The reality check idea is
we need to be mindful of how we find information, where we find it, how we
analyze it, and finally how we act on it. Along with my fellow bloggers in 2013
we expanded our essays beyond the limit of the law enforcement
Barbara Nadel, Quentin
Bates, and Jarad Henry, my fellow bloggers, have added an international element
to the joint enterprise, covering the UK, Iceland, Turkey and with me adding
Thailand. We sent to each of you our very best wishes for the New Year 2014. And
we hope that you will return in 2014 to read our latest take on crime, courts,
justice, language, culture, politics, economics and technology.
This will be my last blog
for 2013 and I’ve thought whether to strive for something memorable until I
thought for a moment—that never works. If something is memorable we almost never
know it when we see it. It is only later with the engine of memory that certain
things stick, and most things are blown out the back of the large harvester as
so much chaff. That is an introduction to the topic of this
The big story is the
sheer, unimaginable quantity of information that we process each day. When
this blog started in July 2009 we had a glimmer of this happening. The idea was
to zero in on a social justice or law enforcement story at issue, and examine
the reality of the events, causes, connections, and outcomes. The idea, in one
way, now seems quaint as a social gathering in a Jane Austen novel. Edward
Snowden’s revelations showed how every dance floor, every dancer and their
cellphones were being processed into a vast, secret system.
How does a democracy deal
with the capacity to collected unlimited information about everyone? Or do we
have to accept that information of this quantity, with the capacity to exploit
it, means another form of government will emerge?
I started International
Crime Authors Reality Check with several goals in mind. Since the Enlightenment,
rationalism and empiricism have been urged as reliable tools to discover reality
through experience and evidence. Were the facts knowable, testable, and true?
What were the limitations on what we know? What (and whose) interests were being
served? Were outcomes consistent across class, ethnic, gender, age or sexual
identity groups? I am beginning to think that I had it wrong—at least with so
much information it is possible to say the information, and those who control
it, is the force that drives and shapes our perception of reality.
Those perceptions are also
a product of emotions and traditional morality. Neither logic, critical
analysis, evidence nor experience have tamed or limited our capacity for rage,
anger, or hatred. What is being called the Age of Endarkenment evidenced by the
emergence of neo-reactionary forces who wish for a pre-enlightenment world and
are active in engineering that return. David Hume in the 18th century
identified the tension: that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of
our reason”. It follows that people who are vested in the traditional rules of
morality are mostly likely to co-operate in efforts to ‘kettle’ the assault
forces of reason.
In a more information
scarce world the events close to home were the ones we paid attention to—and I
suspect the ones most of us still pay attention to. We have a horse in the local
race. We can cheer or boo from afar at some foreign race being waged with attack
helicopters, mines, drones, tanks and small arms, but we are wired to care (as a
general rule) about how those races are played. Unless our government claims
there is some immediate stake to protect, then we have a dog that enters the
The government collects
big data; corporations collect it has well. Most of this data we freely hand
over each time we go online or make a phone call or walk down a street lined
with CCTV cameras. We are watched, tagged; our preferences, biases, choice,
medical and family histories recorded in words and images. We not only consume
huge amounts of data; we leave a large data trail behind us every
We are, by nature, tribal.
Whether the locus of the tribe is a football team or a research department of
Google, we co-operate with other members of our tribe and that means we can
compromise with them to keep the co-operation intact.
The world of big data has
spawned thousands if not millions of new digital tribes. Whatever your belief
system, hobby, obsession, fantasy, dream, or talent, you can join a tribe that
thinks, believes, shares, and promotes your worldview. We take the ladder down
the echo chamber that replays our thoughts in other voices. And suddenly our
tribe culls through the large data and finds those parts that are supportive of
tribal affiliation and loyalty. Because there is so much data to mine,
random chance alone guarantees a steady stream of self-serving data will enhance
the core beliefs of the tribe.
That becomes a problem as
tribes are manufactured with big money to colonize the political, economic and
social spheres. The top 1% has the resources and technical knowhow to have
ushered in a new era of colonialism where they are the colonial masters. The
very rich stand to gain even more wealth as they occupy and exploit the thoughts
of vast numbers of data consumers. In prior colonial times, the colonials felt
the oppression. In the new colonies, political, entertain and consumer choices
merge into the artificial reality that consumers are free to choose.
Big data, if it is one
thing you can count on, is the pathway to loss of personal freedom. I suspect
that freedom has always depended on limited information possessed by rulers.
People could slip between the cracks. Now even people who supposedly live ‘off
the grid’ are profiled on social media. And no one seems to notice the
There is another important
side to information overload. It has played hell with the censorship regimes
that have kept elites as the only source of information. That enormously
powerful ability to control communications from phones, radio, and TV is over.
The Internet has shot it in both knees and it continues with a brave face to
struggle ahead as if nothing has happened. Like the scene in Monty Python’s The
Life of Brian when the knight’s arms, one at a time, and then legs one at a
time, are hacked off and still he continues the fight.
In Thailand, there are
many reasons for the current political unrest. But among those reasons, one
should include the social media, computers, and cellphones. Everyone is plugged
in. On the BTS or MRT (the two public modern train systems in Bangkok), you find
more than half of the passenger absorbed with their cellphones. Few of them are
using them to make phone calls. They are playing games, checking Twitter,
Facebook, or email. Keeping in contact with their tribe. What is remarkable is
how the various sides of the political divide have herded their followers in
cattle pens on Facebook or Twitter. They feed on the emotional hay thrown to
them. Though it looks like information it is actually misinformation,
disinformation, opinion, gossip, sprinkled here and there with source
information that shares their bias.
Big information is making
it very difficult to govern a large group of people. The use of myths to create
a designer identity for the group worked when the government was the sole author
of stories, the source of facts, the fountainhead of reality. When reality can
be fact checked, the weaknesses, lies, deceit, and misinterpretation can be
exposed. That causes conflict. Challenging an official version of a founding
story has always been dangerous and dealt with swiftly. That approach worked
when critics could be picked off one at a time. It works less well when the
critics are clustered in small tribes, scattered around the world,
interconnected in ways that picking off one person only incites more people to
replace him or her. The old state monopoly over violence was always its Ace up
its sleeve. Like the information monopoly, the violence monopoly is fractured.
In Thailand, for example, it appears the police are unable to arrest
demonstrators who have committed acts of violence, or otherwise broken the law.
In fact, the demonstrators have even held the police inside police stations in
what looks like custody for hours.
Big data is breaking down
how we are governed, what the notion of government means, and how to factor in
the consent of the governed. Once the veil of government-controlled messages was
lifted, even slightly, the whole governing enterprise became unstable.
Appealing to tradition is one way of responding to the challenge. The tradition
paradox becomes evident as the most conservative and traditional members of the
society are also the ones that benefited the most from the explosion of wealth
unleashed by a full-blown global consumer-based society.
Consumers, whether in the
city or the provinces, want pretty much the same thing. They want something new.
They have grown accustomed to leaving messages, having a voice, being
counted and participating in the way that their parents and grandparents never
To try and reset that
consumer mind to value old traditions, beliefs and mindset is a large
challenge. Consumer culture fed by limitless digital information and
shaped by tribe membership has been overtaking political culture. In
Thailand, that conflict of mindsets is scheduled into the New Year. The new
identity is shaped by this new culture and way of thinking. That’s what makes
the divide in Thailand so dangerous. Neither side will compromise—or perhaps the
gap between them is too great for that to happen—as they want and value
different identities and no longer respond to the threats, structures of
authority, or nostalgia.
For the first time in my
memory in Thailand the Thais are no longer avoiding confrontation and the
possibility of conflict. They seem resigned to it happening. No one is
fact-checking reality. When that capability is switched off, a cold darkness
shoots through as you realize all of those Hollywood endings where everyone
shook hands and kissed were a delusion. In 2014 the world will, now and again,
check in on the Thailand story. People should pay attention and here’s the
reason why—how things go down in Thailand will have implication
Thailand’s politics is
like the ancient Greek Oracle—tell us the future of how a divide between the
traditionalists and those seeking broader participation in the process of
governance can be resolved peacefully or spin into civil war.
In 2014 remember that
great noir philosopher The Joker, who had some advice for Batman:
“Don’t talk like one of
them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak–like
me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper.
See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first
sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll
see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. Ya see
I’m not a monster, I was just ahead of the curve.”
For a weekly update of
what gets dropped, what is broken, what can be salvaged and the costs of the
whole enterprise, we hope that you will drop in at International Crime Authors
Reality check if for no other reason than to see if 2014 will be the year of the