By Gilbert Ross / 01.05.2018
Is Loss of Sense-Making Threatening Our Existence?
We are living in a point in time of our evolution where the amount and quality of problems we are facing are existential in nature or, that is, they are pointing towards gloomy scenarios of auto-destruction. From the accelerated degradation of our biosphere, overpopulation, mass migration, wars and civil unrest to the meltdown of economic and social structures; we are constantly going through y-points and missing opportunities to restore sanity and get back on the right track. Our present-day culture is, unfortunately, lacking the wisdom and the insights to deal with the massive changes we are moving into. Our technological advancement is outpacing our growth in knowledge and wisdom, and our models of reality are failing us big time.
Another way of looking at it is that there is a dissonance between our changing world and how we are mapping it internally. This is what is creating a series of crises in the world we know today. You see, when an intelligent and adaptive system experiences a mismatch between its environment and its internal model of reality, a crisis will always emerge, prompting the system to self-organise in a way to restore equilibrium and balance. This is exactly what we are facing right now but our decreasing ability to make sense of the world is one of the biggest obstacles towards slowing down our own demise and restoring balance. The idea that there is a big lack in our sense-making and why this is the biggest driver of the existential problems we are facing today is also an argument championed by Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jordan Greenhall. I would highly recommend listening to their podcast interview if you want to go further into the topic beyond this article.
The focus of this article is, in fact, the lack of sense-making, what I believe are some of its causes, and some ideas about possible future scenarios that can help us get out of this growing momentum towards self-destruction.
When an intelligent system’s environment and internal reality mismatch, a crisis emerges.
Get Off My Loop!
We are autopoietic systems; meaning that we learn, change and evolve through interacting with an environment. We do so by entering certain feedback loops such as in the way our neurons fire and wire to create new neural pathways as we learn, and then using those new pathways to filter and make sense of new information coming from our environment. It’s what evolutionary psychologist, Jean Piaget, called assimilation and accommodation–both being the main ingredients of this neural feedback loop so important to our learning. Assimilation is when we recognise and filter patterns, due to their familiarity with our previous experiences etched in our neural pathways and structures. Accommodation is when those pathways or structures are changed so as to accommodate new information. The constant dynamic between these two elements of assimilation and accommodation is a feedback loop that allows us to keep on learning and adapting.
There are layers and layers of feedback loops from gene expression, cellular maintenance, to our autonomous nervous system, endocrine system, neurochemistry, socio-linguistic systems and all the way up to global economic systems. Everything from our cellular biology to our extended and complex social dynamics operates, on some level, through feedback loop cycles. We humans, as biological and social beings, are literally the emergent expression of hundreds of thousands of feedback loops, at several hundred layers of order and complexity.
Not surprisingly, our deep and fear-based social conditioning operates upon systems of feedback loops nested on top of each other and found in different general areas such as language, schooling, systems of reward and punishment, cultural norms, laws and regulations, etc. Some of these systems hack and exploit more specific feedback loops, such as the adrenaline and cortisol or the dopamine feedback loops in our brain. For instance, Facebook and other social media platforms are known to have carefully designed user interfaces and interactions that exploit the Dopamine-based feedback pathways, ultimately creating addictions in the same way created by porn or alcohol. It creates a sort of short feedback reward system (a.k.a instant gratification) by using the brain’s release of Dopamine that is essentially the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter.
Facebook uses a feedback loop by luring us with instant gratification.
Imagine this scenario: A teen is going through the typical phase of feeling lonely and needing to be approved/accepted by his/her peer group or within a certain social group. He/she starts curating carefully posed and handpicked images and videos that portray himself/herself in a persona or alter-identity that fits better within the norms of that social group. A few likes, comments or messages come in and an instant release of Dopamine is triggered making the person feel good, worthy or accepted. The same thing might happen when the same teen is seeing certain role models staging videos and pictures of an ideal (but grossly inauthentic) life or lifestyle. Same Dopamine rush, etching and reinforcing itself, until a pattern of dependency is formed.
Cutting Our Attention Short
Now let’s keep in mind that we are here talking about one particular area of communication–social media. We can’t even start taking stock of the massive amount of man-made systems that are intentionally or clumsily designed to steal away our focus, coherence of information and ability to make sense of the world and its problems. Social media is definitely not the only system that hacks our neural feedback system through an exploit such as instant gratification, but it does make a clear example of how we are increasingly losing our ability to make sense of the world, shortening our attention span, having our focus diverted from the importantto the trivial, and hypnotised with our faces stuck to our screens, as our world, including ourselves, are threatened to oblivion. As the crap piles up, there we are being seduced by the blue light glow and entranced into pressing that ‘like’ button, much like pressing the bell for Pavlov’s dogs.
And here is another interesting thing. Post social media, people are getting more and more hardwired to short media bites. We no longer read books or long articles anymore. Our attention spans have shrunk to somewhere between thirty seconds and two minutes. We want everything, no matter how complex it is, to be explained in 4K quality sub-titled clips of two minutes max, otherwise we’ll just get bored out of our mind and think that the world is insanely too complex to handle. Now that’s not the end of it. Other media agencies, networks and operators have understood this and want to use it to their advantage because they do not want to be left out of this nifty neuro-chemical exploit of instant gratification and short attention spans. Last night I was in a household that had the T.V. on a Kids channel and I was amazed to learn that this channel was showing animations and other types of children entertainment in ‘social media format’–that is, they were just bombarding two to five minute clips (sometimes shorter than two minutes) one after the other. “This is worse than I thought”, I said to myself.
Social media exploits us and directs our thinking.
Info-commercials have, of course, learned to do this a long time ago because of shorter screen times and increased regulations. They learned all the ins and outs of non-verbal communication, hypnotic induction mechanisms and all the ways one can hack into the limbic system and the reptilian brain, in order to subliminally make us perform an action.
Fake it Till you Break it
Then there is, of course, intentional disinformation, or else, information that has been distorted and corrupted as it cascades through different channels of communication. Think of how many times we hear the word ‘Fake News’ lately coming out from politicians’ mouths to corporate press releases. As if our mode of communication and our quality of information wasn’t bad enough, we are now intentionally throwing in false information. Yet this is nothing new. Social groups up to nation states have been carefully manipulating information so as to create propaganda or throw enemies or competitors off course. There has been noise pollution in our communication channels since their most rudimentary form. It’s just that it is getting out of hand now because of exponential technological progress and shorter attention spans.
One can also pin this down to the broader socio-political scenario. As Scmachtenberger rightfully points out in an interview, there is something intrinsic in the dynamics of capitalist society to create a sort of constant win-lose game. Information within this ideological framework will always be used as a competitive advantage. So you either hoard it, and be careful how to limit its distribution (so as to create value out of scarcity), or else disseminate noise in the channel through disinformation.
Raising the Question: How Do We Make Sense of it All?
So the thing is this: With so much garbage media competing for our attention through neural feedback hacks, disinformation and fake news, noisy communication channels, decreasing attention spans and deep disconnection from real-world problems and priorities, how the bleep can we make sense and create meaningful information of the world around us? How can we model our reality accurately and create coherent information that leads us to snap out of this mass hypnosis and get on working on solutions to save our biosphere, our future, ourselves? How do we take our noses away from our screens to realise that there is a reality outside the two-minute media clip and if we do not model that reality, bad existential things are about to happen?
How can we break free from this mass hypnosis to save ourselves?
The Three Pillars of Sense-Making
I categorise the problem in three parts: Perception of the problem, meaningful interpretation, and coherence of the information and alignment of the previous two with motivation and the will to take action. Let me unpack this a little bit further.
- Perception of the problem: In simple words, this is about having awareness about the problem in the first place. It’s about perceiving at the level of our immediate senses but also about being sensitive to what is happening around us. Now, this is not as simple as getting more informed and watching more news. I believe there is actually more disinformation to be had from this than otherwise. Increasing our perception, or rather having a more accurate perception of our world problems involves removing the perception filters, the lenses, that have been placed in front of our eyes due to heavy social conditioning. As you know, our perception of our reality is not ‘transparent’ or clear. It is largely filtered through our beliefs and emotional responses. We might see a different reality when looking at the same thing. This is what is happening to our changing world. Our perception of our world and its problems is filtered through the lens of twentieth-century conditioning and mindsets. There is a cognitive dissonance between what is happening around us and inside of us. We need to snap out of this hypnosis and illusion to realise how screwed up our priorities are and where we should focus our attention.
- Meaningful interpretation and coherence of the information we get from our perception: When we perceive any given data from our reality we interpret it according to our previous experiences and models of reality. Here is one of the issues: we do not have a coherent model of reality and we have different beliefs and motivations. In short, we live in different worlds. Add communication silos to this and some ‘us and them’ mentality and you start getting a feel for the scale of the problem. That is not all. Our science and our outdated structures for working together on certain problems are broken. We need new collaborative structures, new trans-disciplinary efforts and a new mindset, far different than we have been conceiving over the last two or three decades, in order to enter into more coherent interpretations of our reality. We cannot keep interpreting our reality from disciplinary silos and their tools, such as engineering or psychology, to name just two. We need to come up with transcendental ways of looking at our problems and creating our shared destiny.
- Motivation and the will to take action: Every intelligent and adaptive system has motivation–a set of rules and directives that kick in an action whenever it perceives and interprets certain information around us. For example, I perceive that my artistic efforts are giving certain results, which I interpret as the blooming of my creative life and which in turn get me motivated to step it up and focus more effort on it. There is a certain motivation, a something that pushes me into action, whenever certain information is met. So perception, interpretation, and motivation work hand in hand.
Perception, interpretation and motivation work hand in hand.
Now, our perception is already manipulated through the mass hypnosis induced by all the mechanisms and exploits mentioned above. We need to claim back our attention and our focus. We need to start doing this from the simple and the mundane. For example, we need to spend less time in front of our screens and engage in more meaningful conversations. Read books or long articles. Filter information more cleverly. Interact more with people outside of our circle of influence and bias. Learn something new as often as we can.
As for the interpretation and coherence of the information, we need to find new ways to collaborate and make sense of our reality, as already mentioned above. I will zoom in a little bit on this in the following paragraph.
As for motivation, I believe that we have the inbuilt motivation to thrive and move forward, or at least keep ourselves from pushing the auto-destruct button if the perception of the world and its interpretation align together. Once we claim our attention and awareness back and create a more meaningful interpretation of our reality, the motivation to solve the existential problems we face will kick into full swing.
Collective Intelligence, IoT, and Transcendental Sense-Making
This is a tricky concept to explain within the bounds of an article but I will try as fluidly and as concisely as I can. We are entering a phase where our technology is growing exponentially and, together with our lack of wisdom and a still-evolving collective consciousness, it is creating a sure recipe for disaster. However, if certain steps are strategically played out carefully, certain technology could also be our last chance to avoid total collapse or self-destruction. This has to do with particular technology that will aid us in interpreting more meaningful information and perceive things that we could not otherwise see, even collaboratively. Two of the main technologies that might help us achieve this are the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and A.I. (although the latter is pretty much a double-edged sword and can easily sway into the wrong end).
We could see a whole new world of potential if we tap into the ‘Internet of Things.’
Up to present day, the internet we use is pretty much a connection of text, documents, videos and other multimedia, coupled with communication protocol layers and applications such as email, chat, voice and video conferencing, etc. It has grown exponentially in terms of infrastructure–that is, in number of connections and speed–but we are yet to experience a quantum leap in the way the internet will be used.
We are still in the infancy stage at the moment. When data from most of the things on this planet–say doors, engines, tables, appliances, sensors, roads, buildings, etc–will be interconnected and we would have powerful quantum computing and distributed A.I. applications to slice and dice all this data, and present meaningful information out of it–the possibilities are just endless. The landscape will shift completely and we will literally be able to see a whole new world…if we want to. Think about it for a minute, your internet searches would be literally asking for meaningful information, out of data coming from the physical world, in real time. For instance, an 8th grader would be conducting a social science or trans-disciplinary experiment in real time from her bedroom. Imagine, just for the fun of it, asking whether people who walk less than three kilometers per month are more prone to cardiac problems or whether wearing a certain colour more often is a shared trait among people who drink coffee more than three times a day. She would be able to get a result about the likelihood and statistics of her experiment in less than a second, because intelligent programs and powerful computing would be mashing millions of data points from people, objects and machines and putting them together to answer a question that was never asked before. Now, this is, of course, a banal example but think about its ramifications in different spheres of application and problem-solving. It’s huge.
Another thing that is relevant to making more sense of data and creating coherent information, is the ability for such technology to profile and connect people, talent, and skills. How do people come to work together or collaborate on a problem? It’s usually because they are professionals who studied the same discipline, recruited by the same agencies or have similar experiences, or perhaps they are connected to some social media group or professional membership site. Many times it’s just plain and beautiful serendipity. Although things are a hundred times smarter and faster than, say, fifty years ago, it’s still pretty basic. This internet of things (IoT) could, at some level, facilitate the creation of a collective intelligence between people and other intelligent agents, so as to keep on creating and evolving this collective intelligence in ways we could not figure out before.
In the case of bringing people together, this is a clear example of something we cannot see from our plane of view. Intelligent agents, together with layers of rich data, can bring new dimensionality to otherwise blind spots on valuable information. For instance, a collective intelligence system could–through deep learning–understand, beyond the conventional criteria and channels through which people and skills are usually brought together, that individuals with certain traits and peculiarities are a perfect match to collaborate on a certain issue or problem. Instead of you finding the right team, the right team is brought to you. Try to see this as a new guild of people or tribe of minds that could not be possible by seeing things in the conventional ways.
A collective intelligence system could match the right people to solve issues.
So the idea of collective intelligence is the idea of bringing together the right minds and tools within a shared space of perception and understanding of what the problems and the goals are. Now, of course, this is the pragmatic side of it, as in truth, a collective intelligence could serve endless possibilities and potential. But what is important to us here is that it is a powerful way to transcend our limited views, incoherence and blind spots.
Another important aspect of this collective intelligence is the potential to solve another fundamental problem, that Schmachtenberger so eloquently describes. It is the problem we have created by taking away context from an object or problem and using simple metrics to ascribe value to it. His own example serves perfectly well to illustrate the point. If you see a tree in a forest, its real value can be described within the wider ecological context. For instance, the cycling of CO2 and Oxygen, sheltering for birds and other pollinators, protecting the topsoil, forming symbiotic relationships with fungus under the soil, and a tall list of other things. We humans might chop down the tree and see its value in terms of how many planks of wood it yields and their price value down the supply chain. That is using the wrong metrics to flatten its real complex value. You might simply call it shortsightedness and greed and that might also hit the point. But the important thing to remember here is that building more collective intelligence, bringing minds together with different but complementary skills, and adding richness and dimensionality to data can help us see and understand the real value of many things, as well as how deeply interconnected we are to them.
It will also help us transcend our limited plane of perception, frameworks of thought and our outdated models of reality, in order to finally start making more sense of our responsibilities, the extent of our footprint on this planet and, hopefully, start changing the ways we will save ourselves from auto-destruction and move forward as a species.