At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Thursday evening 10 June 2010 a large audience turned out to watch a series of videos shot during the May 14th to 19th period when violence erupted in parts of Bangkok. The panelists were photographers and cameramen (no women on the panel) who had, often at great personal risk, shot compelling images. After watching almost one hour of the events unfold through these images, I had the question as to what to make of what I saw on the TV monitors.
I suspect that I wasn’t alone in feeling the powerful emotions that images of being dead bodies, the wounded, soldiers firing M16s and armed demonstrators throwing firecrackers, Molotov cocktails. There were also images of the Men In Black (MiB), the name given to a group of men who wore (mostly) black and were armed with handguns or M16s or other weapons. Those on the panel contradicted the government’s claim that there were 500 hundred such MiB. It is likely to be exceedingly difficult to find out the exact number, who these mystery were, their affiliations with outsiders, their connection to the Red Shirt demonstrators, and who financed, organized and led these men. Or if indeed there were multiple groups of MiB. These MiB moved like particles in a quantum system. Everyone sought to collapse the quantum state and measure what was inside the war zone.
There were images of MiB. We saw photographs and video footage of the MiB on the streets of Bangkok. But any video or photograph is limited to place and time. A snapshot of time and place doesn’t always reveal the context or provide perspective. We see through the camera’s eye. We can’t see beyond what is being shown. We can only guess what had occurred a few minutes or hours before the photograph or video was shot, and similarly from such images we had no way of knowing what happened after the photographer or cameramen moved on.
I have previously written about the dangers of false memories. This sets limits on how memories work, can be manipulated, altered, edited and controlled. With visual images, there is also the danger of filtering which leads to blindness in the brain’s ability to capture what is in the picture. In a recent article, the BBC calls this ‘change blindness.’ A photograph can be altered in such a way that our mind filters out the change. We simply ‘can’t’ see from how one photograph contents different information from the previous one. The color of a butterfly’s wings may go unnoticed as it changes between two shots. It’s not that we can’t see obviously, unless visually impaired we can. But even though we have sight, we are in significant ways blind to what is before us. Illusionists make a good living in finding our ‘blind spots’ and using them to their advantage. We are tempted to believe the illusionist has used ‘magic’ because we wish not to believe that we can’t see what is before our eyes.
Our visual reception is more fragile than we wish to believe.
Please follow this set of simple rules.
Watch this short video. And stop watching at 38 seconds! Watch it to that point. We will come back to it. Seriously, do not cheat! In the video you will see a group of basketball players, some in white and some in black passing two balls around. Your goal is to count how many times the ball is passed by those wearing white shirts. It’s that simple. Remember, count just the passes of the ball by those wearing white. Once the movie is over, write down the number of passes you have counted, Do not watch the video after 38 seconds until instructed.”
At the end of the essay, I’ll give you another link. Before going to that link, I’d like to discuss the idea that the way our visual memory is processed in the brain is just good enough for evolutionary purposes. Evolution rarely achieves perfection. Good enough makes all the difference to fitness needed to survive. That is true of your brain. My brain. Everyone’s brain. Regardless of political affiliation, ethnic background, education, gender, we are running the same basic hardware system. The fact it operates inside our skulls isn’t something we think very much about. Nor do we care to admit that brains are far from foolproof in processing reality. Our mind if filled with visual holes and blind spots and open to suggestions that makes us see what isn’t there. We need to understand our limitations with a sense of humility or we will fall into traps and not what has happened.
Returning to the visual images I saw at the FCCT, I suspect these videos and photos are just the tip of the iceberg. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of video clips and photographs inside cameras, on computer hard drives, floating around the Internet on blogs, Facebook, and other social networks—including some still photographs and video footage that I shot on Rama IV Road between May 14th thru 17th. In other words, a virtual, digital mountain of potential evidence, thousands of stories, mostly short stories, captured by thousands of ‘authors.’ How does anyone go about evaluating and analyzing such widely covered series of related or unconnected events?
The government has set up a Truth Commission to find out what happened in Bangkok during April and May 2010. That is one way of creating a process to examine what happened. But as in the recent no-confidence parliamentary debate, there are bound to be images that the parties in conflict will show to ‘prove beyond doubt’ that the other side acted irrationally as the clear aggressor and that their side suffered as victim. That is human nature. We tend to look for evidence that supports (rather than contradicts) what we believe happened.
A Truth Commission is mandated to find the ‘true’ story of what happened. That means going through and weighing the authenticity, reliability and accuracy of eyewitness testimony, photographs, images, and physical evidence from forensic experts, police, doctors, and others. But it is the pull of images that draws us to making judgments, forming opinions, making findings of fact. The process, on the surfaces, seems to reassuringly objective, neutral, and rational. In fact, a truth commission operates not unlike a museum curator who must decide what best represents the exhibit. Choosing some images over others as ‘better’ evidence will raise controversy. This is true of a museum, too. But in the political realm the stakes are much higher, the emotions more raw and on the surface, and the outcome has wide-reaching and long-lasting implications.
Recall the video that you watched (remember only once)?
Then proceed to step two.
Once you have finished with step two, return to the video. Pick up from 38 second and finish watching the video.
By not paying attention, we miss important elements before our eyes. By paying too much attention, our eyes trick our brain as to what is before us. What happened in Bangkok on 10th April 2010 and between 14th to 19th May 2010 will be debated for years to come. What makes these images important is the way ‘violence’ has been recorded, preserved, and displayed. Acts of violence happen quickly; in seconds or minutes. The visual recording freezes that act, taking it outside of time and space.
No matter what ‘truths’ the Truth Commission finds about the sources and causes of the violence, there will be those who accuse others of ‘blindness’ or of focusing on the wrong things. That means finding the truth won’t end the conflict or satisfy the factions at war with one another as to the meaning, extend, and cause of the violence.
The only way to end a war and stop a repeat of the violence is to find a way for both sides to claim some part of their own truth, to extend a gesture of respect for truth of the other side, and a willingness to find a peace where these truths can co-exist. That’s should be part of any roadmap toward the elusive goal of harmony. This roadmap has much more to do with a change in mindset of those in conflict than with finding the absolute truth of who did what to do to whom and why they did what they did.
Remember if you didn’t see the man in the gorilla suit, neither did the next person. He was there all the time. Only you were focused on something else. Counting. Getting to peace is to stop counting so you can win the prize of being right. It is admitting that we all got it wrong. Then we can start to understand how our cherished senses often let us down.
A number of scientists have argued that brain activity creates a quantum state. And we know from Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger that the notion of uncertainty is embedded in physical properties at the quantum level. The mere observation and measurement of a particle at the quantum level alters it within the system. You can measure the position or velocity of a particle but you can’t do both.
We may be up against similar limitations when we observe and process information from pictures, videos, and other evidence. We do this in the name of ‘truth.’ But we may pay a price for finding this ‘truth.’ By measuring and judging the truth of the image, we have fixed it in time and profoundly altered the possibility of other truths emerging. The uncertainty principle teaches that ‘uncertainty’ describes the nature of the system where the physical properties and measuring occur. We, for better or worst, may discover that our exploration for facts, truth and objectivity is also dictated by the limitations that exist inside a quantum system.