On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home

The contiguous society

Image Wikipedia

The exponential growth of computing power has created unprecedented possibilities for the democratic organization of a people. Looking at the current voting system of democracies around the world however, very little of these digital innovations to improve the finding and execution of the ‘will of the people’ have been realized. It is largely unchartered territory, in which smaller nations with little bureaucratic inertia will forge ahead by experimenting. Think of a country like Estonia, that became the first nation to hold national elections using Internet voting in 2005.

Using the Internet for casting ballots is merely an improvement in efficiency (if we can be sure that the systems are safe). It doesn’t affect the nature of democracy. Voting is still an event that happens once every four years or so, and democratic societies oscillate between rallies for the party and complaints about the disconnect of their elected representatives. Politics proper, the art of transferring power from the people to a select group of law-making and executive personnel, is a seasonal thing.

Does not our fast world require fast politics? Does not our contiguous society require contiguous politics? What I mean is this. In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream. Everything is in flow; you never browse the same time line twice. Receiving a letter, for example, used to be an event. It was separated from other events by time. It was assumed that the recipient didn’t reply immediately, people didn’t experience a stream of communication, but a series of events. The fact that Facebook allows us to share “life events” shows how the stream is usurping the event. We graduate, fall in love, marry, give birth and die, somewhere on the way scrolling down.

The notion of an event has in fact become almost synonymous with destruction. We think of a terrorist attack (or a government trying to prevent one) that can disrupt our Internet. It seems to be archaic that we still stick with elections as events.

Given the rapid increase in technological power, we have the means to change this. What lacks is the desire to do so: in the offline world we are still very much (or even more) fond of our habits. We celebrate elections and cherish the illusion that every citizen makes a ‘decision’ by casting their vote. But societal processes are essentially continuously run algorithms and that means they can be optimized like algorithms. A true democracy would be a continuous polling machine that is never switched off. The electorate can vote anywhere, anytime, resulting in a real-time representation of the ‘will of the people’. This doesn’t mean that the government will change every week, because there will be constitutional thresholds for the amount of disagreement with the current government that is expressed in the continuous poll to have political consequences. Constitutional? The most effective threshold will be calculated by another algorithm. The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

Apart from voting, we can deploy an algorithm to calculate individual tax rates (positive and negative tax, or “basic income”) optimizing the amount of distributive justice in society according to the same continuous democratic preferences. Receiving wellfare or “paying your taxes” ceases to be an event. In the contiguous society, it is part of the stream.

The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical implications that are beyond the scope of this note. If our social actions are no longer events, they also lose the “narrative arc”, the anticipation or regret that is perhaps our main supplier of meaning. Thus, human interaction and language will be different. One could also say that the Event is always – and never – happening.

The contiguous society was originally published on Meandering home

Digital Detox

I woke up one day wondering how long it had been since I last went an entire week, or even a few days, without an Internet connection, without being absorbed by the virtual reality of our all-encompassing communication network. I couldn’t remember. Was it 1996, the year before I purchased my first laptop computer? Was it 2007, when I went through a phrenetic phase of self-discovery and couldn’t care less about communication? At any rate, it had been long enough for me to start fantasizing about unplugging myself and quite uncritically desire at least a fortnight offline.

The Internet had become an unhealthy routine, if not an addiction. Nights had become inconvenient intervals between switching off the screen at 4am and checking my e-mail first thing in the ‘morning’ at around 11am. Meals had become the hastenend and agitated gobbling of grub. I didn’t exercise and saw my attention span declining to that of the moths that were attracted by my computer screen.

So when the opportunity arose in the form of a mandatory visa run to Thailand, I seized it. I took a vow not to use the Internet or stare at any digital screens for twelve days. I said my family goodbye and took a bus to downtown Seoul, where I would spent one night before flying to Bangkok.

A few hours after I had cut myself off from digital reality, I regained my old sense of observing the world around me. So I began my short journey feeling alive and aware of my ennobling intention to substitute digital chatter with real conversation with real people. And real people I would encounter soon enough: I would briefly share the same present moment with a Ghanese prostitute on Kaosan Road, a deranged truck driver who treated his wife like a dog and the orange-clad abbot of a Buddhist monastery with a beautiful smile.

I had to remind myself that I shouldn’t be afraid of living the cliché of a pure and innocent state of being, unbearably proud that I intermittently managed to escape the stranglehold of technological derangement. I wanted to live this and report on it. Here is what I learned.

 

Can you send a message to my wife?

Is it even possible to travel, people asked me, without digital communication in 2017? Isn’t it unethical to simply disappear for 12 days? Your family would be worried; the old adage of ‘no news is good news’ is no longer valid. No news means the ominous ‘anything’ could have happened. Besides, my wife wouldn’t let me go if I would fail to at least update her on my being alive. Respecting her wishes, I briefly considered hiding a smartphone deep in my pocket and wing it. But that wouldn’t have been the experience I was after. So I thought about alternatives and devised a plan. I would ask other people to send a message to my wife to let her know her husband was still alive and healthy. That way I didn’t need to ‘get online’. I would just write my wife’s e-mail address on a piece of paper and give this to strangers, mostly fellow travelers, with the kind request to send her the update.

Almost everybody I told about my experiment understood its intention, and with few exceptions, agreed to help me out. Everybody readily believed that I was who I claimed to be when I asked them to send an e-mail to my wife to let her know I’m fine. During the course of my journey, my better half received a series of short notifications; one person added that she respects her tolerance for a husband on the obviously ridiculous mission to avoid the Internet and its consoling certainties.

Using always-on, everywhere-available data networks to keep our family and close friends posted about our predicaments, has gone from an exciting possibility to a moral virtue, if not imperative in just a couple of years.

A slight majority of the people I had introduced to my quest showed true enthusiasm and called me courageous because despite their fascination with the idea, especially for the younger people it was hard to imagine they would actually do it. Using always-on, everywhere-available data networks to keep our family and close friends posted about our predicaments, has gone from an exciting possibility to a moral virtue, if not imperative in just a couple of years. The idea that sparked my digital detox was that in order to become fully aware of this, we might have to abstain for some time. When I did, and observed my fellow humans hunched over shiny screens in shopping malls, massage parlors, roadside eateries, dormitories, and even a monastery, I realized that what I was observing, what I had temporarily detached myself from, was the so-called “global brain”.

 

I saw the global brain

In the crowded subway in Seoul on my way to the airport, almost every other passenger stared at their smartphone screen. This would continue throughout my journey, from bars to overnight buses to shopping malls, Buddhist temples and the monastery I would stay in. I wondered about the global brain and freed from the distractions of time lines and feeds, I indulged in some philosophical musing. Is the aggregation of all human brains, connected via our ever expanding data networks, more than the sum of its parts? If the interaction between individual brains like the interaction between neurons in a single brain, how can these neurons cooperate? By definition, they can only experience their own position in the neural-social network, they only interact with their neighbors. This implies that a function of the global brain is an emergent property. It springs into being when billions of neurons act together and produce something that can far more adequately be described by a language that assigns agency to the global brain.

But how do we act together as a global brain, if we cannot have an idea of its intentions? How does the enigmatic global brain ‘think’ or even ‘act’? My idea was that through the interactions on social networks people unwittingly place themselves at a certain position in the global network, defined by their (stronger and weaker) connections. That position is a representation of a person’s individuality. After some time, these positions become fixed. From the point of view of the global brain, the individual node in the network now has a specific role. It processes a certain type of information that is determined by the interactions with neighboring neurons, or, her peers. It produces a certain type of output that is predictable enough to serve subsequently as input yet unpredictable enough to add real ‘computing power’ to the global brain.

Perhaps I should expand this savage little idea into a substantive article, ridden with academic parlance and footnotes, I thought. But it would have to wait until after my digital detox. What the notion of the global mind did give me was a new way of looking at people hunched over their smartphones, or phone-person units. They are all, equally and independent of their intention, computing something for the global brain. The global brain thinks through them, but we will never know what exactly it thinks. Armed with this unorthodox anthropological device, I observed businessmen having lunch in a Bangkok food court, waiting passengers in bus terminals, backpackers, market sellers, and so on. It gave me a strange sense of solidarity and calm awareness. It was obvious where I had to go next. After a few days in the busy tourist village of Pai (this is where I met the deranged American truckdriver, who runs a guest house where he yells at his guests and treat his wife like a dog), I decided to continue my abstinence of all things digital in a place where they traditionally embrace abstention.

 

Mindfulness

As if directed by a higher power that had reconnected to my subconscious mind the moment I unplugged from cyberspace, I decided I had to spend some days in a Buddhist monastery. The one I went to, Wat Tham Muang, didn’t require superhuman sacrifices such as ten days of complete silence and waking up in the middle of the night. Its precepts were rather accommodating to the experience-seeking mindfulness tourist, which I had (to) become for the sake of my digital detoxification. The institution was located in a Garden Eden, if you substitute figs for papayas. The monks and their visitors practiced Vipassana meditation in the Thai forest tradition, a brand of Buddhism that stresses mindfulness and walking meditation and doesn’t impose very harsh rules on the uninitiated.

I adapted easily to the monastic regime, as if it was a minor variation on the theme of my digital detox. I enjoyed the vegan dishes and had no cravings for dead animal bodies or eating after midday, which was not allowed on monastery premises. I also managed to wake up before six o’clock, which for a late sleeper like myself is tantamount to performing a miracle. The sitting meditation sessions were a challenge, as my mind kept wandering off to an satire novel I am working on and the discomfort of a mild toothache. Walking in the garden, in a long line of laypeople following three monks like a silent freight train its powerful locomotives. The walk went op a hill, past Buddha statuettes and meditation caves. I enjoyed some brief moments of mindfulness but must confess that I quickly turned to writing a chapter in my novel about a transgender monk struggling with her sexual identity.

The monastery offered ‘silence-and-happy badges’. I picked one up and, acting as the contrarian I inspire to be, changed the text into ‘no digital / only real conversation’. To me, calming our mind is not an individual exercise but can be achieved through satisfying conversations, inspired talks we have among equals, talks of gently hinted at mutual admiration, elegant skepticism, joyful sharing of knowledge or just listening at the laughter of the universe that engendered us. I partook in a few such conversations, which soothed my computer mind more than the formal exercises of the meditation hall. After three days of predominant silence, in the back of a pimped-up passenger truck, me and my fellow Vipassana brothers and sisters broke the silence as if we broke the bread. We talked, laughed, got to know each other, and ended up in a restaurant in Pai talking about philosophy and inviting each other to our respective ordinary lives back home.

 

Night in Chiang Mai

With my heart still singing, I arrived in Chiang Mai, where I decided to spend the night in a hostel. But before I went to sleep I wanted to juxtapose my monastic experience with what is generally perceived as its polar opposite, the lascivious world of illicit sensual pleasure – so I walked into a gogo-bar. Not that I wanted anyone, or anything, inside my pants – I was there to observe humanity during a nightly scene that is typically played without smart phones, if only because the scantily clad girls have no pockets to put them in and the men entertain the illusion that they are looking at the one ‘real thing’ they cannot download to their devices. I ordered a sweet cocktail and just sat there, watching hairless female primates dance around metal poles. It was past midnight, my brain felt heavy in my head, I thought about Nabokov and the words he would cast this experience in, nodding and sipping, centimeter by centimeter, my stale drink. I became a blissful observer, a knowing smile without a body.

Enter a pot-bellied older man who looked like Robert de Niro. He went straight to the gogo-table and said something to the waitress. A few minutes later I understood that he had ordered a set of ping-pong balls that could throw at the girls, who would be rewarded with alcohol if they picked them up. The girls loved him. Soon, they sat on his lap with some of their breasts exposed and caressed his grey hair. When the spell of his generosity had worn off, he would order another, larger, set of balls to throw at the shrieking nymphets.

I was a happy anthropologist. I don’t think I could have had this experience while online, plugged in, connected. The place could have been anywhere. It was not part of my timeline or stream, my persnickety organization of all experiences to be had, my archiving of everything before it even had the chance to become a genuin experience. This, here, wasn’t on the list of 1000 things to do before you die. It wasn’t on any list. That made the experience, if I may employ the term, universal. Perhaps, I jot down on a coaster, our digital denture lacks the experience of the universal (or, the sublime), because everything we experience is being quantified and put in relation to everything else. We need to get out of our semantic grid we sometimes in order to feeling

A boring commonplace conclusion, I thought, while walking back to my hostel. A woman hisses at me. Sucky sucky thousand bath. No, I say, and I have very precise reasons not to. Thousand bath. Her breasts were big. I could see her from my room. I went to sleep in the lonely six bed dorm I had all for myself. Outside, Suckysucky stood guard.

* * *

A few days later I am back in Seoul. The Internet hasn’t missed me. There are about 400 e-mails but most of it is unimportant or spam. Everything is just like always, I haven’t ‘changed’. Still, I am glad that I did it. My wife shows me the messages she has received from the strangers on whom I had depended for one-way communication. I am online again, and I am going to leave you with a piece of predictable ad hoc wisdom. This story has no bullet points and no conclusion.

Digital Detox was originally published on Meandering home