What if everything you thought was right is wrong? This is the murky world of gas-lighting, paranoia, doubt, divisiveness, and anger. The patterns we instinctively follow to the watering holes of ‘right’, ‘truthful’, and ‘moral’. We learn these norms and values. They are cultural constructs. We aren’t born with them. We weave them from tales told by our parents, friends, teachers, books, newspapers, and social media. They vary from place to place and from time to time in various places. They are dynamic leaving us in a state of perpetual change. The patterns appear to be our own when in reality all of them are borrowed from others with only the rare attribution as to the original source. What if that watering hole was just a collective illusion? And what if a new pattern of thought and ideas remapped those places we migrated to and substituted a novel image of reality.
The United States and other countries, fueled by new technology, are at the beginning stages of depatterning. The way we understand the truth of the world, our actions, our motives and intentions, and those of other is in turmoil. We have lost our mental footing. In the midst of the fall, before we hit the ground, it might be worth considering we are subject to an accelerated process of shedding our previous models of reality without an equally rapid replacement to clutch as handrails.
Depatterning is a form of brainwashing so as to remove the normal patterns of thinking and behavior. Our patterns construct our subjective experience from the exterior world we move around in. That is a narrow definition and involves an intentionality on the part of those seeking to shift patterns of thought and action. Think how long it took to disrupt the normal patterns of thinking about cigarette smoking? The pattern that informed our thoughts about smoking was stoked by association with romance, drama, and glamourous movie stars and sports stars who smoked. Smoking became a symbol of personal freedom. Years and years passed as scientists and doctors (the ones not on the tobacco payroll) tried to inform the public about the unromantic health dangers of smoking. We ultimately changed our pattern of thinking about smoking. Our original pattern of thought was based on wrong assumptions. Our collective thoughts about cigarettes were manufactured: first as a symbol of glamour and second as an instrument of death. Similar old ideas about race, gender and ethnicity have shifted, but part of the population still resists disturbing the traditional patterns of thinking about such matters.
Chuck Klosterman in But What if We’re Wrong? (2018) noted that for two thousand years people accepted Aristotle’s belief a rock fell to the ground because it belonged to the earth and wanted it to return. Klosterman’s book is an extended argument of how most of what we know is likely in the same category as Aristotle’s theory of gravity. It’s just plain wrong. But we don’t go around thinking that we are wrong about most things. Most of the time we feel we are right and other people are wrong. When in fact everyone is wrong and no one can admit that fact to themselves or others.
Aristotle’s error was passed on to multiple generations. It became accepted as true. We can smirk at this long period of ignorance and feel slightly superior with our updated knowledge of gravity. We can agree that while everyone else in the past got it wrong, we are different because we finally, at last got it right with the true and absolute answer. Patterns are like comfortable shoes. We don’t easily discard them. There are a couple of ways the pattern breaking occurs—advancement of scientific understanding, creation of new technology and psychedelic drugs. The latter have been declared illegal, off-limits, and dangerous and it has stopped a growing movement unearthed by writers like Michael Pollan’s aptly titled How to Change Your Mind (2018). Pollan charts the history, the laws, the science and the medical application. He records the studies that point to opening a new path to reintroduce psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mushrooms. Pattern busting avenue is to ingest a chemical. It may produce bliss. It may produce anxiety or horrors.
All three—science, technology and drugs—are converging in our lifetime. We are curious. We are scared. We are unsettled as to where one or a combination of these avenues will eventually lead us. What can be said with some conviction is that each of us is undergoing the process of depatterning.
Our latest technological innovations are forcing us to rethink what can be trusted. We have all become more cynical and skeptical of images, text, statements, accounts and videos. Before these changes we’ve traditionally used the daily dose of information as basically ‘true’ and ‘reliable’. We didn’t ask whether something was fake. Though that sometimes happened. It was uncommon and difficult in an analogue world. In the digital world it is cheap, fast, effective and allows many more players to play the game of disrupting and replacing our reality. If the old trust assumption is dead, how can we be sure of what we see as ‘real’ in order to judge a motive, intention or action. A Washington Post report titled “Fake News is about to get more dangerous” on technological advances that permit the making of “deep fake”— nearly impossible to detect fake—videos warns of the steep slide down another technological rabbit hole.
“If technology continues its current advance, we may soon face totally convincing videos showing events that never happened — created so effectively that even experts will have trouble proving they’re fakes.
“Deep fake” video will be able to show people saying, with the authentic ring of their own voices, things they never said. It will show them doing things they never did, by melding their images with other video or creating new images of them from scratch.”
Open your browser history on your computer and scroll down for the places you visited last week. Check your Facebook and Twitter timelines and your own history of ‘likes.’ Go through your library, look at the books you’ve read (or not read) on the shelf. The exercise will give you a snapshot of your own biases, filters, and content you’ve personally curated as an expression of how your truths, facts, and morals. Commercial Big Data (not to be confused with Scientific Big Data) has tapped into this emotional and intellectual root system. By doing so the big data owners effectively own you in ways that are not apparent but are nonetheless real. As much as in principle we celebrate cognitive diversity, in reality we like any system that spares us cognitive dissonance. We trust what confirms rather than challenges the reality we’ve constructed. It is difficult to persuade someone to abandon the template for pattern making that they have developed over a life time. It is difficult as well to accept someone whose pattern making is alien to our own. We hunker down in like-minded communities and co-ordinate attacks on those who disagree with us.
Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court will likely be confirmed. He will take a seat on the highest court where he can participate in the cycle of depatterning of American legal constructs and replace them with older patterns from the past. The solace is this is a short-term gain. In the near and long term, Big Data patterns will replace our low information, emotion-based social constructs. Our big ape brains will be retrained in the meaning of real, true, or factual. It will be much more difficult to stonewall as the tobacco companies did successfully for years. But there is a wildcard: the creation, distribution, access, and interpretation of Big Data may be concentrated in the hands of a small elite who will be tempted to use the new patterns for more influence, more power and more wealth accumulation.
Pattern recognition will remain the key to opening the door to our perceptions about ourselves and life. How those patterns are formed is about to change, and that change will have enormous implications for the way we think and solve problems and how we confront our existential fears. We will have little choice to learn that changing our minds will lag behind the data. Our collective and individual intelligence is capped by cognitive limitations. AI won’t have such limitations, and will have large cognitive resources to mine, refine, and reflect on the patterns that represent reality. How we perceive reality points to solutions to old and new problems. We have the possibility that whatever these new patterns show, it will open up the world in the same way that the microscope and telescope opened our world. We will see and feel more, and see further than ever before.
Fires, floods, volcanoes, dying sea coral, boats, dogs, rivers, deaths, births, anniversaries, weddings, car crashes—help us as we can’t absorb all of this information—this is a daily timeline on Facebook or Twitter. Many of us have that feeling of being submerged over our heads in information. We are losing touch to distinguish stories that signal catastrophic consequences from what are the normal drift of life.
We are vulnerable to images of dogs, cats, children, or seductive smiles—the online visuals grab us and pull us in. We click on the story. It’s like picking up a book in a bookstore (remember those?) where opening the book and reading a page or two was the halfway to deciding whether to buy it. Your worldview is made from, shaped and reinforced by these stories. The medium in which the story appears is as important as the actual story. As Marshal McLuhan famously said in 1964, “The medium is the message.” The oral story teller required a physically present audience. His or her voice was the medium. Guttenberg changed all of that with the printing press in 1439 which spread throughout Europe over the next sixty years. The medium became the pamphlet, newspaper or book. The audience didn’t have to gather to listen to the author tell his or her story. But that time has changed. The volume of stories makes selecting which ones to read crucial. We have to choose what to ignore and what to pay attention to. Books were revolutionary. You could read one at your own time and place of convenience. if Gutenberg had gone the Mark Zuckerberg routine of Facebook and created a story-telling platform cartel. Today would be a very different place as people’s reality would be stamped with Gutenberg’s values at every level of society, politics and religion.
In the digital revolution, the new medium has centralized the machinery of story-telling into the hands of a very few. Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bezo are a few of the digital heirs to Gutenberg who have discovered great wealth and influence by developing and owing the digital story-telling platforms. Facebook has monetarized hate as in the case of Burma. To close down an audience is to lose money if you are building an online community. For years, Facebook has looked the other way, or underfunded and understaffed a way to actually look at how Burmese bigots and radicals, in and out of country, used Facebook to build an audience with tell stories that demeaned and dehumanized the Rohingya and justified their expulsion and genocide. The recent suspension of Alex Jones and his InfoWars with his conspiracy theories, drawing an audience in the millions, was said to glorify violence, promotes hate speech, and dehumanize Muslims, transgender and immigrants. YouTube, Twitter, Apple and Spotify followed Facebook’s lead and sent Alex Jones packing.
These events suggest it is time to re-examine the information content in stories, the medium of story-telling, the role of story-tellers and the chaotic transition of story-telling traditions as story tellers and audience adjust to story gorging on various digital platform.
We have two general models of story-telling. One is ancient. One is new. It is only a matter before they collide. Some might say we are witnessing the shock waves of that collision with a populist shock wave spread across the globe. I’m a professional story-teller which means I have a dog in this race. The reality is that we are all story-tellers with an audience, as we are part of an audience for other story-tellers. We make sense of our lives by telling stories. There is a new model of story-telling which I call the statistical predictive story, and this type of story is threatening to marginalize our traditional, anecdotal story-telling tradition.
The first model is familiar to everyone. It is the default story-telling structure. It is rooted in the local, personal and based on low information or the original model the anecdotal story. The mission is to convey a personal story, which may be reports of old or new events that unfold over time. From five minutes ago to the distant past, stories are about others whose actions or behavior changed lives, they are sometimes celebrations of courage, and sometimes warnings about disloyalty or cowardice. Stories also confirm our biases, beliefs, and prejudices. You find these stories exchanged around a campfire, water cooler, over the dinner table, overheard in the elevator, stitched into books, film, TV, religion, politics, and family life. The audience is small in most cases. The story-teller is part of the community. We take for grant being an audience one moment and a story teller the next, and easily pass between the two states without much reflection. The story-telling process we are accustomed to is so pervasive that like the air we breathe we don’t see it, think about it, or go looking for it. The anecdote nurtures the psyche. They keep our emotional and intellectual engine fine-tuned and running, that allows us to locate our ‘self’ and explains the behavior and beliefs, desires, and needs of others we interact with.
The anecdotal story draws on personal experience, or the second-hand experience shared by others either as gossip, opinion, memories, beliefs, and feelings. In this form of story-telling, blends together from these elements. It is in the skill of a person touched by imagination that we think of as creativity. The magic of making a seamless composite of reality as the story unspools in front of the listener or reader. If you are labeled creative, it means you’ve succeeded in lifting the veil of doubt and convinced someone else that your story has merit, truth, or practical use when you find yourself in the wrong space at the wrong time. In reality, creative or not, we are all story-tellers and an audience for story-tellers.
Anecdotes merging real and imagined incidents, sights, slights, and motives are the kind of stories everyone tells. Some of these harden into myths, and myths transform into religion, and religion into identity. The anecdotal story-teller is what has created the structure of our culture, politics, and social life. Not to mention our relationship to economics. These are social constructs and they are built largely from anecdotes.
We’ve always known there were limitations on the accuracy and validity of the anecdote. What has been a sea change in story telling happened after WWII with the advances in computer science, physics, software development, and big data. The anecdote was highly personal and told eyeball to eyeball with the audience. The audiences were relatives, neighbors or family, expanding out to include the clan or tribe. Outsiders had their own audience and stories to tell. We resented an outsider telling a story about us—however we define ‘us’ didn’t matter, what mattered was leave our stories to our story-tellers. Our anecdotal stories were by their nature local, personal, and provided the social fabric out of which a community bond was forged.
While the personal anecdote created a communal social reality, solving the hard problem of how to achieve co-operation among a group of people with different needs, desires and goals. We used the personal anecdotes to explain how we are special in dealing with adversity and crisis, and we built ourselves and others from such stories. In other words, the story was a teaching tool to examine what was a good life in our group. In the last two-hundred years we began telling a second model of story-telling based on scientific inquiry and methods. In the last few decades, we used this model to discover unexpected patterns that emerge from large data sets. These aren’t our usual patterns processed from the raw material of lived experiences.
Banking, medicine, drugs, education, transportation and stock markets have invested heavily in this model of story-telling. What story-telling model would you wish your doctor to use if you should be confronted with a serious health issue? You’ve taken a battery of tests. The results are in. Your choice: The anecdotal story model or the statistical predictive story model? The first model is your doctor reads through your test results, your health background, ask you a number of questions about medication, etc. He scripts a personal story based on your specific results filtered through his own biases, and his prior experience of similar cases.
Or you could choose the second model asking your doctor to use the most advanced analytical tools at his disposal to upload your medical record and test results into a big data bank containing millions of people who have symptoms just like yours, similar age, gender, and genome. The networked system writes the story for your doctor. These are scary stories not intended to reassure a patient. Instead there would be a list of medical procedures or additional test with a chart of showing the probability of outcomes. Since the scriptwriter has high information, the best doctor, on his own, will be a degraded low-information medical provider. That’s part of the human cost of the second kind of story-telling. The statistical predictive story is not about you. It is about millions of people are like you, share your fear, needs, or medical condition. We haven’t quite made the transition between the story that is about us and one where you are largely irrelevant as an independent self. There is an uncanny valley, slightly creepy that comes from the sense of disappearing in a sea of numbers. At that moment, you as sit across from your doctor, you might be forgiven for asking who is making the decision? A human doctor or a machine programmed to analysis medical conditions. They represent two different focus points.
The anecdotal story traditionally has rested on the personal angle—what’s in the story-tellers frame of reference. We tell many personal, anecdotal stories every day. The story becomes impersonal once the analysis shift from an individual or small number of individuals, and expands to a large number of people. We continue to harvest the details of individuals. A system can predict an individual’s likely actions and choices. In the world of the statistical predictive story the value in a consumer society is in how the buyer’s attention is captured, held and manipulated. Retailers want to hear that story and pay large amounts to Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon for access to this big data.
If you want to influence the outcome of an election, the Russian hackers need to find story points that score for a particular demographic of voter. You have to tell them a story that reinforces what they believe to be true. The Russian discovered big data allows you to define an audience in large numbers and to fashion stories as if you are around a campfire. One level of skill is to use computers and cloud data bases to gain insight into the preferences, fears, and anxieties of the audience.
In the world of high technology and science, an impersonal story is used like a scalpel to cut away the individual as the central actor of the story. In these stories, the personal is often a code word for the irrational. This hasn’t stopped articles, studies, books and movies about the personal stories of scientists like Einstein, Nash, Darwin, Hawking and Turing. We live in a world where most people know more that the personal life of a scientists than understand the equations and scholarly work that form the basis of their fame. This is the cadre of statistical, analytical and mathematical story-tellers whose stories drive this information acquiring system.
The kind of stories and the scale of persons allowed to be story-tellers expands and contracts over long periods of time. The reality is the zone available for the anecdotal story telling has been narrow and serving political and economic interest of an elite. Globalization and the Internet have combined to create a much wider and broader zone. Trump’s election showed millions of people wanted the old fashion anecdotal, personal, ad hoc stories that reinforced tradition suspicions and prejudice based on ethnicity, race, or religion. Like the wall Trump promised to build along the USA border with Mexico. That was a powerful story in itself—it promised to stop the flow of outsiders from crossing the border and bringing their own stories as psyche hand carry luggage.
People and their personal stories are mobile and with the Internet, outsiders have the means to evade the story censors. The old borders were built from anecdotal stories. The personal nature of such stories, in part, explains the high volume of hate and anger, with digital censorship to block the ridicule or questioning of leaders, examining their beliefs or criticizing their ideology. The flow of large seas of information continues and no one can risk cutting off that flow looking for offensive material while others are harvesting that information for economic, strategic or military gains. If that is the case, we should have evidence that the founding myths of most nations would be under siege. In reality, there has been a resurgence in the anecdotal story-telling tradition that lies at the heart of most modern populist movements.
If anecdotal story telling is not in a freefall while most of the most important sectors of life have transferred to the statistical predictive story telling the role to a small number of global cognitive workers and artificially intelligent machines and big data, are the two kinds of stories compatible? All the indications are they are not just incompatible, they are positively hostile to each other. The audiences are told all will be right once they can proudly tell their own personal stories, stick with common sense and anecdotes and forget the rest. Pride and ego intervene and probably always have. A fundamental problem with the old anecdotal story-telling tradition was often such stories reinforced the locals viewed that increasingly outsiders saw them as supporters of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. From the inside, they were blind to that message. There lies the rub. We have great difficulty retaining this story-telling tradition as a construction of individual and collective identity without being condemned as a bigot, racists, or sexist. The kind of stories we tell and listen to locate the threshold that triggers cognitive dissonance. And a fight breaks out. Few people reflect on what it means to accept that your beliefs, values, and desires constructed from innumerable anecdotal stories from early childhood.
We have a generation who are getting their stories from the global library, and the international group of story-tellers are transmitting stories that may conflict or contradict what they learned at home or school. As story-tellers compete for the attention of an expanded global audience, the stories essential to sustain local cultures are threatened. Stories that inspire are no longer exclusively based on local elites, celebrities or events. In the case of Xi Jinping, the Chinese censors have banned Winne the Pooh as the image of the beloved children’s character has been used to ridicule him. Stories can wound. Our attention to stories remains a central part of our self-perception and how we perceive others. That means stories have social, political and economic consequences that can create shock waves far beyond what the story-teller intended.
The statistical story has disrupted and threatens to displace the anecdote. Though we have witnessed that millions if not billions of people are unwilling to shift from the anecdote to the statistical even if it is convincingly argued their view of themselves and the world will be more accurate, reliable, and objective. The point is we have a great deal of difficulty to shedding our addiction to the subjective story. It may be inaccurate, unreliable and personal, but it seems more real, we are more moved, connected, or influenced because the anecdote is the way our emotional system communicates with us and the community.
The statistical story is generated by processing large amounts of data, interpreting the data, creating a theory (a story) to explain how the interpretation of the data is actionable. Information is controlled, updated, expanded, shared, stored, sold and traded to sell policies, personalities, beliefs, products and services. It is impersonal, difficult to understand, and in constant flux. The statistical story keeps changing and shifting. Science approach to story-telling has awakened people to the dangers of the anecdote. Many have reacted by supporting reactionary leaders who promise a way back to when anecdotal stories had respect and those who told such stories were pillars of the community.
The statistical story-telling method has weakened the old institutional story-telling institutions from churches, to political institutions, to schools and universities, and the core of life: the family unit. We are entering a world where human being will be replaced as the primary story-telling species. One reason is the statistical story hold the promise of making our decision-making and problem solving far more efficient. We will make fewer mistakes relying on such stories. Like the horse which had been central to our agriculture and transportation system, it will take fifty years before the old story-tellers are put out to pasture. The anecdote will be dismissed as primitive and crude means of conveying information and forming group solitary but did little to decrease ignorance of reality. We are at an inflection point and people are willing to defend their stories with their lives. We’ve never had a period where the global population has been under intense pressure to shift their identity and reality from myths, legends, and fables and embrace a radically different kind of story-telling with a new rank of story-tellers. An indication of the seriousness is the reality Islam has declared jihad on the modern story-tellers.
Future generations will produce a different mind map of children, who are raised on statistically generated stories that predict the future in terms of probabilistic outcomes. If that comes about, it is likely such children will be dismissive of the relevance of anecdotal story-tellers from the past. Religion as we know it won’t survive the statistical predictive story culture. No one today reads Aristotle today to study his insights into the laws of physics. He was wrong about everything we now know about physics. We read him for his teachings about what makes us human. The anecdotal story conveys that message well. A meta-physics question is what space will remain for the traditional, low-information, flawed story that feed an emotional need? Can the two forms of story-telling co-exist? The answer will determine how we think and feel about ourselves and society.
The last of my mentors died. Police General Vasit Dejkunkorn was 88 years old. He wrote novels and newspaper columns. He was at his desk daily right up to the end. As I sat in Sala in Wat Makutkasatriyarn in Bangkok one Thursday mid-afternoon. Wats run the death business with considerable efficiency, respect for ritual and ceremony. The funeral caught the heat of a baking Bangkok afternoon shortly after a monsoon storm ended. Hundreds assembled dressed either in black or dress uniform to join in the traditional circumambulating the temple. Before the walk started, ten monks, led by a police escort, arrived through a side door. They took their place on a platform and a few minutes later began to chant. The audience sat stoically hands in a wai. I’m no expert in chanting, though of late my abilities have increased from having attended multiple funeral, but this particular chanting had a transcendent beauty, a deeply resonating blend of harmony and melody, and genuine feeling.
I felt my friend’s presence. Not a ghost nor other-worldly apparition. It was his voice, the one I heard over lunch many times over the years. Warm, friendly, matter-of-fact, confident and clear. Every writer’s funeral has a story. Looking around, it looks like there is no one else. He laughed. That is his final story. The Sala is the place where you find one story has ended and another story begins. Pick up the thread and start that story. It’s the one right in front of you. The one you see but don’t see.
That had always been his way of distinguishing a real writer and someone doing an assignment for money, fame, or attention.
What was it in the Sala that I didn’t see: the flowers, the elaborate coffin and royal wreaths on tripods. Other than the wreaths, most of the objects in the Sala looked familiar. That was my friend’s point, the journey of life hugs the shores of the familiar and the longer you’re in the boat, the more the shoreline all looks the same. A writer after a certain age has to make an effort to be surprised by finding some new connections in something that is familiar.
In front of me was a chair. On a small plaque on the back each chair was the name of the person who had donated them to the wat. There were rows of chairs 6 deep. At a glance each one looked identical as if some giant machine with a pattern had manufactured and assembled them as the furniture equivalent of identical twins. The closer examination started to reveal idiosyncratic, subtle differences. Uneven layers of dust suck to the flutes on the back one of chair suggesting neglect and age. The scrolls, channels, flutes and curves on closer inspection were all slightly different. You could see a craftsman had made the chair mostly by hand from a pattern. Within that pattern he was able to create a distinct chair if you bothered to look for the little clues he or she left. Notes indented by nature beneath the smooth, polished, glistening surface of wood all displayed slightly different patterns. It is a safe assumption that all of wood for the Sala filled with chairs came from more than a single tree. It was far more likely the wood was harvested from many different trees. If you are an expert, you can tell from the branching pattern the relatedness with one another. Trees have ancestors and their ancestry, their past history on the planet, their place in the long chain of life was right before in the chair.
I was sitting on a chair with my back to the information it possessed. That was a metaphor for the kind of life you didn’t want to lead. I used it without understanding and thinking very much about something as ordinary as a chair. It had a utility. To hold my weight with comfort. Beyond that the chair had no existence or meaning. That kind of thinking was a redline for a real writer. If you were stuck at the ordinary you weren’t looking hard enough. Look again, my friend said. There were rows and rows of chairs and they would hold thousands and thousands of people who came to that place to say goodbye to a loved one or friend. They would pass like day into night, a constant stream of people dressed in black with their faces wet with grief and sorrow. The chairs held them as they said goodbye. The point is we have such a long history in common. When had we stopped reading the ancestry of trees and finding a common one in the distant past. Like the chair, anyone of us was another chair that found itself in a particular row, holding up someone else over a life, and mourning the loss of each person as unique.
The role of the writer was to describe the chair as both special and banal, and how chance had placed it in one position in a row or one row rather than another one. In doing so he was practicing the art of observing and preserving a portal opening, like the one the chanting opened, that allows one to take for a voyage of discovery through time and space. What makes the human being more elusive is her or his mobility. We are an object in motion with other people, events and things. We sit on chairs. We bounce off walls. We run on the beach. We swim in oceans, fly on gliders, float on hot-air balloons, and dance in the street. Our story, or stories are flights of human beings—they are moving, weaving, dodging, dunking, or crawling. I had come to the wat, it seems to find, that final story he left for me to discover. A final test by a mentor where only the student will know whether his answer will satisfy the criteria of truth. One that captures the magic of movement over many decades. That was his legacy. The story-teller dies like everyone else, but the spirit that moved him to tell all those stories during his life does not die. His spirit lives inside every tale he told, and every reader who opens his books will find his spirit preserved.
He taught me how to read a Sala chair. It was right in front me. Like most things in life, we only see as little as possible. It’s not our intention to do this. It’s our nature. Our attention is short, fragile and scattered, and like our bodies is always on the march over the slope of the past, and through the valley of the future. Never quiet; never still. But it didn’t need to be that way. All it took was taking a little time to concentrate on the message in a Sala chair. Solid, stationary, egoless, the chair makes no demands or promises. Yet it can teach us a great deal about our constantly agitated, self-absorbed selves. Things have been tough for a writer always. They are no easier now. My friend had a wonderful, long life and was loved by tens of thousands of readers. At his funeral he left me with a final lesson, to return back to when I started all those years ago to become a writer when I began to focus on and to notice the clockwork below the surface of things and people. It took many years to understand what kind of attention meant to me as a writer. My friend’s voice reminded me it’s not the devil that’s in the detail; it’s who we are, why we do what we do, and where, if we concentrate and are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of a much grander web of connections, loops and nodes. We can spin the wheel back to the place branching patterns in a tree trunk and human beings shared a common ancestor. Or move forward to the time when AI may read us like a chair.
As the last echoes of the monks’ chanting ended, I understood that a world-class chair reader had passed. But the spirit of his story-telling secret is now declassified for all to read.
When we go for an eye
checkup we are asked to cover one eye and read an eye chart. Most eye charts are
a variation of this one.
When we read an eye chart
we aren’t seeking to find or confirm information. We are testing what our eyes
can clearly see and what blurs into a smudge we can’t decipher. The eye chart,
in other words, only tells a very narrow story—how well we can read without
making a mistake lines of letters in descending size from a specified distance.
If we switch the eye chart to another language, like the chart below, we can
still see the images but we can’t read the characters unless we’ve studied
Chinese. To give an eye chart to test the vision of a non-Chinese readers would
defeat the purpose. No matter how close I stand to the Chinese eye chart I can’t
establish the limits of my vision.
Jorge Luis Borges famously
wrote an essay (The Library of
an infinite library, a paradise thought experiment for any author or reader. An
infinite eye chart shares the same essential characteristic—we can never find
the bottom row of such an eye chart. This infinite eye chart is a test not only
of vision, but how many features you choose to consider when reading the chart.
If we stay with eight items on line 8 of an eye chart, can see without the aid
of eye glasses and read them out loud at 20 feet or 6.096 meters, we’ve
demonstrated our 20/20 vision or 6.096/6.096 vision. We don’t need glasses. Line
8 seems a rather arbitrary place to stop. Why not at line 9 or 10 or 11. The
point is, we agree on what makes good vision. We read the letter. We don’t have
to explain or describe it. We don’t have to understand anything about it. We
respond on a basic level. We rarely question these aspects of the eye chart
I wish to adapt the
traditional eye chart test into one that tests which line on the chart the
person being tested uses to understand a picture or a piece of text. Each line
adds another set of factors, expanding the context, widening and exposing the
layers and levels of connection. How much complexity can you or your beliefs
withstand? My idea of the Infinite Eye Chart is to divide vision into two parts:
1) identifying what we see; and 2) the larger context that infuses what we see
with meaning and purpose. Both have a place. But we don’t think much about the
second part of vision. The first vision test is the simple picture of a letter
unanchored from any other relationship. It floats without meaning in front of
our eyes as whole, contained, and absolute. The person testing us doesn’t ask
for any meaning. But that changes with the Infinite Eye Chart. In the second
test, each as you descend line by line, new meaning and relations among events,
objects and people emerge. You no longer see just a letter. You see the outlines
of a complex narrative. Social media isn’t the villain. We are the ones who push
away the life boat sent to rescue us from the small island of the simple and
distorted and delivers you into a more complicated, difficult and uncertain
In the era of
short-tempers, aggressive tribes, and partisan positions, people tend to stick
to the top or second line of the Infinite Eye Chart. Most people don’t feel
their vision of the world is compromised or diminished. They assume their way of
seeing is 20/20, which means what the brain processes as a 20/20 vision is a
good enough understanding to be labelled as normal. This is also assumed to be
true right along the political spectrum. From the standpoint of a non-partisan
observer, there is little difference in the myopia from the Right and Left. They
both hug to line 1 and a few will venture onto line 2. Beyond line 2 reason,
deliberation, and thinking kicks in as more elements need to be evaluated,
compared, distinguished, with correlations predicted.
Donald Trump is
indisputably the worst president in American history (The
For those on line 1 of the
Infinite Eye Chart, the headline and photo are enough. The emotions kick in, a
reaction is made, an opinion is confirmed. People who hate Trump will dismiss
the article in The Week and those who love him will also not likely
read the article in US News. They can see. They can read. But they stay
stuck on gut-feeling reaction of the headline and photo. You could run a blank
page for the actual article. Only a few people will bother to click and read
what the full article says. If they did so, they graduate to line 2 on the
Infinite Eye Chart. No one, including myself, is immune from defaulting to line
2 and thinking that is good enough eye sight to see and understand the
It’s only when I sit back
and wonder how short-sighted I’m being by drawing a picture of reality based on
a headline and a photo. Yet I do that very thing. I pretend I see and my friends
see the same line, I believe my sight is well above average. When in fact I am
driving the emotional bus through a thick fog with only one headlight that
flickers on the road. I have to consciously think about how I’m thinking about a
piece of information. Is that piece increasing my understanding of reality or
confirming what has been manufactured and dispensed as the correct way to see
the world? In other words, all my friends who stay at line 2 agree with me that
we have 20/20 vision and the other side is legally blind.
Anyone who operates at
line 8 (normal vision) is thought to be a genius based on the Infinite Eye
Chart. Not because line 8 is close to infinity, because they are dealing with a
larger information and knowledge base that places the headline and photo in a
much larger context. It seems strange to say, but using the Infinite Eye Chart
pushes us to the height of mediocrity as if that were a noble achievement. The
reality is there are eight events, objects and theories colliding, reshaping the
nature of their relationships with each other over time. Social media speeds up
our reading of the eye chart. Your days and nights are headline and photo
The question to ask
yourself is whether it is better to know one or two things in depth than dozens
of things that brush against the surface and deliver a simplistic reality. Light
one candle. Or run through the dark with instinct and desire as your shining
light. I also understand after a long day at work, time with your friends and
family, and other activities you might shrug off the Infinite Eye Chart as a
beautiful idea for those who have the time. But we make time to examine the
information flow because it enriches our understanding of life. The poverty of
our information makes for an impoverished vision. It’s not enough to ‘feel’ the
emotion ricochet around your consciousness. The goal of better personal vision
is to understand the meaning and context that are causing you to experience
those feelings. In Buddhism it’s called mindfulness. Social media makes the best
of mindless, reactive, tribal people taking on the worst characteristics of
those we condemn. Stopping the paddling to assess, assemble, compare, test
and evaluate means you will miss hours of new headlines and photos, and those
are the ones your friends are talking about. These line 2 hits are getting likes
and you are stuck with an assessment no one will notice or care about once you
write out your line 8 findings.
We face time limits and
information flows beyond our capacity to adequately process. We let others do
the processing for us. There lies a danger. Someone else is feeding you the
result of their Infinite Eye Test and you are accepting the results as your own
eye test, and that you’ve passed with flying colors.
What lies beyond line 8
information processing? This line takes time to digest. It forces you to
take into account historical events, the experience of other cultures,
ideologies, religions, economic patterns, and trade and financial matters. Line
8 works by a process of comparing multiple benchmarks of performance across many
different areas and centers a government policy within this context. The limits
of power and authority come into focus—you see things that others are seeing.
You draw upon the history of powerful leaders and the philosophers and thinkers
whose framework broadens your knowledge and evaluative capabilities. History
humbles the powerful; they come and go. We are no different than our ancestors.
Our age hugs line 2 as if it were a life-line. Each age feels their time and
leader is different.
Presentism is that strong
tug, the gravity we feel that decouples us from the past, discounts the
information others learnt often through bitter experience. We are happy at line
1 or 2 of the Infinite Eye Chart. There is only so much time in a day. We can’t
research everything. I know all of the excuses. I’ve used them. But the worm of
doubt gnaws at a side of me that knows two things: 1) we can’t get much beyond
line 8 on the Infinity Eye Chart and participate on social media with our
friends; 2) our cognitive limitations kick at line 11. There is, in other words,
no line 12, etc. on the chart. We don’t test eyes beyond a certain level.
Likewise we don’t test our information processing beyond line 11 against a wide
data base of information. The number 11 is a dismally small number in the world
of infinity. Returning to Borges’ infinite library, it would mean that no one
can read and process more than 11 titles. And from those 11 volumes they must
imagine the rest of the relationship of the infinite library to those 11
What lies beyond line 11
on our Infinite Eye Chart?
Because the chart is
infinite there is no bottom. There is no way of measuring infinity. Take the
mathematical formula for PI, which is usually expressed as 3.14 Fabrice Bellard
revealed in 2010 that pi could be calculated to 2.7 trillion digits. That makes
for a very long line on the Infinity Eye Chart that takes 85,000 years to read
at the rate of one number per second. In the world of infinity, we need to
remind ourselves that pi is much closer to line 1 than it is to infinity. But
that should not stop us from reaching as far as we can for meaning.
If we want a better
understanding of reality, we shouldn’t aim for pi level of non-repeating
numbers. What is more reasonable is to move down a line or two. To be more
mindful and conscious of the range of risks and the number of variables used to
assign risk. We should examine the depth and size of the context in which we
find the issue is embedded. As a rule of thumb, the quality and size of your
information matters. Information is never static, always expanding, doubling
back, revealing new connections, and often filled with junk that seems useful.
The payoff is increasing our understanding of how things fit together, the role
of chance, the fallacy of assigning agency to all outcomes, and in assessing the
possible effect of a decision or a policy staying within or exceeding existing
moral boundaries. It is constant adjustment to the information. Letting go of
something you believe to be true based on a new information is difficult and
frustrating. We have so much information it puts people in a perpetual bad mood.
They are overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed.
Once you’ve tried to see
reality at line 8, you are likely to experience boredom, exhaustion, and
humility. If you’re are a partisan whose beliefs and ideology guide you from
headline to headline, what I’ve proposed means that you are likely to suffer
cognitive dissonance. That uncomfortable sweaty palms feeling that the devil has
sent these contradictory elements to test your faith.
How deep down the rabbit
hole do you want to go on the Infinity Eye chart?
85,000 years of reciting
pi won’t gain you enlightenment or unlock the mysteries of the universe. You
would still be far away from the bottom of the eye chart. We have no glasses to
take us to where pi unfolds. Eight to 11 lines of reading our chart seems
modest. We certainly wouldn’t call 8 or 11 books a library. None of that matters
to us. What does matter, and is in our control, is to move down the chart from
time to time to remind ourselves that something smaller, more distant and
numerous may offer a window for us to comprehend the edges of reality. Who
knows? In fifty years we will all be reading from the Chinese eye chart. That
would be a different way of seeing.
Every age produced prophets who tell us to trust our dreams, promise salvation, the meaning of life, and the purpose of existence. Jonah, Amos and Hosea in Israel, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, and Habakkuk in Judah along with other biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel wrote their prophecies.
In modern times, L. Ronald Hubbard wrote a book titled Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and went on to found Scientology. Hubbard followed an ancient tradition. Kahlil Gibran went straight to the point in his book titled The Prophet. If you go to Goodreads, you will find a list of writer/prophets from Rabindranath Tagore to Thich Nhat Hanh. In the 1960s and 1970s proselytizing prophets included big names like Alan Watts, Terrance McKenna, and Timothy Leary. The point is there has never been a shortage of prophets writing books about their vision of existence, suffering and death and offering a pathway to salvation. In the 1980s Bhagwan Rajneeshee’s sermons were recorded and shared among the faithful. We should check the daily chart of prophets like we check the weather or stock market. A prophets’ fate fluctuates, with booms and busts, ups and downs, and roller coaster rides that aren’t for the faint of heart.
We are living through a prophet boom period. Reports like “The Intellectual Dark Web,” explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right by Henry Farrell place Jordan Peterson alongside of Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. These dark prophets are making a very good living as cultural contrarians. Like most inflated markets, this one will also go bust. If you could short this kind of prophet market, you make a pretty penny. Let’s have a closer look at the prophet who currently occupies the number one slot on the Dark Prophet Market (DPM).
He is University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson. He is in the tradition of prophets who appear to have distilled the truth about the meaning of life from psychology, history, literature, philosophy, and social biology. His prophecies have capitalized on the alienation of young western white males and the community building capacity of the Internet and social media.
Prophets share a number of common characteristics and one of the central ones is their unwavering, absolute belief that they have discovered and are revealing the truth. Not an approximation of the truth. But the absolute truth. Doubt or uncertainty isn’t part of the prophet’s toolkit. The irony is Peterson’s conflating the entire left as a monolithic hive mind intent on establishing a totalitarian state. Nathan J. Robinson makes this very point in his Current Affairs “Two Way of Responding to Conservatives,” (2018).
To Peterson, there is no possibility that the left (like the right) is a wide spectrum of political positions and beliefs. Concentrating on the extremes or fringes of the left or right is cherry picking of the most dishonest kind. A genuine analysis and inquiry requires a nuance of thinking to nagivate often contradictory ideas and positions. And Peterson did acquire his number one rank on the DPM for engaging in such subtlety. Inside this self-selected manufactured world, the conflict—life and death of course as nothing else is dark enough—is a secular death match between two absolutist positions on political, economic and social life. They can’t be both right. With Peterson you feel his passion. He really believes the left is the cause of the problem that is on principle wrong, dangerous and like any infection must be stopped. Peterson has the blueprint for its replacement. In his worldview, you stick with this binary choice: Peterson’s way or the way of gulag with the leftist gatekeepers who are currently disguised as academics. It is this vile fifth force that must be defeated. Enough people (mainly young white males) have signed on to Peterson’s battle wagon.
There has been criticism that Peterson has been a lightning rod for disaffected youth. He winds them up into an adoring mob who protect him like the Queen bee who is the only purpose for all other bees in the life of the hive. Every writer wishes for such a devoted, fanatical and loyal audience. Peterson has gathered his fold into something not unlike Scientology. Let’s call it the Peterson’s Movement—which echoes science, sound secular, and promises sexual access. The promise, the ambition is to ‘liberate’ the oppressed male from the cultural slavery of the Left. Like Moses, Peterson, is parting the red sea of left-wing ideology and offering them a safe haven. All a disciple is required to do is to follow his 12 rules like stand up straight, shoulders back. Be precise in your speech. Tell the truth. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Here is a prophet who believes in and preaches ‘perfect order’ as an attainable goal. Keep that idea in mind and ask yourself what kind of mind believes that is even remotely possible? His philosophy has a structural precondition much like a Soviet Refrigerator Factory. You report to the big boss anything less than perfect order. For someone who rails against the left, he has a couple of things to put in order himself. Prophets are often bundles of contradiction and their believers and the faithful don’t let minor details bother them.
The thing about the high fliers on DPM isn’t so much their ‘intellectual’ or ‘philosophical’ positions which often sounds vaguely at the NRA level of response to the latest American school mass murder event; it is their audience. Not enough attention is being paid to understanding what is going on in a culture that has allowed the DPM bubble to inflate to this level. Remember those fixed-income instruments that carried credit ratings of BB or lower but everyone said they were safe and the real estate value would never drop but continue onward and upward with no end in sight? In the case of our prophets we entered what is the late 2007 stage, that window of time before the DPM crashes. A time when it appears nothing can touch the unstoppable upward trend. Cultural gravity works like ordinary gravity. Toss the ball or idea in the air and sooner or later it comes back to earth.
If you want to understand the message of a prophet examine the beliefs instilled in his investors or, if you like, his followers. Prophets, like bond salesman, seduce their customers. It is an art. Peterson’s is a seducer of youth on a grand scale. Long before Peterson came along, another serial seducer of youth was Socrates. But there is a big difference between Peterson and Socrates. The youth of Athens flocked to hear Socrates. Same hold for Peterson. Fans line up for hours to hear him speak. In ancient Greece, the youth didn’t need tickets and probably had no reason to queue in order to hear Socrates speak. That’s the only way the youth could receive Socrates ideas—listen to his oratory and ask him questions. Socrates told them he was ignorant of the world and that’s why he asked questions. The more he asked, the more ignorant he felt, and he didn’t understand how others could be so sure of what they knew. Socrates shrugged his shoulders at this state of affairs. He wrote no books. He made no YouTube videos. He didn’t appear on any high profile TV shows, newspapers and magazines, and blogs.
There is one other difference—Socrates taught the youth of Athens the importance of doubt, the role of uncertainty, the nature of ambiguity and complexity. The leadership of Athens were threatened by such a radical idea that they or their policies could be flawed, incomplete or in error. Socratic empowerment was to disembowel the absolutists by planting the worm of doubt into the minds of youth. He believed in a basic equality of ignorance. Those who felt they knew were the most dangerous of the lot. As ignorance causes more suffering and harm than those under the delusion they have discovered the secret, lost knowledge. Peterson believes he has discovered that secret and he wants to share it with you. That resolute, determined need to convince you, persuade you, makes him an activist. Socrates made inquiries as to whether something was true or false. He didn’t pursue an agenda. Peterson is from a long-line of absolutists advancing an alternative set of core values and norms for everyone, believers and non-believers. His purpose to annihilate the existing leftist, totalitarian value and normative structure that suffocates the true nature of men. In this struggle between the forces of good and evil, Peterson is growing a large international army of volunteers.
A number of articles have been written to say Peterson is dangerous. Socrates was thought to be dangerous, too. I believe too much weight is placed on the Prophet Peterson and not enough on the circumstances that has allowed for such a meteoric rise. The same mistake is made with Trump. Both men are taking advantage of an untapped market to sell their ideas like shares. Junk shares like junk ideas don’t deter buyers who are looking for a deal.
Trump and Peterson are not so much dangerous as we think of that word but more of a distraction for why there is such a high market demand for an idea product based on a series of assumption that holds like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote who keeps on going beyond the edge of a cliff. It’s only when he looks down that gravity takes over. Socrates, on the other hand, s path. We live in a dynamic world of interconnected problems—war, famine, diseases, scarce resources, inequalities, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology. This is a hard world to comprehend. We try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together with what basic information that is available to non-experts. Along comes Jordon Peterson who confidently tells anyone who listens that he’s found the solution.
Peterson has figured out how all those moving parts are connected, how they work, where there are problems, and he sums it up: it is the radical left who are making a mess of things. That all anyone needs to do is to follow his path. This kind of absolutist thinking promoted by Peterson has a political counterpart in the elected leaders from the United States to Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland among others. Peterson is a spiritual populist. The new orthodox church of disaffected males looking for guidance, demanding answers, and searching for a prophet.
The fallout from Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman has been widely reported. Peterson’s followers, not unlike the cult in Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country mobilized in a hate campaign launched against Newman. Though Peterson appears to fill out his dance card more like Ma Anand Sheela than Bhagwan Rajneeshee. Newman’s interview couldn’t have gone better for Peterson who appeared calm, centered, and reasonable while the wheels came off Newman’s wagon as she flew off the cliff into a low-grade hysteria. If you are a prophet, your best hope is for a Newman-type interview to validate you as a truth seeker, a truth finder, a truth guarantor patiently as a series of wild punches fail to do any damage. Newman paid a price for her questioning which Peterson handled with a detached sense of rationality. She underestimated him, and that was exactly the wrong way to handle Peterson. But it was too late, and rather than adjusting course, she continued to blast away with Peterson playing the part of Superman let every verbal bullet bounced off his chest.
Cathy Newman was vilified and threatened with physical harm by members of Peterson’s tight pack of followers. They seem to have the equivalent of their Ma Anand Sheela personalities. She took on a small town in Oregon. They are taking on millions worldwide. That’s a globalization of prophecy that took most religions centuries to match. The emotional level reached lynch mob proportions until Peterson intervened and called the prophet equivalent of an emergency AGM of his shareholders and asked them to back off with their threats. The Prophet had spoken and the congregation ended. The threats wound down. Though Newman apparently maintains a security detail finding herself like a Russian who got on the wrong side of Putin. The incident indicates that a kind of religious faith had infected the young men in Peterson’s flock. Peterson had given them an identity and in the time of identity politics and change, the challenge to identity ignites calls for violence against someone testing the materials from which that identity is formed. The Newman lesson for posterity: never underestimate a prophet especially if he’s leading a global prophecy movement.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, Peterson discovered it was hard to control the monster once it has life and walks the streets. The first rule of a prophet is to seduce followers with an identity that appears to give them hope, dignity, and community. The second rule is the prophet must seduce himself. The faith he teaches must be the faith he believes in and is willing to die on a cross for. Peterson may fare out before he finds that cross. I once saw a video where Peterson said the international exposure and fame had caught him by surprise. He saw himself riding a 100-foot wave and that sooner or later that wave would crash. Meanwhile, he planned to hang ten toes and ride it as far as he could. Afterwards he didn’t know what would happen. Perhaps his most valuable prophecy is to understand that no prophet rides the big wave forever.
I also know that other peoples’ prophets are conman, charlatans, and game show hosts on the 24-hour meaning of life game show channel.
They plea, they bargain, they offer solace, hope and meaning. If you have suffered the usual whiplash of life, this is what the doctor called for. All you’ve got to do to join the church is believe in the gospel. In the case of other peoples’ prophets, we see through them, view them with contempt and make fun of the gullibility of his followers. We feel sorry for them and write them off as delusional fools beyond reach. That rejection only adds to their resentment. A community finds coherence in the attacks by non-members. It rarely causes any soul-searching of their prophet’s commands or rules. Much of what we want in life is beyond our control. Peterson succeeds by tapping into the resentment of white young males. The reality is the world has become more challenging for white young males. Sharing privileges is not something any group is happy to do.
General audition call
In the West we live in a manufactured reality that promises that if you stand up straight, get your act together, follow the rules, you will get the seat at the table you deserve. Otherwise, you stand outside in the rain and look through the window as others are invited inside. Peterson isn’t responsible for that lie. But he believes his truth will deliver his believers. That’s sad. Because it only compounds the lie. It kicks the can down the road. No one tells the young white men that they were born to stand in a queue that stretches to the horizon. They believed they were entitled to a place in the big show called life. Like casting in a film. The reality is the queue is longer for women and always has been. The same for blacks, gays, and other minority groups bunched together at the back of the queue.
Young white men believe they’d been promised a part, if not a talking part, at least they’d get called to be an extra
Aaron Schlossberg, a US
lawyer, was recently caught on video berating two people for speaking Spanish in
a Manhattan restaurant. He was thrown out of the restaurant. But not before his
actions went viral on social media. Aaron found himself in a deep hole. A
community formed to vent their anger against such a bully. With the daily acts
of racism Aaron Schlossberg will soon fall away from public view and memory, and
may reappear when inevitably a similar event happens. It will happen again. And
Aaron Schlossberg is a
member of our species. The bullying instincts he showed run deep in our DNA.
Rather than focusing on his conduct as a character flaw that makes him a bad
person, I’d rather explore an uncomfortable truth that there is a little bit of
Aaron Schlossberg in all of us. Until we address the core issues of dominance,
dominators and Alphas we can feel good by joining in and expressing our anger as
part of a larger collective anger at Schlossberg. We feel good then move on.
That’s not problem solving; it’s problem shuffling. We have a long evolutionary
history and it is easy to ignore our basic nature and how our species must own
up to its own uncomfortable social and political history.
Most of us keep contrary
evidence and facts from destroying our little idea castles that dot the imagined
landscape of the world we wish to live in. If your beliefs are strongly held,
then you won’t be persuaded they might need revision or that they are
incompatible with the evidence. In the case of the American lawyer, we witnessed
spontaneous communities forming overnight on social media to ridicule the lawyer
who, as it turned out, has a history of racially provocative encounters.
Ridicule escalated quickly, turning into calls for action. The equivalent of
banishment. The lawyer’s law firm was kicked out of its offices. State officials
launched application to have the New York State Bar Association to revoke the
I’ve been working on a new
non-fiction book: Rooms: On Human domestication and Submission. As the
NYC lawyer’s story played out on social media, I thought about my two-year
research project into the background of our egalitarian heritage.
A quick look at our
egalitarian history shows that what happened to the lawyer in New York goes deep
in our bone, our instincts, and our very nature evolved because of mutual
co-operation among band members as equals. The Hierarchy in
the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Christopher Boehm, is a classic
text that charts a 1,000-generation period when we lived in small bands based on
a set of egalitarian values and rules. I found it interesting how early humans
created and maintained those values and wondered what forces had caused that
social system to collapse. Boehm along with other researchers had discovered how
in modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes in the few patches where they still exist
showed that the whole band acted as a unified whole against an alpha male who
was mean, took more than his own share of food, bragged, and bullied
The scholars claim the
evidence indicates that evolution bestows us with the burden of dominator males.
If it makes you feel any better, chimpanzees are another group of primates with
hierarchy and alpha tyrants imposing their will on others. What many view as a
character flaw is hard-wired into our species. With our large brains, language,
and cognitive skills we evolved a social hack to turn domination on its head.
Boehm calls it an inverse hierarchy. Think of a pyramid upside down with the
point bit on the ground and the base pointing to the sky.
The social hack worked
well for about a thousand generations. Why did the hack ultimately fail? I’ve
written a book on that very question. In summary, the fate of communities to
fall under powerful alphas happened for two basic reasons: 1) populations scaled
beyond the band’s ability to function as an effective, unified social force to
coordinate action required to corner and contain the bully; and 2) communities
settled in one place, becoming immobile, living inside rooms where they were
surrounded by hundreds, and later thousands, then millions of other people, most
of whom were strangers. Rousseau’s idealized view of hunter gatherers as
peaceful, tranquil communities which worked in harmony sought to discard the
instinct for dominance and the associated behavior that Alphas used to seize and
maintain the power to bully others. Once the community grew beyond the Dunbar
number (150), the cracks opened for hierarchy to grow and for dominators to
divide and isolate a community in order to prevent the unified front to their
There is a related
question that has troubled me: how did our species evolve the original
egalitarian values as hack against tyrants? Was there a companion set of events
that allowed egalitarian values to persist for a long period? In thinking about
these issues, it is likely that natural selection favored individuals and bands
that developed oral communication skills and used them to exchange crucial
information about the environment and members of the band. The ability to convey
information other than gestures and grunts would have had given an advantage to
the band that could use language. Foragers and gatherers had words to identify
fruits, nuts, plants, fish and vegetables. Language also helps to order a coffee
The next step was a
language that conveyed information about other members of the tribe: habits,
attitudes, fairness, generosity, kindness as well as negative characteristics
such as anger, meanness, lying, stealing, cheating, and bullying. The experts
believe we’ve had oral language for about 100,000 years, and if you consider the
use of protolanguage of sufficient complexity to keep alphas in line, then the
start of our advanced communication skills takes us back, according to Boehm to
several hundred thousand years. We’ve been talking to each other about how to
keep the bully of the band in line for much longer than we’ve been living in
rooms. That history and its big social hack continue as background in many
Somewhere in this lost fog
of time what we call gossip evolved as an early weapon to contain bullies and
other alpha dominators. It allowed the band to discuss, debate, and understand
what others were doing that might be against the interest of the band. While
modern people may view gossip with disdain and dismiss it as silly, empty and
unimportant, in reality, gossip had an important role in structuring and
maintaining an egalitarian society. As mentioned earlier, the egalitarian
society didn’t abolish dominance; it co-opted the impulse, taking from any
individual and placing it with all band members. The commons, in other words,
was the ownership of dominance by all members of the band. To prevent dominance
of just one individual, his cronies and supporters, hunter gatherers tamed the
dominance streak by making it a group behavior aimed at stopping any individual
from gathering cronies and supporters to dominant the group. As long as the band
could communicate and maintain solidarity, this system of dominance worked.
Other than Bonobos, we are the only primate that has a long past record of
What was interesting is
our ancestors developed ridicule as a crucial tool to create a moral climate and
cultural channel to contain bullies. We also had ostracism, banishment, and
murder. The community reacted on any hints from gossip that so and so was
pushing others around, claiming he was a better hunter. People would laugh at
him. Belittle him. Show they were not afraid of him. And they weren’t afraid for
one important reason: the entire community had gathered around the person who
was laughing at the bully. This communal humiliation destroyed his plan for
domination. The dressing down would serve as a stark warning to other alpha
upstarts as to what their fate would be. Bullies confronted a united communal
front of the rest of the band. Ridicule was the social glue that provided the
social ammunition to contain alpha upstarts. For hunter gatherers, they had
another arrow for the bow—no member would last long on his own if banished from
the band. They had a large incentive to co-operate as equals and equality would
be lost if one member ruled the others. The ridicule that worked as a power
equalizer for hunter gatherers. Once that way of mobile life was lost, the
social and cultural forces shifted and in the new environment united behind a
wall of ridicule no longer was sufficient to prevent the rise of the bully to
order others around. Once our species became immobile, settling into the life
lived inside rooms, ridicule of the powerful continued but it no longer
prevented the consolidation of power into the hands of an Alpha.
For thousands of years,
instead of a closed band controlling the domination of its members, the role
fell to small groups of artists, activists, dissidents and free thinkers who
employed satire and ridicule in art, song and stories. They became the
unofficial class of ridiculers. But the new ridiculers with limited
communication channels found that their efforts force fell short of preventing
despots from arising. The Alphas contained the new ridiculers using repressive
censorship, blasphemy, and natural security laws in many countries allowed the
imprisonment or banishment of such rebels. The underlying goal was to prevent
any resurgence of the hunter-gatherer’s reversed domination hierarchy. The first
rule of Alphas is to enact laws that deter and punish attempts to contain
in-group Alpha conduct.
One of the most important
innovations of the Internet and social media has been to vastly expand the
unofficial class of ridiculers. The old hierarchies have been rattled by the
constant flow of ridicule streaming over millions of timelines. New computer
crime laws and access to social media along with bullying of digital companies
has raised the question as to how successful the new ridiculers will be in
containing the large infrastructure the Alphas have built up and refined over
thousands of years.
We can see cracks in the
power structure. The question is whether this is good evidence that the existing
hierarchy that institutionalized the bully has started to find its power leech
away? The Alpha’s authority has been historically based on not only one the
threat of violence but by controlling the flow of information to the oppressed
population by convincing them they aren’t repressed. That information monopoly
over framing of an artificial reality has been disrupted. Social media along
with the entertainment industry has witnessed a resurgence of public ridicule.
There is an entire entertainment industry like the Jon Stewart Show,
Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,
and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to mention a few shows that are
fueled by skits and humor that point out politicians, public figures, and
superrich with public ridicule. The audiences may overlap but it is likely each
of the shows has a base audience whose biases are confirmed and they feel part
of a larger community. But are these changing making a difference socially and
politically? We have the instinct to ridicule a bully but do we have the power
to contain the bully?
Our egalitarian instincts
are engaged when the bully orders or threatens us. The question is who is
our community? It’s not the band of 30 to 50 relatives, it is more diffuse and
abstract, and draws not from the individual but from the identity a group
provides to give it cohesion. The group coalesces around a theme: gender, age,
race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, political affiliation, guns, abortion,
climate change, etc. Sometimes there is overlap in group membership.
Each group unites and
pushes back anyone who threatens their identity. For gun lovers, the advocate of
gun control is an outside threat, an enemy, someone who wishes to oppress them
and take away their freedom. They treat those who wish to enact gun law
restrictions with contempt and ridicule. On the other hand, anti-gun advocates
also shower the gun advocates with bile and ridicule. There is no one alpha
bully to contain, but legions of them. They pop up like moles and we’ve played
whack-a-mole for so long that it seems like a normal part of what goes on in
society, when, in fact, the hunter-gatherers dealt with the alpha barking orders
swiftly. This was serious business. It wasn’t incorporated into show business as
a form of entertainment. Bands united to cooperate in a collective matter to
contain the potential tyrant before things got too far along in the attempt to
cause them to surrender their equal status to the bully. They also lived in an
analogue world of face to face confrontation. There was no hiding behind a
keyboard under a phoney identity to bully others. It isn’t that we necessarily
produce more bullies than hunter gatherers but we have enabled a mob of social
media bullies who doesn’t have to face those he bullies.
The question is whether
the social tools such as ridicule are sufficient to retake the high-ground from
the dominator class and return that power to the dominated class where it had
existed for a thousand generations. Each time a consumer protection law is
weakened, or an environmental law abolished, or tax burdens shifted from the
rich to the poor, we witness the acts of domination. Since the agricultural
revolution, the bullies have taken control of the tribes and are still in power
worldwide. They still control and tell others what to do. While acts of defiance
seem to be increasing, we find ourselves in the position of either accepting
submission or evolving new hacks to control dominators. Whether social media is
that hack is open to debate. What is clear is that allowing dominators out
of the social ridicule cage guarantees repression. Alphas ultimately damage the
social fabric and spread misery and hopelessness. We need to think about how to
create a new social cage for bullies. To make a guess of what that social cage
would look like, you’d have to ask an artificial intelligent agent who will one
day design and hold the keys.
Mark Zuckerberg glided through first senate committee hearings on Tuesday 9th April 2018 like an AI given a bunch of old Atari games and mastered them to superhuman level in 24 hours. He blew his questioners, Red and Blue, away like a series of slow moving pixels. But Zuckerberg is no Demis Hassabis and Facebook is no DeepMind. The Senate committee hearing demonstrated reasonable grounds for an amendment to abolish this unrepresentative club of incompetent analogues who are clueless to the dangers lurking in the digital world.
What we witnessed was a roomful of press watching senators in Washington, D.C., at event not unlike a police line up trying to identify the suspect. Only the elected officials had no idea of the crimes Zuckerberg might have committed. They don’t read legislation because they don’t have the attention span or they have not done sufficient research to understand the complexity and range of issues involved. Why should they read about digital technology, social media, data mining, AI and information collection? The US senators cracked their knuckles, a bit stiff from all that dragging on the ground, and winged it. They asked the kind of lazy, half-assed questions your old uncle whose technical knowledge terminated with the jukebox and pinball machine would have asked. On one level their performance makes for highly amusing reading. On another level if you’re not horrified by their performance, then you need to rethink what is at stake.
Facebook isn’t just an online advertising company turning a pretty profit for their shareholder by hawking information to anyone with a pet rock business seeking to expand theircustomer base, or some Third-World hellholes seeking to gather a lynch mob. Facebook is the gateway drug to a serious addiction; they work to maintain their sticky pages with the intention of causing you to feel painful withdrawal whenever you leave the special community with all of your ‘friends’ who share your interest in slitting the throat of your neighbors.
Facebook is also the major social media platform in many countries where the population has been under the yoke of strongmen dictators for so long they have mistaken the yoke for a normal shirt collar. What dictator could resist the temptation to create communities of ‘friends’ who support your ethnic cleansing and genocide or a platform for a repressive regime to control and guide the thoughts of its citizens? Facebook made it easy for them. Or you want to mess around with another country by egging on the worst instincts of one side or another, hey, why not hire a platoon of gamers and computer nerds to help? The new digital community has gathered by murky political operatives. These click farmers are examples of the entry of a new digital agricultural age. They work for pizza, gold stars, and hotel vouchers.
There are 2 billion people using Facebook. What happens to all of that information collected about information you? It’s sold. You are sold. What your like, read, desire along with your prejudices, biases, and plans are recorded. Where does the information go? To that big iCloud vacuum cleaner bag. Facebook has created a digital climate change in this bloated information atmosphere; one they harvest, control, trade and own. Like the other climate change, this one threatens humanity with a long drawn out political winter. That’s a pretty serious charge. Explain. Zuckerberg’s little digital empire has invaded, captured, done business in 150 countries. Facebook is in business with some of the worst elements on the planet. Zuckerberg is a more polished than Donald Trump. For different reasons, each one is exposing us to major political risks.
Political thugs with street smarts figure out what Congress still doesn’t understand. All that prevents Facebook from further consolidating its empire and overcoming limitations the current hardware capacity to process all that information, is the development of AI. Once the Facebook system is much smarter, efficient it can be optimized to rig the institutional infrastructure found in any political setting.
What happens when country after country has installed the Potemkin village and all of its citizens believe it is real?
With the staggering, mind boggling amount of information already collected, how can anyone think that it is only has a commercial value. The political implications of Facebook as a platform is staring Congress in the face. Hello, the Russians in the 2016 American election gamed the platform. How many Facebook employees are assigned to focus on terrorism. Two hundred. Let that register. For the whole world. 200 people. As for state inspired terrorism it is obvious this is inadequate.
The Burmese generals gamed the platform.
Facebook has shown itself in bed with some bad actors. Take a look at the picture above when you think Facebook is just another company. Afterwards these men who shot and buried by elements of the Burmese military. Facebook didn’t pull the trigger. But Facebook allowed for an enhanced atmosphere of hatred making it easier for others to do so.
The insularity of Zuckerberg is breath-taking. He talks about Facebook reforms. Ha. And ha again. Most of the world’s been down that dead-end road. In much of the world outside of the United States, dictators rattle on about reforms until people roll their eyes and fall over dead from waiting.
Reform is a political process that requires experts, cultural, historical, and regional sensitivities. It other words, it takes a lot of very smart people who draw from a deep well of expertise to draft, test, implement, adapt and review changes to policy. Most of the time reform is a delay tactic or what is served up as reform is another way to disguise the rent-seeking.
That leads to me to wonder? Remind me again of where I can find the Facebook handbook on the separation of social, economic and political policies; how they are coupled, when they are decoupled, and the levels and context in which they are ‘imposed’ in a given nation-state? Who are the specialists, the equivalent of the civil servants, who have studied the specific regions, know the languages, the current political players, the tensions and conflicts, and the history of minority repression and other human rights violations, and provides for a failsafe procedure when those with ill-intent attempt to game the FB platform?
Zuckerberg is clearly outside of his depth. But that doesn’t matter. Like General Custer at the battle of the Little Longhorn, he assumed the natives will be easily defeated. Unlike Custer, Zuckerberg was right. He hadn’t underestimated the senate committee. He likely over prepared for all kinds of attacks. Before the senate committee, though, he weathered the battle as all of the natives who surrounded him came armed with cream puffs. If you examine the battlefield. The only dead were the brain dead who asked zombie like questions. Score that as a Zuckerberg victory: cream puffs and zombies were no match for someone with a California surfer’s knowledge of the larger world beyond the wave he sees from the shoreline. It was up to a House Committee a day later to shoot a number of straight arrows. Zuckerberg ducked as the senate committee must have softened him up to think these bozos know less than an intern.
The House committee also had a chance on Wednesday 10 April 2018 to ask tough questions of Zuckerberg in a separate hearing a day after the Senate committee failed to do its job.
Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, threw a number of punches at Zuckerberg showing the prize fighter may have impressed others with his golden gloves, the fact was he didn’t know the game all that well: “As CEO you didn’t know some key facts. You didn’t know about key court cases regarding privacy and your company. You didn’t know that the FTC doesn’t have fining. You didn’t know what a shadow profile is. You don’t know how many apps you need to audit. You don’t know what other companies were sold the Kogan data, even though you were asked that yesterday. You don’t even know how many kinds of information you’re logging.”
As for Zuckerberg’s reflections on what Facebook got wrong, Scott Peters, a Democrat from California, had this exchange:
Peters: What about things they got wrong?
Zuck: I need to think about that more.
That was Zuckerberg’s fallback position as the arrows rained down: I need for time or AI will fix it. The members of the house committee demonstrated that Zuckerberg was clueless about important issues central to the operation of Facebook.
From the beginning of our
species, there is evidence that we valued the arts. We rarely question the
talisman of ‘creativity’ as part of what separates us from other animals. We are
creative in ways that allows for mystical attributions. The creativity flag
flies from a pole on a hill occupied by writers, artists, poets, musicians,
filmmakers, dancers, and other creatives. The creatives as a class and cling to
the belief that their creations are safe from artificial intelligence
worldview is a delusion. AI has breached the creative hill. You can expect our
creative forces, in time, will be overrun.
There is an AI pattern of
encroachment into the realm of human social, artistic, economic and political
activities. Each domain has been or is in the process of disrupting the
pre-existing human-centric model. Muscle-powered labour was the first to be
displaced. High-level abstract thinking and analysis, research, information
gathering, testing and prediction found at the heart of mathematical theory and
models, and underlying law, medicine, accounting, teaching, design, etc. have
witnessed the intrusion of AI. People in these professions are as vulnerable as
auto workers. We aren’t quite at that point but the hand-writing is on the wall.
The old stability of gradual change and small data basis and containment of
knowledge has ended. But these professions, in theory, are where really smart
people are found.
Our concept of IQ is based
on a person’s ability to accurately and quickly process abstract symbols and to
manipulate information. Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 (2017) defines
intelligence as “the ability to accomplish complex goals.” He goes further to
say that it makes no sense to quantify intelligence by reference to an IQ number
as such reductionism leaves out key components such as “capacity for logic,
understanding, planning, emotional knowledge, self-awareness, creativity,
problem solving and learning.”
A few people, we call them
geniuses, perform exceptionally well at problem solving, logic and learning. We
can start with something simple like a tear drop. A genius can predict its rate
of fall, and work out a formula to describe the chemical composition, volume,
atomic weight and pressure. After all a tear drop from a scientific point of
view is no more difficult than to analyze than a drop of whiskey. Sometimes they
are found together. But science isn’t that interested in this social and
Another form of
intelligence which goes under a variety of names from emotional to creative
intelligence draws upon a different way of looking at the tear drop. Was it the
result of joy, sadness, frustration, pain, or loneliness? The creatively
intelligent seeks out the hundreds of possible stories about the human condition
she found inside a tear drop.
The stories that move,
guide, entertain, thrill and inspire us are shared and read. They shape lives.
They change attitudes. They change our relationship with each other.
Creative people find a way
to express what can’t be easily reduced to abstract principles, formula or
theories. There is a degree of freedom at work in the creative examination of a
tear drop. The expression may be irrational or absurd but it conveys a deep
feeling embraced by some. We sort our friends by the nature of their stories.
The ability to read stories in a tear drop isn’t a reading from our DNA. The
skill is taught. Some have more talent than others but the meaning of a tears
comes from immersion in the daily bath of cultural values. This learning process
is uploading social and cultural software.
We have people who have
use their high IQ to describe and interpret a world of abstract symbols that
make predictions. Without such people you wouldn’t have the technology that
allows you to read this essay on your computer. Inside this ultra-rational
world, the descriptions which emerged have been calculated with a degree of
precision and exactitude. Your GPS would be useless without such calculation
proving to be highly accurate. 1% of the world admires the beauty of such
equations. The rest of us struggle along thinking we have the same understanding
from metaphors like “black holes”, “dark matter”, “dark energy” and “worm
holes”. Our language is enriched by metaphors. That wealth also conceals a
poverty of precision.
As tear drops illustrate
the world of the abstract mathematical formula and the world of metaphors are
different and only roughly reflect a common bond in reality.
A tear drops trajectory
has a mathematical formula that is highly predictive. But why that tear drop
emerged at this moment has no formula. Given the tools in development and
growing understanding of neuroscience, the future may bring a creative-edge AI
that can spin tear drop stories with the best of our writers. We are at the very
beginning of a new age of innovation. If I had to make a prediction when that
hill of creativity will be overrun and the human creators are pushed over the
side, it is when AI can tailor the story around your own goals, personality,
background and desires, and offers you the chance to assist in the
We might expect something
like a Facebook addiction that arises once you discover creative content that is
your personal mirror. You look into that mirror and see a reflection of your
personal worldview honed from the millions of data points. As many billions of
sensors will enter every aspect of your life, no stone will be unturned, you
will think nothing or do nothing that doesn’t add to an information trail. AI
follows those bread crumbs. As any artist knows, if you trace the tracks long
enough, you will be able to capture hearts. When that happens, we will look to
AI to explore the stories in our own tear drops. Because that will be the only
set of stories most people will be interested in searching for
Kim Jong-un is the supreme leader of North Korea since 2011.
I have been reading The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (2018) and would like to share my thoughts about a couple of ideas raised in the book.
From the Trump White House to political systems in Thailand, Turkey, Russia, China, and the Philippines we have witnessed a shift to the strong leader model of governing along with a distrust of democracy, its institutions, its processes, and rules of succession. Does this mean we are observing a fundamental shift in attitudes of people living in democracies? Or are there other, better explanations?
The Elephant in the Brain argues that social status has been divided between two styles of leadership: one is based on domination and the other one is based on prestige.
The leader who uses domination reply on an arsenal of weapons: guns, prisons, re-education, exile, censorship, and intimidation. The Alpha male (they are mostly male) builds or co-opts a coalition which overwhelmingly benefits the ruling class socially and economically and the vast majority who aren’t part of the coalition either bend to the leaders will or suffer the unpleasant consequences in an oppressive system. The world is witness to this kind of domination-based, non-democratic, autocratic leader, who uses violence to keep people in line. North Korea is an extreme example where domination takes place by highly restricted access to the Internet and social media.
Prestige as Robert Mueller (the American special counsel who is investigating the Russian involvement in the US 2016 presidential election) shows the second way to leadership. Such a person doesn’t cause fear and a wishes to avoid (unless you are a target of his investigation). This style of leader evokes admiration and we wish to associate with him. We exercise our free will to join a coalition that supports him. We’d vote for someone like him. He doesn’t need to use the threat of force and violence in order to implement his policies or a gun to our head to influence our electoral choice. Such a person has a record showing expertise, contribution to community, self-sacrificing conduct, fairness, curiosity, and the inclusion of different points of view as a natural part of the decision-making process. A combination of these qualities are rarely found in a single individual. But there are such people who have them. Why aren’t more of such type of leaders? What is it about the political process that is biased against opting for prestige over domination, offering no or little choice alternative?
The Elephant in the Brain raises the importance of coalition building in the political process. Their analysis falters as it fails to take into account the significant difference between domination and prestige over the treatment toward the coalition formation process. A common thread through the domination of governance is that the coalition behind the leader is a minority of the overall population. If it were a majority, the Alpha dominant leader would be first to have open and fair elections. Democracy is messy because it allows for a more fluid formation process. The recent events surrounding the school shooting in Florida shows how quickly new and potentially powerful coalitions emerge from the private and public sectors. The new players can work together to create a counter agenda. The new policies threaten the vested interest of the old coalition of gun manufacturers, sellers and owners. The old coalition over time become rigid, brittle, fragile, and, when threatened, ruthless. It appears it is all for the benefit of the leader. But this is almost never the case.
The State uses all of its institutions and powers to reward its coalition partners and to exclude, threaten or intimidate those who signal an intention to form a new political coalition. In the domination style of the political process, a great deal of attention is devoted to exposing the beginnings of new coalitions as anyone of them might gain momentum and post a threat to the existing beneficiaries of the domination system. New coalitions as well as factions rising inside existing coalitions are both existential threat to a domination political system. This is a reason why they rarely have a smooth succession plan. No one trust whether another leader will realign the coalitional interest in a way that will be disadvantageous to some of the partners. The leader in this system comes from some faction of the coalition. They are allies. Everyone else is a potential enemy and a threat.
In the democratic system, the conflict as well as the stability comes from creating a coalition formation space. Most people aren’t political. They don’t follow the political developments on a daily basis. They go about their lives as if politics is happening in another universe that rarely intersects with their own. Yet despite the lack of interest and focus of the general populace, coalitions form to change laws on abortion, pot possession, discrimination and a number of other issues, and leaders who are admired for their leadership of such coalitions are elected to represent the emerging values and interest. If you want to know the true nature of a political system—to cut through the propaganda—examine the history on coalition formation and assess how it correlates with the history of political prisoners. You will find a correlation.
Whether democratic or autocratic, the coalitions that benefit from the power-sharing arrangement are unstable. Coalition partners fall out with each other. Or a new coalition replaces the old one. In the case of an autocratic state the collapse of the coalition usually results in the failure of the state itself. The state institutions reinforced with guns only dissolve or pull back to a small ring around the center of power. Syria is a good example of such a coalitional collapse. When the coalition in a parliamentary system fails, an election is usually called to provide a possibility of new coalitional partners to form and replace in part or whole the old ones, with the goal of bringing in the new members in order for stability and legitimacy to prevail. The lesson of history is political coalitions are not solid, permanent features; they are transitory and have an expiry date.
Democracy has been widely believed to be the best way to ensure that the prestige style of leadership trumped over the domination style. Until Trump came along. Look at who Trump admires. They are all dictators out of the domination mode. Turkey, Russia, China, Burma, the Philippines, and Thailand have leaders that are variations of Donald Trump. What The Elephant in the Brain doesn’t address is how those from the domination style have found with the Internet and social media a new and powerful set of weapons to their arsenal. The anti-democratic forces (there are exceptions such as North Korea) have discovered that digital domination is less bloody once you convince the people outside your coalition to self-suppress their feelings which are now directed against others.
Xenophobia and ultra-nationalist platforms have produced new coalition partners for dictators. Propaganda requires control of the media and exclusion of counter-media messages. It also requires wide penetration to the mass population. The propaganda can be micro-tailored in ways that make earlier propaganda crude and subject to ridicule. Social media—Twitter and Facebook—have become the best new communication channel for authoritarians. They have subverted ‘social’ and converted it into ‘social-political’ that drives emotions in the direction that reinforces authoritarian rule. It converts dictators into populists, and turns Nobel Peace Prize winners into handmaidens of dictators who enable and legitimize their violence. The social media companies are the second set of handmaidens who have equipped authoritarians with powerful emotional weapons of mass persuasion and mass misinformation.
The emotional fury of the Burmese directed at the Rohingya is a signal of how this new world of domination works. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled genocide to live in make-shift refugee camps along the Burmese and Bangladesh border. This ethnic minority in Burma was a convenient way to create super-majorities of Burmese who supported violence against men, women and children. Thousands were slaughtered and raped. Their homes pillaged, burned and bulldozed. The regime labeled this minority group as less than human and the majority Burmese agree. Authoritarians’ strong suit is violence.
As a visible minority group with a different religion, the Rohingya played into the hands of the Burmese government by providing a focal point, playing the emotional card to assemble and rally a large group who share the same fanatical sense of revulsion, hatred and fear. The American far-right embraces an anti-immigrant agenda as do most other countries with a domination style of leadership. In the Internet age, democracy has degenerated into sizeable coalitions based on communal hatred and fear of others.
The voters who elected Trump flipped to the domination, strong-man, and attack the non-believers, anti-ethnic and foreigner model. There is a lack of faith that their coalition would survive a fair, open and honest vote. It may be also why they have little interest in exposing the Russian involvement. The domination style takes allies from wherever they can find them if it means this is the way to power.
This tweet illustrates the domination political style:
The current political trend was featured in a speech by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “Today oppression is fashionable again; the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban who earlier this month said ‘we do not want our colour… to be mixed in with others’.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22702&LangID=E
Few people thought there were enough such voters to elect such an American president. But there is growing evidence he had help from Putin whose interest is populating the world with Putin-like clones, or at least creating chaos that challenges the Western hegemony. Xi Jinping admires Putin. It has been suggested that Xi Jinping has modelled his own political fortunes along the Putin roadmap (a proposal to abolish term limitation is one evidence). Others have speculated on whether Xi’s leadership will not follow the Putin style of leadership. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/xi-jinping-may-be-president-for-life-what-will-happen-to-china What remains common is the failure to embrace a central feature of limitation: (1) that it is limited in duration; and (2) the measure of leadership success is succession policy, without a smooth transition of power to a new leader, the existing leader finds himself riding on the tiger’s back..
Trump is ill-suited to the democratic process as are the non-democratic leaders in a growing number of countries. These modern authoritarians hunger for prestige—which doesn’t come due to the lack of the leader’s merit, expertise or achievement—so they double down on repression of those who don’t admire them, make fun of them. Censorship, exile, murder or prison are useful tools to enforce submissions. In the digital coalition of hatemongers, the members are emotionally charged up and aim their discontent and bile not at their own regime but at immigrants, blacks, or Muslims as one unified class of dangerous, criminally active and less than human.
History suggests that those tools have not earned a leader prestige outside his narrow coalition of partners in extraction, corruption and other crimes. Their tools bring them dividend rich in loyalty and devotion from coalition members. The authoritarians and their coalition partners have discovered the Internet is the best coalition partner they could ever wish for. This partner has opened a vast platform where the participants believe they are making up their own minds. The hate, fear, and disgust except for their relatives, cronies, and corrupt associates, makes them fall in line with the rulers.
The result is traditional prestige and freedom to build alternative coalitions have been degraded. Norms, laws, and institutions in the United States are in an upheaval as the authoritarian model proves cunning and resourceful in marshalling the Internet and social media, giving them a renewal based on mass support that continues so long as the capacity for hatred and fear is not exhausted.
In the battle between the NRA and a group of 17-year-old high school students in Florida, the world watches to see if the hatemongers can ride out the challenge to their influence and power. If the hatemongers lose this battle, it gives hope that democracy still has the robustness and resilience to put the authoritarian genie back into the magic social media lamp.
Swimming pools of ink have been emptied in the
discussions of the intense verbal warfare in America about politics as the
president fires tweets like a machine-gunner at a wide range of enemies. In all
of these dramatic battles, there’s not been much discussion about a central
question that defines our humanity: have we loss our sense of empathy? Exactly
what makes empathy a desirable trait? I recently read an interview with Nick
Bostrom, Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and
Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, who writes about the danger of AI;
he is worried that mankind might suffer an existential crisis should AI lack
empathy. In an interview with Andy Fitch of the Los Angeles Review of
Books Bostrom draws what is, I
believe, a useful distinction between two different meanings of empathy.
In the first sense,
empathy is our ability to read the mind of others: their intentions, emotions,
and feelings. Our theory of mind is based on the words, gestures, posture, and
the context that provides enough information to make a reasonably good
prediction of what another person wants or is seeking to obtain from his or her
own actions. If you can predict with reasonable accuracy what someone is after,
this is a huge opportunity to take advantage of another’s
In the second sense,
empathy is using the theory of mind to dissect the wants, urges and desires of
others, and genuinely being interested in and caring about their intentions and
feelings. What makes us human is this innate sense of caring. It limits the kind
of actions we take as we want to avoid causing harm to the people we care about.
If we care only about the feeling we share a common cultural or religious
identity or does that caring scale to others who have different attitudes and
beliefs from us? Everyone needs to ask themselves how far the caring empathy
scales to people outside of their tight circle.
A psychopath may have an
overtly developed sense of empathy in the first sense, but a psychopath lacks
any ability to care about the people whose minds he or she can read. No one
existence inside a psychopath’s circle of people whose feelings he cares about
except himself. It’s that void we find frightening about a psychopath.The
psychopath may take it one step further and take pleasure and satisfaction in
harming, crippling or killing others. What Bostrom was concerned about was that
AI is a kind of psychopathic intelligence that may not necessarily set out to
harm us but has no human notion of what it means to care about how someone else
feeling come into play when making a decision or taking an action.
We are some way from
creating an AGI—Artificial General Intelligence. How far away is that time? No
one can predict the time frame. We live with that uncertainty and that risk. Our
more immediate problem is happening now. We are in an era of empathy reduction
of the second kind by us, homo sapiens who have become overtly
polarized. You can find ample evidence in the first year of Trump’s presidency.
The Democrats along with many on the left believe Trump has caused damage to the
democratic traditions and constitution system of the United States. Not to
mention he’s managed, in their view, to have destabilized international
treaties, alliances, and human rights. But Republicans and those on the right
believe Trump will save the United States from the heavy hand of big government
and overregulation, and protect US citizens from terrorists. The US electorate
is deeply polarized, and neither those on the left or the right are interested
in exploring a common political ground. But it has gone beyond politics. People
hate people they don’t know based on their political beliefs and affiliations.
Neither side cares about the feelings of the other. In other words, a large
number of Americans (and others around the world) are slipping into a group
psychopathic mental condition. Both camps have militarized their empathy in the
first sense, and, at the same time, have buried dug the grave for dumping the
second element of empathy: caring.
One row in the graveyard
of empathy (in the caring sense) is filled with the unread fiction. The best
novels celebrate our capacity for empathy and that is why these books have been
written, read, treasured, and handed down. People are buying fewer novels. They
are reading even fewer of the books they buy. I wouldn’t say people are reading
less. Many are reading more from their social media timelines. Is your timeline
a source of empathy for all sides? More likely, like my timeline, it is a
one-sided empathy landscape. Cheerleaders are working 24-hours a day feeding me
signals that remind me when to feel smug and self-righteous and when to feel
anger and outrage. My timelines on Facebook and Twitter allows me to feel
comfortable, right, engaged, part of a community or tribe of people who see the
world very much like me. This is an emotional trap and I’ve stepped in it.
Social media timelines are popular because of the clever way they work on
enhancing our empathy in the first sense of figuring out what someone is
thinking or feeling. It is remaking our vision of the world as one that is
occupied by psychopaths because we use this information to launch an attack.
Read any popular website like the New York Times comments sections on a
political story. It’s a humbling lesson when it comes to empathy. But this is
not how many of us wish to see ourselves. It’s hard to hold up the mirror when
what is reflected is not consistent with our self-image. The Trump
administration most dangerous accomplishment would be not to recognize what we
are seeing in the mirror as 2017 closes. It’s not him. It’s us. You. Me. In the
last year, ask yourself the cost we’ve all paid by concentrating on theory of
mind of others while ignoring caring, letting it atrophy like an unused muscle.
We find a movement to mock the idea of caring. Someone who cares about other’s
feelings are called ‘snowflakes’ as if empathy turns you into an emotional
puddle. Hold that thought for the day when AGI arrives and we are treated as 7.5
billion snowflakes which as far as AGI is concerned, how we feel is irrelevant
to it’s actions.
Fiction has another
purpose—to make you care about all the characters, the good, the bad, and
sometimes even the ugly ones. Characters are said to be thin, two-dimensional,
or shallow if absolutely nothing in their lives, plans, history that humanizes
them, and makes us care about them. We condemn the bad, for whom we withhold
redemption and forgiveness easily. But people and life are complex, often
contradictory, neither black nor white. Caring about the feelings of others
opens the door to a more complex, complicated, broken, and fragile world.
Nothing works the way it should, nothing is really fair or just, and everyone
dies in the end while meanwhile we try to get along with the least amount of
conflict as possible. In order to make an armistice we need load both barrels of
the empathy gun. I don’t see the will to that and that should worry
We have reached a stage of
anger, hate and polarization when we don’t care to consider anything that would
humanize a Donald Trump or a Hilary Clinton or their supporters. Even the best
of our commentators and pundits are drawn into the frontline battles where any
sign of caring is viewed as a betrayal. We cheer when someone on our side lands
a blow, although we should be reflecting and digging deeper. We don’t dig. We
stay firmly on the surface like good soldiers protecting his comrades at arms.
We are at war.
There is a term for what
we are avoiding in caring about something we have intense feelings of
dislike—it’s called cognitive dissonance. We hate and project that negative
emotion on people who don’t think like us. Part of the process is the inevitable
avoidance of facts or information that contradicts our belief about an idea, a
culture, or a person. In this simplistic, binary world of black and white, the
information is sort into one or the other category. You are on the white side;
those ‘morons’ are on the dark, ignorant side. No one cares about what a moron
thinks or feels. We call someone a moron or stupid so we can dismiss, diminish,
mock, or ridicule such people. We have never been so fully weaponized for social
and political battle. Our arsenal includes a mishmash of images, hashtags,
photographs, videos, comments, blogs, and gossips. As digital warriors we sit
before our screen poking the other side in the eye with a digital stiletto. As
they are blinded, it doesn’t hurt, right? Our side cheers. The other side
retaliates in kind. And so it goes like the trench warfare of World War
My New Years wish is that
we start 2018 with an intent to rediscover our second sense of empathy. We need
to remind ourselves, and to urge others, to care more about each other’s
feelings. It’s not enough to care about the feelings of people you like, those
on your side of this digital no man’s land. We need to also care about the
people on the other side and make room for their feelings. We have evidence from
the past where such a miracle happened.
In the history books it’s
called the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve and Day 1914, French, German and
British troops left their trenches on the Western Front and entered no man’s
land where they mingled, exchanged food, played football and sang carols.
Although the generals forced them back into the killing machine, for a moment in
time we were shown a glimmer of the best of our empathetic selves. The lesson is
when you hunt for the caring part of empathy, don’t look to the generals or
politicians or pundits, instead look to the common foot soldier for leadership
in caring. We have a chance to get out of the trenches and call a truce on
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
For a definition of
ethnocracy Wikipedia provides: “An ethnocracy is a type of
political structure in which the state apparatus is appropriated by a
dominant ethnic group (or groups) to further its
interests, power and resources. Ethnocratic regimes typically display a
combination of ‘thin’ democratic facade covering a more profound ethnic
structure, in which ethnicity (or race, or religion) – and not citizenship – is
the key to securing power and resources. An ethnocratic society facilitates the
ethnicization of the state by the dominant group, through the expansion of
control, often through conflict with minorities and neighboring
This definition of
ethnocracy also covers many countries in Southeast Asia. It also extends to
countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Trump’s election was a wakeup
call. We found that what we thought of as democracy was a public relations sham.
Unless, of course, you are part of the dominant ethnic group, then you are
celebrating a return to the way things should be. You’ve recovered your dignity
and respect and those outsiders have been pushed back.
Donald Trump’s election as
president in 2016 signified a major advancement of the concept of ethnocracy.
The current genocide of the Rohingya in Burma is another example of ethnocrats
‘cleansing’ their state of minority ethnic groups.
Demos is the
Greek word for the people. Democracy is a system where the consent of the
‘people’ is the basis of legitimacy for those who govern. The word ‘people’ is
in scare quotes because there lies the problem—how do you define ‘the people’?
The people’s (however you define that group) consent is conferred through an
election. With voter intimidation, suppression, rigging and gerrymandering, it
is possible for a dominant ethnic group to discourage ethnic minorities from
voting. The effect is a political system that has the outward appearance of a
‘demos’ consenting to the governing authorities but in fact this is a
The left and right,
republicans and democrats, nativist and globalist are united in their belief
that the other side is supporting a sham to suppress them. There are daily news
reports showing that the real split is between two social constructs of reality:
global/international and the native/ethnic. The two perspectives, which
determine how to allocate resources, extend security and protection, and set the
power and role of authority are in conflict. There is no middle ground. You see
people as the species or you see the people as a mythological ethnic group of
which you are a member.
An article in the Bangkok
Post reported a growing anti-tourism feeling in many countries. Foreigners are
no longer welcome. It’s not just tourism. Religious dogma has been used as
support for blood letting by nativist groups. In Burma, the genocide conducted
by the civilian and military government has been led with Buddhist monks in the
forefront of the call to eliminate the Rohingya. Trump made campaign promises to
build a long, expensive (an ultimately useless, symbolic) wall between the
Southern United States and Mexico. Bans of immigration and travel have followed.
Racial hatred against minority groups has been on the rise in many countries.
Police brutality is disproportionately applied against ethnic minorities.
Prisons are filled with ethnic minorities. But somehow we can bring ourselves to
see the pattern. One goal of an ethnocracy is to destroy the ability of the
dominant group to see such patterns. Willful blindness is a psychological
requirement for an ethnocracy to work. Women, particularly ethnic minorities, do
not fair well in terms of rights, education, security and protection in
ethnocracies. Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale won Emmy Awards
including Outstanding Drama Series for a dystopia where women had lost their
rights in a rigid, ethno culture.
Censorship has a new life
in the ethnocracy. Knowledge, expertise, and intelligence are devalued and
nativist propaganda bans studies, books, discussion and dissemination of
information that counters the ethnocratic version of reality. The
anti-intellectual fury against science and knowledge workers is understandable.
Unless that knowledge and the scientific method for examining reality is
shutdown or marginalized or dismissed, the results of the research might be used
by the global/international group to undermine the myths upon with an ethnocracy
is constructed. We’ve seen on YouTube ethnophiles who have had a DNA test
showing their mix ancestry and the cognitive dissonance that caused. There have
been, for example, a number of articles showing that historically there was no
ethnicity in the sense we use that term today. The great fear of ethnocrats is
their founding idea of race and ethnicity is true and real rather than a
construct of our minds. Evidence that it has no biological or evolutionary
support will never change the mind of an ethnocrat.
Science is distrusted by
ethnocrats for a couple of reasons. First, science cares nothing about ethnicity
as a membership requirement. Instead scientific method and process depends on
the quality of a mind, it’s openness, it’s curiosity, and it’s ability to
co-operate with others from different cultures. That makes science a global
force and a natural enemy of the ethnocrats who are anti-science in order to
secure their belief system. Second, science has the evidence and the means of
communication to demolish the concept of ethnicity. It is a man-made construct
and the racial hatred it encourages becomes the building blocks of an ethnocracy
and its culture. If you examine the budgets in an ethnocracy they are
surprisingly consistent: science is defunded, de-emphasized, and scientists
encouraged to work as engineers to build a strong ethnocracy.
The nativists are the core
of the ethnocratic dominant group. They will refuse to accept the science of
climate change and for a very good reason—the nativists have no solution climate
change. It can’t be problem if there is no solution. There is only a global
solution to deal with climate change and that is to go beyond ethnocratic
cultures and mindsets. The ethnocrats don’t see an impasse. They don’t find a
problem. You find the same approach with the concept of ‘freedom of expression’
or ‘human rights’. The Burmese rankle at the idea they are committing genocide
or engaging in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. This is, for the nativist,
not a ‘global’ issue, and there is no ‘global’ morality, only local, cultural
ways for the dominant ethnic group to deal with their minority populations. The
government officials don’t want NGOs, news correspondents, or other observers on
the scene to report what their security forces have done along with local
dominant group members. That is consistent for nativists; they believe they are
superior and in the right but when challenged become aggressive about their
rights as a sovereign nation/state and demand non-interference in their domestic
ethnocrats have support for their position in the seventeenth century the Treaty
of Westphalia. “State sovereignty is the principle of international law that
each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to
the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in
another country’s domestic affairs.”
We are no longer living in
the world of 1648 Europe. Nation, like the Greek word, People, has created a
tension as technology has encroached on state sovereignty, and the major
existential problems facing mankind as no longer ones local governments can
address on their own. The ethnocrats want 1648 treaty to be the model now and in
the future. That is understandable if your goal is to advance the interest of a
dominant ethnic group inside the boundaries of a state. Look around places like
the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and America and ask yourself how well the
17th century shoe fits the 21st century foot
The Rohingya genocide at
the hands of the Burmese is bibical in its full fury and brutality.
Unfortunately what is happening in Burma is not unique. Our species evolved as
members living in groups. Our self-identification, culture and group membership
maintains itself by the presence of outsiders. The non-group member is a threat,
the ‘bad’ the ‘evil’ the ‘criminal’ always someone who is less than human, a
demon to be put to the sword and house burnt down.
The implications arising
from the Rohingya ethnic cleansing are disturbing and disheartening for many
reasons. One implication is that we have another lesson of how difficult it is
for us to think in terms of species survivor–a condition for broad-based
co-operation required for climate change measures and human rights. Both are
based on us being part of a universal group. One species.
Peace prizes are awarded
to those few who call for universal human rights. Until the application of those
principles is required at home. Then Aung San Sui Kyi retreated to her native
ethnic, national group and that is a lesson not lost on others elsewhere in the
world. Trump leads the nationalist retreat in America. Around the world you find
leader after leader working the tribal drums against outsiders. You might say
these leaders have failed us. The other side, is more troubling, these leaders
reflect who we are and in shocking ways that are painful to accept.
The Rohingya are the
canary in the coal mine shaft. As more agricultural land become infertile,
temperature rise, extreme weather, and ocean acidification leads to mass
migrations, we will bear witness to tragedies like this on a on a global scale
and this will be a frequent feature of our lives. The cleansing of outsiders is
increasing a big political selling point to power in many countries.
In The Marriage
story revolved around the plight of Rohingya in Thailand. That Calvino novel was
published in 2014. Three years later, the Rohingya are receiving international
attention as the Burmese genocidal rulers sense no push back from America. We
have entered a time when leaders like Donald Trump asked for sympathy with the
side doing the murder, to see the matter through eyes. In which case, I say take
a close look at the photographs coming out of Burma. Ask yourself why you click
on a funny video of a dog streaming on your timeline and why scroll passed a
story about the Rohingya. We don’t want to look. We know but we don’t want to
Our group-think, group-act
psychology no longer works for 7.5 billion people and lays bear our emotional
wiring that is guiding us on a path toward extinction. If you could buy futures
in ‘hatred’ and ‘fear’ as commodities you stand to make a killing.
Most people have experienced enchantment. It’s a moment in time when you find a sense of wonder and beauty in something much larger than yourself, but includes you, and this enlargement of self gives us a subjective sense of bliss and joy. Given that payoff, you would think enchantment is sought after.
But when you look at a bar graph charting the use of the word ‘enchantment’ you discover a steady, long decline over the past 200 years. If it isn’t in the vocabulary, then enchantment is just another of those terms we no longer much think about. If you’d invested in enchantment shares in the stock market of modern life, you would have been a loser. The word still knocks around but has gained a bad reputation by its association with fairy tales. Not to worry; it has been repackaged for contemporary times. We live in a modern era where ‘enchantment’ like most other things have been commodified, packaged, and sold as mass produced experiences. What are the sources of the subjective feeling of being enchanted? Why, in modern times, do we feel disenchanted with life? The answers to these questions are not obvious or easy. What is more obvious is we are in an age of despair, an age of deepening disenchantment. How would be go about for the re-enchantment our world?
During the long period of hunter gatherers, nature with the wild flowers, rivers and streams, mountains, oceans and beaches, birds and animals would have provided a rich, diverse opportunity to feel the magic, bliss, joy, delight and charm that folds into our sense of enchantment. The point is, enchantment is about our subjective sense of how we feel about the world that surrounds us. Evolution would have taken care of eliminating the early bands of homo sapiens whose subjective sense was so whacky as to find bliss in riding a saber-tooth tiger.
Once we entered the agricultural period 10,000 years ago gradually our relationship with nature changed; we took to religion as the way to register enchantment. In the rituals, ceremonies, art, priesthood, angels and saints, we constructed enchantment from the tissue of beliefs that gave us new skin in the bliss and joy emotional space we had inherited from the hunter gatherers’ way of life. With religion, we learned to ride with a new set of communal mythical, celestial beings, holy, divine and enchanting.
The Enlightenment set a fire under the religion’s monopoly over truth-making for both the objective and subjective experiences of the world. Science gradually used observation and experiments and mathematics to provide objective explanations and descriptions that left religious doctrines stranded in misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition. Spinoza saw that religion had become a political enterprise “pandering to popular fears and illusions.” Prophets with ulterior motives have made history of many religions. In recent advances, science has given a biological and chemical explanation for our subjective experience. Consciousness, the so-called hard question, is being pursued and may soon be captured in a commercial or university lab.
To be satisfied with religious literal explanations about the world carried the stigma of ignorance. The educated populations found themselves excluded from the enchantment experience that had been in place for thousands of years. But in most places, even after 500 years, the Enlightenment has failed to substitute for enchantment that has the same appeal as nature had for our hunter gatherer ancestors and as religions had for the post-agricultural communities.
In the modern era of capitalism, enchantment has become a business. I recently listened to an Atlantic magazine podcast interview with Kurt Anderson talking about his new book FantasyLand. Two of the interviews gushed over their joy of visiting Disneyland with their children. There was no awareness that the ‘fake’ and ‘alternative’ reality of Disneyland is a modern enchantment enterprise that comes with tickets, long lines, popcorn and soda.
I may have been too harsh about the Atlantic interviewers lavishing praise of the Disneyland experience. Wikipedia delivers the facts: “Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average annual attendance of over 52 million. The resort is the flagship destination of Disney’s worldwide corporate enterprise, and has become a popular staple in American culture.”
Why are Disneyland and Disney World so popular and not just for Americans? There are Disneyland franchises in France, Japan and Hong Kong. The answer to popularity among diverse cultures is no doubt complex with lots of plausible ways—from mass marketing to alternative entertainment—to connect the dots. One of those answers is Disneyland is what capitalism has invented as a substitute for our desire to experience enchantment and share that joy with members of our family. Can that be so bad? It’s not a moral issue as much as it is an insight into how our modern world has been stripped of the magic of nature and the authority of religion, and in that void flies Tinker Bell over the Cinderella Castle and acts as our guide to the Magic Kingdom. Disney World with a payroll of 74,000 cast members is the largest single-site employer in the United States.
What is left out of the Disneyland enchantment option is the financial cost. While hunter gatherers had the great open spaces to experience enchantment, and the agriculturalist and industrialist age populations had churches available for the emotional uplift of joy, A family of four going to Disney World starts with a minimum budget of $2000 and runs up to $10,000. You reach for your wallet if you want to experience this artificial world of joy. The costs would exclude a lot of people who flock to the megachurches where ‘ministers’ preach sermons that act as a kind of Disneyland substitute for the poor where they are fleeced of their cash.
The problem is Disneyland, Disney World, megachurches are at times in competition and other times complicit with alternative radio, TV, and social media. These modern rivals for our unconscious mind and our subjective state of mind play out in the low-grade psychological wars one encounters on various timelines. Our modern enterprises in the enchantment business—and it is a commercial venture—either haven’t made a dent in the disenchantment of modern times or collaborate with these outlets in a joint effort to manufacture a safe subjective blissful reality. Religious fundamentalists, reality show personalities, and assorted specialized self-help gurus have filled a void. They have found a large unfulfilled bliss market among the discontented and disenchanted. Our subjective feelings are a marketplace where fortunes are made. The modern disenchanted are searching for reasons for why their lives lack bliss and joy. If you are disenchanted, that makes you vulnerable to emotions such as hate and fear. We have failed to re-enchant our world after science and philosophy cast a long shadow of doubt on the enchanters of the past. Knowledge provided the sword and we’ve been using it to chop off the head of enchanters. As most of these were charlatans, the misguided, or the outright grifters, to the scientific mind this was a good thing—to liberate humankind from ignorance is a noble goal.
Our collective enchantment deficiency is another explanation for the rise of someone like Donald Trump and other opportunists. Trump is the face of what a disenchanted person sounds and thinks like. Trump has channeled that absence of transcendent meaning for millions. He understood the world was no longer an enchanting one and could emotionally work up a crowd to support a way to claw back their loss of meaning, respect and purpose. It’s an old political gaming of the psychological desire to have feelings that put us in touch with our subjective need for irresistible charm and beauty that holds us in its spell. W.H. Auden once wrote, “A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.” Thus we must be cautious about spell casters and their magic over large numbers of people. We are easily tricked by the sleight of hand.
What lies ahead is the difficult mission to bring about a re-enchantment. We can’t go back to the hunter gatherers’ way of life, where nature dominated, or to religious explanations that no longer attract many. The experiments with Disneyland and Disney World have been highly profitable but ultimately required us to pay a high price for bogus and fake amusements only to discover the commercial enterprise was failure to re-enchant the world. The 1960s and New Age sought drugs as a way back to enchantment. Drugs became another avenue to furnish the chemicals required to kick start the altered state of mind needed for the enchantment experience. Huxley may have forecast our future back to enchantment—we drink our soma to supply the missing subjective experience we crave about being in the world.
The Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
If we can’t go back and what we have isn’t working, where does that leave us with our instinctive desire for enchantment and its return to our world? There has always been an element of fantasy in enchantments. Hunter gatherers would have read spirits, demons and omens into mountains, streams and forests. Any 11-year-old with a computer, smartphone or iPad can play games and enter virtual reality spaces where magic spells are plentiful. It may be easy to become lost in that world as our objective world is a messy, chaotic, confusing place filled with uncertainty. The allure of bliss and joy transports one beyond the walls of rational, objective reality. We’ve been unable to merge these realities any more than we’ve been able to merge quantum and classical worlds. We have an intuition that they are linked but we can’t discover it.
Everyone has their personal portal to enchantment. Might is Bach’s French Suite, the writings of Jorge Borges or John Berger, or the art of Max Ernst or M.C. Escher. Or just sitting quietly on our porch to watch the sunset at Eel Swamp.
Enchantment is unlocking the imagination and unearthing a sliver of joy, charm, and allure, uploading that feeling into my mind as the mental armor to protect me in the setbacks and disappointment that I surely will suffer in my brush with the unpredictability and uncertainty of my day. Meanwhile, there is no need to go to Paris because an exact replicate of the Eiffel Tower sits in Disney World in Orlando. Only the fake one is much smaller. In the minds of those who see the fake Eiffel Tower there is no difference in their experience as my experience in seeing a reproduction of M.C. Escher or Max Ernst paintings or drawings.
That should give us a hint that our subjective sense is not a reliable reporter of the objective world. But it never was. Enchantment has always been the willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world. The re-enchantment project is open to anyone. The ticket to buy is not at Disneyland, it is the retreat into the realm of imagination for the purpose to experience the bliss and joy that has long been absent in the post-enlightenment world. Ultimately it is this search for enchantment that will separate us from artificial intelligence who can do their work without connecting to a larger subjective sense of bliss and joy. But who can say what the future holds? Perhaps it is with the intermediary of machines will allows to re-enchant ourselves, to open up new pathways of imagination, beauty and grace that light our way back to lives saturated with enchantments. Who knows?
originates from a different perspective inside a patronage system. That seems
obvious but it needs to be made clear. One of the weaknesses of the patronage
system is the planning has undisclosed agendas. No one on the outside knows the
political physics inside that black hole.
There are two areas
where this shows up—procurement and operational procedures. When you purchase
services and goods for use in large system—for example, the military, police,
educators, forest management—planners assess specifications, policy goals,
performance, quality control, etc—all important to an overall evaluation as to
what is being fed into the existing system won’t cause problems of integration.
Say the spare parts aren’t reliable or durable, and when a machine breaks down
the system closes until the repair is made. If that is a transportation system,
then the shutdown affects other external systems—people, for example, can’t use
transportation to go to work. Matters such as training, maintenance, spare
parts, upgrades, and quality control require planning if the new service or
goods will be effective for the purposes purchased.
A number of crucial
public services such as airports, electricity generation, water management,
highways, ports, and waste deposal require a high degree of coordination,
technical skill and understanding and rely on independent experts. Planners
recommend what services and goods are optimal to the overall system directly
involved, and what possible consequences may arise to interconnected system.
Also planners take into account the chokepoints where public and private spheres
overlap. No man is an island, and no public system is one either. System
planning requires a high degree of co-operation and sharing of expertise across
public and private sectors, drawing upon information and knowledge about
operational procedures. Most large systems are networked and fragile. It doesn’t
take much of a sudden change to collapse a crucial, related part of an overall
system. Cut the electricity supply to Bangkok for 48-hours and see what happens
during that period. It wouldn’t be
Take for example,
international airports where airlines, pilots, service and maintenance staff,
immigration, customs, police, private vendors, and ground transportation require
an understanding of vulnerabilities that result if one part of the system
becomes overloaded. Recently, when four additional flights from Hong Kong,
Singapore and China were approved for landing at Don Mueang Airport, brought the
arrival of an additional 1200-passengers into the arrival hall already packed
with passenger from the existing flights that had already landed. Those
additional passengers overloaded the immigration desks and passengers reported a
four-hour delay in getting their passport stamped. One explanation is the
officials approving the additional inward flights didn’t communicate that
information to immigration and customs, or if it was communicated, it wasn’t
acted upon. Incidents such this one illustrates the role of contingency planning
in complex operations. Contingency planning means putting in procedures to deal
with the surprise, the unexpected event. If there was such a plan, it wasn’t
My theory is a
patronage system undermines the capacity for system planning and coordination.
Procurement and maintenance under a patronage system are often compromised
because of the tension of conflicting interest. The obvious conflict is that
patronage works to find ways to ensure a level of benefits flows into the
network of patrons who occupy the top positions in the organization. The part of
the planning for procurement is spent working out what is the best deal for the
patronage network and still will deliver a benefit for the publicly stated
reason for the procurement.
You can tell a
procurement system in a patronage system from the goods it procures—they are
usually from an eye-popping number of different manufacturers, middlemen, and
specifications. That’s the cost of patronage; the kind of diversity that has no
supports outside of the patronage class. Such systems are difficult from an
operational point of view in the same way that simultaneously playing Chess, Go,
and Checkers on the same board would cause problems. As mechanical and
operational breakdowns pile up, it may be too costly to do anything other than
junk the machine or system and procure another one. The point is that in a
patronage system at the operational level things can break down quickly and the
lack of planning for that breakdown is magnified as it works itself through a
complex system. Like a bowling ball rolled down a pool table to break the balls,
everyone realizes this is a different kind of
As the problems
accumulate, it becomes apparent that maintenance and planning issues are
resolved on an emergency basis, and everyone in the line of fire scrambles to
avoid blame and responsibility.
In Thailand, the
history is for governments to plan for the immediate issue, find ways to secure
an immediate play back, and they are less concerned about the knock on effect to
the system as a whole. When a patronage system is scaled up from a less
complicated agricultural based economy to a dynamic, high-tech driven
information economy, the most glaring problem is the lack of forward system
planning. That requires hard analytical skills that look for inefficiencies and
seek to eliminate or minimize them. In a patronage system, it’s exactly that
mindset which is a threat to how things actually work. It is conflict between
two contradictory values—the traditional patronage system (guaranteed stability
to agricultural communities) with an advance modern system that has broader
based tools and is more flexible. The modern system is better adapted to respond
to unstable, unpredictable events. In this clash of systems, authorities will
find it difficult to choose which model to use as a planning roadmap. The
default is the patronage system model. The problem is that model is incapable of
reacting quickly enough to 'surprise' events that can cause system collapse.
Next time you are caught in a
multi-hour airport queue at immigration, remember the system was designed to
serve patrons and not you. Don’t take it personally. It only means that you lack
the right connection inside this closed patronage system; otherwise, you
wouldn’t find yourself standing in the queue with the tired masses. Patrons, in
theory, look after their own circle but if you don’t have a patron, well, you
are on your own to deal with the sound and fury of dysfunction swirling outside
coupled with better techniques of carbon dating have pushed back the origins of
our species to nearly 300,000 years. The environment in which humans evolved
favoured family groups as a cohesive, cooperative unit for food gathering and
protection against predators. Complaining about your uncle, grandmother or
nephew being idle or incompetent wasn’t going to help. The whole group was
interconnected. They stuck together because they had no other choice. And
remember, for hundreds of thousands of years, hominids lived in family
arrangements far different from our own. The dye was cast.
The family has remained a
constant throughout our history. The first political institutions drew from the
‘family’ as a model to legitimize its authority. All of us have valued family.
The problem has been how far the family concept can scale to cultural and
political institutions involving millions of people. Only in the last few
hundred years has there been any widespread political movement based on notions
other than ideas and values drawn from the long road from kinship to clan to
tribe to nation state. Each step has scaled up our sense of family to include
more and more people that our pre-historic ancestors would have considered
Thailand’s culture largely
revolves around a modified kinship model. This is not unique. China is an
example of the kind of ancestor worship, paternal hierarchy, father/son set of
values that underlies the political system. Given the success of China
economically, and the ongoing decline of the United States in its international
leadership role, it is time to assess the conflict between kinship-based and
individual-based political systems.
One might argue that the
colonial and capitalistic nation-states were able to overcome the old
kinship-based civilization, which was the foundation of the scaled up
bureaucratic nation-state—an institution that used the cultural rhetoric of
kinship as the basis of legitimacy. When, in fact, the nation-state evolved into
a system of inclusion of elites. The political system was shaped by innovation,
a market system, and co-operation between the ruling class and
commercial-trade-innovative entrepreneurial class.
What was new from Europe
starting in the 15th century was the evolution of political and
economic system that wasn’t primarily kinship driven—or at the very least the
kin relationships weren’t used to oppress or suppress the commercial class in
order to protect a related class of elites. The co-operation gradually blurred
into political participation of a larger set of people. That participation may
have been illusory in many cases but it created a new notion—that people were
equal, with equal rights to liberty, justice and freedom, and opportunity. These
ideals were and are challenged by those who rely on the kinship system as the
political model. No one is equal to your father. You have no freedom to defy
your father, or challenge his opinions or worldview.
A stumbling point between
the kinship-based and individualistic systems is the role of authority and
whether there is a built-in respect for authority that limits the kind of
challenges that can be made to authority. In Thailand, elders, monks,
high-ranking officials, among others have traditionally been guaranteed a
high-level of unquestioning respect. But that respect has been chipped away over
the last twenty years accelerated by social media—whatever one’s view about
social media, most would agree it is not a force designed to advance ‘respect’
for authority. In the last couple of centuries, democracy has come to mean that
‘respect’ for authority is only valid so long as authority respects the wishes
of the majority.
In many countries if the
respect of those in power has collapsed because of bad policies and actions,
there is a remedy: the greedy, inefficient, incompetent or self-dealing
authorities aren’t shown respect—they are removed from power by the voters. Not
being elected is a signal the voters trust your opponent more than they trust
you. Appealing to the voters as your ‘father’ will likely fail to win the day in
Elections, it turns out,
became the ultimate weapon for the ordinary citizen to show his or her disdain
for the governors and to elect new people who promised better policies. An
election was a test of whether voters continued to respect the government and
leaders who were made accountable—at least in theory—for their action as
the price for their respect. The problem with the traditional kinship/respect
model was its rigidity. There was no social or political space where someone
could show disapproval without it being interpreted as disrespect. Respect means
submission to the judgment of someone the traditional members of society cloak
with the garment of respect.
Disrespect, in the
traditional sense, has always been viewed as highly personal. No one likes the
ordeal of mud being slung at them in public or before their peers. It was the
idea of the right to respect that men used to fight duels over. In the modern
political era, respect was earned. Performance, competence and expertise became
the new political currency, which has gradually reconfigured the conditions on
which respect was paid to someone. That’s a huge change. Respect went from
being unconditional to conditional. This is perhaps the major change politically
in the last 250 years, and with Trump it is looking like there is a movement to
return to the unconditional respect value system in the West.
The culture of youth
connected like a digital umbilical chord to social media has collapsed the
distance between people and ideas. The rapid transformation that has empowered
and encourage youth to freely ‘share’ their ideas and messages has resulted in a
pushback from those who continue to believe in the unconditional respect of the
past. Censorship of social media has been the official response in a number of
countries. But it is unclear how successful governments will be in
managing and controlling disrespectful content given there are 2 billion
Facebook readers. Not only in Thailand are authorities under pressure to enforce
conformity, worldwide the youth, who have grown up on digital information, roam
freely, exchanging views and ideas, images, gossip, likes and hates. Inside this
new chaotic, disrespectful technological space, the audience that supports
unconditional respect for authority will dwindle. Social media works as digital
democratization of culture creating a free zone to exchange views that may be
disrespectful. And this new cultural sandbox explains, in part, the huge
attraction to the young trying to find their own identity through their online
relationship with people and information.
An illustration of the
conflict between these two positions on the nature, right and scope linked to
public demonstration of ‘respect’ came to a head at a freshmen initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University in
Thailand last week. Every year there are stories, some outrage or another, about
initiation rituals at many Thai universities. In this case, the ritual required
freshmen to prostrate before the monument of King Chulalongkorn, who established
the university and who abolished slavery and prostration. Some students objected
to prostrating on the ground, saying they had a prior agreement with the
university to show respect by bowing instead. A small number walked out of the
A lecturer holds a student in a
headlock in an initiation ceremony at Chulalongkorn University on Thursday,
August 3, 2017. Source: Khaosod English
A photographer caught the
moment when a lecturer held one of the protesting students in a headlock,
dragging him away. Photographs and video were widely circulated on social media.
Both sides of the Thai political divide—tradition vs.
social media to offer their views on what had happened, why it happened, and who
was responsible. To enforce respect against the consent of those from whom it is
demanded requires a set of good arguments, or alternatively a
The role of respect
remains contested among factions in Thailand. There is little tolerance shown
toward students who were willing to show, in the view of faculty members,
disrespect. You are in deep waters once you are deemed disrespectful in
Thai culture. Bangkok Post columnist Kong Rithdee summarized the larger message sent
by the conduct at the initiation ceremony: “In Thai society, teenagers who speak
up, walk out and question what hasn’t been questioned for decades are viewed as
insolent, attention-seeking and all-around detestable.” Nonetheless the testing
of the boundaries of respect and disrespect continue.
There is a long history
connecting respect cultures with the right to use intimidation, force, or
violence to enforce that value. The essential difficulty with the
kinship/respect model is there isn’t a clear, efficient process to throw out the
incompetent family member or friend. Inefficiencies are absorbed as part of the
costs of keeping the family a happy place for all of its members. The
inconvenience, damage or loss that occurs and accumulates as a result of
protecting kinship-based cultural system isn’t a cause for challenging
authority. It might be the exact opposite—the high official who covers for his
incompetent niece or nephew is seen as reinforcing the importance of family. As
without a secure, protected family, so the story goes, no public good can
succeed and no peace secured.
What makes the Trump
presidency unusual is, by chance or design, his crude graft of the
kinship/respect culture onto the American democratic model. He’s brought his
family to the White House. His businesses flourish. There is no apparent
distinction between his personal ambitions and public duties. In Trump’s case,
unfortunately he lacks the Chinese respect for science and education. Trump’s
kinship model is closer to a Medieval European model than to a modern Chinese
one where kinship has drawn significant gain by advancing an engineering class
of technocrats to design and carry out the nuts and bolts of governance while
leaving respect to the elders and family as an important political pillar to the
The question is whether
the Chinese model will be the one that replaces the American model on which
political institutions are founded. Trump has put America in a headlock and is
dragging it off familiar turf and into a wholly different kind of game. This has
shocked and terrified people who took the American institution-based system for
granted. They never thought that America was that kind of political system. A
political system is its institutions, and its institutions are its people, and
the people have a cultural bias as to the role of authority and
China was a strong
civilization centuries before the rise of the West. In the long run, historians
may see Trump’s election as the beginning of the end of what was a failed
experiment to break with the kinship/respect model. Alternatively, with the
rapidly changing digital environment it may be the kinship/respect model is
already exhausted, and a new system, yet undefined, is emerging that is neither
Chinese nor American, neither Eastern nor Western.
We are always at some
crossroad of history. We’ve reached such a crossroad and it is unclear which
path we will follow as one leads to the headlock of respect while the other path
leads away from unquestioned, unchallenged respect in the same way we chose to
leave the path of slavery. We can do better as a species, and as people, once
the ideal of the family with the father/husband at the head is no longer the
metaphor used to mint licenses to exploiters.
Here is an invaluable guide for journalists covering controversial events or activities, or working in countries with media restrictions. You can download for free as an ebook A Guide for the Savvy Journalist in a World of Ever Decreasing Privacy. There is a great deal of useful practical advice on how to protect yourself and sources in a world where digital security can and is breached. The book is supported by Reporters without Borders, a group that knows the dangers that reporters on the ground increasingly face.
We are in the midst of a worldview war. Trump’s election was a successful campaign in this war. Many are trying to figure out the bases of this conflict, the psychology of the opposing armies, and the goals and tactics of each side. Everyone, it seems, has a theory. I’m no different, finding myself curious as to pump and grind of emotions and intellect flowing through the collective hive mind. It makes my head hurt to think about the mess we find ourselves in and curious absence of any reasonable plan to escape the impending crash.
I don’t have the answers. No one does. But I have some thoughts to share as our aircraft is losing altitude and the fasten-seat belt sign is turned on.
We all have a worldview. It is our operating system that quietly runs in the background. We call this inaccessible area The Unconscious. It seems to belong to us. Others around us, friends and family and colleagues all have one that is mostly like our own. We are comfortable around them. Often they think like us.
But what is really going on in the unconscious? Freud had ideas. So do others. The reality is what goes on in the unconscious is a subject of much speculation. We don’t really know. But we have our favorite theories and assumptions. Our reality is we live in a kind of prison which excludes us from the main grounds called the unconscious. By definition, if we could open that mental oyster, it would no longer a mystery. We secretly believe our little oyster is filled with a string of sacred pearls. Everyone else is either a pearl wearer like us or one of those heretics who believes that science demystifies pearls by reducing them to a tiny piece of sand. Nothing special. All is explained, described and understood as part of a natural process. Where’s the beauty, the magic, the mystery in an academic explanation?
Our pearls are cultured. Our societies, rulers, leaders, teachers, preachers, celebrities all work that piece of sand until it is a smooth, white, glorious object reflecting the colors of the rainbow. Our worldview, once in place, is less a necklace than leg shackles and chains we drag behind us as we examine the world around us. We don’t process these restraints as a kind of prison like experience. The beauty of the best run prisons is they seem free, open and friendly. Until you try to saw through the shackles.
Shifting a medieval metaphor for a modern one is the way intellectuals travel down roads that promise a destination where understanding waits. From shackles to operating systems is the path we’ve been on for centuries.
Everyone has an operating system that runs their personal worldview. That operating system has been encoded to describe, identify, understand, and react to others and objects encountered in everyday life. It’s not optional; the system of comprehension and coherence depends on a worldview to run checks on what our perceptional sensory inputs feed into our mental network. Evolution equipped us with the basic operating system to survive and reproduce. The rest is built on top like the cone of a volcano. Smoke is pouring our of our volcanoes. I wake up each morning and check feeds to see if the big explosion has happened overnight.
If you’ve not read this essay by George Lakoff, I’d recommend you’d have a look. The idea of framing ‘values’ to fit the worldview of others is an interesting idea. Lakoff believes that progressives have lost the battle with conservatives because the latter have avoided wonk-like framing their position in terms of facts and policy specifics when what moves the listener is in flavor of ‘values’ that progressives believe in.
Philosophy, psychology, history, neuroscience, and linguistics are networked in ways we are just beginning to understand. The passport between them is often a metaphor, and any time a writer uses a metaphor, it is a clue that he/she has only an indirect way of expressing a complicated idea in one domain and importing it into another.
We struggle within the cognitive limitations of a finite brain capacity, faulty operating system that is difficult to upgrade in order to run new information programs, and we are loaded with heuristics that are crude hammers our Bronze Age brains use to pound the dents out of reality. We are using our brains in ways that exceed the evolutionary requirements of survival and reproduction.
The battle over the nature and meaning of knowledge is closely linked historically with one’s worldview of moral authority. Until the enlightenment, moral authority resided exclusively in a king, warlord, religious head. Codes, morals, values, and knowledge were a royal or religious cartel. Like all cartel bosses, anyone with ideas, theories or knowledge that challenged their authority and dogma was burnt at the stake.
It has only been 500 years (we are 200,000 years old as a species) since science derived an alternative system upon which to found knowledge, to describe and understand reality. This has been a huge revolution. It overthrew the moral authority cartel’s position in establishing and enforcing an absolute, unchanging worldview. We are now in the midst of a pushback against a scientific process of assessing facts, establishing bodies of knowledge based on evidence, observation and testing. We’ve dethroned the dogmatic moral authority in the West. Nothing in modern science could have been achieved otherwise. The written history of this progress as early scientists were dragged through the Inquisition and torture chambers is the history of how science became accepted as an alternative to processing of reality. This new approach to thinking gave birth to a new mental operating system. One that gradually showed an incredibly powerful ability to challenge and replace the old order. Those with a vested interest, meaning those previous social, religious and political elites were wrong footed by science. If these forces allowed themselves to be reshaped politically socially and economically by science, it would be the end of them. It is a myth to believe that two operating systems can run a social, political and economic system as a kind of joint venture.
A violent reaction in Turkey at a bookstore highlights the emotions involved.
Progressives feel that battle was long ago won. But it wasn’t won. It is being waged in America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Progressives underestimated the vast numbers of people who were willing to support regressive moral authority cartels. They pedal their dogma to the masses who find the strong, decisive leader who promises moral certainty a source of comfort and security. Science has always been the domain for those who have a high tolerance for intellectual discomfort, accept uncertainty as normal, and knowledge as tentative until a better description or definition is discovered. No one has the moral authority in this system to throw out contrary facts. The war that has ignited is a cognitive and emotional battle. The progressives march into conflict armed with heavy weight cognitive weapons such as big data, equations, computers, prediction models and probability estimates to predict the future course of events. The regressive types march to an emotional tune sung by a strongman who promises to rid them of the fear and confusion of the progressives. Our vast unconscious loves that melody. It is irresistible as it engages feelings that are embedded deeply in our core operating system and to which our analytical facilities cannot easily influence.
The nature of the problem in this conflict is nature of spoken and written language. We experience life through our sensory perceptions which act as tripwires for our emotions. Language is the secondary filter (after emotions prime us to narrate a response) to describe what we perceive, what it means, its purpose and utility. Our language has a surface universality in the words and phrases that are communicated within and between communities. A central problem is the imperfection and limitations of language. Words are ladders that never gets us over the wall of our emotions. Words are a small step ladder pushed against the side of a mountain. John Paulos’ classic book titled Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy Its Consequences made popular the phrase innumeracy to describe people who have little to no mathematical language skill or facility in which to navigate through life. Professor Paulos also shows the cost exacted on people who suffer from such illiteracy. The language of science is mathematics. The equations are symbolic representations that are tested against the reality they propose. Illiteracy is a cognitive handicap that stunts understanding about the world. Either the observations and testing confirm the equation or they fail. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and General Relativity had testable mathematical equations that have been confirmed by observation.
After Einstein’s 1915 General Relativity was proposed, a hundred scientists wrote papers claiming it was wrong. When Einstein was asked about the 100-fold challenge, he replied, that a hundred papers was overkill, as only one scientific paper with an alternative theory that was confirmed by observation was enough.
The standard model describes the composition of reality. This is a mathematical description and it has been observed and tested. Perhaps down the road, new observations and testing will overturn part or all of the standard model. But one thing is for certain—no authority figure in science will throw a scientist in prison for launching an attack with new equations. What can and can’t be done is the realm of mathematical description in thermodynamics. In the classical world, all our observations and testing support the current theories of thermodynamics and the underlying math. It is worth noting that those with differing social, religious, political and economic worldview never extend their dogmas into the world of mathematics. Fundamentalist don’t have an alternative mathematical model describing the reality of events and behavior in the universe or for thermodynamics. The absolutist vocabulary of words doesn’t extend itself into the mathematical realm nor do they have an alternative theory for the atom, fusion, or time dilation. Dogma based on words to support emotional reactions breaks down and collapses when it challenges science. Its arguments can only be sustained by threats and violence.
If science wants to expand its operating system, it also needs self-examination. In 500 years it has not won the cognitive battle with its mathematics and beautiful equations. Lakoff is right. Until the scientific operating system can engage the emotional needs of most people, it will remain a small elite group of cognitive workers who are belittled and despised by those running to seek shelter with traditional strong, decisive leaders who understand how they feel – and show it in a way they can connect with.
The future growth in cognitive science is likely to be the writing of emotional algorithms. Our desires, hopes, and feelings are the words we use to describe the firing of chemical electrical patterns occurring in the brain as input is processed. Once a mathematical solution to manipulating these patterns are discovered, science may gain control over the riddle of our emotional states. Advances in writing algorithms are are showing promise in matching music to control emotional states. This is a development worth watching.The Mozart in the Machine looks at the future possibility of biometric data and AI to decode our emotions.
We need our best cognitive workers to produce a new generation of algorithms dealing with the negative aspects of anger, another for fear, and yet others for the tidal high wave emotions that roil the populace. Such algorithms might not take us to the stars, but they might save us all from being swamped by the emotional tsunami headed our way. The operating system has to fit the platform it works on. We have two divergent operating systems in competition and neither one is processing effectively at the main street level right now.
Most writers are asked
about their prior jobs. When I say my job was a law professor and lawyer, they
follow up by asking whether law training helps or hurts you as a novelist. The
creative aspects of law practice before a judge features in this excellent
article by Maksymilian Del Mar:The Legal
Having been on both sides of
two creative cultures, and that has given me a slightly different perspective
from Del Mar. Here are my thoughts. Lawyers (specifically trial lawyers) and
judges can show flashes of creativity in interpreting another’s story so that it
fits better than his rival’s story. Both litigants desire outcome permitted by
law and they often have very different stories about the same events or
circumstances. No doubt that takes creativity to shape a client’s story into a
convincing, compelling narrative that blows the other’s story out of the water.
You’ve seen the films or TV show where this happens.
Okay, if lawyers are so
creative, why aren’t most novelists by training lawyers? The reality is most
lawyers couldn’t bother to write a novel. But I understand a fairly sizeable
number do write that novel. It’s a bit like Fermi’s paradox about
extraterritorial life. If they are out there, why don’t they contact us? One
explanation is the class of lawyers who write that novel on the side, with a
their little makeshift altar/shrine complete with John Grisham’s picture, can’t
write a publishable novel. Their novels may circulate as ebooks but they become
lost (rightly or wrongly) in the deep space of indifference where most mediocre
stories go to die.
I have a theory why that is
the case. Like all theories, it is subject to be falsified. Here it goes. A
novelist must possess the skill and talent toinventan original, believable cast of
multilayered characters, each with their own demons, dreams, loves, betrayals,
bitter experiences and aggression. The fiction characters exist in the writer’s
head but they move through their tangled of conflictinginventedstories as if they are real people in
real situations. The novelist invents them, he transcripts them, he allows them
to vent their feelings, doubts about their lives, the significance of events,
along with smells, sights, and touch all have to be forged into words. In terms
of the legal world’s thinking the writer, in effect, becomes his own
Every lawyer is told from
day one that only a fool is his own lawyer. That’s the poisonous little seed of
contempt that lawyers are taught about thinking he can be both client and
lawyer. The lawyer, like the judge, waits until someone comes to them with a
story and conflicts with someone else’s story of why I was injured, cheated,
beaten, extorted—you get the picture. Their stock in trade of the trial lawyer
is his positive, creative spin on the evidence that supports his client’s
The judge’s verdict decides
whose story is the most reasonable and supported by the evidence. You can have
some creative fun going through the evidence but the reality is the judge
doesn’t make up the characters or the evidence, or set the scene in the distant
future or past, or explore other aspects of the litigant’s lives; he only cares
about the evidence that comes before him. Inevitably in the legal world there is
a distinct winner and loser. In the fictional world, things can be much more
uncertain and murky.
It is precisely this
attitude about being his own lawyer that terminates his creativity beyond his
office or chambers. His cardinal belief isn’t of much use to him much as a
novelist where readers demand creativity unearthing quirks of fate, coincidence,
and doubt that shape a character’s motive or intention. Courtroom dramas
compress life. Like a jpeg it is useful to compress information unless it is
totally relevant. It allows the judicial system to work. It excludes the
irrelevant. Like any system of law creativity is the lifeblood that keeps the
lawyers and judges relevant and useful.
In my view, the manacle of
relevance chains the lawyer and judge to his armchair consideration of what
happened. No novelist would ever make that mistake.
In the end, yes, lawyers and
judges are creative. But does that give them advantage as a novelist? I argue
that creativity of law practice (unless you are representing Wall Street
bankers) is the kind of creativity process that fails to produce publishable
fiction. The novelist isn’t constrained by waiting for a case to come in the
door, and what goes through his or her mind is from all of the evidence what is
relevant. The rest gets thrown away.
While, the novelist goes out
the door and finds the case somewhere in the street or alleyway. He or she is always bumping into things. Irrelevant things that enhance fiction such as the way a shadow falls over a face at sunset. Creativity for fiction is a very different
process. The rules of evidence don’t apply. But I know whom I’d like to follow
into fictional territory, where it is the irrelevant, irreverent side road
keeping far away from the expressway to relevance. That’s the road filled with
serendipity: and where the best creative pearls are found are never where you
think they’d be found.
Christopher G. Moore,
creator of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series
When you come across the
phrase “noir crime fiction. “ The first question is what is meant bynoir?
I have written private eye fiction set in Southeast Asia. My experience has
probably been different from many other crime writers in the United States or
Canada. The purpose is to start a discussion rather than reaching a definitive
After twenty-five years
writing the sixteen novels in the Vincent Calvino series, I’ve had a chance to
think back about the books and find I’ve evolved a meaning ofnoir.
Here’s my one sentence definition:Noirfiction serves to deconstruct the
security state by exposing its acts, secret and public, of hypocrisy, venality,
Above all the security state
is unaccountable for its actions. During the course of an investigation the
private eye in a noir novel reveals the dangers faced by ordinary people at a
time and place where state authorities act with impunity. The noir story
recounts his experience working inside such a system as he attempts to solve a
crime or a find a missing person. What the reader discovers is that through a
private eye’s investigation the evidence mounts as to how such a regime, in
particular its justice system, operates like a blind force of nature, without
logic or reason. It is this unpredictability of state authorities and the harm
they inflict on ordinary people.
What makes a noir novel
distinctive is the acceptance by the private eye, like those around him—except
the romantic—is powerless to stop official acts of violence. Violence is the
exercise of the raw power of the security state as if on permanent war footing.
At war all critics are enemies and all enemies an existential
A noir novel can be judged
on the author’s success in recreating precisely this war mentality. The
contradictions build up over the course of the novel. Choices of the characters
are rarely binary, clear and absolute. Instead their choices in the struggle for
justice become blurry, compromised, incomplete, pointless and
Like everyone else, the
private eye in a noir novel has the choice to surrender to the dictates of the
security officials or confront them head on and risk being destroyed. The pure
noir moment is the realization that no one can escape from attention, dictates
and forces of raw power. Everyone outside their narrow band of supporters is
The authority of a
democratic, liberal political system is constrained, accountable, bounded by
laws, regulations, and customs. There is no noir in such a system. For one very
good reason: there is a consensus that the leaders in such a system have
legitimate authority to make the security forces account for their use of
violence, threats or intimidation.
Remove the democratic
legitimacy and you enter a very dark place whistling through an infinite