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