THE INTELLIGENT SINGAPOREAN

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Reading Beyond The Lines

Posted by inspir3d on January 11, 2007

I heard of his madness, the one where he leans over and ask with a glazed look,

“Have you finished with those biscuits?”

Only for one to cringe and reply,

“Really, I’ve had enough….thank you.”

He proceeds to crush the biscuits in a saucer only to disappear away humming a tune. It was a form of madness, many said.

One day when I knocked on his door to discuss my Ph.D. dissertation everything proceeded quite sanely, till of course, his renowned madness surfaced, when he asked the question,

“Have you finished with the biscuits?”

“Yes.” I replied gingerly.

As he began to crush the biscuits into a saucer, I did the same in an attempt to share in his madness – I had read somewhere, one should seek to imitate the actions of others to gain their trust and confidence.

He looked on bemused but hardly surprised, then after a pause, he clicked his fingers and a Cheshire cat strolled in and proceeded to lap up the delight of milk of biscuits from the saucer just beneath his feet.

By this time, I was totally flabbergasted as I looked on, while my host simply expressed.

“Tell me dear boy is that how they have tea in Singapore?”

You could say that was my first lesson in the perils of imitating others.

Since then there have been a host of debacles. The most recent of course occurred during the helium days of the dot.com era, when even luminaries like Asimov predicted the advent of a new age when trade and commerce would migrate into the virtual realm, spurred on of course by even the investment community and our government who heralded the arrival of the new age – only for it all to turn to mud.

One really wonders, how did someone who predicted satellites get it so woefully wrong?

I tell myself human nature doesn’t change, but social and technological progress tends to amplify its effects. To simply put it, the more ways we have to do what comes naturally, the more we will do it. Consider avarice, its not that humans have become any more greedy than in generations past. It is that the avenues to express greed have grown so enormously. The same is true of the other deadly sins: just think of all the new channels of gratifying our anger, gluttony, lust and even sloth.

Imitation too is a fundamental element of human nature. And while it doesn’t pack the same moral wallop as stealing from old ladies or cheating those parking coupon aunties, it exerts enormous influence over society in general, and business and how we may even define ourselves alongside society.

The perils of imitating has never been sharper before, not against a technologically savvy age where all of us blog amplifying thousands of communication channels which allow the inputs of others to be registered, filtered and analyzed. One just needs to be mindful of the stat ticker on the side bar of the Intelligent Singaporean to realize it captures all your beliefs, claims or notions of what is worth reading at any point in time.

The information is there, whether you like it or not, it tells a story of resulting fads and fashions, bubbles and crashes and underlines what is worth reading and discarding. In short it’s a way of directing you and me to what we consider worth reading – in short the interconnectivity of a digital age simply means what you will eventually read will not be so different from me – it simply means, either I am imitating you or you me, and this raises disturbing questions.

For one I question this sort of technological leveling where statistical analysis forms the basis of what we will eventually all read – in short it’s a sort democracy gone all wrong. I say this simply because what a vast number of people should eventually read or agree upon, whether it is a particular school of thought or state of mind, does not necessarily mean we are right despite the solace of the majority – it simply means unbeknown to us there is an unseen algorithm that is subtlety nudging or prompting us towards a certain line of thinking and belief, one that operates silently, unbeknown to us just below the scope of consciousness – that’s what it means to surf the net – we are all simply binary figures surrendered to the omnipresent power of what the system wants us to read and eventually believe – that’s how the system is configured.

In short, it simply means your point of view tomorrow at 0900 or at 2300 is very much a product of regulation brought form by mass imitation. That is because imitation is by definition a multiplier and can swell a single opinion into a mass movement or catapult the smallest common denominator to the forefront of cyber awareness. Where does a fad start? Where does a common belief originate from? How does a bubble grow? One would naturally assumes it originates from your thought processes, but think again, because the whole proposition of this paper suggests there is a pervasive mimicry in how you eventually form your world view, and it doesn’t really matter whether it is something as emotive as the Mr Brown vs MICA saga or the War Against Terror – you have been collared by the collective psyche of the web. That’s my point – unbeknown to you, you have relegated your powers of independent critical thought to a larger unseen construct – the collective psyche of the web – the power of you and me, the collective readership that makes up the statistical significant.

Some people may say this is simply the mechanics of the law of the majority at work and they see nothing pervasive in this equation – but I say think again! Think again!

I say this only because I am reminded during the last century how we have traditionally perceived the only means to control one’s thoughts is through dictatorial regimes, Nazi Germany and the Stalinist society of the Soviet Union. But there is a third head to this pervasive equation – where even the innocent and benign act of logging on everyday has the capacity to induce the same thought control processes over all of us – and the guise and form it takes is simply the majority view which we so chose to imitate without us really realizing it.

If you think this sounds far fetched i.e the notion your thoughts are not truly yours but rather a construct of a larger sphere in the community of the internet, think no more, because this is a phenomenon that even economic theorists have long subscribed too – what else can account for the mania of the helium days when we once believed dot.coms heralded the advent of a new age in trade and commerce, what of our current preoccupation with globalization? Are these notions predicated on sound and reliable stony facts? Or perhaps they are simply a product of mass mania like the notorious early bubble, speculation in the South Sea Company, which unfolded in 1720 in England (pls go and google on it, it is quite an interesting case study of mass imitation on a scale never seen before.)

Hardly! In his recent book, the Age of Fallibity, George Soros calls this relationship “reflexivity” and argues that this predilection for mass imitation even has the capacity to undermine standard economic theories.

Believers in laissez faire – or market fundamentalists, as Soros sometimes calls them – claim that when left to their own devices markets tend towards a phenomenon known as: equilibrium. But as Soros rightly notes, this theory

“Is just as much a perversion of supposedly scientific verities as Marxism – Leninism is.”

Since they are created and run by fallible human beings, markets have a built in tendency to overshoot and collapse in recurrent cycles of boom and bust. It is not only that our prevailing economic theories may be mistaken. Rather, they are bound to give a distorted picture of social reality. For example, money is not something that can be measured unproblematically in the way physical processes can be. It is embodied in human practices, which may change when it is known that an attempt at measurement is being made. When we act on a theory about society, we always risk altering the reality to which the theory refers. As a result of the fact – which Soros terms “radical fallibility” – the condition of coordination postulated in economic models of equilibrium, which rest on an assumption of perfect knowledge, is not even theoretical possibility.

So next time when you think you have such a thing as an opinion that is truly your own, think again – for all you know you are simply imitating the collective psyche of a majority that is simply following the blind. They know no better, and in the absence of indicators to the contrary, perhaps the best recourse out of the quandary is to simply switch off the computer and look out into the horizon and form your own opinions – for lack of a better word – it would perhaps represent what you really wanted to think.

As a man called Darkness once said to me during a stop over somewhere in the Bukit Timah mountain biking trail,

“Beware of the mouse clicker, it is at best a chimera, a holder of dreams and a valuer of nothing else but the imagined… …but worst of all it is the silent whisperer of dreams… …beware of the ghost in the machine.”

Reading Beyond The Lines – Brotherhood Press 2007 / By Trajan, Pretoria and Astroboy / Cat: Philo / Logic / 2007 / Annex: 38027EP / 99238-07

 

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10 Responses to “Reading Beyond The Lines”

  1. hanuman said

    George Soros makes great capital of his theory of reflexivity, which he first summarized in MIT in a 1994 lecture when he said,

    “Financial markets cannot possibly discount the future correctly bc they do not merely discount the future; they help to shape it. In certain circumstances, financial markets can even affect the so called fundamentals which they are supposed to reflect.”

    Soros loves to point out investors often don’t choose stocks they find most attractive, but rather are guided by their expectations of other people’s expectations.

    In a sense you are right in highlighting such a thing as a “collective psyche” but to ascribe it an insidious and even destructive dark side is in my view slightly skewed even paranoid.

    I will certainly agree with you mass imitation or group think as in the case of the dot.com boom or the ridiculous bidding of 3G systems or for that matter even the Crusades, witch hunting or even the present day war on terror may not be a desirable thing.

    However, what cannot be denied is imitating is a indelible feature of being human, that is how we learn and acquire critical life skills – its also one of the most economical way for us to acquire knowledge rather than getting banged on the head by going it all alone. That I imagined is probably a benefit Soros never saw perhaps because he made his fortune out of not following the herd mentality, but instead starting fires to start the stampede.

  2. ecko4inc said

    If I switched off my computer and looked out the window to form my own opinions, wouldn’t I be imitating you? A bit of circular reasoning in trying to understand the “collective psyche” – “Let them eat cake!” Marie Antionette

  3. nkn said

    KNN so much mumbo jumbo.. oops, should be NNK…

  4. pumpman said

    KNN….NNK…NKF lah off with your head!

    Vivre la France.

    We all know Astroboy is a bigger poseur than even darkness!

  5. 燕子 said

    An inconsequential comment : It was Arthur C. Clarke who predicted the satellites. Not Issac Asimov. 🙂

  6. Demeter said

    A.Clarke predicted sub orbital sats, but Asimov was the one who predicted geo static sats.

    Soros “reflexivity” theory isnt that new. Its actually a gloss over Karl Popper’s theory who first advocated a method of trial and error in which knowledge grows by a process of falsification i.e our most rational beliefs are not based on the majority view but are the ones which have best survived critical scrutiny and refutation.

    Popper pissed off the intellectuals of his time because he was frequently accused of reductionism i.e reducing human beings to mere statistics.

  7. darkness said

    To really endeavor to understand what “reflexivity” means and how it applies to ordinary life. One cannot just examine its theoretical construct and expect to tease out its various connections to how it applies to the real world.

    One really needs to first understand the personal history of the personality, George Soros and appreciate how much of his personal experiences was shaped very much by events we the present generation cannot even begin to comprehend, let alone imagine (and it doesn’t matter how good your imagination is, its simply impossible to imagine the holocaust.)

    Let me take you way back to the time before Soros even became an investor and philanthropist – way back to the year 1944, when the Nazi’s invaded Hungary, he was just a kid living in the Jewish quarter of Budapest when the panzer divisions rolled in.

    The invading army was spearheaded by notoriously cruel Waffen SS under the direct command of Himmler.

    By this period even the Germans themselves knew the war was over and this was the period when they launched “the final solution” : the systematic eradication of the Jews.

    Against this bleak background Soros was only a boy of 14 and he saw all this, his father Tividar Soros instilled in him, the notion how sometimes everything in the world just goes crazy i.e the law of equilibrium doesn’t apply. In those situations normal rules do not apply and if one doesn’t redefine those rules by deliberately disregarding or circumventing them, one will certainly perish.

    This realization during his formative years had a dramatic impact on the mindset of Soros, for one he began to question the whole notion of rationality (that fortunately, you and I take very much for granted, because we have never lived in an irrational age) i.e how could so many ordinary Germans be seized by the irrationality of the times? (In essence if you really consider the nuts and bolts of the question, he is actually questioning one of the corner stones of economics obliquely, at least i.e the robustness of the law of equilibrium and how models tend to lean towards disequilibrium and even remain static in this state! For longer periods than classical economist choose to admit! Let us be honest about it.

    Later on during his wall street years, again we see the same threads being pay out again, where he questions the irrationality of markets i.e boom & bust models, the Asian financial crisis etc. And eventually as a philanthropist who runs the very influential Open Society Foundation, we see him once again superimposing much of his world view on current affairs such as his criticism of the irrationality of the current war in Iraq and the misaligned nature of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

    Everything has a source, nothing begins from one point, always go back to history, knowing the past is to make sense of the present and future. I cannot begin to emphasize this enough.

  8. Anon said

    Wish u would use “in short’ fewer times! If yr argument can stand up to scrutiny, don’t waste time with such pading becos in short effectively becomes “in long”.. keke!

  9. sphgirl said

    Astroboy,

    I recognize your style.

    OK, so you saying all those feed back loops which service providers regularly use in the internet prompt us to surf towards a certain page or topic, like those book recommendation counters in Amazon.com or side bar counters in Epinions. Rite? What r they called opinion or hit aggregators.

    Fair enough……..your logic does make some sense only in a wierd sinking sort of way.

    For example, take the case of Miss Wee.S.M. Here we have someone, who many netizens posted negative remarks abt – you’re saying based on your home baked wierdonomics, the probability of someone logging in and reading those negative remarks will result in a higher probability of that person posting a negative remark? So in effect aren’t you actually saying in a very long winded sort of way. the net isn’t exactly the most accurate and statistically representative source of reference?

    If you are: We all already know that already clever boy.

    Is that your assumption? Or did I miss out something else. BTW darkness its terribly sweet of you to untangle astroboy from his fish net stockings by trying to clarify his clearer than monsoo drain water assumptions – do let him fight his own battles.

  10. astroboy said

    sphgirl,

    You’re about 15% right and the rest wrong, but since you deliberately labelled my work as weirdonomics.

    I am really not going to enlighten you.

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