Yesterday I published a piece on the need to better comprehend, and possibly to regulate, the implications which come from the use of new and highly sophisticated systems in the field of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). New applications with abilities to understand, and to respond, in natural language, or in the form of complex visual compositions are crossing a boundary line where it becomes very difficult for an unknowing observer to identify that the communication partner is an A.I. system. Their capabilities are scarily powerful, ranging from natural conversations through writing poems, articles or other complex pieces of writing, or even computer code, just based on natural language input.
I mentioned the possibility for such systems to be abused in malicious contexts. Like any modern piece of software, their inner workings are almost impossible to understand for people who do not take their time for an in-depth learning curve. At the same time, their capacities are fascinating. Meaning that they and their results are looking so good, and the dangers coming from their unregulated use appear so abstract, that they permeate into the real word with a speed which makes curbing unwanted effects a gigantic mission (almost) impossible.
Now, on the general dangers from this cyberworld, here a very comprehensive and meticulous documentation which the English version of the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL put online yesterday: “The “Vulkan Files”: A Look Inside Putin’s Secret Plans for Cyber-Warfare. I just want to recommend reading it. The full scale of Russia’s integral user of cyber weapons into regular warfare and State sponsored terrorism becomes very obvious. The report is based on comprehensive research including insider information which DER SPIEGEL conducted together with investigative partner organisations.
Looking at it, the strategic range of hostile activities, in and way beyond the current war of aggression raging against the Ukraine, becomes clear. Those hostile cyber activities are an integral part in larger operations, and they target the West, as well as any people posing a threat to Putin’s control regime. Which does not come at a surprise. Recent public discussions have made it very difficult to qualify what we collectiviely are finding ourselves in. People with authorized public voices have to tread their words very carefully, simply because any language of war can escalate a situation which is meant to be escalated by those in Russia who wage a war against the Ukraine, and who, that would be safe to say, are extremely hostile against the West, and do not hesitate to lure the West into a larger scale conflict of some kind. Oh, no, wrong: We are already in a larger scale conflict, and we try to defend ourselves, and to de-escalate that situation back into the realm of international diplomacy.
Subject to attacks in the cyber-realm are any people, organisations, or infrastructure deemed worthy to be attacked in gaining influence, information, control, manipulate through desinformation, influence public opinion, or just to exercise visible destructive power. It does not matter whether it is you, a civilian or a military or a political target, or an industrial or government target. Depending on the malicious intent, literally everyone is subject to these attacks, like, influencing your opinion and framework of perception of Russia’s war activities, and Putin and his collaborators committing crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
DER SPIEGEL is able to exhibit the contours of the full scale of it, and only by one of those actors who try to use this cyber-power. A lot has been written about others, such as in Iran, in North Korea, or in China. But the Russian side of things becomes more and more obvious, partly because, as DER SPIEGEL states, these activities are not even meant to be covert to a full extent any more. But make no mistake, the cutting edge use of state of the art tools will always be kept in the dark.
Stating what we all should know. But in this context, new A.I. tools such as language based models, are already being used, and are increasingly being used. They may become the new “power tool”.
Few things are more important than systematic cyber security strategies, including police and military defense and deterrence. In countries of the European Union, in countries aspiring to join the E.U., and generally within countries who contribute the upholding of principles including Human Rights, a rule of law, and democracy as a means of basing the power on the will expressed by the people, not by dictators, oligarchs, autocrats, or, I may add, any people who put their own power beyond the limits of a rule of law. Those inlude Organized Crime.
In some countries I work in, these vulnerabilties take the form of wide open barn doors. There is a need to collectively close these doors. Yes, the Internet is about freedom of communication and information exchange, for the prosper of All. But exactly this is under attack. Often invisible. Until massive cyber attacks bring governance to a screeching halt. Which is what we have witnessed in some countries not mentioned in DER SPIEGEL, between 2019 and 2022.
I am opening my blog editor for the first time in more than a month. A few days ago I returned to Belgrade after intense travel. It started with my participation in a series of work-related meetings and conferences in Budva, Montenegro, mid December. Whilst I spent my days with my colleagues in a Hotel Resort on issues supporting the efforts to control all aspects of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the Western Balkans and South East Europe, I returned to my campervan for the night, where my cat was patiently waiting for me.
I took to the road then for spending time in Germany over the Christmas Season and the New Year’s celebrations. A long road trip along the Croatian coast line, getting into colder weather in Slovenia, snow in Austria and heavy snow in Bavaria. The epic winter scenery in Bavaria didn’t last more than a few days, accompanied by the usual chitchat on air waves, social media and in local bakeries on cold snaps and climate change. Christmas Day I traveled to Berlin, the weather had warmed up, typical grey dark winter weather in late December and early January in Germany. I spent time on work, time with loved ones and with friends, and with myself.
This weekend I returned to Belgrade, also capturing some impressions about two days of road travel through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and finally Serbia. 01 January 2023, Croatia entered the Schengen Zone and the Eurozone. For somebody traveling so often, the fact that my first and only border control happened on entering Serbia was a source of excitement. Some of those impressions are available on Youtube (@allovertheplacewithtiggie), I publish little videos on aspects of a lifestyle which I have taken up since now more than three years, including part-time living in a campervan and, since last year, additionally a caravan.
If I wanted, aside of the private side of things, to summarize events and developments I have been following between mid of December and mid of January, I would fail. The complexity of global developments and their related news has been pretty overwhelming.
Yesterday evening I met with a long-time friend for dinner. As always we were catching up on what happened since we saw each other the last time. The mere attempt to focus on a summary account on my side for the past half of a year since we had seen each other left me with a feeling of inferiority: I felt like failing in giving an accurate account of everything that had happened. At the same time I tried to deflate my ego: My ego was trying to get me to talk about everything that had happened through lenses framed by my own interpretation of “reality”, my role in it, and my wish to demonstrate that things I said were very relevant. I’m happy to report that I was able to refrain from that.
At the same time my friend was chatting away against a background of own heavy involvement in his area of work. He is ten years younger than I am, with a professional career still pointing upwards to more, and more responsible, positions. By contrast, my intellectual growth happens within a context of transformation into being somewhat a mentor and an independent consultant, a retired individual with a distinguished career in the past, and with, hopefully, useful previous experience and the ability to turn that experience into strategic advice which helps in contemporary situations. Which constantly forces me to renew my strategic and contextual knowledge because otherwise I would become one of those “dinosaurs” who don’t even realize when people around them shrug their shoulders and turn away, because nothing they hear feels appealing or relevant to them.
That is also why I enjoy meeting so many people of all ages, gender, nationality, cultural belonging, and more. In order to make my advice relevant, it needs to fit into what people think and feel today, and not what people like I thought and felt at the time when I was younger and pursuing an active career, inflating my ego.
All those circumstances which were forming the pillars of my own framework relevant for my work, they have changed. Literally every aspect which I could compare to those circumstances when I worked, as a national senior police officer, and then for twenty years as a United Nations peacekeeper and as a European Union crisis manager in alternating senior functions, they appear to be less visible, less relevant, and increasingly also becoming a subject of a loss of corporate memory. By having a long-term involvement in international aspects of peace&security, I do remember things which other people have forgotten, or which they will never be taught. So I remember that there always were developments which I could see which led to the current state of affairs. But the speed of development of the past three years since I retired, it sped up so much, including erosion, decay and implosion of operational, strategic and political pillars of an architecture which we worked so hard on for many decades. Many of my blog entries deal with aspects of it. Of course, I always also reflect on the underlying DNA of frameworks: The underpinning values.
Some discussions between my friend and me yesterday also dealt with the question whether we correctly assume that those values which form the DNA for our passionate and compassionate attitude also hold true for younger generations. We were doubtful, to some extent. I would add that we, the previous generations, have failed to live some, or many, of these values in a convincing collective way. Why does Greta Thunberg’s sharp words of criticism come to my mind, just as one but very visible example for those who rightfully blame us, the previous generations. And: Will future generations including those who criticise us, be able to act more responsibe? My political roots sit with the generation directly following the German “68er”. We were the wind of change of those days, some of us outside of the system, some of us inside the system. Some went from the outside to the inside. A considerable number of them also played a role in my work, or together with me. All of those are in retirement, at least. Some of them are gone from this life.
But, on the other hand: Who am I to claim that the erosion which I believe to see goes so deep? Since I am not embedded into the organisational framework of national or international institutions any longer, whether in policing, or United Nations peace operations, or European Union crisis management, which insider knowledge of recent years can I use for concluding that things got really bad, in my assessment?
So I sat here over the past days, thinking about what what comes up next in this blog. Or related to other plans on my writing, such as my plan to work on essays. There is so much to say, so much to write about. I felt like if I don’t find a focus for 2023, things remain blurry, without depth, just chatter. My friend and I left yesterday shortly after I had asked “What will be the defining things which we can see for 2023?”. My friend hesitated, and after some silence both of us agreed that we know little, except that likely things will become more difficult, more bellicose, more unstable.
Against this background I quietly sat over lunch today. I let my thoughts calm down and I started writing this title “Seeing Deeper”.
In December 2019, I was invited by the University of Osnabrueck, talking to students on the topic of communication both being used as a weapon, or as a means for political conciliation. Boris Pistorius, then being the Minister of Interior of the German State of Lower Saxony, was addressing the students before me on the same topic. Tomorrow he will be formally appointed as the new German Minister of Defense. I so much wish him luck for this challenging environment.
I came across this memory when contemplating about my friend’s and my discussions yesterday on what we can see, or not, or only partly, or speculate about, related to the information warfare aspects surrounding the larger context in which Russia is conducting a War of Aggression against the Ukraine.
The topic of the talk back in late 2019, communication as a means either to manipulate, to disrupt, to antagonize, or as a means to find common ground and common sense, it is as relevant as the discussion of values on which I embark so often. These days, at the beginning of 2023, whether I like it or not, any effort to keep things together happens in a radically changed environment in which we need to take sides without loosing the ability to find paths and avenues which, at the very least, do not play into the hand of the enemies of values defining the post World War II order.
Enemies? Yes, very much so. Not the Russian people. But for war mongerers under, and including, Vladimir Putin, the scope of their aggression and warfare goes way beyond the Ukraine. Institutions of the post WW II order, organisations such as NATO and the EU, and their constituent States, are being met with open hostility. To put it mildly. We may navigate in order to contain, to limit, physical warfare. We may attempt to avoid becoming party in a war. But efforts attempting to pull us in, or to destabilise, or to disrupt, to weaken, to discredit legitimacy of democracy, to cover any meaningful truth under thick layers of lies, manipulation, and psychological warfare, are countless.
In that, the world definitely has become a very rough place. The system is under attack way beyond the physical war in the Ukraine. Today’s world requires a decisive mindset: We can only work for peace by being clear about red lines. We will make mistakes, of course. We will misjudge, because no perfect judgement in a highly complex and volatile kinetic environment is possible. But we have no time for complacency. We have no time for blurriness. Sometimes we need peacekeepers. Sometimes, the sharp edge requires more than keeping peace. It sometimes means to fight for peace.
And that is why I end, as a peacekeeper in my very heart, with a clear statement: Get these Leopard II tanks into the Ukraine. Now.
And, again: The best of luck, Boris Pistorius. Hopefully you will be able to send the right message off the ramp directly after your taking up duties.
N.B.: On the featured image: The author, almost to the day 22 years ago, in a United Nation’s Police capacity, being introduced into the capabilities of a Leopard II tank, undisclosed location.
December 04, just four days ago, I wrote “The Reason For Storytelling: If You and I Don’t, Only Others Do – On Gaslighting Taken To a Global Level“. I referred to the outrageous remarks of the 45th President of the United States, with which he called for dissolving the Constitution of the United States. He continues to insist that widespread fraud and manipulation of the elections would have taken the Presidency away from him, claiming that the entire system of U.S. governance, the Democratic Party, and a cabale of secret networks is conspiring against “the people”. Until today he claims to be the rightful winner of the 2020 elections. On that basis he doubled down once more, and not for the last time, ever more eroding values and norms. The result just being a continuation of a discourse on the basis of outrage, and antagonisation. Like on so many occasions before, the world is waking up after such remarks with a new extreme, and because of that also a “new normal”. The next escalation, as always, is just around the corner.
The point of my concern continues to be that any strategy which is just explaining this as a M.O. of a sociopathic narcissistic individual is disregarding the wider picture: Of course a delusional persona with such disorders has no other means at hand. Such a person is simply not able to back down. If allowed, Nr. 45 will be like the Roman Emperor Nero. And I do remember having read that Nr. 45 studied Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. People wrote about that book on his bedside table. From there, I also remember Hitlers “Beer Hall Putsch” in November 1923. Jailed after this putsch attempt, Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf”. I can’t help but think of January 6, 2021, as a possible prelude to the worse.
I made my choice to consider a red line being crossed a long time ago: January 26, 2017 Nr 45, newly elected to Presidential office, sat in front of TV cameras and said “Torture works“. We know what happened since then, it was just the beginning.
The point is, as said above, that everytime a line is crossed, something unimaginable has become the new order. This reality then permeates into the lifes of many people, not only into the minds of sick extremists, racists, anti-semites, conspiracy theorists. Society at large undergoes a shift in perception. It is there where the responsibility of the many kicks in. Disregarding, denying, ridiculing, minimising, instead of forcefully rejecting, it is the real factor in how previous norms erode.
No doubt, strategic minds on the side of hateful extremists (who are globally networked) know that, and use these tactics to perfection. In the concrete example at hand, the recent cycle started with a dinner of Ye and Fuentes in Mar-El-Lago. Next thing we saw was Nr. 45 throwing smoke grenades of minimising, and pretendiung innocence. Next thing were even more awful public statements from Ye, and Fuentes, in Alex Jones’ show. After which Nr. 45 then moved to calling for the dissolution of the Constitution. Finally, what we saw after that, was another interview of Ye, calling on Jewish people to forgive Hitler. He did so in a conversation with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. If you google it, you also see what I said earlier: The number of hits in mainstream news where this was reported is huge. Another “new normal”. And this, let me be clear here, with a statement that, in Germany, would lead to prosecutors investigating a possible crime. To me, a sentence like this one is almost unspeakable. I am horrified, and I hope that Ye will pay a price for this. Unfortunately, I am not so optimistic. Instead, let me apologize to Jewish people, and assure we will undertake everything to not allow the real Holocaust being forgotten, minimised, denied, or justified.
The cool-minded analysis, meanwhile, needs to focus on the larger implications of norms being shifted. John Bolton is a former National Security Adviser to Nr. 45. I know him from his time as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Whilst I disagree with his rude Republican hawkishness which was painfully making life at the U.N. difficult during his Ambassadorship, I deeply credit his analytical skills. December 05, 2022, in an interview with NBC News, he called the former president’s declaration “an existential threat to the republic itself“. If you listen to the interview, everything counts, including what he only indicates: That, if Republican leadership does not denounce this behavior in full, consequences for democracy will be serious.
Why am I focusing on U.S. politics again?
Because, as I wrote in my earlier article, this gaslighting is working like a global set of echo-chambers. It reverberates, it transmits energy, it receives energy, and if the extremist movement manages to create something like “synergy in chaos”, it constitutes a global threat to democracy. May be the most severe we ever witnessed since World War II.
That is why I said: “So, one of my hypothetical thoughts is about whether there will be people on the far-right in Germany who think about how to establish a narrative that the German constitutional order is subject to removal from within, by justifying their resistance in saying that the government and the establishment is the enemy of what the Forefathers, the Founders of our Constitution, meant. This is not far-fetched, and it is the same logic.”
I drew a comparison to how post-WW II-Germany incorporated provisions into our German constitution in order to protect the Constitution from enemies within. In doing that, I referred to how the Nazis managed to overthrow the Constitution of Weimar, and I also linked a song “Kristallnaach”, performed by the German Rock Band “BAP” in the 1980s. “Kristallnaach” is a word in the dialect spoken in the German Region of Cologne. It refers to “Kristallnacht”. The BAP song itself compares xenophobia and fascism and violence which we observed in the 1980s with what happened throughout the real events of the “Reichskristallnacht Progrom” in November 1938. The song was visionary, and provocative in the 1980s, and entirely appropriate. Timeless. And moving me in 2016, when I thought about what was happening in the United States during that time.
If I look back onto those events from January 06, 2021, this was not so far-fetched. Looking onto those incendiary calls from Nr 45 a few days ago, for sure even less.
That was all on December 04, 2022, when I wrote that.
Of course, my thoughts about similar violent phantasies on the side of German far-right extremists are far from hypothetical, but at that moment I wanted to keep it in a thought-realm on far-right extremism, which is on the rise in Germany since a number of years. Like it is in other places in Europe, whether inside the European Union, whether in South-East Europe, or Eastern Europe. Or, in the United States. A number of my blog articles have referred to this awful global “ping-pong-game.” This rise of reactionary fascist xenophobic thinking, with a global attitude including to take rights away from women, and now going far beyond white supremacy by mainstreaming awful anti-semitism, it comes with many different facets. Recently, Indonesia decided on a law making extra-marital sex a crime. Just an example.
Well, a few days later, German and international news are filled with reporting about a huge raid by German authorities, under the lead of the “Generalbundesanwaltschaft”, in English the “German Federal Prosecution Office”.
The headline of The New York Times as of December 07 tells it all in one sentence: “Germany Arrests Dozens Suspected of Planning to Overthrow Government“.
A German noble-man, together with a far-right female member of the German Parliament (also being a judge in Germany), soldiers and former soldiers, as far as I know also an individual with a history of being a police officer, overall as far as the public knows until today at least 25 persons are subject to an unprecedented investigation of German authorities. I’m not repeating the details here, since the article is already too long. But it looks not only like one of the largest raids in German history, involving more than 3000 police officers. It may look like the tip of an ice-berg. The Head of the Federal Intelligence Agency “Bundesverfassungsschutz” is quoted with estimating some 25.000 people radically poisoned by the “Reichsbuerger-Ideology”, with systematic efforts of at least at part of those to arm themselves, with plans of some of them for terrorist attacks, and plans for a larger putsch. At least some investigative links also point towards contacts with dubious Russian operatives.
An incredible story, and ongoing and likely widening. Being a police officer (retired) myself, I am, of course, proud of this vigilance. And certainly, more will be revealed.
To quote him: “Die Wehrhaftigkeit der Demokratie beweist sich auch darin, dass sich diejenigen, die anderer Meinung sind, die ein liberales, ein demokratisches, ein offenes Deutschland wollen, lauter äußern, als das gelegentlich der Fall ist.”
In my translation: “The ability of democracy to protect itself is also a function of the extent with which those, who stand in for a liberal, democratic, and open Germany are speaking up with a louder voice than we see it, at times.”
That’s what I mean with the necessity to cultivate storytelling. And these are my humble small contributions.
Setting the stage: From a conversation with my son
Yesterday afternoon I chatted with my son on FaceTime. He lives in Toronto and is fourteen years old. For him it was morning, and I was amazed seeing him preparing his own breakfast potatoes with an omelette. It looked so good on my phone screen that I could smell and taste it, I wished I would have been there. He promised to make me such a breakfast when I’m in Toronto in a few weeks time.
At one point, the casual conversation about what’s up veered into the parental part: “How’s School Coming On?” – “Good good”. – “Any details to share?” – “No, not really, it’s just good.” – “Do you like your new school?” [The kids have entered high school education this summer] – “It’s okay, but have you ever heard somebody saying that school is a place you really enjoy?” – “I understand, fair enough. Wasn’t much different for me, when I was your age. But, just curious: Do you like what they teach you in physics? And what is it they teach you?” – “It’s okay, but I would love you to make more of your tiny explanatory pieces on physics, I always enjoy them.”
Guess what? I was flattered, felt these little pieces of work of mine make sense. I felt motivated to make more of them. Perhaps I will share some of this stuff on my Youtube channel “All Over The Place“. That’s the fun place in my writing and creating. Over here, at durabile.me, it’s more about the serious stuff I like to write about.
What everyone knows, including from own experience, and too often forgets: The importance of education for a society
Yes, school, as I told my son, is also something I remember in a similar way. Necessary, but not a place of daily rejoice, like, getting up and thinking “Yay, I can’t wait until being in class!“. Meeting my class mates always was a mixture of joy and anxiety, I was sort of like Charlie Brown, isolated in many ways, struggling to find friends and appreciation. Meeting my teachers, more often than not, was a mixed bag as well. The subject issues at school, mathematics, physics, chemistry, language, history, geography, some of the stuff I loved, some of the stuff I really struggled with. I could not shrug it off, like Calvin in the comic series “Calvin&Hobbes” does. I often strolled home with my head low between my shoulders, like Charlie Brown in the comic series “Peanuts”.
But it was necessary to learn, and I knew that. Necessary at the very least. Pleasant, preferably. Which is, certainly, part of the art of pedagogy: How to teach knowledge? Being effective in establishing knowledge also needs to mitigate unpleasant experiences. Not everyone of us has a Spartan mentality, like “what does not kill me makes me tougher”. The saying “School prepares for life”, often used and even more often abused, at it’s core it is, of course, true. What I learn at school, it becomes a defining part of everything thereafter. What I don’t learn defines my life in every aspect as well. And this is especially holding true for general skills which I acquire through education. I don’t have to be able to explain Richard Feynman’s quantum mathematics. But a general level of knowledge, combined with education in a general sense, it is setting the stage for anything to follow.
Enter Covid: Millions of children, and millions of their parents and caregivers were all of a sudden reminded of the educational role of schools, through their sudden absence as physical places to go. Places to gather. To socialise. To learn social skills. To be taught knowledge, and to become educated.
The continuing impact of Covid goes way beyond cases of long-Covid
“U.S. students in most states and across almost all demographic groups have experienced troubling setbacks in both math and reading, according to an authoritative national exam released on Monday, offering the most definitive indictment yet of the pandemic’s impact on millions of schoolchildren. In math, the results were especially devastating, representing the steepest declines ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, which tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders and dates to the early 1990s.“
So, here we are with scientific results demonstrating the devastating combined impact of the pandemic and of how we needed to protect ourselves, collectively: In order to reduce casualties, and to reduce suffering by attempting to keep the medical system operational, we took tolls. Mental tolls, physical tolls, emotional tolls, cognitive behavioural tolls, and educational tolls.
Heavy tolls, like that on average, the number of fourth graders and eighth graders being proficient in math and reading took an exceptionally deep plunge towards an abyss. And what is indicative in the U.S. system, from my personal experience it’s true also in Canada, and from what I hear and witnessed in Europe, I have no indication it would be different here. I am sure that there is not a single country which found a mitigation strategy through a form of protracted exclusive home-schooling similarly effective in knowledge transfer as classroom-teaching is.
It is also correct to conclude that what holds true for math and reading is also holding true for general levels of education, social skills, and a general toolset which allows to traverse our contemporary world knowingly: By having a proficient knowledge about our own environment, we go beyond a collective capacity to be economically competitive: Knowledge allows us to make informed decisions, opposed to either making uniformed decisions, or being the proverbial sheep in the herd of individuals being manipulated by those who do, for own and for controlling reasons.
I also happen to think that there is the educational equivalent to what we observe in relation to the distribution of wealth in our societies: Like ever fewer people are getting more wealthy, and ever more people fall into low-income and also poverty, with a shrinking middle-class, the same certainly is true for the distribution of knowledge. If good jobs require a CV with reference to an Ivy-League-College-Education, if creating what drives our economic progress is in the hands of ever fewer people who understand the underlying science, or engineering, it will inevitably also contribute to the growing size of parts of a society which do not hold many economic resources.
But the damage goes further:
Proficient knowledge establishes a general capacity to distinguish the signal from the noise
The less I know in a general understanding about how the world is functionining, the more I am vulnerable for “Scharlatanerie”, and for all the messy speculative stuff from people who believe to know, do actually not know, and create noise, inaccurate information, wrong information, and deliberate misinformation. The last one for a variety of reasons, including attempting to control, but also because sensational stuff simply sells. It always did, in magazines. It increasingly does, on the digital media platforms of this Brave New World.
I’ll use an example, on my topics of scientific interest: I need a basic knowledge about how the James Webb Space Telescope JWST works, in order to filter out those sensational channels where people attract viewers by suggesting JWST has found proof for alien existence. I need a sound knowledge to stay with those channels informing me about most recent discussions in Quantum Mechanics, just to grasp the profound impact of why the 2022 Nobel Price has been awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger. My mind “explodes” (or implodes) when I try to understand the rationale which can be found on the Nobel Prize Website. But my general knowledge allows me to appreciate why the entire physics community is abuzz of profound discoveries to come which may, again, make previous knowledge obsolete. Previous knowledge which already has successfully made my mind imploding, just saying.
This is anything but an esoteric discussion. It is, in my view, one of the most crucial and often unappreciated topics in relation to how we protect values in our societies: Through education. At the same time, the relevance goes much beyond the impact of the Covid-19-pandemic.
In literally every conflict- or post-conflict-environment I have been working in, the devastating impact of conflict, violence, hatred, and demolition of infrastructure on the educational system has been larger than life. Where educational capacities remained crippled, or absent, the respective society remained unable to recover as much as everyone hoped. Which, in turn, led to many effects which created the next round of frustration, such as through migrating away, accepting corruption and crime, and a general path towards becoming more prone to the rule of the powerful, instead of the rule of law.
Concluding this one with a view on the war of aggression by Russia raging in the Ukraine: We see systematic attacks on critical infrastructure in the Ukraine, and that includes the shelling of schools and kindergardens. It has a terrible invisible effect: Deploying strategic blows against a society and country by sowing fear includes to make it difficult to uphold a daily life allowing to transmit knowledge to children, very similar to the effects of the pandemic.
There has been a press conference the other day with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, arguing for a “Marschall Plan” for the restoration of civilian capacities in the Ukraine. It is really important news. The longer a society is incapacitated, whether through a pandemic, or conflict, the less the value of general education can be upheld in any country. In turn, fragility becomes systemic.
April 20, 2021 I wrote a blog post “Futuretelling” on occasion of media informing about the report “Global Trends 2040”, a product of the collective of American intelligence agencies, issued then on occasion of a new Presidential administration (the Biden administration) taking the helm. I’d like to revisit the issue, almost one and a half years later.
“Global Trends 2040” revolves around five core assessments:
Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report stated that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assessed the pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.“
Fragmentation flows from the predicted transnational or global challenges. Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex breaking apart, or threatening, globalisation.
Disequilibrium was the third theme of the report. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Doubts in the benefits of democratic governance, the profound inability of systems of international order to provide peace, security, and other important challenges to the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations create a perfect storm.
Contestation was the fourth theme. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on more developed societies. In a way, this amplifies fragmentation and antagonisation.
Adaption being the final theme, it means that profound changes will ultimately end in a new equilibrium. The question is how such a new system state may look like. Or, how much of our current one is left, and what will be the new reality.
To me, the core statement of “Global Trends 2040” is that we are passing through a phase of profound global system change, or paradigm change.
That was spring 2021. “Global Trends 2040” was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was somewhat easy for the authors to qualify an existing pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II“. Then, summer 2021 brought the catastrophic events around the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taleban, and a crushing defeat of the West’s ambitions for Afghanistan over two decades. Spring 2022 saw the beginning of a war of aggression by the Russian Federation against the Ukraine. Motivation and publicly voiced rationale by the Russian President went, from the outset on, far beyond his claims related to the Ukraine, and related to overthrow the Ukrainian government. From the West’s perspective it is an attack against the West, it’s systems and it’s values. The Russian President describes this as a threat against Russia, claiming to act in self-defense. Of course, I have a clear position here joining those who state this is a brazen and aggressive move attempting to overthrow an existing order, and violating fundamental principles enshrined in international treaties. But on various occasions since then I have also acknowledged that it depends on where people live, and which cultural and historical ties they have grown up with, whether they join this assessment, or blame the West. This is a war on multiple levels, including information warfare, a war of systems against each other, a war of economies, a war of dogma how to prevail, and to govern. The physical battlefields are local or regional, information warfare happens in cyberspace, and the conflict is ultimately global.
So I wonder how the events of 2021 and 2022 would have been reflected in the wording of the report issued in spring 2021, if these events would already have been on the books of history by the time of writing. If already the pandemic posed the greatest disruption since WWII, it has only gotten worse since then.
With lightning speed, the World is continuing to change. Nobody would have anticipated, even in early spring 2021, that the situation went so haywire in summer 2021 in Afghanistan. And after that, if someone would have asked “What’s next?”, I doubt many people would have anticipated the developments in the Ukraine bringing us closer to World War III. May be, many years in the future, historians will assess that we already were in WW III. Because, even the forms and shapes of warfare have changed. Some of it started in 2001, when we began to see consequences of asymmetric warfare. And at that time, people would have found it unimaginabe that we would see conventional armies battling each other, on European soil, 21 years later.
What else do we know about battlefields of such larger warfare? I could go on about Asia and the ever increasing tension between China and Taiwan, just recently blowing up again on occasion of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, bringing likelihood of yet another massive conflict into the equation. I could refer to how we all, internationally, after 9/11/2001 made critical assessments related to terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants. Now we are finding ourselves in a situation where Russian military forces conduct their attacks using the biggest nuclear powerplant in mainland Europe as a shield. Of course, following the same logic as outlined above, two sides accuse each other of being responsible for it. From a perspective of the threat being real, and grave, even this mutual accusation, being part of information warfare, adds to how scary the situation has become.
I could refer to the many developments in Africa, and since I am not a paid professional analyst with own staffing resources, my list of critical developments in the World would be highly selective, and certainly biased. Of course, it would include a whole chapter on instability in the Western Balkans, where I spend much of my time.
So, what can be said about “What’s next?” now, mid summer 2022?
The almost natural reflex is about looking around and to assess specific situations, specific countries or regions, and to attempt making predictions about how things may remain stable, or not. But more often than not, previous developments have taught us that destabilisation, system change, conflict and war occur almost to the surprise of professional analysts, and intelligence systems. The short term developments may be subject to correct analysis, like intelligence organisations unequivocally warned about Russia being serious about invading the Ukraine, once there was enough evidential data. But that was a short-term prediction, being put out into the public domain only from end of 2021 onwards, also in order to convince those who still, until February 23, 2022, doubted that Russia would follow-through on building up her military power alongside the borders of the Ukraine. Did we have enough data to predict this already, say in April 2021, at the time when “Global Trends 2040” was issued? From what I know through publicly avalable information, I would doubt it. So, this is not about “I told you so”.
The same will be the case related to anything up in the future, any new conflict development, where we then, again, will ask ourselves with hindsight whether we would have been able to predict it. In a highly complex and unstable environment, the fault-lines of where conflict arises next, and which physical or virtual dimension it takes, are difficult to predict medium-term, and impossible to predict long-term.
However, this makes the highly abstract level of “Global Trends 2040”, which I summarised above so profoundly valuable. Because, whilst we cannot be sure about “What’s next?”, we can be reasonably certain about that we have not reached rock-bottom. “Global Trends 2040” predicts a fundamental paradigm change and a war of systems, not a state of “rock bottom” from where things might recover to an old or only slightly changed equilibrium.
One of my favorite Youtube channels is called “Veritasium”. The channel is run by Derek Muller. Veritasium is covering a broad range of subjects, based on scientific evidence. According to its own website, “Veritasium is a channel of science and engineering videos featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science.” You will find a vlog as of August 2, 2022 there, called “The 4 things it takes to be an expert“. This piece is amazing:
In attempting to answer the question which experts have real expertise, the vlog includes a long list of references related to scientific evidence for its statements. The four things that make somebody a real expert, in ANY field of expertise, are based on long and ardous training, the vlog talks of a rule of thumb of 10.000 hours. In order to become an expert, one has to go through many repeated attempts with feedback. At one point of the video, Veritasium refers to a sample of 284 people who make their living on offering analysis or commenting on complex issues related to politcal and economic trends. These people were followed and questioned over two decades. The results, in a nutshell, are sobering. Any so-called expert with only education, but without extended feedback loops, was doing terribly. These “experts” were not significantly better in their predictions than non-specialists.
Watch the vlog. But what is the issue here? At least, that we have to be very careful in attempting to make predictions. And secondly, that we need to have a healthy and limited expectation in relation to what pundits will tell us. In my own self-assessment, I would certainly qualify for the 10.000 hour rule in relation to my own field of expertise (peace & security). But it would not make me believe that I would be able to find anything more than short-term answers to the question “What’s next?”.
With having said that on our limitations to predict the future reliably, I will finally come back again to “Global Trends 2040”. What I, in sum, subscribe to, is the general statement about a time of system change which “Global Trends 2040” has, in my view correctly, deducted from available assessed information, which we call intelligence.
After President Nr 45 of the United States of America took power, I would find it comparatively easy to anticipate the scenarios that were possible to happen, and my worst case scenarios were pretty much along the lines of what we witnessed, until including January 06, 2021, and what we see coming up as a continuing threat for democracy in the United States, until today.
But compared with the complexity of fragility which we experience, this prediction was a piece of cake, since it was largely based on a psychological analysis of a person with multiple personality disorders, adding perhaps some deeper understanding about American society because I was embedded there for five years and listened and learned a lot.
Asking the question “What’s next” related to what we experience since then, I only know it will get worse, but I don’t know how, meaning “What’s next”. This is not a Doomsday attitude. Rather, it is a personal statement about the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in, these days.
Summer 2021, both the Afghan National Government and the international presence in Afghanistan imploded, in whichever sequence and dependency from each other. The Taleban took control. First they promised a more liberal approach, compared with the situation of their first brutal regime, after the collapse of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan.
In what feels like an endless stream of bad news since then, May 20, 2022 the Taliban’s Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue ordered that all women must wear a face veil in public, or risk punishment – which was extended to TV presenters. Here one German news coverage on it. Some women protested and refused in public appearances. It is the most recent of many bold and shameful steps imposing restrictions on women. Threats of punishment in case of non-compliance being doled out to the women, their employers, and the familiy members of these journalists led to that the female news presenters had to succumb under pressure.
Do we have the capacity to keep our public awareness focused on what happened in a country in Central Asia, and how we were, and are, collectively contributing to the suffering of its people, whilst a war broke out in the Ukraine?
Are we able to come up with a satisfactory joint assessment of what happened in Afghanistan?
When the catastrophic events of August 2021 occurred, just ten months ago, we were all shocked. Then, new catastrophic events unfolded, and sure this will affect our ability to invest enough time in grappling with an understanding about the complexity of two decades of international engagement, leading to what, seemingly, is a failure of epic dimensions. 24 August 2021 I argued here that we would benefit from a collective forward-looking assessment. Basing conclusions on what is publicly available, not having privileged insider information, the mileage may vary.
May 12, 2022, SIGAR issued an Evaluation Report in the form of an Interim Report: “SIGAR 22-22-IP Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise“. Like other SIGAR-Reports, this one is available for the general global public.
Germany is still preparing to conduct a full fledged and self-critical holistic assessment of what went wrong, and led to the catastrophic situation in Afghanistan during summer 2021.
SIGAR considers that “the single most important near-term factor in the ANDSF’s collapse was the U.S. decision to withdraw the U.S. military and contractors from Afghanistan through the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020, signed under the Trump Administration and confirmed by President Biden in an April 2021 address to the nation.“
The statement above is one of six factors which, according to SIGAR, accelerated the collapse of the Afghan Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) in August 2021. Other factors identified are (2) the change in the U.S. military’s level of support to the ANDSF, (3) the ANDSF never achieving self-sustainment, (4) Afghan President Ashraf Ghani frequently changing ANDSF leaders and appointing loyalists, (5) the Afghan government’s failing to take responsibility for Afghan security through an implementation of a national security strategy, and (6) the Taliban’s military campaign effectively exploiting ANDSF weaknesses.
What is the “ANDSF”? The term ANDSF has been coined to describe what, in a simplification, can be understood as military, and police. If one looks “under the hood” of the development of policing and military capacities in Afghanistan, the number of different entities with abbreviations such as ANP for Afghan National Police, or others, looks more complicated. Using the term ANDSF, both military and policing capacities are being thrown into the same pot. Which is symptomatic for a problem that affected the support of Afghan reconstruction from the beginning.
Of course, SIGAR is taking a U.S. perspective in coming up with nine factors that have led to the situation that, to quote, “after 20 years and nearly $90 billion in U.S. security assistance, the ANDSF was ill-prepared to sustain security following a U.S. withdrawal.” Reading the SIGAR report, the U.S. views of the report may reflect parts of the fundamental problems which we all had, and all contributed to: The fragmentation of international efforts, and the seemingly unsurmountable challenges in facilitating a jointness of strategic viewpoints which would have allowed for, at the very least, more coherence than we witnessed.
In the summary section the report is listing nine factors, though only eight are numbered. SIGAR notes that “no country or agency had complete ownership of the ANDSF development mission, leading to an uncoordinated approach.”
Number 8 reads as follows: “(8) the U.S. and Afghan governments failed to develop a police force effective at providing justice and responsive to criminal activities that plagued the lives of Afghan citizens.”
Within the chapter “Background”, the report spends the three initial paragraphs on describing, in the briefest possible terms, how the United States began training the Afghan National Army ANA from 2002 onwards, and how “Coalition partners” accepted the responsibility for other efforts: “police reform (Germany), counternarcotics (United Kingdom), judicial reform (Italy), and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (Japan)“.
The report goes on by saying that, following a United Nations Report in 2004, “in 2005, the United States assumed the lead for developing the ANA and the ANP. In 2006, the U.S. military created CSTC-A as a temporary entity responsible for training, advising, assisting, and equipping the Afghan security forces.“
This section is riddled with military terms, and this is indicative for the motivating rationale. Two sentences stand out proving this: “Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces lacked appropriate equipment, which threatened their combat readiness. According to a 2005 U.S. military report, some ANP units had less than 15 percent of the required weapons and communications systems on hand.“
Meaning: ANP, the police, being assessed as being “combat ready”, by the U.S. military. It is indicative for what follows, within a sound, though U.S.-centered politico/military analysis of the factors leading to the developments culminating in August 2021. For many pages, the lingo is entirely military, whilst the collective term ANDSF is used for uniformed capacities of the Afghan State. Policing appears to become somewhat an annex. This continues mostly until page 16 of the report, where, for the first time, some substantial reference is made to police issues, by referring to “President Ghani replaced more than half of Afghanistan’s district police chiefs, along with almost all ANA corps commanders, the chief of the army, and the ministers of defense (once) and interior (twice).” After that, the term “police” is only getting some prominence on page 22 again, within a narrative describing Taleban efforts to coerce district police chiefs into surrendering.
Following this detailed narrative, the report explains on page 24 and following pages the nine factors which SIGAR assesses as contribution to “U.S. and Afghan government’s ineffectiveness and inefficiencies in reconstructing Afghanistan’s entire security sector over the 20-year mission.”
In explaining the first factor, namely that “no single country or agency had complete ownership of the ANDSF development” there is another long and self-critical assessment which includes the sentence “Lead responsibility for constructing the Afghan National Police was initially given to Germany in 2002, but was quickly transferred to State, and then to DOD.” This reads like this decision has been a U.S. decision, and that it was taken back. Insofar, the entire report is indicative of a catastrophic development which I witnessed also personally during 2006 and the following years, in my then capacity within the European Union External Action Service. Importantly, I do not challenge the factual correctness of this U.S. view, inside a U.S.-centered perception of what happened. But from all I have been part of, this view will not go unchallenged by others in the international community. For many, this was not a U.S. unilateral decision, like, “to give” lead responsibility to partners. There is a whole record of international conferences from the early years of the development which would describe this very differently. And at the same time, if an internal U.S. decision then “took this back”, my memories do not include neither clear communication, nor that there would have been consent. Riddled with uncommunicated issues, this certainly contributes to the correctly described chaos, in SIGAR’s report.
In explaining the seventh factor, namely that “the U.S. and Afghan governments failed to develop a police force effective at providing justice and responding to criminal activities that plagued the daily lives of Afghan citizens”, the report presents two disappointing paragraphs on page 31. Whilst remaining highly critical about history, reputation, and systemic shortfalls of policing concepts and the Afghan National Police in general, and rightly stressing the importance of community policing and law enforcement capabilities in general, there is an entire absence of mentioning any efforts, whether under German Lead Nation activities, other bilateral, or European Union, efforts which attempted to contribute to Afghanistan’s efforts developing policing concepts, capacities, and capabilities. They often clashed with the U.S. conceptual framework, and the entire SIGAR report in itself is pointing into the direction that this is a crucial part of what happened throughout 20 years.
Mindful of not overstepping mostly self-imposed limitations on how I would like to contribute to public discussion and opinion-making through the means of this little blog, I will, however, make a personal statement:
I have never counted them, but I believe the numbers of police officers who contributed to the effort providing Afghanistan with a capable Police, not a Police “Force”, go into the thousands.
Like all other of these thousands, we were in Afghanistan under the umbrella of Lead Nation concepts, such as the German Police Project Office GPPO, and its later successor, the German Police Project Team GPPT, under national deployments into Provincial Reconstruction Teams PRT or other forms of bilateral contributions, or embedded into military deployment, or under the European Union Civilian Crisis Management Mission to Afghanistan dubbed EUPOL AFGHANISTAN, or in the form of small scale advisory functions within the United Nations Mission UNAMA, and else.
None of this finds mentioning in the SIGAR report. In December 2006 I was leading a European Union Factfinding Mission which contributed to the establishment of EUPOL AFGHANISTAN. For the following years, I contributed to EU headquarters efforts making the EU contribution a part of the international efforts, and hoping for making a difference. Thus, I have personal memories of talks with highest representatives of the international and Afghan national authorities during that time, and they are indicative for the fundamental underlying problems which are outlined in the SIGAR report, as well as for the fact that even how this report is being written from a politico/military U.S.-centric perspective is profound testimony for some of the central elements which haunted us for 20 years. Collectively. I’m seriously stressing that this is, by no means, a criticism towards U.S. policy and implementation. I do stress that we collectively, all of us, were unable to find the coherence which any international assistance to the cause of Afghanistan required.
Many of these thousands of police women and men who have spent tours of duty in Afghanistan have invested hugely, putting lifes and personal relationships at risk, and they all have made friends with Afghani women and men. Many of us felt, like our military friends and colleagues who got attached to Afghanistan’s people, an enduring pain seeing our friends being in danger, having had to flee, to hide, to take duck and cover, attempting to escape from the brutal regime which the Taliban appear to reestablish, within some thinly veiled deception that is vanishing more and more. I am sure that the single-handed absence of any of these parts of the story, within this undoubtedly important SIGAR interim report, hurts many of us.
On a personal level, the experiences with, in, and around Afghanistan have been a key motivating factor to work on answering the question as to whether it is possible to come up with a universal denominator on what we all should, under the umbrella of the United Nations, understand as principles for policing. I have written about the United Nations Strategic Guidance Framework on this blog since its inception. Likewise, the recent article “On Coherence of International Assistance” is motivated by experiences including the international incoherence over 20 years in Afghanistan.
Conducting honest and self-critical assessments on two decades of international military and civilian presence in Afghanistan, following the events in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, is critically important. We need to establish fact-based knowledge how the failure and implosion of the Afghan system of governance under former President Ashraf Ghani was intertwined with the circumstances and the demise of international efforts in Afghanistan. For reasons of accountability, honesty, and as an element which at least will inform us how we can avoid future mistakes.
Starting with honest assessments, secondly a public discussion which assesses how we want to avoid this in the future, and thirdly visibly delivering on conclusions, these three steps together are necessary.
Demonstrating the strengths of a democratic understanding of accountability must be based on the principle that attraction is more important than promotion. Even more important is a collectively accepted international peace&security architecture centered around the United Nations providing perspectives for all of us, globally, and notwithstanding the different cultural, political and faith frameworks within the societies we live in.
National assessments such as the ones which I have referenced in this blog are for starters only. I wish I could be looking forward to an effort to get all of us, Afghanis and “Internationals”, into a concerted effort to come up with an analytical narrative to which we all agree. It may never happen, and it would be really very challenging, and depend on sound political commitment on the side of many.
Preface: I read the interview with Maria Ressa (see below) and began to express my thoughts about social media manipulation during a few days in Bucharest. It turned out not to be an easy-going process, I was struggling with something that I now identify as the question “Can I find an objective truth?” In a way this felt to me like an extension of my thinking which I began with Part 1 – 3 grappling with aspects of “perception”.
The following travel to Toronto, including some severe jetlag, didn’t help me feeling comfortable with the results of my thought processes, so I let the issue lingering in my drafts folder. Now, with some rest and witnessing a beautiful spring morning in Ontario, I’ll try it again.
12.02.2022, the German online portal of the news broadcast “Tagesthemen” carried an interview with Maria Ressa on occasion of the Philippine Presidential elections. The elections were won by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jr., son of the late Dictator Ferdinand Marcos sr., who ruled the country between 1965 and 1986, until he was finally ousted. Together with his family and his cronies, he stands for decades of authoritarian reign, massive corruption, and reckless brutality. The family fled their country with an estimated 10bn USD. A good summary on occasion of the 2022 elections can be found in this BBC piece.
For context: The outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte leaves a reign of shame for history, too. Most remembered will be the wave of extra-judicial killings with which he allowed the Police to mutate into a murderous gang, killing scores of people, pretending that a strong-armed fight against drug kings would necessitate this and that there would not be a need for due judicial process. I remember U.S. President Nr. 45 speaking admirably of Duterte. Which in itself does not make Duterte a likeable person, Nr 45 also fell in love with North-Korea’s dictator, and, well, his docile relationship with Vladimir Putin will never be forgotten either. Pied pipers.
The core message of Maria Ressa in this German article is that memories of decades of history can be erased, if social media is masterfully used. Not only that memory can be changed, that alternate versions of the same historical events can be created, no, Ressa says that corporate memories can be erased by social media manipulation. Disinformation campaigns on an industrial scale allow that, according to her. The BBC article quoted above would also indicate a manipulation aiming at changing the perception of history by “Bongbong” and associates for at least the last ten years.
Of course, an interview shortened for the digestion of the general public can not provide the same evidence as academic research would do. But for my thoughts it appears to be enough to rely both on the journalistic ethics behind two renowned public broadcasters and on the fact that a credible investigative journalist won the World’s most prestigious award.
The past years have established a large body of evidence that social media is used systematically for manipulation of public opinion on a gargantuan scale. Many will remember the impact of such activities in the run-up of U.S. presidential elections, 2016. The litany of actual examples would be too long to read. December 2020 I wrote about one example, explaining a NATO study on aspects of this topic.
The case of the Philippine Presidential elections is frightening. Bongbong Marcos has won in a landslide election, not by a margin. No need for Bongbong even to prepare for challenging an election as being manipulated, and to contest it. According to Ressa, Bongbong’s victory is based on a manipulation of the electorate on an industrial scale. On lies that create a narrative of Ferdinand Marcos sr. being a hero, the greatest leader of the Philippine Nation ever, and that his son, if he will win the elections, will give the money back to the poor. We will see whether he will do that. My experience would tell me that chances are slim if the whole election is already based on an epic manipulation of historical reality.
The overwhelming victory appears, strictly speaking by counting the votes, sound. Yet, the manipulation sits straight in front of our eyes: Democracy has been defeated with a never-ending stream of content on social media re-branding the image of the Marcos’ family. Phillipinos were told that the dictatorial regime was a golden age, free of crime. Which is pretty much the opposite of what is on historical record.
But, is there something like one common repository of historical records? That’s what I am struggling with here: Is there something like an objective truth?
In an Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on January 27th, 1921 on Geometry and Experience, Albert Einstein elaborates on the relationship between the laws of mathematics and reality: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” (Project Gutenberg eBooks, “Sidelights on Relativity”, EBook #7333).
In the case of historical truths I would transfrom this sentence into “As far as a historical record refers to reality, it is not certain; and as far as such a record is certain, it does not refer to reality.”
This leaves many people very confused. In my belonging to a group of people, I do establish and participate in a historical context about what happened which is based on a common framework through which the members of this group identify. If the framework is very different between two or several different groups of people, their interpretation of what happened in the past can have little or no common grounds. And always when two or several different explanations clash in a discourse, we try to identify an objective yardstick against which we construct our argument why we believe we hold the truth. And we fail on agreeing on the same yardstick, the same objective measuring rod. The results can include so many divergent views, like two different groups entirely disagreeing on whether historical events were constituting a genocide, or not. The result being that the shared reality of such different groups differs in so fundamental ways that coexistence is the best option, always with the threat of violent discourse looming.
There is nothing new in the above. The new aspect, insofar as my writing goes, relates to the claim that systematic social media manipulation can entirely change the public record of history. Again, the past is filled with examples how systematic disinformation campaigns can establish new perceived realities within a group. Being a German national, I like to refer to disinformation campaigns undertaken by the ilk surrounding Hitler. Goebbels for sure is an example of masterful application of deceit and the use of manipulation in order to control the German populace.
But is there something new stemming from the ubiquity of social media of these days? If the general method of manipulation through disinformation is a tool which has been used for millenia in order to control populations for the benefit of a ruling elite, what is the new dimension which comes from social media?
Maria Ressa, in that “Tagesthemen” interview, also refers to the manipulation machine used by Russia in relation to the situation on the Krim, and in the Ukraine: She claims that the first step is about oppression, and the second step is about extinguishing memory. Based upon the experiences she has made in her home country, the Phillipines, she anticipates the same method being utilised in the context of Russias intent to aggressively usurp the Ukraine. She claims that social media have the effect to divide and to radicalise. Thus, she challenges the argument that social media is a tool vital for guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Instead of being used to allow free speech, according to her the algorithms used by Twitter, FaceBook, Tic Toc, and so many more, they make sure that priority will be given to content which is distributed broadly, preferably even virally. Of course, this is the ad-driven business-model behind social media enterprises. According to Ressa, therefore the distribution of facts will always loose against the distribution of lies, hate, and resentment. Drowning the news related to factual reporting, Ressa then states that the result is an entire loss of a shared reality.
The yardstick of a common historical record has unalterably changed, the division has been established, power can be exerted by controlling the perceived reality. Ressa makes the case for a global threat for values including democracy, but she also hints at, perhaps in my view, the biggest threat of our contemporary times: That we will disagree about the climate crisis as a consequence of global warming.
Which is, probably, on top of the list of global challenges which require a joint reality framework holding true for all people and nations on this globe.
As so often, I have no simple answer. Because there simply is no simple answer at all. We tend to simplify, and to go to extremes. Which always amplifies the problem once a complex system is brought out of its previous delicate state of balance, whilst we do not know how to create a new balance, instead of the entire system collapsing.
So, who is right? Maria Ressa with claiming that social media has the potential to destroy realities, and the underlying framework allowing for democracy, or Elon Musk, who has repeatedly tweeted that taking Nr 45 off Twitter has been one of the biggest mistakes, and that this is all about guaranteeing the freedom of speech?
I am still navigating through the depths of this question, and personal consequences. Should I maintain my Twitter account (which is a microscopic grain of sand in the Twitterverse) once Musk owns Twitter? What I know is that I would be extremely careful about listening to a person who happens to be the richest person in the world, who is able to just buy a social media firm in a snap, take it off from the stock market in order to make the changes of his liking, and then to put it back on the stock market. Why should I trust somebody who has one single intention: Using things for a business model based on profitmaking? Why should I believe that a statement about freedom of opinion is unbiased, if the motivation behind is purely enterprise-driven, and the methodology being used is taking every single accountability mechanism offline?
Also not new. But for me, the new thing is that one person has the potential to make a decision that has global implications on a level unheard of in history, whilst any mechanisms of public accountability appear to be on national level, and to some extent on a level of international organisations, but where the credibility of these international organisations is under massive systematic attack.
Three – How Groups establish Common Frameworks of Perception
Too close for comfort? No, I’ll let you have a little peek view into my neighbourhood, when I’m in Belgrade:
I am trying to get the finishing touches on Part 3 done from a campsite close to Bucharest in Romania. My vanlife has given me the opportunity to meet so many people from different walks of life. I just offered a coffee to a young German man who is traveling in a small van, with his partner, her daughter, and a dog. Have you ever listened to somebody who feels alienated, ostracized, craving for acknowledgement, and trying to make sense of his or her personal life story? The intensity with which they argue, the words they choose for making their cases? His story about a little group of travelers trying to keep life together, seeking a place to live in Romania, dropping out of regular life also as a consequence of the pandemic and personal circumstances, it offered a practical example for how perceptions develop, and how they lead to reinforcement processes. This person, whilst clearly not there yet, is on his path sympathising with “Reichsbuerger” identity, living at the fringes, and I don’t know whether much more has to happen to him before there is a path towards delusionial viewpoints, and radicalisation. All the time I was listening to him, I was thinking how I can interact with his attempt of making sense of the world, instead of myself just apologising, stopping communication, and staying in my worldview. Because this is what happens: A negative self-fulfilling prophecy about all the things which make this world un-just to oneself is leading to less communication outside of the group one feels to belong to. The more extreme the divide in fundamental assumptions, the more likely is that any communication with somebody who does not share a similar narrative of the world will not happen. We feel uncomfortable facing such extreme differences, at least. We may feel being upset, angry. We may react with hypocrisy, cynicism, open verbal confrontation. Or we may just walk away, and then it is about that the perceptions of two people engaging in a conversation were so fundamentally different that they did not fit into the reference framework they each feel comfortable in.
We see this all over more recently. Radicalisation of views is related to narratives that diverge extremely. Either a fringe view is colliding with mainstream views. Or several radically different mainstream views exist: The great divide between Democrats and Republicans which grows ever deeper, or the smaller fringes that we try to address in order to not see them growing into mainstream divergence, it’s all the same. All people on all sides believing in their version of perception, judging, or even condemning those who hold different views.
Wherever my international work and life has taken me, I always made it a habit to live in a local neighbourhood. Not those fancy Expat-areas, rather I feel most comfortable when I am a guest, and a neighbour, in a typical local hood. Sipping a coffee with very local people hosting me as a guest in their country, I learned so much, in Pristina, in Gracanica, in Brussels, Sarajevo, Brooklyn, Naples/Maine, Berlin, Belgrade, or so many other places. Since I started part-time Vanlife, on my campsites in Germany, or roaming the countries in the Western Balkans and around, or anywhere where I stop near the road for the night, I enjoy the same experience.
Not only that my cat friend Tigger is making new acquaintances all over Europe, it happens to me too. So, in that picture above you also see my local grocery store in Belgrade. There is a man inside, very friendly, selling fruits and vegetables, often talking about his love for German soccer clubs. More recently, he looked at me with a scared face and spoke, in broken English and German, about the war in the Ukraine.
When I recently cleaned my van, a very old and fragile neighbour, certainly in his late eighties, stopped by. Turned out to be a very nice and open minded person with a lot of curiosity. After a few comments about my mobile home he asked me about my opinion about what’s going on in the Ukraine. He asked me whether this would have been caused by NATO.
When I walked Tigger on 01 May, neighbours invited me to their open barbecue. Guess what came up? Fear about the war in the Ukraine. “Don’t go there”, one of them told me. “Well”, I replied, “You never know.”
When I’m in Germany, conversations will immediately turn to the developments in the Ukraine, too. As one might imagine, there the question will not be about NATO’s role starting it, but about NATO’s response to actions for which the Russian President will be damned. At least within those circles I relate to. But on campsites I will also meet other people. Like 2020, when a conspiracy theorist took me by surprise. Or as it just happened this morning.
When I’m in Romania, I will hear the local context, which, again, is entirely different from Serbia, and Germany. When I am in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I will get three different versions of the context in which the Ukraine war is being perceived. If I would listen in Albania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, or Poland, everywhere I would get a local and different perception on the same war, and the fears which are related to it. The common denominator is profound fear. The context will be explained differently, with nuances, or starkly. And all people truly live and believe their perceptions, no ordinary person on the streets will tell a fake story truly for manipulative reasons. Those people who do this on intent, they are very different, I feel their malice, and some, if not more than a few, are leaders.
The huge diversity of opinions based on culture and history and belonging, that’s Europe. Literally. It always is so hard to understand for people outside Europe, like those who say “Does the European Union have a telephone number”, those who may call for a strong unified European Union voice. In a true democracy view, the diversity of opinions on this continent is, of course, very hard to capture and to transform into more than the least common denominator. The alternative is autocratic attitude, and we have some of those, too. But believe me, no autocratic Europe would be more homogenous, compared to the Europe holding on to democracy. Rather, autocratic attitude is a recipe for intolerance, violence, and war. Just look back into Europe’s history of the last millennium, and especially the last century, and you will see that coercion into one identity only works temporarily. After Tito’s death we witnessed it again, more recently. The answer can only be tolerance for others and enthusiasm for diversity.
But, back to perception:
Those who I sometimes label “pied pipers”, they can be seen on a global level, and they seem to gain influence. They are those who scare me, because they operate on the opposite to tolerance and diversity. They are responsible for unfathomable suffering of many. And they could not do this without the considerable number of others who willingly buy in into distributing distorted versions of reality, or fake constructs of reality, for many different reasons, all of these reasons being motivated by selfishness.
From there, manipulation of reality permeates into the minds of who I would call, with all respect and compassion, “ordinary people” who try to explain themselves in relation to what life is throwing at them. Everywhere there are these wonderful local neighbours who struggle to make sense of what they see, fear, and are being told.
I am not wishy-washy, I have a very pronounced opinion, including on the war in Ukraine and the larger threats, and my core is torn into pieces because I believe that we need to do what, for example, Germany is participating in. All the way long, cold-blooded, decisive, but with great compassion and with healthy fear about escalation getting out of control. Doing whatever we can to avoid that the cauldron is exploding, but being very clear and very tough in saying “No way that we are going to allow this blatant attack on all values we have fought for since the end of the last World War.” But it is about how these values are being established, and what that then means to the competition of value frameworks.
I can not write this without a heartfelt word to my Ukrainian friends: I am sorry for your suffering beyond words, and you have all rights to be upset with the world, since you need, and deserve, the most decisive and best help possible. I just hope that we keep the balance in finding ways to ease, and to end, your suffering, without creating even more suffering. But your perception of what is going on, it needs to be, and is, at the core of everything we consider. We need to bow in front of you.
I am very privileged by having the opportunity to experience so many different neighbourhoods, cultures, nations, beliefs, countries. That is why I put this at the core of Part 3 of this writing. Because I am allowed to see this diversity in perceptions. People who live an entirely local life, they probably are more challenged by the need to be aware of, and tolerant to, other worldviews. I see very friendly people with great hospitality all over. Whether in Europe, or any of those conflict-ridden countries in Africa I have been spending time in, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Haiti, to name but a few. I don’t meet them in that proverbial mediterranean beach resort I was mentioning in Part 2. Not in holiday-mood, not with booze. But just very real, in day-to-day life.
“Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari makes for absolutely fascinating reading. As do his other books. I directly quote from Wikipedia when saying that Harari is dividing “Sapiens” into four main chapters:
Much of my rambling is influenced by Harari’s explanation about communication between groups, tribes, communities, and especially when large meta-groups comprised of smaller communities come into play. His book is a fascinating journey connecting the evolutionary development including the brain of Homo Sapiens and its ability to form concepts that have no representation in the real world, and to communicate these concepts through language. The book seriously enlarged my appreciation for how we are able to form societal cohesion on a scale above relatively small groups of individuals.
At the beginning, in Part 1, I focused on how a representation of the environment is being put together from sensoric input. That’s the neurophysiological view. But already there perception is the result of an interpretation based on previous experiences through memory, and hugely influenced through emotions that accompany the sensoric input, or have influenced previous situations.
In Part 2 I have referred to neurophysiologist David Eagleman and his statement that brains need other brains for communication. Once communication comes into play, the result of perception becomes different because individual members of a group of living beings who communicate establish a joint, a common, perception. Communication allows for team-work. Orcas hunting as a group, they communicate what their individual group members see, perceive, and do. The same is true for wolf packs, or many other examples of collaboration. One way or the other, collaboration requires communication, and an ability to communicate what I see. Walk with me under a tree with ravens or crows on it, telling all other animals about the presence of my cat friend, and you will agree.
Reading Harari was a revelation for me in my understanding aspects of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, 70 millenia back in time. I can only be selective in explaining here, but he maps out in detail what we know in relation to the cognitive difference which set us, Homo Sapiens, apart from ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. It is related to brain development, allowing for much more complex perception, and understanding, and more complex language. But the single most defining difference appears to be our ability to imagine things which have not one single reference in the physical world around us, which we see. We can come up with virtual realities since 70.000 years, and not just since Mark Zuckerberg hopped on the metaverse-ideology.
Amongst all living beings on this planet, our communication has evolved into language and other forms of formal representation of concepts (such as mathematics) allowing for highest levels of sophistication in representing the world, describing the world, communicating what we see in the world, doing this in oral and written form, and to establish concepts that have no representation in the physical world. Harari’s example of legal personae within the field of law is brilliantly told. And the same is true for religion, concepts of governance such as democracy, ideas like human rights, the rule of law, so much more. They are extremely relevant and some of them belong to my core values, but the important thing is to understand that we, Sapiens, are able to establish concepts which have no physical representation in the world. Harari is so convincing in explaining that this is the single defining difference which allowed mankind to form means of communication and cohesion that allow to operate on levels far beyond small groups, bands, or tribes. It is this evolutionary step which enabled mankind to form cohesion, and control, on societal level, it allowed for modern States, it allows for identities, like those of faith, which keep billions of people in one framework. Religions serve as means for societal cohesion, including through control. That’s why they also can, despite their mystical core, develop into instruments of brutal suppression, creating suffering. Whether it is about terror from Sunni extremism against Shia, or whether it is about overturning abortion rights by the U.S Supreme Court, in all this there is the ugly face of control, for reasons of enforcing one framework of belief and impressing it on others. With structural force, or physical violence, the motivation is the same.
Thus, these non-physical manifestations of concepts compete, and often don’t go well with each other, they sit behind the clashes of groups, nations, religions.
But when I sit in neighbourhoods and I listen to people, respecting their different frameworks of identity, I see wonderful individuals, all of them with inner beauty.
So what’s my final point?
The diversity of frameworks which ultimately, and inevitably, form the basis for how I perceive the world, it is a fact of our reality. There is no ultimate solution, and sure as hell happiness of people is not a direct function of democracy. Individual life can be fulfilled and happy in East and West, South and North. And whenever I reach a point in my reflections where I try to identify at least a few common denominators that allow all of us to thrive, and not to kill this world, not many core values are needed. Human rights belong to it.
But here is what I feel relevant in the current context: The invasion of the Ukraine has been identified as a fundamental violation of the Charta of the United Nations. This needs to be acknowledged. Then, only, we can also have a discussion about whether others have done the same before. That introspection won’t be easy, because a decade ago we believed that we had found a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect”, overriding under certain conditions the sovereignty of States. It literally hurts to see the Russian President establishing a fake reality of oppression of peoples in the Ukraine to justify and cover up his unprecedented aggression.
If we loose the achievement of the Charta of the United Nations, we are in really big trouble.
Two – Reminding of the Role of Emotions, and Memories, within the Process of Perceiving
Let’s have a second look on the first picture which I was using in Part 1:
An abandoned and decaying building – Belgrade, Košutnjak Area, picture taken by the author, May 2022
If you and I would describe this picture, we would quickly agree on objects and elements, we would probably conclude about the beauty of spring, we would likely exchange views on the charm of decaying buildings, or the wonderful colors of blossoming bushes and trees. But I would also want to describe the emotions attached to this picture, in order to have you appreciating how I perceive the scene:
I am walking the paths in Košutnjak almost every day when I am in Belgrade, especially during spring, summer, and fall. And so I did for the first time in April 2020, and for many days to follow during that spring and summer. My emotional memories which always come back even today are those from the first traumatic phase of the Covid-19-pandemic. I found myself, like all other people in Belgrade, in a strict lockdown. Roads and public space were empty. Almost no car was moving. No restaurant and cafeteria was allowed to open. A curfew forced me to be back in my apartment 5pm at the latest, otherwise I would have risked a fine. From Friday evening to Monday morning not even any walk in nature was allowed. Grocery stores were open under limited conditions, shopping malls and everything else closed. No discussion about vaccinations during these days, people were hospitalised in Emergency Departments, so many were dying. Strict border controls re-occurred in the European Union, flight connections were shut down, for months I had no idea how to get from Belgrade anywhere else. Don’t need to write more, you get it, and once I am telling you about my emotions related to this only refuge from feeling imprisoned, you will respond with your emotions and memories and where you were at that time. But it does not mean that, looking at this picture, you and I will share the same perception, once we discuss aspects beyond the physical representation of objects in this picture. Depending on how vulnerable I am when we talk about this picture, my re-processing the Covid-19-trauma may also trigger thought-loops and emotional patterns which always come up when I am re-living my multiple trauma. If we try hard enough, communication will establish some sorts of synchronisation in how we perceive things. But that is for the communication part which will follow a little later.
Let me use another example, by showing you the following picture:
I have so many pictures from this area, especially because I lived and worked in Sarajevo for four years.
My perceptions: They are related to so many times when I was climbing the roads and forest paths up to beautiful spots surrounding East Sarajevo with my mountain bike. Many memories relate to how we as a family took our children up there for walks and hikes, explaining to toddlers why they needed to hold Mom’s and Dad’s hands in certain areas still harboring unexploded ordnance from the war.
Mom’s perceptions: Amongst many other issues also the memory of her time in post-war Sarajevo, between 1996 and 1999.
Our nanny’ perceptions: One day in 2009 or 2010 I suggested a walk with the kids and I was asking our Nanny to come with us. We were close to our nannies, so I immediately felt her unease. Being in her early twenties at that time, and being a Bosniak in a country home to a Bosniak nation, a Croat nation, a Serb nation, and minorities, she had first hand knowledge of the time when Sarajewo was shelled and snipered from positions of the Serb Army, including exactly the spot where this picture is taken. She felt physically unwell, but she wanted to undergo this experience, so we went for this walk with our children. When she looked at Sarajevo from this spot, her perception was entirely different from mine, though she was seeing the same scenery.
It goes without saying that any of my Croatian and my Serbian friends in Bosnia&Herzegovina had similar traumatic memories, and they all tell me personal stories which would both include their fear and feelings of powerlessness, but their narrative would partly be astonishingly different in how they would explain why all this happened which they now remember.
At this point of my writing I want to use these examples in order to demonstrate that the cognitive perception of, for example, visual input, always goes beyond the interpretation of physical features. Rather, and especially when we look at something which we have seen already before, perception includes creating, and touching, of memories. I do personally not know of any memory I have with no emotions connected to that memory. I may not be aware of it. Yet, when we show pictures to friends, we will also explain the emotional context. Take out your most recent holiday pictures, or just look at the emotional touch with which we lace selfies on FaceBook or Instagram, you get the story. Emotions are inseparable from memories, and thus they also are inseparable from how we perceive things.
I do go a step further: I wrote about perception often being a process on auto-pilot, allowing the constant inner dialogue to chat away, plan away, worry away, mourn away. What I perceive, and what reaches my conscious awareness, it is embedded in a constant inner dialogue which I have, 24/7. In most cases, daily perception of, for example, visual input runs on auto-pilot and I walk half-blind to what is happening around me. Except when I practice meditation, for example through mindful breathing and mindful walking. It is amazing how much more visual or acoustic input I become aware of, it is almost a miracle to then feel physical sensations on my skin, or becoming aware of the smell around me. As long as I do not pay mindful attention, the perception which is constructed from what I see, hear, taste, smell, feel, it is very limited. I can drive a car without even paying conscious attention to what I do.
And if I drive a car together with other people, the memory, and the narrative, of this joint ride will look entirely different for each passenger in the car. A joint narative can only be established to the extent all passengers would agree on some basics which they all remember. But far away from objective perception. I think there is no objective perception, at least not in the strictest of all senses.
Which is what I needed to say before coming to the role of communication. Which is the big chunk. For now, just keep in mind that I deliberately choose the examples above in order to create a gentle conduit into how different the perception of entire constructs of our reality can be, just depending on which history an individual has, and to which groups and communities and society this individual belongs. The differences in perception, and then subsequently how to navigate in the world, and how that individual identifies in her or his belonging to groups, communities, and societies, they can be huge, and they often stay entirely “under the hood”. If those individuals meet in a mediterranean beach resort, you won’t probably see too many differences, as long as there is some sort of joint communication, some sun, music, and some booze perhaps. But the trouble begins when people get to know each other on deeper levels, and when they just assume that their joint framework of reference for how they perceive things is similar enough, being surprised when it turns out it isn’t.
One – Getting Myths and Misconceptions Out of the Way – The Basics of Perception
I believe in science when I try to navigate in the world. Not only, I am also deeply spiritual. But I believe in the proven fact that science is a crucial tool when I am seeking facts, and truth, and guidance on how I should relate, in the world.
This writing came together as a result of my mind being all over the place. Like, I wanted to write down my own thoughts how I understand contemporary science on cosmological and on quantum scale. Hoping to improve my understanding like a student, summarising what I have learned, in taking notes and writing down what I understand. I have mentioned it earlier that one of my most long-standing interests also relates to cosmology and quantum mechanics. Which is not subject to writing in this blog directly.
I am also tinkering with an insanely powerful piece of software called “Unreal Engine 5” aka UE5, which is a 3-D graphical engine behind many modern computer games with which these impressive virtual worlds are being created that people get addicted to in gaming. It is my nerd nature and my interest in computer technology which is making me do this, and my attempting to accompany my youngest son, who spends countless hours per day in these virtual worlds and is also designing some of them. Then, again, my tinkering with UE5 brought me direct insight into how we perceive the world.
But when I embarked on this writing exercise I quickly saw that there is much more to my futile hobbyist effort understanding science. Beginning to write down my knowledge of vision, the history of optics, and today’s mindblowing science, I quickly saw that I also needed to put it into a larger context, generally thinking about how we perceive the world. From there, it was a small step only to see the linkages between perception, emotion, communication, and interaction, and the crucial role of memory, and the relevance of this topic for discussions in the field of work that this blog is relating to: Within a snap I was on a mental discourse heading towards thoughts relevant within the framework of this blog about Peace&Security, Justice&Reconciliation.
It goes as follows:
Instruments of perception
What I see is not the real world. Not even a true image of it. Visual perception is the result of an interpretation: The interpretation of the projection of light rays on the retina of my eyes. I interpret signals that come in from the nerves connecting my eyes with my brain. It is not just a stream of pictures coming in like from a “camera obscura”, an upside down image of the light from the outer world being projected on the retina inside my eyes. Of course, physically speaking this is what happens in my eyes. But the process in my brain is much more complicated: My brain is creating a mental image of sorts, somehow in my conscience, from those signals which are being transmitted from my eyes to the brain, and it does so in a very complicated way. Incoming signals are being subject to categorization and interpretation involving various separate sub-systems at different locations of my brain, and somehow the results of these processes end up as a composite representation in my consciousness. There are so many conditions for how I interpret the signals from my eyes, they include even subconscious assessments about whether incoming signals would indicate a threat, which is even happening before the conscious parts of my brain have a chance to say: This is what the eyes see.
Or: Dive into the many baffling examples of optical illusions just as one piece of evidence for this statement: That which I see is an interpreted image of some kind of the optical input reaching my eyes, forwarded from there as electrical impulses to my brain. What I perceive as the “final result” is the construct of a number of highly complicated and not yet fully understood processes in my brain, responsible for various components of vision, and input from other senses, and then comprehension. Nothing I see will be transformed into perception without an inner judgement aboutwhat I see. The statement related to an optical input such as “These are trees “ in the picture above, it is an academic reduction within a logical and communicative framework. Daily reality works differently.
The point I want to make is that “seeing” is so much more than only establishing a mental picture from the input of my eyes, and “perception” is even larger than “seeing”. It is about various ways of interpretation of a “picture”, and much of that happens without me having any control over it. Seeing is way more than a linear transformation of an optical process. This is what we know today, because neuroscience has advanced so much.
The same goes for what I hear, what I smell, what I feel, what I taste. I put this all together into an explanation which helps me navigating in my everyday world: I can touch something that I see, and I can get a sensory input about temperature, surface structure, the smell of the object which I see and touch. I lick what looks like a white rock, is feeling like a crystal, and it’s tasting like salt, so my conclusion that this likely is a lump of salt allows me to interact with the world of which I am a part. If that lump of matter looks different, feels soft, smells foul, I’ll probably not lick it. There is this joke about Daddy and the whole family driving on the highway. Daddy bragging to the kids: “See that card box ahead of us on the road? Now Daddy shows you how it sounds if you smash it with the car.” Thing being: If Daddy would have known that the card box wasn’t empty, but that this washing machine which fell off the truck was still inside, the story would have ended with less damage.
Perception is the result of a conclusion about what sensoric input I get. I’ll come to the role of emotions and memory in this a little later, but if Daddy’s memory is fine after his release from the hospital, he will hopefully see the danger next time he attempts to ride over a large object on the road. Fear will help him on that learning curve. But I’m too far ahead, though I will say: Perception can also be inhibited through faulty memory, or traumatic emotions. If the kids have suffered from serious trauma on occasion of this event, the impact of these events on future perception of cardboxes, and Daddies, will get drastically more difficult. Hang on, I need to systematically develop my point first.
I still highly recommend David Eagleman’s book “The Brain” and it’s visualisation within the equally named series of videos on PBS, inter alia available on Apple TV. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and his popular science teaching on what we know about the brain has blown my mind a few years ago. Perception has a purpose, perhaps only this purpose: To allow me to navigate in my environment. The purpose is not to reflect my environment in the most precise objective way possible, but to allow me navigating in it the most suitable way possible. Or, as David Eagleman puts it: Brains constantly need other brains to communicate, and they establish a shared interpretation of reality through this.
All living beings (virii probably being at the border between living and non-living entities) have a process which I name “perception” going on, and the perception of the environment is meant to establish a common interpretation of it, through forms of communication. Bacteria are able to avoid hostile environments, we can demonstrate this in experiments: They don’t only die on poisonous surfaces laced with antibiotics, and thrive on nutrients. There is a choice involved after some time, and from what I know, there may be some form of communication involved. Plants do communicate environmental threats, and the mystery of mycelium, of which we mostly only see the mushroom parts popping up in the forest, it includes a lot of communication within this underground network often stretching out hundreds of meters, or more, and likely also communication between a mycelium and, say, trees. Animals of all levels of development communicate results of an interpretation of their environment. And the higher the cognitive processes, the more also the ability to understand effects where seeing and touching may not lead to a congruent expected answer. What does, for example, my cat conclude if he sees his picture in the bathroom mirror? Head over to YouTube or Instagram, go see. The coherence of sensual input is contextual. If I see a face and can smell and touch it, it’s likely a being. If I see a face which I can’t smell and I bump into a surface when I want to touch it or I get my paws wet in the water, my human friend calls this a reflection.
Interim conclusion: I started with the sense of vision here, but in order to make the case that optical representation in the eye is not the same as its interpretation in my brain, the combination with other senses needs to be mentioned: In my everyday life, conclusions about what I perceive are rarely made on grounds of only vision, or only smell, or taste. Usually it’s a combination, and usually it is a sort of an automatic process running in the background. Like I mostly don’t have to pay attention to how I manage to walk, or how I drive a car, the same is true for most of my sensory input. Only when some event or perception requires a cognitive analysis, this analysis is -hopefully- triggered in my frontal lobe. If I’m sloppy, I’ll rely on autopilot. Which creates huge risks, not only on highways littered with washing machines, but on a social level also for communities and societies.
The senses with which I am equipped, they are an evolutionary result of what is useful for my species in order to successfully interact with my environment. My interpretation of how the world looks like, feels like, smells like, it is based on the capacity and calibration of my senses. By no means I can conclude that the world is as I “see” it’s representation in my brain, and by no means I can conclude that the way this process of representing the “outer world” is unique and the same for everyone, and every species: Some birds, or many, are able to gauge the magnetic field of the earth; many animals can hear sounds which we human beings can not hear, in the low and in the high spectrum; bees see the world on a spectrum including ultra-violet light; some fish, like sharks, sense the electromagnetic field of other animals in their neighborhood. Some animals can even send out such a field, for probing their environment, and to paralyse prey. Bats are using ultrasound like an acoustic radar.
I will focus on vision and how we, over millennia, tried to understand the process of optics, but not without concluding that our senses allow us to interpret our environment, as far as our senses reach, and the interpretation always allows us to interact. Run away. Fight. Eat this. Don’t eat that. The more complex the brain of a living species connected to a set of sensors, the more sophisticated are the interactions with the world.
But for any living being it is true that our specific senses allow an interpretation of our environment, they allow a representation of our environment in our brains and they do not give us a full image, they only allow to see what is within the capacity range of the sensors, and what our brain makes from this sensory input. We do not see the world. We see an extremely limited interpretation of the world.
We do not even know in principle if two persons have the same representation of, say, a color, when they name a color. How do I know that the representation of the color “blue” is the same for my neighbor? Color-blind people find different ways to conclude something may have an attribute that others name “blue”. There are rare instances of cases where people connect a sound to a color. It’s called “chromestesia“.
For any living being without a higher cognitive process running in the frontal lobe of the brain, such academic or philosophical questions are less relevant. As long as they successfully interact with their environment, the question of how their eyes work, and how light behaves following the mathematics of optics is less relevant for them.
If there would not be not the role of communication within a perception of the world which is established between groups of beings.
Part Two of this writing will focus on how groups establish common frameworks of perception. For the moment I stop, this blog entry has become very long already. Let me, and you, take a break.