Who is Watching Your Back?
In Search of Demons
In the Vincent Calvino series the private eye has a number of people watching his back: a Royal Thai police colonel, his secretary and a friend or two. The idea of watching each other’s back isn’t confined to crime fiction. It is the staple of most novels everywhere. And there is a reason for the pervasiveness of protecting each other, providing security and support to others. We can tell a great deal about a man or woman by knowing something about the people who watch their back.
We can also tell a lot about a novelist in the way he or she writes about human collaboration. Other species collaborate but no species other than ours has refined collaboration and scaled it beyond a handful of others. It is likely that the reason there are nearly 7 billions of us is a testament to our skill at collaboration on an epic scale.
There are a couple of ways of thinking about collaboration. There is the microscope and also there is the telescope. You choose one over the other because you wish to see a different scale of things. In this essay, I’d like to set out a few basic ideas I’ve taken away from studying collaboration under a microscope. I asked myself the questions: why do we need to have other’s watching our backs, and why do we collaborate to watch someone’s back?
When I look at the smallest level, I see that we are haunted by demons. There is something universal about this haunting. No tribe, ethnic group, race, nationality is spared because at the microscopic level none of those things matter. Demons live buried deep inside our minds and spring out like a jack-in-the-box when we least expect. In other words, they communicate through us in surprising, unpredictable ways that cause fear and loathing in others and trigger tripwires of anger, hatred, jealousy, and rage. Those demons fester inside each of us like an arsenal of emotional cluster bombs that no international agency has ever managed to regulate or control.
When I take out my telescope, I find in the vastness of our connected lives that what we call ‘demons’ are expressed differently depending on language, culture, and history. Every culture puts a stamp on demons to make them their own. Each culture prescribes rituals, holy men, shamans, priests, and monks to pacify the demon invasion. We have organized sports because teams are one of the best ways we have to demonstrate effective collaboration. We have international sporting events to prove that our collaboration and our athletes co-operate in a more effective and productive way than another team. We conduct war on a grand scale only because we’ve scaled collaboration to an industrial scale.
If our minds are from the beginning colonized by an innate fear—sudden sounds, movements, spiders, snakes, lions—our antidote has been the cultural colonization of our minds so that how we automatically assume the structure and order of things is the best (if not the only) way to battle the demons and keep them at arm’s length.
The same principle applies to the whole industrial/commercial complex. What started as having someone watch your back has been adapted to allow the most powerful and influential to define how we collaborate, what is our back, how we protect and advance in the face of obstacles.
Every language has its own vocabulary to call demons and the fear and terror they cause and promise redemption from their torture and pain. And every culture does this to create a framework for collaboration. Because it is in watching each other’s back that we feel protected from the invisible forces we demonize.
Writing crime fiction is a search for such demons that haunt the characters, driving them to do and say things that make them hand puppets for the demon inside the person. The best crime fiction is not so much a search and rescue mission, but a recovery mission. After one of those natural disasters that are played out somewhere in the world weekly, the authorities send in teams to rescue people. After a week, no one uses the word ‘rescue’ any longer. Rescue morphs into recovery mode. It is at that point the story is dropped from the newspapers, wires, and blogs.
Recovery isn’t all that interesting for most people.
That raises the larger question, whether we can be rescued from our demons or the best we can hope for is some recovery mission will find what is left of us once our demons have played out their little game with our psyche.
What demons have colonized you? I mean that as a generic ‘you’ because I believe none of us are spared their haunting. Part of the investigation into a character’s personal demons inevitably results in a drive-by through their childhood, early schoolyard slights, chance acts of cruelty or brutality, broken dreams and promises, and so on. At the same time, there is a deeper layer to explore. The cultural stories, which our parents told us, and their parents told them, the stories that give a face to our demons. The old moorings are being cut. Stories our parents told us are now in doubt. The stories our leaders tell us seem to be on the side of the demons. Social media opens up a new way that makes people wonder if the cultural way demons have been scaled in the past is relevant in the present.
Looking with that telescope, we can see everywhere that we have great uncertainty as to whom we trust to watch our back. The old consensus and stories are looking thread-bare. No one is sure what the new stories will be and whether they will work or not. Not enough attention is focused on what has happened to collaboration—has the world grown tired and cynical with the old demon stories and the old storytellers?
Novelists, at least some of them, are groping in the dark, trying to light a candle and tell this story.
In Thailand, we have the ever-present spirit house. When I first came to Thailand twenty-five years ago, it was common to see spirit houses. This is still true. What has changed is that fewer people perform the daily rituals. The modern middle-class office workers go along their way past a spirit house without much thought. Spirit Houses look like doll like temples. They vary in size. Some very grand and elaborate, and others basic and plain. Someone, usually a landowner, erects and tends the spirit house, placing small wooden or plastic figures such as elephants and nymphs, and also daily brings food, water, cola, and flowers, fruit and incense sticks. You see them kneeling in front of a spirit house, the smoke rising from incense sticks above their head. Thais have performed this ritual for centuries to appease demons. The cultural belief is that if no one bothered to leave elephants to ride and nymphs to frolic with and beautiful, lush flowers, food and drink, the demons would bring down misfortune on all who lived nearby. In Thai culture, you bribe the demons in order to earn their protection. A happy, content and well-bribed spirit is happy to see you have good fortune. What about a spirit that hasn’t received its daily bribe? That state of affairs can be leading to psychic disturbances.
For a traditional Thai, it would be a stretch to call the ‘spirit’ of the place a ‘demon’ but the way that spirit must be appeased and the fear of upsetting or causing the wrath of that spirit comes within the classic definition of demon-hood. An all powerful, invisible force that will turn on you in a moment, inflict misery, bad luck and pain unless appeased. When the spirit substitute becomes a visible human face, the same rules naturally apply. How we face our demons is the ultimate test of how we face one another.
This is one example of what Sir Francis Bacon called ‘idols of the mind.’ That is another way to illustrate how our particular tribe has used various images, objects and rituals to colonize our mind.
As the Thai spirit house shows, the colony inside our heads is not generic. The idols of a mind from another tribe often appear trivial, silly and old-fashioned while our own idols, well, those are ‘idols’ and we can’t been colonized, they are the real McCoy.
Sir Francis Bacon formulated the idea of “idols of the mind.” Bacon had four categories of false idols: the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and the theatre. He thought of them as false. He would no doubt have used the example of Thai spirit houses as an example. Modern scholars wouldn’t use ‘idols of the mind’ they’d say we suffer from cognitive bias. We need to be careful about our characterizations. Our cognitive framework is, of course, biased. No one can stand above and beyond the built-in limitation.
What we can do, as readers and writers, is to identify those rituals, beliefs, stories and ideas, which are mutated collaboration devices and analysis whether they are being used by powerful elites for other purposes. It’s the mutation of these rituals, beliefs, stories and ideas, designed to protect our backs that is the ongoing story of our time. Some of the more recent digital collaborations such as computer gaming (e.g., FarmVille), Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook, suggests that we are at the beginning of a new and novel ways to co-operate, associate, share, protect, warn and inform and more and more people are straying from the ancient pathways of the tribe. Not surprisingly tribal leaders are both under siege and using repression to reassert their monopoly over dealing with the demons of their people.
And we’ve found another way to collaborate and watch each other’s back that cuts right across all the old boundaries. That makes it an exciting time, a dangerous time, a time when our demons circle, waiting to see if these developments brings them new opportunities—or whether we will have a better understanding of our fears and new tools to shape our minds to control them. It becomes our never-ending story. Collaborations will remain the best game in town against all classes of demons. Ask yourself: who is watching your back, and whose back are you responsible for watching. Being part of a team and co-operating is may not be the only game in town but without it neither you nor me would be here.