Memory Illusions and Cybernannies

Over the last week I read a couple of very interesting books. One was Dr Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion. Dr. Shaw describes herself as a “memory hacker” and has a You Tube presence where she explains a number of the issues that arise in her book.

The other book was The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken who reminds us on a number of occasions in every chapter that she is a trained cyberpsychologist and cyberbehavioural specialist and who was a consultant for CSI-Cyber which, having watched a few episodes, I abandoned. Regrettably I don’t see that qualification as a recommendation, but that is a subjective view and I put it to one side.

Both books were fascinating. Julia Shaw’s book in my view should be required reading for lawyers and judges. We place a considerable amount of emphasis upon memory assisted by the way in which a witness presents him or herself -what we call demeanour. Demeanour has been well and truly discredited by Robert Fisher QC in an article entitled “The Demeanour Fallacy” [2014] NZ Law Review 575. The issue has also been covered by  Chris Gallavin in a piece entitled “Demeanour Evidence as the backbone of the adversarial process” Lawtalk Issue 834 14 March 2014 http://www.lawsociety.org.nz/lawtalk/issue-837/demeanour-evidence-as-the-backbone-of-the-adversarial-process

A careful reading of The Memory Illusion is rewarding although worrisome. The chapter on false memories, evidence and the way in which investigators may conclude that “where there is smoke there is fire” along with suggestive interviewing techniques is quite disturbing and horrifying at times.

But the book is more than that, although the chapter on false memories, particularly the discussions about memory retrieval techniques, was very interesting. The book examines the nature of memory and how memories develop and shift over time, often in a deceptive way. The book also emphasises how the power of suggestion can influence memory. What does this mean – that everyone is a liar to some degree? Of course not. A liar is a person who tells a falsehood knowing it to be false. Slippery memory, as Sir Edward Coke described it, means that what we are saying we believe to be true even although, objectively, it is not.

A skilful cross-examiner knows how to work on memory and highlight its fallibility. If the lawyer can get the witness in a criminal trial to acknowledge that he or she cannot be sure, the battle is pretty well won. But even the most skilful cross-examiner will benefit from a reading of The Memory Illusion. It will add a number of additional arrows to the forensic armoury. For me the book emphasises the risks of determining criminal liability on memory or recalled facts alone. A healthy amount of scepticism and a reluctance to take an account simply and uncritically at face value is a lesson I draw from the book.

The Cyber Effect is about how technology is changing human behaviour. Although Dr Aiken starts out by stating the advantages of the Internet and new communications technologies, I fear that within a few pages the problems start with the suggestion that cyberspace is an actual place. Although Dr Aiken answers unequivocally in the affirmative it clearly is not. I am not sure that it would be helpful to try and define cyberspace – it is many things to many people. The term was coined by William Gibson in his astonishingly insightful Neuromancer and in subsequent books Gibson imagines the network (I use the term generically) as a place. But it isn’t. The Internet is no more and no less than a transport system to which a number of platforms and applications have been bolted. Its purpose –  Communication. But it is communication plus interactivity and it is that upon which Aiken relies to support her argument. If that gives rise to a “place” then may I congratulate her imagination. The printing press – a form of mechanised writing that revolutionised intellectual activity in Early-modern Europe – didn’t create a new “place”. It enabled alternative means of communication. The Printing Press was the first Information Technology. And it was roundly criticised as well.

Although the book purports to explain how new technologies influence human behaviour it doesn’t really offer a convincing argument. I have often quoted the phrase attributed to McLuhan – we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us – and I was hoping for a rational expansion of that theory. It was not to be. Instead it was a collection of horror stories about how people and technology have had problems. And so we get stories of kids with technology, the problems of cyberbullying, the issues of on-line relationships, the misnamed Deep Web when she really means the Dark Web – all the familiar tales attributing all sorts of bizarre behaviours to technology – which is correct – and suggesting that this could become the norm.

What Dr Aiken fails to see is that by the time we recognise the problems with the technology it is too late. I assume that Dr Aiken is a Digital Immigrant, and she certainly espouses the cause that our established values are slipping away in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of cyber-bad stuff. But as I say, the changes have already taken place. By the end of the book she makes her position clear (although she misquotes the comments Robert Bolt attributed to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons which the historical More would never have said). She is pro-social order in cyberspace, even if that means governance or regulation and she makes no apology for that.

Dr Aiken is free to hold her position and to advocate it and she argues her case well in her book. But it is all a bit unrelenting, all a bit tiresome these tales of Internet woe. It is clear that if Dr Aiken had her way the very qualities that distinguish the Digital Paradigm from what has gone before, including continuous disruptive and transformative change and permissionless innovation, will be hobbled and restricted in a Nanny Net.

For another review of The Cyber Effect see here

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Lessons from “The Newsroom”

The excellent Aaron Sorkin created series “The Newsroom” is presently screening on Soho. In Series 2, Episode 3 (Willie Pete) the following exchange takes place between Will McAvoy (Jeff Bridges) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson)

Will: There’s a third option,It involves having faith in my mission to civilize… The bitchiness has to stop, Charlie. We’re inhaling it like it’s a carbon emission blowing out the exhaust pipe of the crosstown bus we’re stuck behind… All it takes is one great man. A friend of the angels… There are things we can do, Charlie. Things that we can do everyday. Things that are free. We can be one inch nicer to each other. An inch more polite. We can be decent.”

Charlie: Maybe,but in the meantime we should just keep lying.

It was what Will said at the end of his dialogue that attracted me. The observation that we can be nicer, more polite, decent. The clear inference is that in many of our dealings with one another we are not.

This caused me to reflect. Aaron Sorkin’s shows tend to do that. In many ways “The Newsroom” and The West Wing” are idealised versions of TV journalism and US Presidential politics – not as they necessarily are, but what they could be. The reflection was not so much on journalism but upon the way that we behave towards one another and what new and mainstream media convey to us in terms of behaviour and what may or may not be the norm. (I am going to avoid the use of the words “appropriate” or “acceptable” because they come with a load of value-ridden excess baggage)

Let’s think for a moment about what Will said. Perhaps using a word like “nice” isn’t the best (A very good friend of mine used to object when it was used in the wrong way) but it conveys the message, especially when coupled with “polite” and “decent”. I don’t think that this is necessarily a matter of etiquette, but it is a question of what used to be described as good manners – something lacking in many respects these days. Good manners, treating people nicely, decently and politely all has to do with respect. Some might claim that many people are undeserving of respect, but I respectfully disagree. We are human beings together on the planet. We are social beings and irrespective of how good or bad individuals might be they all, as counsel (now a Judge) once said to me, people of worth. The fact of their existence means that in some way they may enrich the lives of others and bring something to the table. And for that every human being, every person is entitled to respect – respect for their being, for their individuality, for their identity and for their character. As I say, many people may do terrible things but we should respect them for their humanness and their existence.

I think that a lot of the problems that we see today flow from the fact that we are not taught to respect others, nor do we understand why we should. This starts from the derogatory exchange that one might have with another in a supermarket checkout to a horrible exhibition of bullying – and bullying – that most disrespectful of conduct – occurs not only in the school yard but through all strata of society.

Much of the exchange between Will and Charlie was in the context of the news media but it was more than that. It was against a backdrop of an audience at a candidates debate who booed a serviceman – a person who had put his life on the line for his country – who wanted the “gays in the military” issue addressed. But I won’t look at the news media context. I think that what Will had to say in that arena speaks for itself.

There are many areas where those who should know better respond in an ungracious way to others – who aggressively challenge, who interrupt, who denigrate, especially when they have the last word, who are abusive, unkind, disrespectful, uncaring of the distress that they might cause to others. The examples are legion – those who force their way into a lane on the motorway and who won’t wait in the queue and think that a flipped off wave justifies their behaviour. Those who insist on carrying on phone conversations while travelling on the motorway (not only disrespectful and unsafe but unlawful as well) and holding up traffic. Those who park across a driveway while collecting their kids from school and who, when politely asked to move, tell their interlocutor to F*** off. And that is just in the context of road use. The level of confrontation, of aggression that we experience in our day to day lives is quite extraordinary and concerning. Is it any wonder that our kids reflect what they see.

We have met the enemy

The only thing is that the problem with kids and their aggressive behaviour is recognised as bullying and we cry out that we must do something about it without realising that the problem lies within ourselves. We have met the enemy – as Pogo said – and he is us. We set the examples and then we complain about it when we see those behaviours reflected in our kids.

I wonder in the long run whether or not Will’s ideal of being a little nicer, more decent, kinder is just that – an ideal. And as I have been writing this – and it has been a piece that I have picked up and put down – I have struggled with dealing with a theme that requires a critical examination of behaviour in order to find a way forward for improvement. And then I came across a piece in the New York Times Magazine for 7 August 2013. It is by Joel Lovell and it is entitled “George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates”. 

Saunders has been described as a writers’ writer. In a profile published in the New York Times on 3 January 2013 the following was said

“Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” And Mary Karr, who has been a colleague of Saunders’s at Syracuse since he joined the faculty in the mid-’90s (and who also, incidentally, is a practicing Catholic with a wonderful singing voice and a spectacularly inventive foul mouth), told me, “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive.”

Have a look at Saunders’ advice to graduates. It is not a hard read and the focus is on a very large regret. Saunders’ regret is associated with the issues that I am concerned about in this piece – lack of respect, niceness, politeness, decency, Saunders’ says that what he regrets most in life are failures of kindness. He puts it this way:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

I guess kindness is a term that encompasses niceness, politeness and decency – respect for others – you don’t have to like them, but they are human beings, they have their own sense of worth and dignity and are entitled, at the very least, to respect. And that respect can be manifested by a nice attitude, by polite speech and a polite attitude, by listening as well as talking and by decency of conduct. As Will said – we can be decent.  We live in hope.