The Desert of the Real

“In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.” – Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

We perceive the world from one perspective – our own. We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It is of course the only reality we know. The trouble is that it’s flawed. Each of us has a flawed view of the world, flawed in very personal ways that are largely invisible to us, yet built into our character from a very early age.

When challenged we often respond by refusing to accept another viewpoint. And even if we accept that we are far from perfect, well I think most of us would say that we’re at least above average. Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling describes how our brains construct reality, reality that no one else sees apart from us:

“The brain constructs its hallucinated model of the world by observing millions of instances of cause and effect then constructing its own theories and assumptions about how one thing caused the other. These micro-narratives of cause and effect – more commonly known as ‘beliefs’ – are the building blocks of our neural realm. The beliefs it’s built from feel personal to us because they help make up the world that we inhabit and our understanding of who we are. Our beliefs feel personal to us because they are us.”

The impossible object in art illustrates the limitations of human perception. Famous examples include Necker’s Cube, Penrose Triangle, and the Devil’s Tuning Fork. The formal definition is “an optical illusion consisting of a two-dimensional figure which is instantly and subconsciously interpreted as representing a projection of three dimensional space even when it is not geometrically possible.”

The fundamental characteristic of the impossible object is uncertainty of perception. Is it feasible for a real waterfall to flow into itself; or for a triangle to complete itself in both directions? The figures are subject to multiple forms of interpretation challenging whether our naive perception is relevant to understanding the truth. The impossible object is a great representation of the ways in which each of us has a different version of reality.

This creates an inevitable conflict. As in the ‘real world’ of the everyday, so it is with art. People that see things differently to us must be stupid, lying or otherwise deranged. As Storr describes, “When attacked this creates an attack on the very structure of reality that we experience it.” We tend then to congregate towards ‘like-minded’ people with which we feel on the same wavelength, or rather our version of reality is not too dissimilar to. But what if the reality that both you and I see is being warped?

The hall of mirrors

Until recently the media was something that was done by ‘others’ to you and I. Articles were published, broadcasts were aired and newspapers and magazines were printed. Those ‘others’ included the mainstream news outlets that are still around today. That changed with the advent of social media. Now we can all wield some power. But instead of acting as a check on the output of the mainstream (as many originally thought outsourcing fact checking to the crowd meant) it has subverted our perception of the world and exaggerated each individual’s perspective as the one true reality.

According to Craig Silverman of Columbia University so much is happening online that it is often reported as fact, “Within minutes or hours, a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares. Once a certain critical mass is reached, repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumour becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.”

When the media has too much influence over the reality it was designed to mimic, the flow of information becomes less efficient with powerful consequences. Information becomes trapped in a self-reflexive cycle whereby the media is a mirror unto itself. The media no longer reflects our social, political and economic life, it is all of those things itself.

In the 1985 work Simulacra and Simulation French philosopher Jean Baudrillard recalls the Borges fable about the cartographers of a great Empire who drew a map of its territories so detailed it was as vast as the Empire itself. As the actual Empire collapses the inhabitants begin to live their lives within the abstraction, believing the map to be real (his work inspired the classic film The Matrix). The map is accepted as truth and people ignorantly live within a mechanism of their own design while the reality of the Empire is forgotten. This fable is a fitting allegory for the modern media world.

Pokémon Go.

In mid-2018 it was quite common to see youngsters roaming the streets. Armed with nothing more dangerous than their smart phones, these kids were on the lookout for wild Pokémon in return for Candies and Stardust, the in-game currencies.

While its initial players (as well as long suffering, nagging parents) lauded the game for its incitement to head outside into the “real world”, they in fact stumbled straight into an entirely fabricated reality. The game was designed to herd its users towards commercial opportunities: virtual locations which were on sale to the highest bidder. As Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism warns:

“The players think they are playing one game – collecting Pokémon – while they are in fact playing an entirely different one, in which the board is invisible but they are the pawns. And Pokémon Go is but one tiny probe extending out from Google and others’ vast capabilities to tune and manipulate human action at scale: a global means of behaviour modification owned and operated by private enterprise.”

But this is just a different version of the same game that many of us are playing every day. Alternate realities constructed by technologically savvy media companies. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or any other ‘social’ media platform, our lives are being ‘gamified’. It’s a game of insults our followers approve of. It’s a game of content that supports our view of the world. It’s a game of you in which you think you’re playing one game, when in fact you are a pawn being nudged this way and that.

The Jedi mind trick

Expectations about the future are now more important than the reality that the media was designed to reflect. If these can be moulded into a certain form then your behaviour should adjust accordingly. If you believe in the force, the force will be with you.

Enter pre-emptive policy making by governments. One facet of this is so-called ‘forward guidance’ by central banks. If consumers believe that their financial situation has improved because their pension has gone up in value and will continue to do so, then they will be more likely to spend, which in turn provides the validation for firms to invest.

Pre-emptive central banking, like a pre-emptive war aims to eliminate a perceived threat before it even materialises. Other examples include the US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US foreign policy response to the 9/11 terror attacks involved a pre-emptive war to prevent future terrorism.

These pre-emptive strikes manipulate our collective psychology to influence fundamental reality. This has the effect of dampening volatility, but can result in dangerous feedback loops. When systems become abstractions upon themselves they contain less ‘signal’ and more ‘noise’, less instability, but also become more susceptible to extremes.

Volatility is a painful instrument of truth

“Volatility measures the difference between the world as we imagine it to be and the world that actually exists. We will only prosper if we relentlessly search for nothing but the truth, otherwise the truth will find us through volatility.” – Artemis Asset Management

The longer volatility is artificially suppressed the harder it is for the suppressor to extricate itself. But the longer they wait the worse the inevitable eruption in volatility will be. Just as governments and central banks seek to suppress unwanted volatility in financial markets and geopolitics, technologists also seek to suppress our individual and collective behaviour into something predictable. However, volatility will always pop up somewhere.

The Desert of the Real – totally controlled, perfectly articulated and error-free – is not the future many of us want, but one that we are sleepwalking towards. Its volatile breakdown – already evident in our fractured worldviews, competing fundamentalisms, weakening of social bonds, and distrust of one another – is hard to witness but are the first signs that a competing vision of the future may be on the horizon. For just like in science, you can observe a phase shift beginning when volatility rises dramatically, like water molecules beginning to vibrate wildly right before liquid transitions to ice or steam.

A healthy relationship is one where grievances are aired quickly without either party becoming downright apathetic. In contrast, a toxic relationship develops when neither partner talks, suppressing their true feelings. Until their world blows up and then the daggers are out. It’s much better that we jolt ourselves out of our perceptions of reality now, not later. Recall the words of warning from philosopher Herbert Spencer, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.”

This chapter turned out to be a bit philosophical. For better or worse, in order to understand the present media world of narratives you will need to abandon many of the things you have been taught (unlearn that MBA, burn that economics degree, etc.).

How to use this to be a better media consumer and prepare for the Desert of the Real?

-What may be common sense today may be very dangerous tomorrow: You must be able to imagine different realistic states of the world. Catching up on books focused on historical non-fiction and sci-fi fiction is an ideal way to recognise that the world can change much quicker than we realise.

-Develop elastic thinking: In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that we are used to. Instead, develop flexible thinking, letting your brain make connections without direction. Mlodinow describes it as:

“the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”

-Take a different perspective: We are creatures of habit, always approaching complex problems or questions in the same way we have always done, content in the knowledge that it’s pretty much worked in the past. Smart people that you are, unfortunately you are no better than anyone else at detecting when you are wrong, in fact your smartness can make it worse. Next time you consume a story from the media, put yourselves in someone else’s shoes. As Alan Kay, the computer graphics pioneer said, “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

This article is based on an extract from my book, Pay Attention: 101 Ways To Tame The Narrative Machine, Be A Smarter Media Consumer And Stop Outsourcing Your Thinking

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