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Weekly Commentary Feb. 11, 2019

What can be done, if anything, when our own leaders are our own worst enemies?

The task seemed simple: to talk with a certain community leader to present her with a free long-term personal training project, focused on solidifying the financial foundations of the family. But neither the task was simple nor was there communication.

"I'll be clear, Francisco," this person -who oversees dozens of community programs in the city where I live- told me. "God brought us here to be poor and we should not help anyone to get out of poverty because it is not what God wants."

Neither statistics, nor reasoning, nor personal stories, nor even an appeal to common sense served at all to establish a dialogue with that person. For her, there was nothing to listen or to be debated. She remained as adamant about her opinions as Alexei Karenin with his own, both believing to fulfill what "God" wants for us.

But that was not the only case. Recently I was asked to speak with a well-known leader, supervisor of a massive community project northwest of my place of residence. He is a person of great influence in the region. And once again, the goal was to establish some cooperation to facilitate the community's access to the new future.

The response was immediate: "That (the future) doesn’t exist and the community doesn’t need it."  There was no dialogue in this case either and every attempt to speak was answered with an increase in the voice volume of the (supposed) leader, indicating that he had no intention of listening.

Although without appealing to any divinity, it was very clear that he would "close the door" to all attempts to communicate with "his" community.

And those are our leaders. They look like us, they talk like us, they eat what we eat, they go to the places we go, but they are against us. They keep us poor (like the first case) and isolated (like the second case).

We have not elected them. Nobody voted them. They put themselves in the places they now hold. And we let them stay there. We revere them when they pass. We applaud them. We take pictures with them. We listen to them with admiration and do not dare to question them. We treat as saviors, even if they are our worst enemies.

They are closed-minded. They have become accustomed to hearing a single voice (their own, which they consider to be "the" truth) and, even unconsciously, they manipulate others to accept that "truth", although that "truth" means for us to remain poor, isolated, ignorant, hopeless, and separated from the future.

These "leaders" fight against false threats, create nonexistent conflicts, fight against fictitious enemies. And they have no followers, only addicts who, for that very reason, remain blind to the true enemies of their lives.

And while those small minds and hearts "lead" us, artificial intelligence already reads the human mind, scientists seek another planet because this one may no longer last, and the new future is already a reality. Please, let's open our eyes!

We will soon be replaced by intelligent robots and they are already watching us

Francisco Miraval

I must confess that I don’t like it when I watch a TV series that it is presented as only fiction and then, later, I discover that the technology presented in that series was not fiction at all. It really upsets me when I see that years after the TV series ended the fictional technology is publicly presented as very real. 

That was the case, for example with Person of Interest (CBS, 2011 to 2016). In that series, you can see very often images (supposedly, just fiction) of a software created by a billionaire genius to identify people about to be involved in violent crimes, hopefully before they commit the crimes.

Now, three years after that series ended, Yoshua Bengio, a Canadian computer scientist who helped to develop the technology for artificial intelligence, published images from China showing (supposedly in real life) the use of an AI program similar to the one previously presented in Person of Interest. The similarities between the images are uncanny. 

Let me put it this way: what just a few years ago was presented as science fiction, now it is a reality. And, I am sure, not only in China. In fact, Bengio said during a recent interview with Bloomberg that the situation “it’s becoming more and more scary.”

According to information published by Bloomberg, the IA used in Chine is a neural network using simultaneously facial recognition and processing of natural language (including translations) to verify the identity of a person and to anticipate “antisocial behaviors”, from small things (jaywalking, being rude in public transportation) to major issues (not paying debts or speaking against the government.)

Bengio, together with some of his colleagues and some well-known global corporate leaders, said that the new technology, “as it gets more powerful, outside of other influences, just leads to more concentration of power and wealth”, adding that “That is bad for democracy, that is bad for social justice, and the general well-being of most people.”

How bad is for humans to live being constantly watched by AI? As bad as thinking than in 50 years or so that AI will replace us, according to scientist Luca De Ambroggi, the research and analysis lead for AI solutions at Transformative Technology, under HIS Markit in London. 

During a recent interview with Sunday Express (UK), Ambroggi said that AI and robotics have achieved such important advances during the past decade that it is possible that by 2070 or even earlier new superhuman AI robots will be able to displace and replace us (unless, I add, somebody comes from the future to save as – Terminator – or fights from outside the techno-simulacrum – The Matrix –).

We talk about this topic because highly respected scientists are also talking about this topic. Otherwise, it would be ridiculous. Yet, in the past, highly respected scientists thought the earth was flat and that we were the center of the universe. So, whom should we believe? The scientists?  A TV series? That’s another a very scary alternative. 

We have lost the ability to communicate rationally and intelligibly

This is the time of the year when I have to pay the municipal taxes for my business and, to do it, I went to the same municipal web site I have used for years, to pay online. Yet, to my surprise, the payment was not accepted. An automatic message said the information I entered was incorrect. 

I began the process again and this time I carefully checked every number, every detail, and every word. But the problem persisted. A new automatic message said the information was still incorrect, but it was not. 

I called the municipal help line and I asked for an explanation. I was told that there was probably a discrepancy in their records. They asked me to scan the documents of my business and email the documents to them. I sent the information requested and I got a message saying in 48 hours the issue would have been solved. 

Two days later, trusting the “48 hours” message was true, I went online to pay for taxes and, once again, an automatic message told me “Rejected”, indicating the information was incorrect. To avoid delays and potential fines, I went in person to the municipal building and I explained the problem. 

“Mr. Miraval”, an employee told me, “when our system asks you for tax number, please ignore the request for your federal number or your personal number. Please use the municipal tax number we gave to you”. 

“Very well. But, when did you give me that number and how can I access it?”, I asked. 

The employee then told me that, given the fact that all payments were now digital, the number I needed to use was sent in a message to the account I needed to access to pay my taxes. Of course, to access that account I needed the number that was inside the account. 

Let me be clear: there was a change in the way the local municipality handled tax payments. And the new number to pay taxes was inside the system to pay taxes. But without that number you can’t access the system to know the number. 

For some reason, perhaps looking at the expression of horror, unbelief, and frustration on my face, the employee checked something in his computer and then wrote down my tax number on a piece of paper. I went back to my office and went online to pay and… nothing. Still the same message about “incorrect information”. 

I called again the municipal help line and I explained the problem. “How many digits the number has?”, she asked me. I told her “14”. “That’s the problem. You only need to input the first 8 digits”. 

“And why nobody ever told me that before?”, I wanted to ask, but I didn’t, fearing that there were more secret and unknown codes to discover. 

I finally paid my taxes online, but something is now clear: we have lost, probably forever, the ability to communicate with each other in a reasonably and intelligibly manner. 

The government shutdown is, sadly, a reflection of the closing of our minds

Everybody in the United States is talking about the government shutdown, that is, the partial closing of the government for the last month. Few, if any, however, talk about the full closing of the American mind for the last three decades, as described by American philosopher Allan Bloom.

Even if we are not in agreement with everything Bloom said in The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 (and, by the way, we are not in agreement), we do agree, based on our own experience of several decades teaching at college level, that many people lack “points of reference” to develop critical thinking skills or to understand current events.

Or, to paraphrase what it is said Goethe once said, if you don’t know 3000 years of history, you are just walking around the world with no knowledge or understanding of what is really happening.

For Bloom, that lack of knowledge, that “traveling the world without critical thinking”, leads to an “American-style nihilism”, that is, people living with “strong, fanatical opinions”, and, for that same reason, without thinking.

In Paulo Coelho’s novel Adultery (published in 2012), the leading character, a female journalist, says 15 pages into the book that, “I fell asleep thinking. Perhaps I really do have a serious problem.”

I want to be clear I am not talking here about politics. This is just a superficial and ephemeral attempt to talk about philosophy. From that perspective, the government shutdown should lead us to move beyond the shutdown itself to think what is/was already closed, hidden, and forgotten before this shutdown took place.

For the government to be closed, something is had to close before. And whatever it is will remain closed, hidden, and forgotten, even after the federal government reopens. As vapor emanating from the Lethe river, an invisible and permanent cloud of forgetfulness and oblivion is already preparing the next shutdown, and the one after that, and the next one, until everything we know will be closed, hidden, and forgotten.

At that moment, nobody will talk about anything being closed or forgotten, because forgetting somethings implies you remember you forgot. And hidden something reveals that something is hidden. And closing something means it can be opened. Yet, if we forget who we are and who we were, and if nobody remembers us, our shutdown (closing) will be permanent.

Ancient Egyptians, in the context of their believe in eternal life, found a way to ruin the eternal life of already-deceased people. They simply erased from monuments and walls the names and faces of those whose afterlife they wanted to damage. With nobody left to remember those persons, the dead themselves will soon forget their own identities.

Today we are facing a similar situation, but, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han, we are imposing to ourselves our own loss of memory and identity. We look at the mirror and we don’t recognize ourselves or even remember our real names. Something important was completed shut down decades ago and we already forgot it.

What do we see when we can only see ourselves?

Anais Nin once said that we don’t see things as they are, but as we are. And in his book The Burnout Society, philosopher Byung-Chul Han said that we, postmodern humans, have lost the ability of “taking time” in front of objects, including, for example, works of art, which we simply ignore.

To that combination of not seeing things, but only seeing ourselves (according to the color of the glasses we wear) and not taking time with things, I would like to add a third element: hedonistic narcissism, that is, not only no recognizing things as such, but assuming reality is there to give us pleasure, even ephemeral one. 

A few weeks ago, during a visit to a well-known museum, I witnessed all those three elements in action. I arrived early enough to the museum to be among the first ones to enter. And, as soon as the doors were open, I unexpectedly found myself among a stampede of people chaotically running to see a certain work of art.

I didn’t run. Running is not one of my attributes and I will never run inside a museum. But I walked as fast as I could. Then, when I arrived at the masterpiece, I saw exactly what Han described: people were not taking time to see it.

Instead of looking at the art, most, if not all, of those in the stampede were spending just a couple of seconds to take a selfie, always making a “V” sign with their hands, in front of the work of art, even covering the art with their faces.

It was clearly an unspoken statement saying to the museum something like, “There nothing beautiful or important here except me, and I am the only one worthy of a picture”. Or, in other words, “If I am not in the picture, there is no reason to take the picture”. 

Only seconds after taking the selfie, many of those postmodern humans were already somewhere else, finding a different place – a bridge, painting, sculpture, church, monument, or something else – to repeat the ritual of inserting their images in front of the unseen thing, imposing their narcissism upon their reality. 

Perhaps they were all making the “V” sign, usually associated with victory, to show they were victorious over history, cultural, art, creativity, beauty, and spirituality. 

Or perhaps the “V” sign should be understood as an indication of peace, perhaps an internal peace achieved only for a few seconds when we pretend to cover reality with a selfie, that is, when we don’t see things (Nin) and we don’t take time with things (Han). Then, looking for more peace, we run to another place for a new selfie.  

That’s what people were doing: running from one place to another looking for “selfie spots”, never stopping and collecting images faster than a bee collecting pollen. But at least the bee is working for the benefit of the hive, without posting images in social media to calm and appease a fragile ego. 

It is not just reading: it is meeting other minds

Several years ago, a good friend of mine, also an avid reading like myself, asked me, “How many books are you reading?” “Books”, in plural, because he shared and still shares that passion for reading several books at the same time.

Times are different now and books are no longer as popular as they used to be. Yet, they are an excellent tool to meet other minds. Reading is not just “skating over the page” (as Ortega y Gasset once warned). At its core, it is meeting other minds. 

Obviously, if you want to meet other minds, first you need to meet your own mind. And that’s one of the fascinating (and frequently forgotten) aspects of reading: it is an internal dialogue, a reflection about oneself, a moment of meditation oscillating between the conscious and the unconscious mind when, for just a moment, we become aware of ourselves. 

My passion for reading began before college, where I was reading several books per week and later, at the end of the studies, a book per day or so. 

In fact, my passion for reading began when I was a little boy and every weekend my father took me to a secondhand bookstore and bought me took books. I selected one and he selected the other one. I had to read both of them before getting two more used books the following week. (I still had many of those books.)

Later, when I was a teenager, I discovered the benefits of public libraries and I went every week to the library, borrowed two books for seven days, read them, returned them, and borrowed two new books for the next seven days. Before returning the books, I wrote a summary of each book. (I still have many of those handwritten notes.)

But, what’s the point of talking about my reading habits, as if they were of any importance? In fact, it is irrelevant to know how many books I read. What is relevant is to know that today’s readers are tomorrow’s leaders, as it has been said many times. The reason, according to numerous studies, is that reading causes the brain to prepare the person for the reality presented in the books. 

For example, just a few days ago, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a scientific report confirming what many people (Einstein included) already knew: imagination changes reality. In fact, according to those researchers, the brain doesn’t separate imagination from reality and needs to learn how to do it. 

So, how do we learn to distinguish imagination from reality, without canceling either of them and learning from both of them? It seems one of the answers is reading, because digital media doesn’t generate the internal dialogue books create. Again, when we read, we prepare ourselves for a new reality. 

I am not proposing going back to the past I am proposing meeting ourselves again for the first time in the context of a new future we can seldom imagine. 

How come “Captain America” always knows when I will be at a certain street?

Because of my work, several times a week I travel from east to west through the city where I live, always following the same direction and the same street, but seldom at the same time. Yet, regardless of the time of my trip, “Captain America” is always there. I have no idea how he knows my schedule. 

I call him “Captain America” because he is a young man who, while walking to his job, carries a backpack similar to Captain America’s shield. Nothing odd about that. What is odd is that I see that man walking west on the same block at 8 am or 11 am, or at any other time I happen to drive by that block. 

How this “Captain America” knows at what time he needs to leave his home to be at the place and time where I will see it? Who shares my schedule with him? 

There is, of course, an easy explanation: there is more than one “Captain America’ walking the streets of my city, all of them leaving the same place a few minutes after one another to follow the same street to go a certain place, like buses or trains leaving their stations. However, because I only see on “Captain America” at a time, I think there is only one, even if there are many.

Some people will say that it is just a trivial coincidence. However, I must say I see “Captain America” on different days and at different times, always at the same place and always walking west. And that happens so frequently that it looks like more than just a “coincidence”. How many coincidences should happen to stop being just a coincidence? 

Some people may say it is just an illusion. It could well be. But were “Captain America” a mere illusion, he wouldn’t surely stop at the traffic light waiting for the light to turn green before crossing the street. 

There are many other explanations. I like to think that perhaps this “Captain America” is really an otherworldly android, brought here by intelligent aliens to study human behavior. I assume the android keeps a record of how many humans notice his presence while driving in heavy traffic. 

But perhaps the most attractive alternative is to realize that I am the one creating my own “Captain America” reality. Let me share this story. 

Many years ago, when my children were still young, we were watching a soccer match and every time I left the room to do something else my team scored. The situation happened a few times, so my children were sure that it was me, not the players, the real reasons for the goals. 

Obviously, I am not that naïve as to think that my actions cause a soccer team to score several goals or that a worker with a Captain American backpack changes his schedule, so I can see it during my commute. However, there should a mysterious force at play beyond just “illusion” and “coincidence”.  

Orwell’s dystopian world is now painfully obsolete

I recently found in the latest issue of a well-known academic journal an interesting argument: the best way to end the discrimination and exploitation of certain groups is to expand discrimination and exploitation to every group, without exclusions or distinctions.

Given the fact that the article was published by a serious and highly respected journal, and that the author of the article holds a high position in a national organization, there are no doubts the article is not meant to be a joke. Perhaps that’s why it is son interesting and even dangerous.

Let me put it this way: the author of the argument acknowledges that discrimination and abuse have happened throughout history and are happening even today. Yet, the solution to end with both discrimination and abuse is thought to be to extend discrimination and abuse to include those groups that are not yet impacted but those two social ills.

Perhaps I am too naïve or too poorly informed. And I certainly lack the academic sophistication needed to understand the argument presented above. I thought the best way to end discrimination was to end it, not to expand it. But perhaps, when faced with the reality of a Utopian goal, the best strategy is to adopt the attitude of “If you can beat them, join them.”

In other words, the argument seems to suggest that if we expand an unacceptable social behavior to impact not just one group but the whole community (perhaps even the global community), then that behavior becomes “normal” and “acceptable” because every could potentially be impacted by that behavior.

But, is that a valid argument? For example, could we end slavery by turning not just a group, but everybody into slaves? Or, perhaps closer to the intention of the argument mentioned above, should we eliminate slavery making it possible for any person, regardless of who he/she is, could become a slave?

And, if so, why should we stop there? Perhaps we can create a society where not only everybody is a slave, but were people unknowingly slave themselves, and, assuming they are still free, they exploit themselves and call that “personal development”.

The bad news is that it is already happening. During a speech in Barcelona last February, philosopher Byung-Chul Han argued that we live in a society where each person exploits himself/herself, is afraid of the “other” (whoever that “other” may be), and lives in the “hell” of trying to be different so they can be like everybody else.

According to Han, “Today a person exploits themselves believing they are fulfilling themselves”. We are so narcissistic that we can’t even accept ourselves.

Perhaps, then, the absurd argument of ending discrimination expanding discrimination may not be that absurd at all, not because it is valid, but because we have internalized discrimination and abuse to the point that we discriminate and abuse ourselves to a level never anticipated by Orwell in his 1984.

What a strange world is a world where even grotesque Utopias are obsolete!

Today’s imagination is tomorrow’s reality

It is becoming increasingly clearer to me that the future will not be, but already is. And if we do not see it, it is not because it has not arrived yet, but because we have not taken our imagination to the necessary level of development to see the future and, in that way, allow the future to emerge in the present.

Perhaps Einstein was right in saying that imagination was more powerful than knowledge, because knowledge is limited, but imagination is not. In fact, it is said that Einstein would have characterized the imagination as "the preview of life’s future attractions".

In other words, today's imagination, expressed for example in art and science fiction among other fields, is a preview of a future that is already here and that always was here, but that we do not see because of the low level of our imagination.

How do we know that we have a low level of imagination? Because we solve everything by means of a conflict. Whether it is a football match, a march of immigrants, a protest by retirees, or an unexpected lane change on the highway, we resolve everything with violence, with confrontations, and even with brutality.

A different kind world is so far from our imagination that when we imagine it we think it is something already lost and unrecoverable (like Paradise), something beyond our reach and this planet (like Heaven), or even a simple delirium (like the numerous Utopias presented throughout history.)

And then, with our lack of imagination, we feed the social field of negativity that sees everything as a disjunctive (us vs. them), everything is solved by means of the destruction of the other (or at least they try to destroy the other), and every problem is blamed on a newly found scapegoat, without nobody ever taking responsibility.

The monster within us, the reptilian brain, the shadow (as Jung said) then emerges from within us and shows its unpleasant face in all kinds of unpleasant actions. But perhaps the most unpleasant action of all is to keep us locked in the circle of the present without allowing us any access to the future.

It is true that many of those who in the past had the audacity to imagine a different future paid a high price for publicly expressing their imagination. But it is also true that those imaginative minds created a new future, even if they did not see it. Or, rather, they saw it before other people did, but not together with the other people who needed years or centuries to see it.

Maybe it's time to let our imagination fly again, not as an easy escapism from current reality or to deny our undeniable problems, but as a way to activate or reactivate the social field of positivity that, although almost empty of energy, it is reactivated with every good intention, every drop of hope, every sigh of faith.

Maybe we should reimagine our imagination before the unimaginable happens.

Bitter narcissism distorts the present and stops the future

The well-known myth of Narcissus –told, among others, by Ovid in his Metamorphosis– says that Narcissus, seeing his own image reflected on the still waters of a pond, decided to die thirsty to avoid distorting the image, his image, on the water. As it happens will all myths, Narcissus reveals psychological truths relevant even today.

In fact, it is safe to say that many of us, like Narcissus, are unable to see reality and we only see our own image projected unto reality. Then, we are so attached to that image that we reject anything that could distorted. At that moment, we begin to play our own mental games to keep intact our self-image.

In the renowned masterwork of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), when the main character, Scrooge, is about to meet the second of the three ghosts visiting him, he assumes, in spite of seeing darkness all around him, that it is still noon, not midnight, and that there is something wrong with the sun.

That’s what we do: we create our own stories to validate our own reality. Even more, we believe and accept those stories, even if they are fantastically absurd, as the best explanation to whatever is happening.

In the case of Scrooge, he decided the sun was no longer shining. But we can forgive him, because he is just a character in a book. Yet, the so-called Scrooge disorder, also known as bitter narcissism, probably affects a higher percentage of the population today than whatever that percentage was during the 19th century.

For example, a few days ago, several hours after normal business hours, a woman called me and, almost in desperation, asked me to talk with his teenage son “as soon as possible” because the son was “causing problems”.

A short conversation with the mother revealed that the “problems” his son had were his desire of going to college in another state and to study a career his mother thought was not prestigious or lucrative enough for his son.

For her, his son was wrong. In reality, in making his own decisions, the son was agitating the waters of the pond, thus dissipating the image of the “controlling mother” the mother wanted desperately to keep, instead of accepting she was entering a new time of her life.

And then there is the case of somebody who, after learning of new research about how expectations about pain activate different parts of the brain, he simply said, “My grandmother already knew that.” No, she didn’t.

That’s an answer I frequently receive from those who use they “grandmother” (or the “church”, or whatever else they decide to use) as a shield to protect themselves from reality.

But we pay the price for clinching to our narcissistic self-image: we stop our future. As Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any specter I have seen”. He was right: you can’t be a bitter narcissistic and at the same time build a future.  

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