The Astrologer’s End Game
I’ve been thinking about the current government’s plan for Thailand to create a digital economy, AI and H.P. Lovecraft. Digital is a magic word. It is a talisman for progress and development like Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy and other of the upper case words that fly past in the sentences we read every day.
You may have missed the news cycle where the prime minister announced Thailand’s plan to enter the digital economy. There are a number of contradictions in such a plan not least of which is that internet freedom is ranked as ‘not free’ and Thailand is lower than Burma. You might say those are minor details to be worked out later. Or you might think if your substituted digital for air transport economy, with the caveat that all authorized aircraft are barred from Thai airspace and offenders will upon landing will be arrested. It’s too early for an analysis of the specifics of what Thailand would need to adjust for a digital economy to work. It is, however, a good time to look at the larger context of the mindset inside the digital economy and where cultural, political, social as well as economic implications that lie ahead.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s world, the digital economy is one more milestone leading to our eventual extinction. Biology, ecology and technology merge in our little tango until reaching a final climax when the music stops. That end is far down a dark future road. For the here and now, the question is more immediate—how does a country and a culture move without great disruption to its core moral values, myths and legends from an analogue society to a digital one? Or can the disruption to the existing cultural infrastructure be limited or contained?
In other words, what resources in terms of education, research and development, incentives and mindset must be changed to ease the transition from one type of economy to another? The information is written in the stars. The difference that matters is in the process used to extract that information. Astrologers have extracted information from the stars long before the digital age. In the scientific age of algorithms, big data and space missions, involve the use of different tools, training, skills and language from those used by a fortuneteller. There are costs involved any time a culture moves from astrologers’ predictions to the international, post-Enlightenment world of scientists speaking to each other in complex mathematical equations. You can launch a government policy by announcing it. But to change a cultural mindset requires more than a public announcement.
Most of us go about our lives flitting between mental states that are not unlike goal posts on a football field. One end is the rational, deliberate, analytical end zone where uncertainty and ambiguity over whether you’ve scored a real goal is elusive, and at the opposite end someone like an astrologer is the goalkeeper. At that end zone are the absolutes, myths, fables, legends, the sacred, where there is never a doubt. Our feet are on the ground but we long to experience a sense of transcendence, freedom from doubt, and glue to bond a large community. An Astrologer’s culture delivers such goods and that’s what makes them endure, a lot of people want exactly these things.
In between is the playing field where teams from both sides huddle, call plays, throw passes and where the highest achievement is to score an on-side goal. Logos and Mythos are the opposing goal post.
The Logos side, the ‘reasoned discourse’ is based on doubt and predictions on a testability and repeatability of a set of facts that are falsifiable by any independent observer. It embraces the Darwinian world in which 99.9% of all species go extinct, and that will include us. High priests lift a shield manufactured from authority, fable and dogma to protect such a bleak future. Science fields the logos team. Their players are coached on a diet of facts and logic. They enter the game not with an answer but with questions. They are hypothesis creators, tentative, and comfortable with ambiguity. In their playbook, they move down field accepting that in a state of ignorance and chance, nothing is certain. Like Dr. Spock, they are offended by arguments tainted by emotional or irrational premises that aren’t falsifiable. Science can partially lift the veil of ignorance before it falls again on hard questions for which there is no certain answer. Consciousness, dark matter, and dark energy are contemporary examples that most scientists throw up their hands and confess ignorance. Of course, there is hand waving by a few but that will never pull down the science goal post. Logos gives you a card with this written on it: You’ve cleared the maternity ward and ahead is an exit that doubles as the crematorium door. For the duration of that journey, you can accept the handrails of dogma or accept no one has truthful answers to the big questions.
In your time between those two doors you will be in a free fall. As John Gray writes in the New Statesman about Lovecraft, we may have to face that we occupy a universe that is nothing more than lawless chaos. There is no parachute. There is no safe place to land. Mythos shields us against such a terrible reality.
The Mythos side shelters under a large tent populated by spiritualists, religious believers, astrologers, shamans, faith healers, magicians, palm readers, New Age people, artists, dropouts and the authoritarian minded who place priority on a number of values—authority, hierarchy, loyalty, purity, security, and faith.
By tradition, a high priest wouldn’t tolerate being contradicted, questioned or his authority doubted. His word and precepts embody the absolute truth. Inside this universe, the mind of man reigns supreme. Until the Greeks came along logic at least in elementary form likely existed but it was hardly a cultural necessity. The role of Logos accelerated around five hundred years ago with the Age of the Enlightenment. The impact it had the West saw dramatic political, social and economic changes. In the East, there was drama but most of it couldn’t be traced to the Enlightenment. People, whether from the West or East, possess the same basic computing wetware in their skull. How they process information is part culture and part hardwired. Research suggests that we are predisposed to Mythos no matter where we come from.
The digital economy the Thai Prime Minister wishes to kick start in Thailand is a modern product born from the scientific tradition. The Mythos cultural ownership over ideas, explanations and proofs act like the dark matter, as scaffolding for in the digital world. Logos represents, based on this metaphor, 5% and Mythos 95% of the human mind. Our rational, logic mind is the mahout on the back of the unconscious, irrational mind. Both Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking, Fast and Slow
Mythos has a different card: Your faith and belief are your parachute, strap it on, and whatever you do when one of those free fallers appears along side, ignore him because you have a safe landing ahead. It is difficult to organize, lead and field an army based on the elegance and beauty of a mathematical equation. While debate, words and equations are the arsenal of Logos, Mythos uses hate and anger as a prelude to inflicting violence and to redact all evidence of violence and the officials doing the dirty work from the public record. The history of Mythos is a long chronicle of blood letting and violence. The release by the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee of a 500 report documenting torture by the CIA has exposed that underneath the myths, fables and legends of American democracy and ethics masked a much darker side, one that leverages cruelty, brutality, and lying in the name of freedom. Mythos hides the dehumanization carried out on an industrial scale inside dungeons, torture chambers, Black sites, and detention centres. (See New Yorker article: here)
In reality, we all have a logos and mythos side. Knowledge and anti-knowledge, like matter and anti-matter annihilate each other, and when you look around you see evidence of that mutual destruction most places that you look. But no one should be smug and feel they are above the fray. Would you buy a condo unit on the 13th floor of a building given there were comparable units on the 14th and 12th floor? Do you have a lucky charm you carry, although you might not call it that?
Ultimately a choice has to be made. The two worlds start from different premises. But there are also lots of overlaps that don’t look like an overlap until you examine it closely. When Logos seeks to legitimatize a practice borrowed from Buddhism the mindfulness movement turns to science for validation. (see Here) Faith in science isn’t the same as science which makes narrow claims about the known physical world and processes in that world. Borrowing the ‘science’ label as way of giving a Logos explanation for a diet, vitamins, exercise or mindfulness is a way to distinguish it from religious ‘faith’ but substituting science for religion doesn’t dilute the fact it remains faith driven.
When either Logos or Mythos attempts to validate its borrowing from the other tradition, it usually manages to alienate both sides. There lies the conundrum for leaders in countries such as Thailand who wish to preserve the heart and soul of Mythos while at the same time creating a Logos based economy. We may not be capable of making such a choice and will remain divided until a super-intelligent AI decides we are more bothersome and more trouble than we are worth and turns our atoms into paperclips.
Because of our cognitive limitations and biases we are easily manipulated and our senses easily fooled. We want to believe that those who say they know are speaking the truth. We want to believe some people can tap into magic. There is a software app that has been developed to play on this vulnerability. It’s called Phoney and like any good mind-reading card trick convinces you that it has read your mind. (See here) We are suckers for sleight of hand. Conmen, illusionists, magicians, politicians, and others know the dirty little secret that fuels Mythos—we love theatre, mystery, the unexplained super-human feat that makes us sit in awe, believing the person in front of us, or the app on our screen, has tapped into some magical cosmic force.
The fear, among some quarters, is that an intelligent AI can become the ultimate shaman by exploiting psychological and mathematical principles that create the illusion of reading our minds. Would such a superintelligent AI shed Haidt’s elephant (the unconscious brain and the behavior attributed to it) in favor of the mahout, the elephant rider, the Logos? Some very clever people looking at the existing state of artificial intelligence believe we may never create a ‘superintelligent’ AI. While others, equally as brilliant, have faith this will happen in our live times. (see: Vanity Fair,Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence) Opinion is divided on the potential to realize intelligent AI. Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the field writes that those worried about super intelligent AI are creating a “religious narrative that’s a version of the Frankenstein myth.” (here)
Researchers and thinkers like Nick Bostrom apply probability analysis to the problem and conclude there is more than a negligible probability of a ‘superintelligent’ AI coming into existence. The fear is that unless development protocols are agreed upon to restrict and control (or delay) development (at least to those outlined in Asimov’s three laws of Robotics), an intelligent AI could present an existential threat to our species. Those who worry about an uncontrollable AI are like betters at the track. In a horse race the probability is the long shot won’t win. However, if the race is run enough times, a long shot will ultimately win. It’s not faith but a high mathematical probability that sooner or later intelligent AI will enter the winner’s circle. There is enough time to give policy makers breathing room to implement rational decisions and deploy remedies to prevent the catastrophe scenario of an unfettered ‘superintelligent’ AI.
Why an existential threat? Because evolution would no longer serve as the base for ‘natural selection.’ The increased intelligence, if such a thing arises, may operate on a different basis of recursive self-improvement, change and transformation. AI relationship with natural being may be radically different from our own and every other species that has evolved. We can’t image how and who will play this game, their rules and goals. We can hardly imagine our own world beyond what we currently know as Logos and Mythos leaving a trail of artifacts, murders, and victims. Crime authors, like science fiction authors, follow that trail.
Cultures and societies are also divided and split along the Logos and Mythos playing field. It’s no surprise that sports mad America provides the daily news cycle with reports of who has scored the latest goal. In most sports, there is no ambiguity; one side won, the other side lost. The goal post defenders, write columns, run for public office, own and operate TV stations, newspapers and blog sites. Look around you and ask yourself if someone were looking at your favourite blogs and websites which goal post they thought best represented your psychological and cognitive self? Make an edit. Ask your children, spouse, family, colleague, friends, whether they consider you a logos or mythos person? You can ask yourself, but will you give yourself an honest answer?
Next unpack the last 24-hour cycle of digital artifacts—the blogs, tweets timelines, Facebook posts and comments, blogs, essays, news articles, headlines, and photographs. I pretend to myself that I am up to date, informed member of the digital elite. The truth is I’ve skimmed a small thumbnail of the surface of the daily information. I am like one of the tourists on jet-skis rented from the local mafia, zooming across what appears to be the open sea of information. At the end of the day I end up back on the same beach, turn in the jet-skis, and stare at the vast ocean knowing I’ve not really gone anywhere, I come back to where I was, staring at a huge sea in front of me, with someone from the mafia claiming damage to his jet-skis and demanding money. Then it occurs to you. This is theater. We are involved in a complex drama and like most extras who have noaccess to the script, we only know the bits that are fed to us and from that we believe we have the whole drama in our heads. Science gives small, narrow answers to precisely formulated questions to answer what is the physical world made from and how the processes shape that formation. But science doesn’t have an answer that explains everything.
Theatre, novels, plays, art, music and dance are our theater. I write novels—intellectual submarines for the literate class—and create a theatre of the mind. Inside that mind are explanations for everything. It’s why we create and patronize the arts. It is from us, about us and serves important social and psychological needs. But I also recognize that oceans all of us, author and reader, seek to explore are infinitely large and the range of submarines small. I also have great respect for the scientific approach that is the modern logos model. Do I wish for economic and technological management, questions of climate change, resource exploitation, inequality, and injustice to be part of the mythos theatre? Not unless I am willing to live with the consequences of gross mismanagement, incompetence, and pogroms. Given the level of development, the great transition that creates so much hatred and fear on the old playing field has shifted. Logos has created a technological revolution that is taking Mythos out of the explanation of life game, make it a bystander, another face in the stands, a non-competitor.
Those on mythos side aren’t going to hang up their jerseys and leave the field quietly. They rail against the Lovecraft implication that extinction spares no species, including ours. They have the numbers on their side worldwide, and they are pushing back in the Middle East and Asia and America. In this theatre we watch the players come on stage as hostages, beheaders, suicide bombers, children soldiers, and warlords, and we watch the old elites believing the old magic based on mystics and superstitions will continue to work the levers of stability and power.
The question isn’t really: How does one go about creating the basis for a digital economy in Thailand? Instead, it is how does Thailand plug into and participate in the existing global digital economy? Consider that Freedom House has concluded under its Freedom of the Net Status category that Thailand’ net is ‘not free.’ As I noted at the beginning, there appears to be a policy ambivalence, if not conflict, as to role of the Internet in a digital economy.
The digital, technological world connects creative minds to a certain cognitive inclination—one that is critical thinking, authority challenging, mystical destroying, and superstition busting mindset. It is also the side that accepts the mantra “I don’t know.” If your culture is based on the assumption those in authority should be trusted when they say, “I know” some cognitive adjustments will be needed for importing the digital infrastructure for this new technology. The astrologers’ ethos will need overturning at the highest levels.
Is there a workaround that allows for the importing of the digital world without contaminating the users? There’s a hard question. If it were narrowed to just technical and engineering problems there wouldn’t be a problem. But that is an illusion; the inquiring mind can’t be contained and when it looks down field, the crystal ball gazers find a direct threat to their mythical world. As an old uncle used to say, a time comes when you fish or cut bait.
There are storm clouds on the horizon. How we will individually and collectively deal with them will depend on the battle between the logos and mythos. The victor will get to write the history of that game and whose goalposts were left standing. Meanwhile, in Thailand, I expect an auspicious time and date will be announced for the launch of the digital economy, and the funny thing is everyone, logos and mythos, will agree that is entirely normal and fully to be expected.