Mostly criminal justice
has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some
exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in
apprehending law breakers.
Three such private actors
come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.
For centuries, members of
these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible
to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber,
private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally,
in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up
shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information,
following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location
where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly
similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a
good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.
Vigilantes are motivated
by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante
is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice
and dispense with due process.
A bounty-hunter, in
contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They
deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash
reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the
bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.
Professional or licensed
private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might
wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t
motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves
work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm
unless they can see the cash up front.
Amateur digital sleuths
who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall
between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere
between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this
category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional
brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice
Vigilantes, for the most
part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional
rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel
before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal
of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through
deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the
wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have
their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock,
never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine
McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing
Private citizens spend
untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online
sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another
Laura Miller, who writes
for Salon, reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur
Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014.
The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the
Miller writes about The
Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There
is, in Miller’s words, “a methodological schism over how to interact with
law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into
the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the
‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching
officials or the bereaved.”
This is an interesting
premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series
of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online
investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as
opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities
of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and
persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.
Miller’s review got me
started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being
ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years
ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the
growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can
bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of
information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and
novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can
meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d)
they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped
A cup of coffee in hand,
and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the
comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you
want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are
likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case
that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception,
have put it in the unsolved file.
There are a number of
sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of
Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites,
you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort,
sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the
danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong
person was accused of involvement.
What do the professionals
say about this development?
Professor David Wall of
Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can
be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more
serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired
Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public
getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re
dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking
into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people
sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with
an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one
of the online sleuthing communities.
Professor Wall is joined
by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in
London, England, who told CBC News, “During the Jack the Ripper case, one
of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many
The British, through their
Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from
Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit
one handy.] There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the
boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use
property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As
former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass
is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in
trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be
Where there is a niches
that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners
who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There
have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple
of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing
fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is
difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a
pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is
solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only
a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos
where it is stored and analyzed.
Will the idea of police
ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and
development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data
looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will
increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.
Meanwhile, there are
online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need
to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.
were hauled off to the gallows for what today would be considered minor
offenses. The rope was slipped around the neck of the convicted pickpocket as
well as the convicted killer. Both fell through the same trapdoor. The
executioner worked his art without discrimination.
The New York Times correspondent Sandra Blakeslee
reminded us that in 1765, John Ward was hanged for stealing a watch and a
The historical cases
reveal a very different world of criminals and law enforcement officials. The
authorities have been reactive. They’ve had to wait until a crime has been
reported before springing into action. Catching someone who violated the law
meant rounding up witnesses and gathering evidence that implicated a
The old policing model has
very little to say about the future. It functioned on what was known in the
present. A victim lodged a report. It also rested on the hunch or intuition of
the police. Experienced police had knowledge about neighborhoods. Though that
information, in the large scheme of things, was bound to be incomplete and
tainted by bias. Until recently, the literature of crime followed the Sherlock
Holmes model of a logical, clever and objective detective who outsmarted the
We inhabit a very
different world now. Not only do most countries no longer hang watch and hat
stealers, they are using Big Data to predict geographical areas where crime may,
on probability, be more likely to occur and with that information police can
step up patrols. We have entered the machine age of law enforcement. The old
model is in the process of a radical change as Big Data arms the police with
predictive models and that takes policing into the future where crime hasn’t yet
been committed. Such a change allows for development of policies of crime
suppression for crimes that might be committed.
police have managed to reduce
burglaries (33%), violent crimes (21%) and property crimes (12%) by adapting
software developed to predict earthquakes and aftershocks. Eighty years of
crime that included 13 million criminal acts were fed into the mathematical
model that used the data to predict the areas where crime was most likely to
occur. It seems the model yielded good results. New crimes are constantly added
to the database, and the LAPD officers who were at first resistant to taking
orders from a mathematical model have become true believers.
police have gone beyond hot spots to
using Big Data to target people most likely to commit a crime in the future.
There is mapping of crime hot spot areas of the city and the mapping of social
networks is the logical extension. “Commander Steven Caluris, who also works on
the CPD’s predictive policing program, put it a different way. ‘If you end up on
that list, there’s a reason you’re there.’” In the future, the map of your
social network may be used by the law enforcement agencies to assign you a
probability statistic as your future criminal activity. Like a travel ban list
for air travel, you may never know what is behind the inclusion of your name on
a hot list. Florida is going down the same road.
“The National Institute of Justice
recently awarded two grants, totaling nearly $1 million, to conduct RTM research
in seven U.S. cities: Newark; New York City; Chicago; Arlington, Texas; Colorado
Springs, Colo.; Glendale, Ariz.; and Kansas City, Mo. Researchers from Rutgers’
School of Criminal Justice and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City
University of New York are conducting the studies using the RTMDx Utility. The
Rutgers software is currently being used in the top four U.S. markets: New York,
Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. It is being adopted by industry and law
enforcement offices in many countries, such as Australia and Canada, and major
foreign cities such as Paris and Milan.”
The Australian Crime
Commission has also funded a big data project. The goals is to use to “data mining to
trawl through data sets looking for patterns and potentially predicting emerging
crime issues and trends across the country.”
The promise is that
patterns emerging from the big data will allow the police to identify areas
where resources are needed. This has the advantage of consolidating resources in
the areas where crime is most likely. It is being sold on the basis of
efficiency. Like Wall Street brokers, the police have entered the world of big
data with the goal of assessing risks. For a broker, it is getting in and out of
a stock so as to make a profit. For the police they have structured data that
predicts what types of crimes are on the increase or decrease for a given
geographical area. The police study the big data looking for trends. And like a
broker, the police having identified a trend, can allocate necessary resources
to deal with the kinds of crime that are predicted from the data.
reported on Big Data in crime prevention, noting the need to
accumulate masses of data about an area in order to predict crime trends. Making
connections between crime and connections, and those that happen across
international boundaries leads to unraveling complex networks of individuals.
The BBC report shows how far we’ve come since the hanging of John Ward in 1765.
Big Data allows a corporation to detect who on the inside is communicating with
whom on the outside and to look for patterns that suggests an employee may be
leaking information. It also allows the military tactical advantage in the field
as Big Data is constantly fed into analytical models updating positions,
movements, and communications on the ground.
Philip K. Dick predicted
in The Minority Report that the State will evolve a system to predict
crimes before they are carried out. The Big Data is used to define ‘hot spots’
where crime is most likely to occur. In the future, before you buy that house or
condo, you might want to ask the real estate agent about whether the property is
within a crime hot spot!
One should bear in mind
that we are very early days into collecting and mining Big Data. The dynamics of
technological change make predictions in the medium and far future nearly
impossible. The reality is that we are headed down a road for future
decision-making about the mechanism of the criminal justice system and we don’t
know where it will lead us. We only have best guesses and cognitive biases such
as best-case scenario. We run the real risk of an information
infrastructure that will build a criminal justice system that surrenders our
notions of free will and liberty.
In the future, John Ward
may be hanged before he steals the watch and hat, doomed by Big Data, which
assigns a 98% probability of future criminal conduct. Or if he had a 98% probability of being a serial killer, would you
agree that he should be arrested and sent to prison? On the Big Data road map,
this might be a destination. We have set out on a long journey and along the way
we lose much of what we value as individuals for a class of elites who have most
to gain in a new culture based on total security.
Life is messy. So are
component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social
relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something
inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an
equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to
occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the
mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live
according to the limitations of what we know and can know.
This causes anxiety like
watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20
feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath.
Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone
In politics, those with
the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim
the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an
objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other
than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.
Our political life isn’t a
game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians
are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately
reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.
We live in a world where a
large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver
a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they
live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices
and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they
substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative
We are willing to pay
relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us
individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion
of Understanding (see my essay on the
Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit
conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue
and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.
There is a constant
tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and
between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends,
relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party.
We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from
our group association. Mostly we place group solitary and individual
identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth
is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf
metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in
the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.
How do we resolve this
dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and
We have two basic models
to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate
vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us.
Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with
each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the
The first model that
controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials
inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of
command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be
obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a
producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing
down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of
what the performance will be.
The job of film director
or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his
direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a
subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a
disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving
the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act
without questioning the order.
Officers in the military
expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders
of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is
fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values
in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it
is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly
line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to
co-ordinate the work among a group of people.
An orchestra where the
first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s
interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the
private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not
expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra
In other words, criticism,
dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise
the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant
court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant
decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of
these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge
is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty
are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.
If the conductor had
absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is
appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film
and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen.
There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any
one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would
drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that
experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it
will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only
discovered by allowing the space to fail.
The spotlight culture is a
place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished
product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no
alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.
The flashlight model (this
is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or
question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power.
Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are
obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a
symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine
illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those
who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on
the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the
spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent. In
the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a
supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light
into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the
A flashlight culture
assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that
distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems
rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to
explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader
because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the
complex network of information.
Unlike an orchestra, the
prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations
rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make
the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on
evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of
policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be
pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the
government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which
benefits from a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out
The encouragement of
challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most
junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory
of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other
words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty
distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the
theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the
person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to
refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long
way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background
and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.
We can also accept that
the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all
circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few
examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The
question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to
operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?
The flashlight culture
exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The
flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions.
Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.
and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System
Every culture has a
different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the
job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged. How
best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own
way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and
challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest
employers in the world. (Crunching
Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense
Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge
operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system. A
‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on
the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and
command structure, where insubordination is punished.
The question is whether
the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are
confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate
effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along
the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length,
place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail
music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano
Looking around the world
from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix
of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain
instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to
embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the
right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the
vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist
who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to
subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the
flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will
reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.
As the flashlight culture
has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital
flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public
way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and
wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.
Throwing your opposition
in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in
the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term,
people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space
for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those
repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a
noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will
sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting
metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its
flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the
Give a writer some facts,
numbers or basic information and ask him to use it to tell a story. See what
happens. What kind of story does he tell? Is it plausible? Is it
Most of the time we
unearth information from personal experience and observation. Other times we
stumble over information sent by others that stimulates our
A friend* sent me a link
to a top ten list of the world’s largest employers. I immediately saw a story.
One told in numbers. As the impact of Big Data filters into our daily lives, you
can expect more storytellers to mine these huge information warehouses to cull
Let me explain the kind of
story to expect in the future.
Mathematics conceals all
kinds of interesting stories about how societies, economies, and governments are
entangled. The language of numbers opens information doors to understanding the
complexity of these relations. When we examine the numbers, we can draw
conclusions about the dynamic relationship of private and public sectors within
cultures and across cultural boundaries.
This is an essay about
economic and political structures, allocation of power, concentration of
resources, and how power is projected inside a political system. It is also an
essay about how top ten lists influence our view of reality.
I’ve become suspicious of
all the lists: top ten, top 50, or top 500. One reason is all of these lists
share in common an implicit promise of completeness. The purpose of a list is to
close off ignorance, which is ringed by information presented. It is as if a
list has a roundness of knowledge that deflects our lack of understanding,
knowledge or awareness. Lists create an illusion of knowledge at best and at
their worst promote a lie or deception that doubt has been addressed and
answered. The main danger of lists is they seduce us not only by the false
promise of completeness by also by the allure of simplicity. A list masks the
higher level of complexity it closes off.
When you examine any list
you might think of playing chess in a dark room where you can’t clearly see the
board or pieces. You know there are 32 pieces and 64 squares as part of the
game. The average top ten list you read is addictive because you are playing in
the dark like the rest of us and want the edge of knowing that you’ve discovered
that what amounts to 10 moves will show you how the game is won. In the final
part of the essay, I have a look at how difficult it is to play chess in the
dark with lists with your cheat sheet to victory.
A list: The Top 10
Largest Employers in the World
Work is an essential
component of any economy, whether based on capitalism, socialism or any other
ideology designed to govern the business of extracting resources and energy, and
distributing and allocating products and services. An employee’s ‘work’ is
carried out under the authority and supervision of an employer. The employer may
be the government; or it may be a private company. One way to understand any
national system is to ask who are its largest employers. Identifying the major
employers and the enterprises it controls tells a great deal about a country’s
values, politics, beliefs, and policies.
If you were to draw a list
of the world’s largest employers, including public and private, what would you
expect to find on that list?
In 2012 the BBC produced a
top ten list of the largest employers.
In 2012, 30% of the
world’s largest employers came from the ‘private enterprise’ sector. 70% were
‘state enterprises’ or government workers (though we don’t often think of
soldiers as government workers that is indeed what they are). Leaving aside what
the figures suggest about India where the Indian state railway has more
employees than the Indian army, my attention is on the ‘big’ employers in the US
and China. These two countries, with three employers each in the top-ten list,
comprise 60% of the big employer list for 2012.
Take the US Department of
Defense. There are “2.13 million active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen,
and civilian workers, and over 1.1 million National Guardsmen and members of the
Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Reserves. The grand total is just over 3.2
million servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Defense ) Private contractors are no
longer a niche but viewed as part of the total military force. (Source:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43074.pdf ) It is difficult to source the
role of private contractors in the PLA. It is enough to note that the two top
positions are military organizations organized, equipped, maintained and
deployed by the government, with, at least on American data, a healthy
percentage of private contractors part of the enterprise and who are supplied by
In contrast, the military
footprint in China works out to 0.1825% of its population. Thus in roughly
population terms there was a huge disparity in the size of the military in
comparison to the size of the relative populations. America’s military employees
are 5.6 times greater than China in terms of total population. Based on the BBC
statistics, in terms of military to military comparison of numbers, in 2012 the
US military was about 39% larger than the Chinese.
The statistics reveal
something about the presence of the military employment footprint in the
population and the workforce of the country. Size matters for a lot of reasons
including politics and economics, not to mention the social component from
having a large number of people in uniform. The military has a particular
‘culture’ based on rank, duty, discipline, honour and authority. Profitability
doesn’t appear as part of this culture. Its primary duty (some may disagree) is
to project power in order to instill fear, which will cause adversaries to bend
to the will of political establishment in charge of the military.
What may come as a
surprise is that Wal-Mart, owned by one family, employs almost as many employees
as China’s People’s Liberation Army. And if Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s were to
form an alliance, their combined employees would outnumber the entire American
military with a significant number of employees left to take over part of the
Chinese military as well.
In other words, the
world’s two largest private sector employers have under their umbrella more
employees than the world’s largest military. When you start to register the
power employers have to influence the attitudes and values of their employees
(not only the military runs boot camp for new recruits), the political influence
of such employers’ wealth would attract the attention of politicians and their
campaign staff. Beyond this obvious risk of system policy being wealth driven,
there are other, deeper implications to consider.
Wal-Mart and McDonald’s
share, in a manner of speaking, certain similarities with military culture:
there are no unions, recruits are assigned largely routine, frontline jobs that
take stamina and discipline, they have uniforms, codes and little prospect of
mobility up the chain of command. They are canon fodder for the elite. They are
also paid less than soldiers.
Wal-Mart is a dystopia
vision of what a peacetime military might look like if it had different uniforms
and grunts were assigned to patrol aisles of merchandise with the mission of
maintaining order and security. McDonald’s, like the US military, has bases
established all over the world, siphoning money to shareholders in return for
distributing dubious foodstuff with a dodgy health record and a tendency to make
regular diners obese.
grunt earns $15,576 per year or 13% less paid to a military private.
These two huge US
employment giants weren’t created by an act of God or evolved from nature. Their
corporate growth and success was largely luck, which in retrospect, we explain
in stories about brilliant leadership. Myths are created to support the
conclusion that their rise was inevitable. American
its privatized counterpart of this myth. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were never
destined to become the 3rd and 4th largest employer in the
world by 2012. In fact, each company emerged in the domestic US market as a
result of an ecological system comprised of culture, history, values, and laws,
and like that if you changed the variables everything might have turned out
quite differently. And their corporate success can be attributed, in part, to
the protective umbrella of the US military which was funded by all taxpayers
(including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employees).
Another thought is, this
private army of soldiers serving the domestic consumer appetites for food,
gadgets, and aisles stocked fire-ladder high with consumer goods, is itself
protected against intruders from abroad and can enforce its presence in the
intruders backyard by using the military. Guns protect existing markets and they
open new markets. That’s why the military is so important for a country on an
economic march, whether grabbing resources, or opening new consumer
The top ten list of the
largest employers presents an opportunity to compare compensation paid to for
those at the top of management with their counterparts in other sectors and the
disparity between the top manager with the medium pay of a worker employed by
that employer. If you want to know why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the
21st Century with evidence of huge income and wealth disparity
has struck a chord, a good place to start is an examination of the US military
and Wal-Mart pay.
The salary of the Chairman
of the Joint Chief Staff is $20,263.50 a month, and that of
a private in the army is $1,467.00 per
month. The Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff makes roughly fourteen times as
much as a private in the army. That’s right. 14 times is what separates
the top solider from the one pulling the trigger on the frontline. The army pay
range from top to bottom is closer to a Denmark or Norway than to the big
employers inside the world of private enterprise in the US.
Not only is the Wal-Mart
grunt paid 13% than a private in the army, the CEO of Wal-Mart is paid 1,034
times the median salary of a Wal-Mart worker. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/walmart-ceo-pay_n_2978180.html)The CEO of McDonald’s is paid 434
times the median salary of a MacDonald’s worker. In the rankings from the
highest disparity between CEO and medium pay for a worker in the company,
Wal-Mart is number 1 but MacDonald’s falls to number 5. Three companies pay
their CEO at the following multiples of one medium worker: Target #2 at 597:1,
Disney #3 at 557:1, Honeywell #4 at 439:1.
If you applied the
Wal-Mart ratio of 1034:1, using the bottom pay (note this is likely lower than
the medium pay of all soldiers) which is that of a private, the Chairman of the
Joint Chief Staff would be paid $21 million a month, or $8.8 million a month if
applying the McDonald’s 434:1 ratio. One person is in charge of the defense of
an entire country; the other is in charge of selling consumer goods and services
inside the same country.
It seems in the scheme of
things someone is vastly under paid or overpaid in the military if the private
enterprise system values apply to the military. The system that generates
muscles has a wholly different compensation system than the underlying system it
is designed to protect which is based on maximizing profit. One way to
accomplish that goal is to underpay the hugely numerous military personnel,
especially those at the higher leadership ranks.
The generals in the US
military don’t own the tanks, forts, jet fighters, submarines, aircraft
carriers, canons, rifles, and flame throwers. More importantly, the sons and
daughters of the generals don’t inherit their father’s rank and step into his
shoes on death as owners. While the generals stand in as leaders of the
enterprise, they don’t own it.
The top Wal-Mart
leadership is under the control of the Walton’s family. There are no
congressional hearings, no public vetting, and no presidential appointment.
When a family member of the Wal-Mart dynasty dies, his or her share is
inherited most likely by another member of the family. Any family that has 2.1
million people working in it is business is, in effect, a kind of aristocracy.
While the original meaning of aristocracy was ‘rule by the best’, it has come to
mean control over the most. In our time of democracy, aristocracy and oligarchy
have risen to new positions of power and influence that would have been the envy
of dukes and earls of the past.
The Wal-Mart family given
the size of its private workforce and the profits generated are a potent
economic and political force. The influence of the Wal-Mart family, as its
wealth accumulates, has a strong possibility of being expanded over multiple
generations. And the accumulation of greater wealth, power and workers inside
one family will likely persist as military generals come and go like store
story telling in the reign of Big Data
The number of employees
isn’t necessarily the best way to ask who is in control of the world’s wealth.
You can’t really understand the true lay of the pieces on the chessboard by
limiting your study to the Top 10 List of the World’s largest Employers. The
relationship of employee numbers to control of wealth is, for example,
misleading when the real question is: who is in control?
The “The Network of Global Corporate Control” examines a data
base that includes 37 million companies and finds that 147 companies in the
world control 40% of the world’s global wealth. The Walton
family, the one
that owns Wal-Mart comes in as Number 15 on the list of the top 147.
While Thomas Piketty has
used big data to break the code of silence and ideology around the issue of the
wealth owned by the 1%, but there is another shoe to drop. Having shown the
history of wealth concentration is useful. But it doesn’t necessary tell us how
wealth translates into control. It is the nature of control that flows from
wealth that allows us to move a step closer to understanding how economic and
political power is financed and allocated and functions. The old adage of
‘follow the money’ needs to be refined to read: follow how the money is
The 2011 study on global
corporate control shows that: “Network control is much more unequally
distributed than wealth. In particular, the top ranked actors hold a control ten
times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.”
The underlying grid of
connections emerges from Big Data. As our information accumulates, the emergent
patterns will likely show correlations that are predicted by dogma and lists, or
from our usual inventory of cognitive biases. In the future, others will look
back at our ‘list mania’ as another example of how we played chess in a dark
room and without a true understanding of how the game worked, and we compensated
by simplifying it, dumbing it down to a game of checkers or draughts.
This essay has been a
brief glimpse at the top ten largest employers of the world in order to make
sense of how we are governed, compensated, and protect and exploit resources and
markets. It is an essay about the perils of lists in a sea of complexity.
Knowing who are the largest employers on the planet reveals an aspect
of existing economic and political systems and the public institutions that
carry out government pro-business and growth policies.
I suspect the BBC list is
based on less than big data. It is crude and limited data. The time will arrive
when we will have a better idea from much more complete data sets and links
between data sets. It is what we have now. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem
suggests that no data system will ever be complete; that contradictions will
emerge. This sentence is false. A sentence we can never shake off,
answer or ignore. It follows us like a black dog on a moonless night.
can practice their skills by examining the numbers. They will be important in
the future; when confronted with big data we will want plausible explanations of
meaning. Also, storytellers will highlight what is missing from the existing
For example, it would be
interesting to know in a Thomas Piketty statistical way whether the ratio of
employees working for public and private companies in the top ten positions has
been constant over time, whether the ratio is connected with concentrations of
wealth and income, and the consequences of major economic events like recessions
on downsizing, wage capping, and success of rival economic powers and systems in
taking market share.
More data will provide
answers as to whether the world’s largest private employers are best explained
by the use of Western styled democratic systems, or whether they might have
evolved in modified form from a Chinese styled system. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s
might not have emerged from the chaotic American democracy without the presence
of American coercive power at its back. The culture of the military, with its
authoritarian command structure and democratic compensation system, may have
played an essential role.
Other powerful US
companies with fewer employees such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple,
Hollywood filmmakers, and war equipment manufacturers have added members to the
new emerging American aristocracy. Defense contractors, might reasonably be
added to the employees of the Defense Department as the separation between
public and private and between civilian and military is often artificial and
maintained for political purposes. Thus allowing retired generals a second
chance and career to cash in on the profitable side of violence.
I leave you to consider
this data: Wal-Mart is committed to hiring 100,000 ex-military personnel by
2018. (Source: http://walmartcareerswithamission.com ) But they should keep in mind
that grunts at Wal-Mart start at less pay than a private. This is a story that
between now and 2018 will likely be told by some writer, somewhere, wondering
about the complexity of our future life, which is unfolding.
uncompromising once their argument settles into a battle over who is right and
who is wrong. Everyone wishes to be right. Arguing that your opponent is wrong
only doubles their faith in their belief (Backfire Effect) and you are
banished from their list of people who know the difference between right from
wrong. Everyone is arguing over their positions, preference, values, and
beliefs. Husband and wives, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We
live in an angry, emotional time. And I am trying to get a handle on why this
One approach to
comprehending the forces that have caused this intellectual dead end to control
public debate is to ask a few basic questions:
(1) What do we really
understand about an issue or policy?
(2) What knowledge do we
have and where did we turn to find that knowledge?
(3) How complete and
updated is our information? and
(4) What are the limits to
our understanding of the underlying complexities of the system from which the
issue emerged or the policy must be implemented?
Researchers have suggested
that one problem is that we suffer from the illusion of understanding about how
something works, say, a flush toilet or air-conditioning unit. They are familiar
objects in our daily life. Because they are familiar we believe we understand
how they work. That is an illusion unless you are a plumber or air-conditioning
engineer. The illusion of understanding also applies in the political realm to
policies on immigration, transportation infrastructure, health care, energy
policy, climate change and so on. Given where I live and write, I am interested
in the politics of change.
We read the headlines
(though 66% of people don’t read newspapers). Most of our opinions on policy
issues have a headline depth—a mile wide and inch deep. We believe though we
know all there is to know about a preference or position from an 800-word story.
We would begrudgingly admit there are a few minor details we might look up if
need be, but we are pretty confident that our knowledge is solid and relevant.
Our 800-word world of knowledge has prepared us for a policy debate, and we
enter the battle over right and wrong with a brittle, dull blade and no shield.
But we are confident that our weapons of knowledge will allow us to prevail and
we emerge in victory, showing that we are right, and they—fools and charlatans,
their reasons turned to ashes have been defeated.
That’s pretty much our
world of political debate. We dive head first into a pool that is an inch deep
and if possible close down the counter arguments made by people who are
basically ignorant, know-nothing troublemakers. We need to convert them to the
In utopia people come to
their senses and realize that they lack an in depth understanding of a policy
position. In the real world, we are ‘cognitive misers’ says BBC’s Tom Stafford.
vulnerability flows from two sources: first, we are lazy thinkers and would
rather know just enough to lay down an emotional platform of support that plugs
us into our community of like-minded believers.
Second, our headline
knowledge gives us a feeling of familiarity about policy issue debate: it might
be gun law restrictions, sending special forces to find school girls kidnapped
in Nigeria, or the wisdom of a coup in Thailand. An audience of true believers
will emerge with similar talking points. Slogans and talking points create a
sense of real knowledge and of the familiarity.
An extremist position for
or against a policy is almost always drawn from a slogan, talking point,
headline grab that passes as reason or justification for why a position is
right. This leads to conflict between people on the opposite side of an issue.
They hurl reasons at one another. The other side sneers at the reasons from
their opponents. Deadlock ensues, positions hardened, and violence begins to
rear its ugly head.
Third, our mental
processing of patterns, knowledge, and values is filtered through cultural
filters. These biases can’t ever be overcome; they are our setting, channels,
frequencies over which information is sent and received.
Danger and red flashing
lights should be turned on once it is realized that our problem is our tendency
to unquestioningly accept that our understanding is sufficient, good enough, to
support high confidence in our position. That’s why it’s an illusion. It is also
why it’s a contradiction. We deceive ourselves in believing our simple
understanding is an accurate summary of how a complex system functions when we
don’t understand the complexity.
Researchers have shown
that politically polarizing positions rests on superficial understanding of the
complexity of how policies work. When pressed we can’t explain how the policy
functions in such complexity. We don’t have the information or breadth of
knowledge needed to connect policy, policy outcomes, and the system in which
policy sinks or swims. The problem with requiring someone with a polarized
position to give such an explanation is that it threatens the black and white
thinking. The hallmark of an extremist is one who refuses to undertake such an
We need diverse
information about systems, and that comes from people who see and experience the
system in diverse ways. But diversity of explanations can be viewed as
challenges or criticism. If you had true power, you’d close down those
explanations that didn’t support your policy or actions. Here’s an example from
I received an email from
the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) this week about an
With absolute power, you
can shutdown all public voices that probe for a deeper knowledge, and a broader
explanation of the mechanism working inside the system. Asking a question can be
viewed as an act of aggression. While a coup is unusual in most countries, the
impulse to control policy making by keeping away from the deep waters of
knowledge that may cause ‘confusion’ or ‘undermine authority’ is nearly
Our understanding of
policies remains stuck at the abstract, superficial headline level of reality.
That understanding is disconnected to an inquiry as to how policies function
inside the day-to-day system. The takeaway from The Political Extremism
research is the conclusion that when people discover their illusion of
explanatory depth, they moderated their opinions. They become less confident in
supporting an extreme position.
How do we discover the
illusion of explanatory depth has deceived us over whether a policy is good or
bad? When asking someone about a policy, the trick is to refrain from asking
them to give a list of their reasons to support their preference or position.
But why not listen to their reasons? Because the probability is their reasons
are degraded products built from inferior materials e.g., vaguely understood
values, third-hand reports, talking points by leaders, opinion-makers,
celebrities, and pundits they trust or admire, or form from the star dust of
generalities that don’t require a great deal of knowledge.
The policies of
airport/passenger security are a good example of polarized positions. The
government claims its security/inspection policies are essential tools to fight
terrorism. This is their reason for what we go through at airports when we
travel, young, old, it doesn’t matter. The possibility of a terrorist boarding a
plane with potential weapon is the headline reason that in a given year a
billion airline passengers must remove their shoes, belts, watches, keys, coins,
declare their iPads, laptops, Kindles, and leave behind any liquid more than
Remember while you’re
putting your shoes back on, and gathering up all the bits and pieces from the
plastic tray, that in many countries, officials don’t check boarding passengers’
passport against a database of stolen passports. In a story about stolen and
false passports in Thailand, The Guardian noted:
“Interpol’s database of
Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001
terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m
entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m
times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and
the UAE (50m).”
Two passengers on the
ill-fated MH370 flight that vanished without a trace (remember that?) boarded
with dodgy passports.
Instead of confronting
authorities who support the current airport inspection regime not to give their
reasons for supporting failed security, we might ask them for a mechanistic
explanation of the effects of its procedures, how those procedures were
designed, how they have been subject to quality control, how system operators
have been trained, how their skills are updated, what disruptions occur inside
airport processing systems and how does the policy account for those
disruptions. These aren’t questions of preference; it is an explanatory
discussion of how inspection works, who works in that system, who supervises and
updates, manages and is accountable in the system, the cost of the system
(direct and indirect), and what outcomes the policy has produced.
Certain problems can only
be resolved by a military solution. That is the use of force to remove an
obstacle to the state’s interest and neutralize the threat of the obstacle being
reinstalled. Most problems are political in nature and a military solution is
ill-suited to serve as a substitute for a political process which is inherently
civilian, with the military is only a component in the overall grand plans for
Taking off your shoes at
an airport and executing a military coup to overthrow a government are both
justified on the basis of providing public security. Can one discover a
rational link between these two very different situations in which security is
invoked? We seek explanations as to why and to whom policies apply, how the
policy targets were designed, detected, and detered, the process of
implementation to assess security measures. All policies, including ones
connected with security, ultimately must pass through the test of whether the
operational filters reduce security threats. Are we, in other words, detaining
the people who threaten security or people who ask questions about power
People can argue all day
and never persuade the other to change his view on the use of a military
solution to resolve a certain conflict. Pro-intervention supporters would reason
that the military as the last resort could be trusted where politicians are
characterized as evil, corrupt and bad people. Anti-intervention supporters
would reason that a democratic system can’t by its very nature emerge from a
military dictatorship. And the two parties would go round and round in a debate,
each feeling more confident the other person was insane and they’d been right
Might there be another
more promising approach, which might diffuse each opposing party’s fixed
position based on the illusion of understanding?
There is. And it works
like this. You ask the other person not for his reasons to support his position
on a matter of government, resource allocation, energy or environmental
programs, climate change, but you ask him to explain, step-by-step how the
position he supports would define its policy and the goal or outcome it seeks to
achieve. The Cognitive Miser Theory kicks in at this point. It exposes that the
fixed knowledge of how something works, what it takes to make it work, how it
breaks down or other limitations, is very shallow.
Finding a middle ground
means that people learn to change their use of hearsay, values, and headline
knowledge. The breakthrough comes with the realization that these elements
promise the illusion of an ocean of truth but deliver a tiny, muddy pond. Rather
than attack their policy (that won’t be productive), ask them to explain how the
policy they support will bring about the outcome they claim will happen. Give us
the specifics of how the policy is connected to and integrated with the larger
system, and how that system will be modified, altered, updated and how someone
can measure whether it achieved the intended outcome.
Remember that this
approach to diffuse political extremism is a two-way street. No one thinks they
hold extreme views; this is a label that we stigmatize others with. If you ask
another person to take you along an explanatory tour of how the policy he or she
supports integrates with the larger system and produces the outcome claimed, he
or she may well ask you to do the same. Your explanation may also stall or fail,
and you also realize the illusion of understanding doesn’t only rear its head
from your opponent’s nest; it lives inside of you, too. That’s when both sides
of a policy debate realize they both need to revise their understanding about
the meaning, design and purpose of a policy; that it wasn’t as absolute and
perfect as they thought and a compromise becomes possible.
Debating the illusion of
understanding is an interesting idea. Unfortunately it can’t be raised until the
possibility of an illusion is acknowledged. That acknowledgment is difficult to
come by and that is core of the problem. Many people are frustrated because
their minds are tuned (perhaps imprisoned is a better metaphor) to the easy ride
they are accustomed to along the lazy mental landscape of illusions. Suggesting
this is an illusion is to touch a nerve and the patient jumps a mile high out of
his armchair. Anger and hate are the preferred anesthetic in dealing with the
The discussion between
those holding conflicting policy views and what steps are needed before we can
go on that explanatory journey has been put on ice. But I write from the tropics
where the ice, sooner or later, melts under the noonday sun.
There are two silences
that concern me and should concern you.
“You have a right to
What usually follows is:
“Whatever you say may be used against you in a court of law.”
This right to be silent is
enshrined in the 5th Amendment of US constitution. Like many constitutional
rights the right to remain silent has been chipped away, sculptured into an
object that continues to have similar traits but is a different species. In
principle, the right to stand your ground against the vast power of an
oppressive state is a symbol against tyranny.
The right to remain silent
when questioned by the State is a radical right. The right is your shield
against forced incrimination. It is why torture and beating are so repulsive and
threatening. In the face of overwhelming power, all citizens, even those we
despise and hate, need protection against authority. One man can stop a column
of tanks through sheer defiance. But how long can he stand before being run
over? It’s for our own sake that we protect our right to silence. To exempt one
is to exempt everyone. The onus is on the authorities to make a case of wrong
doing without torturing the suspect into a confession.
But confessions are
popular in many places. Confessions have an enormous advantage—they shortcut the
tedium of dead end investigations, paperwork, false leads and trails, and
looking for incriminating evidence and witnesses.
The second category of
silence is connected to the truth. Freedom of expression is the truth telling
process. Of all the amendments to the American constitution, this is the number
one right of a citizen. As George Orwell wrote, “In a time of deceit telling the
truth is a revolutionary act.” He also wrote, “Political language is designed to
make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of
solidity to pure wind.”
Silence is not just a
right. It is a condition that can be imposed. Silence can be commanded on
political grounds. In this case, not remaining silent becomes a crime. It can be
seen as a provocation to those in authority. Speaking and non-speaking in
tyranny must pass the test of loyalty. There is no other feature in such a
system by which silence can be judged.
Silence is one purpose of
repression as it mutes critics, those with the awkward questions, those who wish
someone to explain a contradiction, a paradox for which there is no good answer.
Silence never embarrasses authority; it comforts them.
How to illustrate or
describe silence in words is difficult. The act of writing breaks the silence.
This state of being quiet is both an internal mental process we aren’t
privileged to witness in others, and an external signal of the silent process.
When I am silent, you may guess that something is going on inside my mind, but
it remains a guess until I reveal my thoughts.
I can illustrate silence
by describing an exterior event. An empty dinning room table with a woman
reading. A bedroom with an elderly man staring at the ceiling as death
approaches. A crime scene with yellow tape draped across a doorway, with a woman
with blood on her blouse, staring into space. Silence envelopes each, expressing
a different range of possibilities as to why words are absent.
There is another kind of
silence that writers throughout the ages have faced. Not a tyrant seeking to
incriminate the writer for a crime he didn’t commit, but the tyrant who uses
power to stop a writer from voicing criticism, challenging dogma, pointing out
errors, mistakes, flaws and deceit. Silence in this case is the tyrant’s friend
and ally. The weight of occupation is the enforced silence the occupiers impose.
Like torture or beatings, the command to shut up and obey causes
Silence in the
interrogation room is prohibited. But silence inside the marketplace of ideas
may be required. Power has this contradictory relationship with silence. You
have to say the State’s position on silence depends on the context.
Writers such as George
Orwell have been curious about the meaning of silence. Most people are not by
nature silent. In a silent room, look for the censor. Ask him the score. He
won’t be able to tell you more than I’ve told you: either remain silent or join
in praise of the leader. “You see,” he says, “we give the same choice to all
people. The good people and the bad people are known by their
We have a natural impulse
to explain, to discuss, to debate, to test, challenge and contest theories,
beliefs and principles. But in a time of repression, the spontaneous discussions
grind to a dead halt. It is a time for thinking, in silence.
You have a choice. You can
be defined by the censor’s choice or you step forward in front of a tank. Until
this week, I never emotionally felt how brave that man was. How he gives me hope
in a world where words bend to the iron will and tanks of rulers. That is our
history. What our ancestors experienced. They understood the lesson repeated
generation after generation, that to break the official silence is a crime. The
truth card won’t get you out of jail, and it may well be your one-way ticket to
a prison cell.
Here are some thoughts
from writers about the nature of silence, truth and censorship.
The first obligation of a
writer is to mess with people’s biases, making them question the reliability of
the filters they use to construct reality. We are all in the reality
construction business. But the building material comes from quite different
sources. You can build a grand structure of reality without using a single brick
from the warehouse of facts and evidence. If someone asks you whether you are
biased, you might inquire which of the 93
Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases, or did the person have in mind
one of the 27 social biases or possibly one of the 47 Memory errors and
You might think of these
biases like the searchlights used in London during the Blitz in World War II to
spot and shoot down enemy intruders. We are bombarded daily with ideas,
thoughts, facts, opinions, evidence and our biases distort, deflect, and filter
the information as we process it. These are our prison walls. No one can scale
them and be free.
Billions of people live
inside such socially constructed structures erected from ancient holy books,
customs, beliefs, and rituals. When a tsunami of facts washes over these ancient
structures, showing they are false, unsafe, and unreliable, what do people do
who live in these buildings? They hunker down and claim their traditional
structure of reality is stronger than ever. And the heretics with their ‘facts’
and ‘evidence’ are condemned and vilified. Ever since the science revolution in
the 17th Century, the battle over what material is appropriate
material for social constructs of reality has been waged.
An article in
Macleans titled America Dumbs Down observed, “A national poll, conducted in March
for the Associated Press, found that 42 per cent of
Americans are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the
product of evolution. Similarly, 51 per cent of people expressed skepticism that
the universe started with a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago, and 36 per cent
doubted the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.”
The first obligation of
the average best selling writer is to pander to people’s biases, confirming
their vision of reality. Not all best sellers are cynical attempts to make
money. Accidental best sellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the
21st Century is a good example of a book that undermines
conventional economic wisdom, exposing the bias and fraud of many contemporary
To make people think for
themselves critically in an age where independent thinking is uncomfortable, out
of fashion, and suspected to be a covert tool of the elites to undermine faith
and religion. An example of the trend in the Macleans article: “Last
month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely
True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10
supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth
language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady
Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as
a protest, a concerned citizen called
police. It was the
evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to
“spreading the love of reading.”
The crucial question is
what do we use language for? Every culture and time throughout history has
addressed this question. In our culture and time, the debate continues. By
examining the controversies about literature and the world of ideas found inside
books, we can take a snapshot of how we address this question. Without language
and books we can’t communicate about the past and the make predictions about the
future. This makes language potentially dangerous. This explains why the past in
every culture is a manufactured product. The reality of the past when challenged
leads to conflict, assassination, exile and stigma. Students are not
so much taught as indoctrinated. And the task of envisioning the future, which
draws lessons from the past, becomes riddled with the serialization of errors,
lies, and illusions continued from the past.
Language in print
establishes our sense of reality so completely that we become accustomed to
perceiving the world visually. Our other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and
taste atrophy as we explore the world through analogue and digital print worlds,
and the visual worlds of YouTube, TV, and movies. By controlling what people
see, they can be easily programmed to share a homogenous reality—social or
political. The financial control by the elites over the medium of print and
images is a guarantee of their power and influence can be extended and remain
largely unchallenged. One of the first tasks of coup makers is to take control
of the media. And they seize TV, radio station and threaten others in social
media for good reasons.
We design the space we
call the ‘present’ by reference to this unreliable account of the past. When
students enter that design space in school and university they can come in for a
shock. We can’t tell them they’ve been lied to and deceived most of their life,
instead we warn them to brace against a ‘disturbing’ scene in a play or book as
it might unsettle, confuse or disconcert them.
The number of books being
read per person is in decline. Ignorance and anti-intellectual attitudes are in
vogue. The New York Times reports a trend in American colleges that
seems to be a parody, something Jon Stewart would run on the Daily
“Colleges across the
country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known
as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read
or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause
symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [as] in victims of rape or in war
That’s not a mistake. This
isn’t an article about 10 year olds in a South Carolina redneck country school;
it is about colleges throughout the United States. Though, I am skeptical of the
NYT’s author’s claim. The author offers the usual anecdotal evidence without
supporting data to support the claim of a mass movement in this direction. Let’s
assume, for purposes of argument, that the big data supports this claim of a
countrywide trend in American colleges in support of trigger warnings to be
issued by professors assigning plays, poems or books with disturbing themes,
characters or events.
Isn’t one of the purposes
of a college education the goal of exposing students to a wide range of ideas,
cultures, histories, and theories as an introduction to the reality of the
world? Yes, Johnny and Mary, the world is often in conflict over ideas, events,
personalities, and history. If you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt
Vonnegut, who found himself at ground level during the fire bombing by the
allies of Dresden, you will discover one way of processing such a traumatic
event. Every great book ever written triggers an emotion, upsets values, threats
the orthodox views, and, yes, makes you appreciate we have always lived in an
uncertain, contentious, messy, dangerous world, where people are injured,
disappeared, killed, tortured and abused. Shouldn’t college students have an
deeper, more diverse, complex understanding of ways that reality are fashioned
in our world?
Apparently that view is a
minority in the American trend for bringing in a system of ‘trigger warnings’ as
the last step toward creating a state of near total control. If I were one of
the oligarchs, I’d very much support and fund such a trend. The reality is
anything that might threaten the oligarch’s social construct of reality is
deemed a threat to all. The trigger warning is itself a warning about who has
their finger on the trigger and where the barrel of that gun is pointed at
writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.
The New York
Times article gives a couple of examples, “Among the suggestions for books
that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of
Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses
The new purpose of
university education has narrowed considerably as it has gone into the mass
education business. Trigger warnings become a strut in the new infrastructure of
reality to reinforce the prevailing view that college is a place to learn job
skills. Our biases ensure that we are hardwired to believe things that are not true.
Recent studieshave shown that most people live in a ‘fact free zone’ and debunking lies
and deceptions brings in Backfire Effect like ack-ack guns firing at the
incoming facts until the barrels melt. These people, it appears, need protection
from the blitz of images, facts, opinions that challenge their personal
operating system of reality. Having internalized the message, the herd becomes
self-censoring. The Elites react negatively and intervene when an individual or
group attempts to divert the masses from their auto-pilot setting. For example,
someone may ask a dangerous question: Is wealth equitably distributed by
America is, in other
words, trending toward the Chinese model of higher education. Intellectual and
emotional controls are a step away from eliminating the awkward that may get in
the way of learning how to build a bridge or computer program. If a professor
must live under the shadow of a trigger warning, the temptation will be to avoid
any literature that might have such a trigger for fear that his warning was too
little, too late, and he is open to a law suit for failure to make a full and
informed disclosure in a complete warning. Every professor would need to retain
a lawyer with expertise in what is an appropriate trigger and how to give
effective warnings. Does society want to go down that path? It seems there are
many in America who wish for this path.
Students are cocooned in a
manufactured reality where disturbing, disruptive or destabilizing images,
scenes, characters might upset the reality that has been pre-ordered and
assigned to them. The Oberlin College guideline is specific: “Be aware of
racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of
privilege and oppression.”
Unfiltered, ugly, twisted,
confusing and threatening reality is an enemy to those in power. Most people are
willing to hand over their liberty and privacy to escape that reality. Oligarchs
know this about the human condition and they exploit this design defect to their
and their heirs enduring long-term advantage.
The techniques of control
are outright repression as in Orwell’s 1984 or soma in Huxley’s
Brave New World. We are learning this is a false choice. In many
countries the oligarchs use a combination of both techniques to quell rebellion
and to dampen fears of the disturbing, inconvenient truths of most people’s
lives. Issues of ‘privilege and oppression’ are triggering events. We must warn
students that an assigned book might create an uncomfortable sense of cognitive
Not all messages are
allowed equal passage along the pipeline of information. The medium has more
than one way to deliver a message and more than one message: the most powerful
symbol of blocking the herd from seeing what the caretakers wish them not to
know about their plans, policies, and self-dealing is ██████████. When a
non-authorized person wishes to send a public message over the heads of the
caretakers which alerts the herd of a danger, a misdeed, or abuse the message is
blocked are behind a wall: ██████████. Analogue or digital, the traffic of
ideas, information, and theories is under constant surveillance, censors
patrolling space, searching for the words and images that challenge authority’s
version of reality. We can follow their trail. Our overlords leave behind their
historical signature of disapproval ██████████ erected like a tombstone over the
grave of a murdered thought.
Trigger warnings are a
sign of attempts to restrict and ultimately to abolish cognitive dissonance. No
one should be surprised by this desire. Thais often say that thinking too much
gives them a headache. That view, as it turns out, may now represent a larger,
universal attitude in many other places.
skepticism, doubt, and calls for falsifiable theories are time-consuming, slow
thinking in a world where change accelerates and people are afraid of being left
behind. The sheep keep dogs as house pets not quite seeing the terrible irony of
that relationship, without seeing what has happened to the wolf over
evolutionary time has happened to them.
Marshall McLuhan, The
Gutenberg Galaxy, more than fifty years ago saw then what we are
experiencing now: “Homogenization of men and materials will become the great
program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any
other time or technology.”
Trigger warnings are
another example of the Hyperreality that maintains an environment for the
herd. In dense concentrations in modern cities, the members of this herd,
individually and collectively, remain calm, content, and undisturbed as they
study, work, eat, love, pray and shop. The gates leading from one to the next
enclosure should give the appearance of freedom. People need to believe they
glide along one seamless path where they are warned in advance against any
thoughts or images that might disturb them. Guidelines are issued to carefully
monitor and control ideas, reports of psychological states, degrading and
horrible experiences, injustice and arbitrary action as if they are about to be
injected with a dangerous drug. The best of literature is dangerous as it shows
the manufactured reality is a drug of the worst kind of oppression.
The future is a fight
against a model of reality that is a monopoly, controlled and protected and
defended against dissent. We are already far down the road where our reality is
one manufactured under close supervision, blending entertainment, status,
prestige and pride. Non-corporate media has noticed how big corporate media has
been relatively quiet in reporting about a Princeton Study that showed the
considerable power to influence government policy held by the economic
elite. Information has been
sufficiently filtered by big corporate media and the question is how long before
non-corporate online players make the old filters irrelevant? The
information dam will bust. People will know who has what and where they’ve
stashed it. It seems the chase has started.
I try to imagine how this
will work out. The economic elites still operate the main feed line of what you
experience everyday. Every object around you throughout the day connects you to
a product that comes off the feed line. Personal emotional attachment and
engagement becomes detached from day-to-day reality. We are attached to what
isn’t real, and reality, which we no longer engage with, seems less and less
real. Disneyland is the prevailing metaphor, the 3D cartoon world. The
artificial environment becomes the new real. The Eiffel Tower displayed Disney
World in Orlando becomes as ‘real’ to the visitor as the one in Paris. People no
longer can distinguish one from the other. A copy becomes as valid an experience
as the original. It is inside this blended reality that students are shielded
against an earlier world of experience and reality where bad things happened to
The best writing will
continue to explore the sharp edges of reality, the hypocrisy of power, the
abuses of authority, the inequity and injustice of those behind the veil. It is
a rearguard action as those who have used truth to challenge power, only to
discover that those in power deflect truth under the guise of protecting youth
from the harmful consequence of truth. We have advanced technologically beyond
what our ancestors could imagine while emotionally running on the same treadmill
that Socrates pointed at in the public square. And that cup of hemlock takes a
new form as we escape deeper into the world of sheep forgetting the history of
Marshall McLuhan wrote in
Gutenberg Galaxy: “We now live in the early part of an age for which
the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript
culture was to the eighteenth century. ‘We are the primitives of a new
culture.’” We enter this new culture will our bias guns fully loaded and blazing
“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” ―
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Characters, even the most memorable ones, are creatures of their place and
time. Time is an inescapable aspect of character, giving it weight, dimension,
and volume like a physical property. As people are born, live their lives and
die, so is the fate of fictional characters. While the expiry date condemns most
fictional characters to the literary graveyard, a few manage to achieve a kind
of immortality. This literary elite roll call of characters is handed onto
future generations. But as this is such a rare event, we should be asking how
and why that happens at all. As Lewis Carroll implies in the opening quote,
people, like novels are period pieces, who understand themselves in a way that
has little relevance to the contemporary world shaped by new and different
As the cartoon suggests, an essential quality defining a character in a novel
(or life) is the way they are products of the technology of their time. Their
technology has shaped their view of the world and how they see themselves and
In crime fiction, the office of a private eye might contain a Remington
typewriter, a hat and umbrella tree, a Bakelite rotary phone and a couple of
metal file cabinets with neat rows of paper folders. The private eye’s Secretary
takes short hand or transcribes her boss’s dictation.
Investigations are centered in the analogue world where people are followed,
watched, and there are face-to-face meetings, confrontations, discussions and
arguments. We can read the classic fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell
Hammet with pleasure by the simple act of accepting that we enter a world of
very different artifacts, objects, and technology. This conceit works because
inside that world everyone is working, living, stealing, killing, lying, and
running on the same technical infrastructure. None of them have a significant
technological advantage over the other. It is then a war of wits, shoe leather,
discipline, and one or two lucky breaks that makes the difference in a private
I have described a world that pre-dates the age of big data, computers, GPS
systems, Google, Facebook, Twitter, tracking programs recording computer
keystrokes and website searches, CCTV cameras, and computer forensic experts.
This technology provides the context in which we live, move and die; it is how
we perceive what is meaningful in the age we live in.
Let’s take the example of a murder. If the police or private eye discover a
murder victim who had no email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Skype
accounts, and who had no text-messages, no smart phone, and whose sole
possession was a black and white TV, radio and cassette player, they might
wonder if this person was a time traveler from the past. Certainly it would seem
odd; a character who chose in 2014 to divorce himself from the digital world
would be a fish out of water. His murder would appear more freakish to the new
generation because he chose find happiness in a life totally removed the digital
world. That seems incomprehensible to many young people (a hypothesis that needs
“So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have
no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be
brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences
and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works.
All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast
to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we
are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so,
too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that
does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums.”
A non-connected character stands a chance to gain a reader’s interest if she
is a technology lover, who wonders how such a character can exist outside her
digital zone and call themselves content and happy; and satisfies the Luddite,
who sees her own possibilities in following a life (minus the unhappy ending)
like such a character, drawing inspiration and courage from the example.
It would be a character both sides of the digital divide would enjoy but
for different reasons. That’s what makes for a good character—he or she plays
across the narrower bands of class, education, and status lines.
Unfriending or blocking someone online and offline are two different social
spaces, protocols, repercussions, and reactions.
As readers we follow the lives of characters moving about inside fictional
worlds that are significantly different from our own life. The strength of the
characters and their story can (and do) allow the reader to enjoy the human
aspect of the experience that transcends primitive information retrieval and
storage systems, and rudimentary communication systems which makes their culture
very different from our own.
Readers now expect their characters to be influenced, affected by, and in
reaction to the things that happen in the digital world.
The technological distance between 2014 and 1974 is only forty years. In many
ways the forces that shape lives have changed considerably over this brief
period. Part of the fallout is that more people have vastly more information
about each other. Meet someone new and want to find out who they are? In the
analogue world it might take a long time to find out information about someone.
Today, we Google them and in a few minutes have a profile.
All of us have become private investigators with access to far more
information than any governments had at their disposal 50 years ago. The lives,
possessions and luxury life style of the .1% are no longer secret. Inequality
and the gap between those who own the system and those who work for the system
has created digital interest, with the online communities channeling statistics,
reviewing books, discussing causes, priorities, policies and propaganda. A
worldwide audience has a conversation that goes on twenty-four hours a day and
leaves that conversation online for others to read and participate in.
Our ideas about secrecy and privacy come to have very different meaning and
importance depending on the technology environment.
Are the old classics relevant to the new generation and those who will have
more advanced technology in the next 50 years? Will they enjoy Richard Stark’s
Parker novels like The Score, or James Crumely’s The Long Good
Kiss or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Cain’s title begs for a cartoon with the ten year old asking: Was his email
account down? The issue isn’t limited to crime fiction. The classic Zen and
the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry of Values by Robert M. Pirsig
written in the early 1970s assumes a technological platform that has long since
vanished. A son and father on a road trip, discussing the meaning of life; they
lacked a digital connection. In the novel, there were just the two of them on
the road and the stars above their heads at night. Hard to imagine, isn’t
We are at a crossroad (some would argue we are always at a crossroad). There
are those who read these novels, learn from them, share them with others, and
increase their understanding of others (call this the empathy bonus). But there
is no doubt that the characters in such books experience life in a quite
different fashion from contemporary people.
We shop online. We socialize with one another over large distances, fall in
love, out of love, feud, form alliances, vent anger and hate—all online, from
the safety of their home, office, car, Starbucks or Siam-Paragon shopping mall.
Most young people spend as much time (if not substantially more) online as they
do in their offline world. People hang out online the way in once did at the
local pub. A character’s personality, desires, motives and goals are as much
defined by his or her relationship with others online as in the old analogue
world. We think we know others in the digital world and they know us? But what
do we really know about each other from our computer screen, iPad, or iPhone?
Pinker might argue there are different styles of knowing. To some extend that is
true. We all know some people much better than others even in the analogue
But the medium of the messages, its style, is also a clue to its limitations.
The digital world is a substitute for face-to-face conversations. Your choice of
medium will be a trade off in the quality of collecting and analyzing
information. In the analogue world, you can see a person’s facial
expressions, their hands making a gesture, their posture as they sit, talk,
stand, walk across a room, or observe their eyes during a moment of silence when
all kinds of information about mood, attention, veracity, and
openness/resistance is revealed outside of formal language. Emotional icons are
a poor substitute. The judgments we make in the analogue world are both
restrictive—what you see is all that you get—and expansive—they include smells,
sounds, touch and taste.
Many readers hunger for a reading experience that not only explores the
technological impact on the lives of fictional characters. A novel recreates the
risks, dangers, and opportunities such innovations bring, ones that disrupt like
a knife blade cutting through skin and soft tissue and ones that change the ways
we think about ourselves and each other.
News feeds produce a huge volume of information about the global migration of
people across geographical boundaries. The Rohingya fleeing Burma on old
unseaworthy boats to escape persecution and murder under the eye of local
authorities. Africans escaping again by boat to Europe. Hispanic people cross
into America for a better life. Cambodians and Burmese cross the border into
Thailand for a new, better life. We don’t get a true sense of the proportion of
such people and their problems in our cozy digital social networks. The one
justification for writing a novel is to make such people ‘real’ and ‘tangible’
and ‘individual’. How do such people fit into our hybrid analogue-digitally
divided lives? That’s the question you should be asking a novelist?
The physical world continues to draw our attention and when we read these
stories we rarely ask how much longer until the digital world distracts us from
the analogue migration patterns of our species. As the locus of the real action
moves into ‘hyperreality’, blurring what is ‘real’ along with what we are paying
attention to, we may be losing our ability to distinguish digital migrations
from physical ones.
We can easily make a list of our favorite analogue world authors, where the
technological perspective is pre-1982 (IBM PC goes to mass market). Writers like
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Richard
Stark, and many others who are widely read, discussed and admired fall into that
The Bakelite phone generation, as a result of the scope and nature of their
technology, have (to our modern eyes) severe limits on how they can find out
things about other people, how they go about looking, where they search, and
what they do when they find what they are looking for. We see them as
handicapped in a way that we are not.
The people in the pre-1982 novels had no devices others than telephones to
communicate with each other. Most of the inter reaction is face to face. How
primitive the new generation might be tempted to conclude.
We expect a character from a contemporary author to mirror the reality of the
modern world and that means an accounting of his or her connections to the
digital world. Readers expect to find hybrid characters with a foot in both
worlds. These connections are essential to understanding a person’s identity.
The separation of what they believe, know, or understand from the two worlds is
blended in a way that it can’t be untangled. Person and device blurred into one.
The device augments, enhances the character, makes him feel smarter, more
knowledgeable, capable and in control. Like drugs or alcohol, in the digital
world the information flow becomes an addictive river where people wish to bathe
for hours. Such people start their morning and finish their day checking their
timelines, email accounts, and browsing for the latest breaking news.
People who have crawled into the digital world are readers looking for
stories about how others have used this crawl space, their problems, ups and
downs, and the way they handle relationships in the online and offline
The final chapter about character remains as open ended as technology. But
there seems no going back to the time of the classics, not in crime or literary
fiction. As future readers, if an author is to purchase a piece of their
fragmented attention, he will need a story that transcends time and technology.
That’s a tall order and no one can say what will survive. Readers in
different times have wanted the same experience: a literary mirror, a compass, a
shield and a sword to go forth and wage the battles in their daily life. And to
understand the meaning of those battles, the victories and the defeats.
Characters in books will need to adjust what they pay attention to and who
pays attention to them. Authors who ignore the evolution of human relationships
and identity building will be writing about a lost past. There will always be a
market for nostalgia and idealized fictional characters. As there will be those
suffer from the delusion that such characters whose lives never touched the
digital world are meaningful to the new generation of readers. Those of us who
reached adulthood long before our world was rewired for broadband width
communication remember that earlier off the grid analogue world we grew up in.
We also know that this world is behind us. And the new generation of readers
will expect, what we expected, characters we could identify with; not characters
that would judge us or look down on us, our way of life and values.
What will this new generation of readers expect from fiction authors? In my
view, we will enter fictional worlds where characters’ emotional reactions,
intentions, preoccupation shift between the analogue and digital experience.
Young readers will have many more people they call ‘friends’ than prior
generations. Most of these friends, they will have never met outside a computer
screen but that won’t lessen their feeling of connectedness and intimacy.
Friendships in the analogue world will have a different time scale and priority.
Books will chart the connection between characters inside the two worlds.
Technology disrupts not only jobs and industries; it disrupts the nature of our
identity. Authors, in the future, will discover ways to tell the stories about
people whose identities are the product of information and communication linking
two different worlds of thought, experience, ideas, values and
The nature of crime is
relatively straightforward across all cultures. Criminals depend on others who
fail to cross check for danger and assess the risk of what lies waiting in the
shadows. We grow fat and complacent and lazy. Members of the criminal class
calculate their chances of making themselves richer at our expense and move away
from the crime scene unscathed. With our habits and routines and disengagement
from the analogue world, we make it easy for criminals.
Not us smart,
non-complacent ones we assume, but the others: we see their bodies and we see
the tears in the eyes of their families and friends. Sometimes all the vigilance
in the world won’t be enough. Things happen to people and to the planners who
have gone through the checklist twice before taking off. Call it bad luck, or
karma, or the randomness of the universe, mysteries which mock our
We are nearing the end of
an age when crime fiction was an epic battle of law enforcement authorities
matching wits with criminals at the domestic and international level. From the
Parker novels to the Wolf of Wall Street, there is a parade of crime in the back
alleys of Main Street and Wall Street.
Leonardo Di Caprio, Wolf of Wall
The state authorities have
been making gains employing the latest advanced technology such as surveillance
cameras, Internet tracking, GPS systems, and recording of our online search
histories, credit card purchases, telephone calls, and emails. There are many
more ways to discover what others are planning, and to catch criminals after
they commit a crime. There are fewer dark corners for criminals to hide and they
continue to diminish.
Technology is dynamic. The
devices appear to be egalitarian, and seem through the promise of connection to
expand our sense of kinship, and that lulls us into feeling
The reality is the data
collected about you and me and everyone is being concentrated. It is the new
Capital, the new wealth from which income is being generated. Not US Treasury
Bonds or dividends paid to shareholders. We are starting imagine where all of
this is leading us.
As most people are caught
up in the daily struggles it’s no surprise that the larger forces remain
invisible even as they gather significance. One of the best examples is the
potential for existential shifts caused by AI or Artificial Intelligence. This
essay is about what the possibilities of AI may have waiting for us in the near
to medium future. Let’s take a walk down that alley.
Often the first hints
about the nature of abrupt change are found in literature and film. Two recent
films: Hers and Transcendence ask questions about the
intelligence combined with technology that dwarfs human intelligence.
We begin to notice small
stories buried in the back pages about how the military is funding the
development of autonomous-weapon systems. The technological entity launches
itself, select the target and destroys and we sit back with a bowl of popcorn
and watch the video replay.
We start to see articles
about how people around us have withdrawn from the world and their lives, even
as they are in public, are lived in a digital link through their iPhone or
tablet. There are articles pleading for people to look away from their
iPhone and engage the world around them.
The next canary to ring
the warning bell is found among scientists, the rationalists, those who aren’t
in the business of channeling our fears but understanding and explaining the
nature of the world and updating the context of our reality. These aren’t
doomsday people or someone trying to make a market, a buck, a name. They are
shouting. They are asking people to pay attention.
“One can imagine such
technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers,
out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even
understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the
long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”
AI depends on not just who
controls it but on the more basic question—at what point does AI slip the collar
and no longer can be controlled by human intelligence? And slips that collar
around our necks.
What is the timeline for
an event when AI exceeds human intelligence? Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky
have debated issues, including the speed of AI development and the debate has
been archived. Judging the possible rate of
AI acceleration is hotly debated. AI might go through many steps allowing for
all kinds of plans, policies and consensus to develop before the next step; or
it might happen suddenly without advance warning. No one can give a reasonable
probability of which position is more likely. As a result, scientists like
Stephen Hawking have argued (this is the existential concern) that government
should take precautions on AI going FOOM.
The rate of change factor
is a major difference that distinguishes the impact of AI, its disruption of the
concentration of wealth accumulated over many generations, which is Piketty’s
domain. It is, for example, highly improbable that all wealth in the world would
be owned by a single human being, acting on his or her own intelligence, in the
space of 5 hours; but there is an argument that this probability is significant
enough with AI that we should pay attention and plan for that
Piketty’s Capital in
the 21st Century is generating a lot of attention, controversy, and heated
exchanges. Perhaps it is time to take Piketty’s argument about capital and put
it in a different context to see if the feelings it evokes shift. I’ve written a
short think piece on how Piketty’s argument would look inside the field of
Intelligence and the Piketty Argument
Piketty’s research showing
the exponential threat of unregulated capitalism hitting a wall, one built
during the Cold War as a response to communism. The time between the fall of the
Berlin Wall and Capital in the 21st Century is too short for the old ideological
beliefs and faith in capitalism to not influence some contrary
Wasn’t capitalism what the
Cold War was fought preserve against a collectivist nightmare? How can a French
academic appear out of ‘nowhere’ and challenge the banner under which that Cold
War was fought and won?
“’One of the conclusions
that I take from my own work is that we don’t need 19th century economic
inequality to grow. One lesson of the 20th Century is that the kind of extreme
concentration of wealth that we had in the 19th Century was not useful, and
probably even harmed growth, because it reduced mobility and access of new
groups of the population into entrepreneurship and power. It led to the capture
of our political institutions prior to World War I. We don’t want to return to
We are headed down that
road and we should take note and prepare ourselves. How we prepare for it and
what tools we can reasonably use are another questions that require political
In a review of Piketty’s book, Branko
Milanovic summarized the main thesis:
“Piketty’s key message is
both simple and, once understood, almost self-evident. Under capitalism, if the
rate of return on private wealth (defined to include physical and financial
capital, land, and housing) exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, the share
of capital income in the net product will increase. If most of that increase in
capital income is reinvested, the capital-to-income ratio will rise. This will
further increase the share of capital income in the net output. The percentage
of people who do not need to work in order to earn their living (the rentiers)
will go up. The distribution of personal income will become even more
One way of understanding
Piketty’s arguments based on research is to remove it from an economic platform
associated with having avoided the prospect of subjection to communism. That is,
let’s leave capitalism aside for a moment. And instead, we will focus on the
basic idea Piketty’s research has revealed in another domain, Artificial
Now consider a revision of
Branko Milanovic’s summary as follows:
We have a world of
intelligence divided between human and machine intelligence. We live in a world
where human intelligence is a domain. But as we continue to develop artificial
intelligence, if the rate of increase of intelligence by AI (defined to include
general and specialized intelligence and the ability to update itself) exceeds
the rate of growth of human intelligence, the share of artificial intelligence
will increase at a rate faster than human intelligence. If most of that increase
in AI intelligence is reinvested by AI to make even smarter AI intelligence, the
machine to human ratio the will rise.
At some point AI
intelligence exponentially explodes to a level vastly beyond human intelligence
(the ‘singularity’). Along this path, we can expect that the ratio between
machine and human intelligence will result in a further increase the share of AI
intelligence in the net output until human intelligence is no longer a
significant or relevant factor.
The end game of AI arrives
once human intelligence is no longer a relevant factor in technology,
government, resource allocation, investment, etc., so that thinking,
information, solving problems, analyzing data for patterns is no longer
primarily carried out by human beings.
After the singularity,
human beings might occupy a world where human intelligence no longer shapes or
defines their world. Their lives and choices are in the memory and
sub-directories of machines. After all human beings are a collection of
particles and an advance AI might rationally believe those particles are put to
better use by using them to make paper clips or fiber cables or memory
Given this potential, does
it make sense to invest resources to regulate the development of AI? Are the
arguments that apply to the capital/income ratio applicable to the machine/human
intelligence ratio? Should work be done to calculate this ratio, to monitor it,
and to guard against a tipping point beyond which human intelligence is reduced
to close to zero?
We have spent most of our
time worrying about divisions within the society of human beings as if that
society can never have a substantial challenger. Such species exceptionalism is
an example of the hubris that history teaches is the ultimate undoing of all
great leaders and empires. We try to think of a situation where the difference
between members of the species is not the primary concern but the survival of
the species is. It seems too far away for most. Remote like climate change or
science fiction, we smile and move on.
We hear the canary in the
mineshaft but we don’t believe he’s calling our name. Stephen Hawking
understands the risk. He’s raised the alarm. The biggest crime story of all
times is to ignore that warning and continue on with the day-to-day politics,
crimes, injustices and unfairness putting off the day when we all get mugged and
turned into paper clips.
observed what it takes for kinship to take hold: “One touch of nature makes the
whole world kin.” Earthquakes shake the ground under our feet. They spare
no one. The same result may be the fate for our children and grandchildren once
AI goes FOOM. And there lies the irony, we are fated to experience kinship when
it is too late to celebrate and enjoy the recognition of our common
I’ve been writing books
for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about
the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the
other from the world of academia. This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who
asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to
put my thoughts down for other writers.
I believe every writer
develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for
them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts
that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.
I am also asked ‘How do
you go about writing a book?’ Another question I am asked is closely
related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’
We genuinely seek
satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks
about books and the writing process. Not have the usual discussion about
when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what
does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These
are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.
I will start instead with
a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind
of book should I write?
For me, I start answering
this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box
contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle. My first
decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to
The first box the puzzle
pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that
grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail
involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard
decisions, and life-changing choice.
This is what I look for
when I open the Fiction Box.
When I write a novel this
is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and
figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the
characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has
a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t
undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane,
explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and
the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and
religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality,
attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their
The second box is also
filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.
This is the Non-fiction
Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.
When I open the
Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence,
facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader
that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or
policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a
character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly
polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a
political party, or a life-style.
These are confirmation
bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be
‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured
about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your
preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your
views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions
are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the
My personal role model,
whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise.
It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on
24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book
immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social
order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive for any writer.
The Origin of
Darwin’s journey resulted
in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant
minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory
of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of
discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was
also his lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the
evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from
the evidence that he gathered.
Every time I start a new
book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the
Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond
the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the
side of mountains and look for patterns.
Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle
explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield
patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real
What a writer is doing,
whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things,
ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up,
entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find
patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of
what is life.
Quantum physics is a good
place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.
A writer needs to sign on
to his own private Beagle and set sail.
A writer needs to take
time to observe, record, and search for connections.
A writer needs passion. A
book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of
wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become
intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the
entanglements a plausible story.
Ultimately what readers
look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the
complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust
through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey
on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.
Readers hunger for meaning
and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.
Buddhism offers several
lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to
write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to
an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of
Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with
A central theme of
Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts,
emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal
base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag,
a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved
their internal conflict. My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go.
Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be
perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the
intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer
of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom
you are trying to please?
You think that it is you.
But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your
past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and
frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants you to be perfect and
have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it
might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who
passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously
challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before
you are allowed to take the next step.
When you write you
sometimes reach a dead end. Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the
avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words.
Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the
roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away.
Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or
being less than perfect.
Another important tenet of
Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives
trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no
intrinsic sense. Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will
seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations
knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that
temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the
If your characters are too
predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers
will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories
that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a
bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she
is in good hands.
Specifically this means
you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns
out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The
closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to
writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.
control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of
certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking,
and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in
your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are
guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with
Learn to accept ambiguity
and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see
reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the
puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes,
there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them
The last of the Buddhist
lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is
a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how
we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’
is an illusion.
For a writer, the concept
of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else,
is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin
to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see
in the mirror.
There are a couple of
problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of
memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get
past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is
alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a
‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for
perpetuating our sense of identity.
The act of writing
requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting
the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier
to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your
characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes,
jealousy, and desires.
Once that happens it is
possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader
feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away.
He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for
fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s
persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.
powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior
life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior
life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear
and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is
another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle
ship journey into the unknown.
Darwin didn’t set out on
the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a
book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the
world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes
Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming
our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without
the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to
avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of
The point of this essay,
is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to
fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of
‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find
your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a
lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one
if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of
puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain
kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go
This is a look into my
writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the
process works. I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of
exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion.
Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage.
Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own
A crime fiction author is constantly patrolling the perimeter searching for
interesting crime stories, hints of cultural trends in crime enforcement, and
for the criminal characters who will become the latest generation of men and
women to make a fortune in crime.
My Vincent Calvino series is largely set in Thailand. That means I am alert
to and on the look for information about crime in Thailand. Like all commercial
activity, crime also is divided between the 1% and 99% in terms of wealth
concentrations. I’ve written about criminals whose activities place them at the
bottom and at the top of the illegal crime proceeds world. I’ve also written
about the intersection where the legal and illegal wealthy gather and share a
I am also interested in how others perceive Thai crime and Thai criminals.
Wikipedia, that first rest stop on the journey to enlightenment opens its article on crime in Thailand with this:
“Crime in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and
under recognized problem. Crime in Thailand is reported by the Royal Thai Police,
however, there is no agency which acts as a watchdog and publishes their own
The first sentence is one of those Chinese fortune cookie pronouncements that
reads like written by a sage until you think how you could substitute Thailand
for a few dozen other countries. Or it would be the sentence of choice for a
host of unrelated things. For example:
“Misshaped mango in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex,
internationalized, and under recognized problem.”
You get the picture. Research limited to Wikipedia has its limitations.
That’s why a writer, like a journalist, need his or her sources on the street,
and must spend time on the street cultivating old and new sources, and
experiencing the life in all of its odd, strange complexity.
It is the second sentence about statistics from Wikipedia that is more
interesting. In crime writing, one of the first things an author needs to figure
out is who runs the statistics business about crime. It is, after all, a
business, and a vital one. That fact about statistics about Thailand hints at a
few matters about crime that you ought to pay close attention to. If you control
the statistics that reflect upon your competence and ability to do the job, you
just might have a bias about how those statistics are collected, stored,
analyzed, communicated, and the policy implications they imply. It’s called a
conflict of interest. Trusting the fox to count the chickens is good for the fox
but not always so good for the chickens.
What Wikipedia is saying that without ‘independent agencies’ (a loaded term
if there ever was one) tracking the statistics, you have to use a certain amount
of caution regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistics that the
police are keeping. You don’t need a fortune cookie to tell you that he who
makes the cookies is the one who is telling you what your future holds. Don’t
let the mango growers define what is a misshaped mango unless you have an
appetite for some funny business about the nature of geometry.
Crime comes in all kinds of packages. In Thailand, if Wikipedia is to be
believed, we can carve up the criminal activities into: drugs, rape, white
collar, tourist scams, human trafficking and prostitution, prison crime,
identity theft and passport racket, gender violence and school violence. A kind
of pick and choose your poison list. If you want to write a crime story, you’ll
find some bones that haven’t been picked clean by the previous pack of hyenas
with typing skills.
The problem with this approach is that it’s so 1990s or early 2000s. If you
want to know about the future, study crime statistics and trends. That is the
story of criminal activities down the road and around the bend. Most crime
operates as a kind of rough and ready redistribution of wealth that capitalism
allocates between segments of the population.
Before looking ahead, let’s look at the history of one crime hero. Robin Hood
was a legend. A gang leader, militia boss, mafia chief, and Robocop rolled into
one; someone who had empathy for the little people. That is why it is a legend.
Because over the sweep of history, Robin Hoods don’t make a dent in the wealth
of the powerful and they don’t go around singing ballads in the forest with a
group of merry men. Most of them are imprisoned, exiled, or killed. You can’t
look only at Robin Hood without looking at the position, influence and power of
the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest and his boss. After all, it is the sheriff who
is keeping the statistics on crime.
The Sheriff of Nottingham Forest who is responsible for maintaining law and
order and recording on the criminal activities going on inside the forest
historically has suffered from some serious credibility issues. Nothing much has
changed in this part of the forest, urban and rural. Thai police who keep tabs
on the ‘illegal’ nightspots in Bangkok and collect the statistics about crime
including illegal gambling, prostitution and corruption. Getting tough on crime
with harsher penalties is also a way to increase revenue flows from those who
violate the laws so they can stay in business. When a man’s job depends on him
not knowing something, there is a good chance he will argue against attempts to
interfere with his ignorance. He will fight against anyone who seeks installing
some windows in the wall of authority. That can be dangerous.
Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, is a Thai forest park chief, who has been accused of
involvement in murder, arson and disappearances in a forest under his
jurisdiction in northern Thailand. Though charged with serious crimes, he
continues to work in his position. Por Chalee Rakcharoen (nicknamed “Billy”) a
young ethnic Karen environmental activist, was recently stopped in the park by
Chaiwat and fined for possessing six bottles of wild honey before supposedly
being sent on his way. By coincidence, Billy had been on his way to gather
signatures for an appeal against the park chief’s abuse of power (for torching
homes of Karen villagers, indigenous forest dwellers – Billy’s people). Billy
never arrived. No one knows where he is. Chaiwat is quoted as claiming that he
has no knowledge of what happened to Billy. He was the last person to see Billy alive. The case has been in the newsbut such cases
in Thailand quickly fade away as media attention is drawn elsewhere. In the real
world of Thailand, political activist in the tradition of Robin Hood who
challenged authority don’t last long whether on the streets of the city or the
forests in the country.
The obstacle faced by modern criminals, who fit less in the tradition of
Robin Hood and are more likely motivated by personal gain, is finding out who
has the wealth, where they keep it, and how best to organize a heist to relieve
that wealthy person of part of their riches. The first thing you figure out is
that the real criminal class is a closely held secret, largely very small, out
of sight, and never in danger of prosecution.
By the fact you are reading this blog, the chances are you fit somewhere way
above the average of wealth on the planet. When you review the statistics, the
question is why the poor are content in their criminal activity to take
crumbs from the rich as there are vastly more poor people than rich
Credit Suisse’ 2013 Global Wealth Report observes:
“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an
adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world
citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top
10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken
together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total
wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and
the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”
At the upper end of wealth concentration a clearer picture emerges of the
number of people who own staggering amounts of wealth:
“We estimate that there are now 31.4 million HNW adults with wealth between
USD 1 million and USD 50 million, most of whom (28.1 million) lie in the USD 1–5
million range. This year (2013), for the first time, more than two million
adults are worth between USD 5 million and 10 million, and more than one million
have assets in the USD 10-50 million range.”
And the upper limits of wealth show the numbers of truly outstanding
“Worldwide we estimate that there are 98,700 UHNW individuals, defined as
those whose net worth exceeds USD 50 million. Of these, 33,900 are worth at
least USD 100 million and 3,100 have assets above USD 500 million. North America
dominates the regional rankings, with 48,000 UHNW residents (49%), while Europe
has 24,800 individuals (25%), and 14,200 (14%) reside in Asia-Pacific countries,
excluding China and India.”
With the proliferation of information and statistical analysis our notions of
crime, criminals, wealth and power are undergoing a serious conversation.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital
in the 21st Centuryhas installed a whole set
of windows into the wall that the very rich have lived behind. In the United
States, where statistics are now available and from multiple sources, we find
that the top 10% has 76% of the national wealth, and the top 1% has 35% of that
amount. The bottom 40% of the population has a negative wealth. As you can see
from the chart below, that position is growing worse for the overwhelming number
of Americans. I suspect there are statistical evidence showing the top 10% (with
the top 1% having a big share of that percentage) of Thais have national wealth
concentration at the same or levels exceeding the Americans.
Historically, the way to prevent revolt by people who have nothing has been
repression or justification. That’s where the Sheriff of Nottingham has done his
historical duty: he’s the enforcer for the 1%, and he’s enforcing laws that
maintain the status and power of the 1%.
It’s a cozy arrangement (as least it used to be, but the arrangement has come
under strains even in a society like Thailand where the rich and powerful and
titled are now being challenged, unthinkable before – people, the likes of
Billy, are fighting for their rights even to what little they have). It makes
sense why the 1% wouldn’t want other sources of statistics about crime,
especially their involvement in crime circulating among the bottom 90% of the
population, who might have a question or two about the fairness or justice of
such an allocation of wealth (and income also tracks a similar ratio).
Here’s a breakdown of how these percentages translate into the number of
people within the population of a country:
USA population 310 million:
1%=3,100,000; .01%=310,000; .001%= 31,000
Thailand population 66 million:
1%= 660,000; .01%=66,000; .001%= 6,600
The lions share of increases of wealth and income since 1980, according to
Piketty have accumulated to the benefit of those at the 1% and above level. This
elite group has also experienced most rapid increase (enjoying most of the gains
of wealth and income) at the expense of all other members of the population.
Piketty also has found there is no noticeable difference in skills, training and
education to account for the large difference in wealth and income from
individuals who occupy the bottom 9% of the top 10% and those at the top 1% of
the top 10%.
That is unfortunate for the top 1% because without a convincing story to
justify a vastly larger piece of the wealth and income pie their continued good
fortune becomes vulnerable as the forces of political change push for a new
allocation. It makes their claims to superior abilities sound like classic
Dunning-Kruger Effect arguments. The ultra-wealthy, one
would have thought, would wish to distinguish themselves from the likes of Mr.
McArthur Wheeler, the American banker robber who believed rubbing lemon juice on
his face made him invisible.
What the PEW chart above doesn’t breakout is how much of that pie is taken by
the top 1% and the top .01% and how much of that percentage flowed to those two
groups. From Piketty’s research, it is a safe bet that it works out to more than
50% assigned to the 7%.
Now for the future: here are some possibilities (nothing is inevitable and
many factors coming from technological changes may change everything)—the .01%
is the real problem. This category is for people making an income of more than
$1.5M a year. The further you go up this chain, the more concentrated and vast
is the wealth and income. These are the people who hire lobbyists, who fund
political campaigns, and use their wealth to preserve their status and power. In
less developed countries, there are more incidents of outright brute force and
legal intimidation as the political systems have shallow roots in a functioning
democracy and powerful forces behind the scenes act together to operate a covert
What Thomas Piketty’s research has done is to provide a laser-like focus on
this highly elite group—where they are, what they own, and what their presence
means for everyone. The initial targets will likely be the super-managers of
large American companies who make $11.5M a year in compensation. Great wealth
has successfully hidden behind the super star actor, athlete or inventor who
appears in the public spotlight. It is a good place to hide as at least a case
can be made to justify their wealth based on a combination of skill, knowledge
and talent. But the old inherited wealth, which remains a source of
enormous power and influence, lacks that justification. It becomes more of a
hard sell to the 99% to maintain that degree of inequality of wealth and
Future criminals will be able to find information that allows them to access
these people and their assets. Kidnappings and abductions of people, their
family members, and associates are likely to grow. Tracking down the off the
book wealth the extremely wealthy own will also be another line of criminal
activity; as there is already a convergence (this is why the sheriff keeps the
records) between the ultra-wealthy and the high-level criminal organizations. We
don’t really know how much business they do together. In the future, we will
find out a lot more about that connection.
Leaving aside crimes of violence, crime for economic gain is largely
conducted by the poor against the rich. That makes a great deal of sense as the
rich write the laws to protect them from theft and kidnapping by the poor. So
long as the wealth concentration is hidden, or if not hidden, at least
justified, the imprisonment of poor people who seek ‘illegal’ means of
redistribution (we call them criminals) has large-based support.
The stories we tell about the wealthy and their riches are effective to the
extent the population has a consensus about social justice and fairness. A large
inequality gap that continues to grow undermines that consensus. If highly
concentrated wealth is thought back a plausible story to justify it, alternative
stories begin to question the illegitimacy of the wealthiest. We are at that
crisis point. Wealth is being viewed as a by-product of profoundly unfair
economic system. The result is the old question of who are the criminals and who
are to be protected from predation shifts as the spotlight moves from the poor
to the ultra-rich.
I would also predict a boon in online wealth locaters. Individuals and
organizations that specialize in isolating who owns what, where it is owned, the
income generated, and its current market and book value. This information is
inside ‘big data’ and it will be mined. The ultra-wealthy won’t much like this
intrusion into their business and personal lives. In the stock market of the
future, I’d invest heavily in companies with advanced surveillance technology.
That might prove to be a winner as those who want a means to uncover the
location and nature of wealth will be in an arms race against those who want to
block out the windows that stare into their deepest bank vaults. Also security
firms and technology companies will combine. They may experience a bullish
period selling products and services such as highly trained SWAT teams,
personalized armored vehicles, CCTV technology, computer security and drones to
the .01% for protection.
The SWAT team works for a private person or family. They go through the
streets of New York, Bangkok, London or Tokyo as if they were the head of state;
and indeed, they are looking more and more like that level of powerful
We are at a crossroads where economic slowdown, technological change, and big
data are changing perceptions about concentration of wealth and income. The .01%
have enjoyed a monopoly on telling the story that suits their interest, and they
have anointed the story tellers and information gathers. It is tempting to say
that world is about to end. The reality is the extreme inequality of wealth and
income is the normal state of political, social and economic life in almost all
places and times, especially since the industrial revolution. It isn’t some evil
system that arose thirty years ago.
The test is whether new political institutions and legal systems will evolve
policies to limit wealth and income concentrationsaccumulating at
the 1% level. Over the next twenty years will the world’s wealth and income
look more compressed like Denmark and less like the United States of America or
Thailand? Alternatively, as the .01% won’t go into that night quietly, it is
just as likely that the world becomes modeled on American inequality and Denmark
is an old story like Robin Hood told to children who are innocent enough to
believe the hero could defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest. What Piketty’s
Capital in the 21st Century has done is show that if you dig hard
enough into the historical record you can find a great deal of information about
how nature of wealth and income concentrations over time and how policies, wars,
revolutions, and depressions have caused temporary compressions.
We’ve lived in a statistical dark age when it comes to wealth. We are waking
up to the reality of what gross inequalities bring. Like a dentist peering into
the mouth of an elderly patient who never owned a toothbrush, we aren’t quite
certain what treatment is appropriate but we’re reasonably clear there is
considerable work and at great expense to be done.
It’s official. No Broken
Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police
training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in
Post reported on the adoption of
the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has
sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls
‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”
It seems from the press
report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to
the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means:
stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra
crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.
As the senior brass go
back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for
extra reading on the theory.
No Broken Window Theory
overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not
to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the
rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars
speeding up as they approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra
crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons.
The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message
for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in
Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.
Zebra Crossing in
Nothing quite highlights
cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture.
New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For
whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll
together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it
“Consider a building with a few
broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to
break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and
if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a pavement. Some litter
accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start
leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into
After Rudy Giuliani’s
election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to
implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a
strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the
The theory was also used
to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and
Having lived in both New
York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed
law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are
significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the
vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.
Typically windowless Klong
Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area,
sometimes called “The Green Zone”
In the mid-1980s, New York
City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow
with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as
well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social
organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the
provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the
time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.
The No Broken Window
Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a
shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an
invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken
Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor
acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit
assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban
environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is
an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.
The contemporary Bangkok
neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise
towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty
that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years
The police monitor the
disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the
streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea
is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals
on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.
The central question is
whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police
brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted
from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and
the dramatic drop in crime is also questionable as crime decreased across the
United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such
Other factors such as the
reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction
of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment
rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t
been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.
Others have written the
theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial
minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the
discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino
men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from
the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control
With No Windows Broken,
the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being
undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the
context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers
from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance
makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their
arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind
Joshua C. Hinkle and
Sue-Ming Yang have questionedthe methodology used to test the broken
windows theory out in the field.
The perception of what is
an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and
class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on
the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life
experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . .
social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete
Bangkok motorcycle taxis
Precisely. Not to mention
the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption
make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New
York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is
reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social
hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people
are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in
Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.
Bangkok traffic police
There are acts of
behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in
their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing
in the street. It is difficult to imagine this scene in New York. The point
being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their
daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they
march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of
brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan
at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge
fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one
would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the
area. Drones overhead. But I digress.
So how did the Thai police
force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude
that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was
suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the
authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor
at the police training seminar.
Let’s journey a bit down
that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.
New York City hired
thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were
conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode
along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime
infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a
major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New
York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the
No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts
conclude that wasn’t the case.
As with most social
engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a
particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result
and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the
same result in a radically different environment, culture and time
From the local English
press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be
allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive
and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of
behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the
wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the
concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training
Part of Bangkok’s charm
has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or
the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas
cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food.
Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil
brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think
that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely
stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.
No one denies the big
difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York
City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of
graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.
Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a
special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who
insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white
Bangkok policemen standing
behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be
found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”
In that case, how did a
two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window
end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time
machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement
problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal
with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved
and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok
streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.
I wouldn’t want to think
what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member
of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with
Bangkok Cop celebrating
Summary answer for the
final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok
were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken
Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing
Meanwhile, an alert has
gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one
that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces
jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the
reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly
been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not
to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.
Everyone has lots of
‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone
have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet
followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going
high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face
in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I
follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to
the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’
We are violence prone
species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like
other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained
relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500
generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of
population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered
together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of
our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something
like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty
much the same wiring configuration.
We’ve all had moments when
tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle
bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and
elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many.
Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers
of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we
figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?
The answer to this riddle
is found in what might be called the Dunbar
number: 150. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of
the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University,
discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the
people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the
people you know and keep in social contact with.
Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our
250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We
evolved to live off the grid.
Others have argued that “the optimal
size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to
exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere
between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.”
The numbers are linked to
brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other
primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of
grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and
effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice
and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the
group’s time is spent on socialgroomingas a means to maintain social
Language, as it turns out,
is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage
where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the
‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as
grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media.
We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online.
Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear
to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time
digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any
more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are
delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them
useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.
For the sake of argument,
I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management
of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from
outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside
Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It
is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal
number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150
How did we scale from
small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12
million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers,
drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a
‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the
face of technological destruction of our history.
This is a massive scaling
problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated
areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple
hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better
technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed
to feed, cloth, house and control millions.
Bureaucracy has been the
backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the
beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the
allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled
with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy
and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather
delivering resources to them.
Why would anyone agree to
such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our
culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that
they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of
violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation,
exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to
The question is who has
the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and
economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated?
The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new
social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient.
People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands
for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the
decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like
members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the
rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic
models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A
clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources,
mates and power.
The problem has been one
of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The
threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in
religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious
leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects
of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with
loyalty, purity and honor.
Once the social setting
requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going
back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and
ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware
doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive
prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ,
status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison
Democracy, in the modern
sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment
shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies
that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens.
That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people
living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later,
forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny
to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or
whims of the top leader.
We live in a time where
extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth
believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond
outside challenge or change. That’s the Taliban model with the suicide
bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside
the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy
co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal
Capitalism, in the gilded
age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who
most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of
benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand
bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many
developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs
undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.
The old grid our parents
were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by
a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and
power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for
‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any
meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization
of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The
center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by
affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams,
or other interest.
Today it is difficult not
to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control
the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people
who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the
machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of
It is utopian, as the
Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large
cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system
based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors
had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized
imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our
capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable
brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated,
urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the
policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve
come; that road washed away centuries ago.
We haven’t quite come to
terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed
more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole
system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in
those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall
population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from
the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of
climate change that may well cause the population to crash.
Our weakness is for the
benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the
government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling
class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the
inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which
they get nothing in return.”
The ruling class has its
own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to
have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption
as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the
‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming
system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence,
disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane
with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another
member of their band.
People pay for a system
that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them
propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability
to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of
organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that
is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve
been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and
limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has
created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has
made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our
We’ve gone way beyond the
150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases,
and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and
understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately
drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that
suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride.
We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai
buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a
driver taking another large slug of whisky.
This is our transport. It
isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned
out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There
is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down.
More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.
Look out the window, look
over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the
next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of
noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log
on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for
coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending
where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our
primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are
trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital
friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think
about the implications.
After some thought, can I
offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been
A couple of weeks ago I
wrote an essay about violence. I have two companion ideas I’m developing:
borders and boundaries, hegemony, and the essential role of hierarchy to run a
modern political, economic or social entity.
Understanding how these
three threads are connected—violence, borders and management—opens a portal into
the cultural, political, social and economic source code that computes most of
the reality people experience. A great deal of what goes on around us in our
daily life, from our safety and welfare to opportunities and livelihood, depends
upon the right balance between these three forces. Disruptions through the
forces of instability and random chance are what makes life ‘interesting’ often
in the way Chinese use the word ‘interesting’—meaning chaotic and
refugees, work permits, occupation, red line, occupiers, invaders are among the
terms that rise from the reality of boundaries, the kind that defines a
recognized border, the edges measured, recorded, mapped. A world map is a
visualization of those boundaries. I have a globe with lines etched in for the
boundary lines of countries. What makes other planets and moons in our solar
system so alien is the absence of any recognizable boundary marks? These alien
landscapes go on and on with a tedious, mind-dulling featureless
It seems that you need a
life form that evolves to defend its territory against outsiders. That life form
creates and acts on a mental construct of borders as part of its evolution.
Borders aren’t an organic part of nature. We invent them.
I’ve been thinking during
the past two weeks about boundaries and how they set the human dimensions of
movement, affiliation, and self. What they mean, how we define them, and our
connections to them. Boundaries can be geographic term that we associate with a
nation-state like Canada, Thailand, Australia or Indonesia. The last two
countries are surrounded by water boundaries. Canada and Thailand share land
boundaries with other countries and those boundaries have resulted in disputes
with other countries. Land or sea acts as boundary demarcations. Boundaries are
real, tangible as well as abstract and romantic.
I am a realist as a
writer. The title ‘reality check’ as part of the title of this blog is no
accident. I accept, though, the range of writing expands beyond the boundary
lines of the ancient Roman and encompasses the mythical kingdom of Camelot where
boundaries float in the imagination. Ordinary life is boundary contained and
writers report the activities inside those boundaries, or they might rebel
against boundaries and write about lives outside them.
I am also interested in
other boundaries such as knowledge or experience. There are limits to what we
can know and limits to what we can experience. You can’t experience x-ray
frequency waves. You can’t know the physics that existed before the Big Bang. We
have boundary gaps, although we live our lives as if all information and
knowledge is accessible. That is a delusion that allows us to feel in control of
You were born inside a
boundary. That act of birth plays a role in shaping your identity. You are a
Thai, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese, etc. What happens inside those borders
becomes a version of your own personal story. Boundary stories and personal
stories inside a bounded area are something we take for granted when reading a
novel, watching a film or TV drama.
All boundaries have an
element of control. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to a boundary.
Though primates, like our close cousin the chimpanzee, band into small groups to
patrol territories. There border patrols are to chase away intruders, look for
weaknesses in a boundary line where resources might be harvested, and cross the
line into another bands territory. That is our heritage. Boundaries run through
old bloodlines that predate our species. What we’ve managed to do is to use
technical means to create weapons and transport systems that allows us to scale
a geographical space, draw the boundaries (over the objections of others living
there if need be), and install security forces to guard the borders.
Chimpanzee culture of
border patrol shows the evolution of violence as a way of boundary enforcement
and boundary encroachment. When those two collide amongst rival chimpanzee
bands, violence is the likely outcome. Borders come at the cost of blood. The
aggressor who is better equipped, led, organized and more violent, and more
willing to put himself at the risk of death or injury, will likely emerge as
having the upper hand.
Boundaries are never
static for long. This digital
map of Europe shows the changes of borders over a span of 1,000 years.
In less than three minutes you watch a 1,000 years of borders twitching,
receding, expanding, disappearing, in wave after wave of change. The chances are
if you trace your ancestors back ten generations you would discover your
relatives were born within boundaries that no longer existed in the same way
they did at the time of your birth. You have no feeling for that ‘place’ as it
was a location that existed in one time but failed to exist at some stage. May
be it’s not unsettling for most people to view ten generations as not relevant
to their modern life. The point is how boundaries are no more fixed than these
ancestors who also thought their boundaries possessed an permanence which time
proved to be illusory.
Borders are also an
underlying reason for abuse and human rights violations against minorities. A
recent example are the Rohingyas, an ethnic group inside the Burmese border, who
have been systematically persecuted, killed, villages burnt, women raped as the
authorities consider them as not ‘belonging’ inside Burma. What is ‘Burma’? The
answer lies not in nature but in the boundaries drafted by British colonial
mapmakers. There are many other minority groups considered as ‘outsiders’ or
‘aliens’ around the world born inside borders of countries that deny them
identity or nationality. Stateless people are those not accepted by any country
and who have no place to go. They face a dismal future.
The vast scale of
migration around the world over the last 20 years, as people cross borders, is
captured in this chart prepared by researchers atWittgenstein Centre
for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.
connection is a leading piece of information about you.
When you meet a stranger,
one of the first questions that you ask is: Where are you from? Your answer
supplies a database of assumptions about your education, culture, language,
wealth, religion, sports, and your attitudes about guns, abortion, health care,
schools and university funding, war and peace. One word fills in a library of
pre-conceived notions about what you find funny, sad, and the food you most
Thais are forever asking
me where I am from. Canada. Snow, ice hockey, near America, cold, Neil Diamond,
and Leonard Cohen. I receive responses along these lines as the listener tries
to say something nice about Canadians. Foreigners will hear some Thais say that
a farang doesn’t understand how Thai people think. There is a tacit,
shared feeling among a lot of people that outsiders don’t quite get how they
think, so Thais aren’t alone in this assumption based on geography (and
Of course race and
boundaries have a close connection in the mind of many people. A person born in
Thailand is expected to look different from someone born in Finland or Nigeria.
This ignores the fact of ethnic and racial diversity that unites all members of
the species. But people are raised to think ‘globally’ of a species, but
specifically as a tribe of people coming from a certain location.
Globalization promised to
free trade, commerce and finance of the traditional boundaries that restrained
them. In a way, globalization has allowed powerful states the same kinds of
advantages that empires exercised in the past. Our new ‘Rome’ is Washington,
D.C., where those in control of the forces of violence make decisions about
certain activities inside the borders of other states.
When Russia decided to
size of the Ukrainian borders by assuming control over the Crimea, the reaction
from Europe and America was condemnation. Modern states aren’t supposed to
invade other countries and claim them as part of their own state. That’s the
theory, but the practice, going back to the 1,000-year map shows a long history
of land grabs and border changes. The American
expansion into their western frontier in the 19th century
represented another example of occupying the territory of others, expelling the
occupants into reservations and taking their resources.
When you live in a country
in which you weren’t born, aren’t naturalized, or have a permanent residence in
Thailand, you have regular reminders that you are inside the boundaries of a
place that considers you an outsider with specific duties to perform in order to
remain. For ten years I made 90-day visa runs mostly to neighboring countries in
the region including Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam or Indonesia.
I had to leave before the expiration of a 90-day visa, get a new visa and
re-enter for another 90-day period and start the process over. I never
complained about this feature of expat life.
I felt the requirement
worked in my favor as it gave me enough time to concentrate on writing a draft
of a book during a 90-day period, left the country, worked on the next draft for
another 90 days, and so on until after 3 or 4 visa runs I had a finished book. I
had a 90-day sword over my neck. I didn’t want it falling before I’d finished a
novel. I convinced myself that this sword was actually a chance for an
international holiday between drafts of a book; it worked like an incentive
plan. I lived with that delusion. It kept me productive, focused and aware of
how much there was to explore outside the borders of Thailand.
With a minimum of 40
international trips in 10-years (I often made trips more frequently than every
90 days), I had a chance to spend time in places where battles over borders were
still fresh in the minds of people living there. Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and
Vietnam provided me lessons of how boundary lines defined much about the people,
and how their civil wars had often turned out identity issues of people who
shared space inside a common border.
Years ago I switched to an
annual visa but still must report my address every 90 days. That takes me back
to where I started. Authorities take notice and keep track of ‘foreigners’
within their borders. There is a suspicion about foreigners that likely comes
from our time in roving bands when a stranger was enslaved or killed.
Crimes such as smuggling
of people, illegal logging, fishing across borders. Trafficking of people,
drugs, weapons, logs, ivory, and other contraband is enticingly profitable
precisely because of laws that control the movement of people, goods and
services across international borders. There are organizations like Doctors
Without Borders or Reporters Without Borders, which are the
exception that proves the general rule of that borders are patrolled and
Life inside every culture
is shaped by a shared heritage of what it means to be born, schooled, and
employed within a certain political boundary. In the physical, geographical
sense of a border that defines space in which authorities and law applies. Step
out of that space and local authorities, local laws suddenly apply. Substantial
difference in legal systems range from women excluded from the right to drive in
Saudi Arabia, to legalized gambling in Macau, to a single payer health care
system in Canada. To cross a border requires the foreigner to be alert as to the
laws of that place.
In Thailand, it is common
to find tourists who having left their country act as if the new space they
occupy has no laws or rules that apply to them. And every year there are sad
cases of foreigners arrested, tried and convicted for breaking Thai law (which
in the vast majority of cases would likely be illegal in their home
That sense of anything
goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased
We lose our sense of
perspective and comprehension once we are deprived of a boundary marker. It is
strange to contemplate spaces without working out the boundaries that make up
that space. The search for Malaysian flight MH370 gives us a glimpse of failure
to understand the featureless huge expanse of the area in the Indian Ocean where
the search has been concentrated. Or how, with climate change and the melting of
the Northern ice caps, passage becomes possible and countries begin to assert
arguments as to what portions of the geography they can rightfully claim as
coming within their border. But other environmental disruptions caused by
climate change may include mass movement of people seeking water and food who
have been displaced inside established borders.
provide a sense of order, define a finite world that gives a feeling that, for
their problems and arbitrariness, we have a need for boundaries. The infinite
makes us recoil. Without a border the infinite simply has no meaning for us.
Take the decimal points of pi 3.14, which are both infinite and random. A
universe where there is an endless roll of the dice, with no winner or loser, or
with no point or meaning. The infinite might have a ‘sound’. A
mathematician/musician created a hauntingly beautiful piece for piano using the
decimal points of pi a taste of the infinite nature of these random
I hear the music written
from pi decimals when I read a news story about the search operation for MH370.
It has become a substitute for the dark feelings that descend. I am forced to
concede that borders are phony constructs I’ve been taught. Borders have always
defined who I am and how I experience the world and will continue to do
As land and resources are
finite and scarce, defining, guarding and defending a territory defined by
borders will remain a natural part of political, economic and social life. We
can’t imagine a life where borders are irrelevant except in a utopian fantasy.
We listen to the music that pi writes, with its promise of infinite decimals,
but without our geographical and psychological maps with the borders colored in,
our sense of self disappears. That may be one definition of enlightenment. Or it
may be the refugee where grief and madness write their own eternal
No one wants to get in the
middle of a fight between opponents who wish to knock out the other. Everyone
has a theory of how to stop a fight once it gets started. A neutral party
intervenes and tries to separate them. If the emotions are running high, the
chances are they will turn their anger on the intervener.
There has been a great
deal of public discussion about the merits of an appointed ‘neutral’ prime
minister to end the current political impasse. In Thailand there is a public
discussion going on about a list of men (no women on the list) who might qualify
as a candidate for “neutral PM” by the anti-government side. As expected this
generated heat and political controversy. The Thai word for ‘neutral’ is
à»ç¹¡ÅÒ§ /pen klang/, which literally translates to “being in the middle,”
synonymous with ‘nonpartisan’ (according to Thai social commentator Kaewmala). Whether that middle is defined
as geographic, ethnical, psychological or ideological raises a number of complex
The news reports tend to
orbit around speculations and rumors focused on personalities. Discussions on
social media have begun to examine the idea of what it means to be a ‘neutral’
person appointed to high political office in a representative democracy to
resolve a constitutional crisis. An examination of neutrality as a political fix
in circumstances in a climate where the possibility of civil war is openly
discussed may help shed light on whether is a way out or a deadend.
Howard Zinn, an American
historian, had grave doubts about the possibility of being neutral in the midst
of a struggle over the political forces to be trusted in the allocation and
exercise of power and writing and implementing policy priorities. In
Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Zinn
“Why should we cherish
‘objectivity’, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or
another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we
see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of
view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t
play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in
Indeed, it is impossible to be
neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power
are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way
things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace,
nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy
against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be
neutral in those conflicts.”
Howard Zinn’s skepticism
about neutrality is shared by Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel who said in his
Nobel acceptance speech and later included in The Night Trilogy:
“We must take sides. Neutrality
helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never
the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered,
when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become
irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race,
religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the
center of the universe.”
On a more basic level
Laurell K. Hamilton writes in Narcissus in Chains:
“Personally, I think neutral is
just another way of saving your own ass at the expense of someone
Neutrality means a
country, a leader, or a person of influence does not takes sides in a dispute,
conflict, war or disagreement between parties waging battle. That battle may be
armed conflict or ideological battles that spill over from social media, TV, and
the press to demonstrators and protesters in the streets. Such a person is seen
by both sides as having no affiliation with the other party, group, tribe or
faction to the dispute. Neutrality means no shared ideology that prefers one
side’s principles and political values to the other sides.
The problem in some
quarters in the Thai political debate, neutral is conflated with savior. That is
an unreasonable expectation to arise from neutrality. The idea of a savior takes
us back to the core problem of personality-centered politics. One person’s
prophet is another’s heretic.
Neutrality is a
distraction from the central problem, and one shared by other countries in the
region including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam is the
weakness of rule of law and the corresponding strength of a culture of impunity.
To possess true power translates into an immunity that rolls through the system
from human rights violations, corruption, disappearances, extra-judicial
killings, imprisonment or exile of critics. That makes the struggle for power an
existential one. The winner, his friends, families and associates are elevated
to life above the rule of law line that catches the rest of us. The loser slings
off to exile, prison, assets taken, name blackened, disgraced.
In a culture of impunity,
heretics are dealt with severely. Neutrality is difficult to take root in the
thin soil of a culture with a strong tradition of granting the powerful immunity
for their actions.
It is one thing for a
country to declare neutrality in a war between two other countries and quite
another for a person to emerge from a highly divisive domestic political ground
where emotions are high, battle lines drawn, and a consensus amongst partisans
as to whom they believe fits the bill of being ‘neutral’.
Appointing a ‘neutral’
person to lead conflicting parties to resolve their difference is a general
problem that runs through all political systems. Who would be a neutral person
for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party on issues of abortion or teaching creationism
in public schools is likely a different person than one who would fit Al Gore’s
definition. Which raises another question: can one be ‘neutral’ on certain
issues like abortion or creationism?
Beyond these ‘social
issues’ there are genuine disagreements over the allocation of resources between
transport, social security, health, schools, and public safety. If one decodes
the anti-government side, the neutrality argument is an alternative to
democracy. If a neutral person can be found, someone fair, justice, honorable,
wise and compassionate, what reason can justify the cost an election when there
is a high risk of people elected that powerful people distrust? Elections, in
Thailand, and most places choose a politician who isn’t neutral, never pretended
to be neutral and ran on a party platform that promised benefits weighted toward
the interest of those living in his riding. The purpose of an election isn’t to
test the neutrality of a candidate. It is to test whether his or her views and
opinions appeal more to the voters than his opponent.
The central purpose of
representative democracy is to resolve the disagreement through a parliamentary
process, which represents the majority view of voters. Voting is not a neutral
act. It is a partisan choice. People are voting, in theory, out of their own
self-interest as well as the larger interest of the country.
This analysis, you rightly
say, is well and fine in a functioning democracy, but what happens when the
parliamentary system comes to a standstill? There are a couple of answers. The
most obvious one is that democratic systems are chaotic, messy and uncertain.
That isn’t a bad thing. It means a politician who takes a position on an issue
must persuade others that his or her policy or plan is rational, timely, and if
implemented, with advance the interest of the people. It is utopian to believe
any policy will coincide with the interest of 100% of the people.
Also, if the parliamentary
system is paralyzed and becomes dysfunctional through actions launched by
opposition forces seeking to remove an elected government, a larger issue is
raised as to the nature and scope of democratic principles accepted in the
system. If there is a systemic issue with the nature and process of governance,
it is difficult to see how a neutral person can be chosen, and by whom, and if
chosen, how such a person can proceed in resolving such a deep, structural
Neutrality is another way
to express ideas such as evenhandedness, fair-mindedness, impartiality, and
nonpartisanship. Neutral is the opposite of biased, one-sided, partial,
prejudiced or affiliated with a partisan side in a dispute. Power has a public
face but there is also a deep power hidden like dark matter out of view that
shapes and channels the flow of government activity.
Headhunting such an
individual to fill the role of so-called neutral prime minister is difficult if
not impossible to succeed. Who chooses such a person and who sets the terms of
reference for neutrality? Who judges what records, private and public, are
relevant for an assessment of neutrality. If that were easy, then those judging
the neutrality issue would be neutral themselves and that doesn’t seem like an
outcome anyone would be happy with.
What person with
sufficient stature to break a deadlock between mortal enemies rises to that
position without leaving record of public service, writing, speeches, or
connection with the deep power? It is quite natural that even the most respected
people have signaled their preferences about process or policy. Anyone
distinguished enough to have the necessary gravitas will have taken a position
or made a commitment that takes one side or another in an earlier policy debate.
The point of democracy is to take a side and defend a policy position and
seek to attract public support for that position.
Ultimately politics is
about making choices. Who makes the hard decisions? And how transparent the
decision-making process is, and how accountable are the decision-makers for bad
decisions. How do we get rid of leaders who make bad decisions is a question
that is resolved by ballots or bullets. Neutrality is not a means of conflict
resolution. It is a way of avoiding conflict and rallying cries for the neutral
savior rises to the surface when people are seduced by the prospect of an easy
way to kick the can down the road.
One of the recurring ideas
one hears in Thailand is: Thais seek a middle-path to resolve problems. To take
that metaphor in another direction, if those in conflict are playing a game
of chicken, each on collision path, neither willing to blink or give way, the
neutral person is unlikely to persuade both sides to park their ideological
vehicles and shake hands and put their conflict behind them. There will
ultimately be a way out of the current crisis in Thailand. It is unlikely though
to be through the appointment of a ‘neutral’ prime minister.
The public democratic
process must be re-engaged, minority rights secured against oppression, and
government actions subject to restraint and accountability. And there needs to
be an open discussion on how the tradition of impunity has thwarted democratic
development and what needs to be done to end that tradition. This article in
Prachatai is an excellent examination of Thailand’s
long record of extra-judicial killings, disappearance of lawyers and activists,
mistreatment of minority groups, shakedowns, and corruption. No constitution to
date has reigned in these abuses and no neutral person has been able to stop
them from happening again.
The architecture of all
institutions in a democracy must be designed to work not just for the good times
but are resilient to turbulence when geology of political expectations and power
start to shift. If the institutions are weakened, break down, and the parties
refuse to talk to one another, one of the first casualties is the rule of law.
Violence accelerates as the rule of law recedes and this loop further undermines
institutions until instability become evident for all to witness.
There is no short cut to a
Constitution that establishes institutions that can govern, co-ordinate their
powers, and check and restrain one another. David Streckfuss, in a recent
Bangkok Post opinion piece titled The Risky Road in Avoiding Civil War, recommended a
referendum to ask voters whether they wish to revert to the 1997 constitution
(annulled by the 2006 coup), with reforms leading to amendments or stick with
the 2007 constitution. The problem is that an opposition that obstructs
and blocks elections would also likely see a referendum as another kind of
existential threat to their view of the ‘correct’ or ‘righteous’ political path
for Thailand. Just as an election, in theory should be the mechanism to resolve
a political impasse, a referendum offers such a possibility. At this dark time,
it is unlikely that the traditional mechanism will function to contain the
Sooner or later, the way
forward likely will be leaders who are forced by circumstances to address the
issue of what process is appropriate for constitutional change and the
substantive nature of such change. Stripping the powerful of their unofficial
immunity won’t be an easy task. Both sides want immunity and the ability to act
with impunity for their interest while denying that right to its opponents. Not
surprising, given what it is at stake, there has been a drastic polarization of
political forces in Thailand. Meanwhile, one can expect political strife to
If there is to be a new
constitutional framework, it will need widespread consensus among the powerful
and the restive electorate caught in the middle of a power struggle. How that
constitutional framework will deal with the culture of impunity remains
Political conflict, at
this stage, is fueled by fear, anger and hatred, and that is no climate to write
a constitution. The architects of the new legal structure will need to wean the
players from their addiction to high emotions, easy slogans and learn an
important lesson in designing a political system—it will need to install shock
absorbers to survive future political earthquakes. The political geology of our
times promises to deliver substantial seismic activity ahead. And sometimes the
health of a system is when a powerful person isn’t able to subvert the course of
justice with money and influence but must bear the full weight of the law like
an ordinary citizen. That’s not going to flow from the words of a new
constitution. When this does happen, something will have first changed in the
mindset and culture. We are a long way from reaching that point not just in
Thailand, but in the region and large parts of the larger world. Meanwhile, we
remain hostages to personalities who will never be expected to pay for their
Crime authors deal in the
currency of violent behavior. Every society has violent actors. Mostly they play
the part of villains, except when they are portrayed as heroes. The shifting
role is confusing.
Crime novels are filled
with guns, victims, criminals, police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards.
Flip through the pages of a crime fiction novel and you tune into some point in
the continuum of violence. Crime fiction readers process violence through the
vicarious experience of following the characters and story. Books, TV, and
movies deliver the planning, execution, conspiracies, corruption and lies that
Crime of the violent kind
appeals to some desire or need deeply embedded in our nature. The fear of and
fascination with violence are keys, which unlock the mysteries of our true
nature. Hobbes built a philosophy on this cruel feature of the human psyche. He
wasn’t alone. David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, argued there was no
justice, equality, or fairness in nature. People invented these ideas, taught
them with parable, myths, foundation of culture and people stories incorporating
them as sacred text. We cling to these ideas as a shield against violence and
conspire to maintain the illusion that they are innate rather than they are made
up by people just like you and me.
Crime writers tap into a
long tradition of writers and thinkers who chart the pathways of violence and
the safe byways to block those paths. The noir writer, like Hobbes, believes
nothing short of holding people’s true nature hostage by ceding authority to one
powerful representative who maintains the peace to contain violence in
We are in the midst of a
modern story of violence reported in many places, which shows how fragile our
defenses have become. Social justice, fairness and equality need a political
structure to have meaning. Without a structure, brute central force is the
substitute offered to guarantee a certain level of peace.
When faith in a democratic
structure loses its grip on a substantial minority of people, we lurch to
non-democratic alternatives to keeping the peace in densely populated
Such repression does
little to prevent or contain violence. The bonds that bind begin to fall apart.
Has Thailand reached that point? My answer is not yet. The fact remains, despite
the increase in violence and the instability of the political process, we enjoy
a mostly peaceful existence in most places.
Around the world, we find
cities that have or in the process of collapsing into the black hole of violence
as well as countries which have fallen into the category of failed state. These
are isolated events. In Thailand we are a substantial distance from a failed
state. But the potential for a rapid, uncontrollable expansion of violence
In general, we should be
worried about the early warning signs that our great experiment in domestication
and huge, dense concentrations of people may fail. In other words, is the world
doomed to become a massive crime scene?
Before I discuss weapons
(essential instruments along with drills, routines, propaganda in the
domestication process), I want to talk about the scaling of large concentrations
None of our closest
cousins the Great Ape,
concentrations beyond a small community. There are (no have there ever been) no
cities of apes where thousands or millions lived side by side.
Our history is recorded in
evolution allowing us to trace our mental and psychological
roots to other primates.
Unlike our cousins in the
primate world, in less than seventy years our population of 2.5 billion
following WWII has exploded to over 7 billion in 2014. Millions of people
shelter, feed, bath, play and kill each other in cities. Given our genetics that
is an amazingly difficult thing given the density of cities, there isn’t more
killing. It is evidence that domestication has been largely
If you shoved one hundred
chimps into a Sky train (BTS) carriage in Bangkok, closed the door and ran the
train from Siam to On Nut and opened the doors, you’d find clumps of hair,
blood, ripped-off testicles, missing eyes and noses, multiple wounded and dead
bodies. And these chimps weren’t fighting over the merits of a political system.
They have no political system or abstract ideals, or process for controlling
anger, rage and violence when clumped together in a train. They revert to
natural instinct and the lid comes off the bottled violence. These chimps were
bad. They simply displayed their chimp-like nature. One that is very close to
our own primate nature.
Civilization and modern
big cities wouldn’t have risen without a number of other essential features such
as fire, language, and tool making. But without a way to control our
violence-prone species, the chances of scaling cities to populations of 12
million like Bangkok would have been impossible. My theory is that the big bang
that drove that inflation in numbers and density was the role of the sacred and
technological advance of ever increasingly powerful weapons.
The feeling of
transcendence makes it possible for a person to feel part of a much larger
collective or community. The experience of a sense of awe of the ineffable lifts
a person beyond narrow borders of his or her own day to day life. Religion saw
the opportunity to fill this space. In close quarter living, the goal is to
strive for a domesticated species that believes that it is part of something
larger than itself and fears exclusion from the community where this collective
communion takes place.
One of our most powerful
social constructs learnt from an early age is fueled by the strong desire to
belong and fit in, to the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church.
The sacred through religion provided the stories and rules for such belonging to
a larger whole. The early sense of the transcendent has decoupled from religion
and found voice through the arts, music, literature, dance, and painting. The
same mechanism is at work run by a sprawl of sacred creators, who are our
unofficial, unorganized secular priesthood. Celebrities and other snake oil
sellers mingle, offering their visual and aural cathedrals.
No matter how widespread
the sacred is, it isn’t enough to stop our inclination to use violence. It has
never been zero. The idea of zero tolerance for violence is Utopian. It remains
at the margin everywhere. When a political system halts through gridlock, an
uptick in violence is one of the first things to notice. In Bangkok, as the
government is under siege, there are scattered acts of violence.
The isolated shootings and
bombing are absorbed in the day-to-day living. In Bangkok, we read daily news
reports of violence. We read about them on the Internet or in the Bangkok Post,
or watch them on TV. The sound of gunfire, the pictures of bullet holes in
windows of cars and houses, or images of beat-up people remain outside of our
direct experience. Life in Bangkok goes on pretty much as usual with trains and
restaurants packed, offices filled with workers, and traffic jams along
Sukhumvit Road. The general calm of the vast population indicates the increase
around the edges of violence has not panicked the population.
For the domesticated
animal there isn’t a clear and present danger sensed when going out the door.
Bangkok remains far away from the levels of violence found in Bagdad, Kabul,
Caracas, Nairobi, Cape Town, Peshawar, Sana’s, Ciudad Juarez or other cities on
the top ten most violent cities.
One of the common threads
that run through the list of violent cities is the breakdown of domestication
especially of young unemployed men; the ability to control violent people, armed
and ready to use their weapons, isn’t working in these cities. The danger is
greater as the ability for fast, cheap communication and alliance building
through social media creates instant communities fueled by anger and hatred. It
is hard to have mass violence without those emotions infecting a significant
number of people.
People are emotionally
driven and our communication breakthroughs have enabled them to amplify anger
and fear over vast numbers of people, and to organize and deploy angry people.
We look around at the world, and there is no shortage of fronts where people
attack each other, or strike out against neighbors who happen to accept a
different view of the sacred, or come from a different tribe or ethnic group.
Another feature of widespread violence points questions of legitimacy of
authority, or lack of fear of the authorities.
In the top ten most
violent cities, the legitimacy of the government is openly questioned by force
of arms. Those challenging the authority aren’t deterred by any credible threat
of state violence to stop them. A small minority that can create enough chaos to
make a city impossible to live in and drives refugees to cross border
destabilizing their neighbors and exhausting resources of international
In my first novel, His
Lordship’s Arsenal, I created a story about the invention of the
Thompson sub-Machine gun and how that weapon changed the way violence was
projected and distributed in a way that revolutionized the world. The idea of
weapons and their capability was based on assumptions about the relationship of
soldiers and officers and the State on the Eve of WWI. Modern weapons toppled
political systems in Europe collapsed like a house of cards. I explored the
theme of this technical/political change. The grunt with a machine gun
capability had a weapon that could kill hundreds of the enemy, including their
officers, heroes, and officials. Their trigger finger represented more power
than any previous warrior who’d ever gone to battle. No longer did an officer
distribute rounds to his troops in the field. The troops in the field had their
own supply ammo fed by belts in to rapid firing weapons. A generation of young
men, well-bred and lowly-bred, in Europe died in WWI trenches felled by other
young men manning machine guns.
One hundred years later
another technological change threatens to change power arrangements between
those with a monopoly over violence and the domesticated populations who bow to
Hovering above the future
event horizon is another leap in weapon technology. Drones. What is in store for
us is beginning to take shape. There is a window for the state authorities to
retake control of violence and neutralize the egalitarian nature of automatic
infantry weapons. The elites equipped the infantry with such weapons and feared
that such weapons could be turned on them. If one could keep the firepower with
the elites as in medieval times, this elite fear could be more easily
Nuclear weapons and guided
non-nuclear missile systems are overkill for this purpose. But a drone that can
stay over head for hours, watching, waiting, for the digital command from an
operational center 10,000 miles away is another kind of weapon entirely. The new
infantry sits behind computer monitors thousands of miles away in ordinary
cities, goes home at night to spouse and children, goes to school plays, shops
at the mall, sees the latest film at the cinema. They don’t carry an automatic
weapon home at night.
An essay that examines the implication of new drone-robotic
weapon systems and concludes this generation of weapons represents a game
changer. Why? Because a drone means the 1% no longer needing the 99% as muscle
in the violence business. Owning the software and hardware does away with the
need for heavy lifting by troops in the field. Weekly meetings to agree upon the
kill list, expansion of surveillance to detect the violent troublemakers, and
using, in essence, white-collar computer workers to pull the trigger creates a
new weapons/violence paradigm. The idea is the 1% can use drones to subdue the
99% who are no longer essential as frontline troops. This not only reverses the
equality earned through the use automatic weapons in WWI, it upsets the whole
notion of projecting violence and re-domesticating the population with
instruments to instill genuine fear.
If this premise turns out
to be true, no matter how much oppression we feel from the authorities that
administer the current state of weapon technology, 2014 will appear to be the
end of the golden age of freedom and liberty enjoyed by billions of people.
Policing, administration of justice, the process of controlling criminal conduct
would be thoroughly disrupted. Crime novels would be an oddity from the distant
past and read with the survivors by a degree of awe and disbelief.
The struggle over violence
containment has inevitably called into balance the golden mean, the sweet spot
between just enough tyranny to keep our primate violence in check so large
populations whose members are competing for scare resources and mates can live
in peace, but not so oppressive as to allow for outliers to convince the average
person it was in his or her interest to risk life, limb, family, and property in
order to turn violence against his neighbor or combine with his neighbors to
challenge the authorities.
There are other possible
outcomes. As autonomous robotic system integrate with artificial intelligence,
it is likely that overtime the 1% may find the weapon systems pointed at them.
The newly grouped 100% will have an overlord to ensure not the survival of the
fitness but survival of the most domesticated human and once again the term
‘drone’ will apply to people rather than smart weapons.
Our social constructs will
no longer be programmed by the 1%; they will be programmed by a machine world
that will know better than us our biases, our weakness, and our primate nature.
Such knowledge drawn from big data will be more effective than codes, stories,
myths or sacredness penned by any ruler, philosopher, historian, psychologist or
the smartest person working at Facebook or Google. Our sacredness will evolve
into ways we can’t quite imagine. Our overlords will program our
Past wars have had the
collateral effect to cull the legions of angry unemployed young men. Artificial
Intelligence may decide it is more efficient to cull the populations down to
historical size where violence prone primates needed less managing.
Realistically, we have to
face the fact that an AI system might question the wisdom of feeding, housing,
controlling 7 billion people, large numbers of whom act on violent impulse.
These numbers create a big management, logistical and environmental
No country or leader has
shown the resources or ability required to resolve conflict between and inside
such large groups. At the same time, the population shows no signs of
We are finding our limits.
When we can’t find a 250-ton plane with 239 people two weeks after it
disappeared, we are learning a lesson in humility. For all of our advanced
technology, we have large blind spots. It is only a matter of time before
machine intelligence eliminates the blind spots and decides a general culling of
the population would restore our primate species to the proper order from which
we evolved and broke free on our journey out of Africa.
Unless you are sleep
walking, you are noticing things as you move around. You might ask yourself
about you daily motion. How many steps do you take each day? Do you know that
there is a close correlation between what you pay attention to and number of
steps you take every day?
If you are reading this
essay, you aren’t in motion. I have (so far) your attention. Along the way you
pay attention to what you see coming and what find along the path. There is
something deeply unpleasant in the way I pay attention. The shallowness robs me
of not only depth but also ignores an opportunity. I noticed things that most of
you also noticed like the disappearance of the Malaysian Air Flight MH370 less
than two hours into a KL to Beijing flight. Like a missing person, it had
vanished. The world watched officials who said nothing in the matter of robots
programmed to avoid hard questions. I paid attention to officials who were cross
that I along with millions of others were paying attention to a performance to
distract from the existential questions of why and how something nearly 70
meters long with that many people and many tons of steel can just disappear?
What child or adult wouldn’t pay attention to something that big that
Airline and government
officials squirmed, shifted, blinked as they stared into the TV cameras. When we
pay really close attention to what someone says, especially if they are
powerful, they become very, very careful. Officials in government, teachers, and
employers all are in the attention paying business. It is a monopoly they’ve
long controlled, nurtured, protected and lavishly funded. The powerful have a
huge stake in what you pay attention to. Like all great magicians, they are
masters of distraction. Most people fall for sleight of hand. We can’t help it.
Our brains are easily distracted. Our attention easily bought and sold without
stopping to think that attention shouldn’t be just another commodity.
But it is. All of the time
this week, you sold your attention (if you had a job and wanted to keep it),
handed it over to a pundit, or politician who gives you certain emotional awards
in return for your attention. I was thinking about how this week the vision of
the military bunkers set up throughout Bangkok—about 176 bunkers and checkpoints—are manned with
In most places, people
would pay attention to the appearance of military bunkers throughout the capital
city. The photographs reveal that the freshly decorated bunkers fall somewhere
between a shrine, spirit house or spa. So far no one has suggested a contest for
tourists to submit their decoration ideas to the Bunker Decoration
People might well asked,
who ordered that to happen? What are the orders given to the soldiers inside the
bunker? Are they supposed to go out on patrol? Or do they just sit there and pay
attention, observe and write down what they see? But pay attention to who and
what, and if by paying attention, they see someone with a gun, what are they
under orders to do? I don’t know, I am merely asking how bunkers are organized,
staffed and instead most of the press reports have described how some of the
bunkers have been decorated. We’re not told where the decoration budget comes
from for the potted plants or flowers (perhaps they were donated) or whether
each unit is allowed to decorate their bunker guided by their own ideas of good
taste and beauty. But the flowers and potted plants have drawn international attention.
In summary, this week I’ve
paid attention to a disappeared airliner flight MH370 flying from KL filled with
passengers and crew and the appearance of military bunkers in Bangkok. What
appears and disappears, like the 0s and 1s of digital language, communicate
events, incidents, and movement that causes us to wonder about agency. What
caused it? And meaning? How does one thing suddenly appear while another
The mystery of life is in
these disappearance and appearances. The unscheduled events that evolution has
wired us to respond automatically and quickly such as an elephant appearing out
of nowhere. Six people and an elephant
died this week in Thailand when the elephant suddenly
appeared on the road causing a three vehicle crash. Evolution hasn’t
equipped us to react to elephants while driving cars on highways. We aren’t
paying attention to elephants.
decorated bunkers, and elephants knock us out of our routine as we move through
life processing our reality along the way. We shared this paying attention
experience collectively this week. But sharing something only partially tells
you how the attention was processed. We shouldn’t assume there is a
one-size-fits-all processing for attention. For instance, the anti-government
protesters’ attention more likely processes the Bangkok military bunkers in a
different light than the pro-government supporters’ attention would. Each will
argue the other side isn’t paying attention, or at least not paying proper
attention. This kind of attention processing difference underlies social
discontent, alienation and revolt as the agreed upon patterns, shaped by
culture, language and history, lose their grip to define agency and
Airport security experts
and authorities have taken our plastic bottles of drinking water and made us
take off our belts and shoes. At the same time, in many places, it seems the
authorities hardly glance at a boarding passenger’s passport. Given there are
nearly forty million entries for passports lost in the
vortex of global tourism which shares an airlock with global crimes, illegal
smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, suggests that the
authorities haven’t been paying attention to a potentially lethal flaw in
the system. This large database of stolen passports is evidence a country-sized
population with phony identities floating around planet earth. It took MH370 to
go missing before we shifted our attention to this hidden nation in a database
that no one but the Americans, British a couple of other countries regularly
consult. Most don’t bother. That Interpol database simply doesn’t have their
Guardian writes that Thailand has been
a hub for stolen passports. Incompetence, corruption, lies, lack of training and
supervision, and laziness within responsible authorities are all candidates to
explain why attention is not paid to the stolen passport database. They also
explain why only now after MH370 disappeared with two men who boarded with
passports stolen in Thailand (though it seems neither man was a terrorist but a
couple of illegal immigrants on their way to what they thought was a new life
with a fake identity) we are turning our attention to the matter of those
stolen, fake or forged passports. Like the missing airplane, no one seems to
have a handle on where they’ve disappeared.
A couple of years ago, a
close friend and his wife arrived in Bangkok on a flight from London. They
managed to mix up their passports. When my middle-aged friend, who is bald and
wears glasses, presented a passport at immigration he was stamped in. The stamp
was in his wife’s passport. I can assure you his wife isn’t bald and doesn’t
wear glasses. When it came to the wife’s turn, the immigration official through
a masterly of detective work looked at the husband’s photo in the passport and
at the middle-aged lady in front of him. A conference was held. The supervisor
finally sorted it out. The weak link is the lack of attention paid by those who
are paid to give their attention to identity of others. It doesn’t always work
out that way.
The business of authors,
painter, mathematicians, and musicians to offer alternative ways of paying
attention through words, images, numbers, and sound. They might even be so bold
as to suggest that the State is wrong, lying, stonewalling or otherwise
dishonest in diverting our attention to matters of grave importance. This
explains why the State likes to be, if possible, the sole or most important
sponsor of the arts. The money flows to those who fall in line with what the
government wishes people to pay attention to. Censorship is the State’s way of
warning artists and citizens to restrict the range of the ideas, events,
personalities and institutions that may be paid critical attention
Sometimes those stories
are contradictory to official stories and when challenging power, as Voltaire
once suggested, is a dangerous activity. Artists, who tell the safe story, or
one supportive of power, are rewarded and invited to give speeches, interviews
and lunch. At some point, every author makes a decision on which side of the
attention paying line he or she will patrol while seeking to tell the story of
what has disappeared and what has suddenly appeared.
There’s a threshold all of
us cross everyday as we explore our world. I was struck by Albert Sun’s “The Monitored Man”.
in the New York Times. The
author tested a number of tracking devices that register motion and activity
with readings on perspiration, heat rate, muscle heat, calories burned, skin
temperature and level of movement or activity. The idea is the state of your
health is connected with the nature and duration of your movement. Then came the
bombshell. On weekends, the author’s tracker disclosed that he took 16,000
Compare that with the
weekdays spend working at the office and the commute back and forth, including
the time spent at home. Sun’s workday shrank his weekend movement from a high of
16,000 (which approaches a half-marathon in distance) to 6,000 to 7,000 steps,
and most of that attention occurred inside the dome of an office. Someone pays
him to concentrate on a task that benefited the employer. People assume this is
natural or normal. But it is bizarre and weird that two-thirds of what we pay
attention to in life is a product someone more powerful than us controls. And we
find ourselves defining ourselves as an adjunct of our employer’s
ancestors had a much larger range of motion. In modern Africa, the Hadza have a hunter-gather lifestyle and the men on
average walk 11.2 kilometers a day (more than 14,000 steps). The Hadza men are
paying attention in a much different way from the modern office
Company uniforms or
military uniforms are good ways to keep the attention focused in a unified,
conforming range of motion. That is the life of most people. How they notice and
how they hand over what to notice to others. Our attention is filtered, fracked,
pipelined so that we hardly are aware that we’ve been socially engineered to
channel certain types of information, form that information into a range of
acceptable patterns, and to repeat that activity until further
When I paid close
attention to the story about trackers, I found another story buried under the
surface, one that raised much larger issues about the range of our daily motion
spectrum and where we fit in that spectrum will likely define how our attention
paying is mortgaged to pay the rent and feed the family.
Employers are buying
attention from their employees. The most effective employees not only
readily sell their attention, their identity is indistinguishable from the job
to which all of their attention is vested. I’ve talked to lawyers who are rich
enough to quit their law firms but couldn’t image what identity would be left
once they were no longer practicing law. This state of enforced non-identity
happens to many when they retire. Their motion is returned to them. Every day is
a weekend of possible motions. Do they grab that opportunity? Some do, many
Paying attention is like a
muscle. Use both or they both atrophy. The strength required to pay attention
without the handrails of indoctrination, propaganda, or work rules is great.
It’s you at the controls. If you can find that ‘you.’
After a lifetime of paying
attention we have grown comfortable with outsourcing the edit feature of our
reality through the filter of family, neighbors, teachers, officials, and
employers. We use this edited version of our reality to form this fragile thing
called identity. The fact that it is largely built by others doesn’t
seem to concern us too much. We don’t really think about how those filters
distill patterns from an unfathomable jumble of events, things, and motions
washing over us.
We’ve been on an attention
paying glide path from early school through a life time of employment, in early
old age that glider lands on a park bench with a batch of memories that seem
ours but are mainly off the rack memories shared by many others. The struggle is
to understand new stories outside the context we’ve spent our entire lives. We
seek a way to occupy all of that 66% of the lost time for our own movement. But
it may not be that easy. If you’ve lived a lifetime in a circus, being freed in
the wild is more terrifying than liberating. The jungle is an uneasy, dangerous
place. The lion cage door is open. But the lion no longer wants to leave. He
couldn’t make it in the wild. Outside the cage door, big airplanes disappear for
days and days, military bunkers decorated with flowers and potted plants litter
the city, as 40 million lost passports data entries circulate like El Niño
racing along the surface of the planet.
We try to make sense of
these mysteries. We seek a way to move through the world, which is stranger and
more alien than the one we’ve left behind. What makes the old sad is the
dangerous idea they were duped; there were other things in life they should have
paid attention to and didn’t. We regret that we sold most of our attention in
the name of love, faith, doctrine or profit. We didn’t have enough motion
to break free of the gravity of all of those filters. As there were so many
other possibilities, and we envy those who kept in motion and managed to break
But it’s never too late.
You don’t need to steal a passport. What you need is a plan for accelerating
your current rate of motion and let it carry you across expanded boundaries you
wish to explore. Fire the old script editors who have been running your
performance. Take off on a journey where the editors no longer direct how and
where and to what you can pay attention. This possibility of freedom may not
survive the cyberworld a decade into the future. While social relations and
political control will be less geographically bound; what comes next may impose
even greater filters. The number of daily steps may continue to plunge. Our
forward motion that brought us to this point in civilization may stall. The
controls over how we our minds pay attention may define our brave new world
where the Hadza, with their 11.2K daily walk, will take pity on us.
Judges are expected to be
impartial storytellers, weaving their narratives from the evidence presented to
them, considering previous cases with similar facts, and deciding how the law
applies to the findings of fact. A judge without impartiality is like a priest
without faith. Religion is not an accidental metaphor. Good faith in the
judicial system is underscored by a belief in its impartiality.
If you’ve spent time in
courtrooms in Canada, England, Burma, and America you’d find the same churchlike
devotion to symbolism, ritual, gowns and reverence from those in attendance.
Oaths are taken to tell them the truth. Lies made under oath are punished by
fines and imprisonment.
Judges sit on an elevated
bench looking down as from Olympus at those in the courtroom, and those below
look up to them.
Judges are in a business
not unlike a mystery author who must tie up the loose ends that explains the
story. Unlike most writers they must also be public performers in the ritual of
Edmund Burke wrote, “It is
hard to say whether doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in
the lucrative business of mystery.”
A crime fiction writer may
entertain, enlighten, stimulate, provoke or expand our understanding of the
psychology of criminal and victim. Judges have the heavy responsibility of
knowing their finding of the ‘true’ story has great consequences for the liberty
of the people in the courtroom and the society outside of the courtroom. Like
all storytellers, judges write decisions that can’t help but reflect their own
cultural and personal biases.
Is it reasonable to expect
our judges to rise above the prejudices of their history, culture, class, and
That is a burning question
asked in Thailand where there is talk of a judicial coup to oust the government.
Many judicial systems not just in Thailand are bending under the weight of
full-scale political conflict. In those parts of the world set on fire with
violence and strife, people seek answers about who is judging the authorities
inside a political system and who is judging the judges.
Most judges are drawn from
the ranks of the ruling elites. They aren’t elected. Judges are vetted and
appointed by a narrow spectrum of state officials. They serve for life. During
their tenure on the bench, it is fair to ask: are judges main duty to protect
the powerful and the system that confers power on them or are judges serving to
mediate and protect ordinary citizens who challenge power, conventional wisdom,
or dissent from the mythology that power cloaks itself for
“As long as you’re scared
you’re on the plantation.” ― Cornel West
To which I’d add, justice
cages fear while injustice opens the cage door. Judges act as the gatekeepers,
opening and closing the door on the actions of others and state officials who
left to their own devices generate fear of among powerless people.
Unlike other storytellers,
judges can send people to prison, ban them from civil rights and liberties and
political office, overturn laws, regulations and edicts, and select among
competing philosophies, norms, and values the ones that become the law of the
Judges in many systems
exercise by their position considerable power over other institutions of state
and over citizens. That is why their role has enhanced importance in times of
great dissension and debate about the direction of society.
In the common law
countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States (at the state level
judges are often elected) and elsewhere in the Commonwealth judges are selected
and appointed from the top ranks of lawyers. Lawyers who have proved themselves
as not only versed in the law, but who have gained a reputation for qualities of
restraint, honor, knowledge, experience, fairness and integrity.
In civil law countries
such as Thailand, Japan, and most of Europe, judges enter the justice system
soon after law school and work their way under the civil service ladder. The
civil law system has a different tradition of recruitment, advancement, and
In Thailand, the judges
are an important source of power within the context of the political turmoil
that has followed since the 2006 coup. A number of decisions on the constitution
and laws have created controversy as to the neutrality of the courts to
administer justice in light of powerful forces seeking to expel the government.
The Thai political system and judicial system are going through a period of
Distrust of politicians is
acceptable if not necessary to ensure that decisions aren’t made for politicians
and their cronies but for the people. But distrust of the courts undermines the
last resort to monitor and hold the state authorities and those contesting those
authorities to resolve their differences within the boundaries of the
The players may cheat but
the referees are there to keep the game within the rules. If a referee appears,
through his calls, to be favoring one side, the game is rigged and a free for
all may follow. Thus if a judge is seen to appear at a demonstration protesting
for or against the government, he or she has given the appearance of taking
A judge’s authority rests
upon the appearance of being neutral. If a member of the federal court in New
York had carried a placard at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, such an act
would make it difficult for the judge to appear neutral in a hearing based on
the legality of the demonstration and an application for an injunction against
the rally organizers.
The quickest way to
compromise a judicial system is for the judges to become associated with one
faction in a political dispute. The friend of justice is seen as being no friend
or enemy of either side to a dispute.
If that appearance of
neutrality is shattered, the probability of attacks against the courts
A number of recent stories
reporting insurgent attacks on courts suggest they are becoming routine in a
number of countries. Courts and court officials are being targeted as combatants
on one side or the other in political struggles.
An extreme example of
discontent with the court system spilling over into acts of violence is happened
in Pakistan on Monday March 3, when a suicide bomber settled scores by blowing
himself up in a courtroom, killing eleven and injuring twenty-four
In early April 2013,
The ABA Journal reported 53 people were killed and 90
injured, including two judges, when suicide bombers attacked a court house in
Today reported that in mid-April
2013, in Mogadishu Nine Al-Shabab Islamic extremists in suicide vests and firing
rifles attacked Somalia’s main court complex. 16 people including all the
attackers were killed
In February M79 the Bangkok Post reported an armour-piercing grenade was
fired at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road. An earlier this week on
Monday 3March The Bangkok Post reported that two M-61 grenades were
used in an attack on the Criminal Court in Bangkok by two men on a
It would be mistake to
think such attacks are limited to judges and court personnel living in
quasi-democratic or non-dramatic countries in the Middle-East, Asia, or Latin
Fourteen years ago, in a
report titled Safe and Secure: Protecting Judicial
Officials violence in the American judicial system was detailed.
The report illustrated the rising threats and actual violence against judges,
judicial personnel and others working in the court system. Measures such as
designing the court building as a ‘harden target’ and the use of of metal
detectors and x-rays to detect weapons, alarms, and CCTV cameras were installed
as a response to the potential of an attack.
It is one thing to survey
and describe the attacks on judges and court personnel, it is quite another to
explain why such attacks appear more frequently and with substantial
One explanation is
illiberal, traditional tribal forces are taking their insurgencies to the place
where captured insurgents face justice. In Thailand, some have argued that the
illiberal, traditional non-democratic forces are protected by applying a
double-standard supported by the courts.
In other words, violent
attacks on judges and their personnel may originate from deep-seated political
conflicts in a society and judges find themselves in the cross-hairs as warring
factions demand that court favor their interpretation of justice.
Another explanation is the
absence of perceived fairness and impartiality of judges. Seneca confirms this
is an ancient issue. “Auditur et altera pars–The other side shall be
heard as well.” If one side to dispute believes their side is systematically, as
a matter of policy, not being heard along with a perception the judges are
automatically siding with the powerful, violence may well follow.
There is, in the Western
tradition, a notion that courts, like free speech, are part of the safeguards
needed to secure democracy.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to
injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Courts are places where
people in conflict go to obtain justice. And justice is in the quality of the
assessment of what story most plausibility emerges from the competing stories
told by the parties through witnesses, forensic evidence, and expert
In time of political
chaos, the judges in a political system are called upon to resolve issues
arising from the constitution or other laws. The problem is that what is argued
as a ‘legal’ issue may have a significant political dimension and that draws the
judges into the fray.
Each side of a political
conflict seeks to convince the judges of the merits, fairness, common sense and
justice arising from the assembly of facts, time lines, and role of actors in
the political drama.
What is at stake isn’t
found in the ordinary civil or criminal case. State authorities often have a
horse in this race. Judges are by their nature also state authorities. The
theory has been, while judges are state authorities, part of their job is to
keep those authorities in check and to enforce civil liberties on behalf of
those challenging what may be abuses of authority.
There is considerable
gallows type humor about the courts that goes back many years. Judge Sturgess
wrote, “Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.” Raymond
Chandler would have agreed as well as any noir fiction writer.
Ignzio Silone said, “An
earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain –
the equality of all men.”
None of this jaundice
about political systems or courts that are an essential part of a functioning
political system is new. Tacitus reminded us, “The more corrupt the republic,
the more numerous the laws.”
It wasn’t just the Roman
who had this view, the author of The Art of War, Lao-Tzu wrote, “The
greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there
And our cultural view of
judges goes from admiration to suspicion as the often-quoted phrase indicates:
“Good lawyers know the law; great lawyers know the judge.”
When it comes to the
character of judges, one finds a range of opinions, including this one by David
Dudley Field, “Judges are but men, and are swayed like other men by vehement
prejudices. This is corruption please.”
Corruption, a word that
swarms around the hive of anti-government protesters in Thailand, has more than
one sting in the tail. As Horace wrote, “A corrupt judge does not carefully
search for the truth.” Even if that truth may discredit the actions of the
That raises the awkward
question of what is the ‘truth’ and who is to be trusted with find the truth
amongst factions each claiming the prize for themselves?
Even judges of American
justice Benjamin Cardozo’s standing recognized the issue: “There is in each of
us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which
gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that
current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not
recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts,
traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on
life, a conception of social needs. … In this mental background every problem
finds it setting. We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the
less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.”
Cardozo isn’t along, Felix
Frankfurter wrote, “No judge writes on a wholly clean slate.”
Each age recreates its own
justice system and selects the judges and other personnel to run it. And in each
age, the status, reputation, and standing of the judges is reinvented to suit
the purposes of the day. Much in our world has been disrupted by technology.
Including the courts.
America has a secret court
with judges deciding on the scope of government surveillance of its citizens.
Thai courts sometimes hold closed sessions in
Lèse-majesté cases. Michael Ponsor wrote in
The Hanging Judge, “If you want the best evidence of just how strong
our democracy is, come into the courtroom.” That’s hard to do if it meets in
Novelist George R.R.
Martin had his own idea about the connection between a judge and the justice he
administers, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the
History suggests that once
the courts are drawn into political conflict, the seeds of doubt and suspicion
are easily sown and fall on the fertile field of doubt in government
The search for truth,
justice, and impartiality is difficult in the best of times, and at the worst of
times, hard men take justice into their own hands, sometimes with the tacit
approval of the courts, and sometimes for revenge for the suspicion of such back
channel signals of approval.
In Thailand, all eyes are
on the courts to deliver judgments on a host of legal cases with large social
and political implications. In a judicial system where judges have the power to
remove prime ministers, sack MPs, and dissolve political parties, the perception
of good faith is essential.
Whether the Thai judges,
through their decisions in fact-finding and legal reasoning clear a path that
appears fair and reasonable is a question on the minds of many. Whether any
court of law can be designed or recruit judges capable of making such political
decision acceptable to most citizens is another question altogether. Go to
Google and type in Thai courts and click on images. This visual montage tells a
story about conflict, power, justice, anger, fear and hate, and in the midst of
this narrative are the courts seeking a legal way out.
Power. Grab it. Earn it.
Put it to a vote. The tango between power and violence is the stuff of
literature. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Why Violence Has Declined illustrates a dramatic
decrease of violence over the centuries. But the world I live in seems extremely
violent making such a statement appear counter intuitive. Facts are facts. And
“Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to…”
In part, this 30-fold
decrease in violence means we are historically less likely to be a victim of
homicide than our ancestors. But homicide, like the future (to use William
Gibson’s clever observation) is unevenly distributed across countries and
cultures. Richard Florida in What the
Most Violent Nations in the World have in Common, cites three factors that explain
why there are elevated homicide rates in some cultures and not others. (1)
Social economic inequality, (2) gender inequality, and (3) the macho index based
on levels of masculinity, testosterone, and aggression. Florida’s article
focuses on private acts of violence that results in death. The question is
whether these factors may also explain why some States are more ready to use of
violence against their citizen or why protesters in these places resort to
violence against State and its security forces.
It is public violence by
State authorities and those challenging State authorities that is a common
thread in the political struggles in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela and
Thailand. Projecting violence has escalated in Thailand since January 2014. What
is the cause of this surge in political violence in Thailand? There is no simple
answer, though Richard Florida’s three factors are a guide to following
precursors of violence. We had bombings and shootings. Twenty-two people are
dead. Hundreds have been injured. Four children are dead from bombings and
What emerges when you drop
down the rabbit hole is the world inside offers up a wide variety of possible
sources to explain these deaths. It is one thing to describe violence. It is
another to explain it. Pundits make lots of explanation that are convincing,
plausible argument as to causation. But don’t be fooled. Plausibility and truth
are two different matters.
What appears to fuel the
current Thai power struggle is a controversy over who has the legitimate right
to exercise power. At the heart of the political turmoil is a perplexing
issue: On what basis does the caretaker government support its claim to govern
in Thailand? Owning power, through an electoral mandate, tribal tradition,
military coup, or a strongman, can be traced like bullet wounds in the corpse of
empires and nations recounted in political history. Long before The
Lord of Rings was written, Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can
stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him
Power means that A can
compel B to do or not do an act that B wouldn’t otherwise wish to do. For
example, obtain a driver’s license, pay taxes, refrain from drinking and
driving. You don’t have the option of refusal. You can be compelled with threat
of violence to do something you don’t wish to. Objects of power are taught a
script to perform and the best script makers don’t need guns to enforce their
power over the actors. The actors patrol themselves for accuracy, which means
Power, at its best,
safeguards the larger interests of a community and individuals sacrifice a
degree of freedom they would otherwise have to accommodate that interest. Power
is a river with many streams. Elections are one way power is conferred as a
communal agreement, the power holder has legitimacy in forcing others, within
the law, to comply with new policies and law. Power also has other rivers where
power flows from the barrel of a gun, from a family name, from a reputation for
brutality, or according to cultural custom.
Power also means claiming
privileges and immunities. Absolute power means the laws of the land do not
apply to that person. He or she can bury alive hundreds of public ministers or
court officials on a whim. Chinese history has a number of such examples to
illustrate the dangers of concentrated power. Less dramatic, but still
substantial, is the power that comes with vast wealth, through cartels and
monopolies, through the accumulation of data about your private life, through
the power to indoctrinate children to the ideology to support the powerful. True
power has the capacity to make us fearful, grateful, or to silence us, and the
power to use networks to defeat opponents.
Political power needs to
be monitored and checked and for good reason. Over time, despite the best
intention, the power holder will exhibit autistic behavior. His privileges
become entitlements. The attitude spreads like a pandemic infection through the
whole ruling class with hubris. Once the unrestrained power virus spreads
through agencies, courts, armies and civil servants the capacity for empathy
with the governed is destroyed.
The monopoly on violence
is fragile. The State is many places is losing control over violence. The danger
is that power and violence are being privatized like shares sold in a state
enterprise in one of those rigged auctions.
People with power are
mindful of those who would challenge their power, compete for it, or question
it. Freedom of expression is the one defense ordinary non-powerful people seek;
it exists as a peaceful way to limit the powerful. Free speech allows us to
voice our suspicion of power abuses and make the powerful accountable. The two
most hated ideas of the powerful are accountability and transparency. It means
you can’t just shoot whoever you want without some due process preceding the
firing of the bullet.
Criminalizing speech is
one way the powerful push back to control their challengers. You can read a
great deal about allocation of power arrangements from the degree of freedom or
repression in the exercise of political speech. The more free the speech, the
more accountable power holders are in the exercise of power. The powerful rarely
attack the ideal of free speech. The really powerful aren’t quite that stupid.
They have another argument up their sleeve. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “What
better way for a ruling class to claim and hold power than to pose as the
defenders of the nation?” Thus political speech is restricted to prevent
‘enemies’ from attacking the institutions of State and those who are the face of
The powerful need enemies,
real or imagined, to give them a mandate.
“What is the cause of
historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills
transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses
transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the
whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of
which we do not understand. ” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Sometimes the messy battle
to merge democratic and non-democratic power centers spills over into violence.
Power now stays stable because the aspirations, economic realities, and
technology are constantly shifting and often faster than tradition institutions
can adapt. This leads modern political forces to undermine the authority and
status of existing power holders. These forces respond by abandoning the
legislative assembly and take to the streets. Once in the streets, sooner or
later violence surfaces. Violence is a weapon to recover lost power.
The purpose of a modern
political process is to provide a mechanism to resolve conflict over the
exercise of power within democratic institutions. Democracy is a peacekeeping
patrol to keep the powerful forces in society from slitting each other’s
throats. The worry is when one faction gets the upper hand and uses that
position to put the knife in.
In every political system
people have grievances. Not everyone is ever happy. What is sometimes ignored
are the grievances of those who once exercised unquestioned power after they
lose power in an election. When power is stripped away as a result of an
election they are left vulnerable and feeling unprotected and their interest
unjustly ignored. Anger and hatred, threats and intimidation, and breakdown of
law and order follow. They plot to recover what has been lost. George Orwell
in 1984 wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with
the intention of relinquishing it.”
In the struggle for power
that a culture defines itself and the identity of its people are
The never-ending struggle
for power is something children need to learn early on. Some of the best books
that children read prepare them to understand the nature of power, its dangers,
seductions, violations, and corruptions. The Lord of the
Rings is a classic for children and adults and the ring of power
becomes a symbol for its corrupting influence, and the greed and excesses
surrounding power struggles. Plato taught wrote, “The measure of a man is what
he does with power.”
If we measure the
probabilities of what people will do with power if left to their own devices, it
is clear checks and balances are essential to prevent tyranny.
What literary influences
have shaped your opinion about power and violence? And what books would you
recommend to a child to learn about power? The books I’d recommend
are: Alice in Wonderland, Golding’s Lord of the
Flies, Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter trilogy, George
Orwell’s Animal Farm. Readers can add their own favourites to this
Here’s a brief reason for
Wonderland is a descent into the
madness, capriciousness and arbitrariness of power. There is no better book to
illustrate how whim couple with absolute power creates selfish, dangerous
monsters. Once you slide down that rabbit hole, you enter an alien world of Mad
Lord of the
Flies illustrates the tribal nature
of power, the symbolic nature of power attached to an object, and the horrible
abuses that lead to violence and murder. Stranded on an island boys revert to a
feral state where seizing power over others turns into deadly games.
The Dark Mattertrilogy (The Golden Compass,
The Subtle Knife,and The Amber Spyglass) by
Phillip Pullman is a portal into the corruption of mystical beliefs and ideology
by the powerful to enforce conformity and to destroy freedom.
Farm a parable of power, violence,
dictatorship, repression, hatred and injustice.
The best foundation for a
crime fiction writer, or any genre of writing, can be found in children’s
literature. You don’t need to be a writer to take in the profound insights that
will guide your own way through a lifetime of political power plays and public
violence. The saddest thing about arriving at adulthood is so many of these
classics are tucked away, spine out in a forgotten part of our personal library,
I would like to walk you
through the maze of the political power struggle in Thailand. The fact is I set
out with a compass and map and a few steps along the path, get hopelessly lost.
So I go back and read Alice in Wonderland, and ask how she did
what she did? I am curious to know just how far the rabbit hole goes and what I
will find at the other end.
Along my Thai journey of
25 years I have uncovered some clues. What I call clues are the things I stop to
pay attention to. Do you ever wonder why you pay attention to something things
and ignore others? Have you ever thought that just maybe people who live in
different rabbit holes, with different culture and language might stop to look
at different things? That’s what I seek to do in my books and essays—examine
those different things.
I invite you to a journey
of discovery of power and violence and ask how and why people pay attention to
one thing and not another, and how we share many similarities on this journey
but at the same time it is a winding, twisty road and sometimes we find people
stop and look at things we’d rush right passed. How they manage love and hate,
fear and hope, lying and truth, justice and injustice, and how we all put our
nose against the window pane and seek a glimpse of who these people who control
our lives and our freedom and liberty, and wonder if they see me, see us as
people like them. Or are we invisible?
What happens when we see
each other through the pane that separates us? How does it happen that I’m on
one side and they are on the other? How can I see and understand what people
using different languages in a different culture see? Do I know what deep
passages inside their rabbit hole their language leads them? I try to follow but
I discover it is hard work understanding life deep under this surface. I try the
best way that I can and know that what I witness, describe and shape into words
is a rough approximation of the reality.
I look around Bangkok
where I live and I feel the pain of the Thais. I see the sadness and worry in
their faces. I have heard their rage and frustrations. We all started as those
four children killed in the past week. A child wants to be loved and to be free.
Carefree. They want crayons and a coloring book. Even a child’s level of Thai
fluency opens an expat’s heart to the suffering all of us experience each
The bombs and guns, the
hate and the threats are on a page we should turn. Make it go away, a natural
child’s request. One that I wish was in my power to grant. But it’s not. Instead
we must face the violence as not some remote event out of sight, but as touching
our lives, only then can we deal with it, and deal with ourselves.
The legacy of artists
depends on their enduring ability to make succeeding generations pay attention
to nature, mankind, humanity, beauty, and the dark, dangerous shadows that
surround life. They make us notice things about ourselves, frame them in a
universal way. Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, Shakespeare, Goya, Titian,
Rembrandt, El Greco, Lucian Freud (you weren’t expecting that one), Wagner,
Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borges’ Library of
Lucien Freud, the grandson
of Sigmund Freud, who along with Francis Bacon are two of the most important
painters in England over the past 100 years. They specialized in portraits. They
observed people and painted what they saw in others. Some say they painted
images of themselves reflected in others. What of those who sat for these
paintings? These patient sitters most of whom no one will remember spent many
hours. What is their story of being observed? What of their observations of the
painter observing them?
Think of these painters as
emergency room doctors who took the pulse of their time. The blood, bone,
flesh are inside these artistic works. They embody a range of health and
disease. They create an illusion of immortality.
In his brilliant Man with a
Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2014) Martin Gayford who sat for
a period of one and a half years for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud, reminds
us that in 1800 there were a billion people on the planet. Each and everyone one
of them is now dead. Not a single survivor walks amongst us. Looking over some
of the names on the list above to discover the ethics, morality, and temperament
of those we will never meet. Our passions and emotions are no different. What
moves us to tears and laughter may have changed (though As You Like It
still makes us laugh), but the reality of tears and laughter is
These artists have taught
us how to look, what to look for, and what patterns bring understanding, joy,
hope, terror, hate, anger and despair. Mostly we don’t consult this list.
We dart in and out of their worlds like we clean our teeth, and shortly
thereafter we are greedily on to our next meal.
They have thrown us a life
preserver to someone in the middle of a sea with no horizon but the sky on all
sides. We are that dot floating, waiting for rescue.
In the world of noir, that
rescue never arrives. We are abandoned inside our lives to struggling to keep
our heads above water. We seek not truth, but allies. Others who experience life
as we do and share with them a common emotional reaction to life, experience,
others, and meaning.
Our looking is an
experience of bias management. Like a thirsty wander in an undrinkable sea we
search for drinking water. We reject any idea that such a search is futile or
that we are going about it the wrong way. Our group feels its way toward the
shared goal. Nothing can persuade us that we are deluded or looking in the wrong
We are prisoners of these
biases. No one escapes from them. They are our black hole. The pull of their
gravity is far stronger than reason, which acts as the weak force. What we see
is all there is. What we want is confirmation of what we believe and feel.
Contrary evidence is misinterpreted so we can maintain our illusions. We
all claim to be truth seekers. What we seek is the truth that makes us
comfortable with what we believe to be true. We can’t accept there might be a
contradiction. Cognitive dissonance makes us angry and dangerous. Our cure is to
back into our corner with our community and turn up the sound and sights of what
we know in our hearts to be right, truthful, honorable, and fair.
Our tragedy is we fail to
train ourselves to pay attention to the fine details around us. We gain our
identity, our selves, our information from instruments and machines. Not from
nature or each other. That separates us from our ancestors, their lives,
burdens, and social life.
It takes endurance to pay
attention, and to seek clarity and definition in what we are attending to. If
there is a single reason why I continue to write books and essays, it is to
continue on a journey of exploration of what is in front of me, and the
expression in words, pictures, and music of what is found along the way as we
stopped to take in life. Those who lived before our birth continue to
dwell in our time through art. The presence of these ‘sitters” share our space
along the river of time. We look over our shoulder and let them inside our
minds. We try to see through their eyes. We seek a glimpse of ourselves in their
faces. Mostly, though, I fear we suffer an illusion that we navigate on our own,
that we captain our own boat, without much thought for those who lived before
It takes a large amount of
psychological resources to pay attention. Basically we are lazy. Putting on
filters and recharging our biases is our lazy way of idling through life.
Imagination fires on distant shores hold no interest. We crave excitement but
fear adventure. We take no risk. When our adrenaline rush is over we lose
interest quickly. We move on like junkies looking for a new fix. What all great
artists teach is the discipline to keep paying attention at those small details
we no longer see, and to keep up that concentration for weeks, months, and
years. Great art results when the artist channels his or her attention over time
and emerges with an artifact that makes us feel larger than ourselves, expansive
[CAPTION] Lucian Freud, the artist,
and his subject, Martin Gayford, “the man with the blue scarf” on the right and
on the canvas
We avoid disorder, chaos,
ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The
great art doesn’t pander to this fear. Instead such art animates and discloses
how our current of charged feelings passes through this invisible, unstable
field. We need an artist’s angle to view our own passage through life.
Paintings, music and words are a psychic map to master new landscapes of the
world inside and outside us. If we allow them in, we find that they’ve created a
bridge between our everyday ‘us’ and the objects that surround ‘us.’ We are in
harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we
understand the nature and scope of our connection.
Here’s what Lucian Freud
had to say about a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi:
It is was very interesting, very
exciting. That marvelous subject of the whores sitting round a circular pouf,
when you look at it you realize that the one thing he couldn’t do was people
together. To me, the most touching Lautrec in the museum is the one of the two
girls, both whores, in a bed; you just see their heads. It’s so moving. They’ve
finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each
Lautrec captured the most
human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is
commercial and people aren’t thought of as liking each other. It’s a fleeting
moment. And it reminds us that liking, love, pain, hate and anger are constantly
shifting in and out of our lives. None of this is stable; just the opposite, it
is in constant flux. Five minutes later the two ‘whores’ could have been at each
other’s throat. But that is not the moment in the painting. We choose our
moments like an artist. What to record, what to remember and what to ignore. The
two women in the Lautrec painting showed their liking. Now they would click the
‘like’ button on Facebook.
Gayford’s lesson in
sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every
day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one
another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not
possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in
constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux.
Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home,
school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls.
We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying
to our loved ones and for strangers.
Underneath the face is
changing moment to moment. We look at paintings, listen to music and read books
to find out what lies beneath the mask, to embrace it, to recoil from it, to
recognize it inside us. It is the part of our psychology hidden from our own
view. Gayford showed how Lucian Freud, like his famous grandfather Sigmund
Freud, was in the business of reading the person hidden behind the mask. He
waited, like his grandfather, until the sitter patient involuntarily revealed
himself or herself. It might take hundreds of hours. Lucian Freud was a
psychologist who diagnosed using paint. Every patient mood recorded deep inside
the face as surely as daily notes by an analyst of the mental
Artists pretty much do the
same thing, treating their subject as a palimpsest to be decoded. They blend
observation, memory, emotion, and imagination, and then find the right colors
and shades and tones of paint to recreated these layers onto a flat surface. A
writer or composer does something very similar with words or musical notes.
Artists see a wide range of possibilities that most of us overlook in the
hurry of the day.
Gayford reminds us that we
have 22 muscles on either side of our mouth. The muscles are tattered to our
skin and not to bone. They can move like a 44-instrument-orchestra and the
number of piece of music that can be played in huge. Adams was off by two
digits away. 44 was the actual number that the supercomputer called Deep Thought
in Douglas Adam’s The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The
Universe, and Everything. There is a near infinity of possibilities in the human
face, body, attitude, mood, disposition and none of it stable for very long like
clouds passing through. How to express the depth of that range? That’s always
been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing
the human face.
I also recommend Alan
Accidental Universe. Lightman is an interesting author as he holds a dual
position at MIT in humanities and the physics department, as well as a physics
and novelist. He’s been on both sides of CP Snow’s Two
Where scientist and
non-science in the humanities seek to understand each other’s language and
premises and to establish a line of communication. This has been a divide as
large as any political divide. Near the end of the book Lightman talks about
electromagnetic fields crosses a broad spectrum and how we perceive light is a
very narrow range inside that spectrum. We know these other ranges not from our
sensory system but through our instruments. Unplug the instruments, study them a
thousand hours and you will see nothing. They could never painted as various
positions of the 22 muscles around the right or left side of the mouth. The
physicist in him notes that in the electromagnetic field at the upper range
there are more than 10 trillion frequencies and in the lower ranges an excess of
a 100 trillion frequencies. Those are number beyond our imagining.
Art is carried inside our
sensory range. It is what we share as we pass through time and the
electromagnetic fields pass through us. Lightman leaves open the possibility of
mortality as a state of perception experienced along a narrow band nestled in a
vast of infinity of possibilities that preceded and succeeds our brief
experience inside the human band range. It is a comforting speculation. But it’s
not provable. It’s a belief. So the debate will never end.
Meanwhile, Martin Gayford
has left us with a testament to Lucian Freud’s artistic temperament and way of
being that created portraits of the many layers within each of us and they be
studied for expression of the many emotions and moods and vulnerabilities a face
can hold so as long as there are people to care.
Lucien Freud had a burning
need to closely observe, to understand what he observed, to find paints to
explore the range of observations. Though as Gayford concludes, he wasn’t a man
given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things
didn’t interest him that much. He lost himself in that observer’s world where he
was in control.
At the end of the book,
Lucien Freud’s words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate
The notion of the afterlife is much
he same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just hors
d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole
idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had
a lovely time.
This may be the most
lasting of legacies. The final obit when wishing to remember a departed loved
one or dear friend: “He had a lovely time.”
If you observe long
enough, closely enough, Lucien Freud’s life suggests you will find your own key
to Number 44. Time passes on this search but it is let go of without regret
knowing the full of richness of life comes from observing the fine detail. There
lies enduring satisfaction. It’s enough. For a lovely time.