suited for civilian governance.
I’ll start with the lack of suitability of the military paradigm when used for civilian rule. The military government reaction is predictable. When there is a conflict or challenge, the military government reacts in much the same way as would be expected if a foreign enemy had attacked the country. It is difficult for military men to distinguish between their own civilian disagreements, and factions within society who hold different political or ideological views, from threats of exterior enemies. If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the case of military government, all threats are of equal standing, and the response is to get out the hammer.
The old styled command and control system has been disrupted by modern networks—multiple, interlocking groups with no central control, but whose members come together to support a particular idea, policy or program, and then dissolves back into their core network. Co-operation now happens inside networks and those networks are outside of the effective control of the traditional hierarchy. Though the censorship campaigns on Internet access and permitted speech is an attempt by traditional authorities to regulate the digitally networked communities.
The second problem with the military mindset running the civilian show is the nature of co-ordination required to understand a problem, to understand the context in which the problem emerged, to design a series of possible solutions to the problem, to test or simulate outcomes from the proposed solutions, and to deploy the resources, monitor the distribution, use, effectiveness, and adapt solutions in the field as more and better information is acquired. The command and control co-ordination system, in my view, doesn’t scale well outside of the military sphere. There is no reason that it should. It was designed for a precise purpose and use. But as we know when you’ve built something with a hammer, it is difficult to believe that tool doesn’t have the power to build anything.
The latest example of the co-ordination problem is the proposal to require foreigners to buy a SIM card for use in Thailand. The press reports on the proposal have changed day by day (which suggests another type of internal co-ordination issue), but as far as I can gather, the latest formulation is the proposal for SIM cards will apply only to tourists and not to long-term expats in Thailand. The public rationale for the proposal is that once all tourists have local SIM cards, the authorities can more easily track the criminal element who arrive in Thailand supposedly for a tropical holiday but whose true intention is to commit crimes.
Who doesn’t want to exclude people coming to their country with the intention of committing crimes? The intention, as they say, is ‘good’ but how does such a program work in the field, who are the personnel to be assigned, and who assigns, supervises, instructs, rewards, and punishes them? Will it require additional personnel? Who designs the training program for them, and how is the content of the program acquired? What are the unintended consequences of co-ordination? Is there a sunset clause or are such programs perpetual ongoing fiefdoms? What is the tally for the total of these co-ordination costs? Where does the money come from to pay for it?
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between aspirations and implementation of policies in the context of how the world actually works. The SIM card proposal is not that different from Donald Trump’s proposal to deport eleven million illegal migrants in the United States. Easy to say, it plays to a primal fear—that outsiders are evil, ill-intended, with strange beliefs, different ethnicity, bad actors who will disrupt, injure, kill, steal or cheat the locals. Once you lock onto any primal fear target, you get millions of people shouting for blood.
People pumped up with primal fears inside what they perceive is the danger zone don’t ask or care about the co-ordination issues. From their position, the message is: just do it. Primal fear dispenses with any discussion of the specifics to decrease the fear. Except in the most generalized way: build a wall or use a local SIM card. That’s how a blank cheque of fearful people is given to dictators. Fine. The rulers have a blank cheque, the next question is how to negotiate that cheque. Rounding up eleven million illegals, deporting them, building a wall, or requiring foreigners at the point of entry to go through another line to buy a SIM card, or some post-arrival process that ensures none of the foreign tourists slip through the net.
The harsh reality for military governments or a Trump-styled democracy is how to co-ordinate among officials at many different levels of operation that involves millions of people who seek to avoid being co-ordinated, or actively resist co-ordination. Do you shoot them? That’s the ultimate military hammer. But shooting people who are, it can be argued, of economic benefit, but who resist what they seek as unnecessary coercion will unlikely serve the original aspiration of lessening the primal fear. The use of force in such matters only cascades the resistance.
The reality is the cost of co-ordination among the thousands of officials would likely exceed by a large margin the benefits the authorities would obtain. Co-ordination, collaboration, cooperation are the three big C’s that are the infrastructure of successful government polices. When the big C’s are working this is evidence of effectiveness, consent, and acceptance at the multiple layers of society. In other words, policies of a general type used to placate the primal fears are often the most unrealistic and ineffective measures to ensure safety and security. You can use a hammer on nails, but it is advisable not to use it on your head.
My prediction is the eleven million illegals in the United States won’t be deported, no wall will be built on the USA-Mexican border, and the mandatory SIM cards for foreign tourists in Thailand will be shuttled off the main track into the repair yard where such policies sit indefinitely. From time to time, they will reemerge as the time has arrived to pump up the primal fear condition for political advantage.
Some political aspirations will never translate to effectively implemented programs because the co-ordination costs are excessive. History is filled with examples of civilizations with their engines misfiring on aspirations that bankrupt the economy. When journalists, academics, pundits and others start asking about the details of co-ordination I suspect it will be self-evident the spokesperson’s answer will expose the same old tool kit that includes a hammer. In the digital world, hammer users are not the best co-ordinators, and that sad reality hasn’t quite sunk in. We are entering an era where the public furniture is built from different materials by a different network of craftsmen, organized, distributed, and assessed by different measurement tools. The old styled political players are playing catch up in a game they are losing.... Read More>>
If I were a time traveller from the future who came to 27th July 2016, I’d let you in on a secret from the future. Who is the author?—that’s a question that flags someone who lived in an archaic era—it is the kind of question that in the future will make people smile. I’d like to explain why it makes us smile, and why, once you understand what is going on around you, it may bring a smile to your face as well.
The burden is on me to make the case. On thousands of items flashing through my Twitter timeline a couple of days ago there was a reference to a scientific paper on the Higgs that listed five thousand one hundred and fifty-four authors. That’s not a mistake. That is a number 5 followed by a three-digit number, or to be precise: 5,154. There are, according to Peter Murray-Rust at the University of Cambridge, 10,000 new scientific papers every day.
Do the math. Think of the implications for the future as we have no choice but to improve machine capacity to process the deluge of information looking for patterns. Whether the pattern has utility is another issue. But machines will, over time, increase their cognitive range and long term it would be foolish to believe they can’t rise to the level of making predictions and theories about the patterns.
Where does that leave the ‘author’ as we have used that term for thousands of years?
I was a university professor. I had colleagues across my own country and others in other parts of the world. But the number was a rounding off error compared with the number listed on the Higgs paper. So what you say, another boring scientific paper that probably only five thousand people in the world understand, and if they are all authors isn’t that a kind of wefie (group selfie for those who don’t know what it is) or self-published venture?
It’s amusing until you reflect on what it means to organize, monitor, supervise five thousand people who have some role to play in the design, research, modeling, testing, reporting and examining the results. Without computers, the Internet and advanced technology, including artificial information agents, none of this would be possible. What this means is, scientists have discovered something even more important than the Higgs—they found a way to scale scientific research and experimentation beyond anything imaginable in the past.
We have embarked on a huge scaling co-operation and collaborative venture. The volume of papers and the numbers of people working on them will touch every theoretical complex domain of science. All the balls have been tossed in the air: psychology, medicine, health care, economics, biology, quantum physics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We exceeded what we can do and have brought in machines to juggle millions of balls. It’s a different circus. Experts are no longer constrained by physical boundaries or to the corridors of their own university, think-tank, government unit, university or industry.
We’ve been freed of the necessity of hiring a small stadium to contain five thousand colleagues working on a joint research project. Everyone is connected in the network without a physical presence being required. The disruptions are great for science but they don’t stop in the lab—they continue to undermine and destroy the fabric of the existing political and economic system, the way they are staffed, selected, organized and how they input and output information.
As AI systems are advancing in capacity and utility, the process of collecting, processing, storing, and analyzing information will create a substantial competitive advantage over the smaller, less funded competition. In Darwin terms the most intelligent, capable and alert animal survives to reproduce. We are in the midst of witnessing an extinction event for our political institution. We are in the long term process of weaning ourselves from the old myths of individual genius, from a system that recognized at most three people in any one category could share the Nobel Prize. A Nobel split five thousand ways is about $200 each, a nice meal.
The Higgs paper is a milestone. The number of authors alerts us that we are out of synch with the numbers, ways, and means to create large networks to solve highly complex problems. The old rules of thumb are left to the era of the stone wheel. This kind of problem solving doesn’t emerge from emotions. That makes it interesting as a future model.
We are just at the start of an era of mind scaling—thousands, then millions of minds in an open, wiki-like space, where experts cooperate in finding and applying the best models and designs, ones that describe processes for climate, health, schools, distribution system, military and defense development.
The notion that one president or prime minister will play the same role in this mind scaled world is to miss the point of the political dimensions of the new mind scaling environment. Meta hives housing communities of the most knowledgeable and advanced minds in a domain begin to produce results that no one of them fully understands. No political leader will understand the patterns, the concepts emerging from them, either. The chances are the mind scaling reaches a point beyond our current capacity to process through political systems and institutions that remain rooted in the past where boardroom held a couple of dozen people.
We may not know how these new technologies align with our overall interest. Even worse, we won’t have the tools to know. Like a chimp staring at a high-rise building and thinking it comes from nature. Advance simulators will give us a dummy-for-humans, bullet-point explanation. It will tell us that talking about alignments assumes a level of stability and predictability that doesn’t exist. The complex system evolves much faster than we can process the results.
Information quantity and quality has increased to the point that it can be contained with the old riverbanks that carried the flow of information. Like any river, the channel is defined, and over time the channel shifts, twists and bends, changing its boundaries. But that is gradual change, one that we can prepare for. Bankers, politicians, the rich and connected have worked that river for their own benefit for years, crowding out the other boats. There’s nothing like a flood to get people’s attention. The horizon indicates a major flood is in progress. It has already hit. People like Donald Trump emerge when the water jumps the banks and all the anchors are dragging on the river bottom. Countries like China have tried to censor the information. Call it flood control. It won’t work. You can’t stop the kind of flow that headed straight for us.
As I said, if I were from the future delivering a message, it is the monsoon season and the rains are hard and come suddenly. My weather report is from the tweet about the 5,000 authors of the Higgs paper. Authorship has a new meaning. The list of names is longer than the paper. We still are at the juncture where we can’t give up the status that comes with authorship. But that will come in time. But before there can be a future, the political class and their wealthy backers who are doing everything to save themselves, need to address mind scaling at the policy level. It’s not like there is much choice. Sure they can survive a few more decades with eccentric performers promising a return to an earlier era where everything was great.
Credit: Hubble Heritage Team
Those 5,154 Higgs paper authors will be remembered as the vanguard who showed thinking, collaborating, sharing, storing and monitoring reach increasing optimal levels of knowledge and understanding. Also remember there are 10,000 new scientific papers every day. The individual genius who is not a team member is finished as a driving force. A politician that packs an emotional punch is also under the water line. He or she becomes largely irrelevant and remains, if at all, as a kind of entertainer to distract from the reality that there was no arc that came to the rescue when the information tide swept a thousand miles above their heads. Who is an author? No one, and everyone.
Have a look at this Youtube video and witness the raw beauty of the mustang—wild horses that symbolize freedom. We domesticated horses, used them for transportation, sport, combat, and hard, manual labor. We tamed the mustang with a combination of ropes, saddles and stirrups. The history of the mustang parallels the history of our own species from the feral hominids of the African savannah to the factory workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh.
The taming of our species, like that of the mustang, has required technology, training and techniques to produce a useful, domesticated animal.
Law enforcement authorities since the dawn of mankind have used two basic tools handy in their quest to restrain suspects, prisoners, activists, and other assorted troublemakers. Either limit the mobility of their arms and hands with handcuffs or use shackles to restrict movement of their legs.
Shackles play a role in our domestication. The image of shackles on a human being is a display of authority and power, one that denies freedom of movement. The shackles were used like a rope, saddle and stirrups to bring us into line.
The idea is fight or flight is much harder with handcuffs and shackles. The secondary purpose is the visual impact on others who watch guards parade a prisoner dragging his chains and trying to maintain a small measure of dignity as he walks. No one looks innocent in chains. No one misses the message: Mess with the big boys’ laws and rules and this is what happens.
Shackles are costume art used in the ancient theatre of ‘justice’. They are part of the humiliation wardrobe that fashion statement that proclaims the wearer’s guilt. Bad people, so the theory goes, are put in chains. Let’s have a look back time and trace the origins of the chains that bind our species to its very beginnings.
Using leg irons to restrain movement has a long association with slavery. The history recedes into the midst of prehistoric times as archeologists have unearthed fetters that served the same purpose—restraining or limiting the range of movement of a person’s walking gait. The history of Roman and medieval times indicates the widespread use of shackles. In the late eighteenth century plantation owners in the French West Indies colony of Saint-Dominque shackled their slaves to prevent their escape. Shackles were widely used on slaves living on American Southern cotton plantations; the emotional backlash in the North against shackling was a factor in turning sentiment against the plantation system, a factor in the run up to the Civil War.
You might think that in the age of data mining, AI, Mace, Tasers, digital surveillance technology, and sensor tracking, shackles could only be found in museum or the antique collection of a bondage entrepreneur, but you’d be wrong. Shackles must be the last vestige of criminal justice system that predates talking pictures, high schools, cars, TVs, electricity, the steam engine, pizza, the printing press, the musket, and indoor plumbing. Basically shackles come for the dark, distant noir past slippery with the blood and tears of slaves and subjugated enemies.
We are the only primate on record with an evolutionary history of tying up another’s legs to hobble him or her. The history of shackles goes back to the dawn of our species. I am not saying we evolved to shackle our own kind but our social development is a fancy phrase for species domestication. A feral beast is tamed with shackles. The question is who has legitimacy to be the trainer and rider over the domesticated herd. No one has fully answered that question. It may be one reason that the ancient practice of shackling is widespread throughout the world and is not a violation of human rights per se.
How could such this humiliating, cruel, and brutal form of restraint continue from generation to generation? Being tainted by slavery wasn’t enough to cut the restraints. Digging up the remains of Roman women and children in shackles doesn’t shock us.
We are better than that, right?
If you are a pregnant prisoner in Ohio, convicted on a dope charge, a Federal Marshall shackles you from the cell to the hospital infirmary where they remain fixed to your legs while delivering your child. The child enters a world that, in one way, hasn’t changed at all. This isn’t a report from Roman times. The shackling of the pregnant woman occurred in the year 2000. I am not picking on Ohio, apparently this is common practice in other states and the US federal prison system: pregnant women are treated in the same was as a twenty-year sprinter champion who was convicted of selling pot. Savor that image: Mother in labour vs. track star. Both get shackled to go to hospital.
There is an online human rights push to bar shackling of pregnant women. When you read something like this, you seriously question why you gave up drinking. If there is an excuse for drugs and booze, thinking about a nine-month pregnant woman walking in shackles is one of the better ones to get you through one more day of the nightmare of this life.
Political activists are also candidates for shackles. These young, wild mustangs demonstrate and protest and claim the right to do so as part of a right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
A recent example happened in Thailand. Seven university students protesting against the military junta and arrested for their efforts were photographed in prison garb and shackles as they were led to a court appearance. After having been jailed for 12 days, they were not charged and released without bail. Now you may say, that shackles prevent prisoners from escaping. The shackles would definitely slow them down.
In this case, the students had refused to request release bail (six other students arrested at the same time were released after requesting bail). Their failure to request bail indicates a willingness to suffer jail in the name of civil rights and liberties. That principled position, one might assumed, would minimize their flight risks. The military government said the use of shackles was in the discretion of the prison administrators. Further shackles were not, in the view of the government, a violation of human rights.
Shackles provide a powerful metaphor for official control over those minorities—blacks, women, mental patients, political activists who are making too much noise. Like the mustang all people have a yearning for freedom. That, of course, is a pipe dream. We aren’t free. We’ve internalized our shackles by turning them into sexual fetishes such as bondage. Our sexual shackles arouse us. Our political shackles are being tested around the world as people are not starting to break free of control imposed by cowboys who have rounded us up one too many times and sent us off to the slaughterhouse.
The days of the mustang are largely gone. The days of mustang-like human beings vanished long ago. Shackles remind us of a time lost in the midst of history when we were once free of control. Leg irons remind us of what awaits the wild horses among us who wish to break free of control. Meanwhile, people continue to secretly act their shackling fears through sexual bondage rituals. No other domesticated animal (including horses) has discovered sensual pleasure in tying each other up. Our species is exceptional in the animal kingdom—tin pot dictators engaged in ropy bedroom power games to excite pleasure.
Let’s look down the road and imagine shackles in the future.
My prediction is that within fifty years, we will have invented chemical and electrical stimulations of the brain that will replace the need for shackles and drugs. There will be no more need for corporations to used state powers to physically tie up or restrain people. We will largely live inside virtual worlds without the boot to our throats. The bucking of the system will be in the distant past. The freedom of the old physical world will seem cruel, grim and unfair to those in the virtual reality. Those who would have been shackled in the past will no longer try to buck the rider off their back. They are free by default.
They won’t feel the pressure to work to produce products for consumption. The idea of productivity and contribution will no longer have the same meaning. Once jacked into mixed virtual reality, the old physical space becomes a cartoon. The next step will be full-time in a virtual space of unlimited reality. Better than drugs. Better than work. Everyone can realize that inner Mustang self.
The future promises freedom unimaginable in our shackled world of work, wine, sex, Internet and rock ‘n roll. We will have gone from a society that imprisoned drug user because widespread drug use threatened to erode the workforce to a society mandating drug use (or the new technological equivalent—the virtual fix) because there are no jobs. In virtual world no one cares about jobs.
Their identity will come from other virtual experiences. In the future if you test negative for matching a certain range of brain phase transition, you must show either a special permit or be deemed a dangerous subversive, a danger to society—someone who wants to return to the unfree era of shackles. That’s not the end of the story of shackles, though. I suspect a technological shackle will be discovered and applied to an ‘anti-drug outlaw’. We are inventive in shackling each other and so far no new technology since the beginning of our era has managed to exclude shackling as an effective way to control the unruly, restless horse stamping the ground, one who wants to run wild and away from the crowd.
Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.
The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?
Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.
From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.
The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.
I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.
From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.
A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.
The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’. Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.
At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.
Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.
Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.
The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children.
This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.
Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.
Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.
In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.
How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.
Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.
Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.
A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.
16th June 2016 update:
Bangkok Post reports:
Three children believed to have been born to surrogate mothers hired by Japanese businessman Mitsutoki Shigeta, who earlier made headlines for allegedly fathering at least 13 surrogate babies in Thailand have been found in Cambodia.
The Idea Room. That incubator where good, bad, stupid, useless and paradigm
shifting ideas are hatched is a mental location you use your personal GPS to
explore. Most of fledglings that are born in the Idea Room are flightless,
limited, and short lived creatures. Only a few survive and not only to fly but
to soar and take us along for the ride. Evolution culls the unfit animal and the
I take a stroll through this room in this essay.
Most of my working
life I’ve been in one corner or another of the Idea Room. As an academic,
writer, journalist, playwright, and lawyer. I have worked alongside others in
this space, exchanged ideas, plans, theories and concepts, and studied the
multitude of cubicles inside that room—it is vast, diverse, with patches as
hostile as Venus. The Idea Room is a mental construct, a space where you
can imagine, create, criticize, challenge and invent. Inside this room the
scientific process is designed to produce better and more useful explanations
about reality than ones based on intuition and superstition.It exists as an
abstraction but has real consequences in the way we view reality. Our modern
world of science, philosophy and art was birthed in the Idea Room. Like the
formation of stars from gas and dust, new ideas pop into existence through the
gravity of free thought and old ideas exploded like a supernova. Or did the
ideas gathered from the dust and gas of intuition and superstition only appear
to explode when in reality they have cycled back into play?
This essay looks inside
the modern Idea Room, audits the players and takes inventory.
Depending what window you
are looking through, you see crackpots, con artists, hucksters, revolutionaries,
intellectuals, dreamers, mad people, true believers, conservatives, liberals,
communists, fascists, and many more. They play and share ideas with others, they
play with ideas on their own. The ideas are sharp, dull, wrong, bogus,
half-baked, regressive, delusional, as well as innovative, creative, disruptive,
imaginative, worldview shifting, disproving old theories, proving new theories,
fine-tuning technologically progress. All of this is happening pretty much at
the same time inside the Idea Room. If the space hadn’t opened for such a room,
you wouldn’t be reading this on a digital screen right now, nor would you have
most objects or computer programs that you take for granted.
Mostly the best Idea Room
started during the Enlightenment in the West. For our long history, people had
ideas based on intuitions and superstitions. But building that room by cleaning
out the infrastructure of superstitions, myths, fables and just so stories has
taken centuries and remains incomplete. If your gut feeling is the earth is
flat, was created in six days, and the sun revolves around the earth, you will
take a dim view of an Idea Room where people are allowed to attack your beliefs
with ideas they claim show your ideas are false and baseless.
The keys to the Idea Room
have a long history of being strictly controlled by a handful of power
authorities who supported a view of the world formed by intuition and
superstition. Entry into the Idea Room was by invitation only. Going
inside without permission carried a high price. Ask Giordano Bruno whose
cosmological theories that challenged the official view of the cosmos—dangerous
ideas in the 16th century—resulted in him being dragged out of the
Idea Room and burnt at the stake. It didn’t matter that Church’s dogma about the
cosmos was a bad explanation about the nature of cosmos. There are many cases
like his. If you believe Giordano Bruno’s fate is lost in the fog in the
past—think again. Modern cases of Giordano Bruno are a constant feature in
The battle over how to
construct an Idea Room, what goes on inside, which gets in and what gets out
defines the current political landscape everywhere. Donald Trump would tear down
the American Idea Room by his plan to gut the First Amendment. No one is asking
if Trump or someone who shares his views believes that the President ought to be
above criticism, and what that would mean.
Every election should have
the media asking candidates: Do you need a pass to work inside the Idea Room?
And if so, how does that work? Or what happens to someone independently setting
up a private, unmonitored Idea Room—(think Darwin or Einstein)—do you get
arrested, tried and convicted for violating national security? I would be
pleased to learn of where history has shown profoundly world-shifting ideas
occurred inside a Government Idea Room. Yes, I am aware of the Manhattan Project
and the Bletchley Park Project. The atomic bomb and the enigma machine were
one-off assignments. The government gathered from many Idea Rooms the best of
scientific minds to develop a technological solution in a military setting. Once
their narrow mission was accomplished the projects were closed down.
The problem is you can’t
divide criticism and problem solving by limiting the use of the room to solving
technical issues about bomb making and code breaking. The best idea people have
is a mindset that challenges and criticizes theories, policies, procedures,
regulations, and processes. This mindset is constantly probing for
vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you are a dictator, you will likely be
insecure that someone might make your policy look foolish. That is why the
‘national security’ reason is often invoked—it is to prevent such a challenge,
and threaten people in a national Idea Room to remember that thinkers are liable
to be punished even if they are right. That’s pretty much what happened to
Bruno. Open a news website, you don’t have to look around a great deal to find a
story about some poor Idea Room occupant being dragged outside, humiliated,
tried, and sentenced. Everyone understands how that system works.
Not all the blame can be
placed at the doorstep of over-reaching state officials; a mass of true
believers can deliver a message to shutdown part of an Idea Room. In 2011 a
Pakistani national, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer
who had argued for reform of blasphemy laws. Five years later, Qadri was hanged
for his crime, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his
execution. The enemies of constructing space for all ideas in an Idea Room are
large numbers of people who defend their beliefs against any challenge.
Variations of mob of the righteous as political pressure to curtail what is
allowed in the Idea Room may be found in many countries from the Middle East,
Southeast Asia, to Africa. It makes easy work for dictators who have their own
reasons to patrol and monitor the Idea Room for offenders of the ‘righteous
There is a threat to
return to a time when intuition and superstition were the prevailing foundations
of knowledge. In the Idea Room no one’s ideas are above challenge or arguments
based on the irrational and superstitious beliefs refuted with the tools of
logic, coherence, and testing. A big family name or high rank means nothing.
That is how the scientific revolution overturned the old, worn ideas held by
notable authorities. The idea junkyard is full of discarded, abandoned and
dumped ideas based on superstition that failed when tested. If you are a
dictator you don’t want to run the risk of your ideas ending up with all of the
attraction of a five-day-old dead fish.
The time comes when a
society has to choose to follow respect and obedience to authority as the
roadmap to whatever desired goal the authority sets for the society, or to take
the independent and curious route where every idea is tentative, its
truthfulness detached from its author or its legion of proponents. In the
unregulated Idea Room, no idea is preferred or given an untouchable status.
There is, of course, a price to be paid. The currency is criticism, chaos,
uncertainty and conflict. For the totalitarian brigade and their righteous
allies, whose members value order and stability and harmony, the Western Idea
Room is the definition of hell—undisciplined, disorderly, and unruly with the
promise of eternal argument and disagreement.
Dangerous ideas that
challenge superstition have always been labeled as blasphemy, a capital crime
historically (though it remains in a number of Middle-Eastern countries). We sit
in front of our computer reading ideas that are a lengthy prison or death
sentence for those in parts of the world. Officials in some of these places who
advocate reducing the scope of blasphemy laws are murdered.
The prosperity and success
of a society depends on such a safe space where ideas can be explored. We need
to keep in mind that all of us have a distorted view of the nature of this
space. We look through different windows. And we see different things in the
room. We argue what we see is reality and true and what others see is wrong and
false. That we are confused is understandable. The most available and convenient
windows are the easy ones—TV, movies, newspapers, and social media.
We stare through the
windows every day.
We look inside at the idea
makers, the thinkers, intellectuals, clowns, and charismatic carnival barkers.
What we focus on by looking through these windows is what attracts a mass
audience. Ideas are only as good as their ability to sell something in the
marketplace of emotional desires and needs. We ‘buy’ ideas like we ‘buy’ cars,
computers, shoes, and soap—it appeals to us on an emotional level. That’s why
ideas don’t have to be true. They can be wildly wrong but they can still find a
happy home because masses of people believe it expresses how they
The more outrageous a
comedian, the more people laugh. Call it window opening by trolling with shock,
anger, hatred, bitterness and prejudice. Why people want to spend time looking
through that window can be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes, we can assume
whatever the reasons, they are persuaded to focus attention. They are
stimulated, satisfied and energized from their experience. Donald Trump is doing
his best to monopolize that window.
The point is: a lot of
people get stuck at the performance-art window. They become convinced, assisted
by media propaganda that this is the main window to witness the Idea Room in
action—Romper Room for adults. That’s what kind of shit that goes on inside my
enemies’ Idea Room—what a Dumbo, how stupid, how crazy for anyone to go along
with that ______. Fill in the blank for ‘that’. Fox News has manufactured an
Idea Room and has millions of people tuning in to have their ideas confirmed. Of
course, Fox isn’t alone; cable TV, talk radio, blogs, LINE and chatroom
communities have created a multiverse of Idea Rooms to explain the Meaning of
Life. You don’t have to be a dictator to think if you were in charge, you’d
clean up things and set some rules of conduct and rules of thinking for the room
members. You write a bunch of restrictions, rules, and guidelines—whatever you
want to call them to tone down the crazy ones, the one’s who are brutal, mean,
vulgar, stupid or annoying. We look down on states with blasphemy laws and we
have sizeable populations of citizens wishing to enact similar laws. Once you go
down that path, you are on the low road to repression, and free expression isn’t
value or allowed.
The hard problem for
authoritarian governments is the nature of what goes inside the Idea Room is a
possible threat to their legitimacy, authority, reputation, dignity and
honor—all the symbols that are most threatened when those in one corner of the
IPR get wound up and start challenging and criticizing government policies,
spending, priorities, not to mention thievery, incompetence, and thug-like
behavior. Such governments rely on the support of and draw their legitimacy from
a sizeable population of citizens with an authoritarian
that can be measured. The problem is the rise of the authoritarians worldwide as
a political force and the Ideas Room is targeted for criminalization.
The reason it is a hard
problem is that inside the room are a diverse group of individual thinkers,
artists, musicians, gamers, film makers, writers, academics, pundits—the
creative thinkers brigade—who cohere into sub-cultures, ones that bridge others
in different creative communities, sharing ideas, methods, and criticizing each
other’s work. The problem is getting consensus on one big idea—that people are
protected in this space when they challenge convention, the wisdom or truth of
ideas and beliefs—that such questioning while may be not a good thing for peace
and quite, it is a necessary evil. Why evil? Because that is how most people
feel when they agree to allow space for their enemy to challenge their
In return, we gain
something of value—a new, more useful way of processing thought, evolving our
understanding of the world and each other, and figuring out new ways of
co-operating. Scientists, artists, and academics use the Idea Room to bounce
ideas off the wall. John Maynard Keynes said of Isaac Newton that he was “the
last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.” Genius has
always been a mixed bag. You can’t separate the nuts from the party mix. That’s
why tolerance is essential, freedom of expression is necessary, or the ideas
disappear. Without a healthy, free and vibrant Ideas Room, we are doomed. With
it, dictators are doomed. The righteous true believers are doomed. That’s why
their alliance has to be understood for what it truly is—a carefully controlled
room dedicated to reverence and worship.
The dilemma of our time is
we as a species are perched on an unstable balancing beam. We can keep the space
in that room open and free, or we can close it down. That choice will define
what happens to all of us. Next time you peek through a window in the Idea Room,
remember the window you are looking is only one among many; and what you may see
on your screen may make you angry and unsettled. But that’s what happens when
the ideas you are invested in are given rough treatment, slapped around, made
fun of, not given respect or dignity. We have to toughen up. We can do that by
investing in the process and the not the ideas that come and go allowing the
process to fine-tune with AI systems, and once our best ideas are thought by
intelligent machines, we can’t begin to imagine what will happen inside the
digital Idea Room.
In a traditional regime,
“Yes, Sir!” is the appropriate (and expected) reply to someone with power,
status, and rank. Civilization was built on those two words. The great marvels
such The Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall of China, Statue of Zeus at
Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the other wonders of the ancient
world are relics of ancient Yes, Sir cultures. The Seven
Wonders of the World were not built by liberal
Classical antiquity was
the result of citizens being consulted and voting on these projects. Wonders
weren’t connected with popular approval or consent. If citizens had objected, it
is doubtful that voice of dissent lasted more than a couple of lungsful until
the shouting was extinguished. Brutality, oppression and the ownership of wealth
had the capacity to produce not just atrocities and misery but also incredible
wonders. America, a liberal democracy, developed and dropped the first atomic
bomb, invaded several middle-eastern countries, used drones to kill people who
waged local wars against its international values and ideals. That needs to be
said. While the role of authoritarian regimes compared with democratic ones is a
history of shades of gray rather than black and white, it doesn’t make the
system equivalent. The rulers were defined by their indefinite political
Both democratic and
authoritarian systems can be brutal, heartless and irrational. The role of
opponents, their political space, and their civil right are vastly different.
Both pedaled their own versions of Lake Wobegon to their population. In 2016 both
systems are showing system fatigue. No apparent replacement is on the horizon,
meaning Lake Wobegon has slipped into a dystopia, where people are arming
themselves, adjusting to a new emotional terrain knee deep in the scurrying
vermin of anger, bitterness, hatred and greed chewing wounds into their
In a book titled Heart Talk, which I wrote a quarter of a century ago I focused on
how the word for ‘heart’ in Thai was pervasive in the language.
After three editions, I
found 750 jai phrases in the Thai language. The longest definition for all the
jai phrases was for Kreng jai. The phrase translates literally as ‘Awe
Heart” and here’s part of my definition:
“The phrase reflects a rich brew of
feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and
fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss,
teacher, mother and father, or those in a powerful position such as a
high-ranking police officer. Anyone who is perceived to be a member of a higher
social class is owed kreng jai. In practice, a person with ‘awe heart’
would be inhibited from questioning or criticizing such a person.”
Kreng jai is the
Thai cultural cornerstone of the Yes, Sir culture. This is the round cultural
hole that Thais have tried to fit the square peg of democracy into. It should
come as little surprise that with all the hammering the peg still doesn’t
To continue the machinery
metaphor for Yes, Sir requires a look at the lubricant to keep the system
functioning; like a good malt whisky kreng jai is aged in vats built
from concepts such as obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and hierarchy. This
works best when the social space is physical, geographically specific. Analogue
space is much easier to patrol, monitor and enforce. There are practical reasons
for this relative ease. The social relationships and bonds are limited to those
who are near. People who are far are not part of the analogue bound person’s
relationship. People had social relations with their family, neighbors, school
mates, work mates and those shared an interest in gardening, cooking, reading,
sports, religion or gambling.
In the last thirty years
technology has redefined social space by creating a digital meeting place.
People could exchange ideas, photographs, and information with people who were
‘far’ as easily as they could with people who were ‘near’ and that has caused a
revolution as the boundary between insider and outsider blurred without the
restraint of a physical geographical location in common. Of course, it would be
false to suggest that cyberspace has created a vast tolerant, humane and
democratically-minded community. The Yes, Sir devotees may aggregate in digital
cubbyholes that confirm their biases, just as the system challengers reinforce
their value and belief systems inside the comfort of their own digital
The point of the digital
space accelerating in importance is that control over social relationships is
more complex and far more difficult to administer for those running a Yes, Sir
regime. Adding to the administration problem is the nature, source, and control
of information. A Yes, Sir regime places controls on the media and press, what
can be said and cannot be said, and what can be printed in textbooks, shown in
cinemas, on TV and online. In democratic system the controls are less obvious
but nonetheless effective to ensure that large commercial interest can shape the
cultural message that reach most people. Information has been freed from the
traditional constraints and can be accessed, stored, shared, discussed and
debated even though it contradicts the narrative produced and promoted by
In theory, the ability
offered by the Internet to plug into a vast information grid should be
liberating experience. Instead, it has imprisoned millions of people up to their
eyeballs in Lake Angry. Part of their anger arises from information in the
digital world that triggers feeling of distrust, cynicism, and suspicion about
official narratives. Many look up from their computer screen and feel they’ve
been lied to, manipulated by the very institutions and elites their parents and
grandparents had placed implicit trust in.
One result of the
disillusionment is endless conspiracy theories and paranoia by those unwilling
to employ the scientific method. The rational mind in cyberspace is less engaged
in the information binging, but more in searching for an emotion kick from a
clickbait about a sex scandal, violence, terrorism, murder or official abuse. It
has been the walk on the irrational side; in the digital world is like watching
millions of drunks, staggering from lamppost to lamppost looking for the lost
keys to the city gates of the old Lake Wobegon.
Our social networks and
information networks no longer support the Yes, Sir ideology; and they no longer
support a democratic system featuring voting every four years. If you lose
control of the social and information networks, you’ve lost the traditional
basis of power. Where does that leave us? We are in between systems that can
explain their role inside these networks. Without such an explanation that is
credible, testable, verifiable, and editable, the legitimacy of those claiming
the right to exercise power over others and the environment will continue to be
There is more to the
digital space and network affiliations formed in that space that is at issue.
The scientific revolution started in the 17th century but it is only
within the last hundred years that the fruits of that revolution have engaged to
the larger population. What science brought to the table was to introduce a new
method and process for testing what was true and what was false. This new method
was based on opening into an inquiry as to what the reality of a thing, process
or event and how to accurately describe it, reproduce it, and give an
explanation as to why the description should be taken seriously. The dawn of
science was the dawn of investigations into what was the basis of nature,
biology, chemistry, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. Previous explanations
were religious conjectures based on gods acting as agents and creators. We can
be smug about the pre-scientific system but that would be a mistake. These
stories were foundational for Yes, Sir systems, and to question them threatened
their legitimacy and survival. If the official narrative was false, then the
elites had told lies or were stupid in believing in their own lies.
Science is an open system
of investigation that follows a certain process and method. That is radical in
itself but pales in comparison with the most radical idea of all—everyone can be
a private investigator, and challenge a received truth. Anyone regardless of
status or rank who can find an alternative explanation that better fits the
current level of understanding of reality can overthrow an established theory.
Someone who seeks to overthrow Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has a
tough battle but won’t be burnt on the stake as a heretic (though he may be
dismissed unless there is powerful evidence for his claim as a lunatic). Science
changed the rules of the ruler’s game. Rather than oppressing challenges to
official narratives, scientist were encouraged to probe the weakness of a
narrative looking for flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and updating theories with
additional information that could be replicated by others who carried out
Science introduced the
idea of editing and updating to the story-telling about how things are they way
they are, and that no one had a monopoly on the truth or facts, and anyone
regards of position could challenge the prevailing ‘truth’ or ‘facts.’ That is
the base of a revolution that spilled over to the political realm. It was a
small step to go from challenging the age of the earth to challenging the
legitimacy of a ruler’s decisions about education policy. Planting the
scientific inquiry seed into digital space and a new garden has
The Yes, Sir crowd sees
weeds growing out of control in this digital space that should be pulled out
while others see a field of flowers. If a bright young, commoner at the bottom
of the totem pole, for example, investigates and discovers official misdeeds and
shares those finding in digital space the official response is immediate and
predictable—the person is a traitor.
And indeed in one way that
is true. Anyone who challenges an official truth whether it is the place of the
earth in the solar system or the place of a dam on a river is challenging the
interest of those who are vested in the absolute truth. The truth and position
are indistinguishable; like a treaty of mutual interest, truth and position
march together, and to challenge of one is to challenge both.
The new role of millions
of private investigators equipped with access to huge data exchanging
information has destabilized the old alliance between truth-telling and ruling.
It can never be quite the same again. Social, political and economic networks
have broken out of the old analogue models. The horse has bolted from the
stable. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess. But catching that horse with
riders galloping after it from the Yes, Sir system or from the Liberal
Democratic system is proving difficult. This digital rodeo is just starting. And
it is one thing to round up the occasional straight stallion but when millions
breakout there aren’t enough cowboys from the analogue world to rope them and
drag them back to Lake Wobegon.
An author’s reading list
contains eccentric choices. This one is no different. Taste and interests are
bound to diverge when it comes to books. This is a list of non-fiction titles. I
will post a fiction list later.
My goal is to recommend
twelve non-fiction titles that will stimulate thinking and broaden understanding
of the current information debate and controversy surround the building blocks
of knowledge in science, arts, technology, psychology, economics, and
There is a Thai proverb,
one I used to open The Risk of
Infidelity Index (2008) about a frog in the coconut
shell as a metaphor for the narrow, culturally constricted thought and knowledge
space where we spend most of our conscious lives. The frog’s visualization from
inside the coconut shell is psychological and cognitive limited. His access
about life and reality is distorted and shallow. A remarkable book allows the
frog an expanded worldview, a deeper, more powerful explanation of
The recommended books may
help broaden and deepen your worldview like any good journey of discovery. That
is a worthy achievement. No one breaks free of the coconut shell. But insights,
scientific and technical developments reveal the nature of what is the ‘coconut
shell’, its contours, shape and dimensions, and our place in it, take us to new
frontiers of comprehension. <Comment: Not only that, but also opening a
window into the larger world outside the coconut shell? Some may even offer and
In a 2014 essay Beagle Sailing Lessons for
wrote about Charles Darwin’s five-year journey on the Beagle to find evidence
that formed the backbone of Origin of the Species.
Darwin’s journey resulted in a book
that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority
remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of
natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery.
The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his
lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of
the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence
that he gathered.
Every time I start a new book, I
tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle.
And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the
shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the
side of mountains and look for patterns.
Hopefully these books from
writers who have taken their own personal and professional voyage and you can
sign on as crew to follow that journey. The books are in no particular order of
priority. Order them all or one or two titles, and begin your own Beagle
Fast, and Slow ( 2012) by Daniel Kahneman
This book may be one of
the most important books about cognition and psychology written in decades.
Everyone has them. No one is excluded. When someone says they aren’t biased, it
indicates that person is blissfully unaware that is a cognitive bias. You can
think of a bias as mental filter shaped by genetics, culture, beliefs,
attitudes, training, brainwashing (collectively called cognitive biases). There
are hundreds of them. They are key factors in the processing of information.
They are responsible for the way we select, ignore, process, interpret, store
and stream information, whether accessed from memory or from our sensory input.
It is humbling and empowering to understand the limits of cognitive abilities.
Even though we can identify the biases, Kahneman is the first to admit that such
knowledge doesn’t mean that we can win the battle in overcoming them. If you’ve
not read Thinking Fast, Slow, you should make a resolution to find the
time to read it in 2016.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip
Tetlock builds on Daniel
Kahneman’s work of cognitive bias. Tetlock’s book focuses on forecasting and the
qualities that make for a good forecaster. Whether it is forecasting a social
policy, an election outcome, economic trends, or the outcome of a conflict or
war, there is a mindset that Tetlock has discovered vastly increases the
probability of accuracy. If I were recruiting someone for a policy making
decision or trying to predict a variety future events, this is a book that I’d
turn to for guidance as to how to increase the probability of selecting a future
Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick
Nick Bostrom teaches at
Oxford and is one of the leading thinkers of what is likely the most important
issue of our time (and yes, there are many such issues to select from): the
implications of developing a superintelligent artificial intelligent system.
This is an important book like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and
Slow. It is an insight into a future of intelligent machines. That future
is already here for machines with narrow artificial intelligence such as Watson,
which can now defeat any chess champion in the world. That is just the
beginning, as next up is an artificial general intelligence. Once that happens,
it is 20 to 50 years down the road, a superintelligent machine will emerge. Some
of the book is technical, geek-like, but Bostrom has a dry sense of humour and
ability to choose just the right metaphor to compensate for the dense, compacted
ideas that will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.
4. Our Final
Invention, Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era (2013) by
Barrat, a journalist, who
cover the artificial intelligence community and reports on developments. He’s
not a scholar. He’s an accumulator of scholars and their opinions, research
developments, and personalizes them. When can we expect AGI (artificial general
intelligence) to arrive? We already have many examples of ANI (artificial narrow
intelligence) and Barrat examines the line between AGI and ANI. When AGI arrives
what are the risks? “It won’t be a Q&A system anymore. And we won’t likely
be able to understand its processing or to audit that process.”
5. Big Data: A
revolution that will transform how we live, work and think (2013) Viktory
Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cunkier
While AGI is in the
future, Big data has arrived. Most of our institutions, policies, and beliefs
are based on ‘small’ data. We take pride in decisions based on small, exact and
causal-connected data. It’s because of the ‘small’ in small data, we have
enjoyed privacy. Big data spells the end of privacy. As the authors demonstrate
we use algorithms to give the probability of an event or an action occurring.
Life insurance, health insurance, doctor’s diagnosis, bank loans, climate
change, drug policies, and crimes all have a probability graph filled in by big
data. What happens to the individual in the world of ‘big data’? Do we use
preventive custody because the data indicates a high probability for the next
five years X who is 13 years old will commit a crime of violence? Big data
provides the tools to vastly accelerate the quantification of information and to
understand correlations that emerge, and free us from the prison of causation,
the hallmark of small data.
6. The Better
Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined (2011) by Steven
Our modern digital world
with immediate access to breaking news creates the illusion that we live in very
violent times. Headlines should never be confused with trend lines (a quote
attributed to Bill Clinton). The reality is that we have never enjoyed a time
with less violence, less risk of being murdered. The history of our species is
written in blood. It is a book with many insights gathered from historical
research into the history of violence. A couple of examples: “Defenders of
traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this
consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy,
indecency, and desecration of scared symbols. For their moral disapproval to
have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as
well. [R]etracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community,
authority, and purity details a reduction in violence.” Pinker details the steep
decline in death resulting from murder, execution, and warfare. For example, the
chances of a violent warfare related death in prehistoric times were orders of
magnitude higher than in modern time.
Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997) by Peterson and
A book to be read
alongside Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
The male member of the
species is violence prone. Our primate ancestors were similarly extremely
violent. Wrangham’s research supports a strong evolutionary disposition towards
violence. We wish to remain willfully blind to the intrinsic nature of our
violence. The authors’ data on ape behavior are compelling evidence of the
savagely violent nature of human history. What is genetic can’t be explained in
terms of culture alone. History is a record of patriarchy and male
Pinker’s history suggests
how our branch of the apes has managed since prehistoric times to reduce
violence through widespread domestication of the species. Like dogs, sheep,
cattle and horses, our species has, to varying degrees, been domesticated.
Modern States have found impressive ways to eliminate, control and subdue
violence. This leaves a minority of people whose violent behavior has evaded the
domestication and they receive a great deal of media attention. Wrangham’s
message is clear: the violent animal history fuels aggression and can never be
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle
creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have
witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids,
brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling,
beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that
chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare, which
would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year
habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of
the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated
violence and hyenas’ territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding
among the Yanomamo people of Brazil’s Amazon forests and other so-called
primitive tribes, as well as to modern ‘civilized’ mass slaughter. In their
analysis, patriotism (‘stripped to its essence… male defense of the community’)
breeds aggression, yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, they reject the
presumed inevitability of male violence and male dominance over
8. Capital in
the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty
How wealth and income are
allocated is a complex and important decision. Piketty’s book no doubt you’ve
read takes on the considerable task of researching the history over a two
hundred year period to show the political, social, cultural and economic
consequences of wealth and income inequality. No one has been able to
successfully counter the historical record unearth by Piketty. This book has
been compared to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has received
praise for bringing into public debate the reality of the .01% who have
accumulated not only wealth but used that wealth for their own political and
Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important
economics book of the year, if not the decade… Capital in the 21st
Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and
supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic
inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries
and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large
sums of money and those who don’t.” (Matthew Yglesias Vox
“Stands a fair chance of
becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young
century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years…
Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians
already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a
revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and
his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion
but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly
unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory,
demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality.
It’s quite the opposite, in fact.” (Timothy Shenk The Nation
Blindness, (2012) by Margaret Heffernan
Heffernan is ex-BBC
producer, and if there was one book every embassy person would benefit from
reading it is her Willful Blindness. Here’s a passage that will bring a
smile: (page 209): “This highly unconstrained travel, between points of view, is
hard work, and it can be risky, not just because it can take you off of
well-established career paths, but because it provokes questions that, as a
Cambridge professor once sternly reminded me, ‘one is not invited to ask.’
Questions that one is not invited to ask make everyone uncomfortable, not least
because they don’t easily lend themselves to prepared answers.”
You’ve proved over your
years here your courage to travel that road. That makes you a very rare person
and one to be highly valued. <<I don’t understand this para. It seems
ill-fitting, and hanging mysteriously here.>
Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by
A cogent and thoughtful
examination of the concept of time, the second law of thermodynamics and
entropy. You thought that time was straight forward, right? Look at your watch
and that is the time. It seems that our notion of time is far more nuanced and
Smolin is a good on the
different arrows of time in our universe: the cosmological arrow of time, the
biological arrow of time, experiential arrow of time, electromagnetic arrow of
time, and gravitational-wave arrow of time.
“Evolving complexity means
time. There has never been a static complex system. The big lesson is that our
universe has a history, and it is a history of increasing complexity with
“Time is about change,
which means it’s about perceived relationships. There’s no such thing as an
absolute or universal time. The observer’s situation in the universe must be
taken into account including where she is and how she’s moving.”
11. Man With a
Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Luican Freud (2012) by Martin
Man With a Blue
Scarf may be one of the best books written about the creative process.
Martin Gayford, a leading English art critic, memoir of his 18-month time
sitting for a portrait carefully observes the artist Lucian Freud’s life. These
observations slowly over time from Gayford’s conversations with Freud and others
reveal the web from which creativity is spun.
Gayford has carefully
constructed the various connected with relationship of artist to sitter, to
family members, friends, bookies, gangsters, his contemporaries (Francis Bacon
in particular) and famous painters from the past. The book is a portrait of the
artist painting a sitter. A wonderful idea that is brilliantly
Gayford’s book will
broaden your worldview on the meaning of originally, the creative process, and
what an artist seeks to capture in a portrait. This is truly a remarkable,
inspiring and memorable book.
Excellent … Not only
offers fresh insights into Freud but catches the tensions and drama inherent in
the business of portraiture. –The Guardian
An unexpectedly moving
investigation of the artistic process –The Economist
…stands a good chance of
becoming a set work for students. It would be a rarity on a reading list – a
not just read but
relished. –The Spectator
12. The Vital
Question: Why is Life the Way it is (2015) by Nick Lane
It may have been years
since you studied biology. Like most science subjects the scientific
investigation into the biological mechanisms and the evolution of the molecular
machines that build, monitor, repair and maintain biological systems.
The Vital Question begins
like a great detective novel: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology.
Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth
shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on
just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other
‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail? We don’t know.”
Question is an exploration into this deep historical mystery. It will
expand your worldview on the connection of life and information, evolution, and
the laws of physics. It is a book filled with memorable quotes: “Life is nothing
but an electron looking for a place to rest.”
“In every milliliter of
seawater, there are ten times as many viruses, waiting for their moment, as
there are bacteria.”
“A major problem with
neurons and muscle cells is that they cannot be replaced. How could a neuron be
replaced? Our life’s experience is written into synaptic networks, and each
neuron forming as many as 10,000 different synapses. If the neuron dies by
apoptosis, those synaptic connections are lost forever, along with all
experience and personality.”
For those interested in
understanding the complexity of biological life over a 4 billion year time
frame, and why it only happened once and why it started to early, will treasure
He is an original
researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories
are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense …
intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the
Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so. (Peter Forbes
Nick Lane…is emerging as
one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth…a
scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life (Clive Cookson Financial
One of the deepest, most
illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent
years. (The Economist)
One of the pleasures of
good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and
engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously
imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding
but always clear text, Nick Lane’s new book succeeds brilliantly … I cannot
recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane’s vivid descriptions and
powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader (Caspar Henderson Sunday
Nick Lane is not just a
writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of
thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in
the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about
energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life
is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind.
Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll
could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast
when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here… Like the best
science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a
series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the
perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective
story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself (Matt Ridley
this is a book of vast
scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…The arguments are
powerful and persuasive…If you’re interested in life, you should read this
book…it does tell an incredible, epic story (Michael Le Page New
AGI is defined as
Artificial General Intelligence as opposed to Artificial Narrow Intelligence you
find, for example, in many places from your smartphone, car, Google, Watson (the
chess champion program) Wall Street trading programs. It is vastly smarter than
human beings but very narrow on what it can do. AGI has human-like general
intelligence. ASI follows next. Artificial Special Intelligence or ASI is the
big leap from AGI to an intelligent agent vastly beyond the realm of human
beings. ASI will out-think and our-smart us. ASI is not the genius you remember
from school with all the right answers in class and a perfect SAT score. ASI is
several orders of magnitude beyond on our cognitive abilities. Next to ASI the
metaphor is human beings are an ant-like intelligence compared to ASI, which
experts predict may be more than million times more intelligent than
Sounds like science
fiction. Sounds like something a novelist would dream up.
But what if the best minds
are signaling that this intelligence transition may happen in your lifetime, or
that of your children or grandchildren? Would you listen? Would you care? What
does it mean? What advance warning will we have and what is being done to
prepare for AGI and ASI? These are some of the questions raised in James
Barrat’s Our Final Invention.
The future is a big place
that stretches to infinity. It would be useful to narrow down that
When in our future can we
expect AGI and ASI? Opinion is divided. It is also divided on whether these
developments will be safe for humankind or lead to its extinction. AI thinkers
such as Bostrom, Yudkowsky, Vinge, and Musk, among others, fear whatever
safeguards we device to manage and control such a super-intelligence is doomed
to failure. When it comes to the target of social engineering, it will be ASI
working our vulnerabilities with the relentless, 24/7 processing and memory
capabilities a million times beyond our own. Barrat is also an acknowledged
pessimist on the issue of humanity being able to organize and implement any
effective system to safeguard against an intelligence that may destroy
How will we know when
someone has achieved AGI level? What is the projected timeline between the
creation of AGI and the emergence of ASI?
One possible hint of such
an intelligent entity might first appear in obscure areas of mathematics. “In
mathematics, a conjecture is a
mathematical statement which appears to be true, but has not
been formally proven. A conjecture can be thought of as the
mathematicians’ way of saying ‘I believe that this is true, but I have no proof
yet’. A conjecture is a good guess or an idea about a pattern.”
And let’s say over a
six-month period papers appear in obscure journals with proofs of half a dozen
mathematical and geometry conjectures, which amounts to one proof per month.
Then that doubles and doubles again until all the conjectures has been proved or
disproved. This would be a sign that the preferred language of ASI is
mathematical language and symbols. Our ordinary language whether English,
Chinese, French, Spanish or German as used by human beings is too imprecise,
vague, limited, narrow and can’t possibility describe the nature of the
universe. I’ve talked with mathematicians who believe the universe is a
mathematical object. There is no language other than mathematics to describe the
universe. Most people speak the language of mathematics like someone who has had
a two-day language course in reading, writing and speaking Thai. We might know
our “to the left or right” or “straight ahead” and ask for a beer but soon run
out of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
In Our Final
Invention, Goertzel, another AI expert, is quoted on the future of AI by
reviewing the history of calculus.
“If you look at how
mathematicians did calculus before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, they
would take a hundred pages to calculate the derivative of a cubic polynomial.
They did it with triangles, similar triangles and weird diagrams and so on. It
was oppressive.” Barrat draws from Goertzel’s analysis the conclusion: “AI
research will incrementally proceed until ongoing practice leads to the
discovery of new theoretical rules, one that allow AI researchers to condense
and abstract a lot of their work.”
What Barrat doesn’t
discuss is the possibility raised in another point made by Goertzel: “We have a
more refined theory of calculus any idiot in high school can take the derivative
of a cubic polynomial. It’s easy.”
What if the refined
theories aren’t easy. Not only can’t an idiot in high school not understand and
apply the theory, not even the most brilliant mathematicians can.
Here’s a test run of how
the future may unfold.
Sometime on the morning of
30 August 2012, A brilliant Japanese mathematician in Kyoto named Shinichi
Mochizuki uploaded to his website 500 pages divided into four papers submitted
as proof of the abc conjecture. As Nature reported, no other mathematician
has come close to solving this 27-year-old problem. If Mochizuki’s proof turned
out to be correct, it would be “the most astounding achievement of mathematics
The problem was Mochizuki
had created a new mathematical language. His proof has become the mathematical
equivalent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. You must master the new
language before you can comprehend the story told in that language.
Nature reported one mathematician saying that in reading Mochizuki’s
proof that he became “bewildered” and “It was impossible to understand them.”
“Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the
future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the
University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper
Or he might have said
something similar if he’d read a paper produced by ASI.
Now imagine a series of
such proofs that exceeds the scale and scope of Mochizuki’s proof and a new
language is created which is not comprehensible to the world’s leading
mathematicians. Imagine in twenty-four hours there is 500 pages of new
conjectures, one hundred conjectures per page; and within forty-eight hours
1,000 pages until at the end of a month there are millions of pages of
conjectures, and each conjecture has a proof or disprove. ASI finds a new
mathematical language that incorporates all of the proofs. In Douglas Adams’
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer was ‘42’. No one is
suggesting 42 is the answer. What is being contemplated is whatever the answer
after the great intelligence explosion we won’t comprehend its
The Final Conjecture is a
proof that describes the mathematical object that is the universe. ASI cracks
the black box code that describes what is the universe with the new mathematical
language. The moment when everything we know changes in ways like Mochizuki’s
proof, will leave us bewildered, alone and locked out of the loop of knowledge
and continue to exist knowing, in the large scheme of things, our intelligence
indistinguishable from a dust mite. Now for the grim news—this is likely our
best-case scenario once ASI becomes self-aware and self-improving. The worst
case is ASI calculates from one of its proofs that the atoms in our bodies are
more efficiently used as a cheap energy source to fuel the push to the Final
In the final proof, we
aren’t around to find it incomprehensible. Or for a human being staring at the
sky with a big smile at the irony of it all.