I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder. – David Maraniss
I wonder if our information processing capabilities are no longer relevant, whether, in fact the peripherals we have are increasingly redundant, much of the time. They’re still important when it comes to the matter of survival but for everything else they seem rather unfit for purpose.
That seems vague, so let me explain.
We are visual creatures, taking in the vast majority of information through our eyes. The other senses, hearing, smell, touch, taste complement and support eyesight – but being able to see is hugely important. When it comes to survival, anyway. If you can see your food from a long distance or spot a predator then you’ve just increased your chance of living longer. If you interact with another person and can read their expression clearly, including the micro-expressions that tell you how they feel, then you know what to do next – run, fight, find a room. Our senses have evolved over time to help us tackle the basic business of finding food, avoiding danger and reproducing ourselves. They have not evolved to deal with other kinds of information.
Our brain has, however, in the meantime been busy building the processing capacity to deal with things like language and abstract thought. But it has had to work with the peripherals connected to it – your eyes and ears in particular. Since we can’t change those, what humans have done is create technology to augment our senses. Children don’t realize this but that first time they picked up a book was the first time they became augmented by technology, joining a race of augmented humans.
And from there the technological opportunities to augment ourselves only increases, until we can now capture and reproduce increasing amounts of sensory information. We’ve got the hang of sight and sound, and people are busy working on touch and smell, and taste isn’t that far away either. What this eventually means is that there is no need for us to go to Mars, no need to leave our rooms, when we can experience everything that is everywhere simply by transferring the sensory experiences to where we are rather than transferring ourselves to where the experiences happen to be. Which sounds dreadful but convenient – in the end we’ll all be fat, but happy.
I was listening to a session on Bogdanov, a Russian thinker I hadn’t come across before, whose idea of a perfect society seemed to include the concept that all humans would think the same way if they lived more equally. In practice, we seem to end up with extremes. Many people go with the easy route and adapt the world they are in. Others go to the opposite extreme and go to where the experiences are. So you end up with one group entertaining the other, the daredevils climb the mountains and go to the Arctic and the rest of us sit on our sofas watching they do that.
But life lived alone in a room is no life at all – as humans we are desperate for connection, we crave community. Can you imagine the excitement of people in the 80’s when they first had a blinking terminal in front of them – where they could connect and interact with people anywhere in the world? That era is history but you can still experience it. You can connect to bulletin boards (telnet dura-bbs.net 6359) or connect to a Usenet group (slrn –nntp -h olduse.net) and get a flavor of what it’s like.
We are a world away from that, free from concerns about bandwidth and data transfer and eager to pass on more and more. And this creates a problem – one of sensory overload. When a flood of information hits your senses you have to start filtering, blocking out what’s not necessary to you can focus on what’s important. You have to start selecting tools that help you amplify or dampen information without letting those filters getting in control of how you think.
The failure to manage those filters or, more precisely, the lack of knowledge on how to use them is leading to an interesting, perhaps dangerous shift in the way people form communities today. We need to watch what’s happening in the US, as the most visible phenomenon of community building through filters – where you have a cult of personality building around an individual that will be sustained for years, perhaps generations by self-sustaining communities of interest. In plain English, people who believe what’s being put out there will cluster and share information that supports what they believe, whether it’s true or not and make decisions and react in ways that are consistent with their beliefs. In more authoritarian states this process is also happening, just under state control rather than naturally.
When this happens, when people are fed a diet of information that is unchecked, unchallenged and untrue, what option to they have other than to believe what they get? Where are the opposing views, the critical reflections, the evidence or the facts? Well, there’s no capacity left to deal with that information. If you receive audio, video, textual information on all your channels telling you one thing, with algorithms recommending more things similar to what you looked at before, then how do you find anything new, anything else at all?
There are two things you can do.
Stop stuff getting in – retreat, turn off the inputs, go back to the basics, pick up a book, write without being connected to the Internet, think instead of being told what to thing.
Actively look for diverse views – search out alternative discussions, opinions, look for facts and evidence and make up your own mind.
These things are hard to do. We are wired for survival, wired to take in information and decide whether to fight or flee. That’s our natural reaction to things.
Then again, our brains have evolved, being human is also natural. Living in communities, accepting diversity, being able to resolve differences is something we have to do. It’s something organisms in ecosystems evolve to do, to find a niche and a place and a space – and it’s something that humans choose to do. We can choose to live together or choose to fight.
I wonder what we’ll choose to do?
Let’s look at that next – what reason might we have to accept differences rather than fighting them?