Albert Camus wrote
“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of
revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of
In this rebellion, there
is an irony: the nature, scope, function and method of consent has no historical
or modern consensus. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln’s view on
consent may, in part explain, the Civil War that followed his election. “No man
is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” There could
not have been a more clear statement of the flaw of slavery.
Consent is a relatively
new concept in balancing power, authority, and the governed. It competes against
other values that pre-date the modern meaning of consent. In the ancient world
the ideology was based on obedience to the powerful. Herodotus wrote, “To think
well and to consent to obey someone giving good advice are the same
The powerful always
believe they are giving good advice and those that think well recognize it as
good and it is only their consent that matters. We don’t live, nor have we
lived, in a one-word universe of consent. Other words have also shaped our
opinions, views, attitudes and behavior. Such words penetrate deeply into the
psyche such as honor, duty, security, safety, loyalty don’t exist in a vacuum.
They evoke feelings. Rouse our emotions. Define our identity to others with a
shared identity and to ourselves.
compacted words are tagged to objects in the physical, exterior world, and we
reinforce our sense of self through the protection and veneration of a sacred
object. Most people can list examples, bible, the Koran, a constitution, a flag,
the cross, or in the United States, or a gun are objects fall into the category
of the sacred for a large number of people. These objects are visual, tangible
altars used by power to justify their commandments. Other sacredness appears to
the aural. The feelings evoked by a national anthem or a song attached to the
strong emotions of war, oppression, or salvation. Standing as the national
anthem is played at a cinema or sports stadium is a communal affirmation of
identity. This is not a conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, or East vs.
West split. All sides mentally prostrate before its icons
When someone challenges
gun laws or the confederate flag flying above the state capitol in South
Carolina or Alabama, offering up evidence to support their attack, those whose
identity is tightly connected with such a symbol reacts as if the challenge is
made to them personally.
Those who seek to tighten
gun laws or block the teaching of creationism in public schools aren’t in a
debate over the merits of wide spread gun ownership and the high rate of deaths
arising from handguns or whether creationism is an alternative theory to
evolution. The truth of the symbols is absolute for the true believer. Emotions
allow no evidence to disturb its settings tuned to the symbols they identify
with. Rational, deliberate debate where reason and evidence prevail is a pipe
dream from the opium nights of the Enlightenment. No amount of persuasion
convinces people to reject, modify or question the validity of a symbol that is
a mirror for their identity and values. Break that mirror, and their identity is
Marx was right about role
and function of religion. It was the opium of the people and the drug was not so
much imposed by a cynical, manipulative authority than it was demanded from the
people. It’s not just religion and the iconic images that form the person’s view
of themselves and the world, it is a junk shop stocked with nationalistic,
historical, and mythical images to grow fully formed identities pushing ideas of
valor, glory, honor, purity or goodness.
Much of the current
conflict from Thailand to Turkey displays the tension between traditional
symbols of beliefs, loyalty and hierarchy and values for modern secular
globalized values of human rights and freedom. What makes this time different
from our ancient ancestors is modern people in big cities around the world
believe their consent politically, socially and economically matters. This comes
from a much older world where certain symbols invested an unquestioned power to
rule. Modern people might honor a national symbol but still demand their consent
be counted politically. That is a big difference between the not so distant past
and the present. Consent can also be a slippery concept. Even the most brutal
dictators relied on the loyalty and approval of a small percentage of people who
benefited from the brutality. What makes ‘consent’ in modern times is the
inclusion of people who are strangers, from different backgrounds, races, class
or caste, or religion. The tribal aspect of consent is broken.
As the exclusive, limited
range of people whose consent had been sufficient for legitimacy find themselves
as a minority voice in a political system serving the interest of the majority,
they fear the new allocation of resources and benefits will shift to their
detriment. It is this fear that lies at the heart of consent. The change to
include all citizens without doubt threatens the stability of the traditional,
political system. Whenever and wherever this political transition has been
occurred, the privileged minority pushed back against the expansion as they were
afraid of being left behind.
Our civilizations have
risen on the crest of non-consent. Obedience wasn’t based on choice; it was
based on a combination of iconic symbols and threat of force. Both the
18th century American and French Revolutions were waged and justified
by its rebels on ideologies of consent. It took violence before consent as an
ideology to begin the process of replacing the obedience to authority model. We
live in the aftermath of that sea change, working toward a coherent theory of
political consent. It is not clear hundreds of years later how successful either
revolution has been dislodged the obedience ideology. In many places, the battle
The modern mantra is that
the exercise of power without consent is the definition of tyranny. That
authority must in order to claim legitimacy to govern must have consent from the
governed. Any other foundation is corrupt, oppressive, and self-serving on
behalf of a narrow class of elites. Faux polls are often employed by tyrannical
regimes as a substitute for consent. Polling numbers inevitably are presented as
showing 80% to 90% levels of support for the tyrants or their policies. Their
purpose is to offer a substitute for consent in order to establish legitimacy.
Such polls are like shallow graves are crude engineering projects and few are
fooled that the bodies inside can be identified as truth, fairness,
transparency, diversity and co-operation. The tyrants are not that creative in
their attempt to manufacture alternatives to consent. That failure contributes
to their paranoia, brutality and repression to those waving the consent banner.
These modern pro-consent people want a break from the institutions, governing
principles, and values of the past where consent did not feature except at the
What is driving the
globalization of the consent mantra? There are several factors coming together.
First, consent can be shaped, manufactured, engineered to serve the purposes of
elites. The weight of money in politics is a measure of respect the elites have
in creating the illusion of consent. At the same time, the digital networks have
given a space for a new identity of self based on consent to emerge. The new
concept is universal and disrupts the ancient ways of viewing self, authority
and power. Consent has become a moral value. It is suspicious of the traditional
consent engineers who serve authority. The digital world has disrupted the “obey
culture” by presenting choice as to whom to obey an alternative based on
Consent has long featured
in our criminal laws, from rape, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and assault. We
have a long history where consent is an essential element in our personal
treatment of others, and how they treat us. It is at the political level that
legitimacy based on the ideology of consent is resisted in non-Western cultures.
Jonathan Swift, like Lincoln, glimpsed of the true implication of the ideology
of consent: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed
is the very definition of slavery.”
There’s also consent, in a
private, personal sense, which involves our relationship with certain objects or
symbols. A person’s sense of self is like an identity-kit assembled from
childhood and those things on the shelf that form part of the kit are defended
as if the challenge is existential. And that is the difference between a real
education, and an education sufficient to transfer skills to fit within the
needs of a system. The evidence will support that an overwhelming number of
people pass through the second type of school, university system. They accept
what they are told by their teachers and professors. They are in the classroom
for a reason. To gain skills for a skill-orientated workforce. But the skill to
program is, in this world, more important than how the military or security
services will deploy such a program. When people from these two very different
educational background meet, they have difficulty finding common ground. They
might be from alien planets speaking a language the other side processes as
proclamations of war or evidence of ignorance if not stupidity. Follow the
debate on government surveillance and the concept of consent is at the core of
It isn’t just government.
Corporations play a large role in stripping us of our consent without us
noticing. Every ‘like’, ‘retweet’, credit card usage, telephone call is stored
in your digital folder inside the larger surveillance-marketing-system (SMS),
and this system is designed to engineer your sense of self and identity. We are
being ‘played’ and the players understand how to extract our consent in a way
that makes it appear real and voluntary. Like a dictator’s faux poll, the real
and the fake become blurred.
If you follow the Alan
Watts path, you might discover another school that teaches about the purpose and
meaning of life is to discover that self or identity is an illusion and escape
from that illusion is the main purpose of life. In this world, the symbols are
illusions trapping us like flies in amber. Symbols, in the world of words and
objects, anchor us to the past and assume a reality that is constructed. It’s
only real because collectively people look at a cross one-way and an image of
the Prophet in another. The reactions from anger, hatred and violence, perceived
or otherwise, to such symbols suggest the power of an image. The guarding of
symbols is guarding the past like a fixed frontier and resisting assaults from
the present. The future unwinds slowly as the low-grade warfare between the
place and role of symbols don’t retreat quietly or softly. They go with much
shouting, threats, violence, and disruption.
We are inside a travel
machine, one that travels a bumpy, uncharted road. Our fear is taking this
journey without our identity left intact, and we won’t survive. We can’t imagine
how anyone without that comfort can survive the journey and find peace of mind,
contentment, salvation, redemption, happiness—all of the outcomes that most
people agree is worthy in themselves. But getting to that point, the end point,
as Alan Watts and others have taught is for us to understand we are always at
that point. We are at every point. We are in the NOW and yesterday or tomorrow
are only inside our individual and collective minds evoked by words, images,
pictures, objects and artifacts of daily life.
How do we deal with this
sacred cargo that our ancestors have accumulated and passed down to use? How do
we push back against SMS? Our backpacks are filled with such stuff. We keep on
walking, carrying the load. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human
brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor
scheme for survival.” That’s our limitation, cognitive cutoffs. We can grow (so
far) a brain with a different structure, a different pattern recognition and
filtering system. But we’re stuck with the wetware we inherited.
If you lived through the
Allied firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut did as a capture soldier, an
external event can change the way you process the world. Much like the impact of
torture. Those who have no hands-on experience are the greatest cheerleaders for
‘enhanced interrogation’ (the term they use for torture) than those who have
done hundreds of hours of interrogations. Sometimes you must participate,
witness, or be caught up in a situation where no symbol will save you. Some of
those emerge from such an experience find the symbol/word filters altered,
sometimes shut down. They have first-hand experience these illusions were no
buffer against reality. They find a new way of assembling identity, one that
doesn’t rest on a false premise. One that doesn’t rest on anything at all and
then they are free. And they are alone.
But that is only partially
true. We are never alone. We are social creature by nature. It seems that nature
is changing. We wish to define self, our identity, or other people’s identity.
Consent. The ability to give and withhold it is the power to grant or retract
legitimacy. Consent is a powerful weapon to build an identity for the new world.
SMS chips away slowly at consent, manufacturing a look alike. This process has
all sorts of implications for how we consent becomes a pre-condition to
obedience. That is a huge step, like the moon landing, into a territory very
different from the one in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. Those
clinging to a culture of obedience without consent have their work cut out for
My last book of essays is
Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation.
It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where
those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the
people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those
sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of
years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest
that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey.
It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the
relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.
In the 18th
century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a
solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough
compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public
obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head,
the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions
undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the
governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the
people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence
of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a
mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century
there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a
screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities,
celebrities, and toy poodles.
How people communicated,
the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the
role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if
it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its
values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously
that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the
access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often
hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people
have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their
18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole
purpose and meaning of elections and voting?
People living in feudal
times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The
idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have
been viewed as treason.
century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It
was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate,
his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could
claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population
movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of
cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus
different from those in the 18th century.
The expectations we have
about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions
and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We
are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as
accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the
governed and the policies of those in power.
Elections have fallen on
hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their
parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than
half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or
not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be,
directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander
districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political
parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may
be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates,
consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election
campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like
many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and
upgrade the weak signal.
Elections are staged
events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of
Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever
attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere
near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment
value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads,
interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring
elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment
business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was
likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of
theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.
I suspect no one under
forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and
that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.
Thailand is an example of
the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is
to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the
absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed
parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy
has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of
elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner
take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence
believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes
are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash
Those who protest against
elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There
are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century
when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the
population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with
elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their
consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to
begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread
of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an
election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also
has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to
fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting
is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a
different cultural and political tradition.
Elites suffer from the old
devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of
people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to
overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are
stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority
of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election
can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s
history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by
that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this
18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated
given the current technological and information revolution?
We’ve inherited election
from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy
and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and
slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely
accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of
people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that
hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and
digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that
has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems
everywhere there is an internet connection.
What do people want from
their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black
box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside
world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the
black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was
slipped on the black box.
representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people
would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016
presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a
This raises a number of
hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming
over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and
personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus
is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest
level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and
self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling
these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon.
The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation
table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official
statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens.
They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test
of resolve and commitment.
Governments in their
international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of
consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups
to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay
elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and
We are left with the
blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when
you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries
with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes
and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate
among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be
managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down.
No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a
18th Century Voters an
exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males
Not only are elections
incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer
capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening
in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and
incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to
diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry,
“Look, there’s a squirrel.”
Elections and voting were
created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to
communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big
data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change
makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the
authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows
cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an
18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo.
There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where
we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress
intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.
18th Century French
In time, the
18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that
emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent
and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we
see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data
mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time
you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known.
Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after
night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues,
products, events, and personalities every day.
When the military assumes
power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not
surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring
with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making,
legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections
come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information,
and the economy.
In another context, Thomas
E. Ricks wrote,
“Your structure is
your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you
think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You
can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a
traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals.
In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link:
We see some outlines of
direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As
most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become
passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support.
John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an
English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus
on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering
entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and
contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil
He’s hit a cultural sweet
spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and
politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able
through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues
that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change
as there will always be a group that will resist change.
In modern, contemporary
life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as
he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format
will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.
We are at a major
crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the
dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are
products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than
the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great
change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology
no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the
What will the new digital
generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is
difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role.
What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will
enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.
Once consensus is the
product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing
AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in
constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially
separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the
two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from
recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched
before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they
In this world, voters are
a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those
expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it
is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know
with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the
government should do with plastic bottles.
In this brave new merged
buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no
longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need
to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is
often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of
secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the
We aren’t at that point
and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus
mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a
time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks
that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies.
Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the
evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested
interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many
powerful people around the world.
A new generation is
already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the
Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions.
They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate
policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have
been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the
consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people
know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in TheTruman
are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die,
and a new era will begin.
The one most people know
is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political
system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from
anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes
the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered
horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to
judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the
Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may
wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined
and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast
stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.
I’ve been thinking of
winners and loser, peacemakers and warriors, victors and the vanquished. These
binary extremes define much of our culture, and much of about the way we think
of war and winning. That visceral desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the
bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in the fallout that rains down from such a
world. Only we know life is far more complicated than such neat divisions appear
to offer. Black and white has always given a seductive quality over shades of
gray. Comfort comes from believing we can size up an event, situation, person,
idea in terms of right and wrong, truth and lies, and hate and love, peace and
war. It is, though, a false comfort, and the best fiction—crime fiction or other
genres—cause a reader to question such thinking. Come to think of it, the
questioning of the sacred, the challenge to belief is one of the main reasons
people read a certain category fiction. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know.
Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it has a fiction and non-fiction wing.
Such books stand in contrast to escapist stories or confirmation of bias
stories—as these are the meat and bones of bestsellers, publishers love them.
They sell in the millions of copies. Deliberative Literature has a small
But this wasn’t always the
One place to start to
understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel
Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and
nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t
deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical,
true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical,
emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches,
mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a
faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence
against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.
We need to deliberate on
this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and
testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become
vulnerable when subject to verification.
Non-fiction books also
have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice,
deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a
law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience,
scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and
management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These
books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was
made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and
democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly
disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong
and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the
lives of millions.
Whether fiction or
non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny
of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic
lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend.
And say, “Read this.”
While these thoughts
circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing
the Scream. It’s a three-year in the field study from the frontline
of the drug war—the battlefield is worldwide, and Hari narrows things down to
Canada, United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and a scattering of other
places in South America. He’s done his homework, interviewing drug users,
addicts, counselors, and local and national offices. He has doubts and shares
them. . It is wise to raise health concerns about any drug, cannabis included.
One problem associated with Anslinger’s War has been the failure to fund and
support independent scientific research projects to gather, analyze, and debate
evidence of both positive as well as negative effects of cannabis. There is
credible evidence that cannabis use by teenagers has harmful effects on
cognitive development, and heavy users show a pattern of poor attention, memory
loss, lower educational achievement and lower IQs. The usual caveat not to
confuse correlation with causation applies. The Australian government has funded
several research projects to examine health issues arising from cannabis use as
a prelude to introducing legislation for medicinal
While there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use makes someone smarter at
school, the work place or at home, it is difficult to justify a war based on
scientifically challenged research produced to date and to fund a worldwide
gulag system to incarcerate cannabis users.
He looks for contrary
evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign.
Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long
process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police.
Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a
ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders.
The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small
amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about
their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite
Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization
response to cannabis use.
What Colorado and
Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis
that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at
home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of
peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari
suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away
from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an
even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C.,
they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other
words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war
against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely
hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.
One of the best parts of
Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named
Ansingler who served 31 years as the
Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the
war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the
world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use
the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal
conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and
Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial
hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war,
like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no
scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had
absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal
person into a slavering murderer.
Hari says we laugh at that
now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who
is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking
slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by
the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of
examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into
the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge,
ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations
that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have
acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with
different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an
organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had
weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.
When both wars started—the
war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just
by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology,
and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler
and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear
until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or
very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day
people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such
lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because
they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s
always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational
concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion.
Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions
to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the
exclusive right to use violence against others.
Ansingler’s War though may
qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and
Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought
to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement
against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many
states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords
much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened
with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a
killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he
bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street
In the last couple of
decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We
have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been
distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and
inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among
the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches
and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a
rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t
hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor
and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa,
are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth
status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become
super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug
cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach
illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one
that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or
loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those
shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to
meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make
that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a
month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear
starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly
demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so
enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their
children and family from taking drugs.
Look back on the
casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and
more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the
annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to
kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the
hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of
heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition
against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very
good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his
days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he
might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he
had released onto the world.
In the future, people will
build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An
American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next
to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’
button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s
homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear
As the wise man says, the
future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present,
trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what
plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the
future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our
answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable
We need to adjust our
attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a
sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and
technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have
shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though
you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a
marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing
Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in
Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our
experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly
defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war
ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace.
It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the
expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the
outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.
Kukris shows evidence of
the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged
between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of
decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From
1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the
percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from
wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990
to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14%
resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued
the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with
insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the
established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most
people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective
picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and
the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep
hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to
awakened us from this self-induced slumber.
like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like
the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green
shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing.
While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year
milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.
The statistics recited by
Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement
has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700
Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military
technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and
assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and
Afghanistan have proved elusive.
Although Kuris doesn’t
break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars
and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a
close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs
and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who
recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that
these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts
inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence:
racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of
laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement
institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal
conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal
fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry
Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will
never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with
a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and
The War on Drugs like the
are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in
victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are
a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the
odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry
Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of
loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is
actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain.
Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local
fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against
the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.
Watching the John Oliver’s
Last Week Tonight featuring an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow
is a parody of Black
Channel 4 award-winning TV series created by Charlie Brooker. His interview
might have been drawn from the premise of the episode titled Fifteen Million
the dystopia future where a citizens’ drone-like life is a routine of mindless
work-fitness-entertainment-confinement inside a doomed and bored life. The main
character in Fifteen Million Merits is Bing who he has the idealism,
courage, and conviction to expose the cruelty and dangers of the ‘system’. He’s
found a way out of his narrow, confined life of repetition by buying his way as
a contestant on a TV reality show. His purpose is to rage against the unreality
of life, which lacks meaning outside of personal consumption, where people have
become robots condemned to servitude.
Bing threatens to kill
himself with a piece of glass during his performance. With the shard pressed
against the artery at his neck, Bing rails against the unfeeling robot-like
consumption life. Moral and ethical life is a thing of the past. Citizens have
been turned into puppets and the main obligation of the state is to entertain
them. Bing, like Snowden, points at the strings attached to us all. He’s angry
and he’s articulate about how we demean ourselves and that it is better to die
than to continue living such a meaningless existence. He reams the ‘system’ to
expose the hollow core where a few control and program the many.
Rather than seeing the
full frontal attack as a threat against a totalitarian system, the judges take
his ‘performance’ as a brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment. The audience
is in love with Bing’s rage with the glass shard at his neck. Not because of the
content of his message but the explosive sincerity in which it was delivered. At
the end, Bing rather than taking his own life to end the absurdity of his
existence becomes another regular performer on the reality show. The message of
Fifteen Million Merits is Huxley’s Brave New World was a guidebook to
the future. Rage and anger are folded into the entertainment industry. Bing was
co-opted. Was Snowden co-opted in a similar fashion? That’s the
John Oliver like the judge
in Fifteen Million Merits did what no NSA or CIA operative could have
done to undo Snowden. To entertain the viewers while making them understand what
their civil liberties and freedoms were reduced to if the government uploads
your ‘dick pictures.’ Those selfies of your ‘junk’ –the catchy little phrase
Snowden used in the interview, to much of the delight of John Oliver. It was as
if Bing’s sober twin had appeared on the screen and the script of Fifteen
Million Merits had been adjusted for an American audience. Snowden has had
a shard of glass at his throat since he holed up with Glen Greenwald and Laura
Poitras in 2013 in Hong Kong. CitizenFour, an Oscar winning
documentary, revealed the backstory of Edward Snowden’s role in disclosing the
massive surveillance run by the US government with a number of its allies to
maintain information about its citizens. Culled from Google, Facebook, YouTube,
Twitter, phone calls, text messages, the amount of information collected behind
the smoke and mirrors of lies blown up the ass end of Congress should have
caused a revolution.
When John Oliver did the
man in the street interview in New York City, asking people if they’d heard of
Edward Snowden, most hadn’t. Those who had clearly had been brainwashed by the
official blowback that Snowden was a traitor, a thief, someone who was a
criminal with bad intention. The government had attacked the messenger and that
effectively had killed the window for his message to filter into the minds of
most people. What Snowden had expected from the release of the massive
surveillance was indignation, outrage, calls for investigations, and angry
groups of citizens demanding and lobbying for restrictions on data collection by
the government. That didn’t happen (except within the narrow confines of the
international chattering class). Not in the political mainstream of American
life. Most people didn’t care. Snowden wasn’t on their radar screen. Or if he
appeared, it was as someone who was a bad American who should return home for a
proper trial of his crimes before being sentenced to life imprisonment without
Enter John Oliver as your
show host of the dystopia reality series where the goal is to make Snowden’s
message entertaining. Unless he qualifies as a standup comedian, he has no
message that will be heard. Snowden performed. Like Bing in Fifteen Million
Merits he seemed to understand while on stage that no serious message can
be sent unfiltered to a mass audience parallels the NSA universe where
unfiltered communications from the masses can’t be perfectly monitored or
understood. Oliver frankly told Snowden that his attention wandered, his eyes
glazed over as Snowden made an impassionate argument about the dangers of mass
surveillance. The only salvation was to retool the message as another ‘dick
photo’ story. One wants to say a ‘dick photo’ that has legs. But of course it
Those legs have taken us
into the playpen where like children we can giggle, nudge each other, and feel a
sense of personal vulnerability. That could be my ‘dick photo’ suddenly has the
audience’s attention. They are now listening to Snowden. While Snowden doesn’t
have a glass shard pressing against his throat, he has something better. He now
has a laugh track and an applause meter with the needle registering in the red
zone. Snowden has shed Noam Chomsky and embraced Lenny Bruce. He has shifted to
the reality show, comedy central entertainment paradigm to communicate. Snowden
is part of show business.
The piece de
resistance came at the end when John Oliver pulled out two Oscar statues
and handed one to Snowden. The Oscar was made of chocolate. To Snowden’s credit
he didn’t follow his interviewer’s lead and bite the head off the Oscar. As the
program ended, I thought there is a good possibility that in the future Edward
Snowden will be credited as the person who popularized the word ‘junk’ to refer
to a man’s penis.
John Oliver has Bingfied
Snowden. Snowden, and his ‘junk’ metaphor, has been swallowed by the ‘system’
and elevated him to another amusing TV performer for the masses. Snowden has
been reborn, relabeled, and co-opted by a system he believes has the capacity to
change when given the right information. To be twenty-nine years old and have
such faith is as rare as it is admirable. Now that Snowden knows that unpackaged
information, no matter how alarming to experts, has no real audience. It must be
tied to ‘junk.’ I guess Snowden has learned a valuable lesson. Will the audience
want Snowden, the comedian, back on stage? Perhaps someone will write a song
titled ‘Junk’, or a band named ‘Junk’ will emerge, books and articles with
‘Junk’ in the title will appear. Who knows, a TV series titled ‘Junk’ may be
being discussed in Hollywood offices as we speak. The entertainment industry
will scramble to showcase this fine performer as someone who makes the masses
laugh. Only the joke is on them.
There are streets in Jaipur, an old Rajasthan city in North India, that seemed unchanged over long spans of time. You can spot a tourist by the way they walk along such roads. They are highly focused on not stepping in cow shit or little garbage igloos sculpted by the wind, tires, and sandaled feet. Where an annual literary festival is held over five days at Diggi Palace. It’s hard paying attention to two or three things at once. Whether attending a festival talk or walking down a Jaipur side road, you have a choice. On the road you reduce your probability of stepping on shit or piles of garbage with more bacteria than your entire genome, or getting ploughed from the side, back (most likely angle) or a full frontal collision. The general risk applies to any literary festival event. But as I said, it’s your choice.
The first day I paid full attention to the street. I almost was hit three or four times by rickshaws, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the near sighted Jaipur middle class driver in one of these pencil box sized inexpensive India designed and manufactured cars, the kind you saw on Mr. Bean. By day two, my tolerance had vastly expanded when it came to accidentally stepping on nasty stuff.
You can tell a lot about a place by the condition of the sanitation and its streets; when the channel is set up to meet both important social needs—the need to shit and the need to get to a place even though in the case these Jaipur streets, the place they were rushing to didn’t apparently involve using a toilet.
Like anywhere else city experience depends on the people who inhabit them. Clear New York City of its population and replenish it with ten million Indians imported from Jaipur and the surrounding towns, and ask yourself if the New York City experience would remain the same after the Indians settled in.
Most of the people in the streets of Jaipur in January are cold. Some of them warm themselves over small fires set in the gutter of the road. It’s smoky, dusty and cold like the blade of stiletto shoved into your ribs. Rickshaw drivers line up along the top of the road on one side, and on the other are the tuk-tuk drivers. Poverty has its own class distinctions and on the way down the ladder—your identity is defined by your means of transportation, and those on the bottom rung are on foot.
When a foreigner takes long walks along streets no longer used for walking except by people so poor they are on their last legs, he is doing something peculiar in the eyes of the Indians. That explains the constant solicitation by rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. Actually rickshaw drivers hover at a low number on the scale of vocal harassment. They hardly try and are easily discouraged when ignored. Not tuk-tuk drivers. They have a horn and they use it to announce they are inviting you to jump inside. You look at their clothes, shoes and faces and you see they have nothing but the tuk-tuk. That’s it. A rickety, beat up tuk-tuk is all that stands between them and the plunge into the rickshaw class. That makes tuk-tuk drivers all the more desperate and persistent. It wasn’t just the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers; it was the faces of the people in the market, behind the stall counters, their customers, and the lassi wallahs. You rarely found a smile. It wasn’t they didn’t know how to smile, it just the result of how and where they lived. Their faces said to you, “Look around at this shit, would you be smiling?”
No one can comprehend what a billion people actually means. It’s beyond anything in our experience. A billion is an abstraction. In that sense it means nothing what we think it means. Take the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers—because of the large population there will emerge many more such people who have the means to become such a driver, than there is a need for the service. In other words, they are condemned to float on the thin membrane of survival and hope they will be spared falling through.
If there was ever an example of the balm of gods, deities, sadhus and rituals, stroll along a road lined with rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. There you will find the true believers congregating in clumps, warming their hands over a small fire on the road. My arrival in India for the first time a couple of decades ago was the turning point when my clutching to the Panglossian fantasy ended. Voltaire’s Candide brought me face to face with the unreasonably optimistic attitude of life. That things will get better, they will be different, and this dogma or that will bring a life free of suffering. India teaches you that are an illusion. In terms of loss, that is one of the toughest ones to let go of—all of our democratic, North American values, ethics and morality, our political system, democracy, are premised on things will get better.
Of course it is a lie, a convincing fabrication, one we like to tell ourselves, and resent someone like me telling them that this illusion isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of people who lived in places like Jaipur. Bundi, a small village four hours outside of Jaipur, where I once spent two weeks, showed me that there was always some other place more fucked than the one you found yourself in. Compared to Bundi’s population, the Jaipur Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers were making it in the big city. But I am a writer and not a politician who needs to tell voters what they want to hear about ‘life’ and ‘existence’ to get elected. It’s a pity that Voltaire never made a journey to India. Candide would have been a different book.
You might argue, even in Jaipur the average person is likely to be better off than his or her parents and grandparents. I leave the demographics of Jaipur to the experts. But the impression walking the streets in and around the old Pink City, that if a lot of people lived in worse conditions than the people I saw, I tried to ask how people would survive long enough to reproduce another messy lump of poverty marginally less in the shit that they were. Pink, you might be thinking, why pink for the walls enclosing a city? Colours schemes, like ideology and technology, emerge from the accidental convergence of taste, personality and fashion of time, hand down as visual reminder how easily susceptible we are to historical mockery.
I wasn’t in Jaipur to walk around broken streets with germ-infected spores hanging like nano dirigibles waiting to fly up my nose, colonize my mouth and eyes. No, I came to the city in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur every year. Jaipur has managed over a couple of decades to become a literary Mecca attracting devotees who fly in from around the world to pay homage to the latest literary Jedi. A fusion of Star Wars heroes and Islamic Hajj.
Over the years, I’ve been invited to participate in festivals in America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and was the recipient of the royal treatment as a panelist. You experience what it is like to drink from the silver urn in front of an audience clutching paper cups. Such an invitation is the equivalent of touring Jaipur as the raja’s high table guest. I wasn’t invited to Jaipur. I went as a reader. I went as the audience. When you go to a literary festival as a reader you are like one of the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers on the road. You are a transport for others. In the case of others at a literary festival, you are transporting egos and reputations. I was to learn, that a reader’s role at a literary festival is not unlike a rickshaw driver straining his muscles to get you and your baggage up a steep mountain road. Like the people in the street and shops around the Pink City, I was another face, another pilgrim in the crowd looking to get a glimpse at the palace entourage moving to their place where they looked down from the stage as this vast mass whose lives were as invisible to them as their lives were visible to us.
Glimpses of the modern world were everywhere—the cellphone, TVs, computers in the hotels and offices but in the area around the Pink City I saw that most of the people in the area have no benefit from modernity. The latest inventions from technological driven world had shot past their rickshaws and tuk-tuks leaving them to eat dust, piss against a wall or wait for a passenger. The advantages of the modern world had never quite reached them and they live their lives in a world of hand to mouth poverty, one their ancestors would have recognized.
The invited speakers at the Jaipur Literary Festival received the full VIP treatment—proper transport, hotel, meals, special nametags, microphones, photos on website pages, printed on brochures, put them in the limelight. It gives fans a reason to go and listen to what their favourite writer might have to say. Once you’ve been an honored guest, a guru with something worth saying, you naturally evolve an archduke’s sense of entitlement. It took me a day to adjust to my new status as a ‘participant’. Like all former elites who have been overthrown in a revolution, what I thought was the festival life among the attendees wasn’t at all what it was really like. No wonder the elites fought from ancient to modern times, often to the bitter end, as to maintain that place at the high table had an existential element. They sense it was a long drop to the feeding troughs below. And they were right in their fear. In all theocracies Pilgrims are expendable and the priesthood rarely expandable. For centuries that was the model of our politics. Now it is the model for literary festivals.
January 2015 the Jaipur Literary Festival featured a number of famous and near-famous authors invited to speak on panels: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nicholson Baker, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and Zia Haider Rahman. As was to be expected, the British authors captivated the audience with their combination of wit, style, charm and turn of phase, that melted the pilgrims into a single loyal, pliable unit of accolades—they could have marched us as a mob up the hill to demand that the organizer upgrade their room or fly them home on a first class ticket, and we would have done their bidding gladly. We might have been readers; but there were huge numbers of us at these panel events. I once spoke to an audience of several hundred people at a literary festival in Spain and another in Germany, but the Jaipur Literary Festival audiences were immense, Gandhi sized masses dressed for sitting attentively in the open and in dreary cold of January. At one event, their number expanded like fruit flies to the thousands.
That takes me back to that number we can’t comprehend—a billion. Six thousand people turned out to see VS Naipaul. It seemed, at the time, something like a billion people. The point is, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is free, and once you’ve done a few forts and palaces, there’s not much other to do than to walk down shit covered side streets, going to gawk at and be entertained by authors, many of whom had been persuaded to leave their comfortable homes for Jaipur. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the literary hajii over a five-day period. I was one of them, wearing a tag with no name but with highly ambiguous word: Participant.
I’ve asked myself, why do the British authors all sound like a version of David Cameron or Sean Connery? Having been educated and taught in England, I had a rough idea—British authors were those who had trained for politics or the stage, but couldn’t get elected an acting job. So they turned to writing. They are naturally theatrical and easily switched into a series of funny regional accents. For foreigners, the British speaker can say just about any insane, stupid or silly thing and come across as having spoken the truth. The British authors are like the old Roman roads and fortresses, with their precision, planning, elegance and design. You can be bedazzled by such roads if you ignore the main function of the road isn’t the road but the place it takes you or in the case of the fortress, rather than going into awe over the battlements and ramparts, you ought to be concentrating on the question of defending against whom and what? We tend to look at authors, roads, and fortresses stripped of their essential function. Here’s a good definition of insanity—to marvel with exalted reverence at something that your mind has isolated and totally ignored its context.
Literary festivals are breeding grounds for this kind of collective insanity.
The presence of the British authors reinforced what most of us know that the celebrity culture, like the Borg, has absorbed writers and politicians, and turned them into performers beguile their audience with wit. Sometimes they also read to their audience. That can be a mistake. In the case of one of the British authors, it was sad he’d not been told never to read to an audience as what he had written never matched his improvised riffs. There is an overlap of literary lid on the political jar. Jeffrey Archer springs to mind as does Salman Rushdie, whose appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was dropped after a political protest started to get out of hand. Rushdie that is, not Archer who as far as I know has never worked the Indians up into a frenzy of shouting for his head.
The point is all writers invited to participate in a major festival have been invited based on a political decision. He or she will be popular and draw an audience, and make money and prestige for the festival and its organizers. Festivals are, after all, creatures born from the womb of capitalism. Celebrity culture, like investment banking, is a money-spinner and a number of people at the top benefit. They design a business model that takes the best of Stalin’s regime and a Mafia organization based on omerta. So like most tyrannies the audience is left to wonder what really happened behind the Kremlin-like gray walls that approved one invitation and not another. The fact is, literary festivals, like elections for politicians, no one is thinking beyond this author or politicians makes me happy, reinforces my good feelings about myself, my life, my identity, and that’s just fucking good enough. Thank you very much for asking.
The one thing I learned as an invited author to a literary festival panel was never to follow a British author, unless he’s limited to reading from his book. Otherwise, I’d be finished before the curtain came up and what the audience would see before them was a Canadian who moved in the literary swimming pool and who was nothing like the British author who had swam all those backstrokes and after doing a series of back flips off the high board. As authors from North America, we can’t help but sounding like someone talking in burst about the weather on a shopping mall escalator, or worse that distant thwack of a machete whacking a path through a virgin forest.
The real turn around that celebrity corner was the election of Ronald Regan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the last non-professional actor elected to the American presidency. Tony Blair played a similar role in taking Britain deep into the makeup room and celebrity trailer culture of Hollywood. TV nighttime talk shows and the Daily Show in North America cemented the celebrity deal for politicians. They’ve come a long ways since riding horse in B-cowboy movies that would big in the 1950s. Not surprising, Rushdie inadvertently created a hole in the universe that showed that a literary author could be turned into a large, mass seller through politics and death threats. We have come to expect the author to be foremost a performer; it is the performance that sells a lot of books. This had the benefit of unlocking readers from the guilt of having to read the book. The performance, like the movie, was an acceptable substitute for reading. No one who bought a book was expected to read it. Or read all of it. That was to miss the point. It was having the book as a souvenirs of an experience of seeing and hearing a celebrity. Better a book that is signed by the performer.
Living in Thailand, the Jaipur Literary Festival also gave me a perspective on the political situation in that country. I had stumbled upon one of the reasons the current leader in Thailand seems out of synch with the behavior of contemporary politicians; as a military big shot, he never had to earn his stripes as an entertainer for the masses.
I suspect for thousands of years people had expectation of their rulers was to be shouted at, an object of invisibility or outrage, someone to be threatened, and a subject to pay tribute without asking why. Our ancestors lived in a world where it was common for a leader to wave his fist at them, screamed at them to listen and shut up. We have only started to adjust to a world where politicians are scripted, dressed, made-up, and rehearsed before they step behind a podium. That is why they are hardly say anything in a speech that might make anyone, anywhere upset or god forbid, angry. You don’t sell a product by stimulating people to think. That’s the road to failure. Instead you make them laugh, feel good about themselves, and feel they like you. There are writers like that too. They want to make every reader happy with the promise you won’t be bouncing from side to side to avoid the shit or garbage piled up on you road of life, and ignore the puke on your boots.
There was a large upside to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The chance to reflect on the political situation at home.
It is difficult for a dictator to stand outside of his conventional military culture and worldview hammered into his skull or to question it. Tyrants punish questioning or criticism as a form of rebellion. If your worldview was shaped by command and control, giving orders, it is highly likely that the world of giving an explanation for your actions or policies and listening to the opinion of others is alien. In Jaipur it was a relief to be a place where people could make fun of authorities, laugh at them, or criticize their ideas and cast doubts on their writing of history, their competence and honesty. No one was arrested and hauled off for an attitude adjustment. It takes a while to relax when you’ve been living in a dictatorship. Show business is cruel in ways the generals don’t easily tolerate. Audience ratings, like election ballots, are popularity contests among those who tell the best stories. Generals tell terrible stories, and that is partly the reason they so quickly lose control and have to become more brutal, paranoid, and ruthless.
There is a vast degree of misunderstanding between the world of command and control and the world of public performers who manipulate an audience to accept poverty, global warming, shit in the road is always their fault. In the modern celebrity world, shouting orders at audience violates an unwritten code that is the Magna Carta of the vast entertainment industry—audiences expect to be seduced, in fact they have been domesticated by seduction most of their lives; it has become the natural order of things. We crave seduction. Not even Western schools bother any longer to order and drill students into submission to authority. Think of this transition as the difference between love-making and rape. Walking the back streets of Jaipur, seduced or ordered, most of the locals were doomed just like their ancestors stretching in an unbroken line for hundreds of years had been doomed. They had no way out of the Pink City, no exit from their lives, and spent their days running after foreigners to sell a hand puppet as if this cruel irony was living.
The festival lasted five days. After it ended, we moved hotels to a place a hundred and fifty meters from the arches gateway to the Pink City.
Walking along the side roads that were used by rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows and dogs I thought about what I’d heard and experienced at the festival. Thoughts in India are never long before being interrupted with a horn blast or someone begging for money or trying to sell a hand-made puppet or hand-painted silk squares with colorful elephants.
I turned into lane stretching half a kilometer between rows of shops and ending at the entrance to the Pink City. Shoes, gems, baked goods, shampoo and mouthwash shops, hole in the wall places, with eagle eyed staff jumping into my path pinning me between the tuk-tuks and rickshaws racing down the street and their bodies. It felt like a hostage taking situation. They guard their patch on the pavement like an NFL guard. The Indians rarely smile. The more aggressive ones show their teeth as they seek to make a sale. Their skin and bone dogs wonder about the world outside where the rumors must have filtered back to Jaipur about a place where dogs are man’s best friends.
Jaipur gave me the space to think about the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘festival’ used to describe the gathering I’d attended. When I travel to a new place, I walk around and find a place to read. On this trip I packed Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories and Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. As I read Bukowski, a couple of observations floated to the surface. He would have immediately known that Bukowski was exactly the kind of writer who’d never be invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival. He was too raw, exposed, and truthful about his relationship to people, authority, and conventional morality. He didn’t play the game that was demanded. He’d have shown up drunk and slurring his words and would paw at the moderator’s beasts. He short-circuited the seduction ritual with huge quantities of beer, wine, and whisky.
As down and out as Bukowski was, crashing into the lives of others and like a parasite burrowing into their nest, fridges, and booze supply until all was sucked dry and then moving along, he would have been no where near the bottom of the heap of people who lived on the back streets of Jaipur. That may have been a good reason not to invite him. His kind of life, attitude, style, and whippet like speed to a liquor cabinet worked extremely well to expose the cant of American middle-class and dog-walking culture but outside of that realm, stripped of its context, it had little meaning. For Charles Bukowski or someone like Henry Miller they never worried about stepping in shit as they bounced from whorehouse to bar like a slinky with too much kinetic energy.
In Train to Pakistan a district official comes to a village called Mano Majara where Hindu Sikh and Muslim had lived in peace. But partition would change everything in their world. The village is dirt poor. It’s a hardscrabble place about to be sucked into the vortex of mass dislocation and wholesale murder. The official is shown great deference and respect, given all of the amenities including a young girl barely one foot into womanhood who comes from the village. Her role is to provide sexual services to this physically repellant and morally corrupted official. She has no choice in the matter. She was no different from the puppets sold on the streets. Someone else pulled the strings and she accepted the hand that fate had dealt her. Ultimately is an illicit affair between a Sikh boy and Muslim girl.
As I looked up from the Khushwant’s India of 1947 and out at the people in the street, I wondered how much the lives of most of these people had changed in relation to power. From the look of things they had been treading water from centuries and the waterline still rested chin high. A few more degrees dip in the temperature would dispatch the next group of the most vulnerable.
All that wit and humor on the stage at the festival was light years away from the reality of their hard lives. Reading Bukowski and Singh in Jaipur made me aware how I can lick my finger and the change the page of the book on a whim. If the passage I am reading is slow, annoying or ponderous and my forefinger is my army. Bury that scene by turning the page. But when I looked up from the book, sitting along a street in Jaipur, there was no page to flip. I was in place with a long history of invasions, wars, murders, and alliances. Billions of pages might detail the history. It was no use trying to flip them. There were too many. History gave me the finger. Fuck you, was the message from the past, we turn the page on you. Your life is nothing but a short story. But our pages as history turn so slowly there is no way to read them all let alone assign moral responsibility for what happened.
History was a major topic at the festival. From the crusades, the blunders of the CIA, the role of Indians in WWI, the Cultural Revolution in China, the mythology of Mahabharata. History is a record of vanity and suffering buried among the lies and inflated self-flattery and congratulations of the victors. The tragedy of human existence was before my eyes. I didn’t have to read a book to find that out there is madness in the world and when it boils over in revolutions, genocides, wars, and pogroms, those at the bottom suffer the most. We repress most of this knowledge about the world because it is too painful to process. We are encouraged to blind ourselves such knowledge because we wish to continue living in the world where our ignorance is the mainstay of keeping us sane. That’s another reasons the celebrity author is so popular. We’ve become part of the ignorance machinery. An author’s popularity with the masses correlates with his or her ability to create an illusion of knowing. It works because we are conditioned over a lifetime to mistake distractions for knowledge. We know no other way to be. Until we sit on a side street in a shitty part of Jaipur watching a rickshaw pedal by a skeleton with a minimum of flesh attached, someone whose gods gave him a chance to wipe the bitterness from his mouth and keep on moving.
The stakeholders in reality run their games in backrooms. The rest of us are one of the chips in large stacks moved on a table with a bet attached. We ride a cultural gulf stream, one which prefers the illusion of democracy. Our celebrity trained politicians, authors, movie stars, TV celebrities, sports heroes combined with our gods distract us from the reality of our life. The Indian boy selling the puppets in front of Mr. Donut in Jaipur is the message no one wants to think about. It’s not witty or funny or amusing. It’s terrifying.
India is the place to go for enlightenment. That’s a small ‘e’ enlightenment experience where the scales drop from your eyes and you see first hand in places like Jaipur, Bundi, and Varanasi the long process of primate domination has always been much the same. We only see the effect: its vanity and suffering. But we ignore the cause. Literary festivals, like the one in Jaipur, are another form of primate domination activity. We repress from our consciousness that the people we have read and listen to on panels are not really telling us what we need to know, and they aren’t really what we think they are. They have their own alpha monkeys with sharp teeth on their back. They are one nightmare away from waking up. Perhaps that’s why we go to see celebrities. It might just be the performance where they truly wake up, throw away the mask, and tell some suppressed truth about existence. Make us see what we’ve been blinded to see. If only they had the guts. If only I had the guts. But “guts” is just a plain word for emotions and emotions are the well from which we draw our illusions.
I am glad I wasn’t a speaker, that I didn’t appear on stage, that I didn’t feel the pressure to meet the emotional needs of an audience whose illusions needed nurturing—the usual ones: that we are special, that our lives have meaning, that people who write books and say witty things really know something about existence. I could have saved the five days of panels by going to the weapons room at 18th century City Palace inside the Pink City, the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The palace complex houses, among other treasures, an astounding collection of swords, daggers, shields, flintlocks, muskets, battle axes, some in thoughtful daisy wheel patterns to make them look like objects of art rather than objects of murder.
In another place in the same massive compound I discovered two huge sterling silver vessels 1.6 meters in height. Each had the capacity to hold 4000 litres of water. The silver urns were commissioned by a Maharaja who decided it would be a good idea to cart his own water supply from the Ganges River for his personal use on a1901 trip to England. The water urns were made from 14000 melted silver coins. Just maybe the vast array of war and ritual weapons in the room had some causal connection to the 14000 silver coins. Security guards flanked the urns. Sentinels from the past, guarding a treasure a testament to one man’s thirst and how he collected silver to quench it. How those coins were acquired is likely noted in a history book or a document on someone’s shelf, but the words on the pages are too heavy to turn.
The weapons and the urns are a clue to the mystery of why things are the way they are in Jaipur and most other places and have been for a very long time. Only the weapons and urns have changed with technology and fashion. The basic idea, though, doesn’t belong to Jaipur. The weapons and urns are reminders not just about the past; they mark a moment when you can say, now I understand something useful about the relationship of people, power, faith, and existence. The relationship between face, water, and power. Some glimmer of knowledge that makes sense of the boy on the street selling puppets, the old rickshaw drivers, the burly chested tuk-tuk driver, people on the street and in the bazaars—all of them united by the belief that all you need to survive are good brakes, a horn and luck.
The Jaipur Literary Festival organizers should commission miniature two silver urns filled with a couple of soup spoons of water from the Ganges River and present them as a gift to the most famous speaker. The ceremony would be the crowning of the new Maharaja in the literary world. The glory, the pomp, the ritual would inflate the crowds beyond seating capacity. It is the performance they want to witness. India is a place where history lives, wake up that sleeping giant, commercialize the silver urns and other artifacts, allow celebrity authors to bring adapt the traditions behind the objects, fitting them comfortably into our modern, global culture.
If I would be invited to a literary festival I’d take a couple of things other than a silver urn. I’d bring along a pair of brakes, a steering wheel with horn, and an amulet. That’s the fate of pilgrims. One more thing—don’t worry yourself should you step into a steaming pile of cow shit. Just keep moving ahead. I’d tell the audience this is all you need in your knapsack as you keep a pace ahead of the powerful who are searching for silver to their own urn. And they would wonder whether to laugh, wondering if I had told them a punch line to a joke, and if so when would I explain it to them through an amusing story. Then I’d tell them about the weapon room daisy pattern of flintlocks and the silver urns as tall as the average man. Then I shut up and stay silent for the rest of the performance. And I would never be invited back again.
In mid-2009 I had the idea
to start a blog with crime writers posting weekly essays about crime, politics,
corruption, police, courts, crown prosecutors, publishing, and writing. We
started out with Matt Rees, Colin Cotterill, Barbara Nadel and myself. Over the
years others joined our ranks, including Jim Thompson, Margie Orford, John
Lantigua, Matt Rees and Colin Cotterill after many essays moved on. In our most
recent reincarnation, our mainstay and the exceptional survivor from 2009
Barbara Nadel has continued to write essays for this website. In addition to
Barbara, Quentin Bates, is another of our long term authors who has gone the
distance. Barbara, Quentin, along with Jarad Henry, and Susan Moody, are our
current team. I’d like to thank each of the current authors and those who wrote
for us in the past. Like our readers, I have great admiration for your
2009 seems light years
away from the present. The world we started writing about is now a foreign
place. Our 2014 world, at least in my part of it, has moved away from support of
essential freedoms including free speech. But that is not the reason for saying
goodbye. Let me explain why a decision has been made to close International
Crime Authors Reality Check.
Writing a weekly essay is
relatively easy for most professional writers. That is, for the first few
months. Indeed it is exciting and a welcome alternative to writing fiction.
Sustaining that excitement for years is more of a challenge. The months turn
into years and the weekly demand becomes a burden, interfering with other
obligations. It’s easy to get burnt out after a few years of weekly essay
writing. This is no doubt why Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates are putting
through the weekly essay writing ordeal for three years and then released from
those chains with a degree.
Each of us at
International Crime Authors Reality check have sought to bring you essays that
stimulate, entertain, challenge, provoke, and expand your own world view as well
as ours. We are collectively feeling weary from the weekly demand. Some of us
are running out of topics and fear repeating ourselves. It is, in other words,
time to for all of us to move on.
We are all active
novelists and that is a full-time preoccupation. Freeing ourselves from the
essay writing will allow us to pay more attention to our research and fiction
writing. That is where we make our living. The essays have always been a way of
giving back something to our readers in between novels. It has been a way to
stay in touch. To let you know how we think about a variety of issues. I believe
the website has given each of us a great opportunity to expand the range of our
interests and our writing, and to say things that are difficult to work into
We will leave the website
up as an archive to the five and half years of essay writing. We thank our
readers for their comments and opinions and for stopping by and reading our
latest essays. You are truly special to us. You are the people who buy our
books, so we won’t be disappearing anytime soon. You will find us where you’ve
always found us—inside the enigma called fiction, sending along our vision of
life, crime and society.
I’ve been thinking about
the current government’s plan for Thailand to create a digital economy, AI and
H.P. Lovecraft. Digital is a magic word. It is a talisman for progress and
development like Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy and other of the upper case
words that fly past in the sentences we read every day.
You may have missed the
news cycle where the prime minister announced Thailand’s plan to enter the
digital economy. There are a number of contradictions in such a plan not least
of which is that internet freedom is ranked as ‘not free’ and
Thailand is lower than Burma. You might say those are minor details to be
worked out later. Or you might think if your substituted digital for air
transport economy, with the caveat that all authorized aircraft are barred from
Thai airspace and offenders will upon landing will be arrested. It’s too early
for an analysis of the specifics of what Thailand would need to adjust for a
digital economy to work. It is, however, a good time to look at the larger
context of the mindset inside the digital economy and where cultural, political,
social as well as economic implications that lie ahead.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s world,
the digital economy is one more milestone leading to our eventual extinction.
Biology, ecology and technology merge in our little tango until reaching a final
climax when the music stops. That end is far down a dark future road. For the
here and now, the question is more immediate—how does a country and a culture
move without great disruption to its core moral values, myths and legends from
an analogue society to a digital one? Or can the disruption to the existing
cultural infrastructure be limited or contained?
In other words, what
resources in terms of education, research and development, incentives and
mindset must be changed to ease the transition from one type of economy to
another? The information is written in the stars. The difference that matters is
in the process used to extract that information. Astrologers have extracted
information from the stars long before the digital age. In the scientific
age of algorithms, big data and space missions, involve the use of different
tools, training, skills and language from those used by a fortuneteller.
There are costs involved any time a culture moves from astrologers’ predictions
to the international, post-Enlightenment world of scientists speaking to each
other in complex mathematical equations. You can launch a government policy by
announcing it. But to change a cultural mindset requires more than a public
Most of us go about our
lives flitting between mental states that are not unlike goal posts on a
football field. One end is the rational, deliberate, analytical end zone where
uncertainty and ambiguity over whether you’ve scored a real goal is elusive, and
at the opposite end someone like an astrologer is the goalkeeper. At that end
zone are the absolutes, myths, fables, legends, the sacred, where there is never
a doubt. Our feet are on the ground but we long to experience a sense of
transcendence, freedom from doubt, and glue to bond a large community. An
Astrologer’s culture delivers such goods and that’s what makes them endure, a
lot of people want exactly these things.
In between is the playing
field where teams from both sides huddle, call plays, throw passes and where the
highest achievement is to score an on-side goal. Logos and Mythos are the opposing
The Logos side, the
‘reasoned discourse’ is based on doubt and predictions on a testability and
repeatability of a set of facts that are falsifiable by any independent
observer. It embraces the Darwinian world in which 99.9% of all species go
extinct, and that will include us. High priests lift a shield manufactured from
authority, fable and dogma to protect such a bleak future. Science fields the
logos team. Their players are coached on a diet of facts and logic. They enter
the game not with an answer but with questions. They are hypothesis creators,
tentative, and comfortable with ambiguity. In their playbook, they move down
field accepting that in a state of ignorance and chance, nothing is certain.
Like Dr. Spock, they are offended by arguments tainted by emotional or
irrational premises that aren’t falsifiable. Science can partially lift the veil
of ignorance before it falls again on hard questions for which there is no
certain answer. Consciousness, dark matter, and dark energy are contemporary
examples that most scientists throw up their hands and confess ignorance. Of
course, there is hand waving by a few but that will never pull down the science
goal post. Logos gives you a card with this written on it: You’ve cleared the
maternity ward and ahead is an exit that doubles as the crematorium door. For
the duration of that journey, you can accept the handrails of dogma or accept no
one has truthful answers to the big questions.
In your time between those
two doors you will be in a free fall. As John Gray writes in the New
Statesman about Lovecraft, we may have
to face that we occupy a universe that is nothing more than lawless chaos. There
is no parachute. There is no safe place to land. Mythos shields us against such
a terrible reality.
The Mythos side shelters
under a large tent populated by spiritualists, religious believers, astrologers,
shamans, faith healers, magicians, palm readers, New Age people, artists,
dropouts and the authoritarian minded who place priority on a number of
values—authority, hierarchy, loyalty, purity, security, and faith.
By tradition, a high
priest wouldn’t tolerate being contradicted, questioned or his authority
doubted. His word and precepts embody the absolute truth. Inside this universe,
the mind of man reigns supreme. Until the Greeks came along logic at least in
elementary form likely existed but it was hardly a cultural necessity. The role
of Logos accelerated around five hundred years ago with the Age of the
Enlightenment. The impact it had the West saw dramatic political, social and
economic changes. In the East, there was drama but most of it couldn’t be traced
to the Enlightenment. People, whether from the West or East, possess the same
basic computing wetware in their skull. How they process information is part
culture and part hardwired. Research suggests that we are predisposed to Mythos
no matter where we come from.
The digital economy the
Thai Prime Minister wishes to kick start in Thailand is a modern product born
from the scientific tradition. The Mythos cultural ownership over ideas,
explanations and proofs act like the dark matter, as scaffolding for in the
digital world. Logos represents, based on this metaphor, 5% and Mythos 95%
of the human mind. Our rational, logic mind is the mahout on the back of the
unconscious, irrational mind. Both Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking,
Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The
Righteous Mind make this point.
Mythos has a different
card: Your faith and belief are your parachute, strap it on, and whatever you do
when one of those free fallers appears along side, ignore him because you have a
safe landing ahead. It is difficult to organize, lead and field an army
based on the elegance and beauty of a mathematical equation. While debate, words
and equations are the arsenal of Logos, Mythos uses hate and anger as a prelude
to inflicting violence and to redact all evidence of violence and the officials
doing the dirty work from the public record. The history of Mythos is a long
chronicle of blood letting and violence. The release by the US Senate Select
Intelligence Committee of a 500 report documenting torture by the CIA has
exposed that underneath the myths, fables and legends of American democracy and
ethics masked a much darker side, one that leverages cruelty, brutality, and
lying in the name of freedom. Mythos hides the dehumanization carried out on an
industrial scale inside dungeons, torture chambers, Black sites, and detention
centres. (See New Yorker article: here)
In reality, we all have a
logos and mythos side. Knowledge and anti-knowledge, like matter and anti-matter
annihilate each other, and when you look around you see evidence of that mutual
destruction most places that you look. But no one should be smug and feel they
are above the fray. Would you buy a condo unit on the 13th floor of a
building given there were comparable units on the 14th and
12th floor? Do you have a lucky charm you carry, although you might
not call it that?
Ultimately a choice has to
be made. The two worlds start from different premises. But there are also lots
of overlaps that don’t look like an overlap until you examine it closely. When
Logos seeks to legitimatize a practice borrowed from Buddhism the mindfulness
movement turns to science for validation. (see
science isn’t the same as science which makes narrow claims about the known
physical world and processes in that world. Borrowing the ‘science’ label as way
of giving a Logos explanation for a diet, vitamins, exercise or mindfulness is a
way to distinguish it from religious ‘faith’ but substituting science for
religion doesn’t dilute the fact it remains faith driven.
When either Logos or
Mythos attempts to validate its borrowing from the other tradition, it usually
manages to alienate both sides. There lies the conundrum for leaders in
countries such as Thailand who wish to preserve the heart and soul of Mythos
while at the same time creating a Logos based economy. We may not be capable of
making such a choice and will remain divided until a super-intelligent AI
decides we are more bothersome and more trouble than we are worth and turns our
atoms into paperclips.
Because of our cognitive
limitations and biases we are easily manipulated and our senses easily fooled.
We want to believe that those who say they know are speaking the truth. We want
to believe some people can tap into magic. There is a software app that has been
developed to play on this vulnerability. It’s called Phoney and like any good mind-reading
card trick convinces you that it has read your mind. (See
here) We are
suckers for sleight of hand. Conmen, illusionists, magicians, politicians, and
others know the dirty little secret that fuels Mythos—we love theatre, mystery,
the unexplained super-human feat that makes us sit in awe, believing the person
in front of us, or the app on our screen, has tapped into some magical cosmic
The fear, among some
quarters, is that an intelligent AI can become the ultimate shaman by exploiting
psychological and mathematical principles that create the illusion of reading
our minds. Would such a superintelligent AI shed Haidt’s elephant (the
unconscious brain and the behavior attributed to it) in favor of the mahout, the
elephant rider, the Logos? Some very clever people looking at the existing state
of artificial intelligence believe we may never create a ‘superintelligent’ AI.
While others, equally as brilliant, have faith this will happen in our live
times. (see: Vanity
Fair,Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial
Intelligence) Opinion is divided on
the potential to realize intelligent AI. Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in
the field writes that those worried about super intelligent AI are creating
a “religious narrative that’s a version of the Frankenstein myth.”
Researchers and thinkers
like Nick Bostrom apply probability analysis to the problem and conclude there
is more than a negligible probability of a ‘superintelligent’ AI coming into
existence. The fear is that unless development protocols are agreed upon to
restrict and control (or delay) development (at least to those outlined in
Asimov’s three laws of
intelligent AI could present an existential threat to our species. Those who
worry about an uncontrollable AI are like betters at the track. In a horse race
the probability is the long shot won’t win. However, if the race is run enough
times, a long shot will ultimately win. It’s not faith but a high mathematical
probability that sooner or later intelligent AI will enter the winner’s circle.
There is enough time to give policy makers breathing room to implement rational
decisions and deploy remedies to prevent the catastrophe scenario of an
unfettered ‘superintelligent’ AI.
Why an existential threat?
Because evolution would no longer serve as the base for ‘natural selection.’ The
increased intelligence, if such a thing arises, may operate on a different basis
of recursive self-improvement, change and transformation. AI relationship with
natural being may be radically different from our own and every other species
that has evolved. We can’t image how and who will play this game, their rules
and goals. We can hardly imagine our own world beyond what we currently know as
Logos and Mythos leaving a trail of artifacts, murders, and victims. Crime
authors, like science fiction authors, follow that trail.
Cultures and societies are
also divided and split along the Logos and Mythos playing field. It’s no
surprise that sports mad America provides the daily news cycle with reports of
who has scored the latest goal. In most sports, there is no ambiguity; one side
won, the other side lost. The goal post defenders, write columns, run for public
office, own and operate TV stations, newspapers and blog sites. Look around you
and ask yourself if someone were looking at your favourite blogs and websites
which goal post they thought best represented your psychological and cognitive
self? Make an edit. Ask your children, spouse, family, colleague, friends,
whether they consider you a logos or mythos person? You can ask yourself, but
will you give yourself an honest answer?
Next unpack the last
24-hour cycle of digital artifacts—the blogs, tweets timelines, Facebook posts
and comments, blogs, essays, news articles, headlines, and photographs. I
pretend to myself that I am up to date, informed member of the digital elite.
The truth is I’ve skimmed a small thumbnail of the surface of the daily
information. I am like one of the tourists on jet-skis rented from the local
mafia, zooming across what appears to be the open sea of information. At the end
of the day I end up back on the same beach, turn in the jet-skis, and stare at
the vast ocean knowing I’ve not really gone anywhere, I come back to where I
was, staring at a huge sea in front of me, with someone from the mafia claiming
damage to his jet-skis and demanding money. Then it occurs to you. This is
theater. We are involved in a complex drama and like most extras who have
noaccess to the script, we only know the bits that are fed to us and from that
we believe we have the whole drama in our heads. Science gives small, narrow
answers to precisely formulated questions to answer what is the physical world
made from and how the processes shape that formation. But science doesn’t have
an answer that explains everything.
Theatre, novels, plays,
art, music and dance are our theater. I write novels—intellectual submarines for
the literate class—and create a theatre of the mind. Inside that mind are
explanations for everything. It’s why we create and patronize the arts. It is
from us, about us and serves important social and psychological needs. But I
also recognize that oceans all of us, author and reader, seek to explore are
infinitely large and the range of submarines small. I also have great respect
for the scientific approach that is the modern logos model. Do I wish for
economic and technological management, questions of climate change, resource
exploitation, inequality, and injustice to be part of the mythos theatre? Not
unless I am willing to live with the consequences of gross mismanagement,
incompetence, and pogroms. Given the level of development, the great
transition that creates so much hatred and fear on the old playing field has
shifted. Logos has created a technological revolution that is taking
Mythos out of the explanation of life game, make it a bystander, another face in
the stands, a non-competitor.
Those on mythos side
aren’t going to hang up their jerseys and leave the field quietly. They rail
against the Lovecraft implication that extinction spares no species, including
ours. They have the numbers on their side worldwide, and they are pushing back
in the Middle East and Asia and America. In this theatre we watch the
players come on stage as hostages, beheaders, suicide bombers, children
soldiers, and warlords, and we watch the old elites believing the old magic
based on mystics and superstitions will continue to work the levers of stability
The question isn’t really:
How does one go about creating the basis for a digital economy in Thailand?
Instead, it is how does Thailand plug into and participate in the existing
global digital economy? Consider that Freedom
House has concluded under its
Freedom of the Net Status category that Thailand’ net is ‘not free.’ As I noted
at the beginning, there appears to be a policy ambivalence, if not conflict, as
to role of the Internet in a digital economy.
The digital, technological
world connects creative minds to a certain cognitive inclination—one that is
critical thinking, authority challenging, mystical destroying, and superstition
busting mindset. It is also the side that accepts the mantra “I don’t know.” If
your culture is based on the assumption those in authority should be trusted
when they say, “I know” some cognitive adjustments will be needed for importing
the digital infrastructure for this new technology. The astrologers’ ethos will
need overturning at the highest levels.
Is there a workaround that
allows for the importing of the digital world without contaminating the users?
There’s a hard question. If it were narrowed to just technical and engineering
problems there wouldn’t be a problem. But that is an illusion; the inquiring
mind can’t be contained and when it looks down field, the crystal ball gazers
find a direct threat to their mythical world. As an old uncle used to say, a
time comes when you fish or cut bait.
There are storm clouds on
the horizon. How we will individually and collectively deal with them will
depend on the battle between the logos and mythos. The victor will get to write
the history of that game and whose goalposts were left standing. Meanwhile, in
Thailand, I expect an auspicious time and date will be announced for the launch
of the digital economy, and the funny thing is everyone, logos and mythos, will
agree that is entirely normal and fully to be expected.
Like most people, I have a
great deal of trouble comprehending very large numbers. We read that there are
between 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and a like number of
galaxies in the universe. How about Nonillion, Octillion or
Decillion? And at a dinner party
someone explains that we have 100 billion neurons in our brains and over 100
trillion synapses, and we can’t decide on whether to have a second helping of
rice. There are over a billion Chinese and over a billion Indians. They all want
what you have—car, air-conditioning, holidays to exotic beaches, restaurant
dining, iPhones, designer clothes and watches. But I have no idea what those
numbers actually mean.
That’s no surprise. Most
people have trouble with numbers, small or big. It may be that evolution never
intended for us to worry about numbers beyond our fingers and toes. That would
have been good enough in most cases. You go to the bank, take one of those slips
from a machine and look at the digital number displayed to figure out how many
people are ahead of you in the queue. We can do that pretty well. And because we
can figure out that simple math and how that translates into waiting time, we
have believed that we can handle numbers.
In reality, an
overwhelming number of us fail to appreciate that we have crossed a numbers
frontier and have entered a new terrain where the sheer size and complexity of
numbers are shaping our modern lives in multiple ways. From our personal
investment decisions to the deciding whom to vote for in an election , our
expectations from politicians, leaders, and policy makers are increasingly
connected with understanding the math than the personality behind the
The problem is how slow
advance in numeracy has left most of us at a distinct disadvantage in a modern
scientific age where probabilities, big numbers, and percentages test the upper
limits of our cognitive abilities. John Paulos’s classic book Innumeracy:
Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences sounded the alarm more than twenty-five years ago.
This brilliant book remains widely read and cited, but if anything, innumeracy
has increased during the period since it was published and the world of huge
numbers has proliferated like a third-world dictator’s watch collection. Numbers
only tell part of the story. It is numbers combined with our illusion of
superior wisdom that makes for a toxic brew. In other words, rather than being
humbled by numbers we can’t understand, the opposite seems to happen—we become
more dogmatic and certain.
A few examples will show
the nature of our insoluble problem.
psychology professor David Dunning was part of the duo who came up with the
effect. This happens to be one of my
favorite cognitive biases. Not a day goes by without witnessing countless
examples of unskilled people, officials, politicians, pundits, leaders display
their illusion of superiority in knowledge, vision, policy decision making,
predictions, and advice. They mistakenly rate their ability as superior and
expect others to share that illusion. The fact they can’t recognize their own
ineptitude is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Professor Dunning is back
with more damning evidence of how this illusion of superiority is alive and
well. Managers and supervisors rate their managerial skill, and then employees
and peers rate the managers and supervisors skill. Guess what? There is no
correlation between the two ratings. Managers psychologically can’t resist
overrating their skill and talent, as they believe their view isn’t an illusion
but an objective fact. That makes sense as CEOs and managers are paid because a
board of directors also believe the top dog has superior managerial skill and
cuts them large pay cheques for sums we only vaguely can comprehend. Professor
Dunning’s research unearthed that 32% of engineers in a software company and 42%
in another such company believed they were in the top 5% in terms of skill and
The illusion persists for
a couple of reasons: people fail to be honest about their weaknesses and their
identity is linked with their strengths minus the weaknesses. Point out a
weakness of anyone and watch the psychological defense mechanisms kick into
place faster than a North Korean reply to a UN Human Rights Commission
Here’s the executive
summary: We are bad at big numbers, we have huge egos and monumental sized
vanity shields protecting us from our weaknesses, as we go about the daily tasks
of misclassifying, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. We bring
these cognitive resources and biases to forming opinions on a wide range of
issues from climate change, health insurance, and the risk being killed in a
terrorist attack. Add the ideological filters and the realm of numbers become
entangled with our belief system, representing what we wish the world to be
rather the world as it is.
It gets worse. Those who
earn their living based on getting the math right, mostly get it wrong. Check
the record of economists predicting inflation or deflation, unemployment, market
trends, and you see the fingerprints of Dunning-Krueger Effect all over the
Excel files. Economists failed to predict the global financial crisis in 2008.
(see here) In the world of casinos and
professional gamblers they would have gone bust; but in the world of economists,
we are left to think that Pinocchio must have been a fable about an
Religion is a great place
to bring perspective to the abstract idea of big numbers. Let’s leave the
rarefied atmosphere of billions and trillions and drop down to the lower levels
of tens of thousands. We still have trouble dealing with numbers of that size.
Wikipedia has a page informing us that
there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. That’s not a misprint. There
are, according to Wiki, 41,000 different Christian denominations. Not
41,000 denominations of all religions, this is just the Christians. Do you have
any idea how big the number 41,000 is? Visualize a traditional Thanksgiving
dinner at your house and let’s say you’ve squeezed in 23 relatives around a
table. You can’t breathe for all the body heat generated around the table.
Twenty-three people around a communal table is a large number but one we can
comprehend. But compared to Christian denominations, 23 is a mere rounding off
error. Even in small numbers people disagree about many things. So it should
come as no surprise that Christians are forever disagreeing on the nature of
Jesus, virgin birth, no virgin birth, what are curse words you can and can’t
use, whether the pope can turn out any doctrine he wants and call it god’s
Does anyone believe that
there are 41,000 ways to use a hair dryer? Or cook an egg? Or make soap? Or
manufacturing cars? Or cleaning a monkey’s cage at the zoo. Anyone who held such
a belief would be hauled off as insane, eccentric, unstable, or a fourteen-year
in his locked room behind a computer screen. But when it comes to religion, we
shrug off our insanity awareness detector and accept this state of disagree on
all matters concerning exactly who is and what he stands for and what he would
accept as right and wrong, a Christian god.
Scientists never say there
are 41,000 competing theories of gravity or general relativity or 41,0000
versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. No there is just one theory and a
handful of rival hypothesis. We seem to be able to cut big numbers down to very
small number only if what is at stake can be measured and repeatedly tested
countless times and each time the theory survives being falsified. That doesn’t
mean a theory can’t be overturned or modified, only so far our theory of
gravity, general relativity and evolution describes a testable
Fantasies are not
testable. Religious beliefs are not testable. You can fill in the logical
connection. This is why religious dogma, stories, beliefs can last for thousands
of years. They can never be disapproved but every few years someone comes along
with a new belief of what Jesus meant by what he reportedly said hundreds of
years before it was actually reported. That is an advantage that religion
enjoys. Like in writing any story, there will be fans, critics, and detractors.
It just so happens the fan base for the Christianity story has spawned tens of
thousands of slightly different understandings that makes its story superior and
more true than the others. Dunning Krueger Effect is in the fine point of
dogma, too. We can avoid it even when thinking about the afterlife.
Back to the number of
41,000 and what it says about us, how we count things, divide up things and
ideas, and base all kinds of assumptions on an abstract number. What makes for a
great deal of disappointment and disillusionment is our inability to question
our illusion of superiority. We compound that weakness with our cognitive
inability to understand big numbers or to employ techniques like probability
analysis, and critical analysis of measuring and testing.
We are locked into the
cognitive prison cell of the Dunbar Number. 150. That is the number of people we
can have a social relationship with. That number has remained constant over the
time of our species. We are a small number species. We just haven’t faced up to
the fact. There are a handful of people who get the big numbers. But teaching us
is like instructing a chimp in playing poker. We can’t keep our cards straight
or the cards played by those sitting around the table.
In terms of number
comprehension, we’ve created advanced technology that is beyond our capacity to
understand. We are constantly hitting the upper limit 150. You needed the brain
for many things. Like most primates our social habits are based on mutual
grooming in a band. Each one of our ancestors picked the fleas off others in
those hard to get places. All of the evidence suggests that we are better flea
pickers than stock pickers. We’ve hit a numbers wall. The problem is scaling.
Number comprehension that worked perfectly well for flea pickers breaks down in
a complex, interconnected world occupied by billions of their
This doesn’t mean that
only highly competent mathematicians should be allowed to vote, make
predictions, or form policy; what it does mean is that our modern world is
slipping out of our comprehension. Artificially Intelligence (AI) ultimately
(2050) will come into its own because nothing short of advance intelligence will
be able to make sense of the numbers emerging from Big Data. AI promises to
calculate without the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We will see about that.
Alternatively, we might
never get to the AI intelligent machine stage. In places like the USA where a
new congress is riddled with anti-science, innumerate representatives, we may be
witnessing a return to a culture where the highest value is placed on the
ability to pick the fleas off a neighbor, who keeps count and returns the favor.
But with those billions of Chinese and Indians that may prove to be a lot of
fleas to keep track of.
I have a confession to
make. I’ve been secretly dismissive of timeline photos and stories people post
about food. If I really come clean, I’d say that my bias against such foodie
photo/opinions/revelations has created an unearned sense of superiority. You’d
never find me posting a photo of food, I tell myself. Until one Tuesday evening
in November in Bangkok, that is. Here is my food story with accompanying
documentary evidence, which appears required if you are going to tell a food
story. In any event, while chance sent me free food, I am paying a large price
in now admitting myself into the circle of those who post stories about
I boarded the MRT from
Sukhumvit Station around 9.45 p.m. Tuesday night, 18 November 2014 (details are
important for the archive). I was on the last escalator leading to the train
platform. I had noticed a farang immersed in a cellphone conversation and taking
his time. I rushed past him sensing that the train might be there (most of the
time I am wrong about that), running down the escalator to find the train
waiting, doors open. I ran and slipped inside. About four steps behind was the
guy who’d been on his cellphone. The doors were closing. It’s like one of those
horror movies. The inevitable closing on someone’s hand and foot. He struck his
hand in the door for leverage and his foot, too. Both were wedged in the door of
the train as it was closing. But the MRT doors are unforgiving. He struggled but
managed to remove his foot.
At the same time before he
floated away into nothingness, he left us a legacy of his existence: a plastic
bag with bananas (2), yogurt (2) small milk (1), and a small box of Special K*
cereal. This legacy (pictured above) managed to squeeze through the inner door.
It was a battle he realized he was going to lose. He shook his hand free of the
door. We locked eyes in that very moment. I felt I was watching a rough cut of
George Clooney suited up in Gravity as he pushed away from the space
ship. Peter, like George, had performed his part of the drama and now nothing
was left but to push him into another time dimension outside of our vision.
Let’s not get too overly dramatic, though. Unlike George Clooney, Peter had time
to contemplate an alternative Plan B: either go back and buy the breakfast for a
second time or call it a night and wait five minutes until the next train
From the contents of the
plastic I concluded he’d not only lost his Wednesday breakfast, but there was
someone waiting at home who had relied on Peter to bring breakfast home for him
or her. I imagined a deep sense of disappointment descending on Peter’s
household as he arrived empty handed, and offering up an original retelling of
the “dog ate my homework” story.
As the figure of Peter
trying to bravely smile as we saw him get smaller and smaller as the train
gathered speed, all the Thais turned around in their seats. They were highly
entertained by the farang missing the train but were at the same time
slightly confused that his groceries had made it inside; well, almost inside,
they were hanging, suspended chest high in the door. It was like a magic act. No
one could take their eyes off the bag stuck in the door. Their brains were
turning over, trying to process exactly what had happened.
I stood near the door,
guarding the bag, wondering what I should do? I had one stop before I got off to
walk home and not much time to make a decision. When the doors open, do I give
the bag to who looks to be the poorest person in the car? It occurred to me that
with the exception of my wife, I’ve never met a Thai who wouldn’t confess to a
murder wrap before they’d eat something labeled: “Live Active Lactic Acid
Bacteria Culture.” Beside the aversion to the yoghurt, the milk and banana would
be of interest. But would giving it to one rather than another cause envy, may
be a fight? I didn’t see any gardening tools so none of the passengers looked
all that dangerous. But I decided, none of them looked hungry. Or poor. Then I
thought, do I give to the motorcycle taxi guys outside my condo? No matter how
many possibilities I couldn’t get over the Lactic Acid Bacteria problem I’d
encounter. But it seemed an ethical violation to keep the food as spoils of a
war left behind by a farang casualty in a battle with an MRT car
What would Calvino do? Or
Mrs. Calvino (this is not a spoiler, only a possible long distance possibility
in the deep future when Calvino, like Peter, leaves his food stuck in the door
one too many times and decides it’s time to settle down with a woman who will
see that he’s properly fed)? As it turns out, my wife was the one who fished out
of the plastic bag a KBank receipts. One receipt had his name; his first name is
Peter. I won’t embarrass him by spelling out his last name. If you know a Peter
who banks at KBank who is his missing breakfast, let him know that I have it.
It’s chilling in the fridge. He can pick it up anytime.
I had wanted to write
about privacy and how that idea is dead. We are like one of those sad chimp
mothers who continues to cradle the dead baby against her chest refusing to give
into the reality of the situation. The two receipts Peter slipped into the
shopping bag gave me a chill. There was not only his full name on the credit
card receipt. There was also an ATM receipt showing a sizeable bank balance. How
would he know the food would depart on a train without him? How would he sleep
knowing someone on that train not only had his breakfast but his name, the
branch of his bank and the amount of money he had on deposit.
This is a glimpse of how
modern life has swallowed your privacy and spit it out on receipts. I am forever
finding one in a pocket. I held a stranger’s two receipts in my hand. I don’t
know him. But I now know a great deal about him. More than most people would be
comfortable in confiding with a stranger. The ATM receipt was the equivalent of
a privacy death certificate.
It couldn’t be more clear.
Peter has no privacy, neither do I, and neither do you. Whether it is your Bank,
credit card company, or any company you do business with, they can encode all or
part of your personal information they’ve collected and they can sell, license,
give, trade it, print it and distribute it, and profit from it. We’ve all lost
much more than our breakfast. We’ve lost the right to put a receipt in a bag and
lose it. The contents of Peter’s bag from the supermarket broadcast to the
finder his private dietary choices and the financial details of his life. I feel
I know a lot about Peter. In the future, we won’t have to lose our shopping bag
to be in Peter’s situation.
Strangers are reading your
life in the data you leave behind, the searches you make online, your emails,
the articles and essays you read, and you are tracked in a hundred different
ways. Google is a leading privacy slayer.
I will leave you to contemplate two seemingly contradictory conclusions: We, our
health, finances, politics, reading choices, desires, prejudices will never be
lost to those who have access to the tools that allow for an audit. And
secondly, We’ve all missed the train, leaving our identity stuck in a bag in the
closed door. Take a long look. Peter’s you and he’s me.
*The keen eyed reader will
have spotted the Special K box of cereal was sold past its expiry
The difference between a
man with a big reputation and one with no reputation is very little. That is the
stone I want to put in your shoe. This weekend, walk around the block with it a
couple of times before you take your shoe off and throw the stone away. We are
conditioned to believe a universe of difference exist between people based on
their reputations. Of course it is another social construct drilled into our
skulls, the wound healed up, and we don’t ever remember the operation that put
it in our minds. But it is there, rolling around each time we see a friend, a
neighbor, a colleague, someone on TV or in a movie, or read something on social
We are bombarded with
reputation type advertisements. The advertisement often features is a smiling
celebrity selling us a watch, perfume, a car or a cell phone. That person has a
big reputation. The product or service he or she is shilling for benefits from
the angel dust of the celebrity’s reputation. If his wife throws him out for
infidelity like Tiger Woods or he shoots his girlfriend through the bathroom
door like Oscar Pistorius, the ad campaign is cancelled and the
connection is severed. Consumerism thrives on an ecology based on
People online are
infinitely conscious of their reputation among their ‘friends’ on Facebook and
Twitter. Slights, criticisms, and disrespect tarnish the highly polished
reputation. People with a reputation, in other words, have something, in their
mind, of great value that is to be protected and guarded. Reputation, like
money, is a currency that buys the most precious of all commodities—social
co-operation. We want to associate with people with high reputation. We want
them as our friends, colleagues, family members, spouses, teachers, judges,
politicians, policemen, generals, and sports figures. We want them to be heroes.
We want them to be brilliant, kind, insightful, moral, and perfect. We demand
the impossible and we reap the grief of disappointment when they fail
In Thailand, reputation,
identity and face are rolled into a spiritual, sacred part of a person’s vital
being. The cultural illusion is that face represents the essence of the person.
Causing someone to lose ‘face’ in Thailand is dangerous. Case studies of people
being stabbed, hacked, shot, knifed, strangled, dismembered, burnt or suffocated
as a reaction to the loss of face would fill a small library. There seems to be
a grim consensus that the victim is the one whose face has been destroyed and
the dead face destroyer pretty much got what he or she deserved. Other cultures
place an even more radical value on reputation or face, one that can extend to
the entire family. For example, in some Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or
runs away with her sweetheart against the wishes of her family, her relatives
stone her to death in order to preserve the reputation of the
maintaining or losing it, in other words, can be a very serious business. Social
media has made fundamental changes to the reputation game. Those seeking to use
their big reputation online find a battalion of anonymous snipers gunning them
down every timeline and newsfeed. And ordinary people can overnight create a
large reputation from a YouTube video or photograph of a cat or baby. Our
definition of what it means to have a ‘big’ reputation is changing. Among the
millions of people who instantly recognize Kim Kardashian’s ass, how many of
them would recognize the face of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Literature’s
face? For those who have gained their reputation status in the analogue
world, the digital minefields (I am sticking to the warfare metaphors) are more
than an obstacle they are a clear and present danger. Bring in the minefield
sweepers, and that is what appears to be happening in many places. Freedom of
speech has been a casualty of this digital war.
We are in denial that the
right to a broad freedom of expression is in triage. We don’t want to confront
that reality. As we know, denial is the first stage in the five stage of
grieving. We shut it out and pretend that we are entering a tunnel of grief and
there is no way out. This sense of denial has been working through our
consciousness for a long time, as has the crude, clumsy and brute stuff at the
hands of dictators and authoritarian laws; it has been chipped away by those who
have been the greatest supporters of freedom of speech, and they’ve done this in
the name of hate crimes. Freedom of Expression has been slimmed down to the bone
by both sides of the political divide for their own ideological reasons. One
wonders whether free speech remains capable to run a good race in the
competition for ideas. Speech can be a nasty, dirty and hateful display by the
worst of our species, attacking women, gays, blacks, fat people, ethnic groups
and religion. For everyone who stands on a soapbox and challenges an official or
government policy connected with torture, extra-judicial murder or corruption,
there will be five people standing on a soap box in some dusty, fly-bitten slum
attacking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s
Authors are, as a class,
as obsessed by reputation as much as the next person. You don’t have to look far
to find one who falls apart emotionally over a ‘bad’ review, who lashes out as
if the poison from the arrow shot into his reputation slowly causes his brain to
unleash an unworldly howl. What readers (and most authors) forget is that a
writer starts out with no reputation. She is an ordinary person sitting in a
café, living off the dole, drinking coffee and writing Harry Potter. J.K.
Rowling, yes Virginia, started off as a nobody. After her reputation went off
the charts into the realm of hyperspace-reputation, she penned a mystery under
another name because she wished to escape her ‘reputation’ to prove that she
could write a successful, well-received book without her ‘big’ name on the book.
Of course The
Appeared like another
guppy in a large school of guppies. Then word leaked out that it was written by
‘big’ reputation Star Fish named J.K. Rowling and it stood out in the aquarium,
going on to become a huge international bestseller, confirming what we all ready
know—we buy on reputation. We live and die on reputation. We are conditioned by
birth to vote, love, kill, give and condemn based on someone’s
B.F. Skinner, the
behavioral psychologist, saw people as malleable and easily shaped by positive
tools like money rewards and negative reinforcements like shaming, shunning, or
confinement. Skinner called our ability to be manipulated through rewards and
conditioning.’ Consumerism exists because of
this flaw in our collective character. We are insecure as to our identity, what
is of value, what is worth living and dying for, that we are ripe to be
manipulated by the big reputation gods that walk among us.
There are abstract ideals
we believe people have the free will to choose—integrity, morality, ethics, or
motives. When someone is attacked for corruption, wife beating, drug addiction,
meanness, pettiness it diminishes their reputation. There are defamation laws to
protect reputation. And in Thailand there are not just civil laws, but criminal
defamation laws that will send someone who attacks another person, say for human
trafficking, to prison. The state is enlisted as a protector of individual
reputations. Reputation is these cases overrides facts that support the person
was a fraud or charlatan. Criminal defamation makes them bullet proof; facts and
evidence bounce off the plaintiff’s chest like bullets hitting
Freedom of expression is
important as a way to keep reputations from becoming bloated, overblown and
dangerous lies. Much like there are drug testing laws that seek to protect us
from ingesting drugs that will kill us, free speech allows us to expose the lies
and deception and half-truths that poison a society. We all know this and agree
to it in principle. We accept that those in the public eye, who have established
a high reputation, are vulnerable to false accusations, slanders, and
The question is whether we
can tolerate the damage done by trolls, the haters, and psychos as a fair price
to be exchanged for freedom of expression?
The reputation marauders
pump cluster bombs to blow up reputations; they work around the clock on
thousands website, blogs, gossip columns, and chat room. We love talking about
‘big’ reputation people, and one that has run over a cop, cheated widows and
orphans out of their meager savings, or shot his girlfriend, is all over the
news. The Germans have a great word for this moment as the reputation crashes
and burns: Schadenfreude. You think you’re such a big shot, look at yourself in
the mirror now. You see, you’re no different than the rest of us. Like my
opening sentence, there has never been any other than imagined difference. But
our imaginations create the balloon and marvel and cheer at its
That is the problem. We
want freedom of expression without paying the piper. We think free means without
costs. That is nonsense. But we accept so much nonsense and lies why should our
skewed view of free speech be any different?
Some of the most honest
writing you will read comes from writers before they had a reputation. Three
such writers are Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and George Orwell. All of them
were down and out and wrote about what life looked like when they had nothing
but their wits, talent for insight, the observational skill, and with nothing in
terms of reputation to lose. You learn from reading Bukowski what it’s like to
be stopped by the police when you are a nobody and a drunk. He conveyed our
worst fears of terror, humiliation, and helplessness; how they taste, how they
stink and stick in our crawl. They reek like stale beer and cigarette smoke from
Bukowski’s work. He not only understood fear, Bukowski could express that fear
in words. He understood your fear, my fear and all of those around us. We are
afraid that without a reputation anyone can do whatever they wish to you,
violate you, beat you up, run over you, take your property, your wife, children,
dog and there is bugger all you can do. So long as the actor has a ‘big’
reputation and there are no witnesses, and you have none, you are toast. It is
your word against his. Good luck.
From Henry Miller, you
learn the mental resources that are needed if you are a nobody and want food,
drink or a place to flop in Paris. Miller lived among artists, the dreamers, the
adventurers and wanderers, and he had an inner confidence that he’d be a
somebody one day. He wrote about being a writer with a dream. But a dream
doesn’t even rise to the level of a reputation. And we’ve already established a
reputation is an abstraction, a social construct, and a fiction. Miller drove
himself with booze and cigarettes and adrenaline to write a book that would
convert him into a ‘big’ reputation man. Tropic of Cancer did that for
him. And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, you find in this book
no romance in poverty and obscurity. Orwell went to the extreme. From Eton to
the slum in order to experience how the class with no reputation existed. And he
left us with a lesson—it wasn’t class but reputation that drove our manipulation
to our high reputation overlords. Money was always part of the deal, a big part,
but to keep it and expand the bank account, a man or woman needed a reputation
to act as the armed guards against the anonymous who asked awkward questions
about wealth allocation.
You can read Bukowski,
Miller and Orwell (and of course there are many others, too) as sending signals
from the pages of their novels and memoir to the rest of us that life without a
big reputation behind it is a slow fuse that will sooner or later blow you into
oblivion. Being anonymous, a no name person, like a no name brand, translates
into a sense of worthlessness. Who wants to think of themselves as having no
value? We are conditioned, in a B.F. Skinner way, to believe our value must be
measured by the value of other people’s reputation. No matter what you’ve
accomplished or done, just remember there will inevitably be someone who has
done what you done by the time they were twelve years old and accomplished ten
other grand things by the time they are thirty, and so it goes.
It’s a competition game
you can never win. It’s also a con game. If we forget about reputation, then on
what basis can we trust our judgment to rely on someone else? You need a leap of
faith—the belief that most people are decent, honest, reliable, and kind and a
big reputation is no guarantee that the holder has any of those qualities. You
likely know lots of people who fit this bill who aren’t ‘big’ reputation people
in the public commons. That’s always been the wrong place to look. They are
closer to home, in your neighborhood, your office, and most of them are chasing
the same things we all are—security, fairness, comfort, pleasure, and
friendship. They don’t need the big named public role models, they just need to
have confidence in themselves there is very little difference between people and
go forward in the world and act upon that insight.
Lake Wobegon is a mythical town in
Minnesota. Garrison Keillor created this fiction place that is a shorthand
expression for our human tendency to overestimate our achievements, talent,
intelligence and skills in comparison with others. The thing to bear in mind is
that in Lake Wobegon everyone living there is persuaded that the women are
compassionate, strong, the men brilliant and good, the children obedient and
outstanding. Above all, it is special as “the little town that time forgot, and
the decades cannot improve.” To the residents of Lake Wobegon, these shared
views aren’t an overestimation of their capabilities but represent the absolute
true picture of the people living in that place.
Garrison Keillor created
this fictional place and its citizens entertained and informed radio listeners
on NPR. It touched upon a deep longing to be part of a community in a more
simple, calm and happy time. To suspend disbelief is the first rule for a
fiction writer. It is also a rule shared by politicians and state officials. To
examine Lake Wobegon thinking helps us to understand what entertains us can also
carry the seed of our worst nightmare.
It is difficult to
persuade people to accept an opinion, point of view or fact that doesn’t confirm
what they believe to be true or to motivate them to act as if persuaded. Whether
it is selling a new cellphone or tropical holiday to Thailand, business people
use marketing to create a comfort zone, which is non-threatening, and then make
the product or service irresistible to their happiness. Billions of dollars are
spent to persuade you to do something, buy something, believe in one thing and
reject another; join a community, which offers you status and enhanced
reputation because you share their view.
The persuasion may be an
appeal to authority such as a holy book, a national tradition, a cultural
artifact such as music. The Taylor Swifts, Brad Pitts, Jon Stewarts persuade and
shape the attitudes, values and desires of their fans.
To persuade another person
is an art. It takes interpersonal skill, the ability to present facts and
arguments that are appealing. And what is appealing? In our late capitalist age,
it is usually a product or service or set of policies or beliefs that we believe
make our life more pleasant, happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable. Whether our life
is actually better is another matter. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by
others mainly because we wish to belong and be accepted by our social group, our
family, our circle of friends, those we work with. We crave their admiration and
respect and our lives are co-dependent of these people. We need them to
co-operate with us, and we need to co-operate with them. In other words, behind
our reciprocity, we run our lives on a software program
The question arises: why
is it so hard to persuade others about the merits and values of things or
beliefs? This begs the question who we are trying to persuade. Most of the time
we find ourselves having to make a case to someone who doesn’t share our view,
say on climate change or freedom of speech or the value of Rolex watch compared
to one bought from a street vendor or whether downloading illegal copies of a
book is wrong. We have fundamental disagreements about such issues, products,
policies, as we disagree over what is true, what is an illusion, and what
direction any policy from education to police reform should take.
Persuasion isn’t always
based on a hedonistic rainbow at the end of the pitch to sell a political
candidate, laundry soap, wine, films or books; it can also be an appeal to
values such as family, religion, morality, ethics, or fashion. We can argue from
authority such as the Koran or the Bible, or we can argue from statistical data
or the results of tests, polls, measuring devices, or observations where the
results can be repeated and confirmed.
We click on ‘like’ when we
signal our solidarity with a posting from one of our Facebook friends. The
digital world has given us the ability to invent and inhabit our own Lake
Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all
the children are above average.” And if we make a mistake and befriend someone
who doesn’t share that illusion, where he or she doesn’t belong and is sent into
exile by the act of ‘defriending.’ Amongst friends the remedy is exclusion. The
possibility of being ostracized remains a powerful punishment.
Little in the private
relations matches the range and severity of penalties available to officials in
the public sector. Governments have a monopoly of force and they can use weapons
to make people afraid to challenge their authority, policies, and legitimacy.
The state always has the ‘intimidation’ card up its sleeve if persuading you to
stop criticizing their administration of Lake Wobegon. The police or army can
force you to do something or to shut up, even though you would freely choose not
to do so. Governments are always trying to cobble together Lake Wobegon and
maintain the illusion that all of its citizens are happy together. It is a
wonder, even after the abysmal history of past failed experiments at utopia,
that such new attempts are launched, and the state officials believe it will be
different this time.
The main feature of a Lake
Wobegon culture and way of thinking is the fear of critical thinking by its
citizens. If citizens can freely discuss among themselves the role of
government, the limitations on power, and to set an agenda of priorities and
policies. Those at the top of the political chain hate the idea of limitations,
criticism, and dissent. When the town of 800 is scaled to cities with millions,
the diversity of voices and conflicting beliefs and goals make the idealistic
ways of behaving outdated. There lies the problem. The intimidation, use of
coercion, and threats follows as the citizens start a public debate as to why
Lake Wobegon is a mythical place. Officials who love Lake Wobegon do not take
kindly to anyone who criticize the object of their love. It’s not so much a
restriction of free speech, but their way to protect their beloved town and its
good people. If that means sacrificing critical thinking, all right minded
people would agree that this is a small cost to maintain Lake Wobegon as the
ideal place where for all good, beautiful and decent people live in happiness.
Critical thinking is a shorthand expression for the human capacity to process
change—technological, political, social or economic. It is also a technique for
testing statements, theories, and premises. Our brain operating system is
designed to detect risks, opportunities, and inconsistencies. We update our view
of the world as it changes before our eyes. The question that is never settled
without anger, hate and blood is who should be in charge of making the
Non-critical thinking is
when you automatically accept what an official, a celebrity, a book or slogan
says as true and legitimate. A Lake Wobegon culture works only when the citizens
are a very small group of non-critical thinkers living in a changeless
world. The more people you have who use critical thinking to assess the
effectiveness, fairness, and justice of systems and networks, the more likely
you will have a lively public debate. The tension is between those who firmly
believe that Lake Wobegon and all official versions of the place are perfectly
ordered and fair and only troublemakers and discontents argue for the need for
updates that take into account the nature and scope of change. Change versus
non-change is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Some people fall off; others are
pushed off. That’s the nasty bit that lies behind the curtain of the stage where
Lake Wobegon is played out.
The heart of any human
social, political or economic network requires a functioning system of
co-operation. Without such a system, nothing works, and chaos and instability
fill the void. The more rapid the technological change the more the change will
destabilize the basis of co-operation. There is little time for consolidation as
all energy is focused on the constant rebuilding of consensus. Whether it is
Google driverless cars, or TV sets that record your conversations, the
adaptation to new limitations to free will, privacy, and the growth of private
and government surveillance requires our critical thinking.
We seek new and better
ways to co-operate with each other. But co-operation takes resources, time,
energy and good will—all of which appear to have been depleted in most places,
including Thailand. We also seek new and better ways to defeat those who think
differently from us. Both impulses, to co-operate and to defeat, usually results
in people taking sides and doing whatever is needed to justify the actions of
their side. This isn’t critical thinking. This is partisan posturing.
The problem is many people
argue in favour of critical thinking but in reality most people fear it. They
want their side to prevail and their thinking is devoted to making that happen.
If we truly embraced critical thinking, we’d accept the implicit rate of change
has accelerated and many of the old truths have been refuted. It is time to let
them go. We didn’t evolve to be critical thinkers. Everything about our past
shows it wasn’t very important. We lived, worked and died in an environment
where change was quite slow. We could absorb the changes over hundreds of
generations and make adjustment.
That time is gone. Lake
Wobegon never existed except in our imaginations. We need to face the reality
that we can’t return to the past. We live in a time of highly accelerated
technological change and even the best minds employing critical thinking are
finding themselves exhausted, unable to process fast enough before the next
In every age the same
question is asked when a band, tribe, or nation is confronted by a challenge,
dilemma or catastrophe. If we examine the historical record, the evidence
suggests that this question has traditionally been answered by a consensus of
the elites. Though a case can be made that in the last one hundred years the
opinion of the masses has gradually influenced the answer. We have always had
faith in finding an answer and moving on. Will this faith endure? There is a
growing sense that it will not. We are entering an era of shattered faith in
finding an answer to What Should We Do that has a broad based consensus even if
we restrict the decision to those within the existing elites.
History has provided a
handrail to guide successive generations. We are at the end of the handrail and
nothing that has gone before can prepare us from the technological changes
accelerating throughout all systems, cultures and civilizations. You will say,
well that’s been said before, a thousand times before, by someone in every age.
And you would be right. It has been said.
Cultural skirmishes, wars,
aggressions and belligerence have changed as populations scaled to billions.
Elites found effective means to harness the power of the masses to maximize
industrial production and to provide manpower for armies. Elites battled one
another over resources and markets and trade routes. Controlling these strategic
points led to a dominion over other elites. History is a record of one set of
elites bowing , or pretending to bow, to another, one set of elites
conspiring to betray one another—an account of elites fighting among themselves
for power and authority. No victory was ever final. Over time the fate and
fortunes of elites were never stable. The masses woke up to find new rulers and
masters—newly constituted elites dictating who received an education, health
care, jobs, benefits and security.
Democracy gave the
appearance that the masses through trade union, social organizations, and
elections could finally control and shape their own destiny. During the Great
Depression, they had a say in answering the question: What Should We do? The
welfare and benefit programs under FDR and the funding of mass education are a
testament to their influence. The middle-class expansion followed, accelerating
after World War II. Thomas Piketty’s Capital
in the 21st Century has documented the concentration of elite wealth and
income and the destruction of the post World-War II middle-class. For a short
period after World War II it appeared the middle-class would act as a
counterbalance to the power of the elites. That has proved to be a fantasy. New
technology has accelerated the creation of a pervasive and intrusive
surveillance state that has made it easier to monitor undercurrents and apply
preventive measures against potential challenges to state/elite interest.
Constitutional and liberal safeguards that were the first line of defense
against state abuse of power have been undermined. Technology has undermined
political and economic structures in the span of a few decades, and there is no
indication of this process slowing down. The result is that the middle-class in
America is in the process of being dismantled as an effective political,
economic and social force. The working class and middle class have been divided
and conquered within. Their views on What Should We do are largely irrelevant.
The reason is that workers, blue collar and white collar, are becoming
irrelevant in manufacture, marketing and distribution of goods and
Modern elites, in the
private and public sectors, have access to technology that does not require mass
labor to be productive and competitive. The middle-class is losing what the
working classes have already lost—bargaining power to negotiate a better sharing
of wealth and income. Robots manufacture consumer goods. Machine intelligence
creates software and algorithms. The elites need far fewer engineers, lawyers,
accountants, or architects and in the future their numbers will continue to
dwindle. As Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, has pointed out, we have
had periods of thousands of years where very little in terms of tools and
technology changed. Generation and after generation of people occupied the same
technological world. If you could time travel a person born in 900 to 1100 or
from 1100 to 1300 they would have seen pretty much the same world. Go back in
time an over long stretches of time nothing much changed whether political,
social, economic or technologically.
Now consider someone who
was born in 1950 who now lives in 2014; her experience of life today is
qualitatively and quantitatively different from the year of her birth. Our
technological world from weapons, information, computers, communications,
transportation and manufacturing systems have been dramatically altered. Evgeny
Morozov observed in the Guardian that algorithmic regulations
are the beginning of our colonization by technologists: “[Our] smart world also
presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday
behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical
approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback
storage breakthrough allows 700
terabytes of data in a single gram. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Miri) can now
scan a single
3D printer can produce a metal
handgun, car, or parts of a plane.
Ultrafast low-power logic circuits from graphene by 2024. What will be her
world when she celebrates her one-hundredth birthday in 2050? There is a not
insignificant probability it will be a world dominated not by the traditional
elites but by artificial intelligence. No one can predict the time when, the
place where, or the forces that finally allow that final step to occur. It may
be that enhanced human intelligence will create a new class of intelligent
Not everyone agrees on the
timing. Experts like Michael Jordan, one of the most respected authorities on
machine learning, argues there has been too much hype and we are decades away
from solving many of the hard engineering and mathematical problems. When asked
when a machine will pass the Turing test, Jordan
replied: “I think you will get a
slow accumulation of capabilities, including in domains like speech and vision
and natural language. There will probably not ever be a single moment in which
we would want to say, ‘There is now a new intelligent entity in the universe.’”
Jordan’s slow start view depends on human intelligence staying at the current
Scientists like Stephen
Hu predict in the near future
the likelihood of tweaking human beings’ IQ to 1000. There are approximately
10,000 gene variations (alleles) in the brain that correlate to intelligence. We
are on the path to optimization of these genes to maximize our cognitive
potential. Prenatal genetic engineering will change intelligence perimeters
prior to birth. As impressive as being ten times smarter than the average person
is, an AI at super-intelligent levels is 100,000 to a million times faster, with
better memory, better retrieval and access, and self-editing and correcting,
being able to alter, update and evolve its operating system as it learns. At
this point, the ‘measurement’ based on IQ is a bit like using a car’s odometer
to measure the speed of light. It wasn’t created with the capacity to measure
that level, and any reading is meaningless. It is not unlike the measurement
problem faced in quantum mechanics that makes us question the utility of what we
measure in the classical non-quantum world. All of our heritage, values,
culture, language, and morality have an implicit assumption—it is premised on a
normal or Gaussian distribution (think Bell Curve) of human
It doesn’t matter where
you live on the planet, today you can be certain that no one in your community
has an IQ of 1000. The technological accelerator that is happening as you read
this essay guarantees such a person will during your life exist. What will that
mean? What should we do? Destroy that Gaussian distribution by creating one, a
thousand or a million such individuals, and what happens to those premises that
underscore your behavior, consciousness, the way in which you co-operate with
others and process reality?
The great transition we
have entered, one that technology is accelerating at a rate that we can no
longer control or comprehend is leading to an AI that will be super-intelligent.
Nick Bostrom counsels that we need to slow down technology until we can increase
our own intelligence, and that is essential to understand the nature of controls
necessary to restrain such a super-intelligence. This would require a degree of
co-operation, consensus, and commonly shared values that have never before been
displayed among the elites. This is the irony, as the elites have finally found
technological ways to marginalize the masses, an AI system by 2050 is likely to
have displaced human elites and for the first time in history, there will be no
longer a distinction between the elites and masses. They will share the same
destiny in a world where a super-intelligent AI won’t be influenced, guided or
restrained in its actions by our ethics, values, interest, goals, or
What Should We Do? That
question will no longer be relevant or meaningful for our species. Elites and
masses will have passed the final post where the sign reads: stop and think
about future generations rather than quarterly profit reports. By then it will
be what should we have done? And we will likely ask AI for the answer to that
question as by then we will be dependent on seeking high level answers from AI.
And what will AI reply? With a neural stimulation that gives us pleasure,
happiness and steers our mental activity away from contemplating our old habit
of worrying over the range of answers and scenarios that always left us
uncertain, confused, insecure and unhappy.
If you read one book this
year, make it Bostrom’s Superintelligence. The prose can be dense, abstract, complicated with
jargon—the writing isn’t a model of elegance or grace. But it gets the job done.
Like an executioner’s axe it delivers a dramatic blow. Superintelligence is no literary masterpiece but it may be something more
rare—a prophetic vision of an existential inflexion point on the near horizon.
It is a call for us to wake up. Watch the daily acceleration on your screen and
ask yourself with the technological and political elites are waking up to the
existential threat. These elites with their illusion of understanding and power,
with their influence and the leverage of their wealth, are about to be
blindsided, along with everyone else, by technology they’ve funded and
celebrated. In the case of a hard or fast take off, no one will see it coming
until it is too late. But Bostrom, at the end of this powerful book, remains an
optimist. He believes we still have a chance to put the brakes on technological
acceleration, and give ourselves breathing room to work out a slow take off
which will allows us to put in places controls over AI. Once AI has a hard take
off and becomes super-intelligent, it will be too late to control or regulate
Bostrom lives in Oxford,
and I live in Bangkok. I know his world, I shared it, and came from it, but I
can’t help but wonder if Bostrom lived in my post-coup world of Thailand if his
optimism about the future would still prevail. If the small probability of
super-intelligent AI emerging in the next decades comes about through a hard
take off, humanity will likely inhabit an alien environment, existing inside a
post-human intelligence controlled world. How would we know? Having been through
a number of military coups, the usual routine is to run patriotic music on every
radio and TV channel. It is likely to be different with when AI sends out its
message. One morning you wake up and its not marital music playing on every
YouTube channel but music specifically programed to match your mood from all
those choices you’ve made for years, along with carefully crafted images linked
to your school, family, friends and all the memories that make you happy and
reinforce your personal identity. What we should do will no longer be a question
anyone will ask other to anyone other than AI.
Last light as night falls
in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a
great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on
role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only
leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is
front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and
From my balcony the
Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to
understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk
tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that
define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have
gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a
society undergoing important political changes.
The people of Burma are
like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to
enjoy a simple meal.
There is a Burmese
folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch.
The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables.
Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner
watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting
toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.
As the traveler finished
his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him,
stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one
“But madam, I did not eat
one of your fried fish.”
“You are a cheater,” she
replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”
“But, madam, I’ve taken
nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”
“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar
to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the
smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat
that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of
my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for
The confrontation soon
drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the
crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell
of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish
frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that
The matter was taken to a
royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a
courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain
along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and
the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.
The judge found the basic
facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his
meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a
benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price
for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave
the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a
silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver
quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then
the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver
As the gold rush of
investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be
reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of
the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only
with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The
future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will
be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.
*Story adapted from Maung
Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.
Shadow of Freedom is an
essay from Fear & Loathing in Bangkok.
* Shadow of Freedom was
originally published on 19 January 2012.
What we forget may play as
large a role in our lives as what we remember. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence,
Paths, Dangers and Strategies (2014) outlines the cognitive limitations of the human
brain. Paying attention to our brain’s capacity to remember, how it remembers,
the speed of remembering, and the capacity limits of memory is useful in placing
amnesia into context.
We can’t understand how
and what we forget without understanding something about the architecture of the
brain where our memories are stored. This is summary drawn from Bostrom’s
The speed of at which our
brain makes calculations—what Bostrom’s calls computational speed of our
biological neurons—is painfully slow. As it is natural to us, it doesn’t seem
slow. But when we compare that with reading this essay on a computer housing a
microprocessor operating at 2 GHz, our brain (and everyone else) plods along at
200 Hz. Our computational brain operates seven orders of magnitude slower than a
computer than costs less than a thousand dollars.
The other slow lane where
we find the operational limitations of the brain is the speed of axons
communications within the brain. We limp along at 120 m/s while an electronic
processing core communicates at 300,000,000 m/s. Our brain’s incredibly limited
communication speed means we are way out of our league on the electronic
expressway. This is the slow lane speed at which we take processing our
information. If you owned a computer that operated at this slow speed, you’d
return to the shop and demand your money back. We don’t have that
All the computation in the
brain occurs inside slightly less than 100 billion neurons. Whether you are the
village idiot or Einstein you have roughly the same number of neurons. Forget,
for the moment, all of the hype about cognitive enhancements; no matter what you
do to enhance the speed of a horse it will never win a Formula One
The brain not only makes
calculation and processes data input from the outside world; it also has a
storage capability. Unfortunately for us, this capacity is as limited as our
computational and communication operating speeds. Bostrom observes our brains
hold between 4 and 5 chunks of information in memory as working memory at any
given time. Long-term memory is also limited but as Bostrom notes it is unclear
whether we use it up during a normal lifetime due to the slowness of processing
information. The accumulation of information is slow, subject to errors,
miscalculations, and mistake for a number of reasons including old of date
cultural filters, multiple biases, chemicals, drugs, alcohol, and propaganda.
Our brain memory storage capacity is at the level of a moderately priced
Amnesia is used to describe deficits
in memory resulting from brain damage, disease or psychological trauma. The loss
of memory can be either loss of short-term or long-term memory. An unfortunate
suffers from the loss of both. The causes can be biological as the case with
brain structure irregularities or chemical protein processing. While the medical
side of amnesia is of great interest, there is a cultural component of amnesia
that is less well understood and discussed. It may be the function of culture is
to create amnesia among a population, creating a system of short and long-term
memories that have a degree of uniformity, consistency, and
The educational system in
most countries is the primary delivery system. Students are taught to ‘forget’
or ‘ignore’ contrary information. Students are rewarded with high marks when
they demonstrate they recall specific information on their examination. The
examinations are designed to test their memory and understanding of historical,
cultural, and normative information. In Tokyo
Joe, one my early novels, the plot revolved around the
Ministry of Education in Japan seeking to erase from public memory the role of
the 731-Corp during World War II. That unit in the Imperial Japanese army, while
based in China, carried out biological research including subjecting them to
disease on prisoners of war. Recently in Thailand, a former prime minister’s
name was eliminated from school history books.
In an authoritarian system
the teacher’s role is a conduit to transfer knowledge and information to
students, and the students’ role is the passive receiver. The process is memory
formulation based on the orthodox cultural narrative. Not even the slightest
variation from the narrative is sanctioned. The student who challenges the
teacher’s conventional story may expect to receive severe punishment. In such a
system, amnesia is the goal. The schools aren’t the only actors in memory
formulation or manipulation. The media, government, civil service, courts and
other officials work to reinforce the cultural message taught in the schools.
This social modeling gives ‘culture’ the seamless feeling by instilling a shared
set of social signaling and preference. When a small gap opens, it is quickly
shut down or isolated from the mainstream.
The problem in the
post-digital school system is that teachers find themselves in competition with
other information sources. Social media along with the search functions on the
Internet allow for leakage into the state authorized information system
disrupting the social and political modeling and design matrix . Outsiders, in
other words, are tampering with the collective cultural memories of their
citizens. The reaction is fairly predictable from criminalization of expression,
to censoring websites, and consolidating forces to fight against unwanted
memories from being spread in the population.
In Thailand following the
May 22nd coup, the military government has sought to implement techniques and
training—including the so-called ‘attitude adjustment’—with the purpose of
erasing specific memories, altering other memories, and redesigning
memories. Such a goal requires the official monitoring and control.
Such a course of action is not surprising. Traditionally cultural authorities
under the watchful eye of governments and religious authorities have established
and updated the mental content of people under their jurisdiction as if
education and normative social values were a proprietary operating system,
self-contained with only authorized by approved social engineers. In a closed
system, whether software programming or cultural programming, what is created is
deemed propriety—it is owned by the State, which uses laws, propaganda,
education and media to exclude others from the process. By contrast, in an Open
Programming Model, an innovation of the digital age, hundreds or thousands of ad
hoc individuals are encouraged to improve, revise, amend and alter the original
program. Cultural authorities and governments that strictly control the kind of
attitudes, values, wish to appoint their own trusted engineers to ensure the
‘right’ thinking processes remains pure.
Access to information is
not open-ended. Controlling memories about past events, personalities, successes
and victories form a core collective memory shared by citizens. A political
culture seeks to establish a commonality of interest and purpose among people.
It may be self-serving for a powerful elite who benefit from manipulation of
collective memory or it may allow the authorities a basis to call upon citizens
to sacrifice to the larger good.
Amnesia, in this cultural
sense, is programmed by political forces on behalf of governing institutions.
These institutions depend for their legitimacy on how people they govern
remember, forget, access, acquire and store information in their memory. In all
social, cultural and political systems people are taught to submit to the
unwritten understanding that their memory isn’t exclusively theirs to develop.
They learn to submit or yield to the cultural imperatives of the memory palace
of their country. Freedom, as developed in the West, has been a fight to bring
the right of debate, challenge and consent to balance the calls for submission.
The Internet has accelerated the idea that consent should prevail over the
absolute power to force submission. No democratic system can exclude ‘consent’
of the people. No authoritarian system can rely on submission and repression to
Waking up happens when
significant numbers of people discover the amnesia induced by their culture is
not from nature. Memories instilled from the official cultural channels are
man-made, produced, distributed, and monitored for the benefit of the system.
Once that insight is glimpsed the cultural memories become unstable and the
authorities, in Thailand and many other places, have doubled-up on their
attempts to gain control of what information is stored, rewarded, prized,
prohibited and criminalized.
Around the world from the
Middle-East to Africa and Asia, the collective amnesia is wearing off. People
are waking up. You see them being reborn on social media. They discover their
memories were products of submission and not choice, that what they recall are
memories of others. The massive impact of this awakening is playing out inside
millions of lives, and no one can predict what new processes of remembering will
take their place.
Nor can we predict how our
cognitive capacity may change over time, or how it may be marginalized with a
superintelligent AI. Bostrom’s Superintelligence may be the most
profoundly disturbing book you will read. In the world ahead, our grandchildren
and great-grandchildren may look back to our time of repressive governmental
regimes filling our memories with nonsense and conclude that at least in our
lives, compared to their own under the control of an AI superintelligent entity,
we stood had a fighting chance to gain choice in modeling the content of our
memories and thoughts. Perhaps only then will we have looking back understood
the true meaning of freedom.
Forensic science is no
longer a mystery to the general public. It has technical components that require
expert knowledge. However, countless hours of TV drama like CSI have been
watched not just by the public but by the police, too. They believe, rightly or
not, that their knowledge is equal to the expert investigators who process
evidence in a criminal case.
Crime scene preservation
is now widely understood even by school children. Don’t touch!
information, the techniques, timing, history, limitations are a Google step
Our information about the
nuts and bolts of crime investigation is available to anyone with a computer and
Internet link. This has disrupted the information/knowledge monopoly previous
enjoyed by law enforcement authorities. That information and knowledge is
ubiquitous. If you have an Internet connection, you don’t need to rely on what
someone in authority claims is the ‘truth’. You have a world of authorities to
choose from, thousand of other voices. Authorities fear that with such power
you’ll discover their local opinion is out of synchronicity with the generally
accepted opinion of experts.
Social media has provided
an outlet for experts, pundits, activists, and along with a cynical, suspicious
public who gather on Facebook and Twitter to exchange views, opinions, and
Once upon a time a high
profile criminal case like the killing of two tourists in Thailand might attract
fleeting international attention but the attention faded quickly as old media
focused on a new domestic crime. For the old media, the rule of thumb was murder
close to home attracted more attention from its audience than one that happened
in a foreign country.
The terrain of the new
digital world is beginning to emerge and the authorities are only beginning to
react with horror that their place inside this new social media driven world
operates along lines that are outside of their experience.
The pre-1990 generation or
those raised and educated in a pre-digital world, and that includes most of us,
had a different social construct of the police, crown prosecutors, and courts.
Members of law enforcement rarely suffered sustained public assaults on their
authority, competency or trustworthiness. As the Thai police force are
discovering, they no longer control the information, they no longer are ceded
absolute control of the case, and they no longer are given the benefit of the
In the case of Thailand,
we have up to date statistics that demonstrate the how widely spread social
media has become in Thailand. The Thai social media exceptional growth has been
noticed inside the tech world. Worldwide, Thai Facebook population ranks No. 9,
and comes in No. 17 in the Twitter rankings according to latest 2014
stats: Note as well that 42% of
Thais or 28 million have Facebook accounts, representing a 53% growth and 4.5
million Thais with Twitter accounts for a 350% growth rate).
The Koh Tao murders
illustrate a long free fall from the august heights of authority and there is no
indication of where the bottom will be once the authorities land. Members of the
wider public read accounts in newspapers or watched the nightly TV news, which
filtered information to them about crimes, suspects, pleas, verdicts and
sentences. It is a process that worked like clockwork like acts in Shakespeare’s
most popular drama.
The Internet and Social
Media has overturned the old order. The old scripts no longer work. Thais and
foreigners are going to a Facebook page called CSI LA for latest updates and
analysis of the Koh Tao murders.
The lead actors,
supporting cast, producers and directors assemble to speak at news conference,
to talk to reporters, and to explain how they are about to arrest the killers.
Welcome to the high-tech world where things are done a little differently. In an
international, high profile Thai criminal case, the fault lines between how the
old crime story dramas played out and how a contemporary crime story does, in
contrast, falls into incoherence.
The age when police
officers’ uniform or crown prosecutors’ or judges’ robes were symbols of
authority that shielded them from the outside is rapidly fading from sight The
automatic shield of authority is gone. But the fight isn’t over. No better
example of the revolutionary role in this process is found than in the Koh Tao
double-murders of two young Britons, Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24
who were on holiday. Others have set out the details of the crime scene on
theSairee Beach, Koh Tao, where the battered bodies of the two were discovered.
(Andrew Drummond summaries the twists and turns in the case here.)
Allegations of local mafia
involvement, bribery, torture, forced confessions, sexism, racism, mishandled
evidence, false leads and misleading statements have left a digital vapor stream
that the police have desperately tried to erase.
In the pre-digital world,
the restraint against abuse of authority arose from a constitution, written or
unwritten, and protection against such violations against a citizen’s liberty
had a legal foundation. In the post-digital world where constitutional
protections have been eroded almost everywhere, what is emerging is a digital
citizen code of protection that transcends the old geo-political borders. What
unites most officials is an abhorrence of being made to look foolish, corrupt,
incompetent, psychopathic, cruel or arbitrary. Of course there are places where
militants will violate all such social norms, kill as many people as necessary,
spread terror all in the name of a belief and to secure a complete victory.
Thailand isn’t one of those places. But it is a culture where face plays a
significant role. Admitting a mistake or error is rare.
When someone is caught in
a lie, a cover-up, or a misdeed the usual retort is there was a
misunderstanding. It is the culturally graceful way of allowing someone who has
been cornered to save face. The social media has backed the police into a
corner. Internet petitions have urged the case against two young Burmese to be
reconsidered or dropped. This petition on
has over 45,000 signatures. Here’s an example of how the word of the
petition is spread
rights activists have called for an
independent investigation. News articles and editorials (Thai as well as Burmese) have raised doubts as whether the
two young Burmese, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, each man 21 years old, arrested in
the case confessed of their own freewill or whether the bruises on their bodies
is consistent with their story that they were tortured during the interrogation
process. But young men have recanted their confessions saying they’d been
tortured and beaten. Link.
Then disturbingly, on a
social media, it has been suggested the police have expressed concern the
Burmese suspects might be a suicide risk. You can let your own minds sort
through the range of possibilities inherent in such an announcement. Meanwhile,
the police are
sticking to their story: that they have evidence
that the two Burmese men committed the murders
The two Burmese suspects
have no constitutional rights or protection. They suffer from the stigma of
their ethnicity and nationality, which has been traditionally promoted by the
Thai education system and media. They have no money, power, or friends. In the
pre-digital age they would have been doomed. The names of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw
Htun would soon have been forgotten.
But the murder case
brought against them shows how rapidly social media have given birth to Netizens
who will challenge the authority and exclusivity of a criminal charges
perceived as biased and unfair. The fairness and adequacy of the actors within
the Thai justice system has attracted the interest of a massive online
Look at this post, showing
number of people reached by this FB
million in Thailand, and tens of thousands each in many other
A survey done at this FB
page shows over 90% of readers don’t believe the thai police.
And the verdict of that
audience is not one that is to the liking of the police or others in
authorities. That verdict is the case against them is tainted and it would be a
gross travesty of justice to continue the case.
If the intention of the
police was to clear a high profile case by prosecuting the two Burmese men to
impress an international audience from whom millions of tourists are drawn
annually, they have failed. The handling of the case, rather giving foreigners
comfort of their safety on holiday in Thailand, they have scripted a dark
Whatever the fate of Zaw
Lin and Win Zaw Htun, we are witnessing the birth of a new appellate process. It
doesn’t have a name yet. Nor is the process or the personnel static. The digital
guardians, with social justice and fairness as their brief, have organized
themselves on social media platforms, and their judgment is overwhelmingly
negative in the handling of the investigation. The concerns expressed online are
that the case against the Burmese suspects is riddled with uncertainty, flaws,
and suspicions and it is unsafe to continue. If the digital community’s verdict
is ignored, no one can predict if these same guardians of liberty will find
digital ways to spread collective action to impose sanctions.
Addendum: The Koh
Toa murder case against the two Burmese continues to move, or perhaps lurch,
from pothole to pothole on the bumpy road to justice. The latest
development just in from Surat Thani’s
prosecutors who have concluded the 850 page police report flawed and too long,
and have sent it back to the police. So far no news on whether the reward
promised to the police for ‘solving’ the case has been withdrawn.
What is the last question?
It appears, at first blush, to be a trick question. Last question means a long
line of previous questions leading to the end of the line. Is the last question
another way of asking the meaning of life, existence, the origin of the
universe? That’s not one last question, that’s multiple last questions. Looking
beyond the last question is the last answer.
Douglas Adams’s answer to
the last question was directed at the meaning of the universe. He provided a
brief and simple answer: 42. Terry Eagleton wrote a 200-page book titled The
Meaning of Life. Did he have the answer to the last question? The Guardian reviewer Simon
Jenkins summarized Eagleton’s answer as: Happiness. This verdict is shared
by Thailand’s coup makers.
On the other hand,
Schopenhauer counseled us not to bother as “the whole human project [was] a
ghastly mistake that should have been called off long ago.”
What is the last answer to
the last question from which the meaning of life and existence
One preoccupation that
unites all of humanity is the quest to discover an answer to this final
question. Philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, intellectuals, religious
leaders, old people, young people, the poor and the rich, a rich ore of
curiosity that runs through every culture through time. Conflicts,
confrontations and wars emerge over the belief that some culture or political
system has discovered the correct answer. Hatred and suspicion arises over the
process best designed to extract that answer. Who is given the task to find such
an answer? And how can we judge whether that answer is true? It gets
Most of the time we don’t
aspire to the lofty heights of worrying ourselves about the Last Question. We
are practical people who avoid abstractions. We are more interested in the
just-so answer to the latest news cycle of daily questions. Will the police
catch the actual killers who killed two British tourists on Koh Tao in the South
of Thailand? What will stop the latest cycle of terror and violence in the
Middle East? When will Thailand return to democracy? When will the United States
return to democracy? Not to mention the mundane questions of daily life: Where
to have dinner this evening? When to start writing an essay? Should I invite a
friend to lunch? Should I skip a workout on Tuesday? We live our lives by
seeking answers to small, immediate questions. We don’t just skip the workout;
we skip the hard workout that the Last Question demands.
Our lives represent a
series of examinations. We are deemed a success not by our pursuit of answers to
insoluble questions, but to the effortless way we fit in to our culture, the
workplace, the club, the family and co-operate among friends. When midlife
crisis arrives, the dam bursts and the questions come from all directions. No
sooner have we answered one and another pops into view. We panic. We’ve been
asleep. When we wake up, it is with an understanding that there never was a
moment without the Last Question hovering nearby; only we chose not to ask
Writing books is a way of
putting down on paper the answer to questions. Think about the last novel you
read, one that stayed with you, made you think in a way you’d not done before.
The characters inevitably struggled with a whole set of questions, anticipated
and unexpected, and the reason you kept on reading was to find out how that
character processed information to come up with an answer. We judge fictional
characters, as we judge those who occupy our ‘real’ lives, by the quality of
their answers to the universal questions that we all face.
I’ve been thinking about
the question and answer process specifically in the context of a fictional
series. The Wire, Dexter, House of Cards are examples
of hardboiled dramas which attract millions of viewers. The fans of these series
return time and time again in order to learn how the characters will resolve a
conflict or problem, what resources they will draw on, what code of conduct they
will follow (or violate) along the way, and what impact their answers will have
on the lives around them.
I am aware when I write a
Calvino novel, that Vincent Calvino and the other recurring characters (and the
new ones) succeed in connecting with readers on the basis of how they persist,
collapse, cheat, run, lie, improvise in their quest to find answers to questions
that fall over their lives like a long shadow. The reality is that the shadow
never leaves. The wisdom that life bestows is not to try to outrun the shadow,
but to find an umbrella, and when a question rages with wind and rain, to keep
on walking. As the old saying goes, you never walk alone. Writing a novel is
tracking behind such characters, demonstrating their doubts, fears, and sorrow
while celebrating those moments of joy and success.
Finding how that balance
between the two emotional states is never stable. Like a moth, we flutter close
to the flame, and in the best of writing, we discover that moment when a wing
touches the fire or when it breaks away and flies free. That’s why I take walks
on writing days. The questions aren’t in my office or in a Google search on my
computer. They come to me when I walk and look around at the world I am walking
You don’t need to be a
writer to devote time to asking yourself questions, and then taking a quiet walk
and allow your mind to sort through some answers. Remember: Everyone around you
is in precisely the same situation. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of wealth,
reputation, status or privilege. The same walk catches all of us and demands
attention about what can and can’t be known or controlled. We are on a long
march, a collective walk, with no clear sense of up or down, left or right that
helps, bumping against the edges of our life, blindly heading toward an oasis
where the truth exists. We drink from that oasis to quench our thirst for the
answer of the question of today, or this month of October, or biggest question
of all: what is on the other side of nothingness?
Isaac Asimov’s The Last
Question is a
brilliant example of how the best of our story tellers can show us the long view
of what that Final Answer looks like. Do yourself a favor this weekend, read
Question and then take a long walk and
ask yourself whether the questions that caused you so much anxiety and grief
this week are the questions that really matter.
What is your answer to the
many thanks to my friend John Murphy and his daughter Melissa, who sent me Isaac
Asimov’s The Last Question.
Two young Britons were
killed less than two weeks ago on a beach in Koh Tao, a small island, Surat
Thani province located in the South of Thailand. There is no need to set out the
horrible details of the killing. It is sufficient to acknowledge that the double
murder was the result of a brutal and vicious assault by one or more unknown
persons. The young woman’s face was mutilated in the course of the attack that
claimed her life. Both victims were found dead on the beach semi-nude.
Since the murder the Thai police have sought to apprehend the killer or killers.
The process of investigation, from the handling of the crime scene to announcing
possible suspects, has been closely followed by the local and international
British tourists murdered on Koh
Tao: David Miller, 24 and Hannah Witheridge 23
At best it can be said the
investigation has been shambolic, with conflicting statements about motives, the
alleged wearing of a bikini by the female victim, evidence of the murder weapon,
identity of possible suspects, reports of sealing the island, mass testing of
DNA, including old and young migrant women, and participation of foreign
forensic experts to assist the local police.
Many others have reported
on the professionalism and competence of the police conducting the
investigation. What has been missing from the discussion is the role of the
media, including social media in reporting the story. This essay touches the
surfaces of what should be a comprehensive survey of contemporary efforts in
many countries to devise new policies and guidelines governing police and social
media. By social media, I am specifically referring to Facebook, Twitter, and
YouTube. There are other platforms but these are the main ones most people
currently think of when they come across the phrase social media.
Beach, Koh Tao
It is unclear whether the
Thai Royal Police force has a Police Social Media Protocols or Guidelines. From
the handling of the Koh Tao murders, one might safely conclude there are no such
guidelines for social media, or if there are such guidelines they have been so
loosely applied as to be meaningless. These murders have revealed that the Thai
police procedures, policies and guidelines are ripe for reform to bring them
into the digital age.
examples of Police Social Media Policies
This is a brief survey and
only covers a small amount of the available resource material about current
social media policies and practices, updates being called for to existing rules,
and specific examples of policies that, if in place in Thailand, would have
avoided a great deal of the problems the Thai police have found themselves
In the United States,
discussions are taking place as to formulating social media policy guidelines
for the FBI. American experts have written about
the need for new policies to take into account social media and view it as an
opportunity to enhance their operational and investigative capabilities. There
is also the danger of blending personal and working lives in a way that
discredits the police. The need for a media policy that takes into account
social media security and privacy that also define what can and cannot be shared
on social media by police officers and staff.
Attention in US law
enforcement has focused on using social media for tactical advantage in
policing, with an emphasis on using social media as an investigative tool in law
enforcement. The US Justice Department funded a study Social Media and Tactical
Considerations for Law Enforcement looking at flash mobs, riots,
and mass demonstrations. This is the other part of social media that enlarges
the police footprint through the digital world. That potential of social media
has already attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in Thailand.
It is another way to monitor the conduct of citizens online. The tendency has
been to increase the reach of Big Brother into people’s lives through social
media activity rather than restraining the scope of police power.
An investigation launched
in the UK into the misuse of social media by police is instructive as to the
nature of the problem. The Guardian reported that hundreds of
police officers are under investigation for breaching restrictions imposed on
officers who use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. In 828 reported cases
over a five-year period, police officers were found to have made racist and
threatening comments on Facebook and Twitter.
Another problem is the use
of social media during working hours of a police officer. One police resigned
over “‘excessive and inappropriate use of the internet during working hours’, in
particular online auction sites, internet banking and social networking sites.”
The police will likely
increase among their ranks officers and staff who may post on social media their
comments, photos, gossip and speculations. Having more police on social media
may also lead to a higher volume of careless, reckless, boastful, racist,
sexists, or xenophobic content. This type of communication would tarnishes
the police and may jeopardize an investigation. In Thailand’s Koh Tao double
murder case, there have been allegations of police and charitable organizations
(who removed the bodies from the crime scene) of uploading graphic photographs
of the murder victims. An independent Thai investigation ought to be commission
and its mandate would include an audit of Thai police social media accounts from
the date of the murders being reported.
guidelines from the Association of Chief
Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are instructive on the
nature of such guidelines, which include traditional and social media. Here are
some examples of the 2010 Guidelines:
Article 4.25: Newspapers
will wish to report deaths that have occurred in unusual circumstances. However,
there are limits on what can be published and on the approaches that can be made
to bereaved family and close friends. For instance, the Editors’ Code of
Practice, overseen by the PCC, states that “in cases involving personal grief or
shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and
publication handled sensitively” (Clause 5, i). The broadcasters’ codes have
An important issue at a
crime scene is the right of the press and others to take video or still
photographs. Article 4.38 establishes a guideline for the police to
There are no powers
prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place.
Therefore, members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing
We need to cooperate with
the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help
us identify criminals.
We must acknowledge that
citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now
photographed and filmed more than ever.
photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and
it undermines public confidence in the police service.
Once an image has been
recorded, police can only seize the film or camera at the scene on the strictly
limited grounds that it is suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the
photographer has left the scene, police can only seize images with a court
order. In the case of the media, the usual practice is to apply for a court
order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act for production of the
photograph or film footage.
The issues of social media and the
police forces are specifically addressed in Article 13, which covers not just
operational offices but staff, police IT specialists and possibly commercial
partners. As the Guidelines indicate, the rise of social media is a ‘growth
area’ and each force is to “determine the level and extent of police use of
digital technology to support community engagement.”
under a set of Media Relations Guidelines that is also instructive on how to
co-ordinate efforts into the investigation of a murder. One of the first acts is
to designate a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). A media relations officer is
appointed at an early stage of the investigation who works with the SIO on
statement to be released to the press and media strategy. And all statements to
the media go through the Media Relations Office after prior consultation with
Part of the problem in the
Koh Tao murder case is the chorus of voices coming from policemen. This added to
the confusion surrounding the investigation. Once a murder has occurred, the
police can release information about the location, time and date of report,
gender of victim and scale of the inquiry. But no details should be released
that would allow the next of kin to find out through the media that a loved one
was killed prior to be notified first by the police.
The traditional and social
media have reported multiple statements from many police sources as to the
identity of possible suspects in the Koh Tao murders.
“The Dorset Media Guidelines limit
this speculation. Never confirm to the media that someone that they name is
helping police with their enquiries, is under investigation or has been
arrested. Dorset Police does not confirm the identity of anyone who may, or may
not, be the subject of a criminal investigation and who has not been charged. It
is the journalist’s risk and not that of Dorset Police if they choose to
broadcast or publish information that cannot be confirmed by the
“Dorset Police cannot
comment on speculation related to an on-going criminal investigation
because of the risk of prejudicing that investigation.”
One question is who should
be responsible for drafting Social Media Guidelines for the Thai police? In
India, the Supreme
drafting such guidelines. In Thailand, including human rights groups, the law
association, judges, the police along with foreign experts would be a good start
to reaching a consensus as to what protocols or guidelines are appropriate for
Thailand’s police force.
In New South
Wales, the police also work under a
set of media policy guidelines dated May 2013. The NSW police force has a Police
Force Media Unit, with a mandate to make media release, hold news conferences,
to managing inquires from the media. In other words, the Australian police have
institutionalized as a unit within the police force, a unit responsible for
media management and co-ordination, and training of police officers in media
relations. The police media unit is the exclusive outlet, and this has the
advantage of closing down various police officers talking directly to the media
about a case.
In the NSW police
“Staff must not contact the media
in their capacity as Police Force employees to make any comment about any
incident, police policy or procedure without prior authorisation. This includes
contacting talk-back radio, commenting on social media platforms, and submitting
letters or emails to the editor.”
Had such a policy been in
place, the free for all atmosphere surrounding the Koh Tao murder would not have
Here’s a list of
information from the NSW Media policy guidelines as to what should never be
released by the police. Ask yourself how many of these restrictions, if in place
in Thailand, would have been breached in the Koh Tao murder case. Or indeed in
many high profile criminal cases in Thailand.
“Never release information
Hinders or jeopardises an
States or implies that a
particular crime has been committed (eg:“the victim was murdered with a blunt
Speculates on the cause
of a death
Goes beyond broad
statements of facts to reveal details of evidence which may later be disputed by
an alleged offender
methodology used by criminals (beware ‘copycat’ criminals) or investigating
Details or speculates
about a motive or absence of motive
Details amounts of stolen
Goes beyond broad
statements of facts to detail forensic or other examinations or identification
Social Media and the
police are widely discussed in Canada. A YouTube video provides an inside look on
the use of Google+ by the Toronto Police. Media experts in the police department
engage and inform the public through social media. This video approaches social
media not unlike the report commissioned by the US Justice Department discussed
above. The number of booksat the Canadian Police
on the subject of intelligence analysis and data mining in the digital world
gives an idea of how the new technology has shaped attitudes about policing,
investigative techniques, and police training.
The Koh Tao murder case
opens the door to an examination of ways to reform the Thai police force. The
narrow goal would be to write policy guidelines and make organizational and
management changes concerning police and media relations. The broader goal would
be to use the experience of Koh Tao as the basis to rethink police governance,
culture and management. To be realistic the culture of the police force mirrors
its social media policy. It would be difficult to sustain to adopt the police
social media policy from another country without alterations to the local
culture of policing. Depending on the police culture, it may be very difficult
to import a foreign social media model for policing without also importing the
foreign police culture.
The Thai police culture
includes reenactments by suspects with a seminar-sized group of uniformed police
officers photographed looking on. The Thai culture is to one of extending face
to the group of officers positioned by rank. It is difficult to fit a Social
Media Police Unit into that Thai police cultural picture. But ignoring this
opportunity to move ahead will certainly result in other Koh Tao cases emerging
again and again.
The New York Times film critic,
A.O. Scott, has written an interesting article about why in his view that
Americans have become less adult and more juvenile over the past few decades.
The tile of the article The Death
of Adulthood in American Culture is premised on the idea that
American culture is responsible for a terrible disservice. “It seems that,
in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly,
killed off all the grown-ups.”
Scott’s conclusion is
Americans, if judged by their TV, movies and fiction have entered a stage of
perpetual adolescence. In examining this premise, a couple of points are useful
when considering Scott’s analysis. Like a blind man describing a wolf by running
his hand along a wolf’s tail. It’s not wrong; it’s just not a very good
description of a wolf. And you run the risk of mistaking a wolf for a
The divide between adults
and juveniles isn’t just an American cultural issue. As with most states of
being, it is better to avoid a binary view and see a continuum with concepts
such as a complex network of various degrees of wisdom, maturity, experience,
empathy, attitudes, or belief systems. The problem with isolating the issue as
mainly about the consumption of modern film and TV programs is to miss the
broader and deeper layers that go with adulthood.
Let’s start with some
basic information about process of domestication. Homo species did not
begin as domesticated animals. Domestication is a relatively recent event for
dogs and for people. It required thousands of years to create a
docile, dependent mindset necessary for people who no longer live in a state of
‘nature’ but live cheek by jowl in megacities beside millions of others. That
concentration of strangers is abnormal. We never evolved to live with millions
of strangers. The psychology had to be manufactured into broadly accepted social
constructs first. Remove those social constructs and revert to the traditional
adult member that evolved in our species, and you’d likely find that our cities
would be far more like Mad Max rather than Hangover
Neoteny isn’t a word you
come across every day. Think of an animal that occupies the state of being an
eternal juvenile. The idea has both a biological and psychological component.
Neoteny is reflected in biology when the animal retains traits that appear
childlike. It is the difference between wolves and dogs. The domesticated dog
has floppy ears, a curly tail, and puppy like snout and face. Compared to a
wolf, the dog lacks the aggressive, adult look of a wolf. No one would think of
training a wolf to be a seeing-eye companion for a human being.
Here are some numbers I’ve
extracted from Sapiens:
A Brief History of Humankind. There are around 250,000 wolves remaining in the ‘wild’
and around 400 million dogs in streets, houses, farms living as pets dependent
on human beings. The adult wolf, in the wild, isn’t man’s best friend. He is
aggressive, hunts to kill, attacks for food or when threatened. There are
200,000 chimps on the planet, and seven billion homo sapiens. Scaling
the wolf population to 400 million or chimps to 7 billion is an interesting
What would life be on a
planet with such numbers of wolves and chimps? Fill the BTS in Bangkok with
chimps from different groups and run it between two stages, and open the doors
and you’d find blood, hair, and severed limbs splattered across the seats and
walls. Feral, wild creatures outside of their group turn aggressive and violent
in the presence of strangers. We have no reason to believe that the innate
nature of homo sapiens is little different from that of his close
cousin, the chimp. Yet we ride the commuter train without violent attack. Either
our biological and psychological conditioning has through accelerated
evolutionary pressure fundamentally changed our nature, or that nature remains
under a surface and the lid is held on for other reasons.
We can conclude that the
changes to the way we process our reaction to strangers has made our species far
less hostile. Whatever our current chaos—terrorism, wars, plagues, natural
disaster—would be trivial compared to sharing the planet with the scaled up
populations of wolves and chimps.
By all scientific accounts
(which won’t match the holy books) for the vast amount of our 100,000 year run
as a species we lived in small bands or groups that rarely numbered more than a
couple of dozen members. The total homosapiens numbers ranged
from the hundreds of thousands to the low millions for most of this period.
Evolution produces a biology and psychology that equips an adult with a high
level of aggressive behavior. While within the small band or group, the adults
may battle for Alpha status, the adults in the band normally don’t turn and maim
and kill each other. But if you are a stranger, that is a different matter
Richard Wrangman’s Demonic
Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence
arising in primate bands and culture. Those outside the ban can be beaten, raped
and killed. There is no taboo against the murder of a stranger. There is no
social construct that renders the murder of a stranger into a ‘sin’ or a
‘morally’ reprehensible act. How can we reconcile civilizations if we are a
species who possess such an evolutionary pedigree? Clearly, no society of
millions of people could exist that rested the foundation that cold-blooded
murder of strangers was permissible behavior.
A lot of public and
private resources are spent on domestication programs, e.g., schools,
universities, churches, and associations. The failures of these programs often
fall into the category of psychopath, a person who experiences no regret or
remorse in the act of harming or killing another person.
Another reaction is to
blame the violence on a ‘foreigner’—someone who is not one of ‘us’, someone
suspected of being less than human. In the recent brutal murder of two British
nationals on Koh Tao, local police are quoted as saying they suspected a migrant
worker had committed the murders. The Bangkok
Post noted no evidence was offered to support the speculation. It
is a hard pill to swallow that people inside your own culture are as capable as
anyone to engage in savage acts of violence.
Neoteny is not limited to biology or the
physical difference between a feral and domesticated animal. Psychological
neoteny occurs when the domestication is internalized. We socialize the
aggression out of human beings. We create social constructs from religion and
ideology to expand our feelings about people who are not kin. Strangers become
brothers in arms. You couldn’t have a modern army without first establishing the
belief that the person in the foxhole next to you won’t slit your throat in the
middle of the night. The aggression trigger is reset by instilling the
prevailing social construct in a large population of strangers who overcome the
strangeness of others and replace it with a feeling of unity and solitary.
Domesticated and feral aren’t binary choices. There is long continuum with
domesticated and feral at either end. Depending on the time, place, history and
culture, large groups of people cluster towards the domesticated end of the
spectrum. We are a species that tends towards the kind of large-scale social
co-operation that comes from successful domestication.
We are, for the most part,
juveniles living inside our group or culture with the psychological settings
established by ideology or religion, and this defines the borders of our comfort
zone. But we can easily descend into chimps on a rampage when our leaders target
non-believers as non-human and command us to attack. This chimp-like aggression
isn’t always easily tamed in every member of the community, and we have violent
actors who are dealt with by the police, courts, and prison system. We can say
these ‘adults’ lack impulse control. Or we can say the social constructs
haven’t sufficiently repressed the inherent violence that is part of our
biological and psychological heritage.
These are the traits of
adulthood, a mature member of the species, feeding, fighting, fleeing and
fucking as opportunity, reward and threat appear in his environment.
Scott wrote in his
article, “I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their
vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some
of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile
vision of the world.” That should be no surprise. Our social constructs are
intended to maintain a juvenile vision of the world. Without them, our world of
seven billion people wouldn’t be one anyone would wish to live in.
Then Scott raises an
existential question about adulthood and violence:
“Adulthood as we have
known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the
strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never
really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars
imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on
“Before we answer that, an
inquest may be in order. Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or
sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable
homicide or coldblooded murder?”
What killed adulthood
wasn’t a TV show or a movie? Or what has happened in the United States over the
last fifty or two hundred years. We have created an illusion of adulthood
because calling people over the age of eighteen children is thought patronizing
or demeaning. We don’t really want the mature, aggressive adult wolf or chimp.
We want the softer version of the housedog that obeys and wags its tail when you
And now for Scott’s
conclusion, “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being
forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred
pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and
delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can
live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and
action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.”
Where the analysis goes
off the rails is to associate childhood with perpetual freedom and delight. The
reality is we’ve long cultivated a juvenile mindset, as that person is
comfortable being a dependent. And once a person accepts dependency, he or she
is far easier to control and manipulate. Political leaders in number of
countries including England and Australia have publicly expressed their anxiety
in their young men traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS. As the rest
of the world watches ISIS use social media to recruit fighters from around the
world. They hope to attract more young male recruits by circulating YouTube
videos of beheadings. The message is clear. Leave aside the domestication of
your country, and join us on a jihad to kill the infidel foreign journalists,
AID workers and other non-believers. They make their murdering into a righteous
cause. A certain personality will find an attraction in that act of murder and
the ideology that justifies and condones it.
That anxiety is about the
return of these recruits to their home countries. The fear is once back in
London, Toronto, Sydney or KL, their mindset has been fundamentally altered.
Their social construct is closer to the ‘wolf’ or ‘chimp.’ The home country
domestication has failed in its mission and the new psychology is one based on
our most ancient and primitive nature, where violence, aggression and murder are
The problem is illustrated
in a BangkokPost article with Kuala Lumpur as the dateline:
“Police have arrested at least 19 suspected militants loyal to the IS this year
and say they uncovered their plan to bomb a Carlsberg brewery near the
capital, Kuala Lumpur. Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the IS militants in
a statement in August, saying their actions were ‘counter to our faith, our
culture and our common humanity.” A case is being made that we should prepare
ourselves for many more such stories coming from an increasing number of
The need to maintain our
social constructs that reinforce a dependent-like state, one that falls short of
the fully autonomous adult, may be the price to be paid for social co-operation
“Humans have been evolving
toward greater ‘psychological neoteny’.” Dr. Bruce Charlton, a Newcastle
psychology professor, said what looks like immaturity — or in his terms, the
“retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood”— is
actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological
neoteny. Physical neotenization in humans has, likewise, caused psychologically
neotenous traits in humans: curiosity, playfulness, affection, sociality and an
innate desire to cooperate.”
Adulthood hasn’t died.
American culture hasn’t killed it. Our adulthood has been resized to accommodate
billions of people. Our ancient adulthood equipped us to live and interact
inside an environment and way of life long since vanished. Our ancestor
had much more detailed knowledge about the natural world. They survived in the
wild through their knowledge about hundreds of plants and animals and terrains.
Throw a modern person into a jungle and the ignorance of nature, which is the
default state of the domesticated, and our fate becomes obvious. Domesticated
man can only survive through co-operation with thousands or millions of others
within a system much larger than any of us, a system which no one person fully
understands or could explain in sufficient detail to rebuild it should it be
We have inherited our
emotional reflexes from vanished world where higher levels of aggression, fueled
by self-reliance and independence, provided an advantage. That aggression,
in part, served to enhance the breath and depth of our knowledge about the
untamed world. In 2014, an argument can be made that our emotional gearing
suffers from over specification. Not enough time has passed for our emotions to
naturally evolve to fit the demands of a life our vastly more limited knowledge
about the world and is sufficient to support a repetitive life of
Adolescence (Lord of
the Flies) can be aggressive and violent as any adult. The crucial
difference is the control over the child by the parent, who is the adult. We’ve
evolved a redefinition of adulthood. Whether the end result is called
immaturity, juvenile, or childlike is beside the point. Those are categories
that distinguish human traits that fall short of what is perceived to be
We are forced by the sheer
scale of numbers to accept that domestication is necessary and is bound to
mirror the values in our culture. There is an important caveat— our historical
violence is receding but the violence that remains indicates that our
domestication remains an incomplete process. And when the ISIS fighters who
return to their home countries in the West ‘radicalized’ with a radically
different social construct about murder, the fear is the returnees have
reinvented themselves as the original ‘Adulthood”, the one who worked in small
bands and took no prisoners.
A number of governments’
fear, based on uploaded YouTube horrors recorded about the violence of a few
thousands of such fighters, is spreading. The deep fear is the security
headaches once these fighters return radicalized to their home countries. They
also fear that ISIS ex-fighters may change the frequency on the domesticated and
feral bandwidth, making social co-operation more difficult. They will have to
confront the possibility of a couple of hundred ex-fighters whose experience has
caused a reversal of neoteny and reversion to the demonic male. The day that
your golden retriever reverts to its true wolf nature will make coming home a
Looking ahead to the
immediate future, what is likely to replace the crude religious/ideological
social constructs that are collapsing in many parts of the world will be a
combination of chemicals and brain-computer interconnectivity. This idea
isn’t ripped out of a science fiction novel. We are already some distance down
this road. Newsreportshint at what
we can expect:
interfaces can detect emotions. Some technologies, such as deep brain
stimulation, can induce emotions directly into the brain. It’s only a matter of
time before input is connected with output. This would be a form of telepathic
empathy — a technology that lets you feel some piece of what another person is
The potential for
governments, the police, the military and the superrich to use such technology
raises many issues. But this never stopped the spread and use of religion and
ideology as means of social control. The new technology will finish the job
started by religion. We’ve only begun to explore the digital world for the means
to perfect mind control.
As Leonard Cohen said in
1992, “I have seen the future, it is murder.”
Obedience has a long
history. The assimilation of this principle over thousands of years has allowed
the creation of empires and nation-states. In the bible we find that, “Blessed
are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) The scriptures
designation 5.5 (minus the full stop) is frequently used by Thais to signify
laughter or a joke.
society, and politics wouldn’t exist in the absence of obedience. We are too far
down the road to turn back. In other words, as it turns out biblical quote or
the idea of obedience isn’t a joking matter. It is a deadly serious one. To obey
is the bedrock of all monotheistic religions. It also underscores political
ideologies from communism, socialism, fascism, capitalism and democracy.
Although if Thomas Piketty’s research holds, it appears inheriting the earth
hasn’t quite worked out well for the meek.
Last week in an essay
titled Obey I briefly examined Henry Miller and George Orwell’s legacy
with the subtext (and in Orwell’s case in the text itself) that issued a warning
to be watchful of those in power. In the name of obedience to a principle or
belief, the true intention of the powerful is to control us for their
benefit. Both Miller and Orwell lived, wrote and died in a pre-Internet world
with different tools and methods and opportunities being used by the powerful.
For those born after 1990, they have only experienced a post-Internet world, and
that set of experiences and tools has shaped their identity, attitudes, beliefs
and values, including those surrounding obedience. An identity separate from the
digital world would be unthinkable.
Miller and Orwell are for
the most part to the post-netters, artifacts frozen in a world that is alien to
them as the world without electricity and cars is to the pre-1990 population. In
my recent books I have sought to begin building a literary bridge between the
pre-netters and post-netters. This essay is an example of an attempt to examine
the infrastructure of society that manufactures identity in the way any mass
product is designed and assembled. In the process a key to our psyche removed
barriers to full-blown 24/7 narcissism. Our big data and capitalistic system
refine ever more and newer products and services that raise the pleasurable
desire bar, and consumers become group of individuals wishing to pole vault over
that bar. Our new gods and rituals are in the digital world where celebrities
offer salvation chatrooms, Facebook and Twitter the new confessional booth are
all available to any individual with an Internet connection. A narcissist never
had such a perfectly ordered world to experience his or her self-love. The
contradiction is having created a mass market of individuals, who live inside a
society that demands they obey rulers, leaders, teachers, police officers,
judges, and a long list of people and institutions that narcissists can’t
eliminate by going online. Obedience is a concept that is under construction.
This essay looks at how the rebuilding of obedience is coming along.
Obedience is built into
social systems at many levels. Someone who is convicted for a crime is often
released from prison before serving the full sentence as a reward for good
behavior. And what is this good behavior? It is steadfast obedience to the
prison’s rules and regulations. A person who has adhered to the rules and the
norms of cellblock is thought ready to follow the rules and norms waiting for
him on the outside of the prison walls. Though recidivism rates suggest that
such a causal connection is illusory. In Thailand, just admitting guilt
for failing to obey the law is rewarded by halving the sentence for those
convicted of a crime. A person who insists on maintaining his innocence but who
is found guilty by a judge is doubly punished for his failure to show obedience
to authority’s judgment of his or her wrongdoing.
The Thai word for ‘obey’
is chua fung, which translates as ‘believe and listen.’ That is likely
as good an explanation of what ‘obey’ means in any language. This two-step
formula assumes a consensus that flows from a cultural understanding of who you
are required to listen to. By the time you are nine years old, if not long
before, your mindset is conditioned to know who these people are. Your parents
and teachers are the earliest people to be listened to.
In team sports, unless the
team followed the play called by the quarterback of an American football team or
the captain of a football team, with each player improvising, the result would
be an exercise in chaos. Teams, like armies, are destroyed by disobedience among
the ranks. The team captain, military general, air traffic controller, judges,
wardens, politicians, teachers, or investment bankers expect and receive
obedience from those within the cone of their power and influence. Eliminate
this socially conditioned automatic impulse to obey and games, plans,
prisons, schools, markets, competitions and political systems fail to function.
Playing chess without obedience to the rules of the game means there is no game
called chess that is being played. That same is true of poker, blackjack, or any
other game. Not to obey is not to play the game.
To obey is to accept
subservience to a set of rules, institutions, or persons. To restrict our
freedom of choice and free will is the price we pay and the currency is paid in
units of subservience. It is a price most people are conditioned to pay as if
they had no choice in the matter. Those who refuse to pay up in units of
subservient behavior and break the law are classified as ‘criminals.’ But even
criminal gangs have their own code of obedience and subservience so it isn’t
that outsiders are inevitably ‘free’ of compliance obligations. We have to go
deeper to understand why we willingly obey some people and institutions but are
defiant in obeying others.
We appear to be at a stage
of development where the manufactured narcissist’s identity rebels against
obedience in the offline world. Online is another matter and a digital world
exacts its pound of subservience as a price of being ‘liked.’ The post-netters
aren’t happy with the baggage the pre-netters wish them to carry.
obedience on a large population, living within the same geo-political space, is
the use of or the threat to use coercion or violence against anyone who
disobeys. History isn’t always a reliable guide, but one thing it teaches that
remains true can be summarized in a few words—most people, if you put a gun to
their head, will obey the gunman. Duress underwritten by such violence works in
the short term, as fear is a powerful emotion and obeying is the default
response to fear. Over long stretches of time, though, people tend to become
less fearful. At some stage they realize that there are more of vastly more
fearful people than the handful holding a gun on them. When that moment
crystalizes you witness an event like the Berlin Wall. The larger population
stops being fearful. They tear down the wall and overnight no one obeys the
soldiers with guns, large numbers of whom have dropped their weapons and joined
the ex-fearful masses to dismantle the wall.
Why is one wall torn down
while another wall remains a fortress? The history of obedience is fused with
vesting ‘trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ in the person or institution seeking
subservience. Not everyone sees a wall as a restriction. Others see it like the
Great Wall of China to give safety and protection against barbarians. While most
people in the West welcomed the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, for example,
there is no movement (mass or otherwise) to destroy the air-traffic control
system at airports around the world. Passengers, pilots and crew on aircraft
have no issue with obeying the orders of an air-traffic controller. Human error,
lapses of judgment, or equipment malfunctions may cause a plane crash. An
investigation and inquiry often follows such an incident to restore confidence.
What one doesn’t find is a massive, worldwide distrust of the air-traffic
control system that disintegrates into pilots landing wherever and whenever they
Political systems, unlike
air-traffic control systems, are based on beliefs and ideology that are
fine-tuned to inspire trust and confer legitimacy. A political system risk
defections if the subservient believe the system is corrupt, self-serving, or
incompetent. Opinion polls are released around the world daily as a weather vane
to show which way the political wind is blowing—and politicians ignore the ones
that embarrass them and broadcast to all near and far if they support their
policies. Do the masses agree that the government or its leader is going down
the right path, doing a good job, forming and implementing the right policies?
If a poll shows a 1% approval of a policy, the issue of legitimacy is raised and
one would expect to find large-scale disobedience in following the policy.
Beliefs and norms shift over time, and political actors who depend on popular
elections learn to stay in power; they either govern in a fashion that at least
creates the illusion they reflect the popular will or they take repressive
measures to head off mass disobedience. The challenge to the war on drugs is an
example of a political shift. Changes in social norms concerning sexuality and
gender are resulting in a change of laws.
It is never really a
choice of choosing to live in a world where everyone marches to their own
drummer, or a world where there is one drummer and everyone falls in behind him.
With a population of 7 billion people we have no other choice but to create
systems that enforce obedience but stop short of falling into tyranny. That has
been the great challenge, and in the post-Internet world the task is more
difficult to manage. The power to make others do what you command is subject to
abuse. If you control the guns and the polls, you can maintain in the short run
the illusion that people consent to be confined inside the Berlin Wall for their
own good and happiness. In the long run, without a foundation of trust, order
givers who refuse to have their power checked, revised, and limited will suffer
from loss of legitimacy. As legitimacy isn’t something found in nature. It is a
social construct, a sentiment, a belief, and once people no longer believe in
it, the wall comes tumbling down.
We have been conditioned
for thousands of years to be obedient followers. Our population size before the
agricultural revolution 12,000 thousand years ago was around 8 million.
Obedience inside small-scale bands would have been a far less complicated
affair. Without a modern concept of subservience it would have been impossible
to scale to the current size of population. We’ve been domesticated. The
wolf-like nature changed to that of a domesticated house pet. For most of that
history, subservience was enforced by the sharp edge of the sword. Only in the
last 500 years has the basis for obedience been questioned. And role of the
larger population expanded into a process of questioning the basis of their
servitude. Parliamentary democracies, while imperfect, turned out to be one way
to guide the process.
With the diminished role
of religion in the West and the contradictions of ideology, the world has become
less stable, less subservient. The Internet is filled with thousands of
communities of the new digital disobedient who challenge their overlords.
Focused on computer screens, the analogue masters are in another room and can
see or hear them. Anonymous disobedience is the new virus in the old
The digital heretics,
seeking comfort in emotional and intellectual support provided by their online
communities, refuse to bow to authority. They can play cat and mouse, hide and
seek with censors. It is no surprise to find the elites inside existing
political system, nostalgic for bringing back earlier political arrangement,
which relied on official violence and unquestioned acceptance of authority.
Whether it is America, the Middle East or Asia, the battleground is playing out
a version of the same life and death struggle—who do you listen to and who do
you believe? And the evidence is abundant that post-netters aren’t listening to
analogue authority as their parents and grandparents once did automatically.
Cynicism and skepticism has reduced the range of people will believe and what
they are prepared to believe in. Meanwhile, the reality show of modern time is a
talent search toward the establishment of a new legitimacy that connects and
creates a paradigm for obedience in a digitally networked world. As there is
every indication that narcissism has gone deep into the post-1990 population, it
is only a matter of time that obeying must have a narcissistic payoff for them
individually. I have little doubt that some committed, well-financed and clever
people are working to manufacture a tailored made political product that once it
appeals to our deepest well of vanity, that product will go viral.
I have felt the
gravitational pull from a number of writers over the years. Most writers go
through stages of falling under the spell of another author who they’re
convinced has a grand creative mind perfectly designed to tell stories about the
human condition. Two of these authors standout above the others—Henry Miller and
George Orwell. These two literary writers, literary jugglers, whose lives
overlapped during the 1930s and 1940s, have a small bridge that connects them.
I’ve explored that bridge crossing a number of times: in an anthology of essays
titled The Orwell
Brigade, in a
short-story titled Star of
Love, and in
two essays. The last two novels (Missing in
Marriage Tree) in the Vincent Calvino series,
and a new Calvino novel, the fifteen in the series, weave the Orwell and Miller
worldviews into the lives of the characters.
Both authors continue to
be read and their books remain in print. Both remain controversial. Their books
have been banned and censored. That is a testament to any writer’s success in
hitting an official nerve. It is also evidence their literary work touched upon
universal human values that persist through time but are sheltered behind a wall
of taboos. It is also evidence that the powerful have an interest in monitoring
our reading choices.
In most times and places,
there is a unifying theme: What is not propaganda is a threat. Neither Orwell
nor Miller wrote propaganda, and instead sought to explore the truth.
The truth telling is a
In the world of noir, the
world is a shabby, corrupt place and the whip cracks on the backs of those who
fail to make the required compromises. Most readers don’t think of either Miller
or Orwell as noir writers. Orwell created dystopia worlds; Miller created
neither dystopia nor utopian worlds. Henry Miller placed a literary magnifying
glass over a sub-culture in Paris where hedonism, creativity, poverty, the arts
and friendship bloomed.
Usually there is a reason
why a writer continues returning and drawing water from the same well. In this
essay, I will explain why I continue to toss a bucket into the Miller and Orwell
Henry Miller and George
Orwell shared an obsession with one word that sticks in the crawl of a man—obey.
You can sometimes find it as graffiti. A one-word reminder of our condition
makes everything clear.
We’ve been domesticated
for so long that our condition is accepted as the ‘normal’ and obeying leaders
the bedrock of our survival. Not to obey is an indictment that someone has gone
feral. In that case, those with the guns put the beast down to stop the rest of
the herd of learning dangerous ideas.
We live in servitude as
our parents, grandparents before them, a long string of people who obeyed.
Disobedient people are less likely to pass along their genes. To disobey carries
penalties from social censure and disapproval to disappearance. It all depends
on who has disobeyed and to whom. We know of people who disobeyed, and continued
disobeying after warnings to obey, that they disappear.
No one would ever hear of
them. No body, no final words, no one found to be responsible. Sometimes you
come across a news story marking the fifth or tenth or twentieth year of the
disappearance. The police are still investigating.
The disobedient are
routinely imprisoned, impoverished, exiled or executed. The newspapers are
filled with cases. People glaze over with the latest 24-hour news cycle of
casualties of those who failed to follow an order, instruction, decree, or a
Henry Miller’s world of
disobey was played out in the bars, cafes, and streets of Paris in the 1930s.
Tropic of Cancer was a first-hand account of a writer who found his
muse and subject in tales of sexual disobedience. The strict puritanical rules
over sexuality struck in Henry Miller’s crawl and when he spit them out, the
Americans censored him. Barney Rosset fought on behalf of Miller in multiple
court battles. He took the matter to the United States Supreme Court. It cost
Barney Rosset a fortune and his security in old age was compromised as a result.
But Barney never regretted that decision. He would have done it over again
knowing the real cost of fighting against the forces of “obey.”
Given the politics of the
United States Supreme Court for many years, it may be hard for a new generation
to believe there was once such a court that could be convinced that an author
had a right to write novels where the characters disobeyed the prevailing sexual
mores. Even though Henry Miller’s book offended the sensibilities of those with
the power to make others obey, a line was drawn. Henry Miller had a right to
disobey them. That included writing about prostitution, using explicit language
about sex and bodily functions, and to portray a life of decadence and
Rabelais had prowled
inside these bedrooms long before Henry Miller’s arrival. Every generation needs
a Henry Miller to keep the tall grass from growing and the new ambush points set
up by the latest sources of power seeking to enforce the obey commandment over
George Orwell’s essays and
novels cast a larger shadow over our overlords who use guns to force us to obey.
While Henry Miller was a sensualist, George Orwell thought preoccupation with
the sensual was a diversion away from the real war zone. The political
implications of “obey” were far reaching and threatened to enslave people in all
areas of life. In the essay An Orwellian Look at Henry Miller, I found an
ambivalence Orwell felt toward Miller’s writing. As a genuine working-class
writer, Miller was the last writer Orwell would have attacked. But that didn’t
stop Orwell from expressing his fear that Miller was shooting at small time
targets that weren’t worthy of his talents. Orwell had, it seems, a secret
wish—to take Henry Miller aside, sit him down and lecture him on the real threat
in the 1930s such as Hitler and Mussolini. He might have said to Miller, “Please
pay attention. These men have large-scale plans for extending the concept of
‘obey’ across Europe.”
George Orwell was fearful
of what he saw—the jackboot on the face of freedom grinding it into the dirt as
a warning of what happens when the man in charge is not obeyed. Henry Miller was
off in the streets exploring neighborhoods, exchanging stories, gossip, dreams,
and rushing back to type them out at 90 words per minute on a manual typewriter.
The sound of Henry Miller’s machine was said to be like a machine gun. The rush
of exploration into a new language, culture, city and down and out expats fueled
Henry Miller’s imagination. He’d disconnected with America. Finding liberation
from its constraints created a raging fire inside his imagination.
The coolness of George
Orwell’s version of the obedient hell like a sharp blade slowly pierces the
skin, then the flesh, and finally the bone. It is surgical in its accuracy of
the main malady affecting the patient. His willingness to ignore the cost of his
obedience was the message in the bottle found throughout Orwell’s
Like it or not, we are stuck with some system that creates mass obedience, as
it is a way to achieve co-operation across a population of millions. In Yuval
Noah Harai’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he makes a
persuasive case is made that beliefs, myths, and legends are essential
ingredients in order for there to be cooperation required when millions of
people occupy congested space in modern society. Since the Agriculture
Revolution, every culture that scaled its population has accomplished the task,
in part, through the use of a sacred store of ‘ghost stories.’ The storytellers
have given rules the means to unify its population.
Those who dare to question the sacredness or validity of the local version of
the sacred ghost story endanger the emotional bases for mutual co-operation.
Myths only work when they are not too closely examined. When activists,
scholars, artists, and critics challenge and question the prevailing myths as
serving the interest of the elites, the authorities fear chaos. Chaos is the
word we use when co-operation breaks down and it is every man and woman acting
individually, shedding a sense of a collective self. What glue that bound a band
of a couple dozen people before the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago,
and what superglue has been used since illustrates how the puzzle pieces have
been kept in place.
When millions of people live cheek-by-jowl in megacities, co-operation among
people is the only alternative to conflict and strife. This explains why a
threat to the emotional infrastructure of belief that binds people will ignite
an official crackdown. Those in power fear the loss of control of the
population. Orwell saw through the cynical use of myths, beliefs and legends as
disguised power grabs by elites that resulted in the exploitation of the many
for the benefit of the few. He warned that propaganda was the enemy of truth.
But this is a two-edged sword, an enemy of truth in the form of constructed
reality has allowed vast numbers of people to largely co-operate with one
another as they share the same constructs.
Miller’s novels subverted a set of beliefs about marriage, relationships, and
family units. These are social institutions, which are embedded in the structure
of co-operation. They regulate and define the limits of what is permissible
within our co-operative social, economic and political lives. By freeing oneself
from the straightjacket of sexual restraints, Miller’s worldview threatened, in
the view of the censors, to bring down the whole house of cards in a sexual free
In the last two Vincent
Calvino novels, the conflict of vision between Henry Miller and George Orwell is
explored. A private eye novel may seem an odd location to report on the battle
line between the narrow and wide version of resistance, but that is only because
we have a bias about the scope and purpose of such novels. I refuse to accept
that a novel about a private eye must be contained solely within the boundary of
storytelling, an entertainment. A reader is searching for more than story. She
or he wishes to connect on a deeper level with the characters. When a character
faces choices that humanize or dehumanize him and others, a mirror appears. The
reader can feel the process, the doubts, emotions, irrational thought that
accompany such choices especially those made under great stress. What a reader
wishes to know as well is what price a character will pay. Strip a book of these
dilemmas and the story and its characters are the literary equivalent of a can
of Zero Coke.
In Missing in
(2013), Calvino enters the lobby of a shabby hotel in Rangoon and the old woman
at reception is reading a book:
“The second bag was heavy;
inside he had two one-liter plastic bottles of coke. He walked back to the
guesthouse carrying the bags. The old woman behind the reception desk glanced at
him as he turned to walk up the steps. She lowered her glasses. “Mr. Smith buys
his dinner at the Savoy Hotel,” she said. It was out of the ordinary in her part
of the universe where the Savoy lay in an inaccessible part of the Rangoon
universe for her guests. She looked up from another Georgette Heyer novel. He
caught the title—The Toll-Gate.
“Stolen gold, highway men,
mysterious strangers,” she said.
“Makes you feel right at
home,” he said.
“Mysterious strangers and
a missing toll-gate keeper,” she said.
“I am familiar with the
plot,” said Calvino.
“I thought you might be,”
she said. “You don’t look like a reader.”
“I’ve been reading
“That man had no romance
in his books.”
Calvino thought about it;
she was right. Orwell was a lot of things, but writer of romance novels wasn’t
one of them. “But he had a lot to say about the toll-gate keepers.”
In another scene, a bar
owner captures the magic power that Henry Miller unleashed in the Black
“Gung took the spliff from
Alf, inhaled, eyes hooded, and the smoke rolled from his lips, “She wanted Rob
to be Henry Miller walking the earth, fucking whores, hungry at midnight with no
money, but a fire in his belly and figuring out to stop the world from stepping
on his shadow, capturing his soul, selling it to the devil for a weekly pay
check. Fuck that,” Mya Kyaw Thein had said according to Gung.”
It is a feeling shared
with Vincent Calvino:
“In the back of the cab,
Calvino’s thoughts drifted. It’d been a long time since he heard that name. The
writer was from Brooklyn. He’d written Tropic of Cancer, a diary of sexual
adventures as Miller lived down and out in Paris in the 1930s. Miller’s wife had
sold her body to support him. Vinny Calvino was from Brooklyn. He knew of the
legend of Miller who had defied morality, family, marriage, and home to break
free—to roam as a free man. Some men escaped; most were trapped. Who were the
saddest of them all? Those without a home, living free under Paris bridges, or
those who stayed behind in their old neighborhoods thinking they were
In The Marriage Tree (2014) Henry Miller plays the role of
the nihilist who believed no one could protect you. No one could be trusted to
cover your back but you. The way to freedom from the force of violence was
escaping into a smaller world of like-minded outsiders on the run from ‘obey me’
mantras of the shepherds watching the sheep.
“In Rangoon I had a
similar discussion with a singer about taking sides. She said there’s a war
raging inside everyone. On one side you have George Orwell, and Henry Miller on
the other. Those who refuse to accept injustice and violence and inequality
quote Orwell’s work. Miller accepted that the murderers would continue to roam
free, making the rules to their own advantage, and for the free man, escape was
losing oneself in the world of song, dance, wine and sex. Miller didn’t believe
that any principle could protect you against those with real power. He thought
that nothing could blunt the exercise of power over the exploited. Miller’s idea
was simple: stay off the predator class’s grid. When someone puts their life in
the hands of a human smuggler, they ignore the fact that it’s his job to deliver
them to their new masters. It doesn’t matter that you pray for a savior who
thinks like Orwell because you’ll never have a chance to live the free life of a
Rangoon (2013) and The Marriage Tree (2014) are part of trilogy within a
larger series. The final book in the trilogy will be published in January 2015.
The territory of obeying is mapped in each novel and the fingerprints of Orwell
and Miller are to be found everywhere at the scene of the crime.
In 2000 when Chairs was published, the collection of
interconnected short stories included one titled Star of Love. It was
based on a long conversation one afternoon with Barney Rosset at an outdoor beer
bar in Patpong. The premise of Star of
Barney’s view on how Henry Miler’s life would have changed had he chosen to
travel, live and write in Bangkok rather taking the boat to Paris. Miller would
still have escaped from New York but the experiences as a writer would have been
shaped by very different cultural, historical and linguistic forces.
The second piece is an
essay titled Re-Imagining Henry Miller, which examines the influences
on his life in Paris, especially the two women who held a special place in his
affection. It is also an exploration of what it means to be an expat and how
that experience shapes the creative powers of a writer. The essay raises the
question as to what happens to those memories after the expat returns to his or
her home shores? Are the memories of that time harvested for further books? Are
the memories locked away and the key thrown away?
The third piece, An
Orwellian Look at Henry Miller contrast the two authors’ literary
commitment to fighting against the command to obey. Their differences were far
more than literary taste. They had different biases. Their education,
upbringing, and culture made them as alien as any two writers could be. Orwell
patrolled the corridors of power. Like Paul Revere in the 18th
Century American Revolution he warned that the powerful were approaching with
guns at the ready; Orwell swung a bright lantern to expose their hypocrisy,
abuses, and lies. To Henry Miller, it didn’t much matter, local tyrants or
foreign ones, none of them could be trusted, and none of them were worth dying
for or arguing with. He laughed at them, turned his back, and manufactured a
life of minimal contact with those who retained the right to inflict
Those who had mastered the
nightlife of the street, the bars, and the cafes could run their grifts and were
largely left to the margins; the powerful left them alone, a self-contained
amusement in the pre-Internet world. They had an ocean of fish to fry. These
were the ones who were scared into obeying. Fear and obedience, the twin
monsters harnessed by tyrants, will never succeed by threats of violence on
everyone. Somewhere, in some crack of the wall joint, a Henry Miller and his
gang of expats, sing and dance and drink and make love and forget the rest of
the fish in the ocean are scooped up in industrial strength nets.