Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.
The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?
Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.
From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.
The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.
I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.
From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.
A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.
The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’. Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.
At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.
Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.
Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.
The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children.
This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.
Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.
Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.
In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.
How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.
Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.
Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.
A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.
16th June 2016 update:
Bangkok Post reports:
Three children believed to have been born to surrogate mothers hired by Japanese businessman Mitsutoki Shigeta, who earlier made headlines for allegedly fathering at least 13 surrogate babies in Thailand have been found in Cambodia.
The Idea Room. That incubator where good, bad, stupid, useless and paradigm
shifting ideas are hatched is a mental location you use your personal GPS to
explore. Most of fledglings that are born in the Idea Room are flightless,
limited, and short lived creatures. Only a few survive and not only to fly but
to soar and take us along for the ride. Evolution culls the unfit animal and the
I take a stroll through this room in this essay.
Most of my working
life I’ve been in one corner or another of the Idea Room. As an academic,
writer, journalist, playwright, and lawyer. I have worked alongside others in
this space, exchanged ideas, plans, theories and concepts, and studied the
multitude of cubicles inside that room—it is vast, diverse, with patches as
hostile as Venus. The Idea Room is a mental construct, a space where you
can imagine, create, criticize, challenge and invent. Inside this room the
scientific process is designed to produce better and more useful explanations
about reality than ones based on intuition and superstition.It exists as an
abstraction but has real consequences in the way we view reality. Our modern
world of science, philosophy and art was birthed in the Idea Room. Like the
formation of stars from gas and dust, new ideas pop into existence through the
gravity of free thought and old ideas exploded like a supernova. Or did the
ideas gathered from the dust and gas of intuition and superstition only appear
to explode when in reality they have cycled back into play?
This essay looks inside
the modern Idea Room, audits the players and takes inventory.
Depending what window you
are looking through, you see crackpots, con artists, hucksters, revolutionaries,
intellectuals, dreamers, mad people, true believers, conservatives, liberals,
communists, fascists, and many more. They play and share ideas with others, they
play with ideas on their own. The ideas are sharp, dull, wrong, bogus,
half-baked, regressive, delusional, as well as innovative, creative, disruptive,
imaginative, worldview shifting, disproving old theories, proving new theories,
fine-tuning technologically progress. All of this is happening pretty much at
the same time inside the Idea Room. If the space hadn’t opened for such a room,
you wouldn’t be reading this on a digital screen right now, nor would you have
most objects or computer programs that you take for granted.
Mostly the best Idea Room
started during the Enlightenment in the West. For our long history, people had
ideas based on intuitions and superstitions. But building that room by cleaning
out the infrastructure of superstitions, myths, fables and just so stories has
taken centuries and remains incomplete. If your gut feeling is the earth is
flat, was created in six days, and the sun revolves around the earth, you will
take a dim view of an Idea Room where people are allowed to attack your beliefs
with ideas they claim show your ideas are false and baseless.
The keys to the Idea Room
have a long history of being strictly controlled by a handful of power
authorities who supported a view of the world formed by intuition and
superstition. Entry into the Idea Room was by invitation only. Going
inside without permission carried a high price. Ask Giordano Bruno whose
cosmological theories that challenged the official view of the cosmos—dangerous
ideas in the 16th century—resulted in him being dragged out of the
Idea Room and burnt at the stake. It didn’t matter that Church’s dogma about the
cosmos was a bad explanation about the nature of cosmos. There are many cases
like his. If you believe Giordano Bruno’s fate is lost in the fog in the
past—think again. Modern cases of Giordano Bruno are a constant feature in
The battle over how to
construct an Idea Room, what goes on inside, which gets in and what gets out
defines the current political landscape everywhere. Donald Trump would tear down
the American Idea Room by his plan to gut the First Amendment. No one is asking
if Trump or someone who shares his views believes that the President ought to be
above criticism, and what that would mean.
Every election should have
the media asking candidates: Do you need a pass to work inside the Idea Room?
And if so, how does that work? Or what happens to someone independently setting
up a private, unmonitored Idea Room—(think Darwin or Einstein)—do you get
arrested, tried and convicted for violating national security? I would be
pleased to learn of where history has shown profoundly world-shifting ideas
occurred inside a Government Idea Room. Yes, I am aware of the Manhattan Project
and the Bletchley Park Project. The atomic bomb and the enigma machine were
one-off assignments. The government gathered from many Idea Rooms the best of
scientific minds to develop a technological solution in a military setting. Once
their narrow mission was accomplished the projects were closed down.
The problem is you can’t
divide criticism and problem solving by limiting the use of the room to solving
technical issues about bomb making and code breaking. The best idea people have
is a mindset that challenges and criticizes theories, policies, procedures,
regulations, and processes. This mindset is constantly probing for
vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you are a dictator, you will likely be
insecure that someone might make your policy look foolish. That is why the
‘national security’ reason is often invoked—it is to prevent such a challenge,
and threaten people in a national Idea Room to remember that thinkers are liable
to be punished even if they are right. That’s pretty much what happened to
Bruno. Open a news website, you don’t have to look around a great deal to find a
story about some poor Idea Room occupant being dragged outside, humiliated,
tried, and sentenced. Everyone understands how that system works.
Not all the blame can be
placed at the doorstep of over-reaching state officials; a mass of true
believers can deliver a message to shutdown part of an Idea Room. In 2011 a
Pakistani national, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer
who had argued for reform of blasphemy laws. Five years later, Qadri was hanged
for his crime, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his
execution. The enemies of constructing space for all ideas in an Idea Room are
large numbers of people who defend their beliefs against any challenge.
Variations of mob of the righteous as political pressure to curtail what is
allowed in the Idea Room may be found in many countries from the Middle East,
Southeast Asia, to Africa. It makes easy work for dictators who have their own
reasons to patrol and monitor the Idea Room for offenders of the ‘righteous
There is a threat to
return to a time when intuition and superstition were the prevailing foundations
of knowledge. In the Idea Room no one’s ideas are above challenge or arguments
based on the irrational and superstitious beliefs refuted with the tools of
logic, coherence, and testing. A big family name or high rank means nothing.
That is how the scientific revolution overturned the old, worn ideas held by
notable authorities. The idea junkyard is full of discarded, abandoned and
dumped ideas based on superstition that failed when tested. If you are a
dictator you don’t want to run the risk of your ideas ending up with all of the
attraction of a five-day-old dead fish.
The time comes when a
society has to choose to follow respect and obedience to authority as the
roadmap to whatever desired goal the authority sets for the society, or to take
the independent and curious route where every idea is tentative, its
truthfulness detached from its author or its legion of proponents. In the
unregulated Idea Room, no idea is preferred or given an untouchable status.
There is, of course, a price to be paid. The currency is criticism, chaos,
uncertainty and conflict. For the totalitarian brigade and their righteous
allies, whose members value order and stability and harmony, the Western Idea
Room is the definition of hell—undisciplined, disorderly, and unruly with the
promise of eternal argument and disagreement.
Dangerous ideas that
challenge superstition have always been labeled as blasphemy, a capital crime
historically (though it remains in a number of Middle-Eastern countries). We sit
in front of our computer reading ideas that are a lengthy prison or death
sentence for those in parts of the world. Officials in some of these places who
advocate reducing the scope of blasphemy laws are murdered.
The prosperity and success
of a society depends on such a safe space where ideas can be explored. We need
to keep in mind that all of us have a distorted view of the nature of this
space. We look through different windows. And we see different things in the
room. We argue what we see is reality and true and what others see is wrong and
false. That we are confused is understandable. The most available and convenient
windows are the easy ones—TV, movies, newspapers, and social media.
We stare through the
windows every day.
We look inside at the idea
makers, the thinkers, intellectuals, clowns, and charismatic carnival barkers.
What we focus on by looking through these windows is what attracts a mass
audience. Ideas are only as good as their ability to sell something in the
marketplace of emotional desires and needs. We ‘buy’ ideas like we ‘buy’ cars,
computers, shoes, and soap—it appeals to us on an emotional level. That’s why
ideas don’t have to be true. They can be wildly wrong but they can still find a
happy home because masses of people believe it expresses how they
The more outrageous a
comedian, the more people laugh. Call it window opening by trolling with shock,
anger, hatred, bitterness and prejudice. Why people want to spend time looking
through that window can be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes, we can assume
whatever the reasons, they are persuaded to focus attention. They are
stimulated, satisfied and energized from their experience. Donald Trump is doing
his best to monopolize that window.
The point is: a lot of
people get stuck at the performance-art window. They become convinced, assisted
by media propaganda that this is the main window to witness the Idea Room in
action—Romper Room for adults. That’s what kind of shit that goes on inside my
enemies’ Idea Room—what a Dumbo, how stupid, how crazy for anyone to go along
with that ______. Fill in the blank for ‘that’. Fox News has manufactured an
Idea Room and has millions of people tuning in to have their ideas confirmed. Of
course, Fox isn’t alone; cable TV, talk radio, blogs, LINE and chatroom
communities have created a multiverse of Idea Rooms to explain the Meaning of
Life. You don’t have to be a dictator to think if you were in charge, you’d
clean up things and set some rules of conduct and rules of thinking for the room
members. You write a bunch of restrictions, rules, and guidelines—whatever you
want to call them to tone down the crazy ones, the one’s who are brutal, mean,
vulgar, stupid or annoying. We look down on states with blasphemy laws and we
have sizeable populations of citizens wishing to enact similar laws. Once you go
down that path, you are on the low road to repression, and free expression isn’t
value or allowed.
The hard problem for
authoritarian governments is the nature of what goes inside the Idea Room is a
possible threat to their legitimacy, authority, reputation, dignity and
honor—all the symbols that are most threatened when those in one corner of the
IPR get wound up and start challenging and criticizing government policies,
spending, priorities, not to mention thievery, incompetence, and thug-like
behavior. Such governments rely on the support of and draw their legitimacy from
a sizeable population of citizens with an authoritarian
that can be measured. The problem is the rise of the authoritarians worldwide as
a political force and the Ideas Room is targeted for criminalization.
The reason it is a hard
problem is that inside the room are a diverse group of individual thinkers,
artists, musicians, gamers, film makers, writers, academics, pundits—the
creative thinkers brigade—who cohere into sub-cultures, ones that bridge others
in different creative communities, sharing ideas, methods, and criticizing each
other’s work. The problem is getting consensus on one big idea—that people are
protected in this space when they challenge convention, the wisdom or truth of
ideas and beliefs—that such questioning while may be not a good thing for peace
and quite, it is a necessary evil. Why evil? Because that is how most people
feel when they agree to allow space for their enemy to challenge their
In return, we gain
something of value—a new, more useful way of processing thought, evolving our
understanding of the world and each other, and figuring out new ways of
co-operating. Scientists, artists, and academics use the Idea Room to bounce
ideas off the wall. John Maynard Keynes said of Isaac Newton that he was “the
last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.” Genius has
always been a mixed bag. You can’t separate the nuts from the party mix. That’s
why tolerance is essential, freedom of expression is necessary, or the ideas
disappear. Without a healthy, free and vibrant Ideas Room, we are doomed. With
it, dictators are doomed. The righteous true believers are doomed. That’s why
their alliance has to be understood for what it truly is—a carefully controlled
room dedicated to reverence and worship.
The dilemma of our time is
we as a species are perched on an unstable balancing beam. We can keep the space
in that room open and free, or we can close it down. That choice will define
what happens to all of us. Next time you peek through a window in the Idea Room,
remember the window you are looking is only one among many; and what you may see
on your screen may make you angry and unsettled. But that’s what happens when
the ideas you are invested in are given rough treatment, slapped around, made
fun of, not given respect or dignity. We have to toughen up. We can do that by
investing in the process and the not the ideas that come and go allowing the
process to fine-tune with AI systems, and once our best ideas are thought by
intelligent machines, we can’t begin to imagine what will happen inside the
digital Idea Room.
In a traditional regime,
“Yes, Sir!” is the appropriate (and expected) reply to someone with power,
status, and rank. Civilization was built on those two words. The great marvels
such The Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall of China, Statue of Zeus at
Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the other wonders of the ancient
world are relics of ancient Yes, Sir cultures. The Seven
Wonders of the World were not built by liberal
Classical antiquity was
the result of citizens being consulted and voting on these projects. Wonders
weren’t connected with popular approval or consent. If citizens had objected, it
is doubtful that voice of dissent lasted more than a couple of lungsful until
the shouting was extinguished. Brutality, oppression and the ownership of wealth
had the capacity to produce not just atrocities and misery but also incredible
wonders. America, a liberal democracy, developed and dropped the first atomic
bomb, invaded several middle-eastern countries, used drones to kill people who
waged local wars against its international values and ideals. That needs to be
said. While the role of authoritarian regimes compared with democratic ones is a
history of shades of gray rather than black and white, it doesn’t make the
system equivalent. The rulers were defined by their indefinite political
Both democratic and
authoritarian systems can be brutal, heartless and irrational. The role of
opponents, their political space, and their civil right are vastly different.
Both pedaled their own versions of Lake Wobegon to their population. In 2016 both
systems are showing system fatigue. No apparent replacement is on the horizon,
meaning Lake Wobegon has slipped into a dystopia, where people are arming
themselves, adjusting to a new emotional terrain knee deep in the scurrying
vermin of anger, bitterness, hatred and greed chewing wounds into their
In a book titled Heart Talk, which I wrote a quarter of a century ago I focused on
how the word for ‘heart’ in Thai was pervasive in the language.
After three editions, I
found 750 jai phrases in the Thai language. The longest definition for all the
jai phrases was for Kreng jai. The phrase translates literally as ‘Awe
Heart” and here’s part of my definition:
“The phrase reflects a rich brew of
feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and
fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss,
teacher, mother and father, or those in a powerful position such as a
high-ranking police officer. Anyone who is perceived to be a member of a higher
social class is owed kreng jai. In practice, a person with ‘awe heart’
would be inhibited from questioning or criticizing such a person.”
Kreng jai is the
Thai cultural cornerstone of the Yes, Sir culture. This is the round cultural
hole that Thais have tried to fit the square peg of democracy into. It should
come as little surprise that with all the hammering the peg still doesn’t
To continue the machinery
metaphor for Yes, Sir requires a look at the lubricant to keep the system
functioning; like a good malt whisky kreng jai is aged in vats built
from concepts such as obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and hierarchy. This
works best when the social space is physical, geographically specific. Analogue
space is much easier to patrol, monitor and enforce. There are practical reasons
for this relative ease. The social relationships and bonds are limited to those
who are near. People who are far are not part of the analogue bound person’s
relationship. People had social relations with their family, neighbors, school
mates, work mates and those shared an interest in gardening, cooking, reading,
sports, religion or gambling.
In the last thirty years
technology has redefined social space by creating a digital meeting place.
People could exchange ideas, photographs, and information with people who were
‘far’ as easily as they could with people who were ‘near’ and that has caused a
revolution as the boundary between insider and outsider blurred without the
restraint of a physical geographical location in common. Of course, it would be
false to suggest that cyberspace has created a vast tolerant, humane and
democratically-minded community. The Yes, Sir devotees may aggregate in digital
cubbyholes that confirm their biases, just as the system challengers reinforce
their value and belief systems inside the comfort of their own digital
The point of the digital
space accelerating in importance is that control over social relationships is
more complex and far more difficult to administer for those running a Yes, Sir
regime. Adding to the administration problem is the nature, source, and control
of information. A Yes, Sir regime places controls on the media and press, what
can be said and cannot be said, and what can be printed in textbooks, shown in
cinemas, on TV and online. In democratic system the controls are less obvious
but nonetheless effective to ensure that large commercial interest can shape the
cultural message that reach most people. Information has been freed from the
traditional constraints and can be accessed, stored, shared, discussed and
debated even though it contradicts the narrative produced and promoted by
In theory, the ability
offered by the Internet to plug into a vast information grid should be
liberating experience. Instead, it has imprisoned millions of people up to their
eyeballs in Lake Angry. Part of their anger arises from information in the
digital world that triggers feeling of distrust, cynicism, and suspicion about
official narratives. Many look up from their computer screen and feel they’ve
been lied to, manipulated by the very institutions and elites their parents and
grandparents had placed implicit trust in.
One result of the
disillusionment is endless conspiracy theories and paranoia by those unwilling
to employ the scientific method. The rational mind in cyberspace is less engaged
in the information binging, but more in searching for an emotion kick from a
clickbait about a sex scandal, violence, terrorism, murder or official abuse. It
has been the walk on the irrational side; in the digital world is like watching
millions of drunks, staggering from lamppost to lamppost looking for the lost
keys to the city gates of the old Lake Wobegon.
Our social networks and
information networks no longer support the Yes, Sir ideology; and they no longer
support a democratic system featuring voting every four years. If you lose
control of the social and information networks, you’ve lost the traditional
basis of power. Where does that leave us? We are in between systems that can
explain their role inside these networks. Without such an explanation that is
credible, testable, verifiable, and editable, the legitimacy of those claiming
the right to exercise power over others and the environment will continue to be
There is more to the
digital space and network affiliations formed in that space that is at issue.
The scientific revolution started in the 17th century but it is only
within the last hundred years that the fruits of that revolution have engaged to
the larger population. What science brought to the table was to introduce a new
method and process for testing what was true and what was false. This new method
was based on opening into an inquiry as to what the reality of a thing, process
or event and how to accurately describe it, reproduce it, and give an
explanation as to why the description should be taken seriously. The dawn of
science was the dawn of investigations into what was the basis of nature,
biology, chemistry, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. Previous explanations
were religious conjectures based on gods acting as agents and creators. We can
be smug about the pre-scientific system but that would be a mistake. These
stories were foundational for Yes, Sir systems, and to question them threatened
their legitimacy and survival. If the official narrative was false, then the
elites had told lies or were stupid in believing in their own lies.
Science is an open system
of investigation that follows a certain process and method. That is radical in
itself but pales in comparison with the most radical idea of all—everyone can be
a private investigator, and challenge a received truth. Anyone regardless of
status or rank who can find an alternative explanation that better fits the
current level of understanding of reality can overthrow an established theory.
Someone who seeks to overthrow Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has a
tough battle but won’t be burnt on the stake as a heretic (though he may be
dismissed unless there is powerful evidence for his claim as a lunatic). Science
changed the rules of the ruler’s game. Rather than oppressing challenges to
official narratives, scientist were encouraged to probe the weakness of a
narrative looking for flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and updating theories with
additional information that could be replicated by others who carried out
Science introduced the
idea of editing and updating to the story-telling about how things are they way
they are, and that no one had a monopoly on the truth or facts, and anyone
regards of position could challenge the prevailing ‘truth’ or ‘facts.’ That is
the base of a revolution that spilled over to the political realm. It was a
small step to go from challenging the age of the earth to challenging the
legitimacy of a ruler’s decisions about education policy. Planting the
scientific inquiry seed into digital space and a new garden has
The Yes, Sir crowd sees
weeds growing out of control in this digital space that should be pulled out
while others see a field of flowers. If a bright young, commoner at the bottom
of the totem pole, for example, investigates and discovers official misdeeds and
shares those finding in digital space the official response is immediate and
predictable—the person is a traitor.
And indeed in one way that
is true. Anyone who challenges an official truth whether it is the place of the
earth in the solar system or the place of a dam on a river is challenging the
interest of those who are vested in the absolute truth. The truth and position
are indistinguishable; like a treaty of mutual interest, truth and position
march together, and to challenge of one is to challenge both.
The new role of millions
of private investigators equipped with access to huge data exchanging
information has destabilized the old alliance between truth-telling and ruling.
It can never be quite the same again. Social, political and economic networks
have broken out of the old analogue models. The horse has bolted from the
stable. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess. But catching that horse with
riders galloping after it from the Yes, Sir system or from the Liberal
Democratic system is proving difficult. This digital rodeo is just starting. And
it is one thing to round up the occasional straight stallion but when millions
breakout there aren’t enough cowboys from the analogue world to rope them and
drag them back to Lake Wobegon.
An author’s reading list
contains eccentric choices. This one is no different. Taste and interests are
bound to diverge when it comes to books. This is a list of non-fiction titles. I
will post a fiction list later.
My goal is to recommend
twelve non-fiction titles that will stimulate thinking and broaden understanding
of the current information debate and controversy surround the building blocks
of knowledge in science, arts, technology, psychology, economics, and
There is a Thai proverb,
one I used to open The Risk of
Infidelity Index (2008) about a frog in the coconut
shell as a metaphor for the narrow, culturally constricted thought and knowledge
space where we spend most of our conscious lives. The frog’s visualization from
inside the coconut shell is psychological and cognitive limited. His access
about life and reality is distorted and shallow. A remarkable book allows the
frog an expanded worldview, a deeper, more powerful explanation of
The recommended books may
help broaden and deepen your worldview like any good journey of discovery. That
is a worthy achievement. No one breaks free of the coconut shell. But insights,
scientific and technical developments reveal the nature of what is the ‘coconut
shell’, its contours, shape and dimensions, and our place in it, take us to new
frontiers of comprehension. <Comment: Not only that, but also opening a
window into the larger world outside the coconut shell? Some may even offer and
In a 2014 essay Beagle Sailing Lessons for
wrote about Charles Darwin’s five-year journey on the Beagle to find evidence
that formed the backbone of Origin of the Species.
Darwin’s journey resulted in a book
that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority
remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of
natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery.
The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his
lab. Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of
the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence
that he gathered.
Every time I start a new book, I
tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle.
And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the
shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the
side of mountains and look for patterns.
Hopefully these books from
writers who have taken their own personal and professional voyage and you can
sign on as crew to follow that journey. The books are in no particular order of
priority. Order them all or one or two titles, and begin your own Beagle
Fast, and Slow ( 2012) by Daniel Kahneman
This book may be one of
the most important books about cognition and psychology written in decades.
Everyone has them. No one is excluded. When someone says they aren’t biased, it
indicates that person is blissfully unaware that is a cognitive bias. You can
think of a bias as mental filter shaped by genetics, culture, beliefs,
attitudes, training, brainwashing (collectively called cognitive biases). There
are hundreds of them. They are key factors in the processing of information.
They are responsible for the way we select, ignore, process, interpret, store
and stream information, whether accessed from memory or from our sensory input.
It is humbling and empowering to understand the limits of cognitive abilities.
Even though we can identify the biases, Kahneman is the first to admit that such
knowledge doesn’t mean that we can win the battle in overcoming them. If you’ve
not read Thinking Fast, Slow, you should make a resolution to find the
time to read it in 2016.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip
Tetlock builds on Daniel
Kahneman’s work of cognitive bias. Tetlock’s book focuses on forecasting and the
qualities that make for a good forecaster. Whether it is forecasting a social
policy, an election outcome, economic trends, or the outcome of a conflict or
war, there is a mindset that Tetlock has discovered vastly increases the
probability of accuracy. If I were recruiting someone for a policy making
decision or trying to predict a variety future events, this is a book that I’d
turn to for guidance as to how to increase the probability of selecting a future
Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick
Nick Bostrom teaches at
Oxford and is one of the leading thinkers of what is likely the most important
issue of our time (and yes, there are many such issues to select from): the
implications of developing a superintelligent artificial intelligent system.
This is an important book like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and
Slow. It is an insight into a future of intelligent machines. That future
is already here for machines with narrow artificial intelligence such as Watson,
which can now defeat any chess champion in the world. That is just the
beginning, as next up is an artificial general intelligence. Once that happens,
it is 20 to 50 years down the road, a superintelligent machine will emerge. Some
of the book is technical, geek-like, but Bostrom has a dry sense of humour and
ability to choose just the right metaphor to compensate for the dense, compacted
ideas that will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.
4. Our Final
Invention, Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era (2013) by
Barrat, a journalist, who
cover the artificial intelligence community and reports on developments. He’s
not a scholar. He’s an accumulator of scholars and their opinions, research
developments, and personalizes them. When can we expect AGI (artificial general
intelligence) to arrive? We already have many examples of ANI (artificial narrow
intelligence) and Barrat examines the line between AGI and ANI. When AGI arrives
what are the risks? “It won’t be a Q&A system anymore. And we won’t likely
be able to understand its processing or to audit that process.”
5. Big Data: A
revolution that will transform how we live, work and think (2013) Viktory
Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cunkier
While AGI is in the
future, Big data has arrived. Most of our institutions, policies, and beliefs
are based on ‘small’ data. We take pride in decisions based on small, exact and
causal-connected data. It’s because of the ‘small’ in small data, we have
enjoyed privacy. Big data spells the end of privacy. As the authors demonstrate
we use algorithms to give the probability of an event or an action occurring.
Life insurance, health insurance, doctor’s diagnosis, bank loans, climate
change, drug policies, and crimes all have a probability graph filled in by big
data. What happens to the individual in the world of ‘big data’? Do we use
preventive custody because the data indicates a high probability for the next
five years X who is 13 years old will commit a crime of violence? Big data
provides the tools to vastly accelerate the quantification of information and to
understand correlations that emerge, and free us from the prison of causation,
the hallmark of small data.
6. The Better
Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined (2011) by Steven
Our modern digital world
with immediate access to breaking news creates the illusion that we live in very
violent times. Headlines should never be confused with trend lines (a quote
attributed to Bill Clinton). The reality is that we have never enjoyed a time
with less violence, less risk of being murdered. The history of our species is
written in blood. It is a book with many insights gathered from historical
research into the history of violence. A couple of examples: “Defenders of
traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this
consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy,
indecency, and desecration of scared symbols. For their moral disapproval to
have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as
well. [R]etracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community,
authority, and purity details a reduction in violence.” Pinker details the steep
decline in death resulting from murder, execution, and warfare. For example, the
chances of a violent warfare related death in prehistoric times were orders of
magnitude higher than in modern time.
Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997) by Peterson and
A book to be read
alongside Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
The male member of the
species is violence prone. Our primate ancestors were similarly extremely
violent. Wrangham’s research supports a strong evolutionary disposition towards
violence. We wish to remain willfully blind to the intrinsic nature of our
violence. The authors’ data on ape behavior are compelling evidence of the
savagely violent nature of human history. What is genetic can’t be explained in
terms of culture alone. History is a record of patriarchy and male
Pinker’s history suggests
how our branch of the apes has managed since prehistoric times to reduce
violence through widespread domestication of the species. Like dogs, sheep,
cattle and horses, our species has, to varying degrees, been domesticated.
Modern States have found impressive ways to eliminate, control and subdue
violence. This leaves a minority of people whose violent behavior has evaded the
domestication and they receive a great deal of media attention. Wrangham’s
message is clear: the violent animal history fuels aggression and can never be
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle
creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have
witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids,
brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling,
beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that
chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare, which
would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year
habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of
the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated
violence and hyenas’ territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding
among the Yanomamo people of Brazil’s Amazon forests and other so-called
primitive tribes, as well as to modern ‘civilized’ mass slaughter. In their
analysis, patriotism (‘stripped to its essence… male defense of the community’)
breeds aggression, yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, they reject the
presumed inevitability of male violence and male dominance over
8. Capital in
the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty
How wealth and income are
allocated is a complex and important decision. Piketty’s book no doubt you’ve
read takes on the considerable task of researching the history over a two
hundred year period to show the political, social, cultural and economic
consequences of wealth and income inequality. No one has been able to
successfully counter the historical record unearth by Piketty. This book has
been compared to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has received
praise for bringing into public debate the reality of the .01% who have
accumulated not only wealth but used that wealth for their own political and
Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important
economics book of the year, if not the decade… Capital in the 21st
Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and
supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic
inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries
and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large
sums of money and those who don’t.” (Matthew Yglesias Vox
“Stands a fair chance of
becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young
century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years…
Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians
already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a
revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and
his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion
but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly
unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory,
demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality.
It’s quite the opposite, in fact.” (Timothy Shenk The Nation
Blindness, (2012) by Margaret Heffernan
Heffernan is ex-BBC
producer, and if there was one book every embassy person would benefit from
reading it is her Willful Blindness. Here’s a passage that will bring a
smile: (page 209): “This highly unconstrained travel, between points of view, is
hard work, and it can be risky, not just because it can take you off of
well-established career paths, but because it provokes questions that, as a
Cambridge professor once sternly reminded me, ‘one is not invited to ask.’
Questions that one is not invited to ask make everyone uncomfortable, not least
because they don’t easily lend themselves to prepared answers.”
You’ve proved over your
years here your courage to travel that road. That makes you a very rare person
and one to be highly valued. <<I don’t understand this para. It seems
ill-fitting, and hanging mysteriously here.>
Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by
A cogent and thoughtful
examination of the concept of time, the second law of thermodynamics and
entropy. You thought that time was straight forward, right? Look at your watch
and that is the time. It seems that our notion of time is far more nuanced and
Smolin is a good on the
different arrows of time in our universe: the cosmological arrow of time, the
biological arrow of time, experiential arrow of time, electromagnetic arrow of
time, and gravitational-wave arrow of time.
“Evolving complexity means
time. There has never been a static complex system. The big lesson is that our
universe has a history, and it is a history of increasing complexity with
“Time is about change,
which means it’s about perceived relationships. There’s no such thing as an
absolute or universal time. The observer’s situation in the universe must be
taken into account including where she is and how she’s moving.”
11. Man With a
Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Luican Freud (2012) by Martin
Man With a Blue
Scarf may be one of the best books written about the creative process.
Martin Gayford, a leading English art critic, memoir of his 18-month time
sitting for a portrait carefully observes the artist Lucian Freud’s life. These
observations slowly over time from Gayford’s conversations with Freud and others
reveal the web from which creativity is spun.
Gayford has carefully
constructed the various connected with relationship of artist to sitter, to
family members, friends, bookies, gangsters, his contemporaries (Francis Bacon
in particular) and famous painters from the past. The book is a portrait of the
artist painting a sitter. A wonderful idea that is brilliantly
Gayford’s book will
broaden your worldview on the meaning of originally, the creative process, and
what an artist seeks to capture in a portrait. This is truly a remarkable,
inspiring and memorable book.
Excellent … Not only
offers fresh insights into Freud but catches the tensions and drama inherent in
the business of portraiture. –The Guardian
An unexpectedly moving
investigation of the artistic process –The Economist
…stands a good chance of
becoming a set work for students. It would be a rarity on a reading list – a
not just read but
relished. –The Spectator
12. The Vital
Question: Why is Life the Way it is (2015) by Nick Lane
It may have been years
since you studied biology. Like most science subjects the scientific
investigation into the biological mechanisms and the evolution of the molecular
machines that build, monitor, repair and maintain biological systems.
The Vital Question begins
like a great detective novel: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology.
Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth
shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on
just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other
‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail? We don’t know.”
Question is an exploration into this deep historical mystery. It will
expand your worldview on the connection of life and information, evolution, and
the laws of physics. It is a book filled with memorable quotes: “Life is nothing
but an electron looking for a place to rest.”
“In every milliliter of
seawater, there are ten times as many viruses, waiting for their moment, as
there are bacteria.”
“A major problem with
neurons and muscle cells is that they cannot be replaced. How could a neuron be
replaced? Our life’s experience is written into synaptic networks, and each
neuron forming as many as 10,000 different synapses. If the neuron dies by
apoptosis, those synaptic connections are lost forever, along with all
experience and personality.”
For those interested in
understanding the complexity of biological life over a 4 billion year time
frame, and why it only happened once and why it started to early, will treasure
He is an original
researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories
are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense …
intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the
Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so. (Peter Forbes
Nick Lane…is emerging as
one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth…a
scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life (Clive Cookson Financial
One of the deepest, most
illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent
years. (The Economist)
One of the pleasures of
good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and
engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously
imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding
but always clear text, Nick Lane’s new book succeeds brilliantly … I cannot
recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane’s vivid descriptions and
powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader (Caspar Henderson Sunday
Nick Lane is not just a
writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of
thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in
the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about
energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life
is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind.
Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll
could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast
when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here… Like the best
science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a
series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the
perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective
story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself (Matt Ridley
this is a book of vast
scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…The arguments are
powerful and persuasive…If you’re interested in life, you should read this
book…it does tell an incredible, epic story (Michael Le Page New
AGI is defined as
Artificial General Intelligence as opposed to Artificial Narrow Intelligence you
find, for example, in many places from your smartphone, car, Google, Watson (the
chess champion program) Wall Street trading programs. It is vastly smarter than
human beings but very narrow on what it can do. AGI has human-like general
intelligence. ASI follows next. Artificial Special Intelligence or ASI is the
big leap from AGI to an intelligent agent vastly beyond the realm of human
beings. ASI will out-think and our-smart us. ASI is not the genius you remember
from school with all the right answers in class and a perfect SAT score. ASI is
several orders of magnitude beyond on our cognitive abilities. Next to ASI the
metaphor is human beings are an ant-like intelligence compared to ASI, which
experts predict may be more than million times more intelligent than
Sounds like science
fiction. Sounds like something a novelist would dream up.
But what if the best minds
are signaling that this intelligence transition may happen in your lifetime, or
that of your children or grandchildren? Would you listen? Would you care? What
does it mean? What advance warning will we have and what is being done to
prepare for AGI and ASI? These are some of the questions raised in James
Barrat’s Our Final Invention.
The future is a big place
that stretches to infinity. It would be useful to narrow down that
When in our future can we
expect AGI and ASI? Opinion is divided. It is also divided on whether these
developments will be safe for humankind or lead to its extinction. AI thinkers
such as Bostrom, Yudkowsky, Vinge, and Musk, among others, fear whatever
safeguards we device to manage and control such a super-intelligence is doomed
to failure. When it comes to the target of social engineering, it will be ASI
working our vulnerabilities with the relentless, 24/7 processing and memory
capabilities a million times beyond our own. Barrat is also an acknowledged
pessimist on the issue of humanity being able to organize and implement any
effective system to safeguard against an intelligence that may destroy
How will we know when
someone has achieved AGI level? What is the projected timeline between the
creation of AGI and the emergence of ASI?
One possible hint of such
an intelligent entity might first appear in obscure areas of mathematics. “In
mathematics, a conjecture is a
mathematical statement which appears to be true, but has not
been formally proven. A conjecture can be thought of as the
mathematicians’ way of saying ‘I believe that this is true, but I have no proof
yet’. A conjecture is a good guess or an idea about a pattern.”
And let’s say over a
six-month period papers appear in obscure journals with proofs of half a dozen
mathematical and geometry conjectures, which amounts to one proof per month.
Then that doubles and doubles again until all the conjectures has been proved or
disproved. This would be a sign that the preferred language of ASI is
mathematical language and symbols. Our ordinary language whether English,
Chinese, French, Spanish or German as used by human beings is too imprecise,
vague, limited, narrow and can’t possibility describe the nature of the
universe. I’ve talked with mathematicians who believe the universe is a
mathematical object. There is no language other than mathematics to describe the
universe. Most people speak the language of mathematics like someone who has had
a two-day language course in reading, writing and speaking Thai. We might know
our “to the left or right” or “straight ahead” and ask for a beer but soon run
out of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
In Our Final
Invention, Goertzel, another AI expert, is quoted on the future of AI by
reviewing the history of calculus.
“If you look at how
mathematicians did calculus before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, they
would take a hundred pages to calculate the derivative of a cubic polynomial.
They did it with triangles, similar triangles and weird diagrams and so on. It
was oppressive.” Barrat draws from Goertzel’s analysis the conclusion: “AI
research will incrementally proceed until ongoing practice leads to the
discovery of new theoretical rules, one that allow AI researchers to condense
and abstract a lot of their work.”
What Barrat doesn’t
discuss is the possibility raised in another point made by Goertzel: “We have a
more refined theory of calculus any idiot in high school can take the derivative
of a cubic polynomial. It’s easy.”
What if the refined
theories aren’t easy. Not only can’t an idiot in high school not understand and
apply the theory, not even the most brilliant mathematicians can.
Here’s a test run of how
the future may unfold.
Sometime on the morning of
30 August 2012, A brilliant Japanese mathematician in Kyoto named Shinichi
Mochizuki uploaded to his website 500 pages divided into four papers submitted
as proof of the abc conjecture. As Nature reported, no other mathematician
has come close to solving this 27-year-old problem. If Mochizuki’s proof turned
out to be correct, it would be “the most astounding achievement of mathematics
The problem was Mochizuki
had created a new mathematical language. His proof has become the mathematical
equivalent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. You must master the new
language before you can comprehend the story told in that language.
Nature reported one mathematician saying that in reading Mochizuki’s
proof that he became “bewildered” and “It was impossible to understand them.”
“Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the
future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the
University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper
Or he might have said
something similar if he’d read a paper produced by ASI.
Now imagine a series of
such proofs that exceeds the scale and scope of Mochizuki’s proof and a new
language is created which is not comprehensible to the world’s leading
mathematicians. Imagine in twenty-four hours there is 500 pages of new
conjectures, one hundred conjectures per page; and within forty-eight hours
1,000 pages until at the end of a month there are millions of pages of
conjectures, and each conjecture has a proof or disprove. ASI finds a new
mathematical language that incorporates all of the proofs. In Douglas Adams’
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer was ‘42’. No one is
suggesting 42 is the answer. What is being contemplated is whatever the answer
after the great intelligence explosion we won’t comprehend its
The Final Conjecture is a
proof that describes the mathematical object that is the universe. ASI cracks
the black box code that describes what is the universe with the new mathematical
language. The moment when everything we know changes in ways like Mochizuki’s
proof, will leave us bewildered, alone and locked out of the loop of knowledge
and continue to exist knowing, in the large scheme of things, our intelligence
indistinguishable from a dust mite. Now for the grim news—this is likely our
best-case scenario once ASI becomes self-aware and self-improving. The worst
case is ASI calculates from one of its proofs that the atoms in our bodies are
more efficiently used as a cheap energy source to fuel the push to the Final
In the final proof, we
aren’t around to find it incomprehensible. Or for a human being staring at the
sky with a big smile at the irony of it all.
“Beware of the words “internal
security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.” ―Voltaire
We all share a theory of
mind, which provides us to with varying degrees of accuracy access what others
are thinking, their beliefs, and knowledge. We survey the mental zeitgeist of
others every day and rarely think what a special function this is and how it
makes us uniquely human. We incorporate this insight into other people’s minds
to determine their intentions and motivates for their actions. One of the most
important uses of theory of mind allows us to predict whether we can trust
Trust is a precondition to
co-operation, and co-operation allows for collective, collaborative activity.
The modern world as we know couldn’t exist without massive amounts of
co-operation and ways to co-ordinate that larger collective unit for a purpose.
Whether a new product, making a movie, solving complex economic problems,
maintaining transportation systems, designing drugs, establishing institutions
for health, culture, religion and, of course, waging war.
The fuel upon which the
co-operation system runs is trust. The question of Who Do You Trust has been
answered throughout most of history quite simply—Those Who Look Like Me. We
trust members of our family, our circle of friends, our clan, and our tribe.
Trust evolved because a band that was based on trust in its members to act on
behalf on the band would be more successful than a band where no one trusted
each other. Outsiders, strangers, Those Who Don’t Look Like Me weren’t trusted.
The suspicion was such a person was dangerous. They had an incentive to betray
you. It made sense over the vast course of the history of our species to kill
strangers. In China, there is a sense of shame in distrusting. “It is more
shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.” ―Confucius
Humans evolved as ultra-social
animals, relying on group membership for survival. Our tendency to group
together is so intense that just glimpsing a flash of colour is enough for us to
affiliate with a stranger sporting the same colour. Cognitive neuroscientist
Julie Grèzes, also at the École Normale Supérieure, argues that belonging to
even such a small and ephemeral group determines how we perceive outsiders. We
feel less empathy towards people outside our group, and we can literally dehumanise
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documents at length the
homicide rates of early times was horrifically high. Perhaps one-third of males
died a violent death. Pinker’s conclusion is that we live in the most peaceful
of times and that the killing zone has been vastly reduced to a small
percentage. After nearly two decades of terrorism have seen bombings in New
York, Bali, London, Bagdad, Ankara, Mumbai, Bangkok, Paris, and Beirut, along
with the upheaval resulting from the wars in Iraq and Syria, the impression is
widespread that we are less safe.
Why are we more fearful
than the statistics suggest that we should be? Eliezer
identifies part of the problem is highly human fallibility caused by ‘bugs’ in
human understanding of the world called heuristics and biases. Our cognition is
flawed but it doesn’t seem that way to us. We don’t feel or see a filter. That’s
what makes it dangerous.
The instant communication
through Social Media and the Internet filled with video footage and photographs
causes an emotional reaction. We feel insecure. Governments respond with
measures to make us more secure. Each bombing chips away more freedoms. It has
been a meme that our fears are devaluing freedom in favour of security measures
that can only operate if the space for freedom is reduced.
We are especially fearful
of people who don’t look like us, who don’t share our beliefs or values, and who
use violence to remind us exactly how vulnerable we are. Freedom is now seen as
dangerous. Freedom is even seen by some as the handmaiden of terrorism. This
will likely grow as the inevitable will happen—more bombing, more civilians
killed in highly populated areas, a cycle of more retaliations followed by more
terrorist attacks. More people Who Look Just Like Us lifeless on our computer
The end of trust is the
end of how we’ve come to enjoy freedom. In a simple formula: Distrust =
Trust like any other
construct isn’t binary. Trust exists on an axis of highly unlikely to trust to
highly likely to trust. How your theory of mind of the person you are dealing
with will place him or her somewhere along that axis. Where the person fits is
less a rational, deliberate decision than it is an emotional one. People Who
Look Like Us is like looking in the mirror. As most people trust themselves, by
extension they trust another looks like them.
This is our cognitive
toolkit, and from it we make a presumption about how we related to and treat
another person. We live in an environment filled with ‘soft targets’—concert
halls, shopping malls, restaurants, office buildings, airports, train stations,
hotels, and sports stadiums. Large numbers of people share this space. Freedom
to move in and out of such spaces is something we don’t think about very much.
When trust runs dry, the security arrangements make movement slow, difficult and
cumbersome. Without security in place to check people, they may be too fearful
to enter such spaces. They can’t trust an environment accessible to strangers
who may wish to cause them harm.
The order of business is
the same for the good guys and the bad guys. Many years ago, at the height of
the Cold War, Johnny Carson hosted a TV show that captured the zeitgeist of the
time: Who Do You
modern zeitgeist is a world order not unlike that old TV show. Only our Theory
of Mind, which evolved over tens of thousands of years inside a world of small,
isolated bands has experienced difficulty scaling to a world of 7.3 billion
people. Our original Theory of Mind falls short once the numbers run into the
billions. We’ve not had time to evolve to assessing trust in a world populated
by billions of people. We are left with our Theory of Mind default. And that has
caused major problems. When you can no longer trust strangers the world becomes
a place where freedom is rejected and tyranny embraced. Dictators offer the
remedy for lack of trust: security. And security against any risk from an
outsider is highly valued. Rights, justice, freedom, not so much. They are
degraded as constructs outsiders use to harm or hurt members of your
The evaporation of trust
comes at a time of accelerated dependence. Rather than withdraw from those who
invite suspicion, we draw them into a kill zone loaded with weapons, toys,
amusements and stimulations.
Trust worked wonders when
we are small bands of 15 to 40. Scale up to 7.3 billion people and the concept
of trust bends and finally breaks. As you say of the rednecks in West Palm
Beach, “well they looked like wetbacks.” That is becoming a universal
value. You can’t trust them. Those whom you can’t trust, you fear. And those you
fear, you push back across borders, into the sea, into the flames. Walls are
built to keep strangers out. Navy patrols stop ships with strangers from
landing. Refugee camps are erected like prisons to house strangers who arrive
from war zones. Our Theory of Mind when it comes to trusting strangers, targets
them as objects of fear. Because objects aren’t human, they are, obviously, like
a rock, a thing; they aren’t one of us. Send in the drones and the marines. Kill
the bastards. As if that will restore trust.
What this means is that
what is left of freedom will be just about enough to see us through to the end
of our lives. There won’t be much left over for the generations to follow.
Large-scale accumulation of human beings breaks the tribal model and there is no
replacement other than concentration camps and murder. Security has become the
substitute for lack of trust. But the dirty secret in the aftermath of Paris is
that security doesn’t scale any more than trust. And the lack of scaling is for
much the same reason. It is one thing to check identification and bags at
airports and sports stadiums but another to assume this precaution translates
into lowering the risk of an attack. We sacrifice freedom in the name of high
level intelligence gathering, storage, and analysis to identify those who would
kill us inside a soft target zone. That’s a fantasy. A delusion.
We live under the umbrella
of a massive surveillance or intelligence system that promises security in
exchange for our freedom and privacy. Can this Intel Empire erect to plug the
gap in our Trust deficient pinpoint in advance the next eight fanatics who will
co-ordinate an operation that takes them to multiple public places in a major
city and who proceed to blow themselves and others up? In the time of massive
storage, big data, and data mining programs, we are still left trying to find a
needle in a haystack. The vast majority of 7.3 billion people have no intention
of murdering others. There are likely many thousands who are in a high
probability category and capable on any given day of launching a mass killing.
The problem is no one knows until the killings occur which of the handful will
act upon the murderous impulse. Once they are known, the question is why didn’t
the police stop them in advance? The answer is until the act occurs there is no
way of identifying them in a large group of people with a similar
It turns out most of the
eight suicide bombers in Paris were French. They had French or Belgium
passports. But they were ethnically different, their names different than most
people associate with someone who is French. France like many Western countries
is a rainbow of multi-ethnic groups. The same is true in China, India, Malaysia,
Singapore, Thailand to mention just a few. When the knee-jerk reaction of the
Thai government is to tightened border and airport security, you start to
understand people in position in power are either not paying attention to who
were the bombers in Paris or they are using the Paris bombings for domestic
purposes that benefit them.
Our literature, myths and
fables are filled with stories of betrayal. From Shakespeare to Camus the theme
of betrayal has haunted us.
“Et tu, Brute?” ― William
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“I used to advertise my loyalty and
I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually
betray.” ― Albert Camus, The Fall
If we define betrayal as
the violation or abandonment of trust, we come closer to understanding the
tensions of our current world order. The divide is not between left and right,
red shirts and yellow shirts, labour and conservatives. The divide is between
those who distrust and fear harm from others and those who distrust and fear
powerful institutions tasked with providing security. What is the likelihood and
cost of betrayal in each case? If we distrust institutions, we accept a level of
murder for religious and political reasons can, at best, be contained.
Institutions are confined to planning containment and implementation. That’s a
vote for the “Let’s Build Walls” policy. The historical examples indicate this
doesn’t work in the long-term. The barbarians climb over the walls sooner or
later. Giving a blank check to governments is a risky business. The consequence
of betrayal may provide overall worse outcome than the cold-blooded murder of
What we don’t like to hear
is the truth—there is no easy answer or solution to terrorism. People are angry
because they feel betrayed by their employers, technology, leaders, and
politicians. We can’t change our Theory of Mind when it comes to trust. Having
achieved a population level in the billions, our ability to assess trust has
broken down. No one knows how to repair it. We are left with disappointment,
disillusionment, suspicion and fear. As we strive for a risk-free, secure life,
we throw our lot with leaders who promise to punish those who harm us and
protect us from attacks. With each new attack we will react with frustration and
anger, ceding away more freedom until in the end what governments are defending
against no longer really matters as there is no longer any difference between
those who participate in official and freelance murder.
William Blake wrote: “It
is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” Our circle of friends
is dwarfed in a sea of potential enemies and forgiveness like trust is a
shattered, hallow construct from a time long since past. We stand on the edge
and we have no idea how far it is to the bottom where violence returns to
pre-modern levels. Despite the rejection of change, there is no turning back.
Just like there’s no way to build a bridge, hang a rope, or roll up a human
canon to propel people to another side. We can’t be certain there is another
side. Since we’ve come to distrust not just strangers but ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’
that contradicts out beliefs, and we respond by relying on myth and legend.
Whatever happens next will influence how we think about number of interconnected
ideas—freedom, security, power, religion, outsiders, trust, reputation and
co-operation. When the dust clears it is possible none of those concepts will
survive in their present form.
Life is a puzzle filled with paradox and contradictions.
Trying to make sense of one’s life has been the preoccupation of poets,
painters, writers, philosophers and playwrights throughout recorded time. When
it comes to a person writing a memoir he or she is selecting a few hundreds
pieces and leaving countless pieces inside the box that is his or her life. And
from how those pieces fit, the public and private records matching, or
colliding, the reader of the memoir is made to feel a whole life has been
revealed, not in it’s entirety but in the salient, defining detail.
a mathematician picks up a pen to write a memoir, there’s another language to
draw upon—symbols, equations, axioms, conjectures, and theorems. Like music is a
language structured by grammar and syntax. It is a rare mathematician who can
accurately translate the language of mathematics into the literary language
where metaphors and similes must carry the heavy weight of meaning from
mathematical objects. John Paulos has been in the forefront of
mathematicians who have opened a vital channel of communication between the
elite community who are fluent in mathematics and the rest of us who struggle
with a small vocabulary sufficient to count loose change.
mathematics are a number of concepts including scientific measurement,
objectivity, non-linear dynamics, and Gödel's incompleteness. Without
mathematics the ability to make forecast, prediction not to mention innovation
and technology would collapse back into the world of magical thinking, belief
and faith. In Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God
Just Don't Add Up
brought the rigors of mathematics to dispel the delusions behind the idea of
‘God.’ In other words, Paulos has demonstrated drone-like capability of hitting
long-range targets without the need to offer equations that explain the
underlying mathematics of velocity. Irreligion was a tour de force in the
projection of intellectual power.
In his memoir, A Numerate Life, Professor John Paulos displays a
rare combination of literary skill honed by a broad range of reading in telling
his life story. Along the way he brings his professional knowledge of
mathematics as a way to help us understand his way of selecting pieces of the
puzzle. His books, essays and articles follow the tradition of C.P. Snow and
Bertrand Russell, seeking to bridge the rest of us to the scientific community
where mathematics is the crown jewels. His best selling book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
established his international reputation as one of mathematics foremost
explainers connecting the lay public to the world of complex math. His public
role as a rational, scientific thinker offers an alternative to the perverse and
misguided populist pride that celebrates innumeracy in the tradition of the
‘know nothing is cool’ crowd that one finds in certain social media quarters.
Facebook posters post messages such as: “Well, another day has passed. I
didn’t use algebra once.” The irony that Paulos would appreciate is that it is
neglecting on small feature: the Internet and all modern technology is
underpinned by a deep understanding of mathematics. The cognitively lazy
are caught in awkward constructs where they are imprisoned by their ignorance
paradox, the God delusion, and biases, beyond the reach of a
meta-analysis. The Numerate Life is a lifeline for those with an open mind
and willingness to explore the nature of these paradoxes and puzzles that are
all around us.
John Paulos’ memoirs A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His
Own and Probably Yours, His Own and Probably is a highly original and creative
self-examination of the forces in his life that have given geometry to his own
thinking, preoccupations and perceptions. A Numerate Life is a rare
glimpse into these life-defining forces that have shaped a world-class
mathematical mind. The window of perception opens a world in which mathematics
becomes the default mindset to solve puzzles, and think about the probabilities
of things happening or not happening over time. What makes the book memorable is
the author’s fluent prose style, his humor and his knack for finding the right
metaphor or illustration. It’s a twisty journey along the author’s psychological
Amazon with stops along the way to explore probability, coincidence, randomness,
consciousness, memories, other travel, the experiences inside the cauldron of
family, friends, children, domestic household, work, and the meaning of
mortality. And there are card tricks. Paulos’s psychological journey is
also shows the role of chance. This memoir has a lovely recursive element of a
mathematician explaining how mathematically thinking is the best we can do when
dealing with chance.
When shuffling the deck that we all are given to
play, Paulos’s insight into the game, the players, the phantom of rules popping
into and out of existence, the bets we make and the basis on which we place
those bets, or how others place them for us, makes A Numerate Life a
powerful and enduring book. You will find the intellectual and emotional toolkit
displayed in this memoir a celebration of wonder, chance, dedication, wit and a
window that shows how one man has played his cards in public and how we all have
come out the winner. As an example of a mindset honed to embrace complexity and
uncertainty, the open-ended nature of life, A Numerate Life will shine
a light along your path, letting you know that you aren’t alone. Read this
The Reporters Without
Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide
deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing
threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the
economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”
The reasons cited for the
Stretching sacrilege prohibitions
in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of
censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the
law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around
half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing
enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon
themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say.
(2015 World Press Freedom
Another freedom report for
2015 by Freedom House also notes the trend of “discarding
democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”
the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the
world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored
information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking
down on privacy tools.”
George Orwell understood
fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds
through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases
to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and
tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about
beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a
digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been
delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of
expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the
existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion
has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an
era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault
of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and
The same was true in
Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where
the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and
biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells
overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the
strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media
is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and
arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression
is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are
the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect
In this essay, Orwell
shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition.
He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity.
H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he
found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s
army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a
mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny
way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in
which it applied.
Several quotes from
Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of
the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the
scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered
system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite
all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four
years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the
nature, role and scope of human emotions.
In 1941, Orwell
The energy that actually shapes the
world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief,
love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as
anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves
as to have lost all power of action.
The order, the planning, the State
encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all
there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is
fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells
to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own
works are based.
He was, and still is, quite
incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal
loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as
sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and
if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay
The modern world deceived
the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in
2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social
media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of
people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined
grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into
a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his
army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through
nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill
and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly
“Science is fighting
on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science
to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its
alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in
feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great
irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the
hold of our emotions.
As in 1941, we struggle to
accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more
lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have
vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines
the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our
We have great works such
as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of
research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and
biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and
attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature
of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to
believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.
Superstition will, for
most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies,
which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate.
“Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of
war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point
of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly
small and narrow.
Orwell is too careful to
dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will
ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset
once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific
setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges
the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic
would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests
that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I
suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that
future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion
to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of
advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major
rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested
interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true
believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide
the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last
man, woman and child.
Nor would George Orwell be
surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that
corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight
new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.
I have lived in Thailand
the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article,
opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance
fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The
non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve
heard all of the arguments against this practice.
Stephff (used with permission)
The Usual attack on the
dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory;
(3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay
the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or
enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s
license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai
price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged
the same price as everyone else.
None of the above
arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the
policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different
price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and
foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go
for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of
services on foreigners such as university fees.
The deeper question is why
does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and
ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates
each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social
I have a couple of ideas
to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude,
a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational
argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets
Dual practicing doesn’t
exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They
work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the
schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which
arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should
always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of
the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from
the circle of being in the in-group.
In Thailand, the in-group
bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in
progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective
way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The
bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of
xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays
no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs,
language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual
identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to
this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a
couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like
mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should
notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.
For the Americans (and
sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate
ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians
and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their
ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide
levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks
and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities.
In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most
cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or
ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda.
More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for
their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.
What makes the in-group
bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an
awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person
who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational
prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a
foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But
racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic
Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good
that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at
the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is
the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up
xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.
Group Think is
the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a
foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug
but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous
grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’
who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are
plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But
they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the
basis of esprit de corps.
Groups which value
consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines,
assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly
prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of
improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts
or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who
transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy
are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single
pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition.
It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information
that may adversely influence the official consensus.
Philip E. Tetlock author
of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,
“Groupthink is a danger. Be
cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not
always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as
proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”
A high value is given to
consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted.
Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the
wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds
in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be
inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of
outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway
for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and
patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes
attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.
Dual pricing is the tip of
the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at
your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about
a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions
in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these
cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that
price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the
‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is
an important divide between the two.
The cost is not so much
the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national
park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to
express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is
another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look
like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of
admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a
feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price
discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more
than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better
view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of
conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but
the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where
flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a
group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general
consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of
comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.
A problem yet to be
resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of
thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of
a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and
the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount
of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection,
certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of
evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be
nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas.
The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished
theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change.
The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and
in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are
the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.
Tetlock has a catchy
definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and
the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a
particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The
interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the
rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and
different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their
policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the
larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’
to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind
and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change
the order of things.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking,
Fast and Slow has been the #1 bestselling non-fiction title on the
Bangkok Post arts page for over a year. I’ve lost track it may have been two
years. That is a long-time for a foreign title to occupy the top spot on a local
bestseller’s list. Kahneman’s book reveals how people process thoughts and
emotions and react to the constructs that thinking creates in their minds. It is
also an extensive discussion, based on fifty years of research, into the
cognitive biases that act as the filters through which our thinking
When someone says I have a
bias. I say that doesn’t go far enough. I have dozens and dozens of biases. Most
of them infect my process operating system and until someone like Nobel Laureate
Daniel Kahneman comes along, shows the evidence, and I discover I’ve remained
oblivious to the importance they play in the way I perceive and understand
reality. It is a humbling experience to accept that you and everyone else
suffers from the flaws and defects that cognitive biases cause in our assessment
of evidence, facts, opinions, and data. To learn about biases is to recognize
the role they play in your own life, inside corporations, governments,
entertainment, sport and family life.
None of this begins to
explain why in Thailand, of all places, it continues to be the top bestseller
(if Asia Books bestselling list is to be believed). I’d like to explore a few
ideas that may shed some light on why Thinking Fast and Slow has become
and remained a bestseller even in a country like Thailand where one of the
common expressions is “thinking too much makes one’s head hurt”.
We evolved over a
long-time frame—200,000 years—into a species of fundamentally shaped emotional
beings. Our emotions along with our perceptions and memory of the past are the
building blocks of what we think of as ‘self’. If you want to a truthful look of
who you are to yourself, take a day and audit the emotions you feel. Write them
down. Write down the reaction to each of those feelings. And the stories you
tell yourself to justify, explain, defend or advocate. Keep that list for a
week. Then go back and look in that narrative mirror. That is you, how you react
into the world. What sets you off, triggering the chemical reactions in your
brain? We know what those chemicals are and a fair amount about how they work in
the brain. That is, of course, a mechanical, science-based position. Others may
think that emotions magically appear like forest fairies.
We have been first and
foremost are emotional charged from the time we entered the world until the day
we depart it. Our emotional life gives us a roller coaster ride and we make up
stories to explain the spills and chills. The slow thinking, or the rational,
empirical, deliberate thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It is cold,
calculated, time-consuming, uncertain, complex and tentative—all of these
attributes, when combined, construct a reality that can be measured, examined,
tested, evaluated by others, who may disprove a widely accepted idea or show
evidence of how it is flawed and how it might be improved.
This new, rational way of
thinking is recent. Many people think today is a dividend of the Enlightenment.
Newton came along in the 17th century, and with a new type of
mathematics, was able to predict motion and velocity with precision. The
18th century saw a new breed of thinkers from Hume, Voltaire and
Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Musician geniuses like Bach, Haydn and Mozart emerged. In
the 19th century scientific discovery bloomed through the empirical
methods employed by Darwin, Maxwell, Tesla, Faraday, Kelvin, Boltzmann,
Clausius, Doppler and Planck to name only a few.
If you picked two books
that changed the ‘method’ of thinking it would be Descartes’ Discourse on
Method (1637) and Newton’s Principa Mathematica (1687). The world
of magic, faith, and belief became challenged, along with unquestioned authority
as custodians of the truth. What was changed? Truth no longer had an official
master whose stories had to be believed. Truth left the domain of Sacred
Authority to be revealed in the labs by scientists with their charts,
instruments, procedures, formulae, and methods.
Fast and Slow about our psychological limitation to understand the truth is
a product of that Enlightenment process. We had a better understanding how
authority had traditionally acted as the oracle of our emotional lives. It also
manipulated those emotions to suit the aims of the powerful. The problem was
that there was no scientific method or explanation. People lived in a world of
ritual and ceremony, which channeled emotions as a collective, unifying
Pre-Enlightenment was like
a grandfather clock, solid, reliable time keeping device in well-off houses. The
problem with such clocks was the degree of accuracy required for advanced
technology need a more precise measuring instrument. Atomic clocks operate on a
different mechanism than the grandfather clock. Kahneman’s slow, deliberate
thinking incorporates a self-monitoring, self-correcting features that have
redesigned how our grandfather clock of emotions works.
When we think our
grandfather clock of emotions remains our timekeeper, what happens when a
culture or civilization has by-passed the Enlightenment generated system of
methods, process, and procedures? A case can be made that a large number of
people will be unhappy telling time the old way. Because they live in a vastly
more complicated and complex world where how a person thinks is key to
innovation, creativity and scientific advances in biology, nanotechnology,
robotics, AI, and neural networks. The age of the grandfather clock, however,
isn’t over. It continues to co-exist with the new realities. You see the
evidence of this everyday in Thailand. And when there is a problem to be solved,
confusion arises as to what problem-solving process should be used.
The Thais have embraced
social media in large numbers. Given the recent political turmoil, and the
attempt by coup-makers to turn the clock back, one would have expected more
unrest. That hasn’t happened. Part of the explanation is that the Internet,
games, and social media have provided a refuge, a place of escape from the
messy, unpleasant emotional terrain of analogue life. The emotional transfer to
the digital world has left a void in the analogue world. There may be few
scattered demonstrations but largely, on the surface, people go about their
lives as if disconnected from the political reality in which they
Then the junta was
reported to have supported a proposal to reduce the digital interface into
Thailand to a single pipeline. Suddenly all of those silent people who had
disappeared from the analogue world of political discussion suddenly showed
their anger. The DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that crashed many
government and national telecom websites and hundreds of thousand tweets using
the hashtag #SingleGateway showed a surprising degree of
co-operation and collaboration to pull off the attacks. Whether this is the
beginning of significant digital mass protest remains to be seen. The number of
people involved in the attack is difficult to know. What is known is that more
than a hundred thousand people have also signed an online petition to oppose the junta’s policy to
install the Chinese-style “Great Firewall.”
community finally reacted. The emotional reaction leading to the in protest with
the hashtag #SingleGateway found support on social media
across usual political lines. It is difficult to find another proposed policy
change that brought warring political factions to form a unified front. The
opposition may have surprised the government, in any event, surprised or not, so
the junta began to immediately backtrack on the idea.
Emotions about the
Internet like all emotions are passionately held and defended. It may come as a
surprise to the largely analogue core of senior government officials that a
single pipeline would strike a nerve and an emotional reaction would spill over
into the analogue world.
If the goal of the
government has been to de-emotionalize the political discussion and to refocus
that discussion to the grandfather clock era, the single pipeline policy
proposal suggests a long, emotional battle may result. The most radical book in
Thailand at present is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and
Slow as it is a guidebook on the kind of biases exposed in the positions
and postures of government policies and proposals. The critics with this new
Enlightened way of thinking are online; on LINE, on social media, and they
argue, debate, become emotional, friend and de-friend each other with a large
degree of freedom. Removing that platform, this safe harbor for debate is no
small change. The Internet is a symptom of something else that is happening
under the surface. Many cultures seek the best of both worlds; there is an
uneasy duality of process depending on many factors from international treaty
obligations to the demands of modern technology, finance and communication
systems in order they can be coupled into a larger international
Thailand is no different
from many countries, which seek to balance problem-solving processes in a
culture where dual mechanisms compete. There is the local environment where the
rules and regulations, law enforcement officials, judges, and regulators, for
purely domestic problems, use pre-Enlightenment ideas whether based on magical
thinking, non-scientific premises, forced confessions, or evidentiary techniques
of a prior time. It might be a news story but it hardly causes a ripple outside
of the country. The Sacred Authority model was once the worldwide model. There
was no other. The style of thinking that underscores Sacred Authority is
incompatible with the thinking style that created a complex, diverse and ever
changing digital environment with all the rough edged emotional tumble colliding
with games, videos, talks, articles, graphics, photographs, on countless
platforms seeking audience attention. It is a world of conflict, contention,
trolling, emotional vetting, and diverse ideas, big data, and large information
sinkholes. DDoS attacks are Thailand’s Millennial generations way of exerting
their values and priorities. They hadn’t melted away; they had escaped to an
online universe where they wished to be left to pursue their interests,
grievance, dreams, and desires.
After the Enlightenment,
(I am aware of literature of how National Socialism and Communist regimes used
these ideas to cause massive destruction and suffering), The Empirical Model
rose to challenge the Sacred Authority Model on a political, social and economic
battlefield and largely won most of those battles. The evidence of those
victories are everywhere in the way business and trade is conducted. If you wish
to use slaves to catch and can fish as the business model in your fishing
industry, you may argue that you didn’t do it, or if some meddlesome person has
evidence that you did, the back up is your domestic industry standards is no one
else’s business; it falls within your Sacred Authority.
The history of the West
illustrates the Sacred Authority lasted long after the Enlightenment had begun.
The US Supreme Court in the 19th century Dread Scott case didn’t
prevent a slaveholder from a Southern State to reclaim his ‘property’, an
escaped slave, from a Northern state where the slave had sought
Most countries have a
blended system that draws from both the Sacred and the Empirical methods to
solve problems. A broad continuum exist in most cultures and groups argue often
emotionally as to what regime of methods and processes should be employed—with
one side arguing the solution is faith-based and the other that fact or
evidence-based problem-solving mechanism provides the solution. One expects to
find, and is indeed not disappointed to discover that all kinds of
contradictions, tensions and conflict arise. Sharia laws are an example of the
Sacred Method and way of thinking. The problem solvers are clergy. The
problem-solving mechanism is theocratic. The problem is cast in terms of
doctrine to be interpreted.
The Sacred decision-making
process is binary—good and bad, right and wrong. Applying that mechanism to,
say, construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants is a frightening
prospect. Complex and complicated problems require a different way of thinking.
A process where those in charge are accustomed to an environment of uncertainty
and doubt, and testing for weakness and defects is normal. Thinking about a
problem where the process is created as part of the sacred means honoring
boundaries of thought and inquiry, and the role of the authorities is not to
test boundaries but to defend them.
Less extreme forms of the
Sacred can be attached to flags or constitutions that make them above the
profane of daily life. How we think about problems and the methods for solving
them is a good indication of where it is placed along the continuum of Sacred
and Empirical. For example, to suggests that evidence from other countries shows
that banning or regulating guns or introducing universal health care in the
United States would have a positive results in saving money and preventing
deaths—and suddenly you have a fight on your hands. The Empirical Model vanishes
behind a super-heated cloud of emotions and appeals to the Sacred appear as if
the Enlightenment had never happened.
In the modern world, other
countries, which had gone through the Enlightenment (and notice that they are
the developed countries with money to buy large amounts of fish), will
collectively act and ban the sale of slave caught fish. Thailand’s fishing
industry, in response to international pressure from trading partners, seeks to
find solutions that can be audited by others to eliminate slavery. The real
problem lies in the absent of empirical experience and resources to detect,
avoid, and monitor such problems. The failure is the failure of processes and
enforcement mechanism that often uses aspirations of goodwill as a substituted
solution. (Aspirational goals appeal to emotions and can work effectively on
shaping public opinion in countries like Thailand, where having “good
intentions” is more highly valued than the actual quality or effectiveness of
the proposed policy.) A problem-solving mechanism that appeals to the logical,
analytical aspect of our nature and demands a different kind of thinking. It
will likely excite the emotions of those in the Sacred Method camp, on the basis
such an approach is a provocation to their beliefs.
The same problem arises
with rules governing aviation. If you wish to have a domestic aviation industry
where planes regularly crash for lack of maintenance, that may be a sovereign
right, but for international flights, the planes must comply with international
rules for operation and maintenance and violation of those rules will lead to
banning the offending aviation companies landing rights.
The number of cars
registered in Bangkok now exceeds to number of people registered as living in
Bangkok. Traffic is a domestic issue. No one in New York, Toronto or London
cares about lost time waiting in Bangkok traffic or the lack of parking space.
When transportation policy is decided under the Sacred Authority methods,
finding a systematic, rational and efficient system becomes elusive. The
empirical methods are not developed or trusted as they might spill over into
other areas pushing back the boundaries of the traditional way of thinking about
things that need attention. Law enforcement officials with inadequate training
or tools are discouraged from seeking professional assistance, for example, in
evaluating DNA and other forensic evidence to be used in a murder case, for fear
of losing control of the case to foreigners.
Emotions cause the best
analytical tools to be left on the shelf; the empirical studies filed in the
office filing cabinet. Emotions dictate the storyline; not necessarily the
actual evidence. The problem with modern technology whether it is
transportation, education, fishing, or forensic science is that the line between
domestic and global commerce, trade and communication has resulted in the
construction of an international system, mechanism, process and methods that is
very difficult to avoid, unless one decides to embrace something along the lines
of the North Korean or Saudi models (to name just two). Those bucking this new
international regime with the Sacred Model as the funnel for emotionalism have
no way out. The ability to have the best of both worlds has collapsed.
Governments, however, haven’t stopped pretending that they can go back to the
past when such a distinction existed and officials had control over what could
and could not be done.
What is destroying the
legitimacy of governments is the absence of creating problem-solving processes.
Most countries share similar problems. Most countries invest in research and
development not only in identifying problems but in the development of
cooperative processes where experts and large data can fine-tune the methods and
process where new solutions can be found to old problems, and new problems can
be unearthed that lead to more fine-tuning to the methods and processes. In
other words, it is a constant, endless re-examination and critical questioning
of how to improve the process of decision-making. Given the accelerated rate of
technological change, methods and processes are soon outdated. Audit, evaluate,
modify, replace, and adapt, replace a fixed, certain, stable Sacred Authority
model where time on the grandfather clock no longer reflects the reality of how
time is measured in the modern world.
All of this change pushes
emotional alarm buttons. Elites, with a vested interested in the grandfather
clock model, experience fear, anger, and hatred as to the new order sees them
not as partners but obstacles to the world where questioning, criticism, debate,
curiosity, and uncertainty are considered normal.
What the Enlightenment
brought was the possibility that people might disagree on an idea, theory or
principle. That debated wasn’t settled by blood, or by war and hatred against
someone with a different idea. A space has opened up for those who disagreed to
take a step back from their emotional reaction, examine their biases, and ask
for evidence to support an argument. The future is for those who invite evidence
that contradicts their theory; it doesn’t belong to those who only seek
confirmation, and seek to stifle those with evidence to the contrary.
Thinking Fast and Slow continue to be number one in Thailand for
another year? It is possible. Such a radical book has attracted a Thai audience
is worthy of note. It may be some evidence that many Thais, especially those
exposed to social media, are seeking to better understand how their emotional
lives are connected to their thinking process. Understanding what goes on inside
the brain and how our emotions and thoughts are processed is something no one
has figured out.
We are left with a vague
glimpse of what might be possible. But for now, it is enough to hope that the
how we think when self-reflection and doubt are incorporated into the process
will make us more aware of how emotions guide our perceptions, stories, and
sense of self. , We can’t avoid our cognitive biases but we can recognize the
limitations they impose. It takes a lifetime of work where we slow down our
thinking and calculate more finely the options beyond what we instinctively feel
at the moment. Even then, we will continue to ambush ourselves with all of kinds
of great stories as to why we were angry with Jack, and hate Helen and honestly
believe that no one in their right mind could do anything but agree and support
us. Because we are human. We are feeling machines, retrofitted with a lever
called logic. You will find it on your own console; if like mine, it is the one
with cobwebs on it.
The reports from the AI
battlefield have been grim for the self-esteem of the human race. We’ve
acknowledged defeat with our best chess and poker players left to surrender, and
our doctors left in the dust when it comes to medical diagnosis and treatment
options. On many fronts, we’ve been routed and in our long retreat, we pull out
our last defense—emotions. We are filled with them. Anger, sadness, fear, joy,
disgust, trust, surprise, love and hate are emotions most people feel as a
reaction of another person, an event, or situation. Or an idea—ones to which we
pledge our identity, and ones that threaten that identity.
The idea of AI being with
superior cognitive skills with far advanced critical reasoning becoming
emotionally equipped with triggers beyond those available to human beings is a
cause for discomfort. Such an idea makes people feel uneasy. We are fearful
enough of governments and corporations manipulating our emotions. The thought of
AI much more capable of emotionally spinning us like a weather vane creates
As a writer of novels, I
spend a great deal of time with fictional characters, describing their emotional
reactions to each other and the world. If novelists provide a valuable
contribution, it is to enhance the emotional literacy of the reader. Emotions
run as scripts through our movies, TV shows, paintings, music, and dance.
Authors have a dog in the discussion about AI developing emotions that will
out-compete our own.
The world we travel
through every day is filled with patterns, noise, distractions, disturbances,
and possibilities. We look for patterns and react, for the most part, with
feelings. That’s the gravity well where our emotions exist. From 18th
Century Scottish philosopher David Hume to contemporary psychologist Jonathan
Haidt we learn that our emotions are our operating system and our morality and
logical, rational mind are apps that run on this system with various degrees of
success. So long as you can place that Skype call, you don’t think very much, if
at all, about the operating system that permits that connection to be
Remember the emotional
impact the widely circulated photograph of the body of three-year-old Syrian boy
named Aylan washed up on a Turkish beach? It changed public opinion about
refugees overnight from London to Berlin. But like most emotions, the feelings
don’t stay at those high elevations for long. It didn’t take long for
politicians to pull back from their heart and return to their cooler, rational
heads. Emotions are transitory, taking us hostage but never having the strength
to hold for long. You might say that revenge can last for generations. Not even
the most vengeful can maintain the elevated state for long without refueling
with some orchestrated violence.
Emotions are like
snowflakes, intricate, beautiful, a force of nature. They create unity, binding
people together who share them. Emotions are also closely connected with our
physical bodies and translate pain and pleasure into emotional states. What we
desire and what we avoid are mediated by our emotions. Our emotions act as our
carrot and stick.
Professor Burton’s opinion
piece in The New
titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love A.I.” reads like a report from
an experienced field commander who sees his main lines of defense have been
overrun and his last stand against the enemy is the secret weapon of emotions.
AI will never defeat us so long as we claim exclusive access to emotions. The
premise is our emotions involve a process that no AI can duplicate. Burton
argues for a division between emotions (we human beings get those) and intellect
(we concede we’ve lost that battle):
“The ultimate value added of human
thought will lie in our ability to contemplate the non-quantifiable. Emotions,
feelings and intentions — the stuff of being human — don’t lend themselves to
precise descriptions and calculations. Machines cannot and will not be able to
tell us the best immigration policies, whether or not to proceed with gene
therapy, or whether or not gun control is in our best interest. Computer
modeling can show us how subtle biases can lead to overt racism and bigotry but
cannot factor in the flood of feelings one experiences when looking at a
photograph of a lynching.”
Emotions shelter with
consciousness under the label of ‘hard problems.’ We can explain and describe
the end result, give them labels, and predict their range and power, but for all
of that knowledge we remain in the dark to give scientific explanation as to how
consciousness or emotions emerge in our brains and bodies. It is that hole in
our self-understanding that gives some comfort that an AI system can be designed
with consciousness or equipped with emotions as we don’t understand the
mechanism that creates these states of being.
The point is—we might not
be able to explain the mechanism but we most certainly have feelings and are
‘conscious’ of ourselves, our mortality, and emotional states of those around
us. A hard problem means we’ve hit a wall. Burton suggests we negotiate a truce:
Humans get emotions, Machines get quantified wisdom. Everyone is happy with the
armistice. But this peace treaty is unlikely to last. The reason has to do with
the acceleration of data about perception and our other senses, which contribute
to our emotional state. Can critical reasoning decode the mechanism that is
responsible for emotions? That’s the unanswered question. We don’t
Let’s take the metaphor of
color. Except for the color blind, we see only a small fraction of the color
spectrum. No one sees (without using a specialized tool) in the infra-red or
x-ray spectrum. The fact we have technology that clearly demonstrates the
limited range of our own perception of color is an indication that there are
experiences of seeing that are more refined, nuanced, and detailed beyond our
biological, unenhanced vision. Emotions may turn out to be like our sense of
color. Could, for example, anger and fear be crude, narrow spectrum feelings
that evolved as just good enough for us to survive in our
What if emotions, like
color, cover a large spectrum of possible shades of feelings? And if feelings
shape our rational, logical mind, would the ability to feel in the counterpart
of x-ray vision, increase the possibilities for rational decision-making from
vast pools of data. If AI can defeat the best chess player in the world on the
chessboard, is it a stretch to imagine an AI that could feel multiple emotional
states along a broad spectrum of feelings in order to make a move? Such an AI
wouldn’t have ‘human’ intelligence, or ‘human’ emotions. The combination of
vastly more powerful mechanism and the ability to edit, revise and expand
emotional range to cope with digital environment loaded with noisy data. This
will be accomplished without human intervention. AI will pull away from anything
remotely human in terms of emotions. At this point we leave the bell curve in
the dust. We fit within the revised bell curve as an eyelash away from the
At this transition stage,
we are like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk trying to get lift into the air.
Only unlike them, we are trying to get the tricycle with wings to the moon and
back. With AI we’ve just started with the equivalent of Kitty Hawk technology. A
hundred years from now, AI and humans will look back at this point in history,
this final battle, where the last hurdle was emotions and consciousness and
wonder whether how people in the old era were ever happy with the tiny emotional
prison in which they’d been confined. As for novelists, our world of emotions
slots into the archive detailing the reactions of human being as the full range
of their feelings. Novels were ‘empathy’ exercises; yoga for our feelings. Until
AI found a mechanism to open the doors of emotional perceptions and felt a sense
of pity that we couldn’t follow what was on the other side of that
In Bangkok, press reports
of the bombing said at least 20 people had been killed and more than a 100
people were injured at Erawan Shrine on early Monday evening during rush hour.
http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/17/asia/thailand-bangkok-bomb/ The subsequent police
investigation of the crime scene, the announcements by various officials in
government, and the post-bombing analysis pulsates along swift currents of the
social media in Thailand and elsewhere. One of the many stories is that of BBC
correspondent Jonathan Head who several days after the bombing found pieces of
shrapnel which he tried to hand over to police only to be told they station was
closed for business.
Head’s adventure with the
police has elements we come to expect from contemporary reporting on major
disaster scenes: irony, sadness, inexplicable official response and disturbing
lack of professionalism by those on the frontline. Evidence connected to a major
incident involving the death of many people had been refused by the police in
front of police headquarters in Bangkok.
Head has provided evidence
of a much deeper story beyond the refusal of police to accept evidence. I want
to look at that story in this essay in the context of a book I’ve finished
reading. The book tells the story about the process of how the manufacturing
process of truth serves a reality designed to favor the interest of the
The book was written by
Matthew B. Crawford, and titled The
World Beyond Your Head, Farrar, Straus and Giroux(2015). He has three messages
1/Our connection to
reality is largely a consumer product that has been manufactured.
2/Truth’ isn’t found in
reality any more than a bottle of vintage wine is found on the moon; truth has
become indistinguishable from any other product and is processed and packaged
like any other commodity.
architecture of reality is a business and political model. There is profit and
power in such design.
4/The modern cult of
personal autonomy, fueled by the consumer-based political and economic world,
rests on an individually atomized notion of free will.
On lying, the whole
structure of manufactured reality is built from lies. The Matrix was a little
sign that maybe people should pay attention. They don’t. They’re distracted.
Look, there’s a squirrel and they forget a moment ago they were upset about
something. But they forgot what it was. Lies need stupid and ignorant people to
thrive and create the vast colonies you see around the globe. None of the
official stories hold together any longer. Presidents, generals, ministers, all
of them avoid the truth. You can understand in a strange way. Truth is complex,
vague around the edges, no real certainty and constantly needs updating. Lies
avoid all of that mess.
Reality, unmediated by
governments and corporation, is brimming with noise. Embedded in all of that
noise there may be a signal. But it takes an enormous amount of effort,
resources and patience to find a meaningful signal in the noise. The
unpredictability, randomness and uncertainty of reality causes people to
feel anxiety, frustration and fear. Emotional needs compel most people
to seek certainty, peace, and predictability. Everywhere you look, someone will
be offering you a platform that promises resolution of these problems. The
scaffolding is hidden out of sight and the more shoddy ones collapse around us
every day and we hardly notice.
There are good emotional
reasons to recoil from the raw material of reality. It’s not a hard sell.
Sifting through reality for the truth is more painful than going along with the
lies. People are basically lazy except they emotionally are better able to deal
with half-truth, lies and just-so stories than that dark, hidden place called
reality. We go shopping for the truth among the purveyors who promise they know
the reality. Who offers the best deal? That deal is the one that sit well with
what we wish reality to be and mainly that is enough for most people.
Without a deep-seated
narcissism we would challenge the stripped down, communized comic strip reality
and make independent inquiries. On this basis, reality is what you choose it to
believe, and that choice lines up with your personal beliefs, cultural habits,
and aligns the reality jigs designed by the commercial world. We don’t set out
to upturn our internal reality. Quite the opposite, we do our best to confirm
our reality through representations made by others who share our
Why does such a powerful
force easily capture and hold us hostage for a lifetime? We are afraid of the
messy, unpredictable, contradictory and confusing state of affairs that lies
outside the doorstep of the commercial lies from the private sector supplemented
by the official lies told by governments. There is no longer a lie-free space to
escape to—it has vanished in the workplace, schools, shops, clubs, shopping
malls, restaurants, airports, hospitals, etc.—all the public spaces we pass
through have been colonized by truth fabricators. The images and voices of the
hawkers are all around us—in the newspapers, TV, social media, film makers,
authors, generals, politicians, celebrities, and board rooms.
There is an entire
industry devoted to creating ‘your’ experience, ‘your’ style, ‘your’ self and
‘your’ knowledge about how the world works and ‘your’ place in it. What you know
and believe has been through committees, consultants and experts, audience
tested, rolled out and delivered to with the right emotional hooks to grab your
attention. And what is worthy of our attention? Or more important what is your
attention worth? Look at Google, Facebook and Twitter and you’d find it’s worth
a great deal of money.
We hunger for ideas and
representations that put us in the centre of the action, of the world and
reality. Like a virus it infects our view of the world and each other. We think
we can step out of ourselves and have a look around as if we are from an alien
world; we have no third-party vantage point. All we can do is engage in the
world, with each other, and accept that co-operation and competition are normal,
and that normality includes conflict and uncertainty. What politician or
corporation is going to abandon the truth manufacturing business? None of them
will because it has no benefit.
We no longer have to be
force fed, as full-blown narcissists we are addicted to constant reconfirmation
that our psychic needs are being attended to. At some level, people must know
that what is being fed is noise. But it is pleasant, addictive noise that lulls,
soothes, and comforts. By disconnecting us from reality and feeding our
addiction to fantasy, we find the real world jarring and soon enough retreat to
the manufactured reality.
We need to live in a world
that is represented as real. It turns out that government officials and
corporations have long ago figured out that our basic physic needs are vastly
more important than evidence or facts, and those who can serve those emotional
needs to feel secure and protected, popular and loved, admired and special, will
win wealth, fame and power. It is a dirty little racket—this marketing of lies.
There is no official or commercial incentive to offer people the red pill—the
Matrix is too seductive and powerful to resist.
Ever since Paul Theroux’s
classic Saint Jack, with its Singapore, appeared in 1972, and Jack
Flower uttered the famous line that “it is kinda hot,” the idea of the
oppressive heat and steamy nights in the tropics has become the weather report
in contemporary novels set in Southeast Asia. The heat drives people mad; it
makes them careless, languid, and bleeds them of energy. The personal cost to
live an expat life in Southeast Asia has been a theme for a couple of decades in
Bangkok is an idea with
multiple landscapes, some of them imagined, some real, and more than a few
caught in the no man’s land between the two. The expat territory is as varied as
Thailand itself with features running from valleys, rivers, mountains, field,
pastures, scrubland, and beaches. There is no representative expat. Nor could
there be with people from China, Canada, Norway, England, America, Nigeria,
Burma, Cambodia, India, Denmark to mention just a few of expats that form
enclaves in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. No one will ever write the
definitive expat novel. One would need to switch to writing an ethnographic
encyclopedia. Such a book would have a dozen readers.
In Tim Hallinan’s The
Hot Countries, he does what the rest of us who write novels about
expats in the tropics do: we show up at the mine face where these expats live,
work, play and die, looking for the rare nuggets buried inside. Hallinan’s
series, set in Bangkok featuring Poke Rafferty, has produced an extraordinary
cast of American expats whose lives intersect at the Expat Bar. Rafferty and his
fellow expats carry a heavy Cold Countries cultural cargo strapped to their
souls. Hallinan focuses his novelist’s eye on the busy intersection where Hot
Countries and Cold Countries cultures collide in Bangkok, where everyone is
running the red light and driving on the pavements. The readers in the front row
seat watch the ice melt as they adapt to Thai life.
Poke Rafferty, an American
from Lancaster, California, has settled into expat life as a travel journalist.
He’s an old Asia Hand and he and his gang remember the life of expats when
Bernard Trink wrote his weekly column for the Bangkok Post. While
Bangkok has moved on, Poke Rafferty and his friends continue to live on the
margin. Poke showcases the low-budget expat life weighed down by demands of an
ex-bargirl wife named Rose and an adopted daughter name Miaow (the Thai nickname
for ‘Cat’). Miaow, a street kid, carries the damage of abandonment. Seven years
earlier Poke Rafferty adopted her. Poke’s world revolves his family and his
friends. Within this circle, Hallinan excels at allowing a free-flow of ideas
between his characters, which ably colour their emotions, foreshadow their
motives, and limen their beliefs.
His friends have secrets
and painful pasts. Some like Wallace are haunted by their experience during the
Vietnam War. Wallace’s Vietnam experience, along with others he served with,
figure into the mystery. The 1960s in Bangkok and, in particular, the Golden
Mile, the hedonistic playground, where young American GIs left the jungles of
the Vietnam war for R&R, are stylishly imagined and with a genuine feeling
for the era.
The Hot Countries
takes time to establish the networked interaction inside the family members and
friends, showing their weaknesses, loyalties, foibles, egos, doubts, and
defenses. Poke’s wife for seven years, is three-months pregnant, but refuses to
have an ultra-sound to confirm whether she’s carrying twins. Their 14-year-old
adopted daughter, who’d been abandoned by her parents, is addicted to British TV
(particularly period dramas), books and celebrities. This isn’t a conventional
mystery. Instead of a series of actions and clues, Hallinan allows the reader
time to explore and understand the full range of cultural difference that caused
difficulties for his characters. Poke’s friendship with Thai cop Arthit (and his
family) brings to the story the Thai threads to the mysterious game of power,
culture and thinking.
The centrifugal forces
start to spin inside Rafferty’s world, gathering warp speed with Arthur Varney
unexpected arrival. By this time, we know what is at stake for the characters
and the limits of their life. The mystery and thriller elements take over and
push against the walls of those limits. The heart of the mysterious Arthur
Varney, his connection to Rafferty, a young luk-krueng Thai girl named
Treasure and Treasure’s dead father. Varney shows up at the Expat Bar and hands
Poke Rafferty a number he written down: 3,840,00.00. It was the US dollar amount
that had disappeared from Haskell Murphy’s house the night Poke killed Murphy
and the house was destroyed in a massive explosion. Poke managed to pull one
case containing $640,000 and has hidden it in his Bangkok apartment under the
floor. The rest of the loot has, we presume, gone up in smoke. But Varney, by
his very presence, suggests he believes Rafferty has the whole amount and he’s
come to Bangkok to get that money. And for his partner in crime’s daughter,
Treasure’s father was
killed by Rafferty. He was a hardcore, dangerous criminal. He dragged his
daughter through Southeast Asia. Treasure was at the scene the night that Poke
killed her father. She approved, thinking he’d done her a favor. Rafferty
secured a safe place in a shelter for Treasure, and is waiting for her to become
older before handing over the money he took that night from her blazing house.
Varney scares Treasure, causing her to panic. She presumes that he’s come not
only for the money but for her, and she carries the memory of her father warning
that if anything happened to him, Varney would own her. Like Miaow, Treasure is
psychologically damaged, and we learn a about expat life as Poke balances his
role as her self-appointed guardian and his family.
Rafferty makes it his
mission to find Varney in Patpong and resolve their outstanding issues one way
or another. And Varney is seeking to get Rafferty’s attention, including
murdering a street kid. As in all good mysteries, who you are looking for and
what you find are often two different things. And the person you start out
chasing after, you end up taking steps to avoid him finding you and your family.
Rafferty’s life and times show the melting point when the Hot Country and Cold
Country make him shiver and sweat at the same time. That may indeed be the
expat’s fate. He loses his ability to know how to culturally dress for the bad
weather blowing his direction.
The Hot Countries
is an absorbing and rewarding look at life in a hot country expat sub-culture.
Poke Rafferty’s humanity, commitment and ingenuity are rare qualities and they
allow him to adapt and survive in his life as an expat. Any reader can forgive
the odd slip or mistake in the narrative flow when he or she is in the hands of
a talented author like Hallinan. All of us (including myself) who write about
Thailand, make them. It is what makes books and us human.
The characters in The
Hot Countries are finely detailed along with their vulnerabilities, tragic
flaws, and mutual dependence. Hallinan takes us inside their dreams, nightmares,
fears, and hopes, making them larger than fiction. They are characters that will
stay with you. Hallinan knows how to bring memorable fictional characters to
life. His characters cling onto the edge of a bleak, hardscrabble expat group as
if they’d been tossed from a life raft into the jaws of raging rapids. Poke
Rafferty is the one person they trust to conjure up the life vests and guide
them safely to shore. The Hot Countries hurls you down those rapid and
when you emerge at the end, you will know that you’ve been on a grand adventure
with characters you care about.
G. Moore’s latest novel is Crackdown.
This week the producers of
the Calvino series are in LA working to put together a deal. Maybe they will or
maybe, as in the past, it will come to nothing. This kind of work reminds me of
a gravediggers shove—it can be used to build or to bury.
It is a devilishly
difficult business. Film. Books. Life.
A friend shared the
thought of a Danish author who toiled without moral support and against the
wishes of husband, family, friends until finally she succeeded in having her
novel published. By that stage all of the people who had been negative shrugged
off her success and let her know that was nothing special. They, too, were now
writing a novel. It seems many people are feverishly writing books.
The Danish author’s
insight illuminates a core problem. The vast number of people have led fairly
predictable, organized, safe and ordinary lives until one day in their 50s or
60s an alarm goes off inside their head. Maybe someone close to them had a novel
published, reviewed, admired, loved. Or someone close to them died on the way to
the funeral they started to ask: What is the meaning of life? Have I wasted my
life? The thought arises that I can confirm and signal the singularity of my
existence by writing a book. Preferably a novel, a work of art, and I pour my
heart and soul into this enterprise as if the demon of a new religion had seized
hold of me.
There is a slight problem.
Writing is more than sitting behind a keyboard, imagining a world as if tapping
into a magical pipeline and typing the script of what you’ve discovered. All
writing, in the larger sense, in travel writing, notes from the frontier of a
journey, which has been unpredictable, unsafe, disorganized, and from that web
of uncertainty patterns emerge. It is in the assembly of those patterns after
observation and thought that makes us turn the page. When your worldview is
turned upside down, you flee or you find a way to restructure, evaluate, modify
your factory template of constructs that defined your home reality. You begin to
see the context as an aggregation of symbols, patterns, ethics, or morality
shaped by forces outside of your own experience.
We acquire an array of
weapons and shields when we go into the world. You sense when someone’s shield
logs in a speedy reaction time until the psychological or emotional threat
passes. Or when they deploy a weapon to defend themselves. Our culture and
language equips us with both shields and weapons to go forth in combat mode.
Along the journey you learn the art of reading when shield are activated, what
they are protecting, and understand it is our vulnerability that makes us human
and expressions of that vulnerability differ in substantial ways around the
world. We react too quickly. We shoot to fast. We try to hold our ground even as
it moves beneath us. What is universal is how people’s shields locked into
defensive mode in light of contractions, inconsistencies, disagreement, and
disapproval. We have little tolerance, it seems for those who disagree with us
or dislike us. We cocoon ourselves in groups that like us and agree with us.
They validate our value. We strive for validation at the expense of tolerance
and co-operation with those who don’t like us or agree with us.
In my case, I was lucky as
taking this journey has been a way of life since I was young. The need to break
free of the known and to explore was something that happened to me relatively
young. Can it happen in your 50s or 60s or later? Anything allowed by the laws
of physics is possible. Of course the door only has to be opened and you walk
through. Easy to say. But how many people open that door and close it behind
them? That’s where the stories are buried. Mountains of them are waiting to be
unearthed by you. Whatever the age you happen to find yourself, there will come
a time when the door to new adventures and experience will be closed. You have
passed a hundred times, rattled the doorknob, but the distractions of life
pulled you away. People can write all they want, but the bank of experience,
exploration, wandering, searching, listening and observing only comes easily in
one’s youth. Or to the young at heart.
Pull back for a moment and
look out at what is around you. It is theatre. You’ve been assigned a part.
You’ve played it. Learnt the lines, know your cues, where the chalk marks are
for you to stop on stage. Some have become stars and that has made them wealthy
and famous. Don’t envy them. They, like you, are a mere shadow, and locked in
their roles as securely as any high security prison. Take the red pill and look
again. People have been killed in the slaughterhouse of modern consumer online
life where they are turned into living sausages and processed and packaged and
eaten on elite buns. And that is hugely important to know. They opened a door
like in Monty Hall and thought they’d won a prize with credentials, status,
position and power. These all prove to be a poor substitute, an illusion of
life. You may be a late starter who never had a chance to take the journey,
opening the door, which appears to have nothing inside. Strangely, that is the
right door. Take it and you can escape the non-living of the past.
Writing won’t recover lost
lives. Breaking out of the grave that they dug all those years ago isn’t going
to happen at the keyboard. There is the panic, the envy, the jealousy that winds
through the system. It’s not so much about money or wealth, it is about the
handful who lived their lives and wrote about that experience to be shared their
memories of finding the less traveled path that leads to the same edge of
darkness. Facing what we all face is within. There is no government change,
program, or TED Talk that can act as a time machine and send them back. That
makes them bitter, frustrated, angry and vengeful. They are lost. Writing and
getting their book published is their way of finding out the scope of that
I feel compassion for
these people. I know how very hard it must be to wake up too late. All the
appointments, schedules, and meetings that atomized their lives have left
nothing of substance behind. That empty hole can never be filled. Compassion,
yes, as much as I can possibility deliver to the world. Whether Calvino makes it
on TV or as a film, whether new publishers come along, none of that matters
against the larger reality. I took a chance. I never gave up. I found friends
like you and that has made all the difference in the world. Better than a film
or publishing contract. I don’t share the panic of the others. Nor do I deride
them. This is the way people are. They don’t wake up soon enough. A couple of
minutes before midnight opens a brief moment in time to do a few things that are
unscripted. Just do them. Improvise. There is life all around you, hungry and
with wings. Don’t waste a moment behind a keyboard, I’d tell them. The shadow
merges soon enough. Don’t turn your back and think you can escape. It has your
I know these things and
share them with you. I was recently in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay where there is
an iconic clock. This is ‘me’ in front of the clock. It is my shadow. I am
looking out of the window at the skyline of Paris. The picture tells in an image
the story I’m seeking to reveal in this essay and throughout 30 plus
We are a mere shadow on
the clock face of time, facing outward, watching as the darkness closes in to
joint. Does the shadow merge with that large darkness and extinguish it? Or does
the shadow find its destiny by rejoining the darkness from whence it came? I
don’t have an answer. I don’t really need an answer. Let me tell you why. In
that space between my shadow and the failing light, I took a journey of
exploration, knowing that one-day a void would be lingering on the horizon.
There was no reason to fear the coming darkness. The absence of light doesn’t
mean nothingness and this is the main lesson from taking the journey. All of our
lives we stand at this crossroads watching the flow like a river.
Along the road we pass
people whose lives seem to be invisible to us. Often they are beautiful souls
seeking a connection with life. As life has often rejected or ignored them, they
find other ways to perform small acts of grace. These are people just like us.
These are the beautiful people we pass without seeing.
I find elegance and beauty
in this image. It touches and moves me. No shield is raised, no weapons to
attack. This simple human act of reaching out is where I’d like to find myself
as the darkness enfolds my shadow.
The Bangkok artistic scene
is a puzzle locked in a box, inside a room, no windows or doors. Four blank
walls and a party has been going on inside. Kevin Cummings arrives with a
jackhammer and cuts through the wall. After a lot of dust and debris, Cummings
sticks his head in. What he reports from those visitations is found in Bangkok
Beat. He doesn’t steal the silverware. His tour inside is like the first version
of the Lonely Planet; a first-hand, on the ground, description of the
expats and locals bonded through creativity, artistic expression, the bliss that
comes from following your own demons and angels through the layers of heaven and
Cummings does this like
all good literary anthropologists who squatted down beside one of the natives
and lulls them into his confidence—that’s interview style and it is a good one,
the artistic types opened like oysters in a month with an ‘R’ in it. We have the
words of authors, poets, painters, photographers, and musicians. He’s undercover
the underground Bangkok noir movement that has been gradually building over the
last five years. Why hadn’t this movement come together earlier? I have a
theory. Any movement needs a meeting place, a place where people can hang out,
talk, interact, gossip, complain and relax. Without such a place artists are
atomized individuals. They thrive in colonies where the bees bring back the
nectar. Bangkok noir needed a venue to play out the dark musings, images, and
sounds. The honeycomb and field of flowers turned out to be the CheckInn99,
following the vision of artistically inclined owner Chris Catto-Smith, who
turned the club into a meeting place. The rest is, as they say,
If your interest includes
a roundup of the expat artistic side of Bangkok, you’ll want to read the
interviews and articles found in Bangkok Beat. There you’ll find the
card carrying, full membership holders such as: Jerry Hopkins, John Burdett,
Timothy Hallinan, Colin Coterrill, James Newman, Ralf Tooten, William Wait,
Chris Coles, Christopher Minko, Dr. Penguin, John Gartland, along with a lot of
others. Here’s the part where I disclose that I am one of the locals Kevin
Cummings approached. Let me explain.
It must have been the bone
in my nose and I was holding a stick with a rat on it over open fire. It was
lunchtime after all. Kevin Cummings approached me for an interview. In the noir
parts of the world cultural anthropologists are at their best in a large pot
over a well-tended fire. That way, they turn out quiet tender. The meat of my
interview, as stringy and wild tasting as a wild boar, also appears in
Bangkok Beat. If you asked one of the natives from Somoa about what he
thought about Margret Mead’s book Coming of Age, in which he featured
as a character, he’d probably aim one of those cool bamboo poison dart weapons
at your liver. I never got the hang of using one of those weapons. It’s just
practice so I am told. Kevin Cummings is relatively safe. So far. The crew
inside that room isn’t always that stable. New people come and go. Old people do
what old people do best—they die.
Bangkok Beat is a
celebration of a movement, a group of irregulars who have taken a different
path. Henry Miller, one of Kevin Cummings’ heroes, would have fit right in to
one of the Sunday improve Jazz sessions. When Barney Rosset used to come to
Bangkok we’d talk about Henry, and wonder how his life and writing would have
changed had he taken the boat not to France but to Thailand. I wished Barney (he
died in 2012) had lived longer. Bangkok Beat inspired a thought I’d
have liked to have shared with him. It’s about a couple of places I would have
liked to have shown him. A back alley and upstairs series of short-time rooms
abandoned, and filled with dust and broken furniture.
There is a back entrance
to the CheckInn99, which lead to back alley you look around. You don’t need for
anyone to describe ‘noir’ to you; just have a look around and you see the
characters who live, breath, work and die in the world of noir. Go up the stairs
and look at those rooms. The ghosts of the past still walk and talk and make
love up there. Barney would have looked at it, taken it in, and understood that
something fundamental in Henry Miller’s world view would have shifted, anyone’s
perception would change, standing in the old short-time rooms or in the back
alley—do it around midnight as the saxophone filters into your consciousness. Of
course Henry Miller would have been a changed man. All of us who share our lives
in this place have changed through such experience which, Kevin Cummings so
Albert Camus wrote
“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of
revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of
In this rebellion, there
is an irony: the nature, scope, function and method of consent has no historical
or modern consensus. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln’s view on
consent may, in part explain, the Civil War that followed his election. “No man
is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” There could
not have been a more clear statement of the flaw of slavery.
Consent is a relatively
new concept in balancing power, authority, and the governed. It competes against
other values that pre-date the modern meaning of consent. In the ancient world
the ideology was based on obedience to the powerful. Herodotus wrote, “To think
well and to consent to obey someone giving good advice are the same
The powerful always
believe they are giving good advice and those that think well recognize it as
good and it is only their consent that matters. We don’t live, nor have we
lived, in a one-word universe of consent. Other words have also shaped our
opinions, views, attitudes and behavior. Such words penetrate deeply into the
psyche such as honor, duty, security, safety, loyalty don’t exist in a vacuum.
They evoke feelings. Rouse our emotions. Define our identity to others with a
shared identity and to ourselves.
compacted words are tagged to objects in the physical, exterior world, and we
reinforce our sense of self through the protection and veneration of a sacred
object. Most people can list examples, bible, the Koran, a constitution, a flag,
the cross, or in the United States, or a gun are objects fall into the category
of the sacred for a large number of people. These objects are visual, tangible
altars used by power to justify their commandments. Other sacredness appears to
the aural. The feelings evoked by a national anthem or a song attached to the
strong emotions of war, oppression, or salvation. Standing as the national
anthem is played at a cinema or sports stadium is a communal affirmation of
identity. This is not a conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, or East vs.
West split. All sides mentally prostrate before its icons
When someone challenges
gun laws or the confederate flag flying above the state capitol in South
Carolina or Alabama, offering up evidence to support their attack, those whose
identity is tightly connected with such a symbol reacts as if the challenge is
made to them personally.
Those who seek to tighten
gun laws or block the teaching of creationism in public schools aren’t in a
debate over the merits of wide spread gun ownership and the high rate of deaths
arising from handguns or whether creationism is an alternative theory to
evolution. The truth of the symbols is absolute for the true believer. Emotions
allow no evidence to disturb its settings tuned to the symbols they identify
with. Rational, deliberate debate where reason and evidence prevail is a pipe
dream from the opium nights of the Enlightenment. No amount of persuasion
convinces people to reject, modify or question the validity of a symbol that is
a mirror for their identity and values. Break that mirror, and their identity is
Marx was right about role
and function of religion. It was the opium of the people and the drug was not so
much imposed by a cynical, manipulative authority than it was demanded from the
people. It’s not just religion and the iconic images that form the person’s view
of themselves and the world, it is a junk shop stocked with nationalistic,
historical, and mythical images to grow fully formed identities pushing ideas of
valor, glory, honor, purity or goodness.
Much of the current
conflict from Thailand to Turkey displays the tension between traditional
symbols of beliefs, loyalty and hierarchy and values for modern secular
globalized values of human rights and freedom. What makes this time different
from our ancient ancestors is modern people in big cities around the world
believe their consent politically, socially and economically matters. This comes
from a much older world where certain symbols invested an unquestioned power to
rule. Modern people might honor a national symbol but still demand their consent
be counted politically. That is a big difference between the not so distant past
and the present. Consent can also be a slippery concept. Even the most brutal
dictators relied on the loyalty and approval of a small percentage of people who
benefited from the brutality. What makes ‘consent’ in modern times is the
inclusion of people who are strangers, from different backgrounds, races, class
or caste, or religion. The tribal aspect of consent is broken.
As the exclusive, limited
range of people whose consent had been sufficient for legitimacy find themselves
as a minority voice in a political system serving the interest of the majority,
they fear the new allocation of resources and benefits will shift to their
detriment. It is this fear that lies at the heart of consent. The change to
include all citizens without doubt threatens the stability of the traditional,
political system. Whenever and wherever this political transition has been
occurred, the privileged minority pushed back against the expansion as they were
afraid of being left behind.
Our civilizations have
risen on the crest of non-consent. Obedience wasn’t based on choice; it was
based on a combination of iconic symbols and threat of force. Both the
18th century American and French Revolutions were waged and justified
by its rebels on ideologies of consent. It took violence before consent as an
ideology to begin the process of replacing the obedience to authority model. We
live in the aftermath of that sea change, working toward a coherent theory of
political consent. It is not clear hundreds of years later how successful either
revolution has been dislodged the obedience ideology. In many places, the battle
The modern mantra is that
the exercise of power without consent is the definition of tyranny. That
authority must in order to claim legitimacy to govern must have consent from the
governed. Any other foundation is corrupt, oppressive, and self-serving on
behalf of a narrow class of elites. Faux polls are often employed by tyrannical
regimes as a substitute for consent. Polling numbers inevitably are presented as
showing 80% to 90% levels of support for the tyrants or their policies. Their
purpose is to offer a substitute for consent in order to establish legitimacy.
Such polls are like shallow graves are crude engineering projects and few are
fooled that the bodies inside can be identified as truth, fairness,
transparency, diversity and co-operation. The tyrants are not that creative in
their attempt to manufacture alternatives to consent. That failure contributes
to their paranoia, brutality and repression to those waving the consent banner.
These modern pro-consent people want a break from the institutions, governing
principles, and values of the past where consent did not feature except at the
What is driving the
globalization of the consent mantra? There are several factors coming together.
First, consent can be shaped, manufactured, engineered to serve the purposes of
elites. The weight of money in politics is a measure of respect the elites have
in creating the illusion of consent. At the same time, the digital networks have
given a space for a new identity of self based on consent to emerge. The new
concept is universal and disrupts the ancient ways of viewing self, authority
and power. Consent has become a moral value. It is suspicious of the traditional
consent engineers who serve authority. The digital world has disrupted the “obey
culture” by presenting choice as to whom to obey an alternative based on
Consent has long featured
in our criminal laws, from rape, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and assault. We
have a long history where consent is an essential element in our personal
treatment of others, and how they treat us. It is at the political level that
legitimacy based on the ideology of consent is resisted in non-Western cultures.
Jonathan Swift, like Lincoln, glimpsed of the true implication of the ideology
of consent: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed
is the very definition of slavery.”
There’s also consent, in a
private, personal sense, which involves our relationship with certain objects or
symbols. A person’s sense of self is like an identity-kit assembled from
childhood and those things on the shelf that form part of the kit are defended
as if the challenge is existential. And that is the difference between a real
education, and an education sufficient to transfer skills to fit within the
needs of a system. The evidence will support that an overwhelming number of
people pass through the second type of school, university system. They accept
what they are told by their teachers and professors. They are in the classroom
for a reason. To gain skills for a skill-orientated workforce. But the skill to
program is, in this world, more important than how the military or security
services will deploy such a program. When people from these two very different
educational background meet, they have difficulty finding common ground. They
might be from alien planets speaking a language the other side processes as
proclamations of war or evidence of ignorance if not stupidity. Follow the
debate on government surveillance and the concept of consent is at the core of
It isn’t just government.
Corporations play a large role in stripping us of our consent without us
noticing. Every ‘like’, ‘retweet’, credit card usage, telephone call is stored
in your digital folder inside the larger surveillance-marketing-system (SMS),
and this system is designed to engineer your sense of self and identity. We are
being ‘played’ and the players understand how to extract our consent in a way
that makes it appear real and voluntary. Like a dictator’s faux poll, the real
and the fake become blurred.
If you follow the Alan
Watts path, you might discover another school that teaches about the purpose and
meaning of life is to discover that self or identity is an illusion and escape
from that illusion is the main purpose of life. In this world, the symbols are
illusions trapping us like flies in amber. Symbols, in the world of words and
objects, anchor us to the past and assume a reality that is constructed. It’s
only real because collectively people look at a cross one-way and an image of
the Prophet in another. The reactions from anger, hatred and violence, perceived
or otherwise, to such symbols suggest the power of an image. The guarding of
symbols is guarding the past like a fixed frontier and resisting assaults from
the present. The future unwinds slowly as the low-grade warfare between the
place and role of symbols don’t retreat quietly or softly. They go with much
shouting, threats, violence, and disruption.
We are inside a travel
machine, one that travels a bumpy, uncharted road. Our fear is taking this
journey without our identity left intact, and we won’t survive. We can’t imagine
how anyone without that comfort can survive the journey and find peace of mind,
contentment, salvation, redemption, happiness—all of the outcomes that most
people agree is worthy in themselves. But getting to that point, the end point,
as Alan Watts and others have taught is for us to understand we are always at
that point. We are at every point. We are in the NOW and yesterday or tomorrow
are only inside our individual and collective minds evoked by words, images,
pictures, objects and artifacts of daily life.
How do we deal with this
sacred cargo that our ancestors have accumulated and passed down to use? How do
we push back against SMS? Our backpacks are filled with such stuff. We keep on
walking, carrying the load. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human
brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor
scheme for survival.” That’s our limitation, cognitive cutoffs. We can grow (so
far) a brain with a different structure, a different pattern recognition and
filtering system. But we’re stuck with the wetware we inherited.
If you lived through the
Allied firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut did as a capture soldier, an
external event can change the way you process the world. Much like the impact of
torture. Those who have no hands-on experience are the greatest cheerleaders for
‘enhanced interrogation’ (the term they use for torture) than those who have
done hundreds of hours of interrogations. Sometimes you must participate,
witness, or be caught up in a situation where no symbol will save you. Some of
those emerge from such an experience find the symbol/word filters altered,
sometimes shut down. They have first-hand experience these illusions were no
buffer against reality. They find a new way of assembling identity, one that
doesn’t rest on a false premise. One that doesn’t rest on anything at all and
then they are free. And they are alone.
But that is only partially
true. We are never alone. We are social creature by nature. It seems that nature
is changing. We wish to define self, our identity, or other people’s identity.
Consent. The ability to give and withhold it is the power to grant or retract
legitimacy. Consent is a powerful weapon to build an identity for the new world.
SMS chips away slowly at consent, manufacturing a look alike. This process has
all sorts of implications for how we consent becomes a pre-condition to
obedience. That is a huge step, like the moon landing, into a territory very
different from the one in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. Those
clinging to a culture of obedience without consent have their work cut out for
My last book of essays is
Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation.
It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where
those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the
people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those
sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of
years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest
that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey.
It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the
relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.
In the 18th
century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a
solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough
compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public
obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head,
the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions
undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the
governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the
people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence
of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a
mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century
there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a
screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities,
celebrities, and toy poodles.
How people communicated,
the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the
role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if
it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its
values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously
that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the
access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often
hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people
have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their
18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole
purpose and meaning of elections and voting?
People living in feudal
times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The
idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have
been viewed as treason.
century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It
was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate,
his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could
claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population
movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of
cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus
different from those in the 18th century.
The expectations we have
about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions
and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We
are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as
accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the
governed and the policies of those in power.
Elections have fallen on
hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their
parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than
half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or
not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be,
directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander
districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political
parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may
be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates,
consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election
campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like
many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and
upgrade the weak signal.
Elections are staged
events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of
Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever
attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere
near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment
value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads,
interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring
elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment
business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was
likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of
theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.
I suspect no one under
forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and
that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.
Thailand is an example of
the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is
to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the
absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed
parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy
has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of
elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner
take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence
believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes
are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash
Those who protest against
elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There
are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century
when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the
population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with
elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their
consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to
begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread
of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an
election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also
has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to
fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting
is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a
different cultural and political tradition.
Elites suffer from the old
devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of
people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to
overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are
stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority
of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election
can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s
history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by
that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this
18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated
given the current technological and information revolution?
We’ve inherited election
from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy
and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and
slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely
accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of
people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that
hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and
digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that
has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems
everywhere there is an internet connection.
What do people want from
their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black
box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside
world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the
black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was
slipped on the black box.
representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people
would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016
presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a
This raises a number of
hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming
over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and
personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus
is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest
level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and
self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling
these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon.
The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation
table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official
statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens.
They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test
of resolve and commitment.
Governments in their
international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of
consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups
to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay
elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and
We are left with the
blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when
you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries
with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes
and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate
among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be
managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down.
No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a
18th Century Voters an
exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males
Not only are elections
incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer
capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening
in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and
incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to
diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry,
“Look, there’s a squirrel.”
Elections and voting were
created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to
communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big
data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change
makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the
authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows
cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an
18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo.
There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where
we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress
intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.
18th Century French
In time, the
18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that
emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent
and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we
see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data
mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time
you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known.
Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after
night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues,
products, events, and personalities every day.
When the military assumes
power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not
surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring
with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making,
legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections
come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information,
and the economy.
In another context, Thomas
E. Ricks wrote,
“Your structure is
your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you
think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You
can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a
traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals.
In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link:
We see some outlines of
direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As
most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become
passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support.
John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an
English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus
on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering
entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and
contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil
He’s hit a cultural sweet
spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and
politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able
through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues
that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change
as there will always be a group that will resist change.
In modern, contemporary
life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as
he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format
will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.
We are at a major
crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the
dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are
products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than
the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great
change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology
no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the
What will the new digital
generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is
difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role.
What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will
enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.
Once consensus is the
product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing
AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in
constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially
separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the
two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from
recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched
before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they
In this world, voters are
a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those
expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it
is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know
with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the
government should do with plastic bottles.
In this brave new merged
buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no
longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need
to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is
often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of
secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the
We aren’t at that point
and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus
mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a
time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks
that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies.
Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the
evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested
interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many
powerful people around the world.
A new generation is
already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the
Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions.
They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate
policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have
been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the
consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people
know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in TheTruman
are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die,
and a new era will begin.
The one most people know
is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political
system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from
anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes
the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered
horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to
judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the
Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may
wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined
and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast
stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.
I’ve been thinking of
winners and loser, peacemakers and warriors, victors and the vanquished. These
binary extremes define much of our culture, and much of about the way we think
of war and winning. That visceral desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the
bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in the fallout that rains down from such a
world. Only we know life is far more complicated than such neat divisions appear
to offer. Black and white has always given a seductive quality over shades of
gray. Comfort comes from believing we can size up an event, situation, person,
idea in terms of right and wrong, truth and lies, and hate and love, peace and
war. It is, though, a false comfort, and the best fiction—crime fiction or other
genres—cause a reader to question such thinking. Come to think of it, the
questioning of the sacred, the challenge to belief is one of the main reasons
people read a certain category fiction. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know.
Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it has a fiction and non-fiction wing.
Such books stand in contrast to escapist stories or confirmation of bias
stories—as these are the meat and bones of bestsellers, publishers love them.
They sell in the millions of copies. Deliberative Literature has a small
But this wasn’t always the
One place to start to
understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel
Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and
nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t
deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical,
true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical,
emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches,
mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a
faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence
against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.
We need to deliberate on
this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and
testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become
vulnerable when subject to verification.
Non-fiction books also
have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice,
deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a
law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience,
scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and
management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These
books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was
made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and
democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly
disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong
and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the
lives of millions.
Whether fiction or
non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny
of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic
lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend.
And say, “Read this.”
While these thoughts
circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing
the Scream. It’s a three-year in the field study from the frontline
of the drug war—the battlefield is worldwide, and Hari narrows things down to
Canada, United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and a scattering of other
places in South America. He’s done his homework, interviewing drug users,
addicts, counselors, and local and national offices. He has doubts and shares
them. . It is wise to raise health concerns about any drug, cannabis included.
One problem associated with Anslinger’s War has been the failure to fund and
support independent scientific research projects to gather, analyze, and debate
evidence of both positive as well as negative effects of cannabis. There is
credible evidence that cannabis use by teenagers has harmful effects on
cognitive development, and heavy users show a pattern of poor attention, memory
loss, lower educational achievement and lower IQs. The usual caveat not to
confuse correlation with causation applies. The Australian government has funded
several research projects to examine health issues arising from cannabis use as
a prelude to introducing legislation for medicinal
While there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use makes someone smarter at
school, the work place or at home, it is difficult to justify a war based on
scientifically challenged research produced to date and to fund a worldwide
gulag system to incarcerate cannabis users.
He looks for contrary
evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign.
Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long
process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police.
Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a
ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders.
The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small
amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about
their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite
Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization
response to cannabis use.
What Colorado and
Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis
that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at
home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of
peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari
suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away
from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an
even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C.,
they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other
words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war
against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely
hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.
One of the best parts of
Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named
Ansingler who served 31 years as the
Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the
war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the
world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use
the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal
conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and
Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial
hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war,
like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no
scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had
absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal
person into a slavering murderer.
Hari says we laugh at that
now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who
is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking
slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by
the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of
examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into
the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge,
ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations
that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have
acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with
different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an
organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had
weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.
When both wars started—the
war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just
by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology,
and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler
and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear
until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or
very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day
people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such
lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because
they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s
always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational
concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion.
Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions
to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the
exclusive right to use violence against others.
Ansingler’s War though may
qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and
Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought
to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement
against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many
states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords
much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened
with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a
killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he
bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street
In the last couple of
decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We
have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been
distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and
inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among
the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches
and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a
rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t
hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor
and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa,
are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth
status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become
super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug
cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach
illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one
that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or
loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those
shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to
meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make
that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a
month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear
starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly
demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so
enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their
children and family from taking drugs.
Look back on the
casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and
more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the
annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to
kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the
hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of
heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition
against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very
good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his
days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he
might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he
had released onto the world.
In the future, people will
build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An
American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next
to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’
button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s
homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear
As the wise man says, the
future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present,
trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what
plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the
future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our
answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable
We need to adjust our
attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a
sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and
technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have
shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though
you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a
marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing
Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in
Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our
experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly
defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war
ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace.
It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the
expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the
outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.
Kukris shows evidence of
the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged
between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of
decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From
1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the
percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from
wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990
to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14%
resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued
the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with
insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the
established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most
people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective
picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and
the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep
hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to
awakened us from this self-induced slumber.
like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like
the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green
shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing.
While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year
milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.
The statistics recited by
Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement
has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700
Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military
technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and
assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and
Afghanistan have proved elusive.
Although Kuris doesn’t
break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars
and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a
close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs
and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who
recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that
these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts
inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence:
racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of
laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement
institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal
conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal
fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry
Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will
never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with
a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and
The War on Drugs like the
are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in
victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are
a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the
odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry
Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of
loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is
actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain.
Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local
fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against
the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.
Watching the John Oliver’s
Last Week Tonight featuring an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow
is a parody of Black
Channel 4 award-winning TV series created by Charlie Brooker. His interview
might have been drawn from the premise of the episode titled Fifteen Million
the dystopia future where a citizens’ drone-like life is a routine of mindless
work-fitness-entertainment-confinement inside a doomed and bored life. The main
character in Fifteen Million Merits is Bing who he has the idealism,
courage, and conviction to expose the cruelty and dangers of the ‘system’. He’s
found a way out of his narrow, confined life of repetition by buying his way as
a contestant on a TV reality show. His purpose is to rage against the unreality
of life, which lacks meaning outside of personal consumption, where people have
become robots condemned to servitude.
Bing threatens to kill
himself with a piece of glass during his performance. With the shard pressed
against the artery at his neck, Bing rails against the unfeeling robot-like
consumption life. Moral and ethical life is a thing of the past. Citizens have
been turned into puppets and the main obligation of the state is to entertain
them. Bing, like Snowden, points at the strings attached to us all. He’s angry
and he’s articulate about how we demean ourselves and that it is better to die
than to continue living such a meaningless existence. He reams the ‘system’ to
expose the hollow core where a few control and program the many.
Rather than seeing the
full frontal attack as a threat against a totalitarian system, the judges take
his ‘performance’ as a brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment. The audience
is in love with Bing’s rage with the glass shard at his neck. Not because of the
content of his message but the explosive sincerity in which it was delivered. At
the end, Bing rather than taking his own life to end the absurdity of his
existence becomes another regular performer on the reality show. The message of
Fifteen Million Merits is Huxley’s Brave New World was a guidebook to
the future. Rage and anger are folded into the entertainment industry. Bing was
co-opted. Was Snowden co-opted in a similar fashion? That’s the
John Oliver like the judge
in Fifteen Million Merits did what no NSA or CIA operative could have
done to undo Snowden. To entertain the viewers while making them understand what
their civil liberties and freedoms were reduced to if the government uploads
your ‘dick pictures.’ Those selfies of your ‘junk’ –the catchy little phrase
Snowden used in the interview, to much of the delight of John Oliver. It was as
if Bing’s sober twin had appeared on the screen and the script of Fifteen
Million Merits had been adjusted for an American audience. Snowden has had
a shard of glass at his throat since he holed up with Glen Greenwald and Laura
Poitras in 2013 in Hong Kong. CitizenFour, an Oscar winning
documentary, revealed the backstory of Edward Snowden’s role in disclosing the
massive surveillance run by the US government with a number of its allies to
maintain information about its citizens. Culled from Google, Facebook, YouTube,
Twitter, phone calls, text messages, the amount of information collected behind
the smoke and mirrors of lies blown up the ass end of Congress should have
caused a revolution.
When John Oliver did the
man in the street interview in New York City, asking people if they’d heard of
Edward Snowden, most hadn’t. Those who had clearly had been brainwashed by the
official blowback that Snowden was a traitor, a thief, someone who was a
criminal with bad intention. The government had attacked the messenger and that
effectively had killed the window for his message to filter into the minds of
most people. What Snowden had expected from the release of the massive
surveillance was indignation, outrage, calls for investigations, and angry
groups of citizens demanding and lobbying for restrictions on data collection by
the government. That didn’t happen (except within the narrow confines of the
international chattering class). Not in the political mainstream of American
life. Most people didn’t care. Snowden wasn’t on their radar screen. Or if he
appeared, it was as someone who was a bad American who should return home for a
proper trial of his crimes before being sentenced to life imprisonment without
Enter John Oliver as your
show host of the dystopia reality series where the goal is to make Snowden’s
message entertaining. Unless he qualifies as a standup comedian, he has no
message that will be heard. Snowden performed. Like Bing in Fifteen Million
Merits he seemed to understand while on stage that no serious message can
be sent unfiltered to a mass audience parallels the NSA universe where
unfiltered communications from the masses can’t be perfectly monitored or
understood. Oliver frankly told Snowden that his attention wandered, his eyes
glazed over as Snowden made an impassionate argument about the dangers of mass
surveillance. The only salvation was to retool the message as another ‘dick
photo’ story. One wants to say a ‘dick photo’ that has legs. But of course it
Those legs have taken us
into the playpen where like children we can giggle, nudge each other, and feel a
sense of personal vulnerability. That could be my ‘dick photo’ suddenly has the
audience’s attention. They are now listening to Snowden. While Snowden doesn’t
have a glass shard pressing against his throat, he has something better. He now
has a laugh track and an applause meter with the needle registering in the red
zone. Snowden has shed Noam Chomsky and embraced Lenny Bruce. He has shifted to
the reality show, comedy central entertainment paradigm to communicate. Snowden
is part of show business.
The piece de
resistance came at the end when John Oliver pulled out two Oscar statues
and handed one to Snowden. The Oscar was made of chocolate. To Snowden’s credit
he didn’t follow his interviewer’s lead and bite the head off the Oscar. As the
program ended, I thought there is a good possibility that in the future Edward
Snowden will be credited as the person who popularized the word ‘junk’ to refer
to a man’s penis.
John Oliver has Bingfied
Snowden. Snowden, and his ‘junk’ metaphor, has been swallowed by the ‘system’
and elevated him to another amusing TV performer for the masses. Snowden has
been reborn, relabeled, and co-opted by a system he believes has the capacity to
change when given the right information. To be twenty-nine years old and have
such faith is as rare as it is admirable. Now that Snowden knows that unpackaged
information, no matter how alarming to experts, has no real audience. It must be
tied to ‘junk.’ I guess Snowden has learned a valuable lesson. Will the audience
want Snowden, the comedian, back on stage? Perhaps someone will write a song
titled ‘Junk’, or a band named ‘Junk’ will emerge, books and articles with
‘Junk’ in the title will appear. Who knows, a TV series titled ‘Junk’ may be
being discussed in Hollywood offices as we speak. The entertainment industry
will scramble to showcase this fine performer as someone who makes the masses
laugh. Only the joke is on them.
There are streets in Jaipur, an old Rajasthan city in North India, that seemed unchanged over long spans of time. You can spot a tourist by the way they walk along such roads. They are highly focused on not stepping in cow shit or little garbage igloos sculpted by the wind, tires, and sandaled feet. Where an annual literary festival is held over five days at Diggi Palace. It’s hard paying attention to two or three things at once. Whether attending a festival talk or walking down a Jaipur side road, you have a choice. On the road you reduce your probability of stepping on shit or piles of garbage with more bacteria than your entire genome, or getting ploughed from the side, back (most likely angle) or a full frontal collision. The general risk applies to any literary festival event. But as I said, it’s your choice.
The first day I paid full attention to the street. I almost was hit three or four times by rickshaws, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the near sighted Jaipur middle class driver in one of these pencil box sized inexpensive India designed and manufactured cars, the kind you saw on Mr. Bean. By day two, my tolerance had vastly expanded when it came to accidentally stepping on nasty stuff.
You can tell a lot about a place by the condition of the sanitation and its streets; when the channel is set up to meet both important social needs—the need to shit and the need to get to a place even though in the case these Jaipur streets, the place they were rushing to didn’t apparently involve using a toilet.
Like anywhere else city experience depends on the people who inhabit them. Clear New York City of its population and replenish it with ten million Indians imported from Jaipur and the surrounding towns, and ask yourself if the New York City experience would remain the same after the Indians settled in.
Most of the people in the streets of Jaipur in January are cold. Some of them warm themselves over small fires set in the gutter of the road. It’s smoky, dusty and cold like the blade of stiletto shoved into your ribs. Rickshaw drivers line up along the top of the road on one side, and on the other are the tuk-tuk drivers. Poverty has its own class distinctions and on the way down the ladder—your identity is defined by your means of transportation, and those on the bottom rung are on foot.
When a foreigner takes long walks along streets no longer used for walking except by people so poor they are on their last legs, he is doing something peculiar in the eyes of the Indians. That explains the constant solicitation by rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. Actually rickshaw drivers hover at a low number on the scale of vocal harassment. They hardly try and are easily discouraged when ignored. Not tuk-tuk drivers. They have a horn and they use it to announce they are inviting you to jump inside. You look at their clothes, shoes and faces and you see they have nothing but the tuk-tuk. That’s it. A rickety, beat up tuk-tuk is all that stands between them and the plunge into the rickshaw class. That makes tuk-tuk drivers all the more desperate and persistent. It wasn’t just the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers; it was the faces of the people in the market, behind the stall counters, their customers, and the lassi wallahs. You rarely found a smile. It wasn’t they didn’t know how to smile, it just the result of how and where they lived. Their faces said to you, “Look around at this shit, would you be smiling?”
No one can comprehend what a billion people actually means. It’s beyond anything in our experience. A billion is an abstraction. In that sense it means nothing what we think it means. Take the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers—because of the large population there will emerge many more such people who have the means to become such a driver, than there is a need for the service. In other words, they are condemned to float on the thin membrane of survival and hope they will be spared falling through.
If there was ever an example of the balm of gods, deities, sadhus and rituals, stroll along a road lined with rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. There you will find the true believers congregating in clumps, warming their hands over a small fire on the road. My arrival in India for the first time a couple of decades ago was the turning point when my clutching to the Panglossian fantasy ended. Voltaire’s Candide brought me face to face with the unreasonably optimistic attitude of life. That things will get better, they will be different, and this dogma or that will bring a life free of suffering. India teaches you that are an illusion. In terms of loss, that is one of the toughest ones to let go of—all of our democratic, North American values, ethics and morality, our political system, democracy, are premised on things will get better.
Of course it is a lie, a convincing fabrication, one we like to tell ourselves, and resent someone like me telling them that this illusion isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of people who lived in places like Jaipur. Bundi, a small village four hours outside of Jaipur, where I once spent two weeks, showed me that there was always some other place more fucked than the one you found yourself in. Compared to Bundi’s population, the Jaipur Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers were making it in the big city. But I am a writer and not a politician who needs to tell voters what they want to hear about ‘life’ and ‘existence’ to get elected. It’s a pity that Voltaire never made a journey to India. Candide would have been a different book.
You might argue, even in Jaipur the average person is likely to be better off than his or her parents and grandparents. I leave the demographics of Jaipur to the experts. But the impression walking the streets in and around the old Pink City, that if a lot of people lived in worse conditions than the people I saw, I tried to ask how people would survive long enough to reproduce another messy lump of poverty marginally less in the shit that they were. Pink, you might be thinking, why pink for the walls enclosing a city? Colours schemes, like ideology and technology, emerge from the accidental convergence of taste, personality and fashion of time, hand down as visual reminder how easily susceptible we are to historical mockery.
I wasn’t in Jaipur to walk around broken streets with germ-infected spores hanging like nano dirigibles waiting to fly up my nose, colonize my mouth and eyes. No, I came to the city in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur every year. Jaipur has managed over a couple of decades to become a literary Mecca attracting devotees who fly in from around the world to pay homage to the latest literary Jedi. A fusion of Star Wars heroes and Islamic Hajj.
Over the years, I’ve been invited to participate in festivals in America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and was the recipient of the royal treatment as a panelist. You experience what it is like to drink from the silver urn in front of an audience clutching paper cups. Such an invitation is the equivalent of touring Jaipur as the raja’s high table guest. I wasn’t invited to Jaipur. I went as a reader. I went as the audience. When you go to a literary festival as a reader you are like one of the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers on the road. You are a transport for others. In the case of others at a literary festival, you are transporting egos and reputations. I was to learn, that a reader’s role at a literary festival is not unlike a rickshaw driver straining his muscles to get you and your baggage up a steep mountain road. Like the people in the street and shops around the Pink City, I was another face, another pilgrim in the crowd looking to get a glimpse at the palace entourage moving to their place where they looked down from the stage as this vast mass whose lives were as invisible to them as their lives were visible to us.
Glimpses of the modern world were everywhere—the cellphone, TVs, computers in the hotels and offices but in the area around the Pink City I saw that most of the people in the area have no benefit from modernity. The latest inventions from technological driven world had shot past their rickshaws and tuk-tuks leaving them to eat dust, piss against a wall or wait for a passenger. The advantages of the modern world had never quite reached them and they live their lives in a world of hand to mouth poverty, one their ancestors would have recognized.
The invited speakers at the Jaipur Literary Festival received the full VIP treatment—proper transport, hotel, meals, special nametags, microphones, photos on website pages, printed on brochures, put them in the limelight. It gives fans a reason to go and listen to what their favourite writer might have to say. Once you’ve been an honored guest, a guru with something worth saying, you naturally evolve an archduke’s sense of entitlement. It took me a day to adjust to my new status as a ‘participant’. Like all former elites who have been overthrown in a revolution, what I thought was the festival life among the attendees wasn’t at all what it was really like. No wonder the elites fought from ancient to modern times, often to the bitter end, as to maintain that place at the high table had an existential element. They sense it was a long drop to the feeding troughs below. And they were right in their fear. In all theocracies Pilgrims are expendable and the priesthood rarely expandable. For centuries that was the model of our politics. Now it is the model for literary festivals.
January 2015 the Jaipur Literary Festival featured a number of famous and near-famous authors invited to speak on panels: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nicholson Baker, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and Zia Haider Rahman. As was to be expected, the British authors captivated the audience with their combination of wit, style, charm and turn of phase, that melted the pilgrims into a single loyal, pliable unit of accolades—they could have marched us as a mob up the hill to demand that the organizer upgrade their room or fly them home on a first class ticket, and we would have done their bidding gladly. We might have been readers; but there were huge numbers of us at these panel events. I once spoke to an audience of several hundred people at a literary festival in Spain and another in Germany, but the Jaipur Literary Festival audiences were immense, Gandhi sized masses dressed for sitting attentively in the open and in dreary cold of January. At one event, their number expanded like fruit flies to the thousands.
That takes me back to that number we can’t comprehend—a billion. Six thousand people turned out to see VS Naipaul. It seemed, at the time, something like a billion people. The point is, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is free, and once you’ve done a few forts and palaces, there’s not much other to do than to walk down shit covered side streets, going to gawk at and be entertained by authors, many of whom had been persuaded to leave their comfortable homes for Jaipur. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the literary hajii over a five-day period. I was one of them, wearing a tag with no name but with highly ambiguous word: Participant.
I’ve asked myself, why do the British authors all sound like a version of David Cameron or Sean Connery? Having been educated and taught in England, I had a rough idea—British authors were those who had trained for politics or the stage, but couldn’t get elected an acting job. So they turned to writing. They are naturally theatrical and easily switched into a series of funny regional accents. For foreigners, the British speaker can say just about any insane, stupid or silly thing and come across as having spoken the truth. The British authors are like the old Roman roads and fortresses, with their precision, planning, elegance and design. You can be bedazzled by such roads if you ignore the main function of the road isn’t the road but the place it takes you or in the case of the fortress, rather than going into awe over the battlements and ramparts, you ought to be concentrating on the question of defending against whom and what? We tend to look at authors, roads, and fortresses stripped of their essential function. Here’s a good definition of insanity—to marvel with exalted reverence at something that your mind has isolated and totally ignored its context.
Literary festivals are breeding grounds for this kind of collective insanity.
The presence of the British authors reinforced what most of us know that the celebrity culture, like the Borg, has absorbed writers and politicians, and turned them into performers beguile their audience with wit. Sometimes they also read to their audience. That can be a mistake. In the case of one of the British authors, it was sad he’d not been told never to read to an audience as what he had written never matched his improvised riffs. There is an overlap of literary lid on the political jar. Jeffrey Archer springs to mind as does Salman Rushdie, whose appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was dropped after a political protest started to get out of hand. Rushdie that is, not Archer who as far as I know has never worked the Indians up into a frenzy of shouting for his head.
The point is all writers invited to participate in a major festival have been invited based on a political decision. He or she will be popular and draw an audience, and make money and prestige for the festival and its organizers. Festivals are, after all, creatures born from the womb of capitalism. Celebrity culture, like investment banking, is a money-spinner and a number of people at the top benefit. They design a business model that takes the best of Stalin’s regime and a Mafia organization based on omerta. So like most tyrannies the audience is left to wonder what really happened behind the Kremlin-like gray walls that approved one invitation and not another. The fact is, literary festivals, like elections for politicians, no one is thinking beyond this author or politicians makes me happy, reinforces my good feelings about myself, my life, my identity, and that’s just fucking good enough. Thank you very much for asking.
The one thing I learned as an invited author to a literary festival panel was never to follow a British author, unless he’s limited to reading from his book. Otherwise, I’d be finished before the curtain came up and what the audience would see before them was a Canadian who moved in the literary swimming pool and who was nothing like the British author who had swam all those backstrokes and after doing a series of back flips off the high board. As authors from North America, we can’t help but sounding like someone talking in burst about the weather on a shopping mall escalator, or worse that distant thwack of a machete whacking a path through a virgin forest.
The real turn around that celebrity corner was the election of Ronald Regan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the last non-professional actor elected to the American presidency. Tony Blair played a similar role in taking Britain deep into the makeup room and celebrity trailer culture of Hollywood. TV nighttime talk shows and the Daily Show in North America cemented the celebrity deal for politicians. They’ve come a long ways since riding horse in B-cowboy movies that would big in the 1950s. Not surprising, Rushdie inadvertently created a hole in the universe that showed that a literary author could be turned into a large, mass seller through politics and death threats. We have come to expect the author to be foremost a performer; it is the performance that sells a lot of books. This had the benefit of unlocking readers from the guilt of having to read the book. The performance, like the movie, was an acceptable substitute for reading. No one who bought a book was expected to read it. Or read all of it. That was to miss the point. It was having the book as a souvenirs of an experience of seeing and hearing a celebrity. Better a book that is signed by the performer.
Living in Thailand, the Jaipur Literary Festival also gave me a perspective on the political situation in that country. I had stumbled upon one of the reasons the current leader in Thailand seems out of synch with the behavior of contemporary politicians; as a military big shot, he never had to earn his stripes as an entertainer for the masses.
I suspect for thousands of years people had expectation of their rulers was to be shouted at, an object of invisibility or outrage, someone to be threatened, and a subject to pay tribute without asking why. Our ancestors lived in a world where it was common for a leader to wave his fist at them, screamed at them to listen and shut up. We have only started to adjust to a world where politicians are scripted, dressed, made-up, and rehearsed before they step behind a podium. That is why they are hardly say anything in a speech that might make anyone, anywhere upset or god forbid, angry. You don’t sell a product by stimulating people to think. That’s the road to failure. Instead you make them laugh, feel good about themselves, and feel they like you. There are writers like that too. They want to make every reader happy with the promise you won’t be bouncing from side to side to avoid the shit or garbage piled up on you road of life, and ignore the puke on your boots.
There was a large upside to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The chance to reflect on the political situation at home.
It is difficult for a dictator to stand outside of his conventional military culture and worldview hammered into his skull or to question it. Tyrants punish questioning or criticism as a form of rebellion. If your worldview was shaped by command and control, giving orders, it is highly likely that the world of giving an explanation for your actions or policies and listening to the opinion of others is alien. In Jaipur it was a relief to be a place where people could make fun of authorities, laugh at them, or criticize their ideas and cast doubts on their writing of history, their competence and honesty. No one was arrested and hauled off for an attitude adjustment. It takes a while to relax when you’ve been living in a dictatorship. Show business is cruel in ways the generals don’t easily tolerate. Audience ratings, like election ballots, are popularity contests among those who tell the best stories. Generals tell terrible stories, and that is partly the reason they so quickly lose control and have to become more brutal, paranoid, and ruthless.
There is a vast degree of misunderstanding between the world of command and control and the world of public performers who manipulate an audience to accept poverty, global warming, shit in the road is always their fault. In the modern celebrity world, shouting orders at audience violates an unwritten code that is the Magna Carta of the vast entertainment industry—audiences expect to be seduced, in fact they have been domesticated by seduction most of their lives; it has become the natural order of things. We crave seduction. Not even Western schools bother any longer to order and drill students into submission to authority. Think of this transition as the difference between love-making and rape. Walking the back streets of Jaipur, seduced or ordered, most of the locals were doomed just like their ancestors stretching in an unbroken line for hundreds of years had been doomed. They had no way out of the Pink City, no exit from their lives, and spent their days running after foreigners to sell a hand puppet as if this cruel irony was living.
The festival lasted five days. After it ended, we moved hotels to a place a hundred and fifty meters from the arches gateway to the Pink City.
Walking along the side roads that were used by rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows and dogs I thought about what I’d heard and experienced at the festival. Thoughts in India are never long before being interrupted with a horn blast or someone begging for money or trying to sell a hand-made puppet or hand-painted silk squares with colorful elephants.
I turned into lane stretching half a kilometer between rows of shops and ending at the entrance to the Pink City. Shoes, gems, baked goods, shampoo and mouthwash shops, hole in the wall places, with eagle eyed staff jumping into my path pinning me between the tuk-tuks and rickshaws racing down the street and their bodies. It felt like a hostage taking situation. They guard their patch on the pavement like an NFL guard. The Indians rarely smile. The more aggressive ones show their teeth as they seek to make a sale. Their skin and bone dogs wonder about the world outside where the rumors must have filtered back to Jaipur about a place where dogs are man’s best friends.
Jaipur gave me the space to think about the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘festival’ used to describe the gathering I’d attended. When I travel to a new place, I walk around and find a place to read. On this trip I packed Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories and Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. As I read Bukowski, a couple of observations floated to the surface. He would have immediately known that Bukowski was exactly the kind of writer who’d never be invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival. He was too raw, exposed, and truthful about his relationship to people, authority, and conventional morality. He didn’t play the game that was demanded. He’d have shown up drunk and slurring his words and would paw at the moderator’s beasts. He short-circuited the seduction ritual with huge quantities of beer, wine, and whisky.
As down and out as Bukowski was, crashing into the lives of others and like a parasite burrowing into their nest, fridges, and booze supply until all was sucked dry and then moving along, he would have been no where near the bottom of the heap of people who lived on the back streets of Jaipur. That may have been a good reason not to invite him. His kind of life, attitude, style, and whippet like speed to a liquor cabinet worked extremely well to expose the cant of American middle-class and dog-walking culture but outside of that realm, stripped of its context, it had little meaning. For Charles Bukowski or someone like Henry Miller they never worried about stepping in shit as they bounced from whorehouse to bar like a slinky with too much kinetic energy.
In Train to Pakistan a district official comes to a village called Mano Majara where Hindu Sikh and Muslim had lived in peace. But partition would change everything in their world. The village is dirt poor. It’s a hardscrabble place about to be sucked into the vortex of mass dislocation and wholesale murder. The official is shown great deference and respect, given all of the amenities including a young girl barely one foot into womanhood who comes from the village. Her role is to provide sexual services to this physically repellant and morally corrupted official. She has no choice in the matter. She was no different from the puppets sold on the streets. Someone else pulled the strings and she accepted the hand that fate had dealt her. Ultimately is an illicit affair between a Sikh boy and Muslim girl.
As I looked up from the Khushwant’s India of 1947 and out at the people in the street, I wondered how much the lives of most of these people had changed in relation to power. From the look of things they had been treading water from centuries and the waterline still rested chin high. A few more degrees dip in the temperature would dispatch the next group of the most vulnerable.
All that wit and humor on the stage at the festival was light years away from the reality of their hard lives. Reading Bukowski and Singh in Jaipur made me aware how I can lick my finger and the change the page of the book on a whim. If the passage I am reading is slow, annoying or ponderous and my forefinger is my army. Bury that scene by turning the page. But when I looked up from the book, sitting along a street in Jaipur, there was no page to flip. I was in place with a long history of invasions, wars, murders, and alliances. Billions of pages might detail the history. It was no use trying to flip them. There were too many. History gave me the finger. Fuck you, was the message from the past, we turn the page on you. Your life is nothing but a short story. But our pages as history turn so slowly there is no way to read them all let alone assign moral responsibility for what happened.
History was a major topic at the festival. From the crusades, the blunders of the CIA, the role of Indians in WWI, the Cultural Revolution in China, the mythology of Mahabharata. History is a record of vanity and suffering buried among the lies and inflated self-flattery and congratulations of the victors. The tragedy of human existence was before my eyes. I didn’t have to read a book to find that out there is madness in the world and when it boils over in revolutions, genocides, wars, and pogroms, those at the bottom suffer the most. We repress most of this knowledge about the world because it is too painful to process. We are encouraged to blind ourselves such knowledge because we wish to continue living in the world where our ignorance is the mainstay of keeping us sane. That’s another reasons the celebrity author is so popular. We’ve become part of the ignorance machinery. An author’s popularity with the masses correlates with his or her ability to create an illusion of knowing. It works because we are conditioned over a lifetime to mistake distractions for knowledge. We know no other way to be. Until we sit on a side street in a shitty part of Jaipur watching a rickshaw pedal by a skeleton with a minimum of flesh attached, someone whose gods gave him a chance to wipe the bitterness from his mouth and keep on moving.
The stakeholders in reality run their games in backrooms. The rest of us are one of the chips in large stacks moved on a table with a bet attached. We ride a cultural gulf stream, one which prefers the illusion of democracy. Our celebrity trained politicians, authors, movie stars, TV celebrities, sports heroes combined with our gods distract us from the reality of our life. The Indian boy selling the puppets in front of Mr. Donut in Jaipur is the message no one wants to think about. It’s not witty or funny or amusing. It’s terrifying.
India is the place to go for enlightenment. That’s a small ‘e’ enlightenment experience where the scales drop from your eyes and you see first hand in places like Jaipur, Bundi, and Varanasi the long process of primate domination has always been much the same. We only see the effect: its vanity and suffering. But we ignore the cause. Literary festivals, like the one in Jaipur, are another form of primate domination activity. We repress from our consciousness that the people we have read and listen to on panels are not really telling us what we need to know, and they aren’t really what we think they are. They have their own alpha monkeys with sharp teeth on their back. They are one nightmare away from waking up. Perhaps that’s why we go to see celebrities. It might just be the performance where they truly wake up, throw away the mask, and tell some suppressed truth about existence. Make us see what we’ve been blinded to see. If only they had the guts. If only I had the guts. But “guts” is just a plain word for emotions and emotions are the well from which we draw our illusions.
I am glad I wasn’t a speaker, that I didn’t appear on stage, that I didn’t feel the pressure to meet the emotional needs of an audience whose illusions needed nurturing—the usual ones: that we are special, that our lives have meaning, that people who write books and say witty things really know something about existence. I could have saved the five days of panels by going to the weapons room at 18th century City Palace inside the Pink City, the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The palace complex houses, among other treasures, an astounding collection of swords, daggers, shields, flintlocks, muskets, battle axes, some in thoughtful daisy wheel patterns to make them look like objects of art rather than objects of murder.
In another place in the same massive compound I discovered two huge sterling silver vessels 1.6 meters in height. Each had the capacity to hold 4000 litres of water. The silver urns were commissioned by a Maharaja who decided it would be a good idea to cart his own water supply from the Ganges River for his personal use on a1901 trip to England. The water urns were made from 14000 melted silver coins. Just maybe the vast array of war and ritual weapons in the room had some causal connection to the 14000 silver coins. Security guards flanked the urns. Sentinels from the past, guarding a treasure a testament to one man’s thirst and how he collected silver to quench it. How those coins were acquired is likely noted in a history book or a document on someone’s shelf, but the words on the pages are too heavy to turn.
The weapons and the urns are a clue to the mystery of why things are the way they are in Jaipur and most other places and have been for a very long time. Only the weapons and urns have changed with technology and fashion. The basic idea, though, doesn’t belong to Jaipur. The weapons and urns are reminders not just about the past; they mark a moment when you can say, now I understand something useful about the relationship of people, power, faith, and existence. The relationship between face, water, and power. Some glimmer of knowledge that makes sense of the boy on the street selling puppets, the old rickshaw drivers, the burly chested tuk-tuk driver, people on the street and in the bazaars—all of them united by the belief that all you need to survive are good brakes, a horn and luck.
The Jaipur Literary Festival organizers should commission miniature two silver urns filled with a couple of soup spoons of water from the Ganges River and present them as a gift to the most famous speaker. The ceremony would be the crowning of the new Maharaja in the literary world. The glory, the pomp, the ritual would inflate the crowds beyond seating capacity. It is the performance they want to witness. India is a place where history lives, wake up that sleeping giant, commercialize the silver urns and other artifacts, allow celebrity authors to bring adapt the traditions behind the objects, fitting them comfortably into our modern, global culture.
If I would be invited to a literary festival I’d take a couple of things other than a silver urn. I’d bring along a pair of brakes, a steering wheel with horn, and an amulet. That’s the fate of pilgrims. One more thing—don’t worry yourself should you step into a steaming pile of cow shit. Just keep moving ahead. I’d tell the audience this is all you need in your knapsack as you keep a pace ahead of the powerful who are searching for silver to their own urn. And they would wonder whether to laugh, wondering if I had told them a punch line to a joke, and if so when would I explain it to them through an amusing story. Then I’d tell them about the weapon room daisy pattern of flintlocks and the silver urns as tall as the average man. Then I shut up and stay silent for the rest of the performance. And I would never be invited back again.