Sunday 17 May 2009

By their deeds ye shall know them

We are aware of our conscious thoughts but not more. The subconscious processes continue regardless of any filters that may be imposed later. Their hidden nature and sheer volume makes them powerful determinants of our actions. Evidence suggest these are in fact more powerful.

Thoughts, seen as functional dynamics, can be scaled up to wider society where ideations become its members and entire thought structures represent what has been called cultural memes. In principle the affinity relationships causing customs to grow or to shrink hold at the lower as well at the higher end of the spectrum. Underneath it all the subconscious still reigns.

Since filtering by the conscious mind leaves so much unseen, can its counterpart be identified nevertheless? As its very nature precludes direct observation we need to ascertain its presence and from that deduce an influence.

The first step focuses on the act of filtering. If the end result is in harmony with the remainder, what has become visible holds no surprises. On the other hand, if the filtering prevents contrary sentiments from coming to the fore, there is a dissonance between what is seen and what is not. In most cases the complexity of ideational constructs virtually ensures the latter.

At the higher end of the scale suppose certain people perform some actions over a period of time with intermediary results. Because cognitive processes do not stop, an ongoing evaluation takes place which includes the subconscious. Nor will the subconscious have disappeared if the results are in line with the original intent. Which begs the question, what do those outcomes really tell us about their initiators? Let's consider three examples.

The Australian government imposed what has been called an 'alcopop tax', raising the price of pre-mixed alcoholic beverages supposedly to stem teenage binge drinking. Critics dismissed it as mere revenue gathering and predicted an increase in alcohol consumption. A few months into this policy and security firms and nightclubs do in fact notice more intoxicated behaviour. Spirits are now consumed straight. If drunkenness had been a problem before, it is even more so now.

What were the policy makers thinking? The general public reads about their intent, but they all are aware of the result. Our conscious, well-behaved mind tells us letting your hair down is bad. Yet our subconscious toys with the idea of breaking rules. As we mature (for want of a better word) our memories hark back to a wild youth, chuckling as we tell each other those stories. The alcopop tax - catharsis for our rulers.

Second example. Speed limits on our roads are lowered on a continual basis. Accidents due to speeding (actually, due to insufficient skills at higher speeds) are with us as ever, and the much-touted government line "every k over is a killer" sits comfortably with our abysmal record in science education. The lower the limit the more frustrated drivers get, the more likely they are to break the law and the recriminations keep coming. At the same time no-one facilitates the raising of skills.

Who doesn't get a thrill from speed? The more confined you are the more you want to break out especially if you play the role of supervisor. From carnivals to roller coasters the escapes are there for all to see. Speed limits - another candidate for a catharsis.

The third example is the age-old bugbear of puritans, pornography. Whether ever so reluctantly revealed from the ruins of ancient Pompeii, or certain paintings behind thick drapes in monasteries, or the modern-day offerings on the internet, erotic visuals have always sent delicious tickles tip-toeing down the spines of the suppressed. The moralists' response? Censorship.

Rather than removing the exuberant nastiness from this world, naked humans kept coming. All censorship ever did was to push the purveyors towards more bullet-proof schemes to circumvent the restrictions. It always has been an art form, if not in execution then certainly in delivery. Not even the most cantankerous denier could fail to spot the relationship. So much so that the heavier the cloak of righteousness the greater the opportunity to practice one's black art underneath.

Judge people by their deeds, not words - it's nothing new. And the more deeds there are, the better to judge them with.

Sunday 10 May 2009

When not racist is racist

One of the more fascinating aspects of human activity systems is their tendency to produce opposites at the extreme end of a spectrum. Some intense intent A to avoid Z causes Z after all.

In the West we have become very careful to steer clear of any hint of racism, so much so that often measures are evoked which in fact lead to exactly that kind of sentiment. The lead-up to the current outcry against Indian taxi drivers in Queensland, Australia, is one example.

In order to be seen absolutely non-discriminatory towards foreign students the rules governing employment in the taxi industry had been largely suspended and as a consequence students from India availed themselves of the opportunity to drive taxis to supplement their income during their studies here.

Not only were they not tested on their knowledge of local streets but sometimes even their ability to drive a car needed to be questioned. Over the years the problems increased to the point where local taxi drivers - whether Anglo-Saxon, Asian or Indian for that matter - protested against the unfair practices which in turn impacted on their own employment conditions. The resultant publicity led to the general perception that Indian drivers are to be avoided.

As usual the perception is grounded in reality, but it is the generalisation derived from so many shared experiences that causes concern. Compared to world events the issue is minor, but it was considered noteworthy by Thaindian News informing Indians in Thailand and the story was picked up by news services in India itself.

In terms of system dynamics the steadily growing radius of conceptualisation can be observed to gradually extend the awareness of the system’s members but not further.

Racism is a phenomenon that lacks a sufficient cognitive reach to understand the consequences of a limited perception. As the system evolves these consequences become part of its knowledge base and avoidance measures are the result. They in themselves can be seen as a system which grows and becomes more and more influential. In the absence of mitigating factors however the measures become counterproductive. When the backlash sets in the very thing they opposed is given sustenance and attains a viable status within the wider context.

In other words, another system is born and quite possibly finds support in the previous set of notions that gave rise to the entire development in the first place. From racism to liberalism and back to racism.

In a fundamental sense this demonstrates how dangerous the obsession with an ideal can be. As nice as a perfectly clean world would be, some dirt is necessary to keep it moderately clean.

Monday 4 May 2009

About the In-between

The other day James Graham Ballard died. He was known for his visions of dystopia, drawn from his own experiences of societies that succumb to the vagaries of fate.

He was one of a growing group of intellectuals concerned with the effects of politics, culture and power and what kind of environment they could produce if left to their own devices.

There is no doubt such exercises are worthwhile, and in the hands of a writer like Ballard these landscapes are indeed evocative.

Yet most of them concentrate on the result, the endpoint of a road travelled in a dream-like state from which the awakening is as sudden as it is destructive. For all their lessons, are those visions realistic?

Take The Drought, a future where pollutants have produced a film across the world's oceans that prevents evaporation. There is no more rain.

If pollutants are produced by industry, and industry relies on the multitudinous opportunity available in an essentially functioning world, then a reduction in resources - especially water - would surely diminish the effectiveness of industry and hence the spread of that water-resistant membrane.

Long before the planet awakes to an accomplished drought the signs would impinge upon the consciousness of people no matter how blind they would have been otherwise. Responses emerge, measures will be taken.

Far from dismissing the significance of potential disasters, the lead-up has its own dangers, and they are very real.

Factors such as the nature of those signs, who interprets them, what kind of power resides in those who perceive them, and to what extent do oppositions manifest - they all form a mixture which in itself creates precarious scenarios.

Any system exists because by and large it has settled itself into a state of interdependence with its environment. Change any one component and the effects are situated within the same mutuality that allowed the system to perform in the first place. The over-riding effect of the change is not so much derived from one component's nature, but the wider dynamics that result from a destroyed status-quo. It is here that the more real danger lies.

Nor is such a shift of concern a matter of convenience, not wanting to think about what a world-wide drought would mean for example.

In principle the interrelationships between pollution, industry and the oceans (even assuming that film was possible) are a function of complex systems, and so their step-by-step mitigating effects will play themselves out regardless of our judgmental interpretation of them.

As potentially pro-active beings humans have the capacity to abstract and think through the possibilities on offer. To put it mildly, it makes sense to use this capacity and consider any signs in terms of their perceived meaning by a particular demographic, culture or religion.

In the face of the current challenges it is not good enough to resort to more of the same; as if money spent so far should be augmented by even larger sums, as if already coercive governance should increase its pressure even more, as if one demographic's status inviting the allocation of resources should inevitably be cemented even further within a society's perception of itself.

All those responses belong to conventional situations. They become useless if not dangerous if applied to a newly emerging realm of the unfamiliar, a space where the possible gets redefined and where the impossible becomes part of existence.